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"A mass movement attracts and holds a following
not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement,
but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation."
... Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent
a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. . . .
... The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self,
the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation,
his religion, his race or his holy cause.
..A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following
by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties,
barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence."
The True Believer Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
by Eric Hoffer
Eric Hoffer is a remarkable individual, a self-educated philosopher and original thinker. Born in 1902, Hoffer grew up in the Bronx under the care of a household servant after his mother died when he was seven. By the time he was five he could read both German and English (his parents were German immigrants). He lost his sight at seven and regained it at fifteen, for unknown reasons. When his father died in 1920, Eric moved by himself to the west coast, determined to avoid factory work and "stay poor." A born reader, he began to educate himself in the libraries of California while he supported himself with odd jobs and migrant farm labor. He lived his life on the road until 1941. When the war broke out, he attempted to join the military, but was rejected for health reasons. He joined the Longshoreman's Union instead and became a stevedore, doing the most difficult work possible in order to help the war effort in whatever way he could. For the next twenty-five years, he both worked the waterfront and actively pursued the knowledge and education that he had pursued all his life, reading, writing, struggling, and playing with the ideas that would be his life's work. He published ten books between 1951 and 1982, and an eleventh was published after his death in 1983
His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic. Due to it he won winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Despite the incredible impact years ago, in XXI century, it has been (temporarily) forgotten. Now, we again need it to understand the latest mass movements, such as open source. For more information about Eric Hoffer see:
It is fitting that a true individual, as Hoffer most certainly was, would demonstrate a deep understanding of human nature not only in his writings, but in his life as well as is evident in the quotes: "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another," "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding.". According to Mr. Hoffer, a zealot requires certain personal characteristics as well as a suitable doctrine. "What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: It must be 'contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure... It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. Once we understand a thing, it is as if it had originated in us. . . . The fact that they understand a thing fully impairs its validity and certitude in their eyes."
Not understanding one's faith, or not accepting it as such, provides strong motivation for action. "[W]e run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves." "'Things which are not' are indeed mightier than 'things that are.' In all ages men have fought most desperately for beautiful cities yet to be built and gardens yet to be planted."
His style often reminds me of Mark Twain (or Amborse Bierce with his Devil's Dictionary) and his acerbic wit indicates that he is beholden to none. "To spell out the obvious is often to call it into question."
Hoffer's first book dove into the subject that ultimately occupied him for his entire writing career and interested him throughout his life. That subject was not merely the discontented individual, but the creative individual as well. Hoffer's analysis of this problem of discontented creative individual have produced some particularly illuminating insights.
His largely skeptical analysis of the nature of mass movements and those who are driven to join them is somewhat connected with Adler ideas, but not Freudian ideas. In his opinion the main component of any such movements, a zealot definitely has the problems with self-esteem. The book probes into the psychology of the frustrated and dissatisfied zealots, those who would eagerly sacrifice themselves for any cause that might give their meaningless lives some sense of significance. The alienated seek to lose themselves in these movements by adopting those fanatical attitudes that are, according to Hoffer, fundamentally "a flight from the self."
While Eric Hoffer wrote eleven books, but published only ten of them.
His final book, an autobiography called "Truth Imagined," was not published
until after his death in 1983. Two of them, "Working and Thinking on the
Waterfront" and "Before the Sabbath," were published journals that Hoffer
had originally written solely for the purpose of stimulating his own thoughts.
Finally, there is the collection, "Between the Devil and the Dragon," which
includes a sample of his best writings including "The True Believer".
At present, most of Hoffer's books, except for "The True Believer," are out of print. They can readily be found on the shelves of any decent local library...
The True Believer
(New York: Harper and Row, 1951.)
Hoffer's first book is the one that brought him fame and continues to be his best known. Subtitled "Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements," it is an examination of the types of individuals who tend to join and foster those destructive (and sometimes creative) fanatical causes which have wreaked such havoc in our time.
The Passionate State of Mind
(New York: Harper and Row, 1955.)
This is a collection of 280 aphorisms that deal with many of the themes that Hoffer would return to throughout his career, including the uniqueness of man, the role of the misfit in human affairs, and the flight of the self-despiser from an unwanted self.
The Ordeal of Change
(New York: Harper and Row, 1963.)
Considered by some to be Hoffer's best book, it focuses on a theme that he found to be running under the surface of his previous thoughts and writings. The idea is that the difficulty of dealing with drastic change tends to produce those extreme attitudes in the individual that often result in the rise of mass movements and other generally destructive activities in the world.
The Temper of Our Time
(New York: Harper and Row, 1967.)
A collection of magazine articles dealing with the familiar subject of drastic change, which Hoffer considered the central problem of our time, this book examines the influence of the juvenile mentality, the rise of automation, the problems of the black revolution and the regression of the back-to-nature movement, among other things.
Working and Thinking on the Waterfront
(New York: Harper and Row, 1969.)
This is a journal that Hoffer wrote in 1959 while he was struggling with the ideas that would become the substance of his third book, "The Ordeal of Change." He discovered the journal among his papers many years later and published it as a record of both his working life at the time and the process whereby he produced his original thoughts and writings.
First Things, Last Things
(New York: Harper and Row, 1971.)
This is another collection essays, some previously published in magazines, that deal mainly with the importance of cities in both the rise of man at the beginnings of human history, and in his current fall into crime and madness. The idea is that cities help protect man from the ravages of mother nature, but cannot protect man from his potentially destructive inner nature. Nevertheless, according to Hoffer, cities are the natural home of mankind.
Reflections on the Human Condition
(New York: Harper and Row, 1973.)
A series of 183 thoughts divided into five sections, these reflections on the strange nature of man and his condition in this world are similar in form to Hoffer's previous work, "The Passionate State of Mind," but a little more tightly organized.
In Our Time
(New York: Harper and Row, 1976.)
Sticking to his belief that any idea could be expressed in just two hundred words, Hoffer wrote these short essays about a variety of topics, including dull work, the middle class, China, the role of the trader in history, and the problems of blacks in America.
Before the Sabbath
(New York: Harper and Row, 1979.)
This is another journal that Hoffer published after the fact, and one that garnered impressive reviews from critics. Originally intended as a way to regain the alertness he felt to have lost in later years, the diary turned out to be a penetrating examination of the various causes of the social crises of the time.
Between the Devil and the Dragon
(New York: Harper and Row, 1982.)
A selection of essays and aphorisms from all of his previous books, this one is intended as a representative collection of Hoffer's ideas. A few of the essays here appear in different versions than originally published, plus there is a previously unpublished summary of the journal "Before the Sabbath." Also included is the full text of "The True Believer."
(New York: Harper and Row, 1983.)
Hoffer's autobiography is probably the most entertaining thing he ever wrote. He demonstrates such a facility for storytelling in this book that one wishes he would have written and published a few novels before he was finished.
Useful in any era, October 6, 2002
The book's theme is that all mass movements - good or bad social, religious, national - share certain characteristics giving them a "family likeness". That is, mass movements generate a proclivity for united action (challengers not welcome), breed fanaticism, fervent hope, hatred, intolerance, release powerful human energy, demanding blind faith and single-hearted allegiance. Such features are common to any movement, be it Christianity, Political Correctness, Islam, Postmodernism, the Pensacola Movement, feminism, communism. "For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious," writes Hoffer. "The true believer is everywhere on the march", converting and antagonizing he shapes the world in his image.
Sure to raise the hackles of many Hoffer writes, "The hammer and sickle or swastika are in a class with the cross." But he does not mean they are equivalent movements, only that they have equivalent features. Parades are religious processions, all have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers. (Ever see Lenin's tomb or the burial place of St Peter?) In a nutshell, this is human behavior with reason removed, or made a tool of the passions. Which is not to imply movements have no good rewards. As Hoffer notes, some have organized and others helped shake the West out of the Dark Ages.
Carried along in the wake of zealots breaking ground are the "not so zealous" and those just plain unaware of their surroundings. Though what we today perceive as "normal", all of it is result of a variety of mass movements from the very advent of agriculture to the invention of the city as a dominant way of life. But Hoffer focuses on movements sprung from an idea, value or perception that are matters of the heart more than matters of technology or comfort.
Interestingly, movements have stages of development from initial radicalism to eventual conservatism in which those attracted seek careers in the new order, not molding a new world but preserving the present. The zeal of experience, replaced by orthodoxy. Consider transitions in the Church from apostles to Bishops, 1917 Russia from revolution to rules of communist productivity, riots of 1960's America to the squelching of free speech by graying activists holding university chairs. "Believer" shines on these apparently disparate acts a new light. --This text refers to the Paperback edition
A brilliant book, July 23, 2003
1. The use of specific historical examples to develop the general idea (deductive reasoning) and NOT vice versa (inductive reasoning). Many sociologists get so caught up in trying to make fine sounding phrases that they don't understand that there is a qualitative difference in going from examples to suppositions and not the other way around.
2. Succinctness. A great many books go on for a very long time and manage to assert very little. (Read anything by Ayn Rand lately?) This book is very to the point and short on words.
The way that we know that his predictions are with merit is that they have come true 50 years *after* the book was written.
Ten examples of things for which he gives good, mechanistic explanations/ predictions are:
1. Noting that movements for the rights of this group or that group often end with finished products/ governments that are WORSE than the formerly existing order. (Africa).
2. Explanations of why it is in the best interest of governments to have citizens that are less well educated. The less well informed are citizens, the less likely they are to hold government accountable for serious mistakes because they aren't aware of what's happening. (United States)
3. If there is no cause, people will invent one. (The Islamic world. Student protestors on university campuses).
4. When people stay caught in religious movements (or any movement too long), then it will divert other energy that could have been used for other more immediately useful tasks. The net result will be backwardness. (Islamic world again. Sub-Saharan Africa and tribal conflicts.)
5. This book makes a clean separation between the Dixiecrats in the American South and the Poor White Trash as the creators of problems for blacks. While he only devoted two sentences two it, it could have well been expanded to explain to explain the origin of the Segregation laws (which happened AFTER the Reconstruction governments).
6. He talks about the role of class in assimilation. (The Cubans in Miami have tried to recreate Cuba in Miami because the people the managed to get out were the richest people. But no other ethnic group has gone as far in creating an ethnic enclave because these people were from the lower echelons of their own respective home countries.)
7. Religious conversion is *incidental* to whatever conqueror there is gaining control of the government. (So Christianity was not taken up in Japan because the conquerors did not control the government. But in places where the rapport was made between the government and the colonizers, the subjects were converted almost as an afterthought.)
8. Shows that there is separation between men of action, men of words, and fanatics. Some people are actually capable of going out and getting things organized and done, but may not be the greatest speaker (George Bush). Others may speak very well, but be capable of nothing else (WEB DuBois). And others just like to stay inflamed and create chaos because that's what they do best (bin Laden).
9. Revolutions must take place in certain steps. And there must be people who are *looking* for something to change. (All the talk of radicalism in New England at Harvard and the other Ivy League Institutions may not amount to anything.)
10. Succesful governments befriend the "learned men" (intellectuals), so that they don't become mouthpieces against the governments/ catalysts for revolution. This system existed for centuries in Mainland China. It exists in some sense in the Western World (Universities. The tenure system. Intellectuals won't go *that* far in promoting the destruction of the system that ultimately keeps them employed.)
This book has many good things that can be learned. It's only 160 pages. But it should take at least two weeks to read if read properly. And I believe that it has more *authenticated* knowledge than most sociology degree courses.
Still vibrant, after all these years., July 7, 2003
Upon reading Hoffer again, as a middle-aged and somewhat less idealistic professor, I find that several things have changed. First, Hoffer's observations seem even more keenly relevant today, post 9/11, than they did in the post-Vietnam era. Secondly, I now understand Hoffer's apparent brashness. In my youthful zeal I often rushed through the preface of a book, or skipped it entirely. But therein was Hoffer's justification: "The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations--all of them theories--are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: 'All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.'" While I am generally no fan of blanket disclaimers, I understand why Hoffer did it this way. His words could have been too easily dismissed had they been continually tempered and restrained.
Hoffer revels in pointing out seemingly paradoxical situations and attitudes, such as "Discontent is likely to be highest when misery id bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed." His incisive comments cut to the nerve of his subject, treating in one stroke mass movements of every variety: "It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated."
But what I remember most vividly, and Hoffer has reaffirmed for me, are his chilling observations about indoctrination and self-sacrifice. "The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. He who is free to draw conclusions from his individual experience and observation is not usually hospitable to the idea of martyrdom... All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ."
I will close with one further quote from "The True Believer": "...in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand." It is in statements like these that Hoffer seems to speak from a vantage point that few others have attained. Hoffer's insights are timeless.Brilliant and insightful, July 6, 2003
What makes Hoffer's book so remarkable is his ability to filter out the common ingredients that gave rise to mass movements hitherto and traced them to their roots. And he ended up in the psyche of an insecure and frustrated individual.
His non-academic background largely contributed the book's originality since he was not strait-jacketed by the dominant thoughts in his times. Though some might feel uncomfortable with his sweeping generalisations without the rigors of scientific analysis, I do not see it as a major defect since the subject matter is difficult to be duplicated in a control environment.
All in all, this is a brilliant and deeply insightful book for anyone who wants to peek into what lurks inside the minds of true believers or anyone who wishes to lead them.
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