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Book Title: Memoirs of a Superfluous Man|
The author of the book: Albert Jay Nock
Edition: Hallberg Pub Corp
Date of issue: March 1st 1994
ISBN 13: 9780873190381
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 13.81 MB
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Reader ratings: 6.4
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Hard to know how to rate this. It's well-written, and it's pretty interesting as a historical document (Albert Jay Nock was a significant proto-libertarian figure who influenced Ayn Rand among others). And taken solely as the rambling, genially cynical blather of an eccentric old codger, it's a lot of fun, although for me that sort of enjoyment ceased long before the book was over. But ultimately the book is repetitive, pompous, inane, and confused, and I can't imagine recommending that anyone read the entire thing.
This book is Nock's autobiography, although it's a bit atypical of the genre -- there are relatively few details about Nock's personal and emotional life or about his employment or day-to-day business. Largely, it's a record of Nock's opinions and beliefs. In certain broad and vague ways I find Nock's temperament appealing: he is cynical, pragmatic, pleased with the day-to-day business of life but not given to enthusiasms of any kind. Unlike many people with this kind of temperament, however, Nock attempts to distill his inherently concrete, anti-formal attitudes into an abstract, formal philosophy. He then cites the terms of this philosophy incessantly while propounding upon every topic under the sun. This, to put it mildly, does not go well.
What is Nock's stated philosophy? Roughly speaking it has six pieces (the numbering and ordering is mine). Three of these are three "laws," which he sees as eternal determinants of human behavior: Epstean's Law, Gresham's Law ("bad money drives out good"), and the Law of Diminishing Returns. The latter two are familiar from economics, while the former, named after an acquaintance of Nock's, is Nock's own invention, and states roughly that people will, all else being equal, expend the least effort possible.
Epstean's Law and the Law of Diminishing Returns are clear enough and probably true enough; Nock's "applications" of these laws are usually banalities, adding up to little more than garden-variety cynicism, but at least they are not falsehoods. His use of Gresham's Law is much stranger. In its original context, Gresham's Law is about paper money backed by metal, and states that money whose face value exceeds its metal-backed value ("bad money") will drive money with more accurate face value ("good money") out of circulation. With these technical definitions in place, it is possible to actually point to a mechanism for this phenomenon, and to historical evidence that it occurs.
In Nock's idiolect, though, "Gresham's Law" is a much more broad statement: roughly, "bad things drive out good things." The notions of "good" and "bad" here are completely unexamined, and so in a typical case Nock will invoke "Gresham's Law" to explain why, in some field containing both things he likes and things he doesn't, the latter came to predominate.
Since Nock has a cynical temperament, he sees things he doesn't like on the rise all over the place, and thus "Gresham's Law" appears to be frequently in action. Of course, there are various instances that buck the trend, instances in which something Nock likes becomes popular or prevalent. In these cases, Nock of course does not mention "Gresham's Law" at all. Thus his version of "Gresham's Law" explains nothing and lends no insight. Either bad things will predominate or they won't; Nock has no way of determining in advance which will happen in any given case.
Beyond the "Laws," there are three other major planks of Nock's philosophy. One of these is the peculiar "Economism." Whatever this is, Nock is sure that it is on the rise, and he is sure he is against it. (Gresham's Law!) As Nock describes it, it seems to be some sort of outlook on life, running something like "the only thing that matters is material gain." Of course it is difficult to point to anyone who outright states this, and so Nock can only gesture at various people who seem too materialistic for his taste, and attribute their materialism to the pernicious rise of Economism. (Indeed, he goes much further than this; it often seems that everything Nock dislikes is in some obscure way a symptom of Economism.)
This fourth plank, (distaste for) Economism, clashes hilariously with Nock's fifth plank, which is that nothing ever really changes. Nock attaches great importance to the classical education he received at an early incarnation of Bard College, for he claims to have learned from reading the ancients that man is essentially the same everywhere and that modern events and debates are just approximate retreads of ancient ones. For this reason he treats most contemporary events with detachment -- just humans being humans again.
This is a respectable perspective in itself, but together with Economism and Gresham's Law, it becomes a license to say absolutely anything with apparent theoretical backing. Have things changed for the worse? Clearly Economism and Gresham's Law in action -- score for Team Nock! Have things stayed the same? Well, if you'd spent your youth reading the ancients in a bucolic paradise like Nock did, you'd know things always stay the same -- score for Team Nock, again! (In Nock's world, things never get better, so we are spared from having to invent another principle to cover that possibility.)
I've saved the final plank of Nockism for last because it's the most inflammatory, and I wanted to make it clear that I'm not just yelling at Nock because I'm mad at him for this one particular opinion. The sixth plank is that only a small fraction of people are "psychically human." The rest are subhuman ("psychically anthropoid," as Nock awkwardly phrases it). This is not, as far as I can tell, directly connected to any (e.g.) racist outlook; Nock is an equal opportunity dehumanizer.
Largely this just seems like playing with semantics: Nock redefines the term "human" so that one must possess a certain specified level of intelligence, moral fiber, etc. to be "human," then notes (perhaps correctly) that most people do not meet the standard he has specified. So what?
Well, the main consequence of this view is to license a general incuriosity about people. Nock is not an incurious man in general -- he seems to read all kinds of interesting stuff (I read Septimus on his recommendation, and I am grateful!) -- but he has little to no interest in trying to understand why other people do what they do. Most people aren't even psychically human, their minds are turned by Economism, they have failed to learn the lessons of history, etc., etc., and so of course their behavior makes no sense. This places Nock in a kind of self-confirming bubble: only those people with similar outlooks even scan as human to him, and he can completely ignore the idea that there might be people who substantially disagree with him and are nonetheless in possession of all the same intellectual and moral faculties (or more!).
So we are in this bubble for 325 pages (it felt like about twice as many to me). Things happen, Nock opines pompously, some appropriate subset of the six planks is trotted out ad hoc, repeat. Again, and again, and again, and again.
Where is the politics in this, one might wonder. After all, isn't Nock mainly famous as a forerunner of libertarianism, Objectivism, and the like? Well, Nock certainly doesn't like "the State." But his complaints about it are vague and diffuse, if frequent, and the moment he starts to say anything coherent and principled about politics he immediately starts rambling about one or more of the six planks again. The apparent conflict between his libertarianism and his hatred for "Economism" is never even discussed. Nock hates the (apparent) values of the bourgeoisie; he hates the fact that (say) popular publishing houses put out a lot of trashy fiction appealing to the lowest common denominator; but he has no answer to the question of how this sort of thing is to be avoided in the kind of society he likes.
Indeed, all of the waffle about "Economism" feels less like a political outlook and more like the result of a culture clash. Nock wants to be in a bubble, a walled garden, filled only with elite "psychically-human" beings like himself. But technological advancement keeps throwing popular culture in his face. Look at all these terrible books, printed in huge quantities! Economism! Well, but trashy books have been printed since the invention of the printing press -- it's just become harder and harder to ignore them. More generally, what bothers Nock is that money and moneymaking are rubbing their grubby hands in his face. It's the classic aristocratic attitude. But people have always wanted money; it is just that maintaining an aristocratic walled garden has become more difficult.
This review has probably been very boring, because it's mostly been a rant about Nock's worldview, and if you haven't read the book, why should you care? I apologize -- I just needed to let off some steam after reading so much of this crap. That all said, Nock is is a very skilled writer, an entertaining curmudgeon (for 10 pages at a time, at least), and an interesting historical figure. His views, though hilariously confused, are interesting as specimens of a certain style of thinking. This book is freely available online, and if it sounds at all interesting I recommend reading the first 100 pages or so. Just -- you really don't need to read the whole thing. Trust me.
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Read information about the authorAmerican libertarian author, Georgist, social critic of the early and middle 20th century, outspoken opponent of the New Deal.
He served as a inspiration for the modern libertarian and Conservative movements.
He was one of the first Americans to self-identify as "libertarian"
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