Review of “The Book of Journeymen” by Albert Nock

You can find the book here (pdf). It’s a selection of Nock’s essays from the New Freeman. The book makes a nice short introduction to Nock, but it will be review for those more familiar with his work. There is little one can do to review, besides quoting. Nock is wonderfully quotable.

A note from a correspondent this morning contains two sentences that should be written in letters of gold and framed in silver, studded with precious stones. "What is truly living in any period is what is capable of remaining alive; and this can be established only in relation to the ages that succeed it. … Our freedom of choice depends upon our ability to make use of the past, and when we lose this, we become slaves of the immediate, do we not?" Criticism’s first job in this country is the humble ground-floor job of differentiating itself from journalism by taking its eyes and mind resolutely off the contemporaneous. The reason for our ludicrous slavery to the immediate is just the loss that my correspondent speaks of—we really have no freedom of choice—and the reason for our loss is that we have had no criticism for a quarter of a century, but only journalism.

. . .

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. . . . Russia has a healthy tradition towards lawyers, dating from Peter the Great. On a visit to England, he was dumfounded 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 in 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 any one goes to a court for justice. I think I never heard of one who sought a court save for gain or revenge; and obviously, justice is the last thing considered under our legal system.

. . .

When a missionary asked Horace Greeley for a subscription to help keep people from going to hell, Horace refused, saying "there aren’t half enough of them going there as it is." I confess I feel just that way about Secretary Wilbur’s demand that the churches join in a great drive to eliminate illiteracy. It seems that the 1920 census reported nearly five million illiterates in our population, and the Secretary of the Interior is worried about it and wants to get them all taught to read. When I think of the kind of thing they would be likely to read, and how little good it would do them, I am disposed to congratulate them warmly on their present immunity, and to wish there were many more like them.

. . .

Following the strange American dogma that all persons are educable, and following the equally fantastic popular estimate placed upon mere numbers, our whole educational system has watered down its requirements to something precious near the moron standard. The American curriculum in "the liberal arts" is a combination of bargain-counter, grab-bag and Christmas-tree. It is not long since the newspapers were quoting President Butler of Columbia as saying he did not think he had a man in his whole institution, student or professor, who could pass the examinations that Columbia College used to set for entering freshmen fifty years ago.

. . .

One count against the book [that was being removed from the school
curriculum] according to this report, was that the description of Calvin as the "political boss" of Geneva was likely to offend the Presbyterians. It does not appear that the description was regarded as inaccurate; indeed, there is the clearest and most abundant evidence that no other description of Calvin’s civil relations with Geneva is admissible. The question therefore arises, whether in the mind of New York’s school-authorities the chief end and aim of teaching history is to please Presbyterians or to inculcate a competent understanding of some very important and significant social phenomena that appeared in Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century, and that quite distinctly colored European history for three hundred years. . . . Not to mince words, the fact of the matter is that under our educational system, the study of history, like other formative studies, does not even rise to the dignity of being a waste of time.

. . .

One of the excellent consequences . . . of advancing age is in the rapid dwindling of one’s sense of responsibility for Burbanking human society into a new and improved form. This exemption comes entirely from within, nor is it the fruit of disappointment and cynicism. It is released largely by observation and experience of how the things that one believes in actually work out. One believes in them as much as ever, and is all on the side of their being lived out. One also has as much faith as ever in the possibilities of the human race. But unforeseen things happen, and they keep happening so often and so decisively, and with such an air of inevitability about them, that before long one becomes aware that the Burbanking business has more to it than one thought.

. . .

The trouble with the "Western civilization" that we are so proud of and boast so much about, is that it makes such limited demands on the human spirit; such limited demands on the qualities that are distinctly and properly humane, the qualities that distinguish the human being from the robot on the one hand and the brute on the other. There seems no reason why our civilization could not have reached its present degree of development and be in all respects exactly as it is, if those qualities had never existed in mankind. None of them is necessary to the furtherance of its ideals and aims. Intellect does not enter into those ideals, but only sagacity; religion and morals do not enter into them; beauty and poetry do not; manners and the social sense do not. To

. . .

Why expect us to try seriously to tinker with a machine that is expressly built to work in only one way and do only one kind of thing, and try to get it to work another way and do something else, without any fundamental structural change? In any other field than that of politics, such an idea would at once be put down as supremely silly. My impression is that the American’s attitude towards political affairs shows that in this field too he instinctively and by implication puts it down as supremely silly; as why should he not?

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