Eric Hoffer's Wisdom

May 21st marked the 32nd anniversary of the death of American philosophic icon, Eric Hoffer. Although his biography is somewhat murky, there are facts of which we can be certain. Eric Hoffer was a self-educated, deeply sentient observer of not only the American civilization but of mankind in general. When he was a child, his mother fell down a flight of steps while holding him. She died two years later and, coincidentally, he lost his sight for several years. Miraculously, his sight returned when he was 15. Because he had not gone to school, he qualified only for manual labor. However, his desire for education was such that he read constantly and wrote notes about everything read and observed.

Afraid his sight might once again be lost, he read voraciously in many subjects, writing a profusion of notes drawn from his reading and observations of the human condition. Upon his death, his room was filled with manuscripts, drafts of essays, and notes by the thousands, on 3x5 index cards and scraps of paper. He later distilled these into wisdom imparted in short statements he called aphorisms, later made into essays, articles and books. He said of his own work, “My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch” and “my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree."

His first and still most popular book was The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. In it, Hoffer explained the personalities who cling to mass movements as a vessel for self-identity. He argued that mass movements are essentially interchangeable, and that followers often swap one for another freely, even those that appear to differ on the surface. Thus, an adherent to the psychology of a mass movement is not necessarily always drawn to its content, the fanaticism being the operant feature. This is true whether it is Communism, Fascism, or religious movements, such as Islam, that require it.

Hoffer’s other books engage the reader with observations that compel further thought that spreads, as did his writing, like the branches of a tree. Even after decades, his wisdom applies to present day circumstances. In Before the Sabbath (1974), he states, “The nineteenth century was naïve because it did not know the end of the story. It did not know what happens when dedicated idealists come to power; it did not know the intimate linkage between idealists and policemen, between being your brother’s keeper and being his jail keeper.” This is easily applied to the current state of the Federal government’s takeover of healthcare, education, and law enforcement. “It is disconcerting,” wrote Hoffer, “that present-day young who did not know Stalin and Hitler are displaying the old naïveté. After all that has happened they still do not know that you cannot build utopia without terror, and that before long terror is all that’s left.” This easily applies to the extant terror of Political Correctness that torments everyone from campus students to local police departments.

In regard to ISIS, Boko Haram and the current wave of anti-Semitism, one could interpret the following, also from Before the Sabbath. “A world that did not lift a finger when Hitler was wiping out six million Jewish men, women, and children is now saying that the Jewish state of Israel will not survive if it does not come to terms with the Arabs. My feeling is that no one in this universe has the right and the competence to tell Israel what it has to do in order to survive. On the contrary, it is Israel that can tell us what to do. It can tell us that we shall not survive if we do not cultivate and celebrate courage, if we coddle traitors and deserters, bargain with terrorists, court enemies, and scorn friends.” It is hard to imagine a more accurate description of the present crisis and possibly of its resolution.

And with respect to the overwhelming and proven destructiveness of institutional, generational welfare, from Reflections on the Human Condition: “Commitment becomes hysterical when those who have nothing to give advocate generosity, and those who have nothing to give up preach renunciation.” In Reflections on the Human Condition, decades before the present overwhelming wave of leftist indoctrination in the university and, with Common Core, in public school curricula, Hoffer said, “An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”

Hoffer loved America and often spoke of its fundamental unit, the human individual. In The Passionate State of Mind, he said of the struggles people endure, “The autonomous individual, striving to realize himself and prove his worth, has created all that is great in literature, art, music, science and technology. The autonomous individual, also, when he can neither realize himself nor justify his existence by his own efforts, is a breeding cell of frustration, and the seed of the convulsions which shake our world to its foundations.” This seems a call for individuals to break from self-identification as parts of a collective and strive as independent human beings to accomplish valid goals, and that only when a person achieves autonomy from the pack can he find personal solvency.

In today’s culture, there is an effort by the left to imbue children with a false self-esteem derived from rewards to which they are not entitled, whether they are trophies given to every child on a Little League team, unearned praise for deeds not accomplished or grades not earned in school. Also in The Passionate State of Mind, Hoffer said of self-esteem, “The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual's powers and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day.” No one can confer self-esteem on another. It must be earned or it does not exist.

In the same book, Hoffer warns, “When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride -- the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of individual self-esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride.” Elaborating this point, he states, “Pride is a sense of worth derived from something that is not organically part of us, while self-esteem derives from the potentialities and achievements of the self. We are proud when we identify ourselves with an imaginary self, a leader, a holy cause, a collective body or possessions. There is fear and intolerance in pride; it is sensitive and uncompromising. The less promise and potency in the self, the more imperative is the need for pride. The core of pride is self-rejection.” And finally, “It is true that when pride releases energies and serves as a spur to achievement, it can lead to a reconciliation with the self and the attainment of genuine self-esteem.” Thus, the self and its honest efforts may reach full circle.

The Passionate State of Mind contains other wisdom relevant to our world of the twenty-first century. Of power, Hoffer observed, “It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the faults of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of inadequacy and impotence. They hate not wickedness but weakness. When it is their power to do so, the weak destroy weakness wherever they see it.” This is relevant, not least of all, to the issue of microaggressions which distort the atmosphere of honesty that was once an intransigent feature of the university campus. But this may eventually fail, because, says Hoffer, “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves” and a self-lie cannot survive reality.