Under the title "Mortal Remains: The wisdom and folly in Albert Jay Nock's anti-statism," (National Review, May 4, 2009) Jonah Goldberg makes a witty sketch of the American journalist Albert Jay Nock - one of the great men of letters of the 20th century who, ironically, most of the biographers often depict as infamous during his life and after his death.
Nock was born in 1870 in Scranton, Pa., and raised in Brooklyn. After a dozen years ministry in the Episcopal Church he quit the clergy to became a full-time journalist and editor first at American Magazine, and then at The Nation and The Freeman magazine.
His "unpopularity" can be explained with his deliberate mystique. His autobiography starts with the following words: "It has several times been suggested to me, always to my great annoyance, that I should write an autobiography. Personal publicity of every kind is utterly distasteful to me, and I have made greater efforts to escape it than most people make to get it." (Memoirs of a superfluous Man, 1943, download the book on PDF)
Goldberg writes: "Nock's memoirs say nothing about his failed marriage or neglected children and do not disclose his parents' names or even mention that he played minor-league baseball. The joke at The Freeman was that the only way he could be contacted was to leave a note under a certain rock in Central Park."
But Nock was not interested in gossip stories and foppish personal revelations. His lifelong subject of interest was "the Remnant." "There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about", wrote Nock in Issaiah's Job ("Atlantic Mothly", 1936). "They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it."
Nock's motto was "See the world as it is." He thought that the laziness was innate for the man. He called human laziness "Epstean's Law" after a friend who'd said to him over lunch: "I tell you, if self-preservation is the first law of human conduct, exploitation is the second." Or as Nock rephrased it: "Man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion."
In Isaiah's Job, the essay published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936, Nock wrote: "The picture which Isaiah presents of the Judean masses is most unfavorable. In his view, the mass man - be he high or be he lowly, rich or poor, prince or pauper - gets off very badly. He appears as not only weak minded and weak willed, but as by consequence knavish, arrogant, grasping, dissipated, unprincipled, unscrupulous. The mass woman also gets off badly, as sharing all the mass man's untoward qualities, and contributing a few of her own in the way of vanity and laziness, extravagance and foible." This words are a clear allusion of the society as Nock saw it in the 1930s. His understanding of the world seems cynic and suspicious to the "good intentions" of politicians and businessman, to all political, social and economic reformers. But he was not cynical. Indeed, he believed that there is nothing new under the sun. And the TRUTH should be said.
Nock was also a very humble person - something not typical for a writer. As H. L. Mencken, one of the Nock's favorite fellow journalists, says in "The author at work," the writer is a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is vastly exaggerated. Not so with Nock. In some of his essays he called himself "unlearned" and he openly despised artist's or everyones's flirt with the masses.
"An assignment that you can really put your back into, and do your best without thinking about results, is a real job; whereas serving the masses is at best only half a job, considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants." (Isaiah's Job) Paradoxically his humility made him an elitist. And actually an "unknown," "unrecognized" by the masses great mind.
Goldberg writes about Nock: "For all his clarity and passion, he professed no interest whatsoever in trying to persuade anybody. "The wise social philosophers," he wrote, "were those who merely hung up their ideas and left them hanging, for men to look at or to pass by, as they chose. Jesus and Socrates did not even trouble to write theirs out, and Marcus Aurelius wrote his only in crabbed memoranda for his own use, never thinking anyone else would see them." Indeed, Nock struck a pose of bemused disdain for the self-proclaimed prophets of the New Age - the Father Coughlins, the Huey Longs, the Upton Sinclairs, and even the Liberty Leaguers. Surveying the landscape of demagogues, mountebanks, and experts sucking the oxygen out of democratic discourse in the 1930s, he wrote, "I cannot remember a time when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the multitude and telling them what they must do to be saved."
Goldberg envisages how Nock would ridicule today's tea parties or talk-radio Jeremiahs of the Right, how he would scoff at Paul Krugman and roll his eyes at Barack Obama's talk of hope and change.
A selection of essays by Albert Jay Nock:
The Value of Useless Knowledge
European Morals and Our Own
Free Speech and Plain Language
On Making Low People Interesting
A selection of books by Albert Jay Nock:
The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism
The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
The Myth Of A Guilty Nation (1922)