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May 11, 2005

The True Believer

Eric Hoffer - ISBN 0-06-050591-5

Written in 1951, and made notable by a reference to it by Dwight Eisenhower, it was reprinted on the 50th anniversary of its publication in this inexpensive paperback version.

Like others I have reviewed, I consider it a worthwhile read. It is brief, at 160 pages. My only critical observation is that it is redundant. In each of the 125 sub-chapters he is inclined to repeat observations for “clarity.” Despite this the text is widely considered to be a classic.

“Equality without freedom creates a more stable social pattern than freedom without equality,” he observes, early in the narrative.

The myriad critical observations are what make this book so stunning, especially as the product of an “uneducated” man—an auto-didact--a stevedore!
• Mass movements substitute for individual hope. Folks who see their lives as spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement, and look at self-interest as something tainted. Unless someone sufficient talent to make something of himself, freedom is a burden.
• The bored are principally bored with themselves, and what ails the frustrated is the consciousness of an irremediably blemished self.
“Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of an ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom’.”
• When one joins
the movement--and loses his independence--he finds freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame or remorse. There is no individual responsibility. It’s all “for the cause.” In Dostoyevsky’s words we find “a right to dishonor,” which has an appealing cachet.
• Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving over of oneself. Whatever is undertaken is done with passion, but the goal is never reached, and, in any event one can never achieve that which he really does not want.
“When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lay low until the wrath has passed. There is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse. . . . .”

. . . . Thus goes the entire narrative--full of remarkable observations which elaborate fully upon the nature of fanatics whom Hoffer calls “true believers.”

The exaltation of the true believer does not flow from reserves of strength and wisdom; rather, he has been delivered from the meaningless burdens of an autonomous existence: “We Germans are so happy. German socialists of the 30’s used philosophical reasoning to explain what is actually the least philosophic thing in the world: respect for force and the fear which transforms that respect into admiration. And, how different is that from the more primitive, tribal Muslim society of today?

People raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even when they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities. The blindness of the fanatic is a source of strength. He sees no obstacles(!) yet is the author of intellectual sterility and emotional monotony. At root it is his conviction that life and the universe must conform to a simple formula—HIS!

Finally, mass movements never achieve the desired result by persuasion alone. All require armed enforcement: coercion. It was, after all the sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion went hand in hand. (In Persia, for instance, Christianity confronted a state religion sustained by the crown and thus never became the faith of even a significant minority. The reformation was resisted by the French crown, was drowned in blood, and never rose again, leaving France Catholic, unlike much of the rest of Europe. ) In the phenomenal spread of Islam, conquest was the primary factor, and conversion a by-product.

The freedom the masses want is freedom from the burden of individual existence and the fearful burden of free choice and concomitant responsibility. It is not the iniquity of the ancient regime they rise against but its weakness; not its oppression, but its failure to hammer them together into one solid, mighty whole.

Posted by respeto at May 11, 2005 2:42 PM