I stumbled across this gem in a dusty Nashville book store not far from Vanderbilt University. My daughter and I had the morning to kill while the wife and son attended an orientation session for prospective Belmont University students, so we took a walking tour of the town, meandering down to Vanderbilt, which was only a few blocks from the hotel, and on past it to a section of town sporting the sort of shops found around a university campus. The book store was across the street from a pancake house (the Pancake Pantry) that had a line stretching around the next corner; the tiny shop was a hole in the wall that we’d likely have never found had we not been forced to cross the street to get around the people lined up for pancakes. While I would never stand hours in a line for pancakes no matter how delicious someone claimed them to be, in this instance, I was grateful that others would. I’d likely not have discovered Mr. Nock or his memoir.
The book is long out of print, except it may be obtained through the Ludwig Von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama (Mises.org) which prints outdated titles that the Mises Institute believes important to its mission, which, vaguely stated, is to push for sound economic education, free markets, sound money, liberty and peace. The memoirs were published in 1942, so were written just as the US had experienced the Great Depression and its government had taken its first definitive stab at collectivism through the New Deal. So far as period pieces go, it offers better objectivity than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Unlike Rand, Nock is not a polemicist, nor interested through this memoir in persuading anyone of the correctness of his views.
It was the title of the memoir that initially caught my eye. In fact, when I saw it, nestled there at the end of a shelf in the philosophy/religion section of the store, I thought, “wow, somebody’s written my memoir.” Though having never consciously considered it, “superfluous” immediately struck me as the perfect summation of my life. Reading Nock’s memoir proved my instinct was true.
Albert Jay Nock was born October 13, 1870 and died August 19, 1945. Over the course of his life he was at various turns an Episcopal priest, a journalist, an editor, an author, and as a young man, apparently a fairly decent baseball player (for a short time, he played minor-league professional baseball). But through it all, as he explains, he was superfluous.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, superfluous is the state of “being beyond what is required or sufficient”. As Mr. Nock uses the adjective, it describes an intelligent and educated “psychically human” creature for whom the sum total of existence does not resolve to the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth. A man is superfluous if he ever is able to rise above the petty concerns and biases that animate those for whom life’s purpose is the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth, in order to see and understand things just as they are. He is superfluous because society has no need of him. The State is only concerned with the continued expansion of its capacity to produce, acquire and distribute wealth. The superfluous man is not so much concerned with the State’s prerogatives as he is his own. The freedom to pursue life as the individual sees fit, without State, or any other undue interference, is the highest ideal to which society can aspire, and is the ideal which the superfluous man holds most dear.
Nock is a beautiful writer. His prose reveals a brilliant, expansively read, and highly-educated mind. I was continually scurrying off to the dictionary to make sure I knew exactly what he meant in the use of a word describing this or another thing. Though I imagined myself as also superfluous during the reading of his memoirs, my primary qualification is sentimental—the emotional embrace of the idea—not intellectual; capable as is Nock of always stripping away biases to see things as they are; the type person society would necessarily have no use for, with its constant need for self-delusion. Because Nock employs such fine and lyrical prose in explicating his philosophy of existence, I’ll resort to abundant quotation in conveying his ideas. I could never, through paraphrase or otherwise, convey his ideas better than he did. Besides, he was conveying the philosophy of his existence, as he repeatedly remarks and makes clear. It would be presumptuous for me, or anyone, to judge by linguistic interpretation what that philosophy was, so aside from these passages, I won’t offer much further interpretation, but will explain occasionally where my own philosophy of existence, nascent and ill-formed as it is, comports with Nock’s. It can be assumed that if I quote a passage, then Nock and I agree on the substance of the point he is making.
Nock refers over and over again to several rules he has surmised about human nature; a brief synopsis of these make a good starting point for gaining an understanding of his philosophy of existence. The first he calls “Epstean’s Law, which, succinctly stated, is the principle whereby men will always try to achieve their ends with the least expenditure of effort possible. The second is the familiar law of currency, Gresham’s Law, that states bad currency will always operate to drive out good currency—a principle that has ample application outside its origination as a phenomenon of money. The third is the law of diminishing returns that afflicts all organizations, economic and otherwise, but Nock especially appreciates the principle as it is applied to political organizations. And the last is really just an axiom of observation, attributable to Bishop Butler, “Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be”. Put together, these are the prism through which Nock views the world. Let us now explore some of what he sees through that view.
Nock has a dry, sardonic wit. He is well able to laugh at himself and his foibles, and though exceedingly private in his personal affairs (what a quaint idea for a public figure in this age), he never recoils at presenting himself in a ridiculous light, as he does here on his views about the English language:
I am as unintelligently and absurdly jealous of the injustices, inhumanties, iniquities, of our language as any good Briton is of those inhering in his flagitious imperialism. Like him, I refuse to see them as unjust, inhumane, iniquitous. I insist that they are just, beneficent and in accordance with the will of God…Since our adorable Creator, in His wisdom and in His loving kindness, endowed the Briton with the natural right to rule, it was fitting that he should have endowed him with the command of a majestic and imperial language…I must confess that when the English half of my being rears up in this preposterous fashion, the French half laughs most indecorously at the capers I cut.
On education and pedagogy:
All Souls College, Oxford, planned better than it new when it limited the number of its undergraduates to four: four is exactly the right number for any college which is really intent on getting results. Socrates chatting with a single protagonist meant one thing, and well did he know it. Socrates lecturing to a class of fifty would mean something woefully different, so he organized no class and did no lecturing…Jesus stayed away from Jerusalem, and talked with fishermen here and there, who seem to have pretty well got what he was driving at; some better than others, apparently, but all on the whole pretty well.
On his childhood impression of politics and politicians:
Thus my first impression [gained by observing close-hand an election season one summer while living in Brooklyn] of politics was unfavorable; and my disfavor was heightened by subsequently noticing that the people around me always spoke of politics and politicians in a tone of contempt…if all this was of the essence of politics, if it was part and parcel of carrying on the country’s government, then obviously a decent person could find no place in politics, not even the place of an ordinary voter, for the forces of ignorance, brutality and indecency would outnumber him ten to one.
On the foundation of justice taught him in college:
We learned not only that justice is always the same in small matters as in great, be we also learned thoroughly the consequent lesson which seems so unaccountably hard for Anglo-Saxons to ever learn, that justice is always the same in the case of men and things you do not like, as in the case of those you do like.
On the difference between an education that provides formative knowledge and one that provides instrumental knowledge as a preparation for life:
If preparation for life means accumulating instrumental knowledge as a means of getting a living, our equipment was defective. If it means laying a foundation of formative knowledge on which to build a structure of instrumental knowledge, our equipment was as complete, I believe, as could be devised.
On the importance of understanding history:
The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest, most complete and most nearly continuous record we have of what the strange creature known as Homo sapiens has been busy about in virtually every department of spiritual, intellectual and social activity. That record covers nearly twenty-five hundred years in an unbroken stretch of this animated oddity’s operations in poetry, drama[etc]…everything I believe that lies in the range of human knowledge or speculation. Hence the mind which has attentively canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind, it is an experienced mind. It has come, as Emerson says, into a feeling of immense longevity, and it instinctively views contemporary man and his doings in the perspective set by this profound and weighty experience. Our studies were properly called formative, because beyond all others their effect was powerfully maturing. Cicero told the unvarnished truth in saying that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children; and If one wished to characterize the collective mind of this present period, or indeed of any period, –the use it makes of its powers of observation, reflection, logical inference,–one would best do it by the one word, immaturity.
It should be added, that in the present age, even those with some degree of knowledge of what has gone before, devise all sorts of rationalizations for why “things are different” this time. It should also be remarked, that the whole point of the education industry in society today is to produce infantile imbeciles who have been specifically taught to act as children; refraining from thinking and understanding as much as is possible, which is quite a lot it turns out.
On the value to society of an educated person:
In a society essentially Neolithic, as ours unquestionably is at the moment—whatever one may hold its evolutionary possibilities to be—there can be no place found for an educable person but such as a trainable person could fill quite as well or even better; he becomes a superfluous man; and the more thoroughly his ability to see things as they are is cultivated, the more his superfluity is enhanced.
On America being nothing more or less than an extension of the British Empire after Britain, bogged down in southern Africa in its exploitation and subjugation of the Boers and local populace there, coaxed America into the Spanish-American War, leading to the American acquisition of the Philippines:
Joseph Chamberlain, who, with Cecil Rhodes, represented the ultimate in militant British imperialism at that time, said in a public speech which was reported at large in this country, that the Spanish War was well worth while “if in a great and noble cause, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack should wave together over an Anglo-Saxon alliance”.
Anyone that believes America is today anything more than an extension of British and European colonial and imperialistic imperatives either ignores or misunderstands history.
On the definition of “mass-men”:
The men of the forty-two photographs [of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialists hanging in the bar of a New York Hotel at the time] were rich mass-men, to be sure, but mass-men, every mother’s son of them; unintelligent, ignorant, myopic, incapable of psychical development, but prodigiously sagacious and prehensile. If I had been asked for a definition at that time, measuring by the standards of civilized man—the standards set by a Plato, a Dante, a Marcus Aurelius—I should have put it that the mass-man is a digestive and reproductive mechanism, gifted with a certain low sagacity employable upon anything which bears upon the conduct of those two functions.
On why, though finding the actions of the industrialists (rich mass-men) repulsive, he didn’t involve himself with any of the social reform movements of the time (unions, social welfare legislation, etc.):
None of the reformers proposed reducing the State’s power to distribute economic advantage; on the contrary every one of their principal measures tended to increase it. Therefore, when all came to all, I could not see that these measures ultimately contemplated anything more than prying the State’s machinery out of the rich mass-man’s control, and turning it over to the poor mass-man. I could imagine no benefit accruing to society from that.
This passage, and those preceding and following it, profoundly reshaped my view of politics. Taken from Chapter Seven of the memoirs, it alone would have made all of the rest profitable to read and understand. Of course, even today, no reform is ever proffered that actually contemplates the State weakening its control over the life of the individual. All of political discourse and its accompanying theatrics is dedicated to the one end of securing the means of advantage that controlling the apparatus of the State provides. Lest there be any doubt, all that’s need to dispel it is to compare the administrations of Bush and Obama. There is substantially no difference between them. Under Bush, the State accreted power through all the days of his Administration, and then, practically gorged on it at the end, a process which the Obama Administration has simply continued and magnified. Like Nock, I can’t imagine any benefit accruing to society from any of it.
On what the liberals, both British and American, were about, in the early twentieth century:
By busily cutting down the liberty of the individual piecemeal, and extending the scope of the State’s coercive control, their work was reaching the point where a few easy finishing-touches would reduce the individual to a condition of complete State-servitude; thus bringing forth the monster of collectivism, ravenous and rampant.
As the French say, plus ca change.
To my eyes the incident of Aristides and the Athenian mass-man was perfectly exhibitory of “democracy” in practice. Socrates could not have got votes enough out of the Athenian mass-men to be worth counting, but Eubulus easily could and did, wangle enough to keep himself in office as long as the corrupt fabric of the Athenian state held together. As against a Jesus, the historic choice of the mass-man goes regularly to some Barabbas.
What is patriotism? Is it loyalty to a spot on a map, marked off by other spots by blue or yellow lines, the spot where one was born? But birth is a pure accident; surely one is in no way responsible for having been born on this spot or that…Is it loyalty to a set of political jobholders, a king and his court, a president and his bureaucracy, a parliament, a congress, Duce or Fuhrer, a camorra of commissars?…Does patriotism mean loyalty to a political system and its institutions, constitutional, autocratic, republican, or what-not? But if history has made anything unmistakably clear, it is that from the standpoint of the individual and his welfare, these are no more than names…If a tree be known by its fruits, which I believe is regarded as good sound doctrine, then the peculiar merit of a system, if it has any, ought to be reflected in the qualities and conditions of the people who live under it; and looking over the peoples and systems of the world, I found no reason in the nature of things why a person should be loyal to one system rather than another. One could see at a glance that there is no saving grace in any system. Whatever merit or demerit may attach to any of them lies in the way it is administered.
On understanding Statism:
Belgians have a good deal of the American’s gregariousness and affability; they enjoy passing the time of day with strangers. Once in a chance talk about political theory under the new regimes in Russia, Italy and Germany, my fellow gossip said impatiently, “Oh, that’s all the same thing, that’s Statism. We know all about that, we went through it years ago.” He was one of the plain people, not a student, [having some sort of commercial agency, as he was familiar with machinery]. I wonder how many such men in America would know that 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 flavoring.
On the requirements he imposed upon writers when he was editor of a weekly journal, explaining to a potential hire:
“The first one,” I said, “is that you must have a point. Second, you must make it out. The third is that you must make it out in eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English.”
On the Statism’s ultimate outcome:
…that in proportion as you give the State power to do things for you, you give it the power to do things to you; and that the State invariably makes as little as it can of the one power and as much as it can of the other.
Regarding marriage as essentially a quasi-industrial partnership, a business enterprise, and then looking over the persons of one’s acquaintance who are engaged in it, one must see, I think , that the distribution of natural aptitude for it is about what it is for other occupations. There are many misfits, many who through no great fault of theirs have obviously mistaken their calling. Society’s tacit assumption is that all normal persons are qualified for matrimony, and this is not so…When such as these experience a valid sex-attraction of whatever type, and seek to make the most of it by accepting only the terms that society has hitherto presented as admissible, the consequences are clearly bound to be unfortunate. The best they can do is to maintain a position on the bare edge of spiritual solvency through a continuous series of stultifying compromises and makeshifts…
Where the family chiefly show itself as inimical to the human race, to borrow my German friend’s term, is in its character as the strongest bulwark of whatever economic system may be in force, even the most iniquitous. Now wonder the State and the Church unite in coddling the family and hedging it about with all the protective devices that law and factitious ethics can devise! A person with a family does what he must and as he must…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.
Over a half-century later, it seems the State and the family are at war over which is the preeminent social institution, with the State generally winning. The State has assumed so much of what was once familial responsibility until very little reason yet remains for the existence of the family. But the State may have won a pyrrhic victory, because the strength of any state has always been the value of services it provided to the family. Families came first, then tribes, nations and states. Wither the family, what then happens to the state?
If you approach a woman with the faintest suggestion of being a potential customer [i.e., if you approach a woman in hopes of a sexual relationship], you may expect to find the ensuing relation tinctured heavily with a spirit of mercantilism exactly analogous to that which my Armenian friend displays when some one comes in to look over his stock.
On “civilized warfare”:
Mr. Cram’s visitor from another sphere would have enjoyed many a hearty laugh at the discussions of “civilized warfare” which I heard going on among statesmen and publicists of the period. The naïve seriousness with which this resounding absurdity was debated gave immense amusement to one who saw things as they were.
On the future of war after World War One:
…the war of 1914 convinced me that thereafter the conduct of warfare should revert to the primitive policy of extermination. This was the original intention of warfare; to take perhaps the most familiar example, it was the intention exhibited against the Palestinian tribes by the Israelites under Joshua, according to the Scriptural legend…
…In 1918, therefore, I saw every reason why in the future the logic of war should be run out to its full length in a policy of systematic extermination. I could find no objection to this on moral grounds, since by no conjuration can warfare be thought of as either more or less than organized assassination and robbery…If humanitarianism can reconcile itself to swallowing nine-tenths of the logic of warfare—as apparently it has no trouble in doing—one must put down its reluctance to swallow the remaining tenth [i.e., extermination] as a rather nauseating affectation.
The general preoccupation with money led to several curious beliefs which are now so firmly rooted that one hardly sees how anything short of a collapse of our whole economic system can displace it. One such belief is that commodities—goods and services—can be paid for with money. This is not so. Money does not pay anything, never has, never will…No one has seemed in the least aware that everything which is paid for must be paid out of production, for there is no other source of payment.
Another strange notion pervading the whole peoples is that the State has money of its own; and nowhere is this absurdity more firmly fixed than in America. The State has no money. It produces nothing. Its existence is purely parasitic, maintained by taxation; that is to say by forced levies on the production of others.
On the benefits of State-sanctioned, compulsory education:
If it had done nothing to raise the general level of intelligence, it had succeeded in making our citizenry much more easily gullible. It tended powerfully to focus the credulousness of Homo sapiens upon the printed word, and to confirm in him the crude authoritarian or fetishistic spirit which one sees most highly developed, perhaps, in the habitual readers of newspapers. By being inured to taking as true whatever he read in his schoolbooks and whatever his teachers told him, he is bred to a habit of unthinking acquiescence, rather than to an exercise of such intelligence as he may have.
Maintaining the order of nature appears to me quite as respectable a miracle as an isolated, momentary and relatively very insignificant interruption of that order would be. Gravitation, always varying directly as the mass and inversely as the square of the distance, holds the stars in their courses to the farthest reaches of the universe; and here on a third-rate planet moving in a tenth-rate solar system, it also enabled me this morning to find my shoes exactly where I took them off last night.
In the course of their efforts to express the inexpressible, define the indefinable, and imagine the unimaginable, these master minds have made the metaphysical grand tour and are back once more in the old familiar port of the Middle Ages, safe and sound.
Recall that this was written in the early 1940’s—after Einstein and the grand acceptance of his theory of relativity. I would say that since the time of Mr. Nock’s death, physics has slunk even lower into the depths of mysticism, so cruelly torturing reality to confess its secrets that fully 96% of the universe explained by Einstein’s theory is invisible and instrumentally undetectable, never minding the mysticism of string theory’s multiple universes, etc.
The history of organized Christianity is the most depressing study I ever undertook, and also one of the most interesting. I came away from it with the firm conviction that the prodigious evils which spot this record can all be traced to the attempt to organize and institutionalize something which is in its nature incapable of being successfully either organized or institutionalized. I can find no respectable evidence that Jesus ever contemplated either…By all that is known of Jesus, He appears to have been as sound and Simon-pure an individualist as Lao-Tsze. His teaching seems to have been purely individualistic in its intent.
I hold it to be a matter of invariable experience that no one can do anything for anybody. Somebody may profit by something you do, you may know that he profits and be glad of it, but you do not do it for him. You do it, as Augustine says, you must do it, are bound to do it (necesse est is the strong term he uses), because you get more satisfaction, happiness, delight, out of doing it than you would get out of not doing it; and this is egoistic hedonism.
By consequence I hold that no one ever did, or can do, anything for “society.” When the great general movement towards collectivism set in, about the middle of the last century, “society”, rather than the individual, became the criterion of hedonists like Bentham, Hume, J.S. Mill. The greatest happiness of society was first to be considered because in that the individual would find a condition conducive to his greatest happiness. Comte invented the term altruism as an antonym to egoism, and it found its way at once into everyone’s mouth, although it is utterly devoid of meaning, since it points to something that never existed in mankind.
On improving society:
The only thing that the psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit. In a word, ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method which Jesus apparently regarded as the only one whereby the Kingdom of Heaven can be established as a going concern; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve [himself].
According to my observations, mankind are among the most easily tamable and domesticable of all creatures in the animal world. They are readily reduced to submission, so readily conditionable (to coin a word) as to exhibit an almost incredibly enduring patience under restraint and oppression of the most flagrant character. So far are they from displaying any overweening love of freedom that they show a singular contentment with a condition of servitorship, often showing a curious canine pride in it, and again often simply unaware that they are existing in that condition.
On Roman history and the American empire:
The one phenomenon that interested me in this connection has been a general revival of the practice which the Roman State employed when it was on its last legs, of quieting discontent by a palliative system of bribery and subsidy in the form of doles, pensions, “relief” and the like…For obvious reasons these measures mark a long step forward in a society’s “course of rebarbarisation” and are in fact rather desperate; their end is so plainly visible from their beginning.
Thus, this review is ultimately just an excerpt. I’ve really not much else to add, except to say that these are just a trifling of the wisdom and insight found in this memoir. Nock provides a literary spread that is too bountiful to say grace over. If you enjoyed the review, you’ll love the book.
Nock’s memoir is irrefutable proof that there are people that actually are willing and able to “see things as they are”, which I long ago adopted as the animating principle of my life and of the writing I do for The Curmudgeon’s Attic. What good fortune to have found him.