Each month, for our publication’s Superfluous (and rather solitary) Book Club, I am discussing a few chapters from Albert Jay Nock’s 1943 autobiographical manifesto of aristocratic libertarianism, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Last month, I introduced the work and discussed the first two chapters; below, I discuss chapters 3 through 5. Next month, I intend to discuss chapters 6 through 8.
It is one of my oddest experiences that I have never been able to find any one who would tell me what the net social value of a compulsory universal literacy actually comes down to when the balance of advantage and disadvantage is drawn, or wherein that value consists. The few Socratic questions which on occasion I have put to persons presumably able to tell me have always gone by the board. These persons seemed to think, like Protagoras on the teaching of virtue, that the thing was so self-evident and simple that I should know all about it without being told; but in the hardness of my head or heart I still do not find it so. Universal literacy helps business by extending the reach of advertising and increasing its force; and also in other ways. Beyond that I see nothing on the credit side. On the debit side, it enables scoundrels to beset, dishevel and debauch such intelligence as is in the power of the vast majority of mankind to exercise. There can be no doubt of this, for the evidence of it is daily spread wide before us on all sides. More than this, it makes many articulate who should not be so, and otherwise would not be so. It enables mediocrity and sub-mediocrity to run rampant, to the detriment of both intelligence and taste. In a word, it puts into a people’s hands an instrument which very few can use, but which everyone supposes himself fully able to use; and the mischief thus wrought is very great. My observations leave me no chance of doubt about the side on which the balance of social advantage lies, but I do not by any means insist that it does lie there.—Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, ch. 4, p. 48-49.
Having arrived at the time in his life when he is a consumer of literature, in this chapter Nock denounces what he sees as the scourge of universal literacy. In the paragraph quoted above, Nock enumerates some disadvantages of literacy for society taken as a whole. But earlier in the chapter, his grounds for such denunciation seem purely (and, for Nock, characteristically) selfish: when everyone can read, lots of books are published which are not worthwhile, and it is harder to obtain good literature (p. 37). Nock explains this as an instance of Gresham’s Law (a concept to which he will return throughout his book). Gresham’s Law is the economic principle that bad money drives good money out of circulation. For instance, if I have a good dollar coin that contains one pound of gold, and a bad dollar coin that contains half a pound of gold, I will spend the bad coin and hoard the good one. This is because society treats the bad coin just the same as the good one; either can be exchanged for a dollar’s worth of goods. The same principle holds for literature: When consumers think that bad books are worth just as much as good books, publishers will cut corners and produce bad books instead of good.
It surprises me that Nock is not more critical of Gresham’s Law. His grumbling about “economism”(his term for the collectivist attitude of statism applied to business) leads me to expect that he would be unsympathetic to socially-oriented arguments such as Gresham’s Law. But he accepts this rule as if it were a natural part of the world—as if it were some immutable law to which it is man’s duty to accommodate himself and his social schemes. Perhaps, then, we should not understand Gresham’s Law as a merely economic principle; perhaps it is a more universal principle which only manifests itself as an economic principle when it is applied in an economic context. Perhaps the bad will drive out the good not only in the marketplace’s valuation of things but in our individual valuations, as well. Perhaps Nock only appreciates Gresham’s Law for its descriptive power, while not attributing to it any normative power. In fact, his conclusion that widespread literacy will naturally result in the publication of bad books is a helpful reminder that the decisions made by the marketplace can be bad decisions. After all, the monetary application of Gresham’s Law requires that there be two incongruent standards of valuation: a fiat money standard, and a gold standard. Similarly, Nock’s argument against literacy implies that there is a “gold standard” for literature, which he believed by his day had already impossibly diverged from its market value.
How, then, is the value of literature to be determined? Nock doesn’t treat it as completely a subjective question; after all, if today’s literary marketplace is flawed because it contains too many bad readers, then there must have been a good (or at least a better) marketplace in the past. Elsewhere in this chapter, he reminisces about the literary landscape of his childhood. He yearns for the old days of periodicals like Harper’s Magazine, which offered a vast range of topics, giving its readers “a vivid idea of the number of things in the world which are interesting to the best reason and spirit of man, and also gives a lively sense of how interesting they are” (p. 45). I hope it is not presumptuous to observe that this variety is a characteristic which, in these latter days, The Hipster Conservative intends to emulate.
In this remote, isolated, unsightly region, a wilderness of stumps and sand-barrens, and in a settlement so new which seemed to have no more stability than a mining-camp, one would have expected to find only the ill-favoured and repellent social life of an American frontier town. By some odd freak of chance this was not the case. The millowners and those directly concerned with the production of lumber were a hardheaded, hardfisted lot, with no interest in the amenities of existence, but displaying an amused and rather generous tolerance towards any effort to promote them. . . . But our society had an overtone as well. Many of our immigrants were not directly concerned with lumber, but had come to town in the wake of the industry as professional men or tradesmen; and among these an astonishing number were intelligent, thoughtful, and fairly well read. Their conversation was excellent, they had good taste, good manners, and a good attitude towards life’s amenities. I have seldom seen so small a town with anything comparable to our array of musical talent; there were so many who not only had superb voices, but who also knew how to sing and were musically literate to remarkable degree.—Nock, ch. 4, p. 57-58.
The fourth chapter of Nock’s life serves as a bucolic interlude. His parents having moved the family from Brooklyn to the wild, wild Midwest, he finds himself in the provincial lumber town described above. The view of human nature that shines forth here—specifically, the view of human capacity for intellectual pleasure and improvement—is much brighter than that of the previous chapter. Still, Nock does not attribute the taste and manners of his neighbors to any discernible cause, or to any reproducible process. No, these things have come about as if by accident, by “some odd freak of chance.” This town’s culture is like an island of order miraculously and randomly arising out of the seas of disorder, only to be battered back down into the waves by means of society’s relentless equalizing tendencies, as progress and uniform culture marches on.
If we would like to suggest that the rural nature of this setting had something to do with the communal intellectual life he found there, Nock would surely have none of it. He appreciates the healthiness of this country life, but he approvingly quotes Socrates: “I am a lover of knowledge, . . . and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country” (p. 73). He detects a note of dutifulness in the praise which Virgil and Horace heap on the charms of the pastoral life; after all, who would honestly choose to stay away from a city as magnificent as Rome in the age of Augustus? Certainly not a cosmopolitan culture-lover like Nock.
The literatures of Greece and Rome comprise the longest, most complete and most nearly continuous record we have of what the strange creature known as Homo sapiens has been busy about in virtually every department of spiritual, intellectual and social activity. That record covers nearly twenty-five hundred years in an unbroken stretch of this animated oddity’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, logic, politics, botany, zoology, medicine, geography, theology,—everything, I believe, that lies in the range of human knowledge or speculation. Hence the mind which has attentively canvassed this record is much more than a disciplined mind, it is an experienced mind. It has come, as Emerson says, into a feeling of immense longevity, and it instinctively views contemporary man and his doings in the perspective set by this profound and weighty experience. Our studies were properly called formative, because beyond all others their effect was powerfully maturing. Cicero told the unvarnished truth in saying that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children; and if one wished to characterise the collective mind of this present period, or indeed of any period,—the use it makes of its powers of observation, reflection, logical inference,—one would best do it by the one word immaturity.—Nock, ch. 5, p. 81.
Nock’s undergraduate college—which he does not name in the book—was unique even in its day for its commitment to classical learning, an academic course “fixed and unchangeable as the everlasting hills” (p. 79). Nock praises the preparation his alma mater gave her students for life: “laying a foundation of formative knowledge on which to build a structure of instrumental knowledge” (p. 80), rather than treating instrumental knowledge as its own end and its own means.
I mentioned, in my comments on Chapter 3, the problem of developing a non-market-based standard of valuation for what Nock would like to call good literature, as opposed to bad. In fairness to Nock’s individualist project, it would not be inconsistent for him to aver to a private standard of valuation that is completely subjective: he is not ultimately concerned with determining what everyone else ought to be reading, thinking, and doing. Still, in the paragraph quoted above, he points his readers towards the usefulness of experience, as embodied in and preserved by the long Greek and Latin record of mankind’s history. This usefulness is two-fold. First, experience is valuable in itself for the effect it has on the human soul: the effect of inculcating what Nock describes as maturity. Second, the experience of the classics allows us to judge contemporary people and events in light of the millennia of human existence. Nock has made it his guiding principle that he desires to see the world as it really is; one of the best tools to do that is first to know how it really was. After all, there is nothing new under the sun; Nock scoffs at those who are taken in by easy and time-worn ruses, whether those ruses be the entertainments of a showman who reports an invasion from Mars, or the more down-to-earth—but no less sensational—reporting of purported political crises in every daily newspaper.