Gentle Nock at Our Door

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This
article is excerpted from chapter 14 of Out
of Step
(1962). An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated
by Steven Ng, is available
for download
.

In New York,
in the fall of 1936, I happened in one night at the Players Club.
As I sat at a table with a couple of men, I noticed a dignified,
elderly gentleman playing pool. He was very deliberate – painfully
so to his opponent – in the selection of his shots, and quite
accurate, too. At the end of the game he came over to our table,
on request, and I was introduced to Albert Jay Nock. I had read
much of his writings, in his books and in the old Freeman and was
thoroughly in tune with many of his ideas, which he seemed to sense;
we hit it off from the start, and until his death in 1945 we exchanged
views and became as friendly as one could be with this reserved
though companionable gentleman.

“I have led
a singularly uneventful life, largely solitary, have had little
to do with the great … and no part whatever in their affairs, or
for that matter, in any other affairs.” So wrote Albert Jay Nock
in the preface to his last book, Memoirs
of a Superfluous Man
. He wasn’t being modest; he meant
it. And he did not believe anybody would be interested in reading
about a man who had assiduously avoided making money or acquiring
fame or taking part in the current of events. All he had ever tried
to do was to get the most out of life in the ways he had found most
pleasurable. He was an intellectual hedonist, entirely superfluous
in the utilitarian environment in which he had lived.

Therefore,
he repeatedly refused to do the autobiography that William Harlowe
Briggs, editor for Harper and Brothers, had been asking for. He
had always shunned publicity — never gave a word to Who’s Who
— and saw no reason at this late date to let a morbidly curious
public in on his personal affairs. But Briggs won him over to the
project by referring to an essay on autobiographical writing which
Nock had published some time before. The only good purpose that
an autobiography could serve, wrote Nock, was to record whatever
philosophy the author had acquired on his way through life; if in
so doing he found it necessary to relate experiences that had brought
him to that line of thought, then it is permissible to throw them
in; but to parade before the public what is none of their business
is vulgar.

Thus came his
brilliant “autobiography of ideas.” Every time Nock brought him
a chapter, Briggs told me, he would say, “I don’t know why you want
to publish this, Bill, for I am sure you will lose your shirt on
it.” The editor knew better. His obvious motive was to get another
book — probably the last, for Nock had already reached the three-score-and-ten
mark — by perhaps the finest stylist in twentieth century American
literature. The book has had a better sale than any of his previous
books, even though every line of it is critical of the prevailing
“climate of thought.”

Nock was an
individualist, and he got that way not as the result of study but
by force of temperament. As he would put it, the “furniture” of
his mind was so arranged because no other arrangement would fit
his mind. A man thinks what he is, Nock would say, and no amount
of education can make him think otherwise; the only function that
education can perform is to give him the tools with which to bring
out of him what “he already knows!” He would have no truck with
the doctrine of environmentalism, which he described as a false
god set up by self-appointed and self-centered priests.

He took to
laissez faire economics, not because of its utilitarian support,
but because of his abhorrence of political intervention. He was
an anti-statist because he revolted at the vulgarism of politics
and its devotees; in his classic, Our
Enemy the State
, he likens the state to a “professional
criminal class.” He scorned reform movements because they all involve
the use of political power which, on examination, will be found
to be at the bottom of the condition the reformers would correct.
He was for letting people alone because only under a condition of
freedom could they improve themselves, if they have any capacity
for improvement in them.

From this foreshortened
description of his philosophy, one might infer that Nock was a crotchety
old fellow, hard to get along with. Far from it. In a crowd, to
be sure, he was distinguishable only by his infinite capacity for
listening. He was too considerate to refute any statement, even
a palpably false one, and too self-respecting to get into a controversy;
“never complain, never explain, never argue,” he often said, “and
you will get more fun out of life.”

It was only
when you got him alone that you got a true taste of Nock, and I
had the good fortune to meet him frequently during his last ten
years on this earth. Over a meal — I was usually ready for coffee
before he had finished his soup — he would regale you with bits
of history that threw light on the events of the day, or quote from
the classics a passage currently applicable, or take all the glory
out of a “name” character with a pithy, statement of fact. He is
gone ten years, and hardly a day passes but that some headline calls
to mind an apropos remark he made as we lolled in the lobby
of his hotel. He was a library of knowledge and a fount of wisdom,
and if you were a kindred spirit you could have your pick of both.

His gift for
parable was extraordinary. Those who are acquainted with his writings
know how he could short-circuit a lot of logic-chopping by the use
of an apt story; he spoke as he wrote.

One night,
during the war, a group of superpatriots were expounding the theory
of innate German bestiality and stressing the need of digging our
national heel into the lot. Nock, as usual, said nothing. Finally,
somebody called for his opinion. He allowed that he knew nothing
of the subject under discussion, but begged leave to tell of an
experience he had had in a small German town some years before the
war.

While waiting
for the stationmaster to serve him, he picked up a historical booklet
about the town. It was written in alt hoch Deutsch, which
is to modern German about what Chaucer is to modern English. In
due time the stationmaster turned to Nock and asked whether he was
an American. Assured that this was so, the man expressed astonishment;
for he had never met an American scholar, let alone one who could
negotiate ancient German.

As a result
of this chance incident, Nock was lionized during the few days he
remained in the town. “In France and England,” Nock concluded, ”
I never knew of scholarship being so highly regarded.” The point
was clear. There was no more talk of exterminating the German people.

What Wasn’t
Tabu and What Was

His stock of
illustrative matter was garnered not only from a lifetime of travel
and interesting associations, but also from the literature of the
three “dead” languages, which to him were quite alive, to say nothing
of the French, German and English. One evening he broke off in the
middle of a sentence to cast an appreciative eye on a passing female.
I observed that it was about time he had stopped looking. His reply
was a passage from the Psalms of David, in Hebrew, referring to
the lure of feminine pulchritude.

What did he
talk about? Everything, from good eating to literature, from politics
to manners in the tenth century. One subject was, by tacit consent,
tabu; that was anything biographical. He would not hesitate to bring
in, whenever it was necessary to the point he was making, some detail
of his life, even an intimacy; but it never occurred to either of
us to follow that thread. He was a man about whom you never asked
anything.

It was only
after I was appointed administrator of his estate that I learned
of the existence of two full-grown and well-educated sons. By the
way, his “estate” consisted of some clothes, books, and uncollected
royalties in the amount of $1300. Yet, he had travelled extensively
and lived reasonably well.

Aim for the
Morons

Nock’s brand
of individualism came out in full panoply when he discussed education,
a subject in which he was keenly interested. He insisted that no
fault with public education can be found if the underlying principle
of modern democracy is accepted as an axiom. That principle holds
that not only are we born equal in law, but that we are also endowed
with equal capacities; it follows that we are equally and perhaps
indefinitely perfectible; all we need to prove this are equal educational
advantages. Public education for all, then, is the way to the perfect
society.

But, in point
of fact, we find considerable differences in the mental capacities
of individuals, and these differences make the application of the
democratic principle difficult. Yet we are dedicated to the principle
and cannot abandon or even modify it. The best we can do under the
circumstances is to fit the standard of education to the lowest
common denominator, and to keep on lowering it as more and more
are invited or forced into the school system. It would be undemocratic
to set the standard above the reach of the most unfortunate moron.

Everybody can
be trained to do something, and so education under the democratic
principle had to become utilitarian. And that fits in with the laudable
idea that every child is born to enjoy a larger share of the material
things of this life than did his father. Therefore, the goal of
democratic education must be to fit the future citizenry for some
trade or profession, and courses in carpentry or domestic science
have become infinitely more important in the curriculum than courses
in Latin or logic.

But where does
that leave the mind that is capable of learning? In the Grand Tradition,
said Nock, education was geared to that mind only; the standard
was set for it; and if one could not reach the heights, one was
not educable, and that was the end of it. Though he did not belong
in the select circle, he could be a very useful citizen, and lead
a very happy life. In a material way, indeed, the non-educable were
likely to have the advantage over the others; Spinoza, a highly
educated man, was a poor lens grinder.

The object
of education in the Grand Tradition was not to train technicians
but to pick out of the ruck those who were endowed with questing
minds. It was quite undemocratic, to be sure, in that it took cognizance
of an educable elite. For that minority breed the democratic system
has no place, and anyone suffering from intellectual curiosity is
compelled to get his education in any way that he can find outside
that system.

It will be
seen that an evening with Nock on education was stimulating, especially
since the conversation was embellished with anecdotes from the education
of Rabelais (whose life inspired two books by Nock) or illustrations
from his own college career. But if you thought that Nock had any
idea of “doing something about it” you were soon set straight. “Things
are as they are and will be as they will be,” and nothing could
be done to change the course of events, nor even tried. After all,
the educable will get their education, despite democracy, because
they cannot help it. Any attempt to reform the democratic educational
system is both presumptuous and hopeless.

“Why, then,”
I asked him once as he was setting out on a lecture tour, “do you
lecture? Why do you write?” His answer: “A fellow does what he has
to do.”

If he had a
favorite topic, it was his theory of political organization. He
held that there is a basic difference between government and state,
and it is a mistake to use the words interchangeably. The one is
an institution arising from the needs of society; its function is
to protect the individual from encroachment on the rights that inhere
in him by virtue of existence; its only business is the administration
of justice.

On the other
hand, the state is an antisocial organization, originating in conquest
and concerned only with confiscating production. The state began
with the practice of nomadic tribes of swooping down on some peaceful,
productive community, confiscating the movable wealth around, and,
after slaying the less productive inhabitants, carrying off those
who could be put to use, including women; later on, the raiding
tribes, sometimes by invitation, would settle down among the producers
as “protectors” and administrators, collecting tribute for their
pains.

Sometimes a
merger between the invaders and their subjects would take place,
even by marriage, and a nation was born; but the instruments of
confiscation were continued, and those who inherited them became
the state.

Wouldn’t Punch
a Clock

This is, in
a way, an economic theory of political institutions. There are two
ways of making a living, Nock explained. One is the economic
means, the other the political means. The first consists
of the application of human effort to raw materials so as to bring
into being things that people want; the second is the confiscation
of the rightful property of others.

The state is
that group of people, who having got hold of the machinery of compulsion,
legally or otherwise, use it to better their circumstances; that
is the political means. Nock would hasten to explain that
the state consists not only of politicians, but also those who make
use of the politicians for their own ends; that would include those
we call pressure groups, lobbyists and all who wrangle special privileges
out of the politicians. All the injustices that plague “advanced”
societies, he maintained, are traceable to the workings of the state
organizations that attach themselves to these societies.

This differentiation
between state and government was set down formally in his Our
Enemy the State, which originated as a series of lectures to
a class in advanced history at Columbia University. (Incidentally,
he refused the offer of a professorship at this institution because
he did not think he could “punch a clock.”) In private conversation
he would enrich the theory with historical anecdotes and with references
to living personalities which could hardly be put in print. The
book handles the subject of the development of the American State
rather gingerly; in conversation he could be more blunt.

Nock Bettered
Nock

He delighted
in explaining the organization of many American Indian tribes, in
which the prevailing justice and order indicated that a government,
not a state, was on the job; or he would go to the Bible to show
how the nomadic Israelites set themselves up in the state business
by raiding villages on the way to the Promised Land. The Bible always
stood him in good stead; he had been a minister in the Episcopalian
Church.

To sum it up,
Nock was the most civilized man I ever knew. He was knowledgeable
but never pedantic, reserved but companionable, cosmopolitan in his
tastes and, above all, a gentleman to whom it never occurred to inflict
hurt on any man. He avoided the mass-mind, not only because he found
it very uninteresting, but because he thought nothing could be done
to improve it. If there was to be any improvement in society it would
have to come by way of improvement in the individuals who compose
it; for, in the final analysis, society is only an agglomeration of
individuals, not an entity in itself. So Nock put in a lifetime bettering
Nock, and since he had chosen writing as a profession he made a point
of polishing his style to the point where it became the envy of his
contemporaries.

Henry L. Mencken
once said to him, “Nobody cares what you write; it’s how you write
that interests everybody.” This is about the highest compliment
one craftsman can pay to another. But this was not exactly true.

What Nock said
was as interesting as the way he said it.

Reprinted
from Mises.org.

Frank
Chodorov (1887–1966), one of the great libertarians of the
Old Right, was the founder of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists
and author of such books as The
Income Tax: Root of All Evil
. Here he is on “Taxation
Is Robbery
.” And here
is Rothbard’s obituary of Chodorov
.

The
Best of Frank Chodorov

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