In 1946, oil baron William F. Buckley Sr. sent his extremely bright son Bill to Yale University. The father wanted to pass on one book to prepare him to think independently. His household had thousands of books on hand. The book he chose was Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by a family friend named Albert Jay Nock (1870–1945). Nock had died a year earlier, but left this autobiography, nearly as a private family treasure. This book is the ebook of the week in the Spy Briefing Club, released with a new introduction and every conceivable bell and whistle this technology allows. On its release today, it will reach more people than ever before.
The father knew exactly what he was doing. Nock had written that “the effect of keeping good company in literature is exactly what it is in life. Keeping good company is spiritually dynamogenous, elevating, bracing. It makes one better. Keeping bad company is disabling; keeping indifferent company is enervating and retarding.”
The young Bill devoured the book. He carried it all through school. He read and reread it constantly. It shaped him and helped him find an intellectual identity. The father couldn’t have hoped that the son would agree with every word; no one could (or should!). But it taught him to think for himself, and to be critical of all conventional wisdom, especially that pushed by the half-educated phonies who called themselves professors.
At the end of his college experience, Bill wrote God and Man at Yale. It was a literary sensation, or scandal, depending on your point of view. He said what no one else was willing to say: The economics faculty was teaching the Keynesian malarkey that free enterprise doesn’t work, and the religion faculty did not really believe in God. The alumni association was mortified. Shock waves lasted for years.
This book launched his career. Whatever else you can say about William F. Buckley Jr. he defied the conventions, even through his later years when this conservative icon came out against the drug war and refused to enlist in the culture war.
Nock, an innate anarchist who seemed to turn all known truth on its head, was his muse. You can see it in the style; the aloofness; the distance he maintained from the passing fads; the disdain with which he held the mainstream media; the dismissive attitude he had toward the intellectual class and the mandarins of the civic religion; and, most of all, the love of liberty. This was the spirit of Nock at work in Buckley’s life.
About that title, consider this from Nock:
All I ever asked of life was the freedom to think and say exactly what I pleased, when I pleased, and as I pleased. I have always had that freedom, with an immense amount of uncovenanted lagniappe thrown in; and having had it, I always felt I could well afford to let all else alone… it is true that in a society like ours one who takes the course which I have taken must reconcile himself to the status of a superfluous man; but the price seems to me by no means exorbitant and I have paid it gladly, without a shadow of doubt that I was getting all the best of the bargain.
The contents are not a real autobiography, or even a manual for life. The chapters have no titles. It is almost as if the author doesn’t really care whether you read it or not. If you choose to go the whole way, however, he is going to give you the truth as he sees it. It is only sporadically arranged by sequences of events. Just when you think the narrative is settling down, Nock throws in something that shakes you up fundamentally.
The book gives us plenty of quotable passages such as: “As a general principle, I should put it that a man’s country is where the things he loves are most respected. Circumstances may have prevented his ever setting foot there, but it remains his country.”
And: “the State will never tolerate the establishment of economic freedom. In a spirit of sheer conscious fraud, the State will at any time offer its people ‘four freedoms,’ or six, or any number; but it will never let them have economic freedom. If it did, it would be signing its own death warrant.”
And: “I grew up in the conviction that in a truly civilized society the sanctions of taste and manners would have a compelling force at least equal to those of law, religion and morals.”
It is easy to prescribe improvement for others; it is easy to organize something, to institutionalize this or that, to pass laws, multiply bureaucratic agencies, form pressure groups, start revolutions, change forms of government, tinker at political theory. The fact that these expedients have been tried unsuccessfully in every conceivable combination for 6,000 years has not noticeably impaired a credulous unintelligent willingness to keep on trying them again and again.
But this is not a book of bon mots. It is a book of mostly small stories that teach gigantic lessons. The lessons sneak up or are thrown in in auspicious places, in ways that deliver a powerful punch to careful readers. This is why so many readers have tended to treat this treasure as their own private possession, a book they have earned and keep to themselves.
Nock really should be considered alongside the great men of letters of the 20th century. Why is he not widely known? The answer is due in part to his political and economic thought, which was radically anti-statist in a century when the state aspired to omnipotence and omniscience.
Nock’s vision of the social order was blessedly free of such foolishness. He saw society as the product of exchange, cooperation and the individual working his way through the great problem of scarcity, and while the results are not perfect, there is nothing the state can do to improve society; indeed, the state distorts and finally strangles every bit of civilization it touches.
Here it is in one package, an illustration of the level of learning that had been lost with mass education, a picture of the way a true political dissident from our collectivist period thinks about the modern world and a comprehensive argument for the very meaning of freedom and civility — all from a man who helped shape an intellectual response to the triumph of FDR’s welfare-warfare state.
The phrase “Man of Letters” is thrown around casually these days, but A.J. Nock was the real thing. Born in Scranton, Pa., he was home-schooled from the earliest age in Greek and Latin, unbelievably well-read in every field, a natural aristocrat in the best sense of that term.
He combined an old-world cultural sense and a political anarchism that saw the state as the enemy of everything that is civilized, beautiful and true. And he applied this principle consistently in opposition to welfare; government-managed economies; consolidation; and, above all else, war.
Though an old-school Yankee, he completely rejected what came to be the defining trait of his class: the impulse to try to improve others through badgering and coercion:
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 reshaping, re-forming and standardizing people according to a pattern of their own devising — and what a pattern it was, good heavens!
Given such views, it is hardly surprising that he had nothing but contempt for politics, which then and now seeks to manage not only society, but thought.
Nock was thus not an American Tory by any stretch, though his cultural outlook was as highbrow as any landed aristocrat’s. What’s more, unlike the socialist anarchists and most conservatives of today, Nock believed in and understood the crucial importance, even centrality, of economic liberty.
From Nock’s point of view, the Great Depression and the two world wars saddled America with a new faith in the state, and along with it came a shift in people’s loyalties, from themselves, their families and communities to the Grand National Project, whatever it may be. We see the same thing today on the right and left, when questioning any aspect of the War on Terror gets you branded as a heretic to the national religion.
Nock would have nothing to do with it:
I am profoundly thankful that during my formative years I never had contact with any institution under State control; not in school, not in college, nor yet in my three years of irregular graduate study. No attempt was ever made by anyone to indoctrinate me with State-inspired views — or any views, for that matter — of patriotism or nationalism. I was never dragooned into flag worship or hero worship, never was caught in any spate of verbiage about duty to one’s country, never debauched by any of the routine devices hatched by scoundrels for inducing a synthetic devotion to one’s native land and loyalty to its jobholders. Therefore, when later the various aspects of contemporary patriotism and nationalism appeared before me, my mind was wholly unprepossessed, and my view of them was unaffected by any emotional distortion.
What, then, is patriotism, if not faith in one’s government? Can patriotism be considered a virtue at all to the civilized man, and if so, in what does it consist? Consider this passage of immense power:
What is patriotism? Is it loyalty to a spot on a map, marked off from others spots by blue or yellow lines, the spot where one was born? But birth is a pure accident; surely one is in no way responsible for having been born on this spot or on that…. Does patriotism mean loyalty to a political system and its institutions, constitutional, autocratic, republican or whatnot? But if history has made anything unmistakably clear, it is that from the standpoint of the individual and his welfare, these are no more than names.
Nock is sometimes presented as a brooding man who despaired for his country. There seems to be truth in that, but what’s most impressive is how he managed to keep his chin up and find personal joy in fighting evil, or at least exposing it as much as possible.
“All I have done toward the achievement of a happy life has been to follow my nose.… I learned early with Thoreau that a man is rich in proportion to the numbers of things he can afford to let alone; and in view of this I have always considered myself extremely well-to-do.”
Nock was a casual and seemingly superfluous anarchist, a natural aristocrat who refused to be controlled or told how to think. He was, hence, a free man. In that sense, he will always be a great model and teacher, an example of how to be free in a world that will never finally conform to anyone’s ideal.
What did he teach? How to be free in the midst of despotism. It comes down to how you think about the world. Nock gives you the courage to go your own way.