Albert Jay Nock

Robert M. Thornton

[Reprinted from Fragments, Summer, 1995]

ALBERT JAY NOCK (1870-1945) was never a household name even in his own lifetime, but his memory has been kept green in the half-century since his death. His Jefferson (1926), Our Enemy, The State (1935), and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) have never been long out of print. In 1991, Jacques Barzun wrote about the double pleasure of reading Nock "for what he says and for the way he says it." Nock's work was "social and intellectual criticism at its best," and Barzun wrote optimistically that he "will surely climb in due course to his proper place in the American pantheon." Charles Hamilton noted that Nock "contributed some powerful and leading criticism of the state of humane life in America." Nock was not a voluminous writer, wrote his friend, Frank Chodorov, but "had a rare gift of editing his ideas so that he wrote only when he had something to say, and he said it with dispatch." Hendrik Willem van Loon exclaimed that Nock was "possessed of a rare genius for the handling of words." And finally, H. L. Mencken, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, declared that Nock "thinks in charming rhythm. There is never any cacophony in his sentences as there is never any muddling in his ideas. It is accurate, it is well ordered, and above all, it is charming."

Albert Jay Nock was not a reformer and found offensive any society with a "monstrous itch for changing people." He had "a great horror of every attempt to change anybody; or, I should rather say, every wish to change anybody; for that is the important thing." Whenever one "wishes to change anybody, one becomes like the socialists, vegetarians, prohibitionists; and this, as Rabelais says, 'is a terrible thing to think upon.'" The only thing we can do to improve society, he declared, "is to present society with one improved unit." Let each person direct his efforts at himself, not others; or as Voltaire put it, "II faut cultiver notre jardin."

Nock knew very well that he was rowing against the tide and that his words would have no immediate effect on the course of human events, but since his devotion was to the truth, he worried not at all about being out of step with his times. So why, then, did he bother to write at all? The "general reason" is that "when in any department of thought a person has, or thinks he has, a view of the plain intelligible order of things, it is proper that he should record that view publicly, with no thought whatever of the practical consequences, or lack of consequences, likely to ensue upon his so doing." He should not "crusade or propagandize for his view or seek to impose it on anyone...."

The "special reason has to do with the fact that in every civilization ... however addicted to the short-time point of view on human affairs, there are always certain alien spirits who ... still keep a disinterested regard for the plain intelligible law of things, irrespective of any practical end." It was for them that Nock wrote, and for them alone.

Nock was a social critic in the tradition of Francis [Francois] Rabelais and Artemus Ward. Like the former, his "lucidity of mind" was "balanced by largeness of temper, by an easy, urbane, unruffled superiority to the subject of its criticism." Both Ward and Nock "helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves." If "we approach Ward as a critic," wrote Nock, "leaving aside all thought of his humor, we may see how ably he has helped along the truth about our civilization, and how, too, he has helped it along in the way that good things are as a rule most effectively helped along -- by indirection."

In his The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (1964), Robert M. Crunden argued that Nock should be remembered as a critic and not as a political thinker -- "far more a gadfly than an expounder of a fixed position." He was wrong many times, but that is immaterial because his function was "to move people to thought, to a reexamination of their ideas ..." Nock was "abrasive, insistent and immovable," but he was always "his own man -- incorruptible, unshakably honest." Because "his ideas were so out of style" and "the things he loved were not loved by those around him," Nock called himself a superfluous man. He was probably right, and America was the loser. "No matter where he stood," wrote Crunden, "he did not seem to belong. He could only spatter ink on the most outrageous of the world's blemishes, and return to his own garden."