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The wisdom of Albert Jay Nock

March 4, 2011

I finished Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock, an intellectual autobiography of sorts written in 1943.  I highly encourage reading as much of Nock as an individual can find: luckily, the Mises Institute has free e-books of Memoirs, along with a handful of others and various articles.  I’ve selected some especially relevant quotations from Memoirs:

It is certainly true that whatever a man may do or say, the most significant thing about him is what he thinks; and significant also is how he came to think it, why he continued to think it, or, if he did not continue, what the influences were which caused him to change his mind. -Preface
I always think of this when I see a file of soldiers, wondering why the sound of a drum does not incite them to shoot their officers, throw away their rifles, go home, and go to work.  Why, instead of producing this effect which seems natural and reasonable, does it produce one which seems exactly the opposite?


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 re-shaping, re-forming and standardising people according to a pattern of their own devising–and what a patter it was, good heavens! when one came to examine it.  It seemed to me, in short, a society fundamentally and profoundly ill-bred.  A very small experience of it was enough to convince me that Cain’s heresy was not altogether without reason or without merit; and that conviction quickly ripened into a great horror of every attempt to change anybody; or I should rather say, every wish to change anybody, for that is the important thing.  The attempt is relatively immaterial, perhaps, for it is usually its own undoing, but the moment one wishes to change anybody, one becomes like the socialists, vegetarians, prohibitionists; and this, as Rabelais says, “is a terrible thing to think upon.” -25

American society is the only one which has passed directly from barbarism into decadence without once knowing civilisation. -28 *Quoting an unnamed French writer

By way of corollary I became convinced that expediency is the worst possible guide of life. -31

Henry Adams said that the succession of Presidents from Washington to Grant was almost enough in itself to upset the whole Darwinian theory; and if he had lived to see the succession extended to the present time he would perhaps say it was quite enough. -45

[On universal literacy] It enables mediocrity and sub-mediocrity to run rampant, to the detriment of both intelligence and taste.  In a word, it puts into a people’s hands and instrument which very few can use, but which everyone supposes himself fully able to use; and the mischief thus wrought is very great.  My observations leave me no chance of doubt about the side on which the balance of social advantage lies, but I do not by any means insist that it does lie there.



Nevertheless there was an anomaly here.  We were all supposed to respect our government and its laws, yet by all accounts those who were charged with the conduct of government and the making of its laws were most dreadful swine; indeed, the very conditions of their tenure precluded their being anything else.  For a moment I wondered why this should be so; but my wonderment almost immediately petered out, and I did not brood over the rationale of politics again for a great many years. -53

Justice is always the same in the case of men and things you do not like, as in the case of those you do like. -77

Very often the appearance of justice is as important as the substance of justice. -78

The French Revolution liberated the idea of the individual’s right of self-expression in politics; the Russian Revolution liberated the idea that politics are governed by economics,–the idea which John Adams held to so staunchly, and which marked him as being a century and a half ahead of his time. -87

Above all things the mass-mind is most bitterly resentful of superiority. -88

The test of a great mind is its power of agreement with the opinions of small minds (J.S. Mill). -88

The prime postulate of democracy is that there shall be nothing for anybody to enjoy that is not open for everybody to enjoy. -88

[On the education system] It failed, as many a good system has failed, through getting into bad hands. -92


[On politics] it seemed to follow that the two luxuries which a good statesman must rigorously deny himself during business hours are conscience and sentiment. -105

I should take it as pretty good evidence that absolutism can flourish about as luxuriantly under republicanism as under an autocracy. -114

I could see that injustice and oppression were likely to follow when great capitalists were in a position of State-created economic advantage…but the same results seemed as likely to follow where small capitalists or non-capitalists were in a similarly privileged position. -119

The reformers themselves apparently did not see that the State, as an arbiter of economic advantage, must necessarily be a potential instrument of economic exploitation. -119

The object of the tussle was the material gains accruing from control of the State’s machinery.  It is easier to seize wealth than to produce it; and as long as the state makes the seizure of wealth a matter of legalised privilege, so long will the squabble for that privilege go on.  As John Adams had so correctly foreseen, the few more sagacious mass-men will be continually trying to outwit the many who are less sagacious, and the many will in turn be trying to overpower the few by sheer force of numbers. -121

Their acceptance of the State as a social institution amazed me, since its anti-social character was so plainly visible, and their idea of mankind’s leading qualities and motives seemed as unrealistic as Juvenal’s observations on boars and tigers. -122

Speaking after the manner of men, you got a play for your money with the old-crusted Tory, as at the other end of the scale I think you would with the honest outright uncompromising radical.  But one never knew what Liberals would do, and their power of self-persuasion is such that only God knows what they would not do…on every point of conventional morality, all the Liberals I have personally known were very trustworthy…but on any point of intellectual integrity, there is not one of them whom I would trust for ten minutes alone in a room with a red-hot stove, unless the stove were comparatively valueless.


[On women’s suffrage] Practically, I thought it would turn out as it has done; I thought it would do no good and no harm. -126

[On the philosophy of Henry George] All this appeared to me sound enough, but the attempt to realise it through political action seemed the acme of absurdity. -128

As against a Jesus, the historic choice of the mass-man goes regularly to some Barabbas.

[Epstean’s law]Man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion. -133

“For us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” (Burke) -147
This is one of many indications pointing to the great truth which apparently must forever remain unlearned, that if a régime of complete economic freedom be established, social and political freedom will follow automatically; and until it is established neither social nor political freedom can exist.  Here one comes in sight of the reason why 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, for as Lenin pointed out, “it is nonsense to make any pretence of reconciling the State and liberty.”  Our economic system being what it is, and the State being what it is, all the mass of verbiage about “the free peoples” and “the free democracies” is merely so much obscene buffoonery. -211

I could find no objection to this on moral grounds, since by no conjuration can warfare be thought of as either more or less than organised assassination and robbery. -242

Another strange notion pervading whole peoples is that the State has money of its own; and nowhere is this absurdity more firmly fixed than in America.  The State has no money.  It produces nothing.  Its existence is purely parasitic, maintained by taxation; that is to say, by forced levies on the production of others.  “Government money,” of which one hears so much nowadays, does not exist; there is no such thing. -246

The sum of my observations was that during the last twenty years money has been largely diverted from its function as a mere convenience, a medium of exchange, a sort of general claim-check on production, and has been slily knaved into an instrument of political power. -247

In the second place, why should education be expected to “take” in a society where the qualities of intelligence and wisdom are of necessity classified not even as by-products of its corporate life, but as waste-products?  These qualities notoriously play no part in the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth, and therefore a social philosophy which regards this process as accounting for the whole content and purpose of mankind’s existence must write them off as so much slag. -279

Coercive collectivism was on its way throughout the Western world, and logically the first thing for the coercive collectivist State to do, as soon as it had got itself well established, would be to shut down firmly on all instruction which did not bear intensively on conditioning its children and young people to an unquestioning ex animo acceptance of the State’s will; and this would of course do away with even the sleaziest sort of education. -280

[Quoting Carlton J. H. Hayes on nationalism] Nowadays the individual is born into the State, and the secular registration of birth is the national rite of baptism.  With tender solicitude the State follows the individual through life, teaching him in patriotic schools the national catechism, and commemorating his vital crises by formal registration not only of his birth, but likewise of his marriage, of the birth of his children, and of his death.  And the death of national potentates and heroes is celebrated by patriotic pomp and circumstance that make the obsequies of a mediæval bishop seem drab. . . .Nationalism’s chief symbol of faith and central object of morality is the flag, and curious liturgical forms have been devised for ‘saluting’ the flag, for ‘dipping’ the flag, and for ‘hoisting’ the flag. . . . Nationalism has its parades, processions and pilgrimages.  It has, moreover, its distinctive holy days, and just as the Christian Church adapted certain pagan festivals to its own use, so the National State has naturally borrowed from Christianity. . . . Every national State has a ‘theology,’ a more or less systematised body of official doctrines which have been deduced from the precepts of the ‘Fathers’ and from admonitions of the national scriptures, and which reflect the ‘genius of the people’ and constitute a guide to national behavior. -281

[Quoting Benjamin Whichcote] “Men have an itch rather to make religion than to practice it.”  Conduct is the final thing, and dogmatic constructions which fail to give proof of themselves in bringing forth conduct are worse than useless. -295

I merely observe that I have never been able to see “society” otherwise than as a concourse of very various individuals about which, as a whole, not many general statements can be safely made. -306

If mankind really have an unquenchable love for freedom, I thought it strange that I saw so little evidence of it; and as a matter of fact, from that day to this I have seen none worth noticing. -313

[On the idea that mankind loves liberty above all things] Since then [1776 and 1789] it has done yeoman’s service to an unbroken succession of knaves intent on exploiting the name and appearance of freedom before mankind, while depriving them of the reality.  Such is the immense irony of history. -315

Like Ibsen and Henry George, I have little respect for political revolutions, for I never knew of one which in the long-run did not cost more than it came to. -315

All I ever asked of life was the freedom to think and say exactly what I pleased, when I pleased, and as I pleased. -321

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