Both of these essays on Albert Jay Nock were authored by Edmund Opitz, founder of the Nockian Society and the Remnant. Since they are of similar point and brief, they are worth posting together.
Albert Jay Nock: Apostle to the Remnant
ALBERT JAY NOCK was before the public in one capacity only, as a man of letters. He was in turn clergyman, editor, professor, essayist, biographer, student of fundamental economics – and a superfluous man withal! How he got that way, what ideas went into the formation of his mind, he explained in his Memoirs [of a Superfluous Man], an unusual autobiography of a distinguished and lonely intellect whose bent for privacy amounted to a passion.
Nock had an ample but refined capacity for enjoying life, even though he believed that, like a citizen of fifth century Rome, he was living in the last days of a dying civilization. Nock believed he was experiencing the “imperatorship and anarchy” Henry George had predicted. But human nature is resilient, and once the pessimist assures himself that doom is certain, then that’s settled and cheerfulness breaks in – like the man in the tumbrel en route to the guillotine winking at the pretty girls in the rabble.
Albert Jay Nock devoted himself single-mindedly to the advancement of understanding – his own! Once he had unearthed a precious nugget of truth and put it on display where all who wished might see, he dropped the matter and went on to the next question. Training reinforced temperament to turn him away from even the slightest propaganda efforts; he never buttonholed anybody about anything. “Never argue; never explain,” he would say with infuriating detachment. Nock believed, correctly I think, that he had uncovered the plain truth of things in the several areas of his interest, and he painstakingly set forth his elucidations in impeccable English, serene in his faith that this fully discharged his duty. This assumption back of this faith is that truth has an internal energy of its own enabling it, if we don’t stand in its way, to cut its own channels and gain acceptance in minds ready for it. Trying to make truth palatable for minds not ready for it is no service to the people involved, for it clogs whatever thought processes they have; and truth tampered with is truth lost.
The hard truth is what Nock is talking about; truth with the bark on it, truth unsophisticated by even good intentions, undiluted by ulterior considerations. Are there minds ready for this kind of truth? Nock believed that every society has such minds else it would fall apart. Every society is held together by a select few – men and women who have the force of intellect to discern the rules upon which social life is contingent, and the force of character to exemplify those rules in their own living. Nock called these scattered few “the Remnant” in his brilliant essay, “Isaiah’s Job.”
Nock does not tell us whence his methodology derives, but we do know that his devotion to the philosophy of Henry George was life-long, and that as a student he read these words: “Social Reform is not to be secured by noise and shouting; by complaints and denunciation; by the formation of parties, or the making of revolutions; but by the awakening of thought and the progress of ideas. Until there be correct thought, there cannot be right action; and when there is correct thought, right action will follow.” Nock’s book on George appeared in 1939.
It’s a lovely notion, runs the thought, but is it practical? will it work? Well, it appears to be working in Mr. Nock’s case, although not all the returns are in and one can’t say for sure. Albert Jay Nock’s reputation while he lived was limited, and none of his books had much of a sale, except his Jefferson and the Memoirs. Nock’s death in 1945 passed relatively unnoticed. But then things began to happen; the posthumous publication of a Journal, two volumes of letters and a volume of essays; a new edition of the Memoirs, a reprinting of four of his out of print books with a fifth imminent; and formation of The Nockian Society which has just published Cogitations from AJN.
Nock sought to improve the quality of human life, and the forces he set in motion are still at work in those sensitive enough to feel them.
Originally published from the Henry George News, April 1971.
Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945)
Albert Jay Nock came before the public in one capacity only, as a man of letters. That’s the way he wanted it, believing that the rest of him was nobody’s business. We do know that he was exposed to the “grand old fortifying classical curriculum” at St. Stephen’s, where he earned a degree in 1892. He did graduate work in theology, was ordained and served three Episcopal parishes for a decade, entered the world of journalism, and won renown as an editor and belle lettrist. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943) was literary and philosophical, setting forth his views of life and society, how he came to hold them, and why. This is the kind of book that gets under a person’s skin, performing catalytically to persuade the reader to become what he has it in him to be.
Those whom Nock has reached do not form a movement or a clique: such men as the eminent sociologist, Robert Nisbet, out in the South Pacific during World War II where he “practically memorized” the Memoirs; or the influential scholar, Russell Kirk, at an army camp reading Nock and corresponding with him. Nock was a frequent guest at the Buckley home during the early ’40s, and it is safe to assume that the brilliant William F. Buckley, Jr., and his National Review owe something to these contacts. Nock inspires the reader to do his utmost for himself or herself as the only way there is for anyone to do some real service for anyone else. There’s only one way to improve society, he used to say; present it with one improved unit – yourself.
Nock laid no claim to originality; he sought to give known, tried, and true ideas a new twist, a different slant which breaks through current stereotypes. As a critic he stands in the great succession of men like Rabelais and Artemus Ward, who knew that “for life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a joy; that it is by the bonds of joy, not of happiness or pleasure, not of duty or responsibility, that the called and chosen spirits are kept together in this world.”
Nock’s books were not best sellers, but they keep coming back into print. The weekly journal he edited from 1920 to 1924, The Freeman, had a small circulation, but scholars continue to draw on it, and discerning souls regard it as the high water mark of American journalism. Nock wrote for the educable few who simply want to get at the plain truth of things – The Remnant. “You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor where they are, nor how many there are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you know, and no more; first, that they exist; and second, that they will find you.”
Nock believed that he had uncovered the plain truth of things in several areas, and he set forth his elucidations in impeccable English, serene in his faith that this fully discharged his duty. The assumption back of this faith is that truth has an internal energy of its own, enabling it, if we don’t stand in its way, to cut its own channels and gain acceptance in minds ready for it. Trying to make truth palatable for minds not ready for it is no service to the people involved, for it clogs whatever thought processes they have.
Truth tampered with is truth lost. The hard truth is what Nock is talking about: truth with the bark on it, truth unsophisticated by even good intentions, undiluted by ulterior considerations. Are there minds ready for this kind of truth? Nock believed that every society has such minds, else it would fall apart. Every society is held together by a select few – men and women who have the force of intellect to discern the rules upon which social life is contingent, and the force of character to exemplify those rules in their own living.
The Remnant grows, and they are finding him. Since Nock’s death most of his titles have come back into print, only to be sold out. Two collections of letters were published posthumously, and another Journal. Two books have been written about Nock, one about his Freeman, plus several doctoral theses. Not bad for a superfluous man!
And there is a Nockian Society, at 30 South Broadway, Irvington, N.Y. 10533, with members throughout the world. The letterhead reads: “No officers, No dues, No meetings.” He would have liked that!
Much of Nock’s work defies time, which means that he will be discovered anew by each generation. Many will make his acquaintance in the new editions of his books, whose appearance is a happy portent that Nock’s best writing will never for long be out of print.
Originally published in Fragments, April-June 1982.
Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.