Book Review: AJ Nock’s Memoirs

January 25th, 2014   Submitted by Roman Skaskiw

GoldBit Imagine a world in which libertarians had no easy means of finding one another, a world without an internet, where newspapers and broadcast media faithfully upheld the official pronouncements of the day, rendering culture and propaganda indistinguishable. Imagine a world careening toward another cataclysmic war just a decade after the one often described as the end of European civilization. This was the world of Albert Jay Nock. He published his Memoirs of a Superfluous Man in 1943, and described it as an “autobiography of a mind in relation to the society in which it found itself.”

The title of the memoir speaks to his intensely private nature, and the extent to which he felt himself an outcast. The fact that he, a man of letters whose greatest interests were literature and education, arrived at radically libertarian conclusions speaks to his remarkable intellectual self-reliance.

He offers fascinatingly unique perspectives. There’s something about libertarians who didn’t start with economics. This is the case for Hans Hermann Hoppe too, who began with philosophy. They seem to be especially keen observers and clear thinkers.

The book is worth reading, though it isn’t easy. Much of it presents half a conversation, addressing the figures and events of Nock’s time. Also, the book is so packed with literary and historic allusions unfamiliar to me, that I second-guessed my own education. I recommend reading it beside an internet connection. (Alternatively, you can listen to my ridiculously long video book review.)

The book challenges modern libertarians.

The first and less important challenge is Nock’s criticism of “economism,” a term he admits to inventing because “materialism” had too narrow a focus.

He writes:

“. . . western society was entirely given over to economism. It had no other philosophy; apparently it did not know there was any other. It interpreted the whole of human life in terms of the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth.”


“. . . could a society built to a complete realization of every ideal of the economism they represented be permanently satisfactory to the best reason and spirit of man? Could it be called a civilized society?”

How should libertarians perceive this? When I read his explicit condemnation of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Frick and other industrialists, I thought of Jeffrey Tucker’s celebration of their capitalist accomplishments.

It’s difficult to say whether there is room for both views, because Nock never completely spells out his issue with “economism,” though he offers hints:

“I found that the few ‘more highly-developed minds’ in America were well aware of this. Thoreau was; and Emerson, Lowell; C. F. Adams and his sons, Brooks and Henry; Curtis, Mark Twain, Howells; all these made record of their apprehension and repugnance. Whitman lapsed from his ‘barbaric yawp’ of faith in economism to the desponding observation that the type of civilization which economism had produced was, ‘so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and aesthetic results,… It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and thoroughly appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.'”

The second and more important challenge for libertarians is Nock’s elitism.

It’s evident in Nock’s lengthy criticism of education, the best part of the book, in my opinion. Nock argues that education should be preparation for life, not for work, and, more radically, that few people are educable.

Joseph Sobran’s famous observation summarizes the case made by Nock: “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college.”

He blames democracy, in part, for universalizing education and thereby destroying it. Since most people were not and are not educable, he argues, it was necessary to begin masquerading mass vocation as mass education.

The net effect of this, he continues, was three-fold: 1) a replacement of religious institutions (priesthoods and churches) with secular-religious ones (professorships and universities), which are equally dogmatic, if not more so. 2) mass training in obedience to appointed authorities, and an end to the healthy skepticism of blue-collar Americans. 3) the creation of a near-perfect propaganda tool which the state readily co-opted.

The co-opting of education is not at odds with modern libertarianism, but Nock’s explicit elitism is. The memoir seems to pivot on an epiphany Nock experienced after reading Ralph Adams Cram’s 1932 essay, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings.”

Nock describes struggling with Cram’s ideas before accepting them as rightful criticisms of Jeffersonian, and, I would add, Enlightenment thinking:

. . . We do not behave like human beings because the great majority of us, the masses of mankind, are not human beings. We have all along assumed that the zoological classification of man is also a competent psychical classification; that all creatures having the physical attributes which put them in the category of Homo sapiens also have the psychical attributes which put them in the category of human beings; and this, Mr. Cram says, is wholly unwarranted and an error of the first magnitude. Consequently we have all along been putting expectations upon the masses of Homo sapiens which they are utterly incapable of meeting. We have accepted them as psychically-human, dealt with them on that assumption, and expected a corresponding psychical reaction, when actually nothing of the sort is possible. They are merely the sub-human raw material out of which the occasional human being is produced by an evolutionary process as yet unexplained, but no doubt catastrophic in character, certainly not progressive. Hence, inasmuch as they are the raw material of humanity, they are inestimably precious. . . .

My change of philosophical base had one curious and wholly unforeseen effect . . . . Since then I have found myself quite unable either to hate anybody or to lose patience with anybody.

One dilemma for libertarians today is whether they should consider themselves a mass movement attempting to universalize the non-aggression principle, or as an elitist movement hoping to create a Galt’s Gulch through voluntary segregation of some sort. Also, whether “both” is a viable proposition.

The book is important. You watch a brilliant mind make what he believed to be a hopeless and futile case against the state. It’s heartbreaking, really. There’s a feeling of doomed civilization throughout the memoir. “Everybody is afraid, though nobody knows of what.”

I’m happy that now, three generations later, we are still here, and the ideas are still here livelier than they’ve been in a very long time. Though, I would say, the fear remains with us, and I’m not sure whether it’s a permanent state of mankind or a sense of foreboding specific to a coming catastrophe.

11 Responses to “Book Review: AJ Nock’s Memoirs”

  1. Craig J. BoltonNo Gravatar says:

    To the extent that there is merit in Nock’s work, and there may be some, it is detracted from by implying that he is like Hans Hermann Hoppe and Joseph Sobran. It is like saying that Ludwig von Mises didn’t think much of Slavs, and neither did Adolph Hitler.

  2. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    Perhaps Nock’s would be today, and was in his day an outcast among libertarians or at least different than many libertarians.

  3. Mike HaggardNo Gravatar says:

    I really enjoyed your review of Nock’s book. I feel it’s important to publish these (reviews of old books), as it is becoming ever so amazing to me how long these ideas have existed.

    When I first stumbled across the expression “Libertarianism” (nearly four years ago), I thought this was a relatively new phenomenon. How could I have existed for 40+ years without ever hearing of this before (which speaks volumes to the propagandistic efficacy of our education and media systems)?

    I have not as yet read any of Nock’ works, but I did recently download his “Our Enemy The State” and look forward to reading it even more now. My initial interest in Nock came to me by an unusual source, namely, L. Neil Smith’s “The Probability Broach,” a work of fiction where he recounts and weaves into his story, not only Nock, but Lysander Spooner, Frank Chodorov, and some of history’s other esteemed anarchists.

    I’m currently reading Spooner’s “No Treason – The Constitution of No Authority” and once again I am dumbfounded by how we have still ended up in the state of affairs that we find ourselves in today (it can be somewhat discouraging).

    In the past, I recall using the argument myself, that we need government because society was full of stupid people. It was “The Most Dangerous Superstition,” by Larken Rose, that showed me the error of that logic (and ultimately pushed me into anarchism) and once again I was amazed at how long I had remained ignorant of those ideas.

    Even more amazing however, was learning that a young French college student by the name of Etienne de La Boetie, had written of essentially the same ideas in his, “The Politics of Obedience – The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.” What confounds me is that this essay (which has a fantastic introduction by Rothbard) was written in 1552!

    At this point, I have to make a “plug” for the work that had (and I think, continues to have) the most profound effect on me of all. This piece of literature was written in 1849 and essentially not only “called” the civil war, but stated specifically, the two antithetical issues that would be our undoing, which were tariffs and slavery. The book, if you haven’t guessed already, was “The Law” by Frederick Bastiat.

    I’m somewhat conflicted by these historic writings. On the one hand, it’s discouraging that these ideas of freedom, and liberty, and individual sovereignty have been around for so long, and yet it seems like the majority of society embraces entities such as the TSA (or at least they continue to fly despite the TSA) and DHS and they seemingly find nothing wrong with the formation of these organizations. On the other hand however, as you mentioned, it appears that these ideas of liberty and such, have at least not died away, and may in fact, be even now growing.

    Thanks again for a great article!

    • Amazing. Bastiat’s The Law was also the book that did it for me – started this intellectual journey. I wonder if Seth can post a survey. It would be interesting to see data on the books which most influenced ancaps.

  4. Janos SzaboNo Gravatar says:

    I know this book quite well. Can you imagine publishing the following in the United States during the middle of World War II?

    “I am profoundly thankful that during my formative years I
    never had contact with any institution under State control; not
    in school, not in college, nor yet in my three years of irregular
    graduate study. No attempt was ever made by any one to
    indoctrinate me with State-inspired views,—or any views, for
    that matter,—of patriotism or nationalism. I was never dragooned
    into flag-worship or hero-worship, never was caught
    in any spate of verbiage about duty to one’s country, never
    debauched by any of the routine devices hatched by scoundrels
    for inducing a synthetic devotion to one’s native land and
    loyalty to its jobholders. Therefore when later the various
    aspects of contemporary patriotism and nationalism appeared
    before me, my mind was wholly unprepossessed, and my view
    of them was unaffected by any emotional distortion… I could see them
    as they are.”

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      I can not imagine such a book being published in National Socialist Germany during WWII or fascist Italy, or in Japan during WWII. It was published in the USA during WWII.

  5. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent article!

    It is amazing to me how individuals, all by themselves, could have come to the libertarian ethic. I was raised by libertarians, so I don’t even know what it’s like not to think like a libertarian. Sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t been raised as I was if I ever would have come to the conclusion at all in life. And to think guys like Nock did it all on their own.

    It must have been truly depressing to be a libertarian back in the day. I mean, it’s depressing now, but at least we have each other. They had nobody to commiserate with.

    Thank God for the internet, though. It’s helping like minds find each other, and with that is allowing for amazing things, like Bitcoin, the Free State Project, etc.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      If not for the internet would the FSP still exist or even been established? Would Porcfest have happened without the internet? Hmm how did people get the word about Woodstock? Had the internet been around in 1969 the number of people at Woodstock may have been triple or greater than what it was.
      Like Nock, I am the remnant. HRearden