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Book Review: Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Albert Jay Nock)

Many years ago, I belonged to a debating society, which, among other activities, sponsored formal dinners at which there was much drinking and then singing, from an official songbook of thoroughly not-politically correct songs.  Among them was one, sung to the tune of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, titled God Rot Ye Libertarians.  It went, “God rot ye libertarians, you fill us with dismay / Your atheistic tendencies, your anarchistic ways / Your flaunted immorality leads innocents astray / But you’ll get yours on Judgment Day, Judgment Day / Yes, you’ll get yours on Judgment Day!”  I don’t know whether Albert Jay Nock will get his on Judgment Day, but the song could certainly have been written for him, and a wise man would not put a lot of money on Nock being grouped with the sheep.

Still, I can’t totally make up my mind whether Nock was merely a jerk and very much superfluous, or a genius of penetrating intellect whose insights we should still study.  I would say both, but most of what seem at first glance like new insights evaporate upon any reflection at all.  To the extent Nock is remembered today, it’s for two things.  First, for his book Our Enemy, The State, published in 1935, which is a type of anarchist cookbook, an entry in the American ideological debate between those who view society like Thomas Paine and those who view society like Edmund Burke (or who otherwise are willing to countenance government as at least sometimes inherently legitimate).  In many ways, Nock was an updated Paine—a strong believer that government began in rapine and while some governments may be legitimate as being derived from the actual consent of the governed, such consent had to be constantly renewed.  But in practice, consent was never so renewed, because governments, however formed, almost immediately became and remained rent-seekers doing the bidding of the powerful to expropriate the not-powerful.  Nock buttressed this with an extremely bleak vision of the natural tendencies and abilities of the majority of humanity, a vision that required maximum independence from rule in order to allow for any possible flourishing of the few “psychically human” individuals.

The second thing for which Nock is remembered is an essay he wrote in 1936 for the Atlantic, titled Isaiah’s Job, in which he addressed conservatives with a re-telling of the story of Isaiah.  In his interpretation, God told the prophet that his job was not speaking to the people as a whole, but to a hidden and unidentifiable Remnant, a group that would carry the prophet’s message through the current and succeeding barren generations, until in a new time the ground would be fertile again and the message could be sown to bear fruit.  This has been an attractive message to conservatives in the decades since, whether libertarians like Nock or other flavors of conservatives, who have therefore maintained the memory of Nock, because as their societal position erodes, it both flatters their vanity as keepers of the flame and gives them promise that their vision will ultimately triumph—without them having to actually do anything.

And it’s that disinterest in actually doing anything that also most characterizes Nock.  Oh, he was doubtless extremely intelligent.  This book, which is a mendacious pseudo-memoir with a philosophical framework and overlay, certainly shows that.  The book alternates Nock’s analysis and thoughts, many of which could not be spoken by a public figure today, with supercilious disdain for actually doing anything about things Nock thinks should be otherwise.  It is this that makes Nock’s self-characterization of “superfluous” accurate.

The book is loosely organized around two axes—the course of Nock’s life, and topics of interest to him.  He was born in 1870, and was raised in Brooklyn, though in his early teens he moved to a northern Michigan logging town.  Quite early on, at least according to Nock, he developed a cynical and jaundiced (my words, not his) focus on his fellow man, along with a strong belief that law was over-rated as a driver of the good society, and “taste and manners” under-rated.  In Nock’s ideal world, every person would be free to do essentially as he pleased, but would be restricted by good taste and good manners.  Not that Nock had any interest in lifting a finger to create or inspire his ideal world; he was convinced that the path for our society was downwards, regardless of what he or anyone else did, and was content to snipe and sigh.  For Nock, in general and in this book, is very much focused on his, and thus our, times being a “rebarbarisation,” and the futility of convincing the “mass man” of anything, or of anything good arising from the “mass man”—and certainly not the triumph of good taste and good manners.

In fact, Nock repeatedly explicitly states that the “mass man” is not really human, which strikes me in light of the 20th Century a most dangerous position.  Throughout the book, Nock divides humans into two groups.  This is perhaps the overriding theme of the book; variations on it appear, on average, at least once every two pages.  One group is “psychically human”; these people are amenable to education, that is, to attain “intelligence and wisdom” through “formative knowledge.”  They have “the ability to see things as they are.”  The other group is not psychically human, but “psychically anthropoid,” is only amenable to training, that is, to obtaining “sagacity and cleverness” through “instrumental knowledge,” and is generally socially deficient, among other things being, unsurprisingly, “bitterly resentful of superiority.”  This second group is much, much the larger of the two.

For this “insight,” Nock repeatedly thanks the architect Ralph Adams Cram, advocate of neo-Gothic style, who in his day (he died in 1942) was well known for his social criticism.  I went and dug out the Cram essay that Nock references, from 1932 in Mencken’s The American Mercury (thanks, Internet!).  Cram’s point is that just as (he says) people prior to 10,000 B.C. or so were not actually human, most people today are not human.  “The just line of demarcation should be drawn, not between Neolithic Man and the anthropoid ape, but between the glorified and triumphant human being and the Neolithic mass which was, is now, and ever shall be.”  (I am sure that the religious phrasing echoes are intended as a deliberate blasphemy.)  It is impossible to overstate the degree to which Nock adopts and worships this pernicious distinction among humans.  “Neolithic man” is most everyone, certainly everyone Nock doesn’t like, and they are not really human, which he reminds us constantly.

What precisely that means for Nock isn’t immediately obvious, other than these non-humans drag down the rest of humanity, who otherwise would presumably be luxuriating in the Republic of Taste and Manners.  A few conclusions he admits do flow directly, the most obvious being that democracy is stupid.  “I could see how ‘democracy’ might do very well in a society of saints and sages led by an Alfred or an Antoninus Pius.  Short of that, I was unable to see how it could come to anything but an ochlocracy of mass-men led by a sagacious knave.”  But just as obvious a conclusion is that homo superior should have the right to dominate and enslave “Neolithic man.”  If Nock thought that, and it’s hard to see how he couldn’t have (although he was too lazy to dominate or enslave anyone himself), he kept his mouth shut on the topic.  Mostly, he criticizes the social impact of the mass of humanity’s bad taste and low manners.  So, for example, speaking of the execrable quality of modern fiction, in particular as it describes relations between men and women, Nock finds this low quality not surprising at all, given the spread of literacy and the worthlessness of most people.  “The neolithic masses of mankind are psychically incapable of experiencing the emotions of sex at any but the lowest level, and having become dimly literate, they would naturally require the level of depicted experience to be not above that of the actuality with which they are acquainted.”  Again, the centrality of dehumanization to any philosophy strikes me as, at best, an easily misused approach, and one that already in 1943 should have obviously been very problematic in light of modern collectivist behavior, something Nock was already disposed against, but here effectively aligns himself with.

Throughout the book, Nock mixes references to events in his life, or rather to how he lived his life, with philosophical asides.  It’s impossible to reconstruct his life from the facts stated in the book, though, which is doubtless as Nock intended it, since as he says in the second sentence, “Personal publicity is utterly distasteful to me.”  But Nock did not reckon with the Internet, so now it is easy to determine that Nock’s father was an Episcopal priest, a fact highly relevant given Nock’s open hostility to religion—and that Nock himself was an Episcopal priest for ten years, an astounding fact and also wholly omitted from this book, along with the fact that he played minor-league baseball for a time.  (By the time of this book, though, he appears to have been a singularly unreflective and simplistic agnostic.)  Other omissions that, in context, make parts of this autobiography mendacious include his fathering two children with a wife, all three of whom he abandoned.  Thus, the main interest of the book is Nock’s philosophical musings, since any stated autobiographical facts may or may not be true.

Nock’s writing is stellar.  There is not a single wasted word and every word is carefully and excellently chosen.  Nock was an enormously erudite man, extremely well read and he clearly spent a great deal of his life (he lived mostly in Europe) thinking clearly.  My only complaint about the writing itself is that he frequently uses epigrams and quotations in foreign languages:  French, German, Latin, Greek.  Of course, at the time he wrote, any educated reader could comprehend all of those.  But not today, and not me (I can puzzle out some German, and less Latin, but no French, much less Greek).  Similarly, Nock endlessly refers to people I have never heard of, including a wide range of utterly forgotten 19th Century Frenchmen, as a type of shorthand, assuming the reader will be able to fill in the gaps.  And I am sure I missed many of his literary references—for example, he cites Turgenev in several places, but it took Wikipedia to tell me that the “superfluous man” was a common literary conceit of mid-19th Century Russian fiction, of which conceit Turgenev was the main exponent, so Nock’s title is a multi-layer play on words.  I suppose this just proves Nock’s point about the difference between education and training, but it makes some of his points harder to comprehend and, unfortunately, lessens the punch of his arguments to a modern audience.

Among other philosophical positions expounded in this book, Nock believed that (a) literacy was grossly over-rated, and universal literacy was a destructive goal, or at best worthless; (b) essentially all wars, and all modern wars of the United States (and others) were immoral exercises of imperialism ginned-up to serve the politically connected and powerful; (c) the driving force of American society is “economism,” a hostile neologism Nock coined deeming America “interpreted the whole of human life in terms of the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth,” rather than seeking the higher life of the mind (I doubt if Nock and Ayn Rand would have gotten along); (d) all modern political struggles are “simply a tussle between two groups of mass-men, one large and poor, the other small and rich, and as judged by the standards of a civilized society, neither of them more meritorious or promising than the other,” and “the object of the tussle was the material gains accruing from control of the State’s machinery”; and therefore (e) “Communism, the New Deal, Fascism, Nazism, are merely so-many trade-names for collectivist Statism, like the trade-names for tooth-pastes which are all exactly alike except for the flavouring.”

There are some undeniably true statements, well put, in the book.  Speaking of his strictly classical education, Nock notes“[W]e did come out with a fairly clear notion that the deliberate acceptance of appearances, the conscious exclusion of reality, is a distinct failure in integrity, a moral failure.”  It is this focus on reality that could have made Nock’s thought excellent; it is his overly bleak view of humans that makes it ultimately profitless.  Or, “Nine-tenths of the value of classical studies lies in their power to establish a clear commonsense, matter-of-fact view of human nature and its activities over a continuous stretch of some twenty centuries.  Hence the mind which has attentively canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind; it is an experienced mind.”  The problem is that Nock uses this true statement to wash his hands of anything happening today, with some variation of “oh well, it’s all happened before, and it’ll all happen again.”  That may work as a tagline for Battlestar Galactica, but it’s not so helpful in a work of political philosophy.

Nock uses his acid pen on most political movements of the time.  On Liberals (by which Nock means Progressive reformers):  “As casuists, they make Gury [an obscure French Jesuit] and St. Alfonso dei Liguori look like bush-leaguers.  On every point of conventional morality, all the Liberals I have personally known were very trusthworthy.  They were great fellows for the Larger Good, but it would have to be pretty large before they would alienate your wife’s affections or steal your watch.  But on any point of intellectual integrity, there is not one of them I would trust for ten minutes in a room alone with a red-hot stove, unless the stove were comparatively valueless.”  Nock himself was a dilettante Georgist, a now-obscure movement that called for all taxes to be based on land value.  With this, as all things, he did little to advance his beliefs, on the excuse that “I decided that if progressive evolution was to make [Georgist ideas] practicable in fifty thousand years, it would have to step a great deal livelier than there was any sign of its doing.”

The book is chock full of similar clever, mostly malicious, turns of phrase, many of which are just as applicable to their targets today.  “I often thought of Sir Henry Wotton, back in the sixteenth century, saying that ‘an ambassador is a man of virtue sent to lie abroad for his country; a news-writer is man without virtue who lies at home for himself.’  For many years I wondered how people could be got to serve the trade of journalism, but never really understood it until some eighteen or twenty years ago I read Count Tolstoy’s analysis of the prostitute Maslova’s view of her trade . . . .”  Much perceptive vision of the real is packed into this passage, all applicable today.  What else is, say, Brian Williams, but a lying whore of an unlettered tradesman, rather than what he imagines he is, an honest, upstanding member of an educated profession?

But we are always brought back to Nock’s bad points.  He hates families, even though he had one (about which, as I say, he lies by omission in this book), saying “I have a great horror of children.”  He explicitly claims that if one has a family, “he has to reconcile himself to stultifying and despicable courses of conduct which, if he were free to do so, he would refuse even to consider.  He must stay within the economic system and uphold it; and thus the demands of family are responsible for the atrophy of many fine talents, and for the progressive moral dim-out which darkens many lives.”  No wonder he abandoned his own family.  But what Nock nowhere mentions is that his own ability to lead this pure life of the mind was funded by a group of rich donors.  So, really, in the end, who was the prostitute?

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