Albert J. Nock
This piece was
originally published in 1962 by The Foundation For Economic
Education (FEE), Irvington-on- Hudson, New York 10533. The author is
Albert Jay Nock (1870-1945). For Walter L. Matt, the founding editor
of the Traditional Catholic fortnightly, The Remnant, it would
become one of the primary inspirations behind his choice of the name
of his newspaper, when it was established in 1967.
last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance while he
expounded a political-economic doctrine which seemed sound as a nut
and in which I could find no defect. At the end, he said with great
earnestness: "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 population.
What do you think?"
question in any case, and doubly so under the circumstances, because
my acquaintance is a very learned man, one of the 3 or 4 really
first-class minds that Europe produced in his generation; and
naturally I, as one of the unlearned, was inclined to regard his
lightest word with reverence amounting to awe...
I referred him
to the story of the prophet Isaiah. (I shall paraphrase the story in
our common speech since it has to be pieced out from various
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 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 the 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
"Ah," the Lord
said, "you do not 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".
What do we mean
by the masses, and what by the Remnant?
As the word
"masses" is commonly used, it suggests agglomerations of poor and
underprivileged people, laboring people, proletarians. But it means
nothing like that; it 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 steadily and strictly as
laws of conduct; and because such people make up the great and
overwhelming majority of mankind, they are called collectively "the
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 these 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.
which Isaiah presents of the Judean masses is most unfavorable. In
his view, the mass-man -- be he high of be he lowly, rich or poor,
prince or pauper -- gets off very badly. He appears as not only
weak-minded and weak-willed, but as by consequence knavish,
arrogant, grasping, dissipated, unprincipled, unscrupulous...
As things now
stand, Isaiah's job seems rather to go begging. Everyone with a
message nowadays is, like my venerable European friend, eager to
take it to the masses. His first, last and only thought is of mass-
acceptance and mass-approval. His great care is to put his doctrine
in such shape as will capture the masses' attention and interest...
trouble with this [mass-man approach] 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. If, say, you are a preacher, you wish to attract
as large a congregation as you can, which means an appeal to the
masses; and this, in turn, means adapting the terms of your message
to the order of intellect and character that the masses exhibit.
If you are an
educator, say with a college on your hands, you wish to get as many
students as possible, and you whittle down your requirements
accordingly. If a writer, you aim at getting many readers; if a
publisher, many purchasers; if a philosopher, many disciples; if a
reformer, many converts; if a musician, many auditors; and so on.
But as we see
on all sides, in the realization of these several desires, the
prophetic message is so heavily adulterated with trivialities, in
every instance, that its effect on the masses is merely to harden
them in their sins. 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.
Isaiah, on the
other hand, worked under no such disabilities. 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 that the
Remnant would listen.
want only the best you have, whatever that may be. Give them that,
and they are satisfied; you have nothing more to worry about.
In a sense,
nevertheless, as I have said, it is not a rewarding job. A prophet
of the Remnant will not grow purse-proud on the financial returns
from his work, nor is it likely that he will get any great renown
out of it. Isaiah's case was exceptional to this second rule, and
there are others -- but not many.
It may be
thought, then, that while taking care of the Remnant is no doubt a
good job, it is not an especially interesting job because it is as a
rule so poorly paid. I have my doubts about this. There are other
compensations to be got out of a job besides money and notoriety,
and some of them seem substantial enough to be attractive.
Many jobs which
do not pay well are yet profoundly interesting, as, for instance,
the job of research student in the sciences is said to be; and the
job of looking after the Remnant seems to me, as I have surveyed it
for many years from my seat in the grandstand, to be as interesting
as any that can be found in the world.
makes it so, I think, is that in any given society the Remnant are
always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will
never know, more than 2 things about them. You can be sure of
those-dead sure -- but you will never be able to make even a
respectable guess at anything else.
You do not
know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are
doing or will do. 2 things you do know, and no more: First, that
they exist; second, that they will find you.
these 2 certainties, working for the Remnant means working in
impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition
calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who
is properly gifted with the imagination, insight and intellectual
curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade.
-- as well as the despair -- of the historian, as he looks back upon
Isaiah's Jewry, upon Plato's Athens, or upon Rome of the Antonines,
is the hope of discovering and laying bare the "substratum of
right-thinking and well-doing" which he knows must have existed
somewhere in those societies because no kind of collective life can
possibly go on without it.
tantalizing intimations of it here and there in many places, as in
the Greek Anthology, in the scrapbook of Aulus Gellius, in the poems
of Ausonius, and in the brief and touching tribute, "Bene merenti",
bestowed upon the unknown occupants of Roman tombs.
But these are
vague and fragmentary; they lead him nowhere in his search for some
kind of measure on this substratum, but merely testify to what he
already knew a priori -- that the substratum did somewhere exist.
Where it was, how substantial it was, what its power of
self-assertion and resistance was-of all this they tell him nothing.
the historian of 2,000 years hence, or 200 years, looks over the
available testimony to the quality of our civilization and tries to
get any kind of clear, competent evidence concerning the substratum
of right thinking and well-doing which he knows must have been here,
he will have a devil of a time finding it.
When he has
assembled all he can and has made even a minimum allowance for
speciousness, vagueness, and confusion of motive, he will sadly
acknowledge that his net result is simply nothing.
A Remnant were
here, building a substratum like coral insects; so much he knows,
but he will find nothing to put him on the track of who and where
and how many they were and what their work was like.
this, too, the prophet of the present knows precisely as much and as
little as the historian of the future; and that, I repeat, is what
makes his job seem to me so profoundly interesting.
One of the most
suggestive episodes recounted in the Bible is that of prophet's
attempt -- the only attempt of the kind on the record, I believe --
to count 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 that 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.
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; "and as for your figures on the Remnant," He said, "I don't mind
telling you that there are 7,000 of them back there in Israel whom
it seems you have not heard of, but you may take My word for it that
there they are."
At that time,
probably the population of Israel could not run too much more than a
million or so; and a Remnant of 7,000 out of a million is a highly
encouraging percentage for any prophet.
With 7,000 of
the boys on his side, there was no great reason for Elijah to feel
lonesome; and incidentally, that would be something for the modern
prophet of the Remnant to think of when he has a touch of the blues.
But the main
point is that if Elijah the Prophet could not make a closer guess on
the number of the Remnant than he made when he missed it by 7,000,
anyone else who tackled the problem would only waste his time.
certainty which the prophet of the Remnant may always have is that
the Remnant will find him. He may rely on that with absolute
assurance. They will find him without his doing anything about it;
in fact, if he tries to do anything about it, he is pretty sure to
put them off. He does not need to advertise for them nor resort to
any schemes of publicity to get their attention.
If he is a
preacher or a public speaker, for example, he may be quite
indifferent to going on show at receptions, getting his picture
printed in the newspapers, or furnishing autobiographical material
for publication on the side of "human interest". If a writer, he
need not make a point of attending any pink teas, autographing books
at wholesale, nor entering into any specious freemasonry with
All this and
much more of the same order lies in the regular and necessary
routine laid down for the prophet of the masses. It is, and must be,
part of the great general technique of getting the mass-man's ear -
- or as our vigorous and excellent publicist, Mr.H.L.Mencken, puts
it -- the technique of boob- bumping.
The prophet of
the Remnant is not bound to this technique. He may be quite sure
that the Remnant will make their own way to him without any
adventitious aids; and not only so, but if they find him employing
any such aids, as I said, it is 10 to 1 that they will smell a rat
in them and will sheer off.
that the Remnant will find him, however, leaves the prophet as much
in the dark as ever, as helpless as ever in the matter of putting
any estimate of any kind upon the Remnant; for, as appears in the
case of Elijah, he remains ignorant of who they are that have found
him or where they are or how many.
They did not
write in and tell him about it, after the manner of those who admire
the vendettas of Hollywood, nor yet do they seek him out and attach
themselves to his person. They are not that kind. They take his
message much as drivers take the directions on a roadside signboard
-- that is, with very little thought about the signboard, beyond
being gratefully glad that it happened to be there, but with every
thought about the direction.
attitude of the Remnant wonderfully enhances the interest of the
imaginative prophet's job. Once in a while, just about often enough
to keep his intellectual curiosity in good working order, he will
quite accidentally come upon some distinct reflection of his own
message in an unsuspected quarter.
him to entertain himself in his leisure moments with agreeable
speculations about the course his message may have taken in reaching
that particular quarter, and about what came of it after it got
interesting of all are those instances, if one could only run them
down (but one may always speculate about them), where the recipient
himself no longer knows where nor when nor from whom he got the
message- or even where, as sometimes happens, he has forgotten that
he got it anywhere and imagines that it is all a self-sprung idea of
as these are probably not infrequent, for, without presuming to
enroll ourselves among the Remnant, we can all no doubt remember
having found ourselves suddenly under the influence of an idea, the
source of which we cannot possibly identify.
"It came to us
afterward," as we say; that is, we are aware of it only after it has
shot up full-grown in our minds, leaving us quite ignorant of how
and when and by what agency it was planted there and left to
germinate. It seems highly probable that the prophet's message often
takes some such course with the Remnant.
example, you are a writer or a speaker or a preacher, you put forth
an idea which lodges in the Unbewusstsein of a casual member of the
Remnant and sticks fast there. For some time it is inert; then it
begins to fret and fester until presently it invades the man's
conscious mind and, as one might say, corrupts it.
has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first instance,
and even perhaps thinks he has invented it; and in those
circumstances, the most interesting thing of all is that you never
know what the pressure of that idea will make him do.