Eric Hoffer's Message for Our Time


Larry Barnhart
March 1995

Eric Hoffer's Life

  "The American social philosopher Eric Hoffer, b. New York City, July 25, 1902, d. May 21, 1983 was best known for his critical analysis of mass movements and their adherents.

  "Hoffer earned his living as a dishwasher, lumberjack, and migrant farmworker before becoming a San Francisco stevedore in 1943. Entirely self-educated and always an avid reader, he published his first and most influential book, The True Believer, in 1951. In it he portrayed political fanatics as people who embrace a cause to compensate for their own feelings of guilt and inadequacy."1

  His personal life was a testament to the power of the common person to master knowledge, even without the help of the academies. According to Ron Gross, "Formal education is driven by the syllabus, not by our enthusiasms." 2 Eric Hoffer set an example for us by pursuing knowledge wherever it took him.

Amusing Observations

  Eric Hoffer lived a simple life, so he was not bound by the need to cater to social norms or the need to put on airs. In his book, "The Ordeal of Change", he revealed that he experienced fears of failure even when starting some simple tasks. "Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem." This ability to be dispassionate toward himself was also reflected in his knack for confronting issues directly, and no doubt contributed to his ability to do pioneering studies into mass-movement psychology.

  In the category of amusing observations, I put quotes like, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another," and "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding." 3 According to Mr. Hoffer, the "motivational speaker," "It sometimes seems that intense desire not only creates its own opportunities, but its own talents." Also, he warns us that, "Fear of becoming a has-been keeps some people from becoming anything."

  His writings often have a humorous quality about them, and yet his acerbic wit indicates that he is beholden to none. "To spell out the obvious is often to call it into question." 4

Fanaticism and Life's Purpose

  The issues of fanaticism and mass-movement psychology had never been addressed in a comprehensive and systematic manner until Eric Hoffer studied it. The awareness of the phenomenon was not new: "J.B.S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D." 5 Organizing it in a systematic framework was.

  What are the psychological needs that are met when we elect to sacrifice our flesh and blood selves for some higher cause? What is it that makes ideas and theories so seductive that people will gladly kill and die for them?

  According to Eric Hoffer, it may not be a sacrifice at all. "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." 6 Having failed to satisfy ourselves through our puny individual pursuits, it can be a relief to no longer be concerned for our personal salvation.

  "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." 7 It is not enough to have a few useful truths -- the true believer must have a monopoly on truth for all times.

  "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence." 8

  To gain fanatical converts requires certain organizational and doctrinal chararcteristics. "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.'" 9 "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."10

  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." 11 "'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."12

Oppression and the Psyche

  History is filled with tales of human brutality. Much of it justified by the highest-sounding rhetoric. According to Eric Hoffer, there is a self-perpetuating aspect to violence. In fact, the terror and oppression often becomes self-perpetuating whether the conversion is successful or not.

  Regarding successful conversions: "It is not always true that 'He who complies against his will is of his own opinion still.' Islam imposed its faith by force, yet the coerced Muslims displayed a devotion to the new faith more ardent than that of the first Arabs engaged in the movement."13 In the Mideast today we are still seeing that legacy in action. When considering the UN Covenant article on religious freedom, and "whether it should refer explicitly to a right to change one's religion or belief", "Arab countries objected to the Commission's draft on the ground that for Moslems it is inconceivable that one could create doubt in the mind of any believer about the truth of his belief; in addition, a provision of that kind would create difficulty for the states whose basic laws were of religious origin or character."14

  As for when the conversion attempt fails: "The undercurrent of admiration in hatred manifests itself in the inclination to imitate those we hate. Thus every mass movement shapes itself after its specific devil. Christianity at its height realized the image of the antichrist. The Jacobins practiced all the evils of the tyranny they had risen against. Soviet Russia is realizing the purest and most colossal example of monopoly capitalism. . . .

  "It is startling to see how the oppressed almost invariably shape themselves in the image of their hated oppressors. That the evil men do lives after them is partly due to the fact that those who have reason to hate the evil most shape themselves after it and thus perpetuate it."15

  Even the defense of righteous causes carries it own hazards. "Thus, though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense, it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend." 16 When we seek to redress a grievance, we need to maintain our balance if we do not want to perpetuate it.

Social Organization

  What type of society is best for maintaining the status quo? The prognosis is not optimistic. "Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority." The more a culture views envy as a legitimate emotion, the more this becomes true. America of today did not happen overnight. In 1835, de Tocqueville observed, "Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom."17

  Long ago, Machiavelli counseled, "Therefore a wise prince will seek means by which his subjects will always and in every possible condition of things have need of his government, and then they will always be faithful to him."18 Eric Hoffer confirms Machiavelli when he observes, "Where people toil from sunrise to sunset for a bare living, they nurse no grievances and dream no dreams."19 "Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality." 20   This means that if humanity's condition is to improve, some very deep fundamental understanding of the human psyche will have to be developed.

Leadership Qualifications

  Leadership for mass-movements generally comes from two sources: "men of words," and "men of action." Men of words intellectually debunk the current order, and men of action capitalize on that energy. Sometimes men of words also act as men of action, but most often the roles are played by different people. Very often, by the time the men of action are done translating theory into action, the men of words are horrified, and in turn, become outcasts of the movements they start.

  What is the qualification for such leadership? "Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs." 21 While this is not all bad, given such examples as Abraham Lincoln, we still need to take heed. A leader can also be "a self-appointed soul engineer who sees it as his sacred duty to operate on mankind with an ax." 22 (For the rest of the story, consider reading The True Believer for yourself!)


1 "Hoffer, Eric," The Academic American Encyclopedia, (New York: Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc., 1993).
2 Ron Gross, The Independent Scholar's Handbook (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), pp. 5-6.
3 Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), p. 21.
4 Quoted in Michael C. Thomsett, A Treasury of Business Quotations (New York: Ballantine Books, 1990), 56.
5 Eric Hoffer, Op. Cit., p. 151.
6 Ibid., p. 21.
7 Ibid., pp. 22-23.
8 Ibid., p. 44.
9 Ibid., p. 76.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., p. 50.
12 Ibid., p. 73.
13 Ibid., p. 100.
14 Vratislav Pechota, "The Development of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," Louis Henkin, ed., The International Bill of Rights (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 44.
15 Eric Hoffer, Op. Cit., p. 90.
16 Ibid., p. 91.
17 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835, volume II, part II, ch. I
18 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 66.
19 Eric Hoffer, Op. Cit., p. 33.
20 Ibid., p. 37.
21 Ibid., p. 74.
22 Ron Gross, The Independent Scholar's Handbook (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 36.

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