Superfluous Book Club: Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Part 1 of 6


One of the things that sets hipster conservatives apart from their non-conservative, non-hipster peers is their devotion to the printed word. It is only right, then, that our project recognize the pursuit of leisure reading in its rightful place as one of the pillars of living well. Since all true hipstercons are already reading and discussing books, any collective reading project would be unnecessary; as such, it could well be called a Superfluous Book Club.

For this inaugural Superfluous Book Club, I will be reading and discussing an underappreciated classic of proto-libertarian literature: Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, published by Harper & Brothers in 1943. Nock was a man of letters known mostly for being pretentious, elitist, and cynical, so his work should be of particular interest to hipstercons. I believe his attitude of aristocratic libertarianism could be summed up with the creed: “I’m better than everyone else, so just leave me the hell alone.”

And just how elitist is Nock? Not only does he oppose universal suffrage, he opposes universal literacy. Let me repeat that: Nock believes one of the problems with America is that too many people know how to read. On the subject of literacy, I imagine that the book itself—which uses commonplaces in lieu of chapter titles—could profitably serve as a reading list. I consider myself well-read, but I am astounded by the rich and obscure variety of sources from which Nock draws quotations, illustrations, and allusions: the book could furnish a reader or researcher with years of material, and years of Latin and Greek translation exercises.

Unusually for a memoir, Nock’s book barely touches upon what would conventionally be called the story of his life; it recounts the life of a mind, not of a body. This approach is in keeping with a central theme of the book, discussed at length in the fifth chapter: the value of seeing things as they are, not as they appear to be. His persistence in calling them as he sees them makes his writing a joy to read (though, I should note, his book cannot be embraced without qualification, particularly the sections which discuss race relations). In his Preface, Nock takes a realistic view of his life’s significance, explaining why he would not be a fitting subject of a conventional autobiography: “I have led a singularly uneventful life, largely solitary, have had little to do with the great of the earth, and no part whatever in their affairs or for that matter, in any other affairs. Hence my autobiography would be like the famous chapter on owls in Bishop Pontoppidan’s history of Iceland. The good bishop wrote simply that there are no owls in Iceland, and that one sentence was the whole of his chapter” (p. iii).

Another key idea that Nock develops, in keeping with his aristocratic mindset, is his disdain for mass man and his corresponding opposition to collectivism. Collectivism, he says, is the common theme of all twentieth century political ideologies: applied to government, we call it statism; applied to the rest of society, Nock calls it “economism.” Nock also has some harsh words for Comtean altruism. Does his praise of selfishness mean that he is just a more literate (and literary) version of Ayn Rand? That’s a question I’d like you all to help me answer as we consider his work. Nock himself is an agnostic, but he invokes What Jesus Would Do (as he distinguishes it from What The Post-Pauline Church Would Do) as one of the sources for his individualist ethic, indicating, perhaps, that his rejection of altruism has more in common with John Piper’s Christian hedonism than Ayn Rand’s virtuous selfishness.

If the book’s title has not captured enough of your interest to cause you to look over its first chapter, I urge you to reconsider. The book is an enjoyable read, in part because of the controversial and unorthodox ideas of its learned author. It is also (though I’m not sure if this is a point in its favor) an easy read; if you can read a blog, you can read this book. It is the product of an intelligent man who has decided that there is no place for him in the world of his day and who has stated his case against that world clearly and memorably.

I intend to re-read this book and discuss it in a series of essays here in the pages of The Hipster Conservative. In keeping with the spirit of this book, you are welcome to join me or ignore me; it’s really all the same to me. If you do not wish to join me in reading the book itself, I intend that my future essays still be worth your attention. If you wish to join me, your local university library is probably a good place to hunt down a copy of this out-of-print volume. If you are not a technophobe, you could use one of the PDF or e-book versions provided by Today, I will discuss the first two of the book’s sixteen chapters; next month, I will discuss chapters 3 through 5.

Chapter 1

Gradually I was introduced to anomalies like cough, tough, hough, bough, through, and it was not long before my curiosity about them began to give way to a vague indefinite pride in a language too great to trouble itself about anomalies. So far from deserting me, that pride has become progressively overweening and touchy with advancing age. Reason and logic are all against the orthographical antics of our language, and all in favour of the wholesale confiscations which a military despotism will not doubt levy on our speech when all else that belongs to us has been confiscated. As a man of reason and logic, I am all for reform; but as the unworthy inheritor of a great tradition, I am unalterably against it. I am forever with Falkland, true martyr of the Civil War,—one of the very greatest among the great spirits of whom England has ever been so notoriously unworthy,—as he stood facing Hampden and Pym. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”—Alfred Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, ch. 1, p. 6-7

Chapter 1 of Nock’s Memoirs describes at length how young Nock taught himself to read. His earliest memories are of a basement filled with bits of literary salvage, including the New England Primer, old newspapers, and scattered alphabet blocks. The chapter’s organization mostly revolves around what Nock inherited from his mother’s side (French) and his father’s (English). On the question of whether he has inherited certain traits genetically or through the medium of his early childhood, Nock does not take a position. Either way, it seems that Nock would disagree with Steven Jay Gould, who wrote that the human brain at birth is “capable of the full range of human behaviors and predisposed towards none.” Steven Pinker, best-selling author of The Blank Slate, has argued that genetically inherited traits play a much larger role in the formation of a human person than social science orthodoxy is willing to recognize. Though Pinker is quick to add that the social science claim that “all men are created equal” need not rest on the genetic claim that “all men are created clones,” Nock would not agree, judging by Nock’s skepticism towards human perfectibility, and towards the descriptive usefulness of Jeffersonian ideas of intellectual, moral, and social equality. Nock and Pinker would certainly agree, however, that some aspects of human nature are inherited or given to us, either through our genes or through preconscious nurture, and that those aspects result in meaningful differences between persons.

I would argue that Nock’s social and cultural criticism is based on his assumption that inequalities exist and that they must be clearly recognized, not papered over to avoid controversy. If you can recognize the innate, often hidden qualities of persons and things, only then you will be able to assess their true worth. (To what extent, I wonder, does the character of Nock’s social criticism result from the similar treatment he gives to both persons and things?)

One of the book’s first instances of this kind of assessment is in the relative value of dictionaries and newspapers; Nock enjoys the former but dismisses the latter. He says: “considered as sheer casual reading-matter, I still find the English dictionary the most interesting book in our language” (p. 15). On the other hand: except for his early days when he used the newspaper as a tool for learning to read, “I am unable to count a moment spent over a newspaper that was not wasted” (p. 6).

Nock doesn’t elaborate on this opposition between newspaper and dictionary, giving us the opportunity to make our own comparisons. The most handily apparent distinction is that a dictionary is a book and a newspaper is not. The broad, unbound pages of the newspaper are all but impossible to store and retrieve in one’s home library. But it is a simple matter to place the bound form of the dictionary on a shelf for easy and repeated access. Furthermore, there are many issues of a newspaper, but there is one edition of a dictionary. Well, of course a dictionary can go through several editions, but that is a process which takes decades or centuries, not just a few days. The point is that a newspaper is periodical; a dictionary is permanent.

Compared to the newspaper’s plurality, the dictionary is singular. As has already been pointed out, the newspaper goes through many editions, but the quality of plurality embraces both form and subject matter. The newspaper depicts life in its multiplicity, while the dictionary operates with a singular and unifying force. The dictionary helps keep us all speaking the same language, while the newspaper applies that common language to countless and various themes.

The singularity and permanence of the dictionary point towards a third quality which is the reason for its existence: the dictionary speaks with authority. To say the newspaper lacks authority is not necessarily to swear off any ideas of journalistic objectivity; but while the newspaper might speak with definiteness on the topics in its pages, those topics are so haphazardly chosen that the definiteness is worthless. “News” is a strangely amorphic and ill-defined category, as can be seen by watching just ten minutes of your local evening news. A “news” feed is something even Facebook can fake. The dictionary, on the other hand, takes for its subject language itself, and all of it. It can speak not only definitely but definitively, and its authority facilitates all speaking and writing, on subjects worthy and unworthy—including the writing of the newspaper.

Chapter 2

One of the most offensive things about the society in which I later found myself was its monstrous itch for changing people. It seemed to me a society made up of congenital missionaries, natural-born evangelists and propagandists, bent on re-shaping, re-forming and standardising people according to a pattern of their own devising—and what a pattern it was, good heavens! when one came to examine it. It seemed to me, in short, a society fundamentally and profoundly ill-bred. A very small experience of it was enough to convince me that Cain’s heresy was not altogether without reason or merit; and that conviction quickly ripened into a great horror of every attempt to change anybody; or I should rather say, every wish to change anybody, for that is the important thing. The attempt is relatively immaterial, perhaps, for it is usually its own undoing, but the moment one wishes to change anybody, one becomes like the socialists, vegetarians, prohibitionists; and this, as Rabelais says, “is a terrible thing to think upon.”—Alfred Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, ch. 2, p. 25-26

In the second chapter of his Memoirs, Nock pursues a more cohesive line of argument than in the first. He begins by describing the colorful characters who moved on the edges of his Brooklyn childhood years, just outside the circle of his immediate family: a “patriarchal old Englishman” who “kept a great stand of bees” (p. 20); a “tiny frail blond French girl,” four years old (p. 23); a British family who had grown up in the Indian civil service and cooked deliciously authentic curry; and a German named Kreuter, “a master hand at making sauerkraut” (p. 24).

Notable among these neighborhood worthies was “a north-of-Ireland Scots Protestant family which in the eternal fitness of things bore the name of Irons” (p. 24). The patriarch of the Irons clan was quite a piece of work, being the embodiment of “England’s age-long difficulty in governing Ireland,” and “a living, breathing allegory of what Burke called ‘the dissidence of Dissent, and the protestantism of the Protestant religion’” (p. 25). It might have been easy for Nock to draw from this intransigent soul the lesson that there is simply no reasoning with some people. Instead, he learned to treat Irons, and those like him, with the same good humor that his parents showed towards “human character in all its unaccountable manifestations” as being “simply the most diverting thing in the world.” The lesson of Irons in particular, and aggravating individuals in general, is not that individuals are aggravating, but that the many colorful characters we encounter give variety to our lives and make our social existence unpredictable and enjoyable.

This valuable and diverting individualism, however, is threatened by social tendencies towards unification and homogenization. All the rough edges would be worn off our individual characters, if the “natural-born evangelists and propagandists” had their way; much that makes human nature something to smile about would be smoothed out and tamped down. As a practical matter, Nock points out, these schemes for reform usually don’t work out, and they end by hurting the schemers most of all. This is a valuable prudential observation which would-be reformers should take to heart. But it is also an indication of where Nock’s real concerns lie. Rather than issuing a condemnation of all calls for reform—a condemnation which would itself be a call for reform—Nock goes right to the heart of the matter, addressing the impact that ill-conceived reforms have not on society but on an individual’s character. He is wary of invoking collectivism even in defense against collectivism.

This collectivist, reforming, “missionary” impulse is not only damaging to the reforming soul. It is an indicator of a lack of breeding. And Nock (again making a prudential observation) suggests that taste and manners could take over much of the territory which law inefficiently attempts to govern. Calling to mind the legal realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Nock implies that people who are subject to law are concerned more with what they are required to do than with what they ought to do; the law induces in them “an extremely low order of self-interest and self-aggrandisement” (p. 31). Thus Nock turns Ayn Rand’s libertarian idea of virtuous selfishness on its head: the law is not fit to govern in certain areas of ethics, says Nock, precisely because it inculcates an unvirtuous selfishness. What Nock calls the “low order of self-interest” is a standard that promotes the collectivization of moral standards. Taste and manners may be less objective as rules of action, but their very subjectivity ensures that there is room within them for all sorts of remarkable individuals, whether beekeepers or sauerkraut makers or Irish Protestants.

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