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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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Top Customer Reviews
Upon reading Hoffer again, as a middle-aged and somewhat less idealistic professor, I find that several things have changed. First, Hoffer's observations seem even more keenly relevant today, post 9/11, than they did in the post-Vietnam era. Secondly, I now understand Hoffer's apparent brashness. In my youthful zeal I often rushed through the preface of a book, or skipped it entirely. But therein was Hoffer's justification: "The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations--all of them theories--are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: 'All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.'" While I am generally no fan of blanket disclaimers, I understand why Hoffer did it this way. His words could have been too easily dismissed had they been continually tempered and restrained.
Hoffer revels in pointing out seemingly paradoxical situations and attitudes, such as "Discontent is likely to be highest when misery id bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed." His incisive comments cut to the nerve of his subject, treating in one stroke mass movements of every variety: "It is futile to judge the viability of a new movement by the truth of its doctrine and the feasibility of its promises. What has to be judged is its corporate organization for quick and total absorption of the frustrated."
But what I remember most vividly, and Hoffer has reaffirmed for me, are his chilling observations about indoctrination and self-sacrifice. "The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. He who is free to draw conclusions from his individual experience and observation is not usually hospitable to the idea of martyrdom... All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ."
I will close with one further quote from "The True Believer": "...in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand." It is in statements like these that Hoffer seems to speak from a vantage point that few others have attained. Hoffer's insights are timeless.
None of the terrorists of September 11 were destitute. Some even had wives and children. Nevertheless, they committed suicide for their cause. Anyone wanting to understand this horrible irony would do well to read Eric Hoffer's 1951 classic, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) was a self-educated US author and philosopher who was a migratory worker and longshoreman until 1967. He achieved immediate acclaim with his first book, The true Believer.
According to Hoffer, the early converts to any mass movement come from the ranks of the "frustrated," that is, "people who..feel that their lives are spoiled or wasted." The true believers' "Faith in [their] holy cause is to a considerable extent a subsitute for [their] lost faith in [themselves]." He says that we are prone to throw ourselves into a mass movement to "supplant and efface the self we want to forget." He then adds, "We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it."
Hoffer offers a general insight about mass movements, which seems to prophetically explain why there is currently widespread anti-Western sentiment within Islamic countries:
"The discontent generated in backward countries by their contact with Western civilization is not primarily resentment against exploitation by domineering foriegners. It is rather the result of a crumbling or weakening of tribal solidarity and communal life.
"The ideal of self-advancement which the civilizing West offers to the backward populations brings with it the plague of individual frustration. All the advantages brought by the West are ineffectual substitutes for the sheltering and soothing anonymity of a communal existence. Even when the Westernized native attains personal success--becomes rich, or masters a respected profession--he is not happy."
Further along, Hoffer mentions those who "want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society."
Why should individualism, freedom, and self-advancement be hated? Again, I can do no better than quote Hoffer:
"Freedom aggravates as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably muliplies failure and frustration...Unless a man has talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden...We join mass movements to escape individual responsibility...."
In light of the above quotes, there is little wonder that the terrorists chose to destroy the Twin Towers. These were architectural symboles of individualism and self-advancement.
But Hoffer's book does more than give us insight into the psychology of the fanatic. It causes us to soberly contemplate ourselves. For who has not experienced failure, frustration, and a sense of futility at one time or another? The true Believer is one of those few books I consider to contain ideas approximating to true "wisdom."