Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943)
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
As a man of reason and logic, I am all for reform;
but as the unworthy inheritor of a great tradition,
As odd as it may seem to the several generations of us who were raised during the conservative ascendancy (1964-now), as recently as the mid-60s many intellectuals believed not only that conservative was a spent force in American political life, but that it had never actually even been a coherent philosophy, rather just a set of reactions and prejudices. It was probably not until Russell Kirk published his seminal book The Conservative Mind that folks were forced to acknowledge the age and durability of the set of principles which still characterize most conservative thought.
Roughly speaking, conservatism is structured around the defense of freedom and includes the ideas that : the powers of government should be minimized; that the traditions and customs of the culture should be given a great deal of respect and deference; that there are certain natural laws which exist prior to government and which do not depend on the acquiescence of government for their moral authority (the oft forgotten corollary to this is that neither politics nor economics are truly central to our lives); that individuals must take responsibility for their own lives, even if this means that some people will enjoy greater success in life than others (and conservatives, though they've become less vocal about it, do assume that there is an inherently unequal distribution of talent within the species and that some will do extremely well while some fail utterly and the great masses muddle by); and underlying all of these ideas is the fundamental notion that men are essentially selfish creatures, willing, given half a chance, to exploit each other, to threaten each others freedom. One final defining characteristic is the tendency towards pessimism : understanding men to be loutish by nature, conservatives don't generally expect to have their own ideas prevail, expecting instead that the deluge is coming, probably imminently. Within this broad set of principles then different strands of conservatism will choose to emphasize different ideas and de-emphasize others, but no one who is truly conservative (as opposed to what is colloquially termed Right Wing, though it is closer to fascism) will stray too far from the ground of freedom.
It is understandable then that by the 1960s the Left thought that it had finally vanquished the Right. This was after all a moment at which the Federal Government had been growing virtually unchecked for the better part of thirty years. In addition to the nearly cradle to grave Social Welfare State that was erected in response to the Depression, a mammoth National Security apparatus had been tacked on during WWII and the Cold War. Add in the ever increasing level of regulation of the economy and the Supreme Court's attacks (under Earl Warren) on nearly every remaining vestige of traditional morality and you certainly had a political environment in which freedom seemed to be a lost cause, sacrificed on the altar of egalitarianism.
We've examined elsewhere the startling rapidity with which freedom made a come back, but it is also important to keep alive the honored memory of the poor brave souls who kept the flame burning during those dark years. Several of these men have enjoyed well deserved revivals--F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman in particular were fortunate enough to be canonized by the Eastern European anti-Communists, so their reputations seem relatively secure. Religious figures like C. S. Lewis will always have succeeding generations of coreligionists to keep their reputations burnished. Political leaders, like Robert Taft, will crop up in history books if for no other reason than that they were the opposition to figures, like FDR and Truman, who will continue to be written about. But there is a group of mostly non-religious conservatives from the first half of the century--author Robert Crunden called them the "Superfluous Men" after the title of this book--whose contributions to the cause of freedom may well be forgotten in the future, especially since they are already fading from memory. This group includes journalists like : H. L. Mencken, whose reputation seems the safest, Albert Jay Nock, Walter Lippman, George Schuyler, Whittaker Chambers; poets T. S. Eliot, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and company; and a variety of others, including the philosopher George Santayana, the critic Irving Babbitt, the novelist Caroline Gordon, and the architect Ralph Adams Cram. (Crunden's anthology, The Superfluous Men : Conservative Critics of American Culture 100-1945, offers a generous selection of the writings of many of these conservatives.)
Out of all of these men, the one you've likely least heard of (at least, that was my case) is Albert Jay Nock. As anyone who has ever been lucky enough to read Memoirs of a Superfluous Man can tell you, this is a great injustice. With vast erudition, desert-dry wit, self-deprecation (both mock and genuine, one senses), and a fatalistic view of the world and its future, Nock tells the story of his education, both in school and after, and expounds on his view that the system that produced him and the views it left him with are both things of the past, making him a superfluous man.
In the first instance, the book consists of a genuinely delightful, because so politically incorrect, attack on the notion of the importance of universal education. Nock was an unabashed elitist, who believed that he was a part of what he referred to as the Remnant, the relatively rare group of people who are actually educable, that is they are capable of understanding and appreciating the culture we have inherited. As for the rest, education is wasted on them, even those who are ostensibly literate, for even among them :
[V]ery few literate persons are able to read, very
few indeed. This can be proven by observation
And since he, the evidence suggests rightly, assumes that the majority are uneducable, he dismisses the value of universal education :
It is one of my oddest experiences that I have never
been able to find any one who would tell me
This is very much the Nock style : an opinion which flies in the face of egalitarian cant, presented clearly, forcefully and wittily, with a quick tongue-in-cheek disclaimer at the end.
He is equally scathing, for similar reasons, on the topic of democracy :
As I understand the term, it is the very essence
of democracy that the individual citizen shall be
It was not that the idea of democracy was bad, in fact it might very well be the best possible system, but Nock understood that it is a mistake to expect too much of it :
...I could see how 'democracy' might do very well
in a society of saints and sages led by an Alfred
Nock identified three laws that he thought tended to inevitably lead the masses toward such self inflicted misgovernment. The first two, Gresham's Law ("bad money drives out good", though Nock expanded it to mean that bad ideas, art, etc. drive out good) and the Law of Diminishing Returns (another economic law which in this case might be stated as : merely adding more and more voices to the political discourse, as democracy does, will not improve the quality of the ideas in circulation) are fairly well known. The third was of his own coinage, Epstean's Law, which he discovered in this manner :
I was at lunch in the Uptown Club of
New York with an old friend, Edward Epstean, a retired
This remark instantly touched off a tremendous
flashlight in my mind. I saw the generalization
In an essay which I published some time
ago, having occasion to refer to this formula, I gave it
Taken together, these laws, particularly Epstean's, create a cultural climate of what Nock called "economism", but which would be familiar to us as something akin to materialism or consumerism. Under a regime of economism, the mass-men will structure society so as to satisfy their material desires with the least possible effort on their own part. The entire apparatus of government will be devoted to this task; the entire focus of society will be on this task; material "needs" become the be all and end all of man's existence.
In this Nock was certainly right, as the merest glance at the current state of the culture reveals. The eighty year expansion of the Social Welfare state, and the current glorification of the market and technology have all of them helped to displace all other societal concerns. We now measure ourselves and our nation almost solely by our levels of consumption. The Left's critique of this kind of rampant capitalism, that it could never provide enough for all, has proven to be quite wrong. It is instead Nock and other critics on the Right who, early on, perceived the greatest problem with "economism" :
Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching
phrase. 'For us to love our country,' he
It is this insight, more than any other, which makes Nock a pertinent
figure still, rather than merely an
Writing in 1943, when the aggrandizement of power by even the relatively liberal American government was at its height--and when foreign governments like the USSR and the Axis powers were completely totalitarian--Nock saw no other prospect for the West except for a continuing collectivization as mass-men continued to use government to transfer the wealth of the most productive in society to themselves. Though he does not mention the quote, Nock would have very much agreed with Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813). the Scottish jurist and historian, who said that :
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.
It can only exist until the voters
from bondage to spiritual faith;
from spiritual faith to great courage;
from courage to liberty;
from liberty to abundance;
from abundance to selfishness;
from selfishness to complacency;
from complacency to apathy;
from apathy to dependency;
from dependency back again to bondage.
Nock understood a truth that is nearly unspeakable now, in the wake of the disastrous era of Big Government, that although the West in general pays great obeisance to the idea of Freedom, and America in particular is, at least theoretically, founded upon the primacy of the idea, most people (the mass-men) do not give a fig about it. And since in a democracy the masses will wield power, the prospects for the West appeared pretty bleak :
Considering mankind's indifference to freedom, their
easy gullibility and their facile response to
Given a just and generous administration of collectivism
this might very well be so; but even on
It will of course be argued, with the perfection of twenty-twenty hindsight, that Nock (and Jefferson and Jefferson's other conservative heirs) overstated the case and fell pray to hysterics. We are after all in the midst (hopefully not at the end) of what has been a twenty year pause in the process of collectivization. The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc crumbled under the weight of just the kind of corruption that Nock feared, and they proved much less capable of producing material goods than even Nock might have expected. Likewise, many of the Socialist countries of the West have had to turn to at least some level of reprivatization in order to prop up their Social Welfare systems and to revive their moribund economies. Here in the States, we managed to avoid the worst excesses, keeping Health Care at least partially out of the hands of government, and have taken some baby steps towards reprivatizing such programs as Welfare and Social Security. But the process has been uneven and victories have been only partial and have come only after fierce battle. One need only look at the debates over the Clinton Health Care Plan, Welfare Reform and Social Security Privatization to see how little regard the Left really has for Freedom, always preferring the "Security" of having Government do for us all.
But even if this pause in the march of Collectivization should prove to be of long-lasting duration, it should not be seen as a refutation of Nock's ideas, but as a tribute to them. For if Nock's arguments seem self-evident to us now, it is all too easy to forget how truly superfluous they seemed in 1943. Nock, who was writing before even Hayek's Road to Serfdom had been published, is one of the incredibly small group of men who kept alive the idea of freedom and who resisted the, at the time seemingly inevitable, force of collectivization. If his most dire predictions did not come true it is not solely because he overestimated the opposition, but because a powerful counterrevolution eventually rose up, structured around ideas like his, and it is in this regard that modern conservatism owes him a tremendous, almost completely unacknowledged, debt.
There is much more in this wonderful book and Nock explains himself much better than I have. He writes beautifully and with great humor. On nearly every page you'll find an idea or a turn of phrase that you'll want to pause and turn over in your mind. I can not recommend this book highly enough. I can't wait to read it again and everything else I can find by this least superfluous of men.
GRADE : A+
p. s. -- I am indebted to Godfrey Hodgson, and his book The World Turned Right Side Up, for an excellent short discussion of Albert Jay Nock's ideas and his importance to what Hodgson refers to in that book as "the Conservative Ascendancy in America.".
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