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Robert Hickson

7 February 2015
King Saint Richard of Wessex (d. 720)
Saint Romuald (d.1027)

The Farsightedness and Omissions of a Professed "Superfluous Man":
The Intellectual Journey of Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945)

--Epigraphs-“By the look of things [as of 1 September 1935], my book on the State [i.e., Our
Enemy, The State (1935)] will be out about the right time; and I am putting a
couple of articles in the Atlantic this fall that ought to get a little notice. I do not
expect anything from any of it, except as regards the Remnant. You remember
that when the Lord ordered Isaiah off on his preaching expedition, he told him
that it would not amount to anything, nobody would pay any attention but would
go his own way, and finally everything would go to pot. Then when Isaiah asked
what was the use of preaching, the Lord said that there was a Remnant there
that nobody knew anything about, and that when the system had all gone to the
devil and there had to be a new start made, they were the ones who would do it.
Meanwhile Isaiah's job was to take care of the Remnant. Maybe it is a good
job. I like to think of the story once in a while, anyway.” (Albert Jay Nock, Letters
from Albert Jay Nock, 1924-1945 (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, LTD.,
1949), p. 76—my emphasis added. This Letter to his close friend Ellen Winsor
was written from Brussels, Belgium and dated 31 August 1935.)
“My summer [of 1929] ….was passed in France, where I have been migrating
around in the Touraine and the Poitu, mostly in very small out-of-the-way places,
on the trail of my old friend [Reverend Father] Francois Rabelais, who spent most
of his youth and middle years in these parts. Last winter [1928] I wrote an essay
on him with a young Oxford M.A. [Catherine Rose Wilson], which Harpers [the
Magazine] ought to have on the market by this time, though I have heard nothing
of it....I hope you will read my essay, for it was a labour of love and gratitude.
Rabelais was one of the world's great libertarians, and if I can do anything for
him with American readers of the more thoughtful kind, I shall be truly happy:
he has been a stay and support to my spirit for thirty years, and I could not
possibly have got through without him, especially during the war [the World
War of 1914-1918]. What I am really aiming to do is to publish about a year from
now an annotated and illustrated edition of the great Urquhart and Motteux
translation of Rabelais. It is well on its way now, and would have been done long
ago but that, like all such work, it is a great strain on one's resources. But if I can
only keep alive and healthy another year, I can count on its being done, I think—
and then I don't care if I never do anything more.” (Albert Jay Nock, Letters

from Albert Jay Nock, 1924-1945, pp. 39-40—my emphasis added. This Letter of
29 September 1929 was written from Poitiers and addressed to Mrs. Edmund C.
Evans, a close friend. The Two-Volume work on Rabelais was published in 1931.)
“You will have the satisfaction of seeing this [forthcoming] book [Our Enemy,
The State] work in just the way the Freeman [the Journal] worked—quietly and
persistently undermining the strongholds of superstition, and as [Edmund]
Burke said, 'disposing people to a better sense of their condition'....But in
doctrine I remain individualist and catholic....[For example,] The question of the
injection of land values into British politics [both by the Liberals in 1910 and by
Labour now, in 1926] will result inevitably, as [President] John Adams said, in 'a
change of impostors'—in a new lot of slippery fellows getting in on the strength
of it....Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson said that when a man gets his eye on public office
'a rottenness begins in his conduct,' just as it would in mine....The ethical sense
is certainly absent from every consideration of public affairs....One more thing I
want to say [in this June of 1933]. Don't think you can't do what you wish to
do. No one knows what he can do. Remember “the spirit blows where it will,”
and one seems to have very little conscious share in the best things one does—
they seem to come out of one's Unbewusstsein [one's Unconsciousness], to a great
extent, and who can tell what is there? So go at it with an easy mind and in
confidence and reasonable patience, and no misgivings. If you fail, it won't take
long, and you will have had the fun and discipline of trying—as [Rabelais']
Panurge said in the storm [at sea], 'We can but perish, and that's soon
done'....I came up from Portugal on a Dutch ship four days ago [in July of 1933],
and I do assure you it seems monstrous good to be among the suffering [yet highly
cultured] Belgians once more [even in the incipient Economic Depression in
Europe]. I rather doubt there being any serious inflation [imminent], so don't start
home [to the U.S. yet]....I agree with you, however, that F.D.R. [President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and those fool [Liberal] advisors of his are in for
a skinning. What a grand job-lot of human sculch that was, which he sent
over to London to go against the best assorted scoundrels of all
Europe!....Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right [especially after the
Unjust and Vengeful Treaty of Versailles, 28 June 1919]....Franklin [i.e., President
F.D.R.] has assembled the most extraordinary aggregation of quacks ever seen
in this Country since the death of P.T. Barnum [d.1891, and in his 1871
Circus]. I never dreamed of such charlatanism and mountebankery as I now
see [in this late October of 1933]. There seems to be no opposition of a political
character, and no serious criticism worth speaking of.” (Albert Jay Nock,
Letters from Albert Jay Nock, 1924-1945, pp. 20, 23, 44, 55, 56, 58—my emphasis
added. These thematically interwoven quotations come from a sequence of
personal Letters to his close friend, Mrs. Edmund C. Evans, most of which come
from Brussels, Belgium, only the last selection being from New York City.)


“My course of reading, initiated by [Max] Nordau's work [Degeneration
(Entartung), 1892, 1895] and supplemented by observation of current affairs as
well as by my conversation with C. J. [Nock's learned, deeply formative and close
older friend], impressed on me the basic fact that western society was entirely
given over to economism [i.e, to “the bacteria of economism and Statism”
(164)]. It had no other philosophy; apparently it did not know there was any other.
It [i.e., “the blight of economism” (159)] interpreted the whole of human life
in terms of the production, acquisition, and distribution of wealth....This word
[economism] is not in any dictionary, as far as I know. I use it because my only
alternative is materialism, which is ambiguous and inexact....Three months after I
had left college with my bachelor's degree, I [had] read a remarkable work called
Degeneration, written by an able Hungarian Jew, Max Nordau. In it he
described this contemporary spirit [manifest just then at the turn into the twentieth
century] as 'a mixture of febrile restlessness and defeatist discouragement, of
fear for the future and skulking resignation. The prevalent sense is one of
impending destruction and extinction' [and it was felt just before the outbreak of
World War I in 1914].” (Albert Jay Nock, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
(Chicago: Henry Regnery Company—a Gateway Edition, 1964; first published
in 1943), pp. 111, 108—my emphasis added, with the page-sequence designedly
reversed, and to include an explanatory footnote by Nock himself.)
“I am not sure [,however,]...that the final end and aim of education,—the
ability to see things as they are,—should any longer be taken into account. The
question at issue is, obviously, whether the educable person [as distinct from the
merely trained person] can any longer be regarded as a social asset; or, indeed,
whether in time past his [the educable man's] value as a social asset has not been
overestimated. As I came to understand much later, the final answer must be
referable to the previous question, What is man? [And also, What is man for?]
On one theory of man's place in nature, the final answer [about his being still a
social asset] would be yes, and on another, no. The immediate answer, however,
I should say would be in the negative. In a society essentially neolithic, as ours
unquestionably is at the moment [in 1943],—whatever one might hold its
evolutionary possibilities to be,—there can be no place found for an educable
person but such as a trainable person could fill as well or even better; he [the
reflective, well-formed educable person] becomes a superfluous man; and the
more thoroughly his ability to see things as they are is cultivated, the more his
superfluity is enhanced. As the process of general barbarisation goes on, as its
speed accelerates, as its calamitous consequences recur with ever-increasing
frequency and violence, the educable person can only take shelter against his
insensate fellow-beings, as Plato says, like a man crouching behind a wall against
a whirlwind.” (Albert Jay Nock, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, p. 95—my
emphasis added)


It is now nearly forty-five years ago that Albert Jay Nock's intellectual autobiography was first
recommended to me by a well-respected and graciously well-mannered “Epicurean Conservative”
Professor at the University; and I was at once arrested by its title: The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man
(1943). My first question to Professor John Shelton Reed was: “Why was he superfluous?”
Soon, with the help of Professor Reed, I was to discover some of those reasons. 1 But I was still
too young and callow and intellectually immature to understand Nock's highly differentiated and
tonally nuanced book in 1971, which was the first time I read it—and it may still be the case today after
all these years and after so much earnest study on mine own.
Yet, I still remember the fresh charm of Albert Jay Nock's narrative persona and his colloquial
diction and colloquial phrases, often in deft combination with his more Latinate learned language
(“secular thimblerigging” and “some flatulent political thimblerigger,” or “flagitious imperialism” and
“emetic efficiency”; “shilly-shallying indecision” while “under domestic dragooning” and the “itch” for
“pestilent meddlings”!). And, most importantly, there were his challenging and unmistakably fresh
insights about a variety of topics, as he tried to articulate his own intellectual journey and the reasons
for “the practical philosophy of existence” he finally came to affirm and hold. The reader himself could
come to understand a little of that nourishing variety and trenchant reflectiveness merely by reading,
and then savoring, the four distinctive passages I have chosen to place in the Epigraphs at the beginning
of this essay.
After I recently read almost entirely two of Nock's published collections of Letters to Friends, I at
once decided to read freshly again after all these years The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.
1 By his gradually introducing drop-by-drop his own reasons for considering himself a “superfluous” man amidst the
prevailing standards and public ethos in America, we may also thereby come to appreciate by the end of the book Albert
Jay Nock's fuller rationale for his firm conviction and consequent courage. Throughout The Memoirs of A Superfluous
Man, Nock unexpectedly presents the word “superfluous,” for example, on pages 91-92, 112, and 321-322: “Like a very
gracious man, he laughed [being himself the University President] … but it seemed to be clear to both of us that I should
be eminently a superfluous man in the realm of modern pedagogy, so we got no further [with his invitation to have me
teach there at his university as a professor]” (91-92); “Now I was looking at the great avatars [the embodiments] of their
practical philosophy [of “economism”] .... I asked myself whether any amount of wealth would be worth having if,—as
one most evidently must—if one had to become just like these men in order to get it. To me, at least, decidedly it would
not; I should be a superfluous man in the scuffle for riches. I observed their qualities and practices closely, considered
the furniture of their minds, remarked their scale of values, and could come to no other conclusion. Well, then, could a
society built to a complete realisation of every ideal of economism they [the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, et al.]
represented be permanently satisfactory to the best reason and spirit of man? Could it be called a civilised society? The
thing seemed preposterous, absurd” (112); “I learned early with Thoreau that a man is rich in proportion to the number
of things he can afford to leave alone....It is true that one can never get something [like intellectual freedom] for nothing;
it is true that in a society like ours [as of 1943] one who takes the course which I have taken must reconcile himself to
the status of a superfluous man; but the price seems to me by no means exorbitant and I have paid it gladly, without a
shadow of doubt that I was getting all the best of the bargain.” (321-322)


Consequently, I have now thought to offer—especially for a reflective and faithful Catholic audience—
some of the fruits of this enriching study, to include my attempt at a just understanding of Nock's most
important convictions and how he gradually arrived at them, sequentially and cumulatively. And I also
propose thereby to examine some of the things he omitted, or was successfully tempted to elide over.
My recent reading of his distinctive and somewhat elegiac intellectual autobiography has certainly
increased my compassion, as well as my admiration and affection, for him. Moreover, twenty years
before James Burnham's 1964 book, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of
Liberalism,2 Albert Jay Nock had understood, in the longer light of Classical Greco-Roman History,
some of the deeper roots and principles of similar “social solvents” and analogously momentous things.
Moreover, Nock helped his British colleague in the editing of another profound and farsighted
book, first published in 1915 during World War I and entitled How Diplomats Make War.3 In 1922,
drawing upon some of his acute anti-war articles in The Freeman, Nock published his own book—and
it was his first book—entitled The Myth of a Guilty Nation.4
When I recently re-read a few pages near the end of How Diplomats Make War—in Chapter XVI
(“Aftermath”)—I seemed to see and feel the touch of Albert Jay Nock, and a few of his own special
insights, as well:
Citizens who desire peace can indulge in no greater folly than that which is
summed up in the phrase, “the best way to preserve peace is to prepare for war.”
That rotten expedient has been shattered completely. The position of the
nations warring [in 1915 now] in Europe proves conclusively that no amount of
“preparedness” can stem the rush of militarists once they get out of hand. Nothing
could stop France and Russia....The two countries whose estimates in the year
1914 were largest for military and naval “preparedness” were the very countries to
be invaded and great areas of their territory laid waste.....Add Britain's estimates to
2 James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (New Rochelle, New York:
Arlington House, 1964). In the later 1975 edition, the only addition or modification made was an 8-page “Afterword,”
pp. 313-320, written by James Burnham from his home in Kent, Connecticut in December of 1974, only four months
before the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam.
3 Francis Neilson, How Diplomats Make War (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1915)—it was some 382 pages in length; and a
second edition, with more of Nock's own editorial help added, was published in 1916. Among other things, Francis
Neilson (1867-1961) and Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) were later also to be colleagues at The Freeman (1920-1924),
where Nock was also a co-editor. The unmistakably versatile and vital Neilson was to die after a long life—at ninetyfour years of age—after seeing so much of the disorder and decline of Western Civilization. He became a U.S. citizen
only in 1921. There seems to have been an irreparable breach between Nock and Neilson, however, and for reasons not
entirely clear to me. References to this 1915 book will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of the essay.
4 Albert Jay Nock (“Historicus”), The Myth of a Guilty Nation (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1922), 114 pp. The book is
brief and lucid and well-supported by important evidence, and Nock repudiated and refuted the claims that Germany
alone was “the guilty nation.” He showed, especially, what Great Britain and France and Russia had bellicosely done.
Page references to Nock's books will also be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.


those of France and Russia and let those who still believe in “preparedness”
understand that...the Triple Alliance estimated in 1914 to spend the enormous sum
of [a 123 Million Pounds Sterling] more on preparedness than Germany and
Austria. (374-375—my emphasis added)
Then, under an ironical page-title in Latin—“Vicisti Galilæe!”[“Thou hast conquered, Galilean!”]
—perhaps to recall the mocking phrase about Jesus Christ which is also attributed to Roman Emperor,
Julian the Apostate, near his own despairing death in Persia—Neilson's conclusion continues:
The pacifist has triumphed: armaments create wars, and militarism is at all times
inimical to the real interests of the people. This war seems to be a great
subconscious protest against territorial aggrandizement, bureaucratic
tyranny, governmental privilege, imperial dogmatism, and gross
commercialism. It is, in a vague strange way, a challenge against a discredited
Christianity. While [secular] society can build up armaments, pauperize the poor,
“bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and lay them on men's shoulders,”
and “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel,” Christianity has not done its work.
The record is extant: territorial aggrandizement violates the first law of the
Creator, by Caesar taking what belongs to God [by conquest and confiscation];
bureaucratic tyranny forces the people to support Governments in maintaining
that [intrusive State] system; governmental [monopoly] privilege is the power
which keeps people in subjection through iniquitous taxation and other restrictive
laws; imperial dogmatism asserts the colossal lie [pace Hegel] that the State is
the people; and commercialism keeps on as an industrial system, thriving on cruel
land laws which force labour to compete for jobs and thus lower wages to
subsistence-level; making life for the toilers a ceaseless grind in murk and
stench, stunting the life of the young, filling the aged with sorrow, and driving
our sisters into the sweat-shops and the brothels of our towns.
This [ongoing] war, begun by diplomatists and militarists, has made the
peoples of Europe conscious of all these dreadful evils [just mentioned above]; in
no other way can the seeming unanimity of all the forces fighting in all the
stricken countries be explained....But whether the close of the strife will open an
era of an unarmed enduring peace is a question that will depend entirely on the
people themselves. Governments have made the war; only the peoples can make
an unarmed peace. (375-376—my emphasis added)
These concluding words, though largely framed in secular terms, also evoke some of Pope Leo
XIII's own trenchant words about economic injustice and about inhuman desolation and destitution, as
expressed formally in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum (15 May 1891) some twenty years earlier. As we
now know—and as Nock himself already knew when he wrote his 1922 book, The Myth of a Guilty
Nation—the mere “Armistice” came in 1918 and it was followed by the vengeful 28 June 1919
“Carthaginian Peace”: the Treaty of Versailles. Five years earlier, on 28 June 1914, Franz Ferdinand
had been assassinated; and as Nock put it in 1922 at the conclusion of his The Myth of a Guilty Nation:

On 13 June [1914], the newspaper-organ of the Russian minister of War published
an inspired article under the caption: “Russia is Ready: France must be Ready.”
Two weeks later [28 June 1914], the Austrian heir-apparent, the Archduke Francis
Joseph [sic—in reality, Franz Ferdinand, aged 50], was murdered at Sarajevo, a
town in Bosnia, by Serbian officers. The murder was arranged by the Serbian
Major Tankesitch, of the pan-Slavist organization [“the highly inflammable and
inflammatory pan-Slavism” (103)] known as the Black Hand; and this
organization was fostered, if not actually subsidized, by the Russian Minister at
Belgrade, M. Hartwig, the pupil and alter ego of M. Isvolsky [who was in 1912,
and still later, the Russian Ambassador at Paris], and the architect and promoter of
the Baltic League [“with the connivance of M. Isvolsky” (103]. (113-114)
Nock shows that Germany was hardly “a Guilty Nation” here. But, Hitler was very likely “Born at
Versailles,” in the candid words of Lady Astor of England, and of Léon Degrelle of Belgium, who was
himself an historian and a combatant commando officer in World War II.
The concept and reality of Liberty and of Justice were always both of great importance to Nock,
and he often noted how he strove throughout his life to advance both of them; as well as to resist and
undermine those things that were a barrier to their flourishing, to include “the whole question of
resistance or submission to the incursions of any bureaucracy” and, even in 1929, “to withstand the
progressive incursions of officialism” and the unmistakably and increasingly intrusive “tendency of
In 1930 or so, perhaps a little earlier, he revealed in a charming way his view of Lawyers, in
connection with Officialism and Bureaucracy and the consequential incentives to a certain
“Lawlessness” in the wholesome “instincts” of a normal man! He wrote the following words about
Russia in a short two-page article from the new Freeman, entitled “Lawyers' Law”:6
The Russians are the best off of almost any people in the world in one respect,
which is that their laws are not made for them by lawyers. Hence they have
very few laws, and those few are easily intelligible. I was reading the translation
of one the other day, and remarked its simplicity and ease. One could not read
any clause of it without knowing not only what it meant, but the only thing it
could mean. The trade-guild of lawyers that governs this country [the U.S.] gets
up laws in such shape that only lawyers have time to decipher them, and so
numerous that it takes a lot of lawyers to go around. Thus the guild works for its
own benefit instead of the public's, which is a curious state of things. Russia [preMenshevik-and—Bolshevik Russia] has a healthy tradition towards lawyers,
5 Albert Jay Nock, “Officialism and Lawlessness,” Harper's Magazine (December 1929).
6 Albert Jay Nock, “Lawyers' Law,” in The Book of Journeyman: Essays from the New Freeman (Freeport New York:
Books for Libraries Press, INC., 1967 Reprint of the 1930 First Edition), pp. 9-10.


dating from Peter the Great. On a visit to England, he was dumbfounded at seeing
so many of them about, and said, “Why, there are only two lawyers in my whole
kingdom, and I intend to hang one of them the minute I get back.”
A proportionate mortality among American lawyers—whether brought about the
same way or not—would be a great benefit to the country; and this mortality
should include all lawyers—legislators and lawyer-judges. Then the idea of justice
might begin to pervade our courts. It is quite an education in Americanism to
follow our court-reports a while, and notice how seldom anyone goes to court for
justice. I think I never heard of one [as of the 1920s] who sought a court save for
greed or revenge; and, obviously, justice is the last thing considered under our
legal system [especially under the doctrines of Legal Positivism]....I don't
begrudge him [a Lawyer] his fees, but I cannot help thinking once more how
lucky the Russians are, and what a fine sense of duty to his subjects Peter the
Great had. (9-10—My emphasis added)
With this background, we may better appreciate how Albert Jay Nock deftly applied certain
“Laws” himself to all kinds of human affairs: Gresham's Law; the Law of Diminishing Returns; and
Epstean's Law. When we understand these three “Laws” and their applied interrelationship in the
formation of Nock's varied judgments and expectations, we shall also then be better prepared to grasp
the deep effect upon him of Ralph Adams Cram's 1932 essay, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human
Beings,” which was first published in H.L. Mencken's The American Mercury in September of 1932.7
By way of a foretaste, the first paragraph of this gifted Christian-Episcopalian architect's essay is
even acutely assertive, because Cram tells us that he wants to be especially forthright from the outset:
The ancient doctrine of progressive evolution which became dominant during
the last half of the nineteenth century, was, I suggest, next to the religious and
philosophical dogmas of Dr. Calvin [John Calvin] and the political and social
doctrines of M. Rousseau, the most calamitous happening of the last
millennium. In union with Protestantism and democracy, and apparently justified
in its works by the amazing technological civilization fostered by coal, iron,
steam, and electricity, it is responsible for the present estate of society, from which
there is no escape, it would seem, except through comprehensive calamity.
I state my thesis thus bluntly in order to get it over with. Its justification as well as
its implications I shall now expound as best I can.
Let me say that I was born and bred in the briar-patch of this same

7 Ralph Adams Cram, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings,” The American Mercury, Vol 27, No. 105
(September 1932), pp. 41-48—my emphasis added. This essay may be more conveniently found in a book edited by
Robert M. Crunden, entitled The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945 (Austin, Texas
and London: University of Texas Press, 1977), pp. 86-94 (Chapter 9). Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) published his
1932 essay again in his own 1936 book, Convictions and Controversies (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1936), pp. 137-154.


progressive evolution....8
With a start like this, who could easily stop reading here? So, too, was it the case with the
intellectual and moral integrity of Albert Jay Nock, for sure.
In Chapter Seven of his Memoirs' sixteen chapters, Nock begins to lead us to two profound but
unexpected discoveries that changed his life and gave order to his inordinately disheveled thought: one
insight coming from his friend Edward Epstean; and a second one coming from Ralph Adams Cram.
Nock will now guide us to these convincing insights by way of first commenting on Democracy at this
stage of his classically educated life:
I could see how “democracy” might do very well in a society of saints and sages
led by an Alfred [King Alfred the Great] or an Antoninus Pius [Roman Emperor].
Short of that, I was unable to see how it could come to anything but an
ochlocracy of mass-men led by a sagacious knave. The collective capacity for
bringing forth any other outcome seemed simply not there. To my eyes the
incident of Aristides and the Athenian mass-man was perfectly exhibitory of
“democracy” in practice. Socrates could not have got votes enough out of the
Athenian mass-men to be worth counting, but Eubulus easily could, and did,
wangle enough to keep him in office as long as the corrupt fabric of the Athenian
State held together. As against a Jesus, the historic choice of the mass-man goes
regularly to some Barabbas. (131—my emphasis added)
Nock then tries to present the state of his thoughts about many related matters, not only the
fraudful illusions about the theory and historic practice of democracy, as such:
I have said that my ideas about all these matters were disorderly, fragmentary, for
so they were....What actually happened was that some turn in public affairs would
attract my notice, and I would “see it as it was,” more or less, by a kind of reflex;
—the Platonist habit of looking for “the reason of the thing” had become almost
automatic....In these ways the raw material of ideas gradually got itself together in
rough shapes, like a scattered mess of fagots, which I seldom took the trouble to
put in order.
In such circumstances, one of the most animating experiences one can have is
to come suddenly on something which acts as a binder, putting an armful of
these fagots together and tying them in a neat, tight, orderly bundle. One is
exhilarated beyond measure at seeing how big the bundle is, how beautifully the
fagots are matched and fitted,—and all so unexpectedly. Sometimes it is a chance
word or two in a book which does this, sometimes a chance word or two which
one hears or overhears. Several times in the course of my life this has happened
to me, and twice it has happened with such profound effect as to influence the
whole course of my thought. In the one instance, this effect was due to a casual
8 Ralph Adams Cram, in The Superfluous Men, op. cit., p. 86—in the 1977 edition presented by Robert M. Crunden.


sentence dropped by a friend [Edward Epstean] at a lunch-table; and in the other,
it was due to an article [by Ralph Adams Cram] in a popular magazine [in 1932]
which I had idly leafed over while waiting for something somewhere, I have
forgotten what or where. I might as soon have expected to find a Koh-i-noor
[Large, Oval Crown-Jewel Diamond from India] in a limestone-quarry as an
article of that character in that publication [The American Mercury]. (131-132—
my emphasis added)
Nock will now introduce us to his friend, Edward Epstean, and to his friend's monitory words:
The first incident was this: I was at lunch in the Uptown Club of New York with
an old friend, Edward Epstean, a retired man of affairs. I do not remember what
subject was under discussion at the moment; but whatever it was, it led to Mr.
Epstean's shaking a forefinger at me, and saying with great emphasis, “I tell you,
if self-preservation is the first law of human conduct, exploitation is the second.”
This remark instantly touched off a tremendous searchlight in my mind. I saw the
generalisation which had been staring me in the face for years without my having
sense enough to recognise and identify it. [Herbert] Spencer and Henry George
had familiarised me with the formula that man tends always to satisfy his needs
and desires with the least possible exertion; but they had given me no idea of its
immense scope, its almost illimitable range of action. If this formula were sound
[hence also about human selfishness], as unquestionably it is, then certainly
exploitation would be an inescapable corollary, because the easiest way to satisfy
one's needs and desires is by exploitation. Indeed, might say that exploitation
is the first law of conduct, since even in self-preservation one tends always to take
the easiest way....
Having occasion to refer to this formula, I gave it the name of Epstean's law,
which by every precedent I think it should have....As a phenomenon of finance
[analogously], it had long been observed that “bad money drives out good,” but
Sir Thomas Gresham reduced these observations to order under a formula as
simple as Newton's, and this formula is known as Gresham's law. So an analogous
service, more important that Gresham's and, as far as this planet is concerned, as
comprehensive as Newton's, I thought that the formula, Man tends always to
satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion, should bear the name
of Epstean's law. (132-133—italics in the original)
Before briefly considering how Albert Jay Nock deftly applies three perceived “natural laws”—
Epstean's law, Gresham's law, and the law of diminishing returns—to education, to culture and to the
human spirit, it is fitting to show what he candidly says about himself near the end of his book,
specifically at the beginning of his last chapter (chapter thirteen):
From what I have now written I think one may easily see how it came about that
by the time I was in my early thirties [1900-1905] I found myself settled in
convictions which I suppose might be summed up as a philosophy of

intelligent selfishness, intelligent egoism, intelligent hedonism. It may be seen
also how subsequent observation and reflection confirmed me in this
philosophy....If it were obligatory to put a label [on my views and convictions], I
should say with Goethe's well-known remark in mind, that they amount merely to
a philosophy of informed common sense. To know oneself as well as one can; to
avoid self-deception [for it is “a matter of integrity,” as well, he said] and [to]
foster no illusions; to learn what one can about the plain natural truth of things,
and make one's valuations accordingly; to waste no time in speculating about vain
subtleties, upon “things which are not and work not”....Because the Meditations of
Marcus Aurelius [the informed Stoic Philosopher and Roman Emperor] so
consistently does keep just this in view, it still remains, and for those who can
take it will probably always remain the best of handbooks to the art of living.
(304-305—my emphasis added)
In this context, it will help us to know a few things which Nock has left unmentioned or has only
barely mentioned in this 1943 intellectual autobiography. From 1887-1891 he attended St. Stephen's
College, an Episcopalian institution on the east side of the Hudson River north of West Point, New
York; and there he was further formed in his wholesome Classical Education. (St. Stephen's was
located where Bard College now stands.) Max Nordau's influential book, Degeneration, first came out
in 1892, just after Nock had graduated in 1891. After then attending an Episcopalian Divinity School in
Connecticut, Nock was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1897, served as a Minister in Pennsylvania
where he soon was married, on 25 April 1900, and 29 years old. His two sons Samuel and Francis were
born in 1901 and 1905, respectively. Soon after 1905, Nock and his wife separated—and it seems that
he left her. In 1909, Nock appears also to have had a grave disturbance and “sturdy doubts” concerning
his Christian faith; and perhaps it all even led to a repudiation of his former Christian faith, and he soon
left the Episcopal clergy and became an editor of American Magazine, a “radicalized” magazine, where
he remained for four years, until shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Some of these details are
rather unspecific, because not much is reliably known about these more intimate matters, not even in
his now-published selections of Letters. Nock was always very private about his private life. But it
looks as if he finally chose Marcus Aurelius over Jesus Christ.
Since, like Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) whom he greatly admired, Nock was very attentive
to what he understood to be the natural order and the laws of cause and effect (“the chancellors of
God,” as he often said, quoting R.W. Emerson). Therefore, because he never seems to have touched
upon the Supernatural Order or the reality and indispensability of Divine Grace, Nock was especially
grateful for his discovery of certain convincingly natural laws of human conduct:


I was indescribably fortunate in getting, as early as I did, a clear sense of the
bearing which three great laws of the type known as “natural” have on human
conduct. I say fortunate, for it was by good fortune alone, and not my own
deserving [nor even apparently by “what Mrs. Malaprop called 'an
unscrupulous Providence'”! (15)], that I got this sense. By luck I stumbled on
the discovery that Epstean's law, Gresham's law, and the law of diminishing
returns operate as inexorably in the realm of culture [hence of good literature!];
of politics; of social organisation, religious and secular; as they do in the realm of
economics. This understanding enabled me at once to get the hang of many
matters which far better men than I found hopelessly puzzling, and to answer
questions for which otherwise I could have found no answer.
For example, I have already shown in these pages how the current value of
literature is determined by the worst type of literature in circulation—
Gresham's law. Is not the value of education determined the same way? I think
there can be no doubt of it....Simply because all such well-meant enterprises ran
hard aground on Epstean's law. (133-134—my emphasis added)
After giving a varied set of further-supporting examples of how these three laws have shaped
human conduct and still “remain in force” (134), Nock will speak to us of Ralph Adams Cram himself
and of how his essay had gradually changed Nock's thought, and his conduct, too:
My adventure with the [1932] magazine-article [in The American Mercury] was
this: The article in question was an essay by the eminent [Episcopalian] architect
Ralph Adams Cram, whose professional reputation is so great that it has
unfortunately obscured his merits as a philosopher and man of letters. The essay's
title, Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings, attracted me at once. This was
just what had mystified me all my life; it was the one thing above all others that I
wanted to know. I had read a good many theological disquisitions [unfortunately
and characteristically unspecified!] on the rationale of human conduct, and had
found them dissatisfying. If Mr. Cram had anything better to offer, if he could
throw any light on that egregious problem, he was distinctly the man I wanted to
see. The essay has been reprinted in his excellent [1936] book called Convictions
and Controversies, which deserves the highest recommendation to careful readers.
First attempting to summarize Cram's challenging contention, Nock says:
Mr. Cram's thesis is that we do not behave like humans because the great
majority of us, the masses of mankind, are not human beings. We have all
along assumed the the zoölogical classification of man is also a competent
psychical classification; that all creatures having the physical attributes which put
them in the category of Homo sapiens also have the psychical attributes which put
them in the category of human beings; and this, Mr. Cram says, is wholly
9 Albert Jay Nock, in the January 1933 Issue of Harper's Magazine, wrote “Are All Men Human?” (pp. 240-246) as his
own responsive and appreciative essay on Ralph Adams Cram's original September 1932 article in The American
Mercury. That Harper's article, too, is itself an article well worth reading and savouring—as we shall later also glimpse.


unwarranted and an error of the first magnitude. Consequently we have all
along been putting expectations upon the masses of Homo sapiens which they are
utterly incapable of meeting. We have accepted them as psychically-human, dealt
with them on that assumption, and expected a corresponding psychical reaction,
when actually nothing of the sort is possible. They are merely the sub-human raw
material out of which the occasional human being is produced by an evolutionary
process as yet unexplained, but no doubt catastrophic in character, certainly
not progressive. Hence inasmuch as they are the raw material of humanity,
they are inestimably precious. (136-137—my emphasis added)
When Nock read Cram's unexpected article, he was sixty-two years of age, and still largely
convinced of his own gradually fortified “philosophical base” (137) and its fundamentally sound
underlying premises. And, now being stunned, Nock was yet willing to consider and even gradually
(though reluctantly) to admit, after being shaken by a man of Cram's stature and integrity, that many of
his own long-standing beliefs about the secular Enlightenment and about Progressive Evolution itself
were indeed wrong. And this realization also had some good practical effects:
All this upset me frightfully. In my view of man's place in nature I was still a
good disciple of Mr. Jefferson. I still believed the masses of mankind are
indefinitely improvable. Yet all the time I could see clearly that this view
presented difficulties with which I could do nothing. [Nor, poignantly, did Nock
any longer seem to believe, and he perhaps never believed, in the reality Original
Sin and its perduring effects, nor in fallen human nature's receptive and fruitful
capacities to be touched and healed by Divine Grace—as in the observable lives of
the diverse Saints—although Nock himself had once been an active Episcopal
minister-priest, and for twelve years (1897-1909).] How was it, for example, that I
could find no shred of respectable evidence that psychically the masses of
mankind had budged a single peg in six thousand years [i.e., from the ongoing
“substrate” of its “Neolithic culture”]? Again what about the “spread” between
Socrates, Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, on the one hand, and one the other hand the
Akka [the African pygmies], the Australian bushman? This spread was
prodigiously, almost infinitely, greater than the spread between the Akka and the
anthropoid....I still stuck to my view more or less mechanically, but I could not
help thinking that progressive evolution had the devil's own job [which was not
“Isaiah's Job” to “the Remnant”!] to straighten up matters [anthropological] like
these [very disparities or seeming incommensurabilities], even granting its
postulate of indefinite time.
What was one to do?....I held to my Jeffersonian doctrine for a long time
[1932-1943?], meanwhile trying my best to pick holes in Mr. Cram's theory, but
with no success...and [then] asking for help, but I had no answer....Dr. [Alexis]
Carrel [a famous Medical Doctor, who also reported on Lourdes, and became a
Convert to the Catholic Faith in 1942] was just then [in 1935] bringing out his
remarkable book, Man, the Unknown....Left in a lurch as I was, I ended up by
striking my colours as gracefully as possible, parted company with the

theologians, [and] with Mr. Jefferson...Condorcet, Rousseau [et al. of the
Enlightenment thinkers]...and went over to the opposition [Cram!] with head
unbowed and withers still unwrung [i.e., still not painfully affected]. (137-138—
my emphasis added)
After these brief and lucid expositions of Cram's arguments and an honest and modest
presentation of his own intellectual and moral struggles with Cram and concerning “Man's Place in
Nature,” Nock will now have an another surprise for us—suggesting, moreover, by his forthrightness
and charm that, indeed, “God writes straight with crooked lines” (as the Portuguese proverb says):
My change of philosophical base had one curious and unforeseen effect, though it
followed logically enough. Since then I have found myself quite unable either to
hate anybody or to lose patience with anybody; whereas up to that time I had
always been a pretty doughty hater, and none too patient with people. So my
change of base certainly brought me into a much more philosophical temper, and
I suppose I might even say that it brought me nearer to some sort of ramshackle
Christian spirit....
My acceptance of Mr. Cram's theory also caused me for the first time really to like
people-at-large. Before that I had frankly disliked people in the mass, though
never [outwardly] unkindly. I was often amused by their doings, often interested,
but with no feeling of affection. Now I find myself liking them, sometimes to a
degree which I should have thought impossible....[W]hen one gets it firmly fixed
in one's head that they [“people-at-large”] are living up to the measure of their
own capacities and cannot by conjuration [sic] increase those capacities to the
point of marking them as human beings, one comes to like them. At least, to my
great surprise, I found myself doing so. (138-139—my emphasis added)
A good start! Though it be late in his his life—with two years left. But, Nock never got over his
hostility to “organized Christianity” (as his Chapter Fifteen unmistakably shows). Nor does Nock
sufficiently make and adequately preserve a distinction between Capacity and Will (or Moral Attitude),
as is tersely revealed in the older (1960s) disciplinary distinction in the Military between a “508” and
“509,” the former being a Capacity Problem (“He would if he could, but he can't.”) and the latter,
more serious, being an Attitude Problem (“He could if he would, but he won't.”).
Moreover, Nock characteristically ends his Chapter Seven with some qualifying examples and a
few words of detached (unengaged) tentativeness:
The other day [in late 1942-early 1943] I saw a group of handsomely-dressed
well-kept women, most of them I think older that I am [circa 72 years old], in a
huddle over the loathsome spread of the “news from the [Russian] front.” At the
moment of my glancing they were gloating with expressions of keen delight
over some lurid account of “the huge piles of enemy dead [at Stalingrad?]” left

by some dust-up [sic] in Russia. I did not dislike them, indeed I dare say I should
have found the bloodthirsty old harpies quite likable if I had known them. That
is the way they were [their capacity or their consenting attitude?], and they were
living up to the best they knew [sic—and as was the case with “the women in
Paris in October 1789,” or with “Deborah and Jael” in the Old Testament (139)
and as with an aristocratic woman from the Roman Republic: “Fulvia driving her
hairpin through the dead Cicero's tongue” (140)].
Of course what the soldier said [from the Russian Front about the enemy bodies
and their cruel and apparently deliberate slaughter] isn't evidence. [And
analogously,] No amount of sentiment goes any way in establishing Mr. Cram's
theory of man's place in nature. Nevertheless, the fact does remain [at least the
“psychological fact” if not the “moral fact”] that on any other theory than his [Mr.
Cram's] it is impossible for a reflective mind to regard our species otherwise than
with disgust and loathing. (139-140—my emphasis added)
Thus, with these considerably dubious, though very piercing, words, Nock concludes his Seventh
Chapter. He reminds one of the conclusion of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Lemuel Gulliver's
own psychological movement from his illusions of “soft primitivism” to his final misanthropy (and
illusions) of “hard primitivism” (in Professor Arthur O. Lovejoy's own insightful and scholarly words)
—as if one anachronistically moved backwards in time from the optimistic Rousseau to the pessimistic
Hobbes (where, in his view, the Natural Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”).
The penultimate chapter of The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man –Chapter Fifteen—will be very
discouraging to a reflective man of the Christian Faith, in part because of what Nock omits—and
apparently even omits to consider as evidence—although he admires certain classic Christian writings,
such as the Imitation of Christ (Imitatio Christi) and quotes him at the beginning of the chapter, as an
Epigraph. A brief mention of Nock's trivializing opinions about Christianity will return us to his
Memoir's final words in Chapter Sixteen:
By the time I was thirty [and, thus, for three years already an ordained
Episcopalian priest!] I had read quite a bit of theological literature by fits and
starts, for no reason in particular but that the subject matter was interesting and
the literature superbly good [if not true?]. I had no religious doubts or misgivings
[at that time, but did by 1909, nine years later]....The history of organized
Christianity is the most depressing study I ever undertook, and also one of the
most interesting [sic]. I came away from it with the firm conviction that the
prodigious evils which spot this record can all be traced to the attempt to organise
and institutionalise something which is in its nature [essence] incapable of being
successfully either organised or institutionalised. I can find no respectable
evidence that Jesus ever contemplated either; the sort of thing commonly
alleged as evidence would not be enough to send a pickpocket to jail. By all that

is known of Jesus, He appears to have been as sound and simon-pure an
individualist as LaoTsze. One would say He had no idea whatever of its being
formulated into an institutional charter, or a doctrinal hurdle to be got over by
those desirous of being called by His name. If there is any reputable evidence to
the contrary, I can [Capacity or Will?] only say with Pangloss [the mocker,
Voltaire's own satirized character, Dr. Pangloss, an incurable and unwarranted
optimist in Candide (1759)], “It may be; but if so it has escaped me.” (291 and
295—my emphasis added)
Even though Nock mentions Jesus, he never mentions the words of Jesus about children, such as
“Let the Little Ones come to Me” (“Sinite Parvulos ad Me venire.”—Matthew 19:14) But, Nock almost
never mentions children, certainly not in his 1943 Memoirs, and much less does he show any
attentiveness to them (not even to their exploited vulnerability), especially so as to nourish their
greater good, and even as if the children were an actual or a potential part of “the Remnant,” as he
understood it and lest they be further scandalized. Consider, for example, the very language Nock uses
about children in his Chapter Eleven, a chapter of his intellectual journey which is largely about
Women and the “Sex-Relations” (his phrase):
Herbert Spencer [himself a “progressive evolutionist”] liked children, but felt he
had no faculty [capacity, potentiality] whatever for family life, and God wot that
he was right. So, like the resourceful man of science which he was, he used to
borrow batches of children from the neighbors and hob-nob with them in order
to keep the springs of his affectional nature from drying up. Mark Twain [d.
1910], whom nature never cut out for a family man,—poor soul!—also did
something with the practice; and how bitterly one regrets that the colossal
Tolstoy did not confine his affectional excursions to it! I think it is a sound
practice, and one to be encouraged in all such circumstances. I would follow it
myself if I liked children, but I have a great horror of them....I was, and am,
for...divorce on demand. (212-213, 224—my emphasis added)
Nock does not even consider the effects on little children of “divorce of demand”—much less
show love and mercy for the Little Ones. And yet he can with facility, if not flippancy and indifference,
altogether depreciate “Organized Christianity” (296) and its Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy—
as seen in the manifold lives of the Saints. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for such “an
internal spiritual frigidity or inward congealment of soul,”—“a terrible thing to think upon” (Rabelais)
—and Nock himself also likely knew it: “Psychrós.”
Furthermore, it would be very important to read closely the way Albert Jay Nock actually presents
his arguments throughout this Fifteenth Chapter, especially about the Christian religion. However,
unlike Edward Gibbon in his condescending and deftly ironical and solemnly sneering Chapter 17 (of

his Book I) on “the Origins and Progress of the Christian Religion,” Albert Jay Nock himself does not
make the same kinds of critical comments (much less any mocking comments) about the JewishHebraic Religion, as Gibbon himself does. Indeed, Nock's essay about one of the great Hebrew
Prophets, which is colloquially entitled “Isaiah's Job” (1937) is, in my judgment, one of the most
charming and most fortifying and inspiring things Nock ever wrote. When this essay is properly
understood, we may thus come to cherish Nock's affectionate manner, and truly modest aim and
concept of Nourishing the Remnant.
Now it is fitting to consider succinctly how Nock ends his The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man,
and then we may come to see in our subsequent CODA some passages from his March 1936 essay,
“Isaiah's Job,” and thereby perceive some of its abiding charm and practical wisdom and narrative
colloquial eloquence.
In the last two paragraphs of his Memoirs, Nock decides to mention his views, or attitude, about
suicide and about the “dread of death”:
I remember once lately discussing with a friend the instance of someone we knew
who had become bored with existence [even “degenerating into a culpable
taedium vitae” (326)] and had taken his own way out of it. I said I could not object
to suicide on the ethical or religious grounds ordinarily alleged, and I saw
nothing but far-fetched absurdity in Rousseau's plea that suicide is a robbery
committed against society. My invincible objection to suicide is, if I may put it
so, that it seems to me distinctly one of those things that a person just does not
With regard to the dread of death, one has one's worry for nothing when it comes
in the course of nature, for the dread evaporates in face of the event. Indeed, in
any case one has one's worry for nothing [for there's finally nothing to hope for?],
as every person who studiously contemplates the order of nature is well aware.
Marcus Aurelius [Nock's Stoic Standard] reminds himself that “he who fears death
either fears the loss of sensation [and thus a numbing “hebetudo sensus” or
“hebetudo mentis”] or [rather] a different kind of sensation. But if thou shalt have
no sensation, neither wilt thou feel any harm; and if thou shalt acquire another
kind of sensation, thou wilt be a different kind of living being, and thou wilt not
cease to live.” This is all one can know, doubtless, but it is all one needs to
know. [--Finis--] (326—my emphasis added)
These are the final words of a former Episcopalian priest and minister, who once had a wife and
children, and who died ten days after the atomic-bomb's explosion over Nagasaki. If these above words
are not considered to be a surprising anticlimax as well as a superficiality by an attentive and reflective
reader, the words may at least be quietly and respectfully received with pathos. Nonetheless, Nock does

not even appear to consider the actual blessing of a certain kind of reverent fear, nor to regard the
Donum Timoris as a true Gift, especially as a guard against the Sin of Presumption and against the slide
into a Final Impenitence. Presumption is also one of the two sins against hope, the other being Despair.
As Josef Pieper, my beloved mentor, often used to say: “Presumption is the premature anticipation
of final fullfilment; Despair is the premature anticipation of final non-fullfilment.”
May Albert Jay Nock have come to know that before the end. And, finally, not have made to his
Creator what Dante has called “the Great Refusal.”

In March of 1936, Albert Jay Nock completed the composition of his inimitable and enduringly
inspiring essay, “Isaiah's Job,” which appeared first in the June 1936 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and
then soon again as Chapter 13 of his 1937 book, Free Speech and Plain Language.10
It was also in 1936 that Nock became even more convinced that President Roosevelt was leading
the country to war—and some even called it his “back door to war,” because of his provocative
indirection.11 Nonetheless, Nock could freshly take us back to the prophet's mission in the Old
Testament and thereby encourage his readers to apply it to our own times and circumstances—but to do
it quietly and without presumption or any self-aggrandizement. As we may soon come to see, the
modest and unmistakably challenging mission is to find and to reach and to nourish the Remnant.
For, Nock still had Ralph Adams Cram's momentous September 1932 thesis in his mind, as he had
expressed it himself some three years ago in January of 1933, in his own essay “Are All Men Human?”
The first paragraph (and a bit) of that formidable essay in Harper's said the following, and with
trenchant succinctness and lucidity:
In an essay called “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings,” Mr. Ralph
Adams Cram sets forth the thesis that the vast majority of us do not behave
like human beings because we are not. The great nineteenth-century doctrine of
progressive evolution, which makes homo sapiens the crowning glory of
creation, is baseless; evolution does not work that way, but is catastrophic
rather than progressive. Homo sapiens is a zoologist's classification, not a
10 Albert Jay Nock, Free Speech and Plain Language (New York: William Morrow & Son, 1937), pp. 248-265 (Chapter
13). All further page-references to this edition of “Isaiah's Job” will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of
the Coda.
11 Charles Callan Tansill, Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy, 1933-1941 (Chicago: Henry Regnery
Company, 1952), 690 pp.


psychologist's. From the latter's standpoint, most members of homo sapiens are
not human beings at all; the human being is an occasional product, whereof the
mass of homo sapiens is merely the raw physical material. Psychically, this mass
is not differentiated in any essential from certain classes in what we call “the
lower orders” of creation, and it has not undergone any essential change since the
Neolithic Period. Except for certain camouflages, and certain [sagacious and
cunning] proficiencies acquired chiefly in a mimetic way, it is precisely what it
was ten thousand years ago. It is to-day, as it was then, merely the basic raw
material out of which by some process as yet undetermined, the occasional
“human being” is formed as a species which is psychically distinct from that of
its zoological fellows....
If true, it [Cram's thesis] is the most important news that has come before the
world since the Middle Ages. Are we, or are we not, right in accepting the purely
zoological classification of human beings? Are we, or are we not, right in
assuming that every member of homo sapiens is a Man?....Let us [therefore] have
it out once and for all with the anthropologists and psychologists; let us insist that
they stand and deliver, for this question is by far the most important of all that
are now before the world.12 (my emphasis added)
As we now consider the historical context and sacred aspects of Nock's subtle concept of the
Remnant, as part of Isaiah's Divinely Assigned Job, let us also remember what Nock had earlier in 1933
called the emergence of “an occasional product.”
In his narrative introduction to “Isiah's Job, Nock speaks of a learned European acquaintance (“he
is a Jew”—249) who recently and sincerely had said to him, “with great earnestness,” (248) as follows:
“I have a mission to the masses. I feel that I am called to get the ear of the people.
I shall devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the
populace. What do you think?” (248)
Being very embarrassed by this question, Nock nevertheless remembered his own many
“opportunities for observing the masses of mankind” (248) and reflected that he “probably knew them
better than he did” (248):
So I mustered courage to say that he had no such mission and would do well to get
the idea out of his head at once; he would find that the masses would not care two
pins for his doctrine, and still less for himself, since in such circumstances the
popular favorite is generally some Barabbas. I even went so far as to say (he is a
Jew) that his idea seemed to show that he was not very well up on his own native
literature. He smiled at my jest, and asked what I meant by it; and I referred him to
the story of the prophet Isaiah. (248-249)
12 Albert Jay Nock, “Are All Men Human?” in The Harpers Monthly (also called Harper's Magazine), the January 1933
Issue, pp. 240 and 246—my emphasis added. The entire reflective essay is to be found on pp. 240-246 of that Issue.


Rooting it in the very circumstances of America in the 1930s—even mentioning “Father
Coughlin” (249) and his proposed message—Nock goes on to say:
It occurred to me then that this story [of Isaiah] is much worth recalling just now
[in early 1936] when so many wise men and soothsayers appear to be burdened
with a message to the masses....the list is endless. I cannot remember a time
when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the
multitude telling them what they must do to be saved. This being so, it occurred to
me, as I say, that the story of Isaiah might have something in it to steady and
compose the human spirit [as Rabelais had also done for Nock, he gratefully
acknowledges] until this tyranny of windiness be overpast. I shall paraphrase
the story in our common speech, since it has to be pieced out from various
sources; and inasmuch as respectable scholars have thought fit to put out a whole
new version of the Bible in American vernacular, I shall take shelter behind
them, if need be, against the charge of dealing irreverently with the Sacred
Scriptures. (249—my emphasis added)
After such a splendid framing of his tale, Nock commences to tell us the tale with his manifold
The prophet's career began at the end of King Uzziah's reign, say about 740 B.C.
This reign was uncommonly long, almost half a century, and apparently
prosperous. It was one of those prosperous reigns, however, like the reign of
Marcus Aurelius at Rome, or the administration of Eubulus at Athens, or of Mr.
Coolidge at Washington, where at the end the prosperity suddenly peters out,
and things go by the board with a resounding crash.
In the year of Uzziah's death, the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and
warn the people of the wrath to come. “Tell them what a worthless lot they are,”
He said. “Tell them what is wrong, and why, and what is going to happen unless
they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don't mince matters. Make it
clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and
strong, and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He
added, “that it won't do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will
turn up their noses at you, and the masses will not even listen. They will all
keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and
you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”
Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job; in fact, he had asked for it; but
this prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question why,
if all that were so, if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start, was there
any sense in starting it? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you don't get the point. There is a
Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized,
inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be
encouraged and braced up, because when everything has gone completely to the
dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society, and
meanwhile your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your

job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.” (249-250—
my emphasis added)
In order to assist us in understanding and applying the rest of his highly differentiated
presentation, Nock now gives his definitions of “the Mass-Man” and “the Remnant”:
It [i.e., “the word masses”] means simply the majority. The mass-man is one who
has neither the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we
know as the humane life, nor the force of character to adhere to those principles
steadfastly and strictly as laws of conduct; and because such people make up the
great, the overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively the
masses. The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set
invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by
force of intellect are able to apprehend those principles, and by force of
character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those
who are unable to do either. (251—my emphasis added)
Keeping his droll tone, Nock will further encourage us to promote the Mission to the Remnant in
our own circumstances, but “without presuming to enroll ourselves among the Remnant.” (263—
my emphasis added) Besides that, he says, there are already so many and various Missions to the
Majority. In any case, in light of the “striking and suggestive” (251) precedent set by Isaiah and the
Apparently, then, if the Lord's word is good for anything,...the only element in
Judaean society that was particularly worth bothering about was the Remnant.
Isaiah seems finally to have gotten it through his head that this was the case;
that nothing was to be expected from the masses, but that if anything substantial
were to be done in Judaea, the Remnant would have to do it. (251—my
emphasis added)
Nock then introduces us to how Isaiah himself presents the populace amongst whom he is
commissioned to preach, and we are then likewise invited to think of the similar characteristics we
have experienced or have read about and may soon come to find in other lands and at other times, even
in modern Imperial America:
The picture which Isaiah presents of the Judaean masses is most unfavorable. In
his view the mass-man, be he high or be he lowly, rich or poor, prince or
pauper, gets off very badly. He appears as not only weak-minded and weakwilled, as by consequence knavish, arrogant, grasping, dissipated, unprincipled,
unscrupulous. The mass-woman also gets off badly, as sharing all the massman's untoward qualities, and contributing a few of her own in the way of
vanity and laziness, extravagance and foible....It may be fair to discount Isaiah's
vivacity a little for prophetic fervour; after all, since his real job was not to
convert the masses but to brace and reassure the Remnant, he probably felt that

he might lay it on indiscriminately and as thick as he liked—in fact, that he was
expected to do so. But even so, the Judaean mass-man must have been a most
objectionable individual, and the mass-woman utterly odious. (251-252—my
emphasis added)
Desiring in fairness to consider later history—after the times of Isaiah's Judea and Plato's Athens
—Nock comes to a further interim conclusion:
On the evidence so far presented [as of 1936] one must say, I think, that the
mass-man's conception of what life has to offer, and his choice of what to ask
from life, seem now [in America] to be pretty well what they were in the times of
Isaiah and Plato; and so too seem the catastrophic social conflicts and
convulsions in which his views of life and his demands on life involve him.
I do not wish to dwell on this, however, but merely to observe that the
monstrously inflated importance of the masses has apparently put all thought
of a possible mission to the Remnant out of the modern prophet's head. (254-255
—my emphasis added)
Nock wants us to reconsider this matter and foster a fitting “mission to the Remnant.” (255) Since
the Remnant is a matter of “quality, not circumstance,” (251) one may infer it to include “the
innocent little ones”—the vulnerable little ones of the world and thus the little ones of Christ (“sinite
parvulos ad me venire”—Matthew 19:14).
To reinforce his earlier mention of a special absence and thus a special need today (at least as of
1943—during World War II), Nock says:
I wish only, as I said, to remark the fact that as things now stand Isaiah's job
seems rather to go begging. Everyone with a message nowadays is like my
venerable [Jewish] European friend, eager to take it to the masses....His great care
is to put his doctrine in such shape as will capture the masses' attention and
interest....The main trouble with all this is its reaction upon the mission itself. It
necessitates an opportunist sophistication of one's doctrine which profoundly
alters its character and reduces it to a mere placebo....and this in turn means
adapting the terms of your message to the order of intellect and character
that the masses exhibit....But as we see on all sides, in the realization of these
several desires [to have a broader appeal] the prophetic message is so heavily
adulterated with trivialities [if not panderings] in every instance that its effect
on the masses is merely to harden them in their sins; and meanwhile the
Remnant, aware of this adulteration and of the desires that prompt it, turn
their backs on the prophet and will have nothing to do with him or his message.
(255-256—my emphasis added)
(I could well imagine that some prelates and priests in the Catholic Church would still learn very
much from these observations and even make their own “course correction,” but I do not want to limit

this discussion to the limitations of my imagination.)
On the premise that “contrast clarifies the mind,” we may more closely now consider how Isaiah
carried out his Mission to the Remnant:
Isaiah, on the other hand, worked under no such disabilities [as incurred by the
adulterators and sophisticators]. He preached to the masses only in the sense that
he preached publicly. Anyone who liked might listen; anyone who liked might
pass by. He knew the Remnant would listen; and knowing also that nothing was
to be expected of the masses under any circumstances, he made no special
appeal to them, did not accommodate his message to their measure in any
way, and did not care two straws whether they heeded it or not [“considering the
inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants” (257)]. As a
modern publisher might put it, he [Isaiah] was not worrying about circulation or
about advertising. Hence, with all such obsessions quite out of the way, he was in
a position to do his level best, without fear or favour, and answerable only to his
august Boss. (256-257—my emphasis added)
Speaking of the mission to the Remnant, as practiced by another prophet in the Old Testament,
Nock will have us consider the following episode:
You do not know and will never know who the Remnant is, or where they are, or
how many of them there are, and what they are doing or will do. Two things you
know, and no more: first that they exist; second, that they will find you....One
of the most suggestive episodes recounted in the Bible is that of a prophet's
attempt—the only attempt of the kind on record, I believe—to count up the
Remnant. Elijah had fled from persecution into the desert, where the Lord
presently overhauled him and asked what he was doing so far away from his
job. He said he was running away not because he was a coward, but because all
the Remnant had been killed off except himself. He had got away only by the
skin of his teeth, and, he being now all the Remnant there was, if he were
killed the True Faith would go flat. The Lord replied that he need not worry
about that, for even without him the true Faith could probably manage to
squeeze along somehow, if it had to do so; “and as for your figures on the
Remnant,” He said, “I don't mind telling you that there are seven thousand of
them back there in Israel whom it seems you have not heard of, but you may
take My word for it that they are there”....With seven thousand of the boys on
his side, there was no great reason for Elijah to feel lonesome. (259, 260-261—
my emphasis added)
After giving several other examples of how the Remnant will come to find and to learn from the
commissioned prophet or his voluntary supporters—again “without presuming to enroll ourselves
among the Remnant” (263)—Nock himself now modestly comes to his fair and fertile conclusion, all
the while preserving his unassuming personal charm and stylistic colloquial detachment:


It appears to me that Isaiah's job is not only good but also extremely interesting;
and especially so at the present time [in our “Democracy”] when nobody is
doing it. If I were young and had the notion of embarking in the prophetical
line, I would certainly take up this branch of the business....Our civilisation so
completely neglects and disallows the Remnant that anyone going in with a
single eye [“oculus simplex”—Matthew 6:22] to their service might pretty well
count on getting all the trade there is.
Even assuming that there is some social salvage to be screened out of the
masses. Even assuming that the testimony of history to their social value is a
little too sweeping, that it depresses hopelessness too far, one must yet
perceive, I think, that the masses have prophets enough and to spare. Even
admitting in the teeth of history that the hope of the human race might not be
quite exclusively centered on the Remnant, one must perceive that they have
social value enough to entitle them to some measure of prophetic
encouragement and consolation, and that our civilisation allows them none
whatever....And hence a few of those who feel the prophetic afflatus [to speak the
trenchant Truth without either “Buncombe” (265) or “the technique of boobbumping” (262)] might do better to apply themselves to serve the Remnant. It is
a good job, an interesting job, much more interesting than serving the masses
[“considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their
servants” (257)]. (264-265—my emphasis added)
A faithful Catholic today aspiring to have and keep uncompromising integrity might well learn
much from Isaiah's depicted Mission and Special Service to the Remnant, and—“without presuming to
enroll ourselves among the Remnant” (263)—to apply the discovered wisdom, in the light and strength
of Grace, first of all to those within the Household of the Faith who so much need to be “braced up”
and to receive “encouragement and consolation” in living lives of heroic virtue today and to nourish
their children (“the “Parvuli Christi”—“the Little Ones of Christ”) to do the same, ad Vitam Aeternam.
A seemingly applicable analogy suddenly came to me as I was composing this Coda on “the
Remnant”, and concurrently reflecting upon the sad fact that Albert Jay Nock himself died in Rhode
Island during World War II and largely alone (but for his long-time friend Ruth Robinson). And he died
on 19 August 1945, only ten days after the atomic blast over Nagasaki, the historic center of the
Catholic Faith in Japan and a civilian city that was hardly a just Military Target. My analogy therefore
had to do with Honor and with the U.S. Military Academy itself.
When I was first accepted and finally entered West Point on 5 July 1960 at a young seventeen
years of age, I felt so honored; and I thus gratefully began my young and gradual efforts to be finally
found sufficiently worthy also to be accepted and received one day as a Member of the Long Gray
Line. I therefore tried to live my young cadet life so that I would never bring any discredit upon the

Corps, and this aspiration encouraged me and braced me up to live a more honorable life with its
unmistakably high and exacting standards: truly self-sacrificial standards. Analogously, therefore, may
we, too, now so live so as to be found worthy some day to be in Christ's Remnant; and, before that,
even to serve His faithful Remnant and to learn to suffer well; and, even amidst the palpable ruins now,
to be more and more trusting in His providential and indispensable help and Our Lady's too.
May Albert Jay Nock willingly, after all, have found himself in Christ's Remnant in the end. 13
--Finis-© 2015 Robert D. Hickson

13 However, what Nock so candidly and condescendingly wrote about Christianity itself—and not just about a pathetically
“organized” Christianity–in his 1930 article, entitled “An Idealess World,” may well make us sadly doubtful about his
later change of heart, but for a moral miracle of Grace. For, in that somewhat contemptuous essay, Nock assertively and
quite unjustly wrote, as follows: “The idea [sic] liberated by early Christianity was soon enough institutionalized
into deformity and nullity; even in its original acceptance there was no doubt plenty of fanaticism rampant. But it
was an idea, and it was current, and the enthusiasm for it raised life for the time being a little above its [life's]
commonplace level of unintelligence and dulness.” (Albert Jay Nock, The Book of Journeyman: Essays from the new
Freeman (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, Inc.–Essay Index Reprint Series, 1967—First Published
1930), p. 119—my emphasis added.) The essay “An Idealess World” may be found in its entirety on pp. 118-121. The
Book of Journeyman is altogether 160 pages in length (including the introductory pp. i-vi), and the collection of essays
itself concludes on page 154 of the text. Nowhere in Nock's 1930 essay, much less in the passage that includes the
already quoted words about Christianity, does he offer any supporting evidence or mitigating arguments for his summary
opinion. Nor does he make any further differentiations or proportionate reservations about the Christian Creed itself.
With this kind of view of Christianity, therefore, Albert Jay Nock was likely more open to the Philosophical Naturalism
and Scientific Anthropology of Ralph Adams Cram's 1932 essay, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings.”