Review: Albert Jay Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (Tampa: Hallberg, 2003)
A truth easily discovered is that previous generations were better educated than our own. They did not possess the same number of degrees as we usually do, but they spoke better, used more interesting words and fewer profanities, wrote more clearly, had legible handwriting, and read more. Surely not everyone was so educated, but mass tastes ran more to pulp novels that required some reading and some engagement of imagination that Netflix does not. We are the barbarians, and we are inside the gates. The last Roman has already perished.
Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945) was a man of letters before the coming of the barbarians, one of the last Romans. His memoirs detail not so much the flow of decision and event in his life as do political or many ecclesiastical memoirs, as if each man’s life were interesting to all other men simply for its having existed and the reader is privileged to share in the remembrance of greatness. Nock’s reminiscences are much like Henry Adams’ in their focus on his education throughout life and how little that education fitted him for modern American life.
Adams felt trapped in having an eighteenth-century mind in the nineteenth century, one untimely born and thus condemned to oddity. Nock’s prose and his spirit were more vigorous than that, and he was not burdened with the weight of ancestral presidents Adams bore. His upbringing was quiet and intellectually stimulating in a then-bucolic Brooklyn, separated by slow horse-drawn cars from Manhattan and peopled mostly by Yankees, such as Nock’s family, living in spacious homes with large yards. His family moved during his adolescence to Michigan for his father’s work, and there he spent most of his time outdoors in the woods and observing small-town life. What did not prepare Nock for modern life was that the education he received first from his father and then in boarding school in Illinois was not what the modern world meant by “education.”
Nock’s education was classical, and he uses the noun throughout Memoirs only for an education in Latin and Greek and in the civilizations of the Romans and the Greeks. There was throughout his homeschooling and private schooling a lack of system. Nock recalls picking up the alphabet and beginning to read in English from books he found lying around the cellar, especially The New England Primer. A few years later, when it was convenient for father and son, his father taught him Greek and Latin paradigms and little else. With those paradigms Nock began to read bits and pieces of Plutarch, but found Caesar and Homer boring. When he was assigned a great deal more literature and history in boarding school, he almost lost his taste for the classics and returned to Cicero only later in life when The Republic became livelier to him. The things in books that interest boys are rarely the things men believe boys should know, and the distance between interest and assignment was always great for Nock.
Interest and desire drive the process of education, not assignment. Assigned readings and required lessons in grammar, history, or morals have their place, and Nock was prone to underestimate the importance of regimen since it was so foreign to his inclinations. Yet one is struck by how much freedom was accorded even children of the comfortable middle class in his time. The amount of time for school was small even when he was in his high-school years. In boyhood, he spent a great deal of time roaming his neighborhood in Brooklyn and the small town in Michigan, and as a young man, he cultivated friendships with the highly educated Germans who instructed him before college and with his friends at St. Stephen’s College (now Bard College) in Annandale, NY. Time for conversation, reflection, and working out one’s own thoughts was abundant. Time spent fulfilling particular requirements, filling out forms, taking requisite courses, and lots of other hallmarks of education at all levels in modern American life was nonexistent.
The time he was required to spend and did spend on the classics produced what he called a “mature mind.” The student of Latin and Greek classics had opportunity to reflect on the entire breadth of things that had engaged man, from theology to farming to poetry to medicine, in a continuous written record over thousands of years. That student was permitted at a young age to have a mind befitting a much older man because he knew the past thoroughly. He was not taught anything about Henry Clay or astrophysics, but he knew a much older civilization that was the foundation of his. So Nock evaluated current events and modern literature according to what he knew of ancient history and ancient literature. Parallels, points of light, and prophecies about the downfall of America thus abounded for him. By ancient light he saw not too little of what went on around him, but rather far too much that was portentous.
Those portents of downfall he saw not least in the confusion of education with training. Education, a grounding in Latin and Greek, was going the way of all flesh in his own day, let alone ours. His instructors at St. Stephen’s—then a small Episcopal school with an utter loyalty to teaching only Latin, Greek, and mathematics, as was traditional at Oxford and Cambridge—were oddities in his own time, and the curriculum of St. Stephen’s and its name and purpose changed within a couple decades of Nock’s graduation. The freedom to think and also the freedom to fail to be educated were his. He had no academic support team, no lectures (only tutorials), and almost no help from his instructors, who expected him to translate and to write fluently about and in the ancient languages. If one succeeded and learned something of value about human nature or history, education had been achieved, or at least begun. If one failed, he could work for an insurance company or a shipbuilder. He simply was not educated.
What most would call an education, with its degrees and appurtenances, Nock called training. He did not think most human beings were capable of education. He presumed that everyone was capable of being trained. The conflation of the two things meant that the State (he always capitalized it, as we would capitalize “Satan” or “Antichrist”) could expand its power, wealth, and scope in everyone’s life. This was the evil he saw at the heart of modern decadence and carnage. The State could expand its training programs: funding them, pushing more people into them, and making more people dependent on its largesse. The State had no interest in or capacity for education; it wanted to and could expand training of all kinds. All would become dependent on State-approved or State-financed or State-run training for their lives, and none would be educated.
Nock was a pessimist despite his social Darwinism and provides, like Henry Adams, no solution to this dilemma. His evaluation of the nascent Great Books movement as an insufficient half-step in the right direction is accurate, and his dark sense of the barbarian tenor of our trained but uneducated elites and populace seems a more just assessment all the time. Yet he had no hope and provided no hope for the future. Can we do otherwise?
We must. Nothing can be restored without work, and the work of relearning our own civilization’s fundamental languages, histories, and literatures will be hard. Our work will be that much harder for the much longer time between the predominance of the classics that sustained us and our own time, much longer than the time between Nock’s education and the growth of barbarism. We are the barbarians, and we have been inside the gates for many years.
Yet we are not hopeless. The treasures of antiquity remain available to us, and a time of rebuilding must come after the many collapses of recent years and of recent centuries. Education should not have to have the adjective “classical” in front of it any more than the family should have to have the adjectives “traditional” or “two-parent” in front of it. Adjectives creep in where the nouns they serve have come to mean nothing. Nock is a witness that winter has been very long. Soon spring must come.