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The True Believer Paperback – October 6, 1989
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"Its theme is political fanaticism, with which it deals severely and brilliantly...." -- The New Yorker
"One of the most provocative books of our immediate day." -- Christian Science Monitor
From the Back Cover
A highly provocative, bestselling analysis of the fanatic -- the individual compelled to join a cause, any cause -- and a penetrating study of mass movements from early Christianity to modern nationalism and Communism.
Reporting on the true believer, Air Hoffer examines with Machiavellian detachment mass movements, from Christianity in its infancy to the national uprisings of our own day. His analysis of the psychology of mass movements is a brilliant and frightening study of the mind of the fanatic, the individual whose, personal failings lead him to join a cause, any cause, even at peril to life -- or yours.
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Top Customer Reviews
While he has done his homework in examining the movements he does not discuss one or a handful in depth. This is not historiography. It is more a collection of observations that flow from his own readings in history. With the large number of separate discussions the result is something like reading Pascal or Wittgenstein. One is presented with many unified discussions but the most powerful aspect of the book is the manner in which it breaks into single, quotable sentences. These are the rocks polished by the river of thought which preceded them.
p. 14: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
p. 24: “. . . the character and destiny of a group are often determined by its inferior elements.”
p. 29: “It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.”
p. 33: “Those who clamor loudest for freedom . . . often . . . want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.”
p. 116: “There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.”
p. 133: “However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal.”
p. 144: “Whence come the fanatics? Mostly from the ranks of the noncreative men of words.”
Ultimately, this is a phenomenological study of human behavior in mass movements. Its key, overarching theme is the notion that the true believer suffers from some personal form of alienation or failure which pushes him to seek an alternative society in which he can comfortably fit. This is powerful stuff, endlessly suggestive and continuing in its relevance for our present condition. Highly recommended.
I would rate the book with five stars for content, but somewhat less than that for its arrangement. The subject matter is unduly fragmented and dispersed throughout the book. It seems that it could have been arranged so as to be less repetitive and easier to follow. Also, an index would have been a great help. (My copy is the first edition. I don’t know if the later editions have added an index).
I don’t remember when I first read THE TRUE BELIEVER, but it was about 1960. I found it interesting and informative at the time, and have looked back into it frequently since. It seems that world events periodically bring to mind some pithy aphorism that I first encountered in this book.
Some reviewers are apparently disappointed that Hoffer has not formalized and proven some system of theorems that lead inexorably to some specific conclusions that will answer all our questions. The reader that expects such a thing will certainly be disappointed. In fact Hoffer makes it clear that he is not attempting such a thing. He states in the preface, “The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations—all of the theories—are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone.” (p.xiii)
What Hoffer does do is offer his own observations and thoughts with the aim of stimulating the thinking of the reader: “The reader is expected to quarrel with much that is said … But this is not an authoritative textbook. It is a book of thoughts, and it does not shy away from half-truths so long as they seem to hint at a new approach and help to formulate new questions.” (p.59)
As the book, published in 1951, bears the influences of World War II (and the Korean conflict), some critics brand it as ‘dated’, but Hoffer’s observations are easily transferred to movements and events at later times. The thinking reader should be as able to make such application with little difficulty—much as we can transfer the principles of our Bill of Rights to the current age of electronic communications, repeating firearms, et cetera.
Hoffer observes three general phases of the typical mass movement, and studies the personalities that emerge as leaders in each phase. The first, or formative phase, is driven by the men of words; the second, or active phase, by the fanatics: and the third, or consolidation phase, by the men of action. He makes broad characterizations of these three types:
(1) The men of words are speakers and/or writers, coming from various roots. “They can be priests, scribes, prophets, writers, artists, professors, students and intellectuals in general.” They are ambitious and egotistical: “There is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words. It is a craving for recognition, a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity” (131). The men of words verbalize their disaffection with the current state of affairs and evolve the dogmata that will energize a popular response.
2) The fanatical True Believers follow the men of words: “When the moment is ripe, only the fanatic can hatch a genuine mass movement. Without him the disaffection engendered by militant men of words remains undirected and can vent itself only in pointless disorders. …Chaos is his element. When the old order begins to crack, he wades in with all his might and recklessness to blow the whole hated present to high heaven. He glories in the sight of a world coming to a sudden end.” (142)
(3) The Practical man of action consolidates the movement as the energy of the active phase becomes sterile. “With the appearance of the man of action the explosive vigor of the movement is embalmed and sealed in sanctified institutions. The institutions freeze a pattern of united action. The members of the institutionalized collective body are expected to act as one man, yet they must represent a loose aggregation rather than a spontaneous coalescence. They must be unified only through their unquestioning loyalty to the institutions. Spontaneity is suspect, and duty is prized above devotion.” (148)
The book is about the second of these three personalities; the frustrated, dissatisfied fanatic who is the title character type: the “True Believer.” According to Hoffer, a movement does not create the True Believer—he is a certain type of personality by nature. And he is clamoring to find a radical movement that offers what he is seeking.
A challenging read. I recommend it.