The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism, by Albert Jay Nock, edited by Charles Hamilton, Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 340 pages, $20.00/7.50 paper
Albert Jay Nock was one of the greatest libertarian writers of this century—and one of the most obscure. Nock's obscurity has two causes. First, few of his books are in print, and they are published only by small publishers. Second, Nock's disciples absorbed only the portions of his thought that suited them. Libertarians elaborated on Nock's economic ideas; conservatives latched onto his elitism. As a result, notes Charles Hamilton, the editor of this volume, "a full appreciation for Nock's enduring contribution to American social criticism gets lost as factions on the right cut and paste from Nock whatever suits them."
Albert Jay Nock was born in 1870 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and died in 1945. He graduated from St. Stephen's (now Bard) College. The school's curriculum left Nock with a deep and enduring love both for traditional virtues and for the Greek and Latin classics. After graduation, Nock became an Episcopal minister, married, and had two sons.
In 1908 Nock went through a spiritual crisis that caused him to leave the church, abandon his wife and family, and become a journalist. He moved to New York and joined the staff of The American Magazine, a leading muckraking journal of the day, where he wrote political profiles and exposés of racism and corruption in small towns. In 1920, Nock became editor of the classical-liberal journal The Freeman. When The Freeman ceased publication in 1924, Nock began a career as an essayist. This book consists mostly of essays written by Nock in the last decades of his life. In these essays, Nock returns time and again to his three great themes—personal responsibility, the importance of tradition and high culture, and the need to shrink the state.
Consider the 1936 article "Isaiah's Job." One of Nock's most important works, this essay introduces his notion of "the Remnant," the few people in any culture able and willing to absorb challenging ideas. Conservatives in the 1950s were fascinated by this notion, declaring themselves the Remnant and the rest of the country liberals in dire need of salvation. Yet these conservatives failed to heed Nock's advice in the first part of this essay, where he denounced the "tyranny of windiness" that results when anyone who has a message for the masses loudly proclaims the eternal truth of his particular political viewpoint.
Although Nock had firm political views, he wasn't a joiner or a crusader. Bitterly opposed to the New Deal, Nock nevertheless refused to work for anti-New Deal organizations such as the American Liberty League. In one of his last essays, unpublished until this book, Nock prided himself on his flinty, uncompromising independence of thought. "Although I am well known as an exponent of individualism's philosophy, I have never made a single personal disciple," Nock wrote in 1944. "I have not only never tried, but never even wished, to make one."
This aspect of Nock's thought wasn't transmitted to future generations. When Nock stresses the importance of tradition and the past, he is an intellectual ancestor of such conservatives as Russell Kirk and Thomas Fleming. When he denounces government and bureaucracy, he uses arguments most libertarians will find familiar. But when he teaches the importance of distrusting ideologues and thinking for yourself, he resembles no contemporary political commentator.
Nock's writing acts as a gentle, but necessary, reminder that the good life is more than winning converts to a political cause. In the age of the sound bite and "The McLaughlin Group," Nock's anti-ideological beliefs ensure that his work is more pertinent than ever.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Brief Review".