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
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."