The Remnant of Albert Jay Nock: Is Failure Inevitable?

Albert Jay Nock

Albert Jay Nock’s essay entitled “Isaiah’s Job” was originally printed in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936, and has since become somewhat of a classic.

The article is particularly relevant to the issues discussed on this blog, given that the “Remnant” Nock speaks of is similar (though not identical) to the one this blog hopes to promote. Nock discusses the Remnant through the eyes of Isaiah the Prophet — the man who warned the Israelites (and their leaders) to turn back to the one true God.

According to Nock, Isaiah’s job was inherently futile when it came to actually persuading the masses, and God knew it was such. For Nock, the only reason Isaiah was commissioned to speak to the people was for the Remnant’s sake, because they were the only ones who would actually listen.

When Isaiah asks why he is being sent on a mission of inevitable failure, the Lord answers by saying Isaiah must simply “take care of the Remnant.” Nock paraphrases the Lord’s reply cheekily, as follows:

‘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.’

Part of this strikes me as powerful and inspiring, but part of it comes off as extremely arrogant and misguided. Nock illuminates his thoughts a little more when he says this about the relationship between the masses and the Remnant:

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.

Part of Nock’s depiction of the Remnant sounds like the Biblical one (e.g. exhibits right thinking and right living, promotes unpopular truths, will “come back and build up a new society”). But part of his depiction smacks of elitism and aloofness.

Societal perfection may be unachievable, but societal destruction is far from inevitable. The masses may usually be in the wrong, but does that mean we are to ignore them as we sit around chat up a storm with our university chums? Isaiah didn’t live his life that way, but apparently Nock thinks he did:

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; and knowing also that nothing was to be expected of the masses under any circumstances, he made no specific appeal to them, did not accommodate his message to their measure in any way, and did not care two straws whether they heeded it or not.

I’m not sure where Nock is getting this part of his argument. Isaiah did not just preach to the choir. He went to the leaders of his day and told them things they didn’t want to hear. First he did it with King Ahaz (hardly part of the “Remnant” of his day), and then he did it with King Hezekiah. Isaiah was all about being on his feet, getting in people’s faces, and persuading them to do what was right.

Jonah Goldberg recently wrote an engaging summary of Nock’s views in an article titled “Mortal Remains.” In the article, Goldberg succinctly describes Nock’s primary folly:

But [Nock] was wrong that statism was inevitable, partly because he was right about the need to speak to the Remnant. [William F.] Buckley, [Frank] Chodorov, and countless others took inspiration from Nock or from Nockian ideas, but they did not write for their desk drawers. They shared Nock’s fatalism at times — standing athwart history yelling Stop, and all that — but they actually yelled Stop. Nock did not believe in anything so crude as yelling, even in purely literary terms.

All too true. Nock, a libertarian, was correct on identifying the impending creep of statism and its corresponding corrupting of liberty, but he was incorrect on its inevitability. Simultaneously, this makes him incorrect on the role of the Remnant in modern society.

The Remnant that this blog seeks to promote is one that may indeed be unpopular, but is neither quiet nor reclusive but rather outspoken and effective — one that is in the world though not of it. There is something true and essential behind the “live and let live” mantra, but we must not succumb to the idea that truth is powerless without a positive response, or that our God-given missions are defined by perceivable outcomes. In summary: God did not call us to a niche bloc of likeminded and well-adjusted know-it-alls.

God called us to the Lost, and the Remnant means nothing without them.

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  • Remnant Culture

    New blog post: "Is Failure Inevitable?" Contemplations on Isaiah, Albert Jay Nock, and the Remnant. #tlot #tcot

  • Vangel

    “All too true. Nock, a libertarian, was correct on identifying the impending creep of statism and its corresponding corrupting of, but he was incorrect on its inevitability. Simultaneously, this makes him incorrect on the role of the Remnant in modern society.”

    I don’t see how one can look at the evidence and say that Nock was wrong. You live in a world where the government regulates the pressure drop in your shower nozzle, the tank size for your toilet, and the wattage in your light fixtures. Can you tell me what part of your life isn’t government regulating?