Libertarian, social critic, Rabelais scholar, editor, educator, essayist, writer, gadfly, individualist, author of "Jefferson (1926);" "Our Enemy the State (1935);" "Henry George: An Essay (1939);" and "The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943);" and other books. He is remembered for his great essay "Isaiah's Job" and his concept of "The Remnant." Robert M. Crunden's biography "The Mind of Albert Jay Nock (1964)" is an excellent introduction to his work.
The Case for Superfluity
By Mark D. Isaacs,
The New American Magazine/ April 24, 1989
Albert Jay Nock an elitist individualist, an anti-Statist, a literary critic, educational theorist [Nock was a harsh critic of the abandonment of Classical Liberal arts education in favor of the "progressive education" theories of John Dewey and his followers [e.g., "Democracy and Education (1916)"]. Nock charted what he saw as the disastrous consequences to American society of democratizing [debasing!] education. In doing so, he opposed one of the most popular trends of the early Twentieth century: mass education], an libertarian philosopher, an isolationist, and an influential writer. His colorful writing style and his contrarian ideals make Nock a delight to read. This is particularly true of his last great book, "The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943)."
The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (died February 13, 2006 at the age of 92), resident Nockian at the Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, writes that Nock's Memoirs "is a book to be enjoyed and then mastered."
Nock biographer Robert M. Crunden writes that Memoirs of a Superfluous Man is "the final statement of his position and the high point in his long career."
And what a career it was! Albert Jay Nock was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on October 13, 1870 and spent his early years in Brooklyn, New York. When Nock was nine, his father, an Episcopalian minister, took a call at a small lumber town in Michigan. Nock was a product of home schooling. With very limited guidance, young Albert read freely in his father's classical library. In addition, his father taught him Greek and Latin.
At fourteen Nock began his "superfluous" education at a boarding school, and then went on to St. Stephen's College [now ultra-ultra-liberal Bard College!!]. Nock called himself a "superfluous man" because, thanks to his rigorous classical education, he claimed to have known no history after A.D. 1500--and that it did not matter because people act and react the same way. He claimed to be totally unfit for life in the 20th century.
Eventually, the superfluous Nock was ordained as an Episcopalian minister. After some graduate work at Berkeley Divinity School in Connecticut (1895), Nock did not complete his degree, deciding to be ordained as a minister of the Episcopal Church instead (1897).
Nock's literary career began in 1910 when he left the ministry and began writing for The American Magazine. From 1920 to 1924 he was the editor of The Freeman. Critics claim that with The Freeman Nock and company produced one of America's finest "little magazines."
After his stint at The Freeman, Nock produced a regular column for H.L. Mencken's legendary American Mercury. During his career he also wrote essays for Atlantic Monthly, Century, Harper's, The Nation, Scribner's, and the Virginia Quarterly. In addition, Nock wrote several books, including: "Jefferson (1926);" "Our Enemy the State (1935)," and "Henry George: An Essay (1939)."
To the extent that Nock (1870–1947) is known at all today, it is by libertarians, and for his classic essay "Our Enemy, The State (1935);" and his wonderful little biography, "Jefferson (1926) [published to commorate the centennial of the third President's]." Both of these books will cause the reader to reflect, to think, and to see the world anew.
Nock's magnum opus is "The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man." This book is reminiscent of another great literary autobiography, "The Education of Henry Adams (1907)." Like Henry Adams, Nock tends to omit more than he includes. Nock valued his privacy. In addition, for Nock, ideas and not juicy personal details were important. Thus, in Memoirs, his personal life is cloaked and veiled. There is no name dropping [he knew many famous people], and no mention of his failed marriage and his children. Thus, in stark contrast to today's tell-all celebrity biographies, Memoirs is a "purely literary and philosophical autobiography."
"The Memoirs" turns on the three essential "laws" that Nock believes explain the corruption of everything that is fine, noble, and good in Western Civilization. Understanding these simple laws, writes Nock, "enabled me at once to get the hang of many matters which far better men than I have found hopelessly puzzling, and to answer questions for which otherwise I could have found no answer."
The first of these is Epstean's Law, named in honor of an old club chum, Edward Epstean, who once stated that, "if self-preservation is the first law of human conduct, exploitation is the second."
From Herbert Spencer and Henry George, Nock learned that "man tends to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion." Therefore, it is an "inescapable corollary" that "the easiest way to satisfy one's needs and desires is by exploitation." From his study of ancient history, and the realization that "it is easier to seize wealth than it is to produce it," Nock concluded that the chief instrument of violence and exploitation in this modern age is the State—the ultimate "huckster of privilege [The State =/= Society]."
German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer pointed out that there are two mutually exclusive ways of acquiring wealth, i.e., either by production and exchange, which he termed "the economic means"; or by confiscation of others' property, which method termed "the political means."
Frans Oppenheimer wrote, "There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one's own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others... I propose in the following discussion to call one's own labor and the equivalent exchange of one's own labor for the labor of others, `the economic means' for the satisfaction of need while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called `the political means...' The State is an organization of the political means. No State, therefore, can come into being until the economic means has created a definite number of objects for the satisfaction of needs, which objects may be taken away or appropriated by warlike robbery."
The second postulate is Gresham's Law, that "bad money drives out good," named after Sir Thomas Gresham. Nock applies this law with great effect to explain the decline of literature, culture, and Society. For example, Nock claims that the rise of cheap mass market paperback books has destroyed American literature.
The third postulate is Newton's Law of Diminishing Returns. Nock claims that, just as in nature, as things grow in size and strength, they tend to fall apart. In the field of education Nock applied his third law while doing battle with John Dewey and his progressive education disciples during the 1930s. Nock argued that the more students, the lower the standards, and the lower the median level of intelligence. The net result of the Deweyite revolution, argued Nock, would be an endless downward spiral of democratic mediocrity and illiteracy. With the current crisis in the government schools Nock has been vindicated.
To these three "unbeatable" laws, Nock added another concept that shaped his world-view. He had read an article in the September 1932 issue of The American Mercury magazine entitled "Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings," that irrevocably shook his classical liberal faith in the inevitable self-betterment of mankind. The author, neo-gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram--among other buildings, Cram was the chief architect for the neo-Gothic St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue in New York City--argued that the reason that most people do not act like human beings is that they are not. Cram borrowed Matthew Arnold's observation that only a small minority of homo sapiens ever rise out of the sea of barbarians and philistines to achieve the status of true humanity, as exemplified by Socrates, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, et al.
Therefore, the masses are merely "the sub-human raw material out of which the occasional human being is produced." In one stroke, Cram demolished Herbert Spencer's great Synthetic Philosophy, which was the basis for the 19th century's (and Nock's) unlimited faith in inevitable human progress and the perfectibility of man.
Nock once wrote, "I could see how 'democracy' might do very well in a society of saints and sages. ... Socrates could not have got votes enough of the Athenian mass-men to be worth counting. ...As against Jesus, the historic choice of the mass-man goes regularly to some Barabbas. … Above all things the mass-mind is most bitterly resentful of superiority. It will not tolerate the thought of an elite. ...Under this system ... the test of the great mind is its power of agreement with the opinions of small minds. ...An equalitarian and democratic regime must by consequence assume ... that everybody is educable."
To counteract these three laws, Nock proposes his own Law of Reform. In his discussion of religion, he writes that, "if every one would reform one (that is to say, oneself) and keep one steadfastly following the way of life which He [Jesus Christ] recommended, the Kingdom of Heaven would be coexistive with human society."
Nock is correct. The great affliction of our modern age is that we have a superabundance of pompous and self-righteous do-gooders using tax dollars and the power of the State to reform others--for their own good-- while the "plank is in their own eye." For Nock, true social reform, like true charity, begins at home.
Nock wrote, "There are two ... means, and only two, whereby man's needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the un-compensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means ..."
Nock also wrote, "The state, then, whether primitive, feudal, or merchant, is the organization of the political means. Now, since man tends always to satisfy his needs arid desires with the least possible exertion, he will employ the political means whenever he can -- exclusively if possible; otherwise, in association with the economic means. He will, at the present time, that is, have recourse to the state's modern apparatus of exploitation; the apparatus of tariffs, concessions, rent-monopoly and the like."
Albert Jay Nock died of leukemia August 13, 1945. He is buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
Agnes Emeline Grumbine Nock
1876–1935 (m. 1900)
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