All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 1997

The Disadvantages of Being Educated edited by Robert M. Thornton

A Semi-Religious Experience

Hallberg Publishing Corp., Tampa, Florida 33623 • 1996 • 221 pages • $14.95 paperback

The Reverend Mr. Opitz served on the senior staff of The Foundation for Economic Education for 37 years. Now retired, he continues to serve FEE as a Trustee, and as a contributing editor of The Freeman.

The Disadvantages of Being Educated is an event, of sorts; it gathers together essays little noticed, perhaps, nor long remembered . . . except by those who have come to appreciate Albert Jay Nock’s vast learning, his wit, and his unembroidered literary style. This book is good news; the editor is thoroughly familiar with the entire range of Nock’s writing, and it may be assumed that these essays are his favorites.

Robert Thornton, the editor of this admirable collection, was the prime mover behind the scenes of the Nock renewal that began to surface during the late fifties. In 1963 he, a businessman, assembled two kindred spirits—a neurosurgeon and a minister—and over a convivial luncheon the Nockian Society began to emerge. It was not to be just another organization: God forbid! The three of us contemplated a kind of clearinghouse operation with an occasional newsletter carrying items of interest to men and women who had been touched by Nock’s writing. On our masthead were the words: No Meetings; No Officers; No Dues. This was to be a society that kept out of members’ way; the next best thing, observed someone, to no society at all! It was basically a mailing list plus a real person to answer the phone. Over the years the Society’s mailing list grew to nearly 700 names.

The Society had no expenses except postage. Members, from time to time, would send a gift to cover that. Occasionally we would turn up a rare, out-of-print Nock title and auction it off through the newsletter. Our first Society publication was a wonderful collection of Nock’s thoughts on a variety of topics, assembled by Robert Thornton and entitled Cogitations from Albert Jay Nock, 120 pages. This appeared in 1970 to mark the centenary of Nock’s birth. It has gone through three printings: our bestseller.

Most readers of this review know Nock, at least by name. One hopes that they gained some acquaintance with the man himself, and his career, in Jim Powell’s splendid essay on Nock in the March 1997 Freeman. In the same issue is a reprint of Nock’s most popular essay, Isaiah’s Job, which first appeared in print in Harper’s in 1936. The Foundation for Economic Education issued it in pamphlet form in the early fifties and has put nearly a million copies into print during the past 45 years.

There was an early Freeman launched in 1920 with Nock as editor. He authored many articles in addition to his editorials. Funds ran out in 1924 and Nock sailed off for the Continent, where he lived during most of the next 16 years. It was a period of intense literary activity. In 1926, his classic Jefferson appeared, to mark the centenary of our third president’s death. Half a dozen years later he gave a course of lectures at the University of Virginia, which became the book The Theory of Education in the United States. A steady flow of essays from Nock’s pen during the 1930s appeared in quality magazines and then in book form. He wrote a learned book on Rabelais and in 1931 published a definitive annotated edition of The Works of Francis Rabelais in two huge volumes. Our Enemy, the State appeared in 1935 and has been the subject of some controversy ever since concerning the distinction Nock makes between Government and The State; essentially it is the same distinction made by Bastiat between The Law, whose purpose is justice between persons, and The Law perverted to advantage some at the expense of others. This arrangement is clear in the case of the Norman Conquest of England. The Normans parceled out the land—20 percent to the king, 25 percent to The Church, and the rest to 170 Norman noblemen. Such a regime is The State, and may have been the kind of thing that Ludwig von Mises had in mind when he pointed out that All ownership derives from occupation and violence. (Socialism, p. 32 and Human Action, p. 679) Nock’s words clarify the issue: . . . when society deprives The State of the power to make positive interventions on the individual—power to exercise positive coercion on him in his economic and social life—then at once the State goes out of existence, and what remains is government . . . government as contemplated by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration, by Paine, by Franklin, and the 18th century British Whigs and Liberals. That’s all. But, as Nock pointed out in another context, most people do not want a government that will let them alone; they want a government they can use to their own advantage, and at the expense of everyone else, i.e., they want The State.

After Nock returned to the United States in 1940, an old publisher friend began badgering him to write his autobiography. Nock had always felt that his private life was nobody’s business but his own. So the publisher tried a different tack: Why not make this the autobiography of a mind; how you arrived at the philosophy you live by, how you would explain and defend the ideas you’ve made your own, what first attracted you to them, and how they have served you? Nock was intrigued and set to work on what became Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. It’s a dull fellow indeed who can read this book and not be deeply moved by it. Ideas begin to bulge and fever in the brain; there are birth pangs, growth hurts! Your reading program changes as you chase down some of the titles Nock discusses; you are going through what might be termed a semi-religious experience. Nock never did seek a following in the customary understanding of that term. What he did was generate new perspectives in a reader, and a new mood; operate on your own steam and you begin to develop strength from within, also from around and above. There are Nockians and incipient Nockians in unexpected places; a zestful crew if ever there was one!

So, how does one get started? Well, you start by reading the essays, seventeen of them, in The Disadvantages of Being Educated, 221 pages of superb writing. The friendly publisher has designed a very attractive high-quality paperback, and Mr. Thornton, the secretary of The Nockian Society, contributes a fine introduction. You may contact The Nockian Society at 42 Leathers Road, Fort Mitchell, Kentucky 41017. Intellectual adventure lies ahead.

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.