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Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher

John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate led me to re-open a line of inquiry that I have visited in the past: fanaticism and mass movements. Eric Hoffer’s book, The True Believer, published in 1951, is often cited as the most important book to read when trying to understand fanaticism and mass movements. I read it many years ago and just last night ordered another copy of that book and also another one of his works, The Ordeal of Change, so that I could re-visit his ideas. Here are some quotes from the book:

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p. 14

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents… Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without a belief in a devil.”
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p. 95

“The religious character of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions is generally recognized. The hammer and sickle and the swastika are in a class with the cross. The ceremonial of their parades is as the ceremonial of a religious procession. The have articles of faith, saints, martyrs and holy sepulchers.”
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p. 19

“It is obvious that a proselytizing mass movement must break down all existing group ties if it is to win a considerable following. The ideal potential convert is the individual who stands alone, who has no collective body he can blend with and lose himself in and so mask the pettiness, meaninglessness and shabbiness of his individual existence. Where a mass movement finds the corporate pattern of family, tribe, country, et cetera, in a state of disruption and decay, it moves in and gathers the harvest. Where it finds the corporate pattern in good repair, it must attack and disrupt.”
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, p. 36

In the weeks to come, perhaps I will share some more thoughts provoked by Eric Hoffer’s trenchant observations. The parallels between his thought and the actions of the religious right and the followers of Fox News are provocative and troubling.

4 Comments on “Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman philosopher”

  1. #1 Sandra Williams
    on Feb 15th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Have you, too, fallen into the trap of a true believer?

  2. #2 Jeff
    on Feb 15th, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    No. Have you?

  3. #3 Mark Wilkinson
    on Apr 10th, 2009 at 10:29 am

    How very ironic. I couldn’t help but notice that one of the Right’s most eloquent writers, Thomas Sowell, often quotes Hoffer to castigate the left.

  4. #4 Jeff
    on Apr 10th, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    I’ve read Sowell from time to time and agree that he is eloquent.
    Could you provide a reference to his use of Hoffer to “castigate the
    left”? I’d like to read what he has to say. Is he castigating the
    “left” or is he castigating those who play “follow the leader”?

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