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Some sound instinct kept Albert Jay Nock from ever becoming a reformer, in the usual sense. He was never a tub-thumper for some system; never an organization man. He was, to the contrary, a lifelong learner…

Albert Jay Nock died too soon, but not before he had nailed to the mast several of the paradoxes which make living in our age so intriguing. He took great delight, for example, in pointing out that American colleges and universities are generally hostile to education and learning. In conversation one day with several college presidents, Nock laid down a number of stringent guidelines for running a college. One of the presidents, somewhat shocked, said, “Why Mr. Nock, if my college were to follow your advice we’d lose most of the faculty and all but about five of the students.” Nock pondered this for a moment, and then replied, “That would be just the right size for a college.”

The life-long concern of this man was with the quality of life lived in our civilization; he found the quality poor. Institutions of higher learning, so called, were by no means his only target. Nock was a staunch defender of capitalism, but he was unsparing in his criticism of capitalists for distrusting the free market: and for trotting down to Washington begging for handouts. “Businessmen don’t want a government that will let them alone,” he wrote; “they want a government they can use.” This is not to blame businessmen for being what they are; what they are is simply a reflection of the standards and values held in common by a significant number of people in our society. This is the age of materialism, or the age of Economism, as Nock preferred to call it. Economism is the doctrine that the production and consumption of material wealth is the chief end of man; it is the notion that if only everyone were well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed, who could ask for anything more? No wonder we suffer from cultural deprivation! We exhibit just that kind of life, Nock remarked, that one would expect to find if he turned over a plank which has been rotting in the muck of Economism!

Every society constructs its institutions in its own image, and thus we get the schools we deserve, the economy we deserve, and the churches we deserve, Albert Jay Nock did his graduate work in theology, and before he joined the staff of American Magazine in 1908 he had served Episcopal parishes in three states. In later life, he wrote that “when Christianity became organized it immediately took on a political character radically affecting its institutional concept of religion and its institutional concept of morals; and the same tendencies observable in secular politics at once set in upon the politics of organized Christianity.” And just as schools offend against education, so churches offend against high religion.

But this is not all; he had other complaints. Universal literacy has been the ruination of literary standards; the rise of mass man has cost the average person much of his zest for life; and every extension of the franchise means that more people vote themselves into serfdom. We have spawned a culture which has made such men as Albert Jay Nock feel superfluous, and we’ve learned to live so well with what’s ailing us that the mere prospect of a cure gives us the jitters!

Nock’s “Peculiar” Politics

Nock’s aversion to politics is well known. He came by it early, as he tells the story in one of his essays and again in the Memoirs. His childhood was spent in Brooklyn not far from an oddly shaped building known as the Wigwam, a political club—”an evil looking affair, dirty and disreputable, and the people who frequented it looked to me even more disreputable than the premises.” His distaste for politics never left him, although he was a keen observer of public affairs. I cannot imagine Nock attending a political convention, even as a reporter, as his friend Mencken did. Nock actually did go to the polls once or twice to vote for the candidate of his own choice, Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi. “I knew Jeff was dead,” he said, “but I voted on Artemus Ward’s principle that if we can’t have a live man who amounts to anything, by all means let’s have a first-class corpse.”

Nock was, in one sense of the word, completely a-political, or even anti-political. He distrusted all forms of social machinery and discounted all mechanical remedies for the ills which bedevil mankind. But in another sense, Nock was what Jacques Barzun called him, “a genuine political mind,” in the sense that Nock adhered to the conviction that the only way any person can improve society is by presenting society with one improved unit. Every time Nock was buttonholed by a reformer, planner, socialist, single-taxer, or whatever, he would put one question to him: “Suppose you get your system all set up, what kind of people can you get to administer it—except the kind you’ve got?” And he answered his own question: “There ain’t any!”

Libertarians understand Nock’s position because this is the libertarian position, and it is the only sound position in the long run. It is not a popular position, and there aren’t many libertarians around—whatever the label—but numbers don’t count. Now, numbers are important to the census taker and the opinion pollster, but numbers do not play the role of a “critical mass” in societal change. The opinion poller wants your opinion yes or no on various questions; he has no way of measuring the clarity and the intensity of your convictions. A small number of men and women whose convictions are so sound and so clearly thought out that they will go through hell and high water for them are more than a match for the multitude whose ideas are too vague to generate convictions. A little leaven raises the entire lump of dough; a tiny flame starts a mighty conflagration: a small rudder turns a huge ship. And a handful of people possessed of ideas and a dream can change a nation—especially when that nation is searching for new answers and a new direction.

The idea of a Remnant comes out of the Old Testament; it occurs in several passages but Nock found the context he wanted and wrote his essay, “Isaiah’s Job.” The prophet Isaiah began his career around 740 B.C. toward the end of the reign of King Uzziah, which period coincided with the end of an era. The nation was going to the dogs and loving it; but not Isaiah. This young nobleman possessed a brilliant mind, foresaw the decline and fall of his country, and felt impelled to warn his fellow citizens of the impending ruin. Well, this was the last thing they wanted from Isaiah or anyone else, for there’s no time for having fun like the mellow period of a nation’s decline. Isaiah, discouraged, came to the Lord and asked for a new assignment. “You don’t get the point,” the Lord told Isaiah; “there is a Remnant out there. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They don’t know each other, and they won’t make themselves known to you. But it is they who keep things from going completely to pot, and it is the Remnant who will build society afresh after the collapse. They are listening to you, Isaiah, and your job is to minister to the Remnant.” This was also Nock’s job, as he himself conceived it.

Nock had an ample but refined capacity for enjoying life, even though he believed that he was living in the last days of a dying civilization. Nock believed he was experiencing the “imperatorship and anarchy” Henry George had predicted. But human nature is resilient, and once the pessimist assures himself that doom is certain, then that’s settled and cheerfulness breaks in—like the man in the tumbril en route to the guillotine winking at the pretty girls in the rabble. Or—as Murphy puts it in one of his laws—”If you’re sailing on the Titanic you might as well go first class!”

The only way he could serve the Remnant, Nock concluded, was to work for the advancement of his own understanding, which he did. Once he had unearthed a precious nugget of truth and put it on display where all who wished might see, he dropped the matter and went on to the next question. Training reinforced temperament to turn him away from even the slightest propaganda efforts; he never badgered anybody about anything. “Never argue; never explain,” he would say with infuriating detachment. Nock believed, correctly I think, that he had uncovered the plain truth of things in the several areas of his interest, and he painstakingly set forth his elucidations in impeccable English, serene in his faith that this fully discharged his duty. The assumption back of this faith is that truth has an internal energy of its own enabling it, if we don’t stand in its way, to cut its own channels and gain acceptance in minds ready for it. Trying to make truth palatable for minds not ready for it is no service to the people involved, for it clogs whatever thought processes they have; and truth tampered with is truth lost.

The hard truth is what Nock is talking about; truth with the bark on it, truth unsophisticated by even good intentions, undiluted by ulterior considerations. Are there minds ready for this kind of truth? Nock believed that every society has such minds else it would fall apart. Every society is held together by a select few—men and women who have the force of intellect to discern the rules upon which social life is contingent, and the force of character to exemplify those rules in their own living. These were Nock’s chosen people, The Remnant. All else is mass man.

It’s a lovely notion, runs the thought, but is it practical? Will it work? Well, it appears to be working in Mr. Nock’s case, although not all the returns are in and one can’t say for sure. Albert Jay Nock’s reputation, while he lived, was limited, and none of his books had much of a sale, except his Jefferson and the Memoirs. Nock’s death, in 1945, passed relatively unnoticed. But then things began to happen; the posthumous publication of a Journal, two volumes of letters and a volume of essays; a new edition of the Memoirs, the reprinting of five of his out-of-print books, and the formation of The Nockian Society which has published Cogitations from AJN. And in addition to the ten titles and one anthology now in print, there are two books about Nock and two books edited by him. Not bad for a superfluous man!

Person and Legend

You may have gained the impression from what I have said that Albert Jay Nock was a man of monumental likes and dislikes. Indeed he was; and there’s more! We have it on good authority that “a man who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.” The authority is not W.C. Fields, who is usually credited with this sentiment, but Leo Rosten who used it on one occasion to introduce Fields. Nock’s two sons had distinguished academic careers, so Nock had to make up for liking his children by disliking canines. “As against the dog I am in favor of the cat,” he wrote to his friend B.I. Bell. “The dog is nature’s prize collectivist and authoritarian; he has the slave mentality and can’t be happy out of servitude, a natural-born New Dealer, you know, utterly loveable and given to good works, y’understand, but a ding-busted fool, like your friend Henry Wallace…. He has no respect for himself, no dignity. The cat, on the other hand, has oodles of self-respect and is bungfull of dignity. He is an individualist, and has no illusions about the social order.”

Caustic, crotchety, witty, cantankerous; Nock was every one of these, but he was also a lot more. He was a formidable scholar and possessed immense erudition. Van Wyck Brooks worked on the old Freeman and says this about Nock: “He had visited half the universities of Europe…(and) could pick up at random, with a casual air, almost any point and trace it from Plato through Scaliger to Montaigne or Erasmus, and I can cite chapter and verse for saying that whether in Latin or Greek he could quote any author in reply to any question…. ‘A diligently forgotten learning is the mother of culture,’ he once remarked, but he seemed to have remembered everything.” This portrait is drawn a little larger than life, but it is noteworthy that Nock was a legendary figure even to his staff. Nock was social, but he was not gregarious; his passion for privacy inspired the quip that if you wanted to reach Mr. Nock when he wasn’t in his office you had to leave a note under a certain rock in Central Park.

Someone praised Nock for the good things he had done for the bright young people who worked under him on The Freeman. “Nonsense,” said Nock; “all I’ve done was to let them alone.” “That may be so,” the friend responded, “but it would have been different if some one else had been letting them alone!”

In person, Nock was elegant and aloof. One cannot imagine anyone calling him “Al”! Frank Chodorov told me he called him Albert Jay. Paul Palmer edited The American Mercury in the 1930’s and published Nock regularly. It was “Mr. Nock” for several years, Palmer tells us, even though the two men had frequent contact. “The first time I called him Albert to his face was somehow like my first cigar, my graduation from boot camp in the Marine Corps, my first hour at a desk marked EDITOR. I was a man.” Nock certainly inspired respect among his associates, but those who knew him well, said a friend, found him “tender, sympathetic, and kindness itself.” A select few were lifelong friends, both men and women, here and abroad.

Five Criteria of Culture

As the man, so the style. It appears simple, but try to imitate it! “It’s not so much what you say,” his friend Mencken told him; “It’s how you say it.” Nock’s lucid style mirrors the clarity and coherence of his thought. This critic of the quality of life attained in our culture had worked up a set of precise measuring rods to determine where our civilization falls short, and by how much. Nock surveyed the high points of the human drama throughout history and concluded that the finest cultures were those which encouraged a full and balanced expression of the five fundamental social instincts of man; or, as we might prefer to say, the five basic urges, drives, or potencies of human nature. What are these five claimants for expression? Let’s begin with the most familiar, with what Nock referred to as the instinct for accumulation and expansion; that is, the desire to make money and to exert influence, to turn a profit and wield power. Now this instinct represents but one-fifth of the horsepower latent in human nature, but it has crowded out the other four, Nock charges, and has constructed our lopsided society in its own image. What are the neglected instincts? They are, as Nock lists them, the instinct of intellect and knowledge, of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners. These four, Nock says, have been “disallowed and perverted.”

The charge that our civilization—since the Enlightenment—has permitted full expression to only one instinct is but another way of phrasing Nock’s allegation that this is the Era of Economism, a period when people attach the highest value in life to the production and consumption of wealth. Take my word for it, Nock is not attacking the market economy; he is telling us that the market alone cannot sustain the market economy. The market is a universal human institution; trade and barter is as old as mankind. Wherever the human community exists there is a division of labor and a swapping of goods. So long as mankind survives on this planet there will be markets, and this will be true even under authoritarian regimes. The market, yesterday, today, and forever; but not the market economy. The market economy is a contingent thing; it has come into being in certain areas of the globe at certain periods and chunks of it now disappear daily before our eyes. There’s no miracle of parthenogenesis by which the market can give birth to the market economy all by itself; the market does not institutionalize itself as the market economy without help from moral values and the law.

We live on a planet where almost everything is scarce relative to human demand, and therefore we must economize. To “economize” means to conserve scarce resources, which we do by attempting to diminish inputs while maximizing outputs. In other words, the more-for-less mentality is built into economic action, and that’s the danger. Unless this frame of mind is counterbalanced by noneconomic forces, the more-for-less attitude degenerates into the something-for-nothing mentality—as has happened to us. When a nation is permeated by the something-for-nothing spirit it will invariably set up a corresponding power structure designed to transfer wealth legally from producers to pressure groups. Taxation for all, subsidies for a few. This power structure is the State, which Nock labeled The Enemy, and which he clearly distinguished from government. “My point is,” he wrote in 1944, “that if the State were limited to purely negative interventions which I enumerated, and had no oversize power beyond that, then it wouldn’t be the State anymore. It would then be government only…. The point is only that when Society deprives the State of power to make positive interventions on the individual—power to make positive coercions on him at any point in his economic and social life—then at once the State goes out of existence, and what remains is government.”

How do we put the State out of business? Well, of course, we need the correct analytical tools in economic and political theory; but these won’t carry us very far if the prevailing view of human life and human nature is warped and one-sided. In a culture where every other facet and drive of our nature is subordinated to the instinct for accumulation and expansion the market economy is bound to give way. If we deny a balanced and harmonious expression to all sides of our nature—to the claims of intellect and knowledge, religion and morals, beauty and poetry, social life and manners—then these repressed and frustrated drives will have their revenge. Mass man will come to the fore and run the show, while The Remnant is driven underground.

Three Influences of AJN

Three men played a large role in Albert Jay Nock’s life: Francis Rabelais, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry George. The first two pose no problem. Rabelais was a literary man of genius whose appetite for life helps us keep the human comedy in proper perspective. Jefferson was a man of integrity, about as a-political as a politician can be, and a champion of human liberty. It’s the third name that’s somewhat of a puzzler, How could Nock, the arch individualist, be attracted to a scheme which, beginning with the finest intentions in the world, ends up with a blueprint for a society in which the agency which already wields the police power now assumes the enormous power inherent in the authority to allocate sites and resources.

Nock called himself a Single Taxer, but as we might expect, he was a maverick here too. Shortly after the appearance of Our Enemy, The State, Leonard Read wrote to Nock to compliment him on his marvelous book; but how, Read asked, “can an intelligent man like yourself advocate the Single Tax?” To which Nock responded, “Dear Mr. Read: I do not advocate the Single Tax; I merely believe in it.”

In a letter to Henry Mencken, Nock wrote, “Henry George was mighty near the world’s ablest man of the nineteenth century, and his economics are sound to the core.” Now, George was without doubt the most eloquent economist who ever wrote—which is not to say a great deal; many of his writings are models of English prose. George embraced the economics of Smith and the Manchester School, put great emphasis on Ricardo’s law of rent, adopted the anti-Statist ideas of the early Herbert Spencer, and suffused the whole with a passionate concern that the inherent, natural rights of each individual to life, liberty, and property be given full expression. The rights of persons are being impaired, George argued, from two directions: first, there is the unjust use of the taxing power to transfer money from one set of pockets to another; and, secondly, there is the power of the landowner to deprive the producer of a percentage of all he produces as the price of being allowed to produce anything at all! George proposed to remedy both these ills at once by abolishing taxation and paying for the costs of government out of the monies received by the political appropriation of the full rental value of land.

This reminds one of feudalism, where all land is held by the king as a condition of his sovereignty and becomes a prime source of his revenue. It is not difficult to perceive that George’s remedy is a kind of neo-feudalism. Human beings occupy space, and the sites and resources they need are scarce. The allocation of these scarce goods is a function of ownership, for it is the owner of a good who determines how it shall be used and by whom. If the ownership of land is not private and multiple, then it must be political and unitary; but ownership there must be. The system of private, multiple land ownership is not perfect, but individuals within this scheme do have the opportunity to haggle, bargain, negotiate, and contract vis-a-vis millions of private owners; whereas, under any conceivable alternative it is individuals versus the omnipotent political apparatus.

So much, then, for AJN, our genial critic of life and manners. Some sound instinct kept Nock from ever becoming a reformer, in the usual sense. He was never a tub-thumper for some system; never an organization man. He was, to the contrary, a lifelong learner. And because he spent a lifetime educating himself he is able to open all sorts of doors for us. With some help from Albert Jay—and a little bit of luck—we, too, may become superfluous!

Republished with the gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Winter 1975).

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Published: Apr 18, 2018
Author
Edmund A. Opitz
The Reverand Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. He was a senior staff member and resident theologian at the Foundation for Economic Education, where he started the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.
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5 replies to this post
  1. The best piece I have read on this site The prose of Mr. Optiz is of a high quality appropriate to its subject.

  2. Thanks for reprinting this excellent essay. I fell in love with Nock’s way of expressing himself many years ago.
    While I doubt if an entire society of Nocks would be viable, any society without a goodly measure of gentlemanly anarchists of his ilk would be so much the poorer for the lack.

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