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Hint: Don't be Rousseau

I’ve been reading some Nock. Albert Jay Nock, one of the premier American essayists of the early twentieth century and one of the founders of modern conservative/libertarian thought.

A weighty man, that Nock.

But also a disturbing man. In a 1964 biography, Robert M. Crunden said Nock was greatly fond of the ladies. Nock was also greatly fond of being absent from his wife. He apparently deserted her after she bore him two children.

Let me qualify this: I don’t know any details about the abandonment. Nock was an extremely private man who took secrecy to new levels. He would, for instance, occasionally bundle up his outgoing mail and ship it from another state, so people wouldn’t know where he was living. Was the abandonment wholesale or more like a divorce with child visitation rights? Nobody seems to know. We know he left his job as an Episcopal minister and family, but we also know his sons knew their father well enough to assist later biographers.

But what I’ve always found fascinating about Nock is this: Only after leaving his wife, children, and conventional job did he climb up the ladder as an intellectual man of letters, joining the staff of the popular magazine, American Magazine, at age 39.

It kind of reminds me of Jean Rousseau, who orphaned five children so he could continue as Europe’s leading man of innovative letters. Or Marx, who loved his family but let them live in grinding poverty so he could work on Capital. It also reminds me of this little poem by the philosopher George Santayana:

I cannot part from what I prize
For all I prize is in my head;
My fancies are the fields and skies
I will not change till I am dead,
Unless indeed I lose my wits
Or (what is much the same thing) wed.

I like Santayana. He knew he couldn’t have a family and philosophize, so he didn’t get married. Good man. Rousseau, on the other hand, was a scoundrel. Nock? It looks like he was a scoundrel, but it’s hard to say.

At this point, I should ask, “What does this mean for you, dear reader?” But I’m not. I’m going to ask, “What does this mean for me, self-absorbed writer?” It’s a question that my craft forces on me. “The essayist,” Joseph Epstein once wrote, “investigates the world by looking first into his own heart.” By looking into my heart, I might find something that interests readers.

And in this case, I have to confess: My heart is a little envious of Santayana, Nock, and even Rousseau.

You see, I’m married. And I have seven children, aged 13 to 1. I also have social and community service commitments.

And most disturbing of all, I have a room equipped with everything an intellectually excitable guy could want: over 3,000 books, a computer, cable Internet connection, two upholstered chairs with bright lights over them, a big L-shaped desk, a $750 office chair with lumbar support (a warehousing friend sold it to me for 10% of retail), serene pictures of wine bottles and pastoral scenes on the wall. And it’s tucked away in the corner of my basement, so secluded that a person might successfully hide a Jew from the Nazis in it.

But I spend very little time there.

Because I’m not Santayana, Nock, or Rousseau.

About three years ago, as the babies were arriving like passengers at LAX, I despaired of ever writing anything really good.

I now no longer despair. I’ve grown to enjoy my role as father and husband, even to the exclusion of finer mental pursuits.

I’m a Catholic man with God-given commitments. I owe God thanks for my fancy office, but I also owe Him thanks for my commitments. It took me a little while, but once I grew to embrace those commitments, I started to see that they weren’t just commitments. They’re a bigger source of grace than my study could ever be.

Have I settled for second-rate literary and cognitive skills in exchange for family life? Probably. Am I merely rationalizing it now? No. Happiness can’t be rationalized. You’re either happy or you’re not. Most days, I’m happy. I couldn’t honestly say that about myself 14 years ago before all those children started to arrive. I loved my books and study, but they encouraged no small amount of self-absorption.

True happiness, C.S. Lewis liked to observe, is only found by looking outward. These days, I look outward all the time, forced to do so by eight dependents on whom I’ve grown dependent for my mental well-being.

As for Santayana, Nock, and Rousseau, I’ve concluded that they’re sad paradoxes: In their selfishness, they made extremely short-sighted sacrifices. At least they made the sacrifice for the noble pursuit of art. For that, they can be commended.

It’s much more difficult to commend the “selfish sacrifices” of the millions of Americans today who decline the gift of childbirth in order to pursue fancier things and more exciting activities. They don’t seek art or music or literary graces. They simply want more stuff and stimulation.

Of Nock, I’m a little envious. Of the Americans who opt out of child-rearing so they can have an SUV, I’m not envious at all.

This essay was first published c. 2010.