The One Who Writes Books
Eric Hoffer and the Perks of Being Self-taught
Motto: “He writes himself – and publishes, too – in the manner of the French moralists.” — Hannah Arendt
Eric Hoffer (1898–1983) was a downright original mind, equally treasured by philosophers and thinkers so different as Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. This self-taught genius’ master book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, came out in 1951 at the height of the Cold War. It stirred numerous talks and in time became one of the main references in the intense debates regarding the nature of fundamentalist ideological movements. It remains critical for any explanation of new outbursts of the vilest forms of populism today.
We don’t know much about Hoffer’s first decades of life, up to his forties. The only available markers came through his voice only and they were full of inconsistencies. Many biographers have had difficulties with identifying the real pre-Longshoreman Philosopher Eric Hoffer (see Tom Bethell’s Eric Hoffer, Genius—And Enigma). He had little formal education and never graduated from a university, maybe he even never went to high school. He was an utterly solitary man, obsessed with reading, who had been working as a longshoreman in San Francisco before his retirement in 1967. But on the docks came thought, and after the docks came fame. In a free-spirited way, he started to teach political philosophy at Berkeley. He would go to the campus once a week, practice his Socratic charm with students, but mostly teaching them how to ask (themselves) questions. He was a skeptic in love with Montaigne. As a political philosopher, he treasured Alexis de Tocqueville and showed a similar reserve regarding the outcome of revolutions. He strived for a more profound comprehension of all mass enthusiasms which usually precede historical change. In many respects, he was always clear-eyed about popular violence. Imbued with clear Hobbesian overtones, he tried to find a psychological label for the aberrant (to him) upsurge of mass social movements.
Whoever wants to grasp the millenarian psychology, the sources, and resources of that absolute adherence to secular religions, themselves self-styled forms of traditional faiths, will benefit greatly from reading Hoffer’s True Believer. In his later years, Hoffer became increasingly wary about intellectuals and their radical illusions. At the peak of his fame, in 1967, he gave a one-hour interview to Eric Sevareid on a national CBS talk show, leaving his famous host – one of “Murrow’s Boys” – to say that it had been “the greatest filmed monologue I had ever had anything to do with in all my years in television.” Hoffer was, indeed, a charismatic orator and a sharp mind, but also had a quasi-Socratic way of leading a conversation, an innate vocation for building on an argument. When confronted by Sevareid on his rather well-known skepticism regarding the role of intellectuals in political life and their seduction by power, Hoffer replied in his poignantly trenchant way:
I ought to tell you I have no grievance against the intellectual. All that I know about the intellectuals is what I read in history and how I saw them perform, you know, in our time. And I’m convinced that the intellectuals, as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action are not corrupted by power like intellectuals. And in my new book there [The Temper of Our Time, 1967], I think I elaborate again and again and I give the information why. You take a conventional man of action. He acts right if you obey, right? But not the intellectual. He doesn’t want you just obeying, he wants you to get down on your knees and pray to the one who makes you love what you hate and hate what you love. In other words, whenever intellectuals are in power, there is soul raping going on.
This outburst, a scandalous opinion in the age of the fellow-travelers, came out of his conviction that the 20th century had been the hostage of redemptive ideas. One of the most interesting philosophical mavericks of the 20th century, Hoffer would even go that far in his criticism of the intellectuals as to tell the Congress in 1969, together with Columbia University professor Jacques Barzun, that “radicals are ruining universities, and the fault lies partly with faculty members who abandon teaching in favor of plush research jobs.” (San Diego Evening Tribune, May 10, 1969). Adorno himself would have certainly agreed.
He wrote books against the New Left and warned against all kinds of utopian doctrines which he rightly perceived as rigid schemes ignorant of the infinite nuances of reality, an idea one can imagine him and Arendt, the author of The Human Condition, developing together. He defended doubt as a spiritual virtue and the autonomy of spirit against any constraint meant to entrap and humiliate the individual. At a time when Herbert Marcuse proclaimed The Great Refusal, Hoffer had been there pleading for calm, moderation, and rationality. What could the radical intellectuals do with such a man? They couldn’t dismiss him, but as he disproved their dear convictions, they proved unable to win the debate against him.
One of his favorite philosophers was Blaise Pascal. The motto to his True Believer is from the French thinker:
Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.” (Pascal, Pensées)
In True Believer, Hoffer describes this type of fanatic: It is the person who irrationally engages in terrorist attacks on innocent people, or even the murder of doctors performing abortions, or the one who follows a guru like David Koresh going as far as murder or even suicide (as in the Jonestown episode). The true believer syndrome essentially comes from the fact that in some people belief satisfies a much stronger emotional need than truth. The reason for that may remain unknown forever, but the mechanism resembles the way some of us face cognitive dissonance. What drives some people to kill or die for beliefs — or to have no problem giving their unconditional support to those who do — that most rational people would reject is even more elusive. Eric Hoffer seems to favor insecurity as an explanation. He also seems to think that the true believer wants to be relieved from the burden of freedom.
Reactions to such original theories take me to Mihail Sebastian, the Romanian playwright and essayist who in the interwar period, for a while, exposed himself to what Thomas Mann once called the ecstasy of (Fascist) demonism. He wrote about totalitarianism’s bet on the willingness of people to obey and the readiness to indulge in tribalistic rituals: “Do you want a religion? Here’s a membership card. Do you want metaphysics? Here’s an anthem. Do you want a passion? Here’s a boss.” Under conditions of axiological disorientation, people yearn for what Erich Fromm once called — also in the 1930s — the magic savior. The main cause is the fear of freedom, the willingness to escape from it. This is what gives birth to the totalitarian temptation diagnosed by French political thinker Jean-François Revel in the 1970s.
In other words, Hoffer shows how mass movements have a unique appeal to so-called “sinners,” who thus find there an “escape from their bad conscience.” He writes that mass movements adapt to the needs of the criminal in that they allow him not only the catharsis of his soul but also a platform to exercise his talents and propensities. Everyone suddenly feels good while they are a part of the murderous club. These ideas could not be more timely in the age of religious terrorism and demagogical populism that we live in.
The Eric Hoffer archive was added to the Hoover Archives by courtesy of Lili Osborne, Eric’s lifetime friend, in 2000, and it reveals much more than a “keen of mind human being guising as a crusty old curmudgeon” (Sidney Hook): his soft side! More than a plethora of rare photographs showing him in his true colors, in family contexts (although he never had a real one of his own), lecturing to super riveted students at Berkeley, or just being himself in his home pajamas. The archives reveal a thinker whose acumen enthralled Hannah Arendt so much that in March 1955 she felt compelled to write a letter while visiting Berkeley to her husband, Heinrich Blücher, himself a self-taught man, a man of the people like Hoffer. She was telling Blücher about her incursions into San Francisco accompanied by the longshoreman philosopher, who showed her around like “a veritable king showing his kingdom; telling [her] how he lived before he ‘settled down’ to being a longshoreman. Riding on the freight cars, picking fruit, prospecting for gold, and doing all kinds of odd jobs.” She sounded intellectually excited. She had been there, at Berkeley, from February to June, teaching a class on the “fundamental political experiences of our times” and another one on totalitarianism.
Therefore, I was pleasantly struck to find at Hoover a letter from Hannah to Eric, dated March 13, 1955:
Dear Eric Hoffer:
That was a happy day indeed. Like a king who shows his realm you showed me San Francisco; you are king bounty not only to your godson. I think I never understood the Walt Whitman side of this country so clearly before I met you and you told me how you used to wander and live with the elements, where every man is your brother and nobody is your friend.
I love the book you sent me because it has the same quality. You won’t know that; it is the side of ourselves which must remain dark to us and can appear — shine really — only to others. It is the same sovereignty, the majesty of solitude which shines through every sentence.
I hope we meet again. I was not sure that you want it and I don’t want to intrude upon your privacy and solitude. So, let me know and don’t feel obliged!
(Eric Hoffer’s Correspondence at the Hoover Archives)
It is a testament to the sublime beauty of friendship and all those spaces of freedom (“oases in a desert”) that guarantee the dignity of our conditio humana. It was for this very reason that she felt the urge to confess to her close friend and mentor, Karl Jaspers, that Hoffer is “the first real oasis” and “simply the best thing America has to offer.” And it speaks volumes on Hannah Arendt’s strong conviction, an echo of Walter Benjamin’s historical vision, that decent human existence can only be possible on the beleaguered fringes of society, where the risk of starvation or mortal lapidation stays high.
Eric Hoffer, the social thinker, author of at least three highly regarded books (The True Believer, 1951,The Passionate State of Mind, 1955, and The Ordeal of Change, 1963) had educated himself in public libraries. It, therefore, stays with the very same public libraries to pass the Hoffer torch to all the unknown Menocchios of a future bred in hope. Fellow workers had Eric’s love and respect for their raw intelligence. Some even called him “the one who writes books”…
Marius Stan is research director of the Hannah Arendt Center at the University of Bucharest.