Recalling Eric Hoffer’s Wisdom

EricHofferby FJ Rocca8/26/15
Last May 21st marked the 32nd anniversary of the death of American philosophic icon, Eric Hoffer. Although his biography is somewhat murky, there are facts of which we can be certain. Eric Hoffer was a self-educated, deeply sentient observer of not only the American civilization but of mankind in general. When he was a child, his mother fell down a flight of steps while holding him. She died two years later and, coincidentally, he lost his sight for several years as result of the accident. Miraculously, his sight returned when he was 15. Because he had not gone to school, he qualified only for manual labor. However, his desire for education combined with the fear that he might again lose his sight, caused him to read voraciously in many subjects, writing a profusion of notes drawn from his reading and observations of the human condition. Upon his death, his room was filled with manuscripts, drafts of essays, and notes by the thousands, on 3×5 index cards and scraps of paper. He distilled these into wisdom imparted in short statements he called aphorisms, which he later made into essays, articles and books. He said of his own work, “My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch” and “my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree.”

His first best-selling book, and still his most popular work, was The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. In it, Hoffer explained the personalities who cling to mass movements as a vessel for self-identity. He argued that mass movements are essentially interchangeable, and that followers often swap one for another freely, even those that appear to differ on the surface. Thus, an adherent to the psychology of a mass movement is not necessarily always drawn to its content, the fanaticism being the operant feature. This is true whether it is Communism, Fascism, or religious movements, such as Islam, that require it.

Hoffer’s other books engage the reader with observations that compel further thought that spreads, as did his writing, like the branches of a tree. Even after decades, his wisdom applies to present day circumstances. In Before the Sabbath (1974), he states, “The nineteenth century was naïve because it did not know the end of the story. It did not know what happens when dedicated idealists come to power; it did not know the intimate linkage between idealists and policemen, between being your brother’s keeper and being his jail keeper.” This is easily applied to the current state of the Federal government’s takeover of healthcare, education and law enforcement. “It is disconcerting,” wrote Hoffer, “that present-day young who did not know Stalin and Hitler are displaying the old naïveté. After all that has happened they still do not know that you cannot build utopia without terror, and that before long terror is all that’s left.” This easily applies to the extant terror of Political Correctness that torments everyone from campus students to local police departments.

In regard to ISIS, Boko Haram and the current wave of anti-Semitism, one could interpret the following, also from Before the Sabbath (1974). “A world that did not lift a finger when Hitler was wiping out six million Jewish men, women, and children is now saying that the Jewish state of Israel will not survive if it does not come to terms with the Arabs. My feeling is that no one in this universe has the right and the competence to tell Israel what it has to do in order to survive. On the contrary, it is Israel that can tell us what to do. It can tell us that we shall not survive if we do not cultivate and celebrate courage, if we coddle traitors and deserters, bargain with terrorists, court enemies, and scorn friends.” It is hard to imagine a more accurate description of the present crisis and possibly of its resolution.

And with respect to the overwhelming and proven destructiveness of institutional, generational welfare, from Reflections on the Human Condition: “Commitment becomes hysterical when those who have nothing to give advocate generosity, and those who have nothing to give up preach renunciation.” Also in Reflections on the Human Condition, decades before the present overwhelming wave of leftist indoctrination in the universities and, with Common Core, in public school curricula, Hoffer said, “An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”

Hoffer considered himself an atheist, although he did give respect to those who believed in God. In his own way, he was spiritual, in the sense that he attempted to grasp the essence of the human soul. In my opinion, the soul is the greatest metaphor for the human mind. It is the mind of the heart wherein we weigh the good against the bad, quintessentially. Hoffer was a true philosopher. Unlike so many trained thinkers, whose work misses the mark of real philosophy, his work succeeds. He was the embodiment of the non-academic intellectual, the prototype of the Citizen Thinker.

Hoffer loved America and often spoke of its fundamental unit, the human individual. In The Passionate State of Mind, he said of the struggles people endure, “The autonomous individual, striving to realize himself and prove his worth, has created all that is great in literature, art, music, science and technology. The autonomous individual, also, when he can neither realize himself nor justify his existence by his own efforts, is a breeding call of frustration, and the seed of the convulsions which shake our world to its foundations.” This seems a call for individuals to break from self-identification as parts of a collective and strive as independent human beings to accomplish valid goals, for only when a person achieves autonomy from the pack can he find personal solvency.

In today’s culture, there is an effort by the left to imbue children with a false self-esteem derived from rewards to which they are not entitled, whether they are trophies given to every child on a Little League team, unearned praise for deeds not accomplished or grades not earned in school. Hoffer commented on this long before the present crisis in manufactured self-esteem had overrun our culture. He said of self-esteem (also in The Passionate State of Mind) “The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual’s powers and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day.” No one can confer self-esteem on another. It must be earned or it does not exist.

In the same book, Hoffer warns, “When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride—the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of individual self-esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride.” Elaborating this point, he states, “Pride is a sense of worth derived from something that is not organically part of us, while self-esteem derives from the potentialities and achievements of the self. We are proud when we identify ourselves with an imaginary self, a leader, a holy cause, a collective body or possessions. There is fear and intolerance in pride; it is sensitive and uncompromising. The less promise and potency in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. The core of pride is self-rejection.” And finally, “It is true that when pride releases energies and serves as a spur to achievement, it can lead to a reconciliation with the self and the attainment of genuine self-esteem.” Thus, the self and its honest efforts may reach full circle.

The Passionate State of Mind contains other wisdom relevant to our world of the twenty-first century. Of power, Hoffer observed, “It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of inadequacy and impotence. They hate not wickedness but weakness. When it is their power to do so, the weak destroy weakness wherever they see it.” This is relevant, not least of all, to the issue of microaggressions which distort the atmosphere of honesty, once an intransigent feature of the university campus. But this may eventually fail, because, says Hoffer, “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves” and a self-lie cannot survive reality.


FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com. • (907 views)

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FJ Rocca

About FJ Rocca

FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com.
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10 Responses to Recalling Eric Hoffer’s Wisdom

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    The idea that people might find their self-identity in a movement is presumably something of what Allen Drury had in mind in referring to liberal journalists (and no doubt many other liberals as well) as “professional liberals”. It’s certainly close to how I interpret the phrase.

    The UN, for various reasons, has a long history of anti-Zionism that stems mostly from anti-Semitism, and predates the Six-Day War (when liberals switched their sympathies because of their overdog/underdog syndrome). Isaac Asimov has a chapter on Jewish jokes in his Treasury of Humor, and some deal with Israel. I think some deal with the UN attitude.

    Hoffer’s differentiation between pride and self-esteem reflects the matter of what I call “pardonable pride” — i.e., honest awareness of one’s good qualities. Of course, the modern self-esteem movement ignores this completely.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “A world that did not lift a finger when Hitler was wiping out six million Jewish men, women, and children ….”

    Sorry, I don’t know what alternative universe Hoffer lived in, but this statement is absolute rubbish. One should ask what was happening in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945. It was a small thing called WWII.

    I would like to know what Hoffer or anyone else thinks the Allies could have done under the circumstances?

    When word got out from Auschwitz, the Allies did try to bomb some of the railway infrastructure in order to slow down the number of people sent there. Unfortunately, this was not very effective and the loss in bombers was significant.

    Furthermore, apparently, some of leaders of the Jewish Community asked for the Allies to bomb the camp itself, but this was something Churchill and others would not do. Perhaps they should have, but I do not think they any real idea as to how truly horrific things were.

    One may or may not agree with his point regarding Israel, but when he makes such demonstrably false claims, which completely ignore the context WWII, why should we take him seriously?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      It’s possible that Hoffer was referring to the great majority of countries that didn’t care about the Holocaust. (Stalin certainly didn’t; he would have been happy to cooperate with Hitler if the latter hadn’t been eager to turn the Soviet Union, or at least its European portion, into a Nazi India.) The US, after all, was helping Israel rather than denouncing it, and the British and French often worked with it as well (as they did, for reasons of their own, in the 1956 Suez crisis).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        It’s possible that Hoffer was referring to the great majority of countries that didn’t care about the Holocaust

        It may be possible, but that is not what he said. And when talking about such things, one should try and be factually correct as this also supports one morally. As a child, I came to the conclusion that words have meanings and that the misuse of words is something that should be avoided.

        I still ask what any country, whether they cared or not, could have done to stop the Holocaust once it became known?

        As to Stalin, he was an equal opportunity murderer. He was happy to slaughter something like 40,000 of the Polish elite at Katyn, so I am not surprised that he did nothing very much to help poor Jews, and others, who had fallen into the Nazi death camp vortex.

        The matter of countries helping or not helping Israel is another discussion.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think the Allies were just supposed to tell the Russians to move their front faster. Or something. Had the Allies known in detail about the Jews, I’m not sure how that would have changed their plans. To stop it you had to defeat Nazi Germany. That was the goal, to stop all that Nazi Germany was doing. To the best of my knowledge, they weren’t going to defeat the Nazis and then just leave the Jews in the camps there. What a truly ignorant comment by that guy.

      I don’t know who this Hoffer guy is. But if that’s representative of his mindset, I’m not impressed.

  3. Steve Lancaster says:

    FJ,
    Hoffer is an American miracle, a poor man from a poor family who left home in his teens and works his way to the top of Academia without going the goat rope of degrees. A longshoreman who finds intellectual value in hard work. I have quoted him often as his epigrams contain paragraphs of serious thought.

  4. David Norris says:

    FJ Thanks for writing this piece. In an attempt to study and understand something about mass psychology; how groups of people can be ‘hypnotized’, manipulated and controlled, I found myself returning to “The True Believer” time and again, each time gleaning a deeper insight into this phenomenon. Hoffer was definitely on to something. He had a straight forward way of ‘peeling the onion’ to reveal its many layers.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Ann Coulter discusses mob psychology extensively in Demonic, based on the century-old work of Gustave Le Bon.

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