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The legacy of Eric Hoffer
TownHall.com ^ | Wednesday, June 18, 2003 | by Thomas Sowell

Posted on 06/17/2003 11:04:26 PM PDT by JohnHuang2

The twentieth anniversary of the death of Eric Hoffer, in May 1983, passed with very little notice of one of the most incisive thinkers of his time -- a man whose writings continue to have great relevance to our times.

How many people today even know of this remarkable man with no formal schooling, who spent his life in manual labor -- most of it as a longshoreman -- and who wrote some of the most insightful commentary on our society and trends in the world?

You need only read one of his classics like The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements to realize that you are seeing the work of an intellectual giant.

Having spent several years in blindness when most other children were in school, Hoffer could only do manual labor after he recovered his sight, but was determined to educate himself. He began by looking for a big book with small print to take with him as he set out on a job as a migratory farm worker.

The book that turned out to fill this bill -- based on size and words -- was the essays of Montaigne. Over the years, he read many landmark books, including Hitler's Mein Kampf, even though Hoffer was Jewish. If ever there was a walking advertisement for the Great Books approach to education, it was Eric Hoffer.

Among Hoffer's insights about mass movements was that they are an outlet for people whose individual significance is meager in the eyes of the world and -- more important -- in their own eyes. He pointed out that the leaders of the Nazi movement were men whose artistic and intellectual aspirations were wholly frustrated.

Hoffer said: "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."

People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding," Hoffer said. "When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

What Hoffer was describing was the political busybody, the zealot for a cause -- the "true believer," who filled the ranks of ideological movements that created the totalitarian tyrannies of the 20th century.

In a comment very relevant to the later disintegration of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union itself, he observed that totalitarian governments' "moment of greatest danger is when they begin to reform, that is to say, when they begin to show liberal tendencies."

Mikhail Gorbachev's place in history was secured by his failure to understand that and his willingness to believe that a decent and humane Communist society was possible. But, once the people in Eastern Europe no longer had to fear tanks or the gulags, the statues of Lenin and Stalin began being toppled from their pedestals, like the governments they represented.

Contrary to the prevailing assumptions of his time, Eric Hoffer did not believe that revolutionary movements were based on the sufferings of the downtrodden. "Where people toil from sunrise to sunset for a bare living, they nurse no grievances and dream no dreams," he said. He had spent years living among such people and being one of them.

Hoffer's insights may help explain something that many of us have found very puzzling -- the offspring of wealthy families spending their lives and their inherited money backing radical movements. He said: "Unlimited opportunities can be as potent a cause of frustration as a paucity or lack of opportunities."

What can people with inherited fortunes do that is at all commensurate with their unlimited opportunities, much less what their parents or grandparents did to create the fortune in the first place, starting from far fewer opportunities?

Like the frustrated artists and failed intellectuals who turn to mass movements for fulfillment, rich heirs cannot win the game of comparison of individual achievements. So they must change the game. As zealots for radical movements, they often attack the very things that made their own good fortune possible, as well as undermining the freedom and well-being of other people.

©2003 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


TOPICS: Editorial; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: anthropology; erichoffer; hoffer; ideology; lefties; massmovements; psychology; thomassowell
Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Quote of the Day by connectthedots

1 posted on 06/17/2003 11:04:26 PM PDT by JohnHuang2
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To: JohnHuang2
Thanks for posting. Just the other day I was thinking about EH. I recall him being the darling of the "Cocktail Circuit" years ago. In pictures of these gala events he always looked bored and perhaps amused at the interest in him. Here's one of his quotes I liked:

"Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority."

prisoner6

2 posted on 06/17/2003 11:26:00 PM PDT by prisoner6 ( Right Wing Nuts hold the country together as the loose screws of the left fall out!)
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To: JohnHuang2
"There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement."

Eric Hoffer

3 posted on 06/17/2003 11:35:09 PM PDT by beckett
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To: JohnHuang2
Hoffer's "money quote":

"The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us."

Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind

4 posted on 06/17/2003 11:39:56 PM PDT by Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed. Hillary must be stopped.)
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To: JohnHuang2; Bitwhacker
Thanks John.

Bit, this is the book I was telling you about the other day, just couldn't remember its title.

5 posted on 06/18/2003 4:22:26 AM PDT by Molly Pitcher (Is Reality Optional?)
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To: JohnHuang2
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause

I don't know, Goebbels was a doctor. I read The True Believer several times when I was young. I was mightily impressed with it. I am less so now. The trouble with Hoffer is that he seems to suggest that anyone who joins a mass-movement, that anyone who tries change outside of establishment rules, is mentally ill or emotionally deficient, and that we should all just mind our own business and pull our own little yokes and let the powers that be, the natural leaders take care of the big things. It is coolie philosophy. Lay down and take it because nothing ever really changes and who are you to challenge the elite, anyway? Hoffer is good for a soundbite, and has many interesting and thought-provoking ideas but overall has to be taken with a grain of salt.

6 posted on 06/18/2003 9:40:17 AM PDT by jordan8
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To: JohnHuang2
A True Believing Bump.
7 posted on 06/19/2003 9:37:07 AM PDT by El Sordo
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To: Bitwhacker; beckett; bybybill; Carthago delenda est; cubreporter; DeFault User; DPB101; El Sordo; ..
from "The True Believer":
Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents. It pulls and whirls the individual away from his own self, makes him oblivious of his weal and future, frees him of jealousies and self-seeking. He becomes an anonymous particle with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming mass... Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil... Common hatred unites the most heterogeneous elements. To share a common hatred, with an enemy even, is to infect him with a feeling of kinship, and thus sap his powers of resistance... We have it from Hitler... that the genius of a great leader consists oin concentrating all hatred on a single foe. [pp 85-87]
remind anyone else of a certain election campaign? ;')
George W. Bush will be reelected by a margin of at least ten per cent
NOT A PING LIST, merely posted to participants in this topic, and in a later identical topic: Bitwhacker; beckett; bybybill; Carthago delenda est; cubreporter; DeFault User; DPB101; El Sordo; expatpat; GatekeeperBookman; Hildy; JohnHuang2; japaneseghost; jordan8; KayEyeDoubleDee; lelio; Maelstrom; Molly Pitcher; NotQuiteCricket; Paulus Invictus; Pompah; prisoner6; RLK; tonyinv; Vinnie; yooper

8 posted on 08/15/2004 7:55:21 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Unlike some people, I have a profile. Okay, maybe it's a little large...)
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To: ValerieUSA
from "The Republic of Letters" #9:
Eric Hoffer Revisited
by Stephen Miller
"The intellectual craves above all . . . to be taken seriously, to be treated as a decisive force in shaping history... [the intellectual] craves a social order in which uncommon people perform uncommon tasks every day. He wants a society throbbing with dedication, reverence, and worship.... The elimination of the profit motive in Communist countries has not made people less greedy and selfish... From all that I read it seems that the attitude of every man for himself is more pronounced in a Communist than in a capitalist society."

9 posted on 08/15/2004 7:59:43 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Unlike some people, I have a profile. Okay, maybe it's a little large...)
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To: SunkenCiv

Thank you! Always appreciate Hoffer's wisdom and foresight!


10 posted on 08/16/2004 5:43:32 AM PDT by Molly Pitcher
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To: JohnHuang2

Good posting. The Hollywood crowd that is so committed to socialism is mainly, tho' not exclusively, frustrated in their careers -- mostly has-beens.


11 posted on 08/16/2004 6:38:41 AM PDT by expatpat
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To: SunkenCiv

Thanks for posting it across to me -- good find.


12 posted on 08/16/2004 6:40:20 AM PDT by expatpat
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To: jordan8

Everyone should be read with a grain of salt, but I don't see Hoffer as saying we should all mind our own business -- instead, to beware of how mass movements are driven


13 posted on 08/16/2004 6:44:35 AM PDT by expatpat
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To: beckett
Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement.

He forsaw Bill Clinton and John Kerry.

14 posted on 08/16/2004 6:47:43 AM PDT by Semper Paratus
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To: JohnHuang2

I still have my copy of "The true believer". If memory serves, I bought it back in 1959. Hoffer was good. I should read it again.


15 posted on 08/16/2004 6:51:29 AM PDT by Fiddlstix (This Tagline for sale. (Presented by TagLines R US))
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To: Semper Paratus

Even more so, Hillary.


16 posted on 08/16/2004 7:04:22 AM PDT by monocle
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To: JohnHuang2
...the statues of Lenin and Stalin began being toppled from their pedestals, like the governments they represented.

Some statues were overlooked, but their anachronism is amusing. Here Lenin and his bronze proletariate watch over a mini-capitalist selling shopping bags.

17 posted on 08/16/2004 7:21:41 AM PDT by struwwelpeter
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To: JohnHuang2
Thanks for the reminder

As a young apolitical man, I was fascinated by this man.
A hulk of a man, hands more like huge paws, wearing coveralls. Yet an intellectual.

I always looked forward to seeing him on PBS. Never read his books though.

Time for me to get them.

18 posted on 08/16/2004 7:30:22 AM PDT by Vinnie
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To: Molly Pitcher; expatpat
You're most welcome.
19 posted on 08/16/2004 9:14:13 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (Unlike some people, I have a profile. Okay, maybe it's a little large...)
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