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The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Perennial Classics) Paperback – January 19, 2010
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From the Back Cover
A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer -- the first and most famous of his books -- was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences.Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.
About the Author
Eric Hoffer (1902 -- 1983) was self-educated. He worked in restaurants, as a migrant fieldworker, and as a gold prospector. After Pearl Harbor, he worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco for twenty-five years. The author of more than ten books, including The Passionate State of Mind, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Time, Eric Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.
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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 was also surprised by how short the book is. It's very digestible, compared to other major analyses of sociology or political theory.
Longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer scrutinized and analyzed mass movements and their various members, ranging from ideologues to greedheads, dissecting them in detail, separating out the wheat of activity and behavior from the chaff of rhetoric and ideology, to see how they and their members work, and their impact.
At the time, Nazism was freshly buried, Stalinist Communism was powerful, and many of the ideologies of the 1960s did not exist. However, Mr. Hoffer's analysis of the movements of the time easily apply to other movements, going on into the present day.
The book is short, written in a crisp style, and is easily accessible to many education levels. President Dwight D. Eisenhower highly recommended it to everyone he worked with, and cited it in an early press conference.
Once you read this, you can take with a bit more perspective (and a lot more salt) the angry denunciations of today's conspiracy theorists and other blowhards, and figure out why they keep on going.
I read the kindle version and the one negative comment I had was that the footnotes were kind of clunky, one per page tended to make it hard to follow the rabbit trail of footnotes
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