In 1951, when Believer first appeared, eager
eyes had long been peeled for the emergence of a
For Hoffer's hero is 'the autonomous man,' the content
man at peace with himself, engaged in the
There may be no harder form for an author to attempt than writing in aphorisms. The required combination of brevity and profundity is exceptionally hard to maintain, in fact most authors only toss off a few good ones in their entire career. The most famous exception to the rule is Friederich Nietzsche, who, whatever we may think of the destructive influence of his ideas, must be admitted to be a brilliant philosopher (see Orrin's review.) But interestingly enough, Eric Hoffer, a self educated field hand and longshoreman, is more than a match for him. There are so many quotable passages in this little book that you can seriously open to just about any page and find a sentence that will stop you in your tracks and make you ponder it's implications. It is in no way possible to address all the ideas that he broaches, so let me just try a couple.
Perhaps the most important insight in the book--and it is very hard to settle on just one--is that the members of mass movements, who ostensibly seek to better the lot of all mankind, are motivated not by altruism but by selfishness. They join such movements not because they believe in any particular ideals or goals but because they do not believe in themselves :
Unless a man has the talents to make something of
himself, freedom is an irksome burden...We join
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence
for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all
A man is likely to mind his own business when it
is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his
With these startling thoughts, Eric Hoffer, one of the very proletarians for whom activist intellectuals always claim to be fighting, stood conventional wisdom on it's collective head and threw down a challenge which has never been adequately answered.
Traditionally folks have been willing to forgive coercive utopians for the catastrophic harm they have done to society because it was felt : "their hearts were in the right place," that however misguided their actions proved to be, they should be forgiven because they meant well. Think of how charitably we look upon youthful membership in the Communist Party by many artists and intellectuals of the 1930's. Sure the Party was funded by Moscow and served Soviet ends and, of course, we realize now that Communism was not quite as beneficial to the workers of the world as it was supposed to be, but surely we can all agree that their motivations were noble, that they were thinking only of the downtrodden, right? Wrong. Hoffer exploded that myth and forced us to consider that they were driven by feelings of personal inadequacy and the desire to tear others down.
In fairness to Hoffer, let it be noted that he applied this logic to all mass movements, including Christianity, not just to Communism or Nazism. In addition, he differentiated amongst such movements, believing some to be more beneficial in the long term than others :
The manner in which a mass movement starts out can
also have an effect on the duration and mode
Of course, this really boils down to the fact that those movements which had freedom as their ultimate goal were more likely than others to arrive there. For this reason, the French Revolution does not actually belong in this category, but serves to prove the point. It was less about liberty and more about equality, or at least placed equal emphasis on the two; but history has shown these to be incompatible goals and that, contrary to the kind of Rousseauean ideals of the French, equality does not occur naturally, and can only be imposed by government force. Thus, the French Revolution was fated to end in the Terror, while the American Revolution was destined to end in libertarian democracy.
For Hoffer though, as I would assume for the rest of us these days, the free, or autonomous, man is real hero of society. Though activists of all ideological stripes tend to dismiss them as complacent and unmotivated, even characterless :
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in
human affairs, and they are willing to fight and
Hoffer's free man has none of the romantic trappings of the radical, perhaps appeals less to a certain kind of imagination. But as experience has shown, at great cost in human life, the adherents of mass movements, cloaked though they are in the language of selflessness, are, as Hoffer says, all too eager to trade the burden of freedom for the comfort of equality, however brutally attained and maintained.
Despite some historical inaccuracies, occasionally sketchy reasoning, and a too thorough dismissal of the value of faith, Hoffer's great contribution throughout the book lies in his recognition that these are not fundamentally economic matters, that mass movements, despite their protestations to the contrary, are not truly concerned with altruistically securing a better standard of living for everyone, but rather are driven by a selfish desire to secure an equal standard for all, regardless of the cost.
Though this insight has taken hold in the intervening fifty years, as academic Marxism, with it's emphasis on economics, has been put to flight, Hoffer seems now to be largely forgotten. This seems to be partly a function of his own personality--worldly success made him uncomfortable, so he did not capitalize on his temporary fame as others might have. But it is undoubtedly also a function of the challenge his ideas pose to the academic Left. Though his intellectual honesty is admirable, when he said during the years of student unrest in the 1960's that :
The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.
Never have the young taken themselves so seriously,
and the calamity is that they are listened to and
he essentially committed professional suicide. Of course, he never considered himself a professional philosopher, returning always to life as a longshoreman.
This book is required reading for anyone trying to make sense of the 20th Century, and, unfortunately, will likely remain pertinent in the 21st. It is concise, lively, and thought provoking, a book you will return to again and again.
-ESSAY: The Longshoreman Philosopher: Combining the life of a working man with a life of reading and writing, the San Francisco longshoreman Eric Hoffer became a noted philosopher, a best-selling author, and an acute observer of American life. His papers in the Hoover Archives run to many thousands of pages and include journals that have never been published. Tom Bethell examines the Hoffer trove (Tom Bethell, Winter 2003, Hoover Digest)
Book-related and General Links:
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "eric hoffer"
-OBIT : ERIC HOFFER, DOCKWORKER-AUTHOR WHO LOOKED INTO LIFE, DIES AT 80 (May 22, 1983, NY Times)
-BIO : Eric Hoffer (Universe of the Incarnate Word)
-Hero of the Day : Eric Hoffer (Daily Objectivist)
-Hoover acquires Eric Hoffer papers (Stanford Report Online)
-DEFINITION : true-believer syndrome (Skeptic's Dictionary)
-ESSAY : Apr 21, 1994 Garry Wills: The Saint of Mott Street (NY Review of Books)
-ESSAY : CASCADE COMMENTARY The True Believer (Cascade Policy Institute)
-ESSAY : Excerpts from Eric Hoffer's The True Believer with Annotations Regarding the Fitness (Aerobics) Movement (Ken Hutchins, SuperSlow Exercise Guild)
-ESSAY : Eric Hoffer's Message for Our Time (Larry Barnhart)
-REVIEW : May 8, 1969 Edgar Z. Friedenberg: Only in America, NY Review of Books
The Temper of Our Time by Eric Hoffer
Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer
Eric Hoffer by Calvin Tompkins and with Aphorisms by Eric Hoffer
Except that sociobiology is notorious bunk and exactly the sort of guff that Hitler tried putting into effect. People believe in it precisely in order to avoid themselves and God.
- Feb-26-2007, 17:38
In emphasizing the 'running away from the self' of believing in something larger than oneself, Hoffer ignores that some might be 'running towards' something; which could include one's sense of self. At its simplest, found in chimps and so on, the idea is known as one of 'enlightened self-interest', at its highest is the concept that the universe runs on love. But stick with the lowest, for proof of the poverty of ideas in Hoffer's work. Basic socio-biology proves this out and Donne be damned.
It is fitting that Neitzsche is cited. Such comments as whatever doesn't kill one makes one stronger aligns well with Hoffer's comment that his book "does not shy away from half-truths", presumably in search of a clearer view of reality. The reality here is that propaganda runs on aphorisms, and the more the better for such as Hoffer and Neitzsche imo.
BTW,the primary cause of WWII was the greatly unjust Treaty of Versailles. It's ironic that Keynes got his start in predicting the obvious effects of this mess, given his final essay entitled The Future, where he admitted the role of propaganda in the current economic system: "For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still."
- Dan Parker
- Feb-26-2007, 04:02
I enjoyed your review of The True Believer very much, and I couldn't agree with you more about the importance of Hoffer's writing. But regarding your comment about Hoffer surpassing Nietzsche, I respectfully make the following observations: 1) Hoffer almost certainly read a lot of Nietzsche. Not infrequently when I read an aphorism by Hoffer, I can recall exactly the same point made by Nietzsche. The wording is completely different, but the idea is exactly the same. 2) Neitzsche's style is unsurpassed in German, and many would say unsurpassed in any other language. In my opinion, Hoffer's writing--as wonderful as it is--does not measure up to Nietzsche.
- Philip Hansten
- Sep-08-2006, 14:12
i am compelled to re-read The True Believer after the election of November, 2004 and find the same truths i found in the 1960's. I just don't know where to go from here in the United States.
- catherine clyde
- Nov-05-2004, 21:28
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