Now, a full century after the middle of his life, Albert Jay Nock remains an enigma, but he also remains one of the most politically-incorrect and least fashionable man of any era, and, of course, an inspiration to those who proclaim the name of Imaginative Conservative.
Recently, to prepare for a lecture I’m giving, I checked out a book from the Mossey (Hillsdale) library—Cognitions by Alfred Jay Nock, a compilation of quotes on a variety of different subjects by the reluctant anarchist. To complicate matters I found the previous “check out” slip in the book. It kind of fell out when I opened Cognitions. Amazingly enough, I was the last person to check the book out, seventeen years ago. I had checked it on September 14, 2005, a mere eight days after my 38th birthday. According the slip, I also checked out two biographies of Nock as well as his Selected Letters. Then, to make matters even more interesting, I did a quick search for Nock on my computer, only to find that I had compiled a rather healthy sampling of quotations myself over various Word files. Indeed, I’m bit overwhelmed at how many notes I had made on the man.
Was I planning on writing something substantial on Nock? A book? An essay? A series of essays? I have no idea now, and I barely have any recollection of taking all those notes. But, I took a lot of them. The Imaginative Conservative did not come into existence until 2010, and a quick Google search reveals that I’ve only previously written two essays in these pages about Nock. I also didn’t use any of the Nock quotations or material for my biography on Russell Kirk (who deeply admired Nock). Nock exists in the Kirk biography, of course, but he really takes second or even third place to quite a few others.
So, my personal and rather extensive notes seem to have gone nowhere. In fact, not only have I found a ton of notes on Nock, but I quickly realized that I had also purchased a personal copy of Cognitions and thus didn’t need the book from Mossey at all. To be fair, though, I’ve collected a lot of Nock’s books over the past two decades, including two copies of Nock’s best work, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. Still, it was fortuitous to check out the book, find the slip, and then chase the mystery.
It would be impossible to be in the conservative world and not, at some level, appreciate Nock, despite his reluctant anarchism and his timid antisemitism (to be fair, Nock said he hated all “folks,” but loved individuals). Dan McCarthy (of the Intercollegiate Studies Insttitue’s Modern Age) is currently writing what will be the seminal biography of the man, and Nock was, arguably, the single most important American non-leftist thinker of the first half of the twentieth century, rivaled only by H.L. Mencken, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More. Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Frank Chodorov, and William F. Buckley all claimed the mantle of Nock in the 1950s, and, really, there could be no post-war conservatism without him.
Yet, again, I must wonder, what was I doing with all those Albert Jay Nock notes?
What strikes me as fascinating is that my admiration of Nock and my seemingly continuous pull back to the man is as much a mystery as the man himself is! The guy was, to put it bluntly, an enigma. In his Memoirs, for example, we find out every thought he ever had, its origin, its evolution, and its end, but we learn absolutely nothing about his actual personal life. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he never mentions that he was once married, had two sons, and had been a priest in the Episcopal Church. It is only in the biographical works about Nock that we get any details, and even those are unsatisfactorily vague.
What do we actually know, factually about the man according to his two biographers? He was born, most likely, in 1870, and he died, most definitely, in 1945. He went to St. Stephen’s College as well as Berkeley (theological school in Massachusetts). He might (that is, MIGHT) have returned to St. Stephen’s for some graduate studies. In 1900, he married and had two children, but, in 1905, he left his entire family and, so it seems, all domestic worries behind him. When asked by a close friend about his wife, Nock only replied, cryptically, that she was perfect. We also know that Nock gave up his life as a priest sometime around 1910, and that he embarked on a career as a writer and editor. He loved Belgium, he taught at the collegiate level for a while, he gave the very famous Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia in 1931, he drank lots of beer, and he despised any form of war and statism (comparing the New Deal to Nazism and Stalinism). He also wrote and published a lot of essays and books.
When it comes to his ideas, though, Nock was as open as any human being ever has been. Indeed, the guy was a walking-talking-writing intellectual biography.
Of his ideas, overall, two remain critical to the modern world.
First, as noted above, Nock feared greatly the power of “The State.” Nock wrote in prose essays the equivalent of the fictional Brave New World, 1984, and That Hideous Strength. The more The State took, the less the people would have. The game surrounding The State and society is absolutely and unrelentingly zero-sum. If the government has “this much,” society does not. If society has “this much,” The State does not. In this, Nock sounded a bit like a zealous Alexis de Tocqueville.
Second, being a champion of individualism and an opponent of radical equality, Nock believed that very few people are educable. They, one and all, could be trained, but only the smallest minority of humans could actually participate in a liberal-arts education. To be sure, Nock loved the classics, and he believed firmly that real education meant teaching the philosophy, literature, and history of the Greek and Roman worlds (2,500 years worth of experience!). All modern education, Nock noted, was actually not education at all, but a whirligig of mere training, with one method constantly replacing another method.
Now, a full century after the middle of his life, Nock remains an enigma, but he also remains one of the most politically-incorrect and least fashionable man of any era, and, of course, an inspiration to those who proclaim the name of Imaginative Conservative.
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The featured image is a photograph of Albert Jay Nock and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.