Nock, Albert Jay (1870-1945)
Albert Jay Nock was one of the most thoroughgoing critics of using “political means” to achieve social ends in the American literary tradition. Libertarians have embraced Nock’s often virulent antistatism, but his possession of the traits he ascribed to Jefferson—“radical principles and ideals combined with Tory manners”—have made Nock’s contributions broader and more far reaching. From his first article in 1908 until his death in 1945, exploring “the quality of civilization in the United States” animated his social criticism, hopes, and scorn. He was, as his friend Bernard Iddings Bell described him, “[O]ne of the most gracious but pitiless of American social analysts in our time.” More recently, Jacques Barzun praised his writings as “social and intellectual criticism at its best.”
Nock was an intensely private man. While he was working as editor of The Freeman in New York City in the 1920s, the story is told that the only way to contact him after work was to leave a message under a certain rock in Central Park. An only child, Nock was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Brooklyn and rural Michigan. His father came from a family of Dissenters and was an Episcopal minister, while his mother, with whom he was very close, was a descendant of French Huguenots and of John Jay. He attended St. Stephen’s (now Bard) College between 1887 and 1892, where he received a “grand old fortifying classical curriculum.” In 1897, Nock became an Episcopal minister and held several parish posts. Then, for reasons he kept to himself, in late 1909, at the age of 39, Nock made an abrupt change in his life. He left the ministry, his wife, and two sons and moved to New York City.
He joined the staff of the American Magazine, a gathering place for muckrakers and progressives, and later joined the staff of the liberal, antiwar periodical The Nation when Oswald Garrison Villard became its editor and owner. He served as an associate editor from mid-1918 until nearly the end of 1919. Nock was a forceful critic and an articulate voice dissenting from the modern liberal tenor of the magazine during his short stint there. Although many were quick to embrace an extension of war collectivism after World War I, Nock gained a heightened awareness of the destructive nature of statism and the progressive politicization of society. Nock took up Randolph Bourne’s battle cry when he died in December 1918: “War is the health of the State.”
The result was The Freeman, a weekly magazine that Nock and B. W. Huebsch published from March 17, 1920, to March 5, 1924. Nock wrote as much as 20% of the material in a 24-page tabloid-size issue. He edited and wrote for all but 8 of the 208 issues. A remarkable group of staff members and contributors joined Nock to produce a stunning periodical of individualist radicalism that Van Wyck Brooks described as “a paper that was generally known as the best written in the country.” In 1964, a scholar echoed the almost universal opinion that it “was one of the important and influential journals of this century [and] must surely constitute one of the most massive monuments of journalistic excellence ever produced in so short a period.”
Exhausted by the work, Nock was on board a ship bound for Europe before the last issue of The Freeman was off the presses. Thereafter, Nock made a meager but sufficient living as an essayist. He settled into nearly 20 years of immensely productive writing spanning the period between the two world wars. He was a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, American Mercury, Harpers, and the New Freeman. Along the way, he completed several collections of essays; wrote his still respected Jefferson, a “study in conduct and character”; as well as several books on Rabelais. Nock also briefly taught American history and politics at Bard College (1931–1933). In 1931, he delivered the Page–Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia, which were later turned into The Theory of Education in the United States, an important critique of modern education.
The strongly antipolitical and antistatist flavor that runs throughout Nock’s writing is most evident in his influential 1935 work Our Enemy, the State: “Taking the State wherever found, striking into its history at any point, one sees no way to differentiate the activities of its founders, administrators, and beneficiaries from those of a professional-criminal class.” Shortly before his death, Nock criticized F. A. Hayek for not being a “whole-hogger” in his The Road to Serfdom. Indeed, the starting point of Nock’s legacy to libertarianism is elegantly summarized in Walter E. Grinder’s 1973 introduction to an edition of Our Enemy, the State: “It is a natural rights philosophy of self-responsibility, of inviolable individualism, and a social philosophy of unequivocal voluntarism… . It is a political philosophy of anti-Statism.” Although conservative publisher Henry Regnery thought “he contributed substantially to the development of modern conservatism,” most conservatives abandoned both his political and social warnings. Some, however, like his friend Frank Chodorov, tried to maintain the Old Right tradition.
In 1943, Nock published The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which summarized his “philosophy of intelligent selfishness, intelligent egoism, intelligent hedonism … they amount merely to a philosophy of informed common sense.” The Memoirs touched on some of the influences on his thinking, including the writers of classical liberalism and the American Founding, as well as thinkers as diverse as Herbert Spencer, Henry George, Franz Oppenheimer, and Ralph Cram. The book also was, in part, a summary lament about his own intellectual journey: the necessity of disinterested thought in social criticism, and the struggle between hope for and scorn for his fellow humans. Nock did not complain because he joyfully acknowledged he had more than he deserved: “So while one must be unspeakably thankful for all the joys of existence, there comes a time when one feels that one has had enough.” Maintaining his sense of privacy and perfectionism, he destroyed a number of manuscripts before his death.
Albert Jay Nock’s larger legacy to the American scene and to libertarianism goes well beyond his important critique of statism. One must consider his work as a whole and remember that he saw his job as a commentator on human possibilities and foibles. There was a more positive side to his work that emphasized the essentially nonpolitical nature of civilization, but it came across to many as weak and incomplete because he refused to offer any pat solutions of his own. He distrusted hacks with solutions to sell. He saw that he was simply taking on “Isaiah’s job”—to encourage and brace up a remnant of individuals in building a “substratum of right thinking and well-doing.” As he noted often, “What matters is that, for life to be truly fruitful, life must be felt as a joy, and that where freedom is not, there can be no joy… .”
Crunden, Robert M. The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1964.
Nock, Albert Jay. Jefferson. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1926.
———. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943.
———. Our Enemy, the State (Introduction by Walter E. Grinder). New York: Morrow, 1935; New York: Free Life Editions, 1973.
———. The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism. Charles H. Hamilton, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991.
Wreszin, Michael. The Superfluous Anarchist. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1971.
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