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Memoirs of a Superfluous Man ()


Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction

    As a man of reason and logic, I am all for reform; but as the unworthy inheritor of a great tradition,
    I am unalterably against it.  I am forever with Falkland, the true martyr of the Civil War,--one of
    the very greatest among the great spirits of whom England has ever been so notoriously
    noteworthy,--as he stood facing Hampden and Pym.  'Mr. Speaker,' he said, 'when it is not
    necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.'
        -Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man

As odd as it may seem to the several generations of us who were raised during the conservative ascendancy (1964-now), as recently as the mid-60s many intellectuals believed not only that conservative was a spent force in American political life, but that it had never actually even been a coherent philosophy, rather just a set of reactions and prejudices.  It was probably not until Russell Kirk published his seminal book The Conservative Mind that folks were forced to acknowledge the age and durability of the set of principles which still characterize most conservative thought.

Roughly speaking, conservatism is structured around the defense of freedom and includes the ideas that : the powers of government should be minimized; that the traditions and customs of the culture should be given a great deal of respect and deference; that there are certain natural laws which exist prior to government and which do not depend on the acquiescence of government for their moral authority (the oft forgotten corollary to this is that neither politics nor economics are truly central to our lives); that individuals must take responsibility for their own lives, even if this means that some people will enjoy greater success in life than others (and conservatives, though they've become less vocal about it, do assume that there is an inherently unequal distribution of talent within the species and that some will do extremely well while some fail utterly and the great masses muddle by); and underlying all of these ideas is the fundamental notion that men are essentially selfish creatures, willing, given half a chance, to exploit each other, to threaten each others freedom.  One final defining characteristic is the tendency towards pessimism : understanding men to be loutish by nature, conservatives don't generally expect to have their own ideas prevail, expecting instead that the deluge is coming, probably imminently.  Within this broad set of principles then different strands of conservatism will choose to emphasize different ideas and de-emphasize others, but no one who is truly conservative (as opposed to what is colloquially termed Right Wing, though it is closer to fascism) will stray too far from the ground of freedom.

It is understandable then that by the 1960s the Left thought that it had finally vanquished the Right.  This was after all a moment at which the Federal Government had been growing virtually unchecked for the better part of thirty years.  In addition to the nearly cradle to grave Social Welfare State that was erected in response to the Depression, a mammoth National Security apparatus had been tacked on during WWII and the Cold War.  Add in the ever increasing level of regulation of the economy and the Supreme Court's attacks (under Earl Warren) on nearly every remaining vestige of traditional morality and you certainly had a political environment in which freedom seemed to be a lost cause, sacrificed on the altar of egalitarianism.

We've examined elsewhere the startling rapidity with which freedom made a come back, but it is also important to keep alive the honored memory of the poor brave souls who kept the flame burning during those dark years.  Several of these men have enjoyed well deserved revivals--F. A. Hayek and  Milton Friedman in particular were fortunate enough to be canonized by the Eastern European anti-Communists, so their reputations seem relatively secure.  Religious figures like C. S. Lewis will always have succeeding generations of coreligionists to keep their reputations burnished.  Political leaders, like Robert Taft, will crop up in history books if for no other reason than that they were the opposition to figures, like FDR and Truman, who will continue to be written about.  But there is a group of mostly non-religious conservatives from the first half of the century--author Robert Crunden called them the "Superfluous Men" after the title of this book--whose contributions to the cause of freedom may well be forgotten in the future, especially since they are already fading from memory.  This group includes journalists like : H. L. Mencken, whose reputation seems the safest, Albert Jay Nock, Walter Lippman, George Schuyler, Whittaker Chambers; poets T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and company; and a variety of others, including the philosopher George Santayana, the critic Irving Babbitt, the novelist Caroline Gordon, and the architect Ralph Adams Cram. (Crunden's anthology, The Superfluous Men : Conservative Critics of American Culture 100-1945, offers a generous selection of the writings of many of these conservatives.)

Out of all of these men, the one you've likely least heard of (at least, that was my case) is Albert Jay Nock.  As anyone who has ever been lucky enough to read Memoirs of a Superfluous Man can tell you, this is a great injustice.  With vast erudition, desert-dry wit, self-deprecation (both mock and genuine, one senses), and a fatalistic view of the world and its future, Nock tells the story of his education, both in school and after, and expounds on his view that the system that produced him and the views it left him with are both things of the past, making him a superfluous man.

In the first instance, the book consists of a genuinely delightful, because so politically incorrect, attack on the notion of the importance of universal education.  Nock was an unabashed elitist, who believed that he was a part of what he referred to as the Remnant, the relatively rare group of people who are actually educable, that is they are capable of understanding and appreciating the culture we have inherited.  As for the rest, education is wasted on them, even those who are ostensibly literate, for even among them :

    [V]ery few literate persons are able to read, very few indeed.  This can be proven by observation
    and experiment of the simplest kind.  I do not mean that the great majority are unable to read
    intelligently; I mean that they are unable to read at all--unable, that is, to carry away from a piece
    of printed matter anything like a correct idea of its content.  They are more or less adept at passing
    printed matter through their minds, after a fashion, especially such matter as is addressed to mere
    sensation, (and knowledge of this fact is nine-tenths of a propagandist's equipment), but this is not
    reading.  Reading implies a use of the reflective faculty, and very few have that faculty developed
    much beyond the anthropoid stage, let alone possessing it at a stage of development which makes
    reading practicable.

And since he, the evidence suggests rightly, assumes that the majority are uneducable, he dismisses the value of universal education :

    It is one of my oddest experiences that I have never been able to find any one who would tell me
    what the net social value of compulsory universal literacy actually comes to when the balance of
    advantage and disadvantage is drawn, or wherein that value consists.  The few Socratic questions
    which on occasion I have put to persons presumably able to tell me have always gone by the
    board.  These persons seemed to think, like Protagoras on the teaching of virtue, that the thing was
    so self-evident and simple that I should know all about it without being told; but in the hardness of
    my head or heart I still do not find it so.  Universal literacy helps business by extending the reach of
    advertising and increasing its force; and also in other ways.  Beyond that I see nothing on the credit
    side.  On the debit side, it enables scoundrels to beset, dishevel and debauch such intelligence as is
    in the power of the vast majority of mankind to exercise.  There can be no doubt of this, for the
    evidence of it is daily spread wide before us on all sides.  More than this, it makes many articulate
    who should not be so, and otherwise would not be so.  It enables mediocrity and submediocrity to
    run rampant, to the detriment of both intelligence and taste.  In a word, it puts into people's hands
    an instrument which very few can use, but which everyone supposes himself fully able to use; and
    the mischief thus wrought is very great.  My observations leave me no chance of doubt about the
    side on which the balance of social advantage lies, but I do not by any means insist that it does lie
    there.

This is very much the Nock style : an opinion which flies in the face of egalitarian cant, presented clearly, forcefully and wittily, with a quick tongue-in-cheek disclaimer at the end.

He is equally scathing, for similar reasons, on the topic of democracy :

    As I understand the term, it is the very essence of democracy that the individual citizen shall be
    invested with the inalienable and sovereign right to make an ass of himself; and furthermore, that he
    shall be invested with a sovereign right of publicity to tell all the world that he is doing so.

It was not that the idea of democracy was bad, in fact it might very well be the best possible system, but Nock understood that it is a mistake to expect too much of it :

    ...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.  The collective capacity for bringing forth any
    other outcome seemed simply not there.  ... 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.

Nock identified three laws that he thought tended to inevitably lead the masses toward such self inflicted misgovernment.  The first two, Gresham's Law ("bad money drives out good", though Nock expanded it to mean that bad ideas, art, etc. drive out good) and the Law of Diminishing Returns (another economic law which in this case might be  stated as : merely adding more and more voices to the political discourse, as democracy does, will not improve the quality of the ideas in circulation) are fairly well known.  The third was of his own coinage, Epstean's Law, which he discovered in this manner :

      I was at lunch in the Uptown Club of New York with an old friend, Edward Epstean, a retired
    man of affairs. I do not remember what subject was under discussion at the moment; but whatever it
    was, it led to Mr. Epstean's shaking a forefinger at me, and saying with great emphasis, 'I tell you,
    if self-preservation is the first law of human conduct, exploitation is the second.'

      This remark instantly touched off a tremendous flashlight in my mind. I saw the generalization
    which had been staring me in the face for years without my having sense enough to recognize and
    identify it. Spencer and Henry George had familiarized me with the formula that man tends always
    to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion; but they had given me no idea of its
    immense scope, its almost illimitable range of action. If this formula were sound, as unquestionably
    it is, then certainly exploitation would be an inescapable corollary, because the easiest way to satisfy
    one's needs and desires is by exploitation. Indeed, if one wished to split hairs, one might say that
    exploitation is the first law of conduct, since even in self-preservation one tends always to take the
    easiest way; but the question of precedence is a small matter.

      In an essay which I published some time ago, having occasion to refer to this formula, I gave it
    the name of Epstean's law, which by every precedent I think it should have. In their observations on
    the phenomena of gravitation, Huyghens and Kepler anticipated Newton closely. It was left for
    Newton to show the universal scope of an extremely simple formula, already well understood in
    limine, and hence this formula is known as Newton's law. As a phenomenon of finance, it has long
    been observed that 'bad money drives out good', but Sir Thomas Gresham reduced these
    observations to order under a formula as simple as Newton's, and this formula is known as
    Gresham's law. So for an analogous service, more important than Gresham's and, as far as this
    planet is concerned, as comprehensive as Newton's, I thought that the formula, Man tends always
    to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion, should bear the name of
    Epstean's law.

Taken together, these laws, particularly Epstean's, create a cultural climate of what Nock called "economism", but which would be familiar to us as something akin to materialism or consumerism.  Under a regime of economism, the mass-men will structure society so as to satisfy their material desires with the least possible effort on their own part.  The entire apparatus of government will be devoted to this task; the entire focus of society will be on this task; material "needs" become the be all and end all of man's existence.

In this Nock was certainly right, as the merest glance at the current state of the culture reveals.  The eighty year expansion of the Social Welfare state, and the current glorification of the market and technology have all of them helped to displace all other societal concerns.  We now measure ourselves and our nation almost solely by our levels of consumption.  The Left's critique of this kind of rampant capitalism, that it could never provide enough for all, has proven to be quite wrong.  It is instead Nock and other critics on the Right who, early on,  perceived the greatest problem with "economism" :

    Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching phrase.  'For us to love our country,' he
    said, 'our country ought to be lovely.'  I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on
    which Western civilization will finally shatter itself.  Economism can build a society which is rich,
    prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being.  It
    can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the
    irresistible attraction that loveliness wields.  Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the
    society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly
    consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

It is this insight, more than any other, which makes Nock a pertinent figure still, rather than merely an
amusing anachronism, a "superfluous man".  For this criticism has still not been answered.  we are
today rich beyond the wildest dreams of our forefathers, but the question is still open as to whether the
society we have created is sufficiently lovely to be worth saving, or whether it can somehow be made
more lovely, or whether it is instead, as Nock believed, doomed.

Writing in 1943, when the aggrandizement of power by even the relatively liberal American government was at its height--and when foreign governments like the USSR and the Axis powers were completely totalitarian--Nock saw no other prospect for the West except for a continuing collectivization as mass-men continued to use government to transfer the wealth of the most productive in society to themselves.  Though he does not mention the quote, Nock would have very much agreed with Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813). the Scottish jurist and historian, who said that :

    A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters
    discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public  treasury. From that time on the
    majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with
    the results that a democracy  always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a
    dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been 200 years. These nations
    have  progressed through this sequence:

                                                                       from bondage to spiritual faith;

                                                                     from spiritual faith to great courage;

                                                                           from courage to liberty;

                                                                          from liberty to abundance;

                                                                        from abundance to selfishness;

                                                                       from selfishness to complacency;

                                                                        from complacency to apathy;

                                                                         from apathy to dependency;

                                                                  from dependency back again to bondage.

Nock understood a truth that is nearly unspeakable now, in the wake of the disastrous era of Big Government, that although the West in general pays great obeisance to the idea of Freedom, and America in particular is, at least theoretically, founded upon the primacy of the idea, most people (the mass-men) do not give a fig about it.  And since in a democracy the masses will wield power, the prospects for the West appeared pretty bleak :

    Considering mankind's indifference to freedom, their easy gullibility and their facile response to
    conditioning, one might very plausibly argue that collectivism is the political mode best suited to
    their disposition and their capacities.  Under its regime the citizen, like the soldier, is relieved of the
    burden of initiative and is divested of all responsibility, save for doing as he is told.  He takes what
    is allotted to him, obeys orders, and beyond that he has no care.  Perhaps, then, this is as much as
    the vast psychically-anthropoid majority are up to, and a status of permanent irresponsibility under
    collectivism would be most congenial and satisfactory to them.

    Given a just and generous administration of collectivism this might very well be so; but even on
    that extremely large and dubious presumption the matter is academic, because of all political modes
    a just and generous collectivism is in its nature the most impermanent.  each new activity or
    function that the State assumes means an enlargement of officialdom, an augmentation of
    bureaucracy.  In other words, it opens one more path of least resistance to incompetent,
    unscrupulous and inferior persons whom Epstean's law has always at hand, intent only on satisfying
    their needs and desires with the least possible exertion.  Obviously the collectivist State, with its
    assumption of universal control and regulation, opens more of these paths than any other political
    mode; there is virtually no end of them.  Hence, however just and generous an administration of
    collectivism may be at the outset, and however fair its prospects may then be, it is immediately set
    upon and honeycombed by hordes of the most venal and untrustworthy persons that Epstean's law
    can rake together; and in virtually no time every one of the regime's innumerable bureaux and
    departments is rotted to the core.  In 1821, with truly remarkable foresight, Mr. Jefferson wrote in a
    letter to Macon that 'our Government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it
    will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation first [i.e., centralisation] and then corruption, its
    necessary consequence.'

It will of course be argued, with the perfection of twenty-twenty hindsight, that Nock (and Jefferson and Jefferson's other conservative heirs) overstated the case and fell pray to hysterics.  We are after all in the midst (hopefully not at the end) of what has been a twenty year pause in the process of collectivization.  The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc crumbled under the weight of just the kind of corruption that Nock feared, and they proved much less capable of producing material goods than even Nock might have expected.  Likewise, many of the Socialist countries of the West have had to turn to at least some level of reprivatization in order to prop up their Social Welfare systems and to revive their moribund economies.  Here in the States, we managed to avoid the worst excesses, keeping Health Care at least partially out of the hands of government, and have taken some baby steps towards reprivatizing such programs as Welfare and Social Security.  But the process has been uneven and victories have been only partial and have come only after fierce battle.  One need only look at the debates over the Clinton Health Care Plan, Welfare Reform and Social Security Privatization to see how little regard the Left really has for Freedom, always preferring the "Security" of having Government do for us all.

But even if this pause in the march of Collectivization should prove to be of long-lasting duration, it should not be seen as a refutation of Nock's ideas, but as a tribute to them.  For if Nock's arguments seem self-evident to us now, it is all too easy to forget how truly superfluous they seemed in 1943.  Nock, who was writing before even Hayek's Road to Serfdom had been published, is one of the incredibly small group of men who kept alive the idea of freedom and who resisted the, at the time seemingly inevitable, force of collectivization.  If his most dire predictions did not come true it is not solely because he overestimated the opposition, but because a powerful counterrevolution eventually rose up, structured around ideas like his, and it is in this regard that modern conservatism owes him a tremendous, almost completely unacknowledged, debt.

There is much more in this wonderful book and Nock explains himself much better than I have.  He writes beautifully and with great humor.  On nearly every page you'll find an idea or a turn of phrase that you'll want to pause and turn over in your mind.  I can not recommend this book highly enough.  I can't wait to read it again and everything else I can find by this least superfluous of men.

GRADE : A+

p. s. -- I am indebted to Godfrey Hodgson, and his book The World Turned Right Side Up, for an excellent short discussion of Albert Jay Nock's ideas and his importance to what Hodgson refers to in that book as "the Conservative Ascendancy in America.".

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Albert Nock Links:
    -Albert Jay Nock Page (Robert Sterling)
    -ETEXT : Our Enemy, the State (Albert Jay Nock,1935)
    -ETEXT : Our Enemy, The State (Albert J. Nock - 1935)
    -ESSAY : Isaiah's Job  (Albert Jay Nock, June 1936, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : The Redistribution of Power From Society to the State by Albert Jay Nock
    -ESSAY :  THE DISADVANTAGES OF BEING EDUCATED (Albert Jay Nock, 1932)
    -ESSAY : The Criminal State (Albert J. Nock, American Mercury, March, 1939)
    -QUOTES : by Alfred Jay Nock (Freedom's Nest)
    -PROFILE :  The Superfluous Man (William Bryk, NY Press)
    -PROFILE : Albert Jay Nock: A Gifted Pen for Radical Individualism (Jim Powell, Ideas on Liberty)
    -ESSAY : Nock on Education (Wendy McElroy, Ideas on Liberty)
    -ESSAY : The Culture of Classical Liberalism (Tadd Wilson, Ideas on Liberty)
    -HERO OF THE DAY: Albert Jay Nock (The Daily Objectivist)
    -ESSAY : Albert Jay Nock: The Superfluous Man (Jack Schwartzman, orginally published in Fragments, October-December 1964)
    -ESSAY: The Barbarians and the Elite (Jack Schwartzman, April-June, 1982, Fragments)
    -ESSAY : Memories of Nock and Neilson  (Will Lissner, reprinted from Fragments, April-June 1982)
    -ESSAY : THE EDITOR OF AYN RAND'S JOURNALS CENSORED HER WRITING . . . : BOWDLERIZING AYN RAND (Chris Matthew Sciabarra)
    -ESSAY : On the Origins of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology : Its Purposes and Objectives (Will Lissner, April, 2001, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology)    -ESSAY : 1930s, America - Feminist Void? : The status of the Equal Rights Movement during the Great Depression (Mickey Moran, This paper was selected by the Department of History as the Outstanding Paper for the 1988-89 academic year)
    -LECTURE : Heritage (WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.,. THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION 25TH ANNIVERSARY LEADERSHIP FOR AMERICA LECTURES,  NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, OCTOBER 20, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Understanding and Misunderstanding The Hebrew-Christian Law of Love (Frederick Nymeyer, 1955, Progressive Calvinism League)
    -REVIEW : of Let Us Speak of Many Things by William F. Buckley (Charles R. Kesler, Weekly Standard)
    -ARCHIVES : "albert jay nock" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "albert jay nock" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Tracy Lee Simmons, American Enterprise Online)

    -REVIEW : of Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Fred FoldvaryFirst Principles)

AGRARIANS :
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY : The Fugitives and the Agrarians:  Nashville Area Literary Movements of the Early Twentieth Century (Warden Memorial Library,  Martin Methodist College.)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns America: A New Declaration of Independence Herbert Agar, editor (Alphonse Vinh, The Crisis)

DONALD DAVIDSON :
    -BOOK SITE : Where No Flag Flies : Donald Davidson and the Southern Resistance by Mark Royden Winchell (University of Missouri Press)

ALLEN TATE :
Reviews and Links at Brothers Judd

Book-related and General Links:
    -Albert Jay Nock Page (Robert Sterling)
    -ETEXT : Our Enemy, the State (Albert Jay Nock,1935)
    -ETEXT : Our Enemy, The State (Albert J. Nock - 1935)
    -ESSAY : Isaiah's Job  (Albert Jay Nock, June 1936, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : The Redistribution of Power From Society to the State by Albert Jay Nock
    -ESSAY :  THE DISADVANTAGES OF BEING EDUCATED (Albert Jay Nock, 1932)
    -ESSAY : The Criminal State (Albert J. Nock, American Mercury, March, 1939)
    -QUOTES : by Alfred Jay Nock (Freedom's Nest)
    -PROFILE :  The Superfluous Man (William Bryk, NY Press)
    -PROFILE : Albert Jay Nock: A Gifted Pen for Radical Individualism (Jim Powell, Ideas on Liberty)
    -ESSAY : Nock on Education (Wendy McElroy, Ideas on Liberty)
    -ESSAY : The Culture of Classical Liberalism (Tadd Wilson, Ideas on Liberty)
    -HERO OF THE DAY: Albert Jay Nock (The Daily Objectivist)
    -ESSAY : Albert Jay Nock: The Superfluous Man (Jack Schwartzman, orginally published in Fragments, October-December 1964)
    -ESSAY : Memories of Nock and Neilson  (Will Lissner, reprinted from Fragments, April-June 1982)
    -ESSAY : THE EDITOR OF AYN RAND'S JOURNALS CENSORED HER WRITING . . . : BOWDLERIZING AYN RAND (Chris Matthew Sciabarra)
    -ESSAY : On the Origins of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology : Its Purposes and Objectives (Will Lissner, April, 2001, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology)    -ESSAY : 1930s, America - Feminist Void? : The status of the Equal Rights Movement during the Great Depression (Mickey Moran, This paper was selected by the Department of History as the Outstanding Paper for the 1988-89 academic year)
    -LECTURE : Heritage (WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.,. THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION 25TH ANNIVERSARY LEADERSHIP FOR AMERICA LECTURES,  NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, OCTOBER 20, 1999)
    -ESSAY : Understanding and Misunderstanding The Hebrew-Christian Law of Love (Frederick Nymeyer, 1955, Progressive Calvinism League)
    -REVIEW : of Let Us Speak of Many Things by William F. Buckley (Charles R. Kesler, Weekly Standard)
    -ARCHIVES : "albert jay nock" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "albert jay nock" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Tracy Lee Simmons, American Enterprise Online)

AGRARIANS :
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY : The Fugitives and the Agrarians:  Nashville Area Literary Movements of the Early Twentieth Century (Warden Memorial Library,  Martin Methodist College.)
    -REVIEW : of Who Owns America: A New Declaration of Independence Herbert Agar, editor (Alphonse Vinh, The Crisis)

DONALD DAVIDSON :
    -BOOK SITE : Where No Flag Flies : Donald Davidson and the Southern Resistance by Mark Royden Winchell (University of Missouri Press)

ALLEN TATE :
Reviews and Links at Brothers Judd

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