Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Albert Jay Nock

A Note by Jacques Barzun:

The imaginary fanatic of the French Revolution who never said, apropos of Lavoisier, that “the Republic has no need of savants” enunciated a great truth. It applies, of course, not to any factual reality, but to the emotions of democratic republics.

The oldest and mightiest of such republics, the United States, has adhered to the principle with almost painful fidelity. It has resolutely disregarded its great artists, scientists, and critics, proceeding in its salutary neglect from a correct reasoning that they were a free gift from Providence, not a necessity with a place clearly marked out in the present.

That is why we keep “discovering” those free gifts — Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Henry Adams, Willard Gibbs, Henry James, John Jay Chapman, Albert Jay Nock. As the old man said who kept hiding macaroons among his heaped up papers, “It is such a pleasure to come upon them unexpectedly.” And perhaps these artists, critics, men of science, are all the better for being aged in the wood. But surely we are not the better for having missed their contemporary effect. For example, Nock’s book on education in the United States could have saved us endless mistakes had we heeded it during the past half century. Again, why were we so limited in imagination (though ever boastful of “creativity”) that we could not separate Nock’s literal advice about government from the fruitful implications of his libertarianism for manners and the intellectual life? No harm is done if we read his Jefferson as a biography and his Rabelais studies as travel books and compare them with other biographies and studies. But it is harm done to ourselves not to discover in those works an ideal of the complete man and of the moral life. Must we always be moved only by unreadable books in treatise form, which profess to “tell all” with the aid of quotations and references — that is, others’ thoughts pickled in disinfectant scholarship?

Never mind the answer just now. Here is a small book full of Nock’s thoughts, as fresh as they were when first minted.

Read Cogitations From Albert Jay Nock