Albert J. Nock

ONE EVENING last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance
while he expounded a politico-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 populace. What do you
think?" An embarrassing question in any case, and doubly so under the
circumstances, because my acquaintance is a very learned man, one of
the three or four 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 sources.

THE PROPHET'S 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 even 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 it?

"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 tip 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, the overwhelming majority of
mankind, they are called collectively the masses. 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.

The picture which Isaiah presents of the Judean masses is most
unfavorable. In his view, the mass-man - be he high or 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

   The main 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

THE REMNANT 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 the 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 he found in the world.

What chiefly 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 two things about them. You can be sure of
those - dead sure, as our phrase is - 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 where they are, nor how many
of them there are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you
know, and no more: first, that they exist; second, that they will find
you. Except for these two 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.

THE FASCINATION - 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. He finds tantalizing intimations of it
here and there in many places, as in the Greek Anthology, in the
scrapbook of Aulus Cellius, 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 of 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

Similarly, when the historian of two thousand years hence, or two
hundred 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 get 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 there were and what their work was like.

CONCERNING ALL 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 a prophet's
attempt - the only attempt of the kind on record, I believe - to count
up 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. The Lord 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 seven thousand 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 have run to
much more than a million or so; and a Remnant of seven thousand out of
a million is a highly encouraging percentage for any prophet. With
seven thousand 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 seven thousand, anyone else who tackled the problem would
only waste his time.

THE OTHER 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 reviewers. 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. Meneken, 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 such aids, as I said, it is ten to one that they
will smell a rat in them and will sheer off. The certainty 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 do not write in and tell him about it, after the
manner of those who admire the vedettes 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 very serious thought about the directions.

This impersonal 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. This enables 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 there. Most 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 his own.

SUCH INSTANCES 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. If, for 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 unconscious mind, and, as one might say, corrupts it.
Meanwhile, he has quite forgotten how he came by the idea in the first
instance, and then 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.

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