Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Eric Hoffer's Classic on Mass Movements: Quotes and Notes from The True Believer

My generalist liberal arts college studies included a Sociology course. The subject was of interest--Sociology and Mass Movements, or something like that--because this was the early 1970s and the anti-war movement was in full swing. The professor, however, never attended any of the classes, which consisted of a young T.A. from India whose goal seemed to be to bore us to death. Nevertheless, the books weren't quite that boring and I did the coursework required to get a decent grade.

It was here that I was introduced to the ideas of Eric Hoffer through his insightful study of mass psychology, The True Believer. Though it is nearly seven decades since the book's publication in 1951, the book is powerfully relevant today. If you've never read it, I recommend it. If you have, it is worth revisiting.

The Appeal of Mass Movements
"When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youths were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse."
Part One, The True Believer

"Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves."
ibid.

"A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."
ibid.

"When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need for something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives."
ibid.

The Potential Converts
"Unless a man has talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. Of what avail is freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual? We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of the ardent young Nazi, "to be free from freedom."
Part Two

* * * *

"They who clamor loudest for freedom are often the ones least likely to be happy in a free society. The frustrated, oppressed by their shortcomings, blame their failure on existing restraints. Actually, their innermost desire is for an end to the "free for all." They want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society."
ibid.

* * * *

"The most incurably frustrated—and, therefore, the most vehement—among the permanent misfits are those with an unfulfilled craving for creative work. Both those who try to write, paint, compose, etcetera, and fail decisively, and those who after tasting the elation of creativeness feel a drying up of the creative flow within and know that never again will they produce aught worthwhile, are alike in the grip of a desperate passion. Neither fame nor power nor riches nor even monumental achievements in other fields can still their hunger. Even the wholehearted dedication to a holy cause does not always cure them. Their unappeased hunger persists, and they are likely to become the most violent extremists in the service of their holy cause."
Chapter 6, Misfits

United Action and Self-Sacrifice
"Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience—the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries or "of those that are to be." We are ready to sacrifice our true, transitory self for the imaginary eternal self we are building up, by our heroic deeds, in the opinion and imagination of others."

EdNote: In light of this last insight, can this be one way in which social media has served as a catalyst for the more audacious actions being committed on our streets? 

"Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs."
ibid.

"...though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense, it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend." 

"The frustrated follow a leader less because of their faith that he is leading them to a promised land than because of their immediate feeling that he is leading them away from their unwanted selves. Surrender to a leader is not a means to an end but a fulfillment. Whither they are led is of secondary importance."
Section 93

* * * *

"The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients."

* * * *

"There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi... They do not hesitate to harness man's hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in the service of a holy cause; but... they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as the mortar in the building of a new world... for they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind."

* * * *

The True Believer was Hoffer's first of ten books, a book of insights that brought him much critical acclaim. In 1983 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Postscript: 50 years ago this week I packed my bags and headed off to four year of college, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. It was a life-altering experience.

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