Nock: An Appreciation
AUGUST 01, 1979 by RONALD F. COONEY
Mr. Cooney is a free-lance writer in Berkeley, California.
The wise social philosophers were those who merely hung up their ideas and left them hanging, for men to look at or to pass by, as they chose. Jesus and Socrates did not even trouble to write theirs out, and Marcus Aurelius wrote his only in crabbed memoranda for his own use, never thinking anyone else would see them.
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The above quotation is from A Journal of These Days by Albert Jay Nock. It is revealing because it describes precisely the way Nock’s own thoughts were presented to the world, a world—to judge by Nock’s writings—in which he was not often comfortably at home. Yet there was so little intellectual vanity in him that he could not, one feels, have been terribly desolated by the knowledge that his ideas were neither widely endorsed nor adopted. The fact that those ideas were not (and are not) instantly popular may indeed be proof of their basic soundness. But for Nock, it was enough to be able to offer his opinions, not caring a fig if people liked them or agreed with him. It was the search for truth which led him to the ideas, and not the fruits of acceptance or approval, that mattered to him.
Nock was far from the dogmatist who, besides believing passionately in something, is only really content when he can hammer his convictions into as many ears as he can find and drag his hearers—willing or not—around to his point of view. He was a man of strong beliefs, but he lacked the missionary zeal to force them on others. He, as he says, "left them hanging." The point remains that Nock, like his spiritual mentor Montaigne, was animated by and built his thought upon a flinty skepticism. Like Socrates and Jesus, he was a gadfly, a man who stood apart from the prevailing wisdom of the time and tendered his doubts, whatever the consequences.
As a social critic, Nock wrote upon a variety of subjects. I mean to concentrate mainly on his political writing for it seems to contain the true essence of his thought. The worth of any philosopher can be judged by the extent to which the issues he raises still live in the contemporary age. In the area of the relationship between the state and society, Nock made a lasting and unique contribution—one which is as relevant today as when he lived. Such, however, is the unity of Nock’s work that one may, by examining a part, come to comprehend the whole.
State vs. Society
For Nock, the conflict between state and society arises from their different and incompatible sources. An individualist to the core, he was never able, he admits, to conceive of society as more than "a concourse of various individuals." Society is best served when its members are left to their own devices, when each individual pursues his own interests according to his lights.
The state, on the other hand, has interests of its own, which Nock insists are not synonymous with those of society:
The interests of society and of the State do not coincide; any pretense that they can be made to coincide is sheer nonsense. Society gets on best when people are most happy and contented, which they are when freest to do as they please and what they please; hence society’s interest is in having as little government as possible, and in keeping it as decentralized as possible. The State, on the other hand, is administered by jobholders; hence its interest is in having as much government as possible.
Nock does not hold with the view that the state represents society, and that it came into being for the purpose of accomplishing those things which people cannot do for themselves. He draws a distinction between the state and government. The former is distinguished by the fact that it is not limited (as is mere government) to negative interventions into the lives of society’s members (e.g., providing a free and accessible system ofjustice), but intervenes daily in a positive, which is to say active, way (e.g., enacting ironically misnamed "social" legislation).
Nock makes the point again and again that increases in state power beyond the boundaries of negative intervention are made always at the expense of social power—the purely voluntary reflexes of free people.
Each incursion by the state into the realm of social power leads to a corresponding diminution of social power and a resulting decline in individual liberty. What happens, in effect, is that society either willingly abrogates its responsibilities or has them usurped by the state.
Collectivists and those similarly inclined like to speak with grand vagueness about the "larger good" and about putting the interest of society before personal—and they always assume, base—interests. The implication, of course, is that society’s needs are not only differ-rent from but greater and more noble than those of a single person. Nock would scoff at any such notion. What, he would ask, is a society but the individuals who make it up? In his mind, the distinction has no meaning. A society is not something beyond individuals but is individuals.
Up to this point Nock’s ideas are close to or even derived from those of Herbert Spencer. But Nock was, if that is possible, more critical of the state—both of its nature and of its effects—than Spencer. The English philosopher, great libertarian that he was, wrote little about the economic exploitation that is found under a statist regime. The subject was of fundamental importance to Nock, and in fact he traces the ancestry of the state to that very exploitation:
The positive testimony of history is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation. No primitive State known to history originated in any other manner. On the negative side, it has been proved peradventure that no primitive State could possibly have had any other origin. Moreover, the sole invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another.
The modern state, argues Nock, pursues identical ends of confiscation through different and more sophisticated means. This exploitation may be disguised and carried out for "good" purposes but is not beneficial to society. It is part of the instinct of self-perpetuation within the nature of the state. Economic freedom is a Nockian first principle.
Nock understands that modern man is an economic creature and that power—social or state—resides to a large degree in economic factors. He sees quite clearly that an individual’s social liberty is bound indivisibly to his economic liberty. And as men and women should be able to associate, to speak, and to exchange ideas freely, so they should enjoy a like freedom in their economic associations. The advent of economic freedom would, Nock feels, deal a grievous wound to state power, and the political freedom which followed as a natural consequence would supply the coup de grace. It is impossible to envision the state allowing either, for that would mean that it would be signing its own death warrant.
Two Kinds of Power
Nock’s views on economic tyranny form a powerful rebuttal to the charge that capitalism—the freest of all economic systems—is intrinsically exploitative. They are also of a piece with his insightful criticism that the state, whatever its pretenses to the contrary, lacks the necessary quality of disinterestedness. He recognizes that the people who are employed in administering the state’s every whim, the jobholders and bureaucrats, have no reason to cut down the state’s sphere of influence but an active interest in seeing that it is expanded. Living as he did at the high tide of the New Deal, Nock was ideally situated to observe how those elected to power utilized for political gain the various apparatus they controlled.
He was less than sanguine about the social order being ushered in by the Roosevelt administration. He believed that the state could have an influence on society but he was convinced that that influence was inevitably malign. He saw the effects on society—once again—as effects on individuals. As state power increases, moral judgment and individual responsibility decline, self-reliance weakens, and independent thought, never very hearty, dies of a wasting disease.
Reading Nock on these matters can be a bracing and tonic experience, but it can prove depressing, especially when one sees how closely events have paralleled Nock’s warnings. One wants to ask: was Nock a complete pessimist, a man who saw the people of the world sliding into some modern statist barbarism? Certainly he was too clear-sighted to exude, in defiance of all the evidence around him, a hollow optimism about the future. But neither was he a resigned monger of gloom, blindly raging against the march of history.
Ambrose Bierce, himself the archetypal bitter cynic—once defined a conservative as a man enamored of present evils in contrast to a liberal who wants to replace them with others. Nock, true to his nature, cannot be safely lodged in either half of Bierce’s definition. He did not pine for some mythical golden age, but he found in the present very little that was to his liking.
One might assume then that Nock was in accord with the various reform movements that took place during his lifetime. Nock was not the sort of man to remain uncritical or to wrap complacency around him like a shroud. He regarded reform movements as ill-starred and ineffectual. He had observed many such movements and the vast majority had failed "due to their incorrigible superficiality." Reforms, to his mind, do not attack the problems of society at their source. Reform movements symbolize action without thought. They are conceived in impatience and reared in haste. They are based on an insufficient understanding of institutions and human beings. They represent a cosmetic solution of any problem, and ignore completely the factor—human nature—that is the source of most of them.
True Reform Begins with Self-Improvement
Nock knew that the great appeal of reforming movements is their promise of an instantaneous and observable improvement in conditions. People are drawn to them because they hold out the hope, however slight, of the quick and easy alleviation of social problems by modifying what Nock called the "mechanics" of society. But he knew also that the only reform worth the effort, and the only one with any chance of final and lasting success, was the difficult and painful task of each person to first reform himself:
The only thing that the psychically-human being can do to improve society is to present society with one improved unit. In a word ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method which Jesus apparently regarded as the only one whereby the kingdom of Heaven can be established as a going concern; that is, the method of each one doing his very best to improve one.
That statement sums up rather neatly the Nockian philosophy as a whole. I suppose that, in strictly academic terms, Nock would not be considered a philosopher at all. He didn’t construct any complicated system which proposed to answer all the universal questions. He would, no doubt, be thought of as too commonsensical. The strange thing about common sense, however, is its ever-increasing rarity. It is a compliment to Nock to say that he possessed common sense to a quite uncommon degree. His sharp and diamond-like prose refracted his thought to a high brilliance. In his works, one finds a great amount of heat, but no less amount of light.
One finds also a complete absence of what Mencken called the "messianic delusion." Nock wrote only with the aim of saying what he thought, and not swaying great masses of people or bludgeoning them into believing as he did. There was a serene integrity in Nock’s character which shows through every word he wrote. Nock wrote of "the remnant," a group of people bound together by nothing more than their desire to achieve self-reformation, and practice of independent and disinterested thought. Nock would not have sought to be the remnant’s "leader" but the title belongs to him nonetheless. For his life and work embodied the admonition that must stand as the remnant’s motto: "Know thyself."
How Ideas Grow
We can all no doubt remember having found ourselves suddenly under the influence of an idea, the source of which we cannot possibly identify. "It came to us afterward," as we say; that is, we are aware of it only after it has shot up full-grown in our minds, leaving us quite ignorant of how and when and by what agency it was planted there and left to germinate. . . .
For some time it is inert; then it begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man’s conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it. Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance, and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.
–Albert Jay Nock, “Isiah’s Job”