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Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs Of A Superflous Man

 I recently finished reading Memoirs Of A Superfluous Man, the autobiography of Albert Jay Nock. Reading a huge tome by Jacque Barzun a couple of months back left me with an appetite for the words of cranky,iconoclastic old men and nobody fits the bill for that better than Mr.Nock (in answer to the obvious jokes, no, reading my own blog doesn't cut it.)

Nock was a scholar, journalist and social critic who lived in the first half of the 20th century. His memoirs were written in 1943, 2 years before he died. The title is to a certain extent self-explanatory, but reading the book provides a deeper explanation. In a chapter on his education, he says that a man who is educable (as opposed to trainable in some job skill...a distinction he gives much weight) is "a superfluous man" and that "the more thoroughly his ability to see things as they are is cultivated, the more his superfluity is enhanced."

He was a very private man and initially reluctant to write his memoirs. In his preface he says "my autobiography would be like the famous chapter on owls in Bishop's history of Iceland. The good bishop wrote simply that there are no owls in Iceland, and that one sentence was the whole of his chapter."

He changed his mind when it was "proposed that I should write a purely literary and philosophical autobiography with only enough collateral odds and ends thrown in to hold the narrative together."

The result is a very intellectually nourishing collection of cultural and philosophical ideas.  Above all, he believed in the importance of following Plato's admonition to "see things as they are." He praises Chief Justice Jay for echoing this sentiment when he wrote "I do not expect that mankind will, before the millennium, be what they ought to be...every political theory which does not regard them as being what they are, will prove abortive."

This fundamental principal led him to reject many political movements which were fashionable in his time. While he shared the disdain many felt for the robber barons of the gilded age, he wanted no part of such reforms as inheritance tax and the income tax. He complained that "the reformers did not see that the state, as an arbiter of economic advantage, must necessarily be a potential instrument of economic exploitation." He saw socialists and the moguls who got rich through tariffs as two sides of the same coin.

 He tells a revealing anecdote in which  a "Socialist was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the rich." Nock continues "I had asked him just what it was that he proposed to do when he had got them all properly killed off. 'We have been oppressed' he said 'and now we shall oppress.' I thought he put the matter very well, for I could see no other prospect."

Because he always regarded people as "being what they are", Nock was skeptical of any political attempts for the mass improvement of society. He believed that  Voltaire had the right idea when he said "I will cultivate my garden". That is, we should look at improving ourselves instead of society. In the same paragraph, he says "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." I was impressed that he was able to get Voltaire AND Jesus Christ on his side of the argument.

Nock's writing reflects the mind of a well-read man with an excellent classical education. He quotes Voltaire and Rabelais frequently, and also quotes many ancient Latin and Greek classics, often in the original language. This would come across as showing off from a lot of writers, but it doesn't with him. It's easy to believe he found this the simplest and most natural way to express himself. It's what you would expect from someone who started teaching himself Latin and Greek at the age of 8.

Even when I don't understand the references, the way he uses them not only makes his point but convinces me that he is making it in the best way possible. For instance, he says of  a German immigrant woman he once befriended "the epitaph that Callimachus wrote for the sweet-spirited Samian girl who died so young...always puts me in mind of her." He put the original Greek quote where I have an ellipsis. I don't know what the hell it means. But he made me believe that this was a very lovely woman, and that she was lovely in the same way as that poor Samian girl. That's not showing off, that's good writing.