Review- Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man”

Albert Jay Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” (1943) – Sometime in the late nineteenth century, enough switches flipped in the heads of enough of the Western bourgeoisie that a general societal freakout occurred. That class of society, then at the height of its powers, and almost certainly more powerful than any group had ever been in human history, suddenly came to believe itself beset by dangers and in the grips of irreversible decline. To the extent that this was true, their attitudes towards the situation helped bring it about. I tend to date this freakout to the revolt and suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, but more than just politics went into it. The pace of change in general — political, social, economic, technological — caught up to the people supposedly in charge, and when they realized they weren’t as in charge as they thought… a lot of things we see in culture, from corn flakes (invented to keep boys from masturbating, a concern of the freakout period) to the slaughters in the trenches of WWI, can, arguably, be attributed to the freakout.

Albert Jay Nock was born in 1870, just as the freakout was starting (maybe), and died in 1945, just as the freakout’s (maybe) ultimate fruit, the Second World War, ended. He was in position to watch the whole thing and give his peculiar takes. That he is known today, to the extent he’s known at all, as one of the godfathers of American libertarianism is both a shame, and also his own fault. He was more than that, but that he became that posthumously comes down to his failings. Libertarianism, for its part, became one of the coping strategies for other eras of crack-up, the aftermath of the sixties and that of the early twenty-first century (assuming we decide not to lump them in together).

What Nock was was a genuine man of letters, and “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” is in most respects the story of his learning to be such, and what he did once he became one. In this way, it tracks alongside “The Education of Henry Adams,” and Nock cites his fellow cultural pessimist at several points in the text, though he doesn’t try for anything like Adams’ experiments with prose structure, or his gravitas. That cuts both ways. It is nice that Nock has something of a sense of humor and is admirably direct; but he can be direct in some garbage directions and ultimately this work, while fascinating, has flaws that drag it beneath the (extremely high) standard Adams set. Later for that.

Nock grew up in Brooklyn and in an unnamed Great Lakes town, in what appear to be what we would call “upper middle class” circumstances or above. If he ever needed to worry about making a living, or ever had to seriously curtail a lifestyle of travel and good eating, he doesn’t report it. He describes an idyllic childhood of good wholesome fun with little governance from the adult world. He goes away to school and becomes “classically educated.” He is taught Latin, Greek, math, and left to his own devices for most of the rest. In many respects, that is the pivot of his whole story.

Classical education has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To Nock, it meant the key to history. The Greeks and the Romans tried everything in their roughly two thousand years. They learned all one needed to learn about how societies function. Everything else is either just technical improvement, or balderdash (not sure if Nock used the word, but he would use that kind of word). The human condition is what it is, and hasn’t changed since the days of Plato, or much before then either.

Bertolt Brecht, the kind of poet Nock (who could read German) would probably dismiss out of hand, wrote: “I would happily be wise./The old books teach us what wisdom is:/To retreat from the strife of the world/To live out the brief time that is your lot/Without fear/To make your way without violence/To repay evil with good —/The wise do not seek to satisfy their desires,/But to forget them./But I cannot heed this:/Truly I live in dark times!” Other than the forgetting desires bit — Nock has an earthy enjoyment of sex and food — “the old books” taught Nock more or less exactly that. But unlike Brecht’s narrator in “To Posterity,” he keeps on heeding. That cushion of family money probably helps, as does the option to be on the other side of the Atlantic from a lot of the risky business.

How to explain the conditions of the 1870-1945 (i.e. almost exactly Nock’s lifespan) freakout from a classical perspective? Nock never lays it out programmatically, exactly, in what is, after all, a personal memoirs. The two problems he cites most often are “economism” and “statism,” which mostly means treating the progress of either economy or state capacity as good things in and of themselves. Nock can believe this because, as becomes more and more open as the book goes on, Nock has a limited understanding of what constitutes “human.” That’s a nice way of saying he believes most people are less than human. Nock takes from the classics that culture is, essentially, for the elite. Most people can’t benefit from it- one of the claims he throws out there like a rock (and here, Nock is very much a father of libertarianism, a troll’s politics) is the notion that mass literacy is unhelpful, in fact hurtful in that it drives out good literature. The story of history is the story of elites producing culture, the masses enjoying some of the benefits in a passive way, and then for some reason, a combination of uppity masses and either weak or traitorous elites opening the gates and letting the barbarians in.

“What’s to stop the elite from just exploiting the masses, then?” Well, “nothing” is the real answer, but Nock would say something about how laws and politics are thin protections in any event, and really what makes positive change are morals and manners. Morals and manners, in turn, are the products of society and its refinement. Allow society to produce its own brilliance (in the way free marketeers, like many of the people who today think, wrongly, Nock would give them the time of day, think markets can do) and it will take care of things. But hand that power over to the state and you get rule by armed thugs and the society goes to shit. Where “economism” enters into this — where it comes from, why anyone chose to practice it if they had everything going so well in the fifteen-hundreds or early nineteenth century, which seem to be Nock’s historical happy places — is a bit of a mystery. Nock doesn’t come out and blame the Jews, like Henry Adams came close to doing, but you can see how followers might.

As you can probably tell, I don’t believe in any of this. And it wears very thin towards the end, when we leave Nock’s more interesting, younger experiences and basically go into a period where he’s an established journalist and essayist, and details how right he’s been about everything for the last forty years. But for the first two thirds or so of the book- let’s put it this way. In many respects, the saving grace of this memoirs is that Nock is not as much of a classicist as he thinks he is. Sure, he can pepper his works with untranslated (I have an old copy, not the new, hand-holding editions published by libertarian propaganda outfits, and am just fine with that) Greek and Latin and talk as though — even believe — that modern culture is trash, etc. But he’s still an American, a product of what he himself calls an entirely “economistic” culture, a child of the bourgeoisie, not even the ersatz aristocracy that gave us Henry Adams.

If he were just that classicist applying his (mediocre, pre-Nietzsche) classicism to his times, that wouldn’t be worth much, probably. As it stands, his Americanism, and his embeddedness in his times, both (further) warps his ideas and also means he can say some things that are specific to a time and place, and provide insights into those times and places, as well as into politics and culture more generally. Among other things, it’s a bit of a laugh when, along with the lessons imparted by the classics, Nock declares that things like Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”) and something he calls Epstean’s Law (after a friend who may or may not be a time traveling Jeffrey), that basically means everyone is lazy, are basic, ahistorical principles of human life. That’s some good old American dumbassery, right there. That’s one of the basic points Nietzsche tries to get across about classical civilization: they were different enough from us that the way a given user of their thought tries to wedge them into their situation tells us more, in many respects, than what the classics have to say about any given situation.

So what does the juxtaposition of classicism and good old American urdummheit — Nock spends a lot of time telling us about his American forebears, and indulges in a fair amount of Americana-nostalgia, for a guy who also pooh-poohs our “civilization” or lack thereof — tell us about Nock and his times? Well, for one thing, this “civilization” vs “state” vs “society” business is important, less for any insight provided by using any of these floating signifiers and more for how some people, in Nock’s day and our own, understand historical change. You don’t have to believe that “society” is an independent actor, opposed to the state, and the sole source of human goodness to think that changes in social behavior — manners, mores, arts, etc — are determinative (though it probably helps). As silly as it may sound to my mostly materialist, radical readership, not only is that a thing a fair number of intellectuals, from conservatives and liberals to even some utopian socialists, believe, but it is also something like common sense to a shockingly high number of people, if you talk much outside of said materialist/radical circles. This is bad (though sometimes generative) thought. But we can’t ignore it. Powerful people (and powerful amounts of less powerful people) believe it and guide their actions by it. And there’s a grain of truth- what we could call “social microphysics” can be important. Some of the excesses of the woke left can probably be attributed to the ways they are waking up to that fact, with little in the way of guidance…

There’s also the question of education. I think Nock does hit on a tendency to think of knowledge as only being good for strict utilitarian purposes. You learn what you need to learn to serve a function. I guess I wind up echoing that, too, when I don’t mean to, by saying there is a purpose to learning things that aren’t directly “useful” i.e. will allow you to serve a purpose. I felt what he said about a classical education teaching him how to think critically, in a way learning how to be a socially usefully widget wouldn’t do. I just differ on some important points: I do think everyone benefits from education and critical thinking, and I don’t think the Greeks and Romans had some monopoly on teaching about the basic elements of life. I actually think learning critical history — of the whole world — does better what Nock says classical education does, but I guess I’m biased.

While we’re at it, is there much of a point to reading this book beyond what we might learn from it? Well, to my surprise, I found there was. Among other things, classical education seemed to have done pretty well for Nock the writer. Until he gets really pedantic in the back third, his prose quality carried me along. He vividly invokes his social environments, even as you squint at some of his claims. Among other things, he gets across the feel of “reform” circles — he was a follower of Henry George (up until his cultural pessimism swallowed him), a fact some of his libertarian epigones today might have a hard time really swallowing — in the early twentieth century brilliantly… that is, of others trying desperately to negotiate the freakout. In contrast to some other readers, I love books that send me to Wikipedia — which I carry in my pocket, after all — to look up their references. It points to a whole world, now almost lost. One of the ironies of reading this is that Nock thought that truth floated free of context, but those who would try to apply his thought bowdlerize it mercilessly to fit it into their very different contexts… as Nock presumably did to the Greeks and Romans. And so it goes. That is culture, that is civilization, and that is part of why I play this game. ****’

Review- Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man”

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