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Eric Hoffer (25 July 1902 – 21 May 1983) was an American writer on social and political philosophy. His first book, The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements (1951) is widely recognized as a classic on mass-movements and the psychological roots of fanaticism. Despite rising to fame with the success and popularity of his writings, he continued to work as a longshoreman until retiring at age 65.
Born: July 25th, 1902
Died: May 21st, 1983
Quotes: 184 sourced quotes total (includes 1 about)
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Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength.
You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.
The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.
Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.
The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.
We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves.
To know a person's religion we need not listen to his profession of faith but must find his brand of intolerance.
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.
An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.
The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not.
With some people solitariness is an escape not from others but from themselves. For they see in the eyes of others only a reflection of themselves.
Those in possession of absolute power can not only prophesy and make their prophecies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true.
To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are.
Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.
It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable.
The beginning of thought is in disagreement — not only with others but also with ourselves.
It is the malady of our age that the young are so busy teaching us that they have no time left to learn.
Our passionate preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. We are drawn back to where we came from.
My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch. Towns are too distracting.
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.
We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves.
Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity.
It is a talent of the weak to persuade themselves that they suffer for something when they suffer from something; that they are showing the way when they are running away; that they see the light when they feel the heat; that they are chosen when they are shunned.
Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.
They who lack talent expect things to happen without effort. They ascribe failure to a lack of inspiration or ability, or to misfortune, rather than to insufficient application. At the core of every true talent there is an awareness of the difficulties inherent in any achievement, and the confidence that by persistence and patience something worthwhile will be realized. Thus talent is a species of vigor.
People whose lives are barren and insecure seem to show a greater willingness to obey than people who are self-sufficient and self-confident. To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint. They are eager to barter their independence for relief of the burdens of willing, deciding and being responsible for inevitable failure. They willingly abdicate the directing of their lives to those who want to plan, command and shoulder all responsibility.
Our greatest weariness comes from work not done.
To spell out the obvious is often to call it in question.
The fear of becoming a "has been" keeps some people from becoming anything.
What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people's faces as unfinished as their minds.
Nature has no compassion. Nature accepts no excuses and the only punishment it knows is death.
Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.
We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength.
Rabid suspicion has nothing in it of skepticism. The suspicious mind believes more than it doubts. It believes in a formidable and ineradicable evil lurking in every person.
Both the revolutionary and the creative individual are perpetual juveniles. The revolutionary does not grow up because he cannot grow, while the creative individual cannot grow up because he keeps growing.
The monstrous evils of the twentieth century have shown us that the greediest money grubbers are gentle doves compared with money-hating wolves like Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, who in less than three decades killed or maimed nearly a hundred million men, women, and children and brought untold suffering to a large portion of mankind.
For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image. And whether we are to line up with him or against him, it is well that we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities.
To think out a problem is not unlike drawing a caricature. You have to exaggerate the salient point and leave out that which is not typical. "To illustrate a principle," says Bagehot, "you must exaggerate much and you must omit much." As to the quantity of absolute truth in a thought: it seems to me the more comprehensive and unobjectionable a thought becomes, the more clumsy and unexciting it gets. I like half-truths of a certain kind — they are interesting and they stimulate.
Every extreme attitude is a flight from the self.
Take away hatred from some people, and you have men without faith.
I hang onto my prejudices, they are the testicles of my mind.
Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us.
When we believe ourselves in possession of the only truth, we are likely to be indifferent to common everyday truths.
The pleasure we derive from doing favors is partly in the feeling it gives us that we are not altogether worthless.
The real persuaders are our appetites, our fears and above all our vanity. The skillful propagandist stirs and coaches these internal persuaders.
The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives. To be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility.
To the excessively fearful the chief characteristic of power is its arbitrariness. Man had to gain enormously in confidence before he could conceive an all-powerful God who obeys his own laws.
It was the craving to be a one and only people which impelled the ancient Hebrews to invent a one and only God whose one and only people they were to be.
That which is unique and worthwhile in us makes itself felt only in flashes. If we do not know how to catch and savor the flashes we are without growth and exhilaration.
It is doubtful if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and power — power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate.
There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts which are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses.
It is probably true that business corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts politics, sports, literature, art, labor unions and so on. But business also corrupts and undermines monolithic totalitarianism. Capitalism is at its liberating best in a noncapitalist environment.
A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.
Vehemence is the expression of a blind effort to support and uphold something that can never stand on its own... Whether it our own meaningless self we are upholding, or some doctrine devoid of evidence, we can do it only in a frenzy of faith.
The sick in soul insist that it is humanity that is sick, and they are the surgeons to operate on it. They want to turn the world into a sickroom. And once they get humanity strapped to the operating table, they operate on it with an ax.
There is in even the most selfish passion a large element of self-abnegation. It is startling to realize that what we call extreme self-seeking is actually self-renunciation. The miser, health addict, glory chaser and their like are not far behind the selfless in the exercise of self-sacrifice.
We take for granted the need to escape the self. Yet the self can also be a refuge. In totalitarian countries the great hunger is for private life. Absorption in the minutiae of an individual existence is the only refuge from the apocalyptic madhouse staged by maniacal saviors of humanity.
Ours is a golden age of minorities. At no time in the past have dissident minorities felt so much at home and had so much room to throw their weight around. They speak and act as if they were "the people," and what they abominate most is the dissent of the majority.
Collective unity is not the result of the brotherly love of the faithful for each other. The loyalty of the true believer is to the whole — the church, party, nation — and not to his fellow true believer. True loyalty between individuals is possible only in a loose and relatively free society.
The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality of the people it acts upon. No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion — it is an evil government.
Our credulity is greatest concerning the things we know least about. And since we know least about ourselves, we are ready to believe all that is said about us. Hence the mysterious power of both flattery and calumny.... It is thus with most of us: we are what other people say we are. We know ourselves chiefly by hearsay.
The impulse to think, to philosophize and spin beauty and brilliance out of mind and soul, is somehow the offspring of resistance — of an effort to overcome an apparently insurmountable obstacle. Hence cultural creativeness is more likely to flourish in an atmosphere of restriction, of an imposed pattern of thought and behavior, than in one of total freedom.
Flaubert and Nietzsche have emphasized the importance of standing up and walking in the process of thinking. The peripatetics were perhaps motivated by the same awareness. Yet purposeful walking — what we call marching — is an enemy of thought and is used as a powerful instrument for the suppression of independent thought and the inculcation of unquestioned obedience.
Yet at this moment Israel is our only reliable and unconditional ally. We can rely more on Israel than Israel can rely on us. And one has only to imagine what would have happened last summer had the Arabs and their Russian backers won the war to realize how vital the survival of Israel is to America and the West in general.
The ignorant are a reservoir of daring. It almost seems that those who have yet to discover the known are particularly equipped for dealing with the unknown. The unlearned have often rushed in where the learned feared to tread, and it is the credulous who are tempted to attempt the impossible. They know not whither they are going, and give chance a chance.
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.
It is the Frenchman's readiness to exaggerate that is at the root of his intellectual lucidity and also of his capacity for acknowledging merit. The English were not afraid to exaggerate in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they were then not far behind the French in the lucidity of their thinking.... There is hardly a single instance of cultural vigor marked by moderation in expression.
The real "haves" are they who can acquire freedom, self-confidence, and even riches without depriving others of them. They acquire all of these by developing and applying their potentialities. On the other hand, the real "have nots" are they who cannot have aught except by depriving others of it. They can feel free only by diminishing the freedom of others, self-confident by spreading fear and dependence among others, and rich by making others poor.
Compassion is probably the only antitoxin of the soul. Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless. One would rather see the world run by men who set their hearts on toys but are accessible to pity, than by men animated by lofty ideals whose dedication makes them ruthless. In the chemistry of man's soul, almost all noble attributes — courage, honor, hope, faith, duty, loyalty, etc. — can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion alone stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil proceeding within us.
The Savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets. There are similarities between absolute power and absolute faith: a demand for absolute obedience; a readiness to attempt the impossible; a bias for simple solutions — to cut the knot rather than unravel it; the viewing of compromise as surrender; the tendency to manipulate people and "experiment with blood." Both absolute power and absolute faith are instruments of dehumanization. Hence absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.
The significant point is that people unfit for freedom — who cannot do much with it — are hungry for power. The desire for freedom is an attribute of a "have" type of self. It says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities. The desire for power is basically an attribute of a "have-not" type of self. If Hitler had had the talents and the temperament of a genuine artist, if Stalin had had the capacity to become a first-rate theoretician, if Napoleon had had the makings of a great poet or philosopher they would hardly have developed the all-consuming lust for absolute power. Freedom gives us a chance to realize our human and individual uniqueness. Absolute power can also bestow uniqueness: to have absolute power is to have the power to reduce all the people around us to puppets, robots, toys, or animals, and be the only man in sight. Absolute power achieves uniqueness by dehumanizing others. To sum up: Those who lack the capacity to achieve much in an atmosphere of freedom will clamor for power.
No one is truly literate who cannot read his own heart.
A good sentence is a key. It unlocks the mind of the reader.
Wordiness is a sickness of American writing. Too many words dilute and blur ideas.
The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual's identification with a group.
When people are free to do as we please, they usually imitate each other.
The Renaissance was a time of mercenary soldiers, ours is a time of mercenary labor.
Add a few drops of venom to a half truth and you have an absolute truth.
A war is not won if the defeated enemy has not been turned into a friend.
The weakness of a soul is proportionate to the number of truths that must be kept from it.
When cowardice becomes a fashion its adherents are without number, and it masquerades as forbearance, reasonableness and whatnot.
To think for oneself is not only, as Gide said, counterrevolutionary but also apostasy and, at certain times, treason.
Failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs.
There can be no freedom without freedom to fail. page 80, Buccaneer Books edition (1990) ISBN 0899667481 172 pages total
Good writing, like gold, combines lustrous lucidity with high density. What this means is good writing is packed with hints.
We can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and... we run fastest and farthest from ourselves.
Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable to effective leadership. There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.
To dispose a soul to action we must upset its equilibrium. page 27, Buccaneer Books edition (1990) ISBN 0899667481 172 pages total
Commitment becomes hysterical when those who have nothing to give advocate generosity, and those who have nothing to give up preach renunciation.
Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses. Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.
We usually see only the things we are looking for — so much so that we sometimes see them where they are not.
Some people have no original ideas because they do not think well enough of themselves to consider their ideas worth noticing and developing.
If anybody asks me what I have accomplished, I will say all I have accomplished is that I have written a few good sentences.
A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past. (1954), p. 75
The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than of deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.
Whenever we proclaim the uniqueness of a religion, a truth, a leader, a nation, a race, a part or a holy cause, we are also proclaiming our own uniqueness.
A multitude of words is probably the most formidable means of blurring and obscuring thought. There is no thought, however momentous, that cannot be expressed lucidly in 200 words.
The ratio between supervisory and producing personnel is always highest where the intellectuals are in power. In a Communist country it takes half the population to supervise the other half.
Good and evil grow up together and are bound in an equilibrium that cannot be sundered. The most we can do is try to tilt the equilibrium toward the good.
One is not quite certain that creativeness in the arts, literature, and science functions best in an environment of absolute freedom. Chances are that a relatively mild tyranny stimulates creativeness.
There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.
The history of this country was made largely by people who wanted to be left alone. Those who could not thrive when left to themselves never felt at ease in America.
It is not good for our efforts at self-realization to know the opinions other people have of us. It is difficult or perhaps impossible to be ourselves if we are known.
We are ready to die for an opinion but not for a fact: indeed, it is by our readiness to die that we try to prove the factualness of our opinion.
Fanatical orthodoxy is in all movements a late development. It comes when the movement is in full possession of power and can impose its faith by force as well as by persuasion.
To most of us nothing is so invisible as an unpleasant truth. Though it is held before our eyes, pushed under our noses, rammed down our throats — we know it not.
By circumstance and perhaps also by inclination, I think in complete intellectual isolation. To expect others to help me think seems to me almost like expecting them to help me digest my food.
Up to now, America has not been a good milieu for the rise of a mass movement. What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.
To overestimate the originality of one's thoughts is perhaps a less serious defect than being unaware of their newness. There is a more pronounced lack of sensitivity in underestimating (ourselves and others) than in overestimating.
You accept certain unlovely things about yourself and manage to live with them. The atonement for such an acceptance is that you make allowances for others — that you cleanse yourself of the sin of self-righteousness.
God alone is satisfied with what He is and can proclaim: "I am what I am." Unlike God, man strives with all his might to be what he is not. He incessantly proclaims: "I am what I am not."
If in order to keep the wheels turning you have to deafen ears with propaganda, crack the whip of Terror, and keep pushing people around, then you haven't got a machine civilization no matter how numerous and ingenious your machines.
Perhaps people throw themselves into heated polemics to give content to their lives, to warm their hearts. What Luther said of hatred is true of all quarreling. There is nothing like a feud to make life seem full and interesting.
How terribly hard and almost impossible it is to tell the truth. More than anything else, the artist in us prevents us from telling aught as it really happened. We deal with the truth as the cook deals with meat and vegetables.
It is apparently vital that we should be in the dark about ourselves — not to be clear about our intentions, fears, and hopes. There is a stubborn effort in us to set up a compact screen between consciousness and the self.
The awareness of their individual blemishes and shortcomings inclines the frustrated to detect ill will and meanness in their fellow men. Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.
To believe that if we could have but this or that we would be happy is to suppress the realization that the cause of our unhappiness is in our inadequate and blemished selves. Excessive desire is thus a means of suppressing our sense of worthlessness.
There is not an idea that cannot be expressed in 200 words. But the writer must know precisely what he wants to say. If you have nothing to say and want badly to say it, then all the words in all the dictionaries will not suffice.
We tend today to exaggerate the effectiveness of persuasion as a means of inculcating opinion and shaping behavior. ...Actually the fabulous effects ascribed to propaganda have no greater foundation in fact than the fall of the walls of Jericho ascribed to the blast of Joshua's trumpets.
There is no reason why the profoundest thoughts should not make easy and exciting reading. A profound thought is an exciting thing — as exciting as a detective's deductions or hunches. The simpler the words in which a thought is expressed the more stimulating its effect.
Man is a luxury-loving animal. Take away play, fancies, and luxuries, and you will turn man into a dull, sluggish creature, barely energetic enough to obtain a bare subsistence. A society becomes stagnant when its people are too rational or too serious to be tempted by baubles.
The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do. A ruling intelligentsia, whether in Europe, Asia or Africa, treats the masses as raw material to be experimented on, processed, and wasted at will.
In products of the human mind, simplicity marks the end of a process of refining, while complexity marks a primitive stage. Michelangelo's definition of art as the purgation of superfluities suggests that the creative effort consists largely in the elimination of that which complicates and confuses a pattern
What merit there is in my thinking is derived from two peculiarities: (1) My inability to be familiar with anything. I simply can't take things for granted. (2) My endless patience. I assume that the only way to find an answer is to hang on long enough and keep groping.
The chief difference between me and others is that I have plenty of time — not only because I am without a multitude of responsibilities and without daily tasks, which demand attention: But also because I am basically without ambition. Neither the present nor the future has claims on me.
Actual creativeness is a matter of moments. One has to piece together the minute grains to make a lump. And it is so easy to miss the momentary flashes, it is like sluicing in placer mining. He who lets the flakes float by has nothing to show for his trouble.
A just society must strive with all its might to right wrongs even if righting wrongs is a highly perilous undertaking. But if it is to survive, a just society must be strong and resolute enough to deal swiftly and relentlessly with those who would mistake its good will for weakness.
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.
Our doubts about ourselves cannot be banished except by working at that which is the one and only thing we know we ought to do. Other people's assertions cannot silence the howling dirge within us. It is our talents rusting unused within us that secrete the poison of self-doubt into our bloodstream.
Universities are an example of organizations dominated wholly by intellectuals; yet, outside pure science, they have not been an optimal milieu for the unfolding of creative talents. In neither art, music, literature, technology and social theory, nor planning have the Universities figured as originators or as seedbeds of new talents and energies.
Modern man is weighed down more by the burden of responsibility than by the burden of sin. We think him more a savior who shoulders our responsibilities than him who shoulders our sins. If instead of making decisions we have but to obey and do our duty, we feel it as a sort of salvation.
This food-and-shelter theory concerning man's efforts is without insight. Our most persistent and spectacular efforts are concerned not with the preservation of what we are but with the building up of an imaginary conception of ourselves in the opinion of others. The desire for praise is more imperative than the desire for food and shelter.
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.
J. B. S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C and 1400 A.D. It was a Judaic-Christian invention. And it is strange to think that in receiving this malady of the soul the world also received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead—an instrument of resurrection.
One wonders whether a generation that demands instant satisfaction of all its needs and instant solution of the world's problems will produce anything of lasting value. Such a generation, even when equipped with the most modern technology, will be essentially primitive — it will stand in awe of nature, and submit to the tutelage of medicine men.
It has been my experience that there is no substitute for time where thinking is concerned. Why is it so? The answer seems to be that in many cases to think means to be able to allow the mind to stray from the task at hand. The mind must be able to be "elsewhere." This needs time.
Total innovation is a flight from comparison and also from imitation. Those who discover things for themselves and express them in their own way are not overly bothered by the fact that others have already discovered these things — have even discovered them over and over again — and have expressed what they found in all manner of ways.
What counts most is holding on. The growth of a train of thought is not a direct forward flow. There is a succession of spurts separated by intervals of stagnation, frustration, and discouragement. If you hold on, there is bound to come a certain clarification. The unessential components drop off and a coherent, lucid whole begins to take shape.'''
How rare it is to come across a piece of writing that is unambiguous, unqualified, and also unblurred by understatements or subtleties, and yet at the same time urbane and tolerant. It is a vice of the scientific method when applied to human affairs that it fosters hemming and hawing and a scrupulousness that easily degenerates into obscurity and meaninglessness.
Originality is not something continuous but something intermittent — a flash of the briefest duration. One must have the time and be watchful (be attuned) to catch the flash and fix it. One must know how to catch and preserve these scant flakes of gold sluiced out of the sand and rocks of everyday life. Originality does not come nugget-size.
To find the cause of our ills in something outside ourselves, something specific that can be spotted and eliminated, is a diagnosis that cannot fail to appeal. To say that the cause of our troubles is not in us but in the Jews, and pass immediately to the extermination of the Jews, is a prescription likely to find a wide acceptance.
I am more and more convinced that taking life over-seriously is a frivolous thing. There is an affected self-dramatizing in the brooding over one's prospects and destiny. The trifling attitude of an Ecclesiastes is essentially sober and serious. It is in closer touch with the so-called eternal truths than are the most penetrating metaphysical probing and the most sensitive poetic insights.
The sense of worth derived from creative work depends upon "recognition" by others, which is never automatic. As a result, the path of self-realization, even when it is the only open one, is taken with reluctance. Men of talent have to be goaded to engage in creative work. The groans and laments of even the most gifted and prolific echo through the ages.
It is precisely because we can never really know ourselves, but only guess, that we are so vehement about the good and the evil ascribed to us by others. In maintaining ourselves against all comers, we are maintaining something that is unknown, uncertain, and never wholly provable. We need a chorus of consent, and we are engaged in an unceasing proselytizing campaign in our own behalf.
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.
The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together. In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
As a full-time longshoreman I am necessarily more a scribbler than a writer. But I am also so by inclination. The writing I can enjoy is the sketching of an idea in a few dozen words — two hundred at most. Elaboration and expansion are for me hard going. An article of several thousand words becomes inevitably a mosaic of ideas — a series of ideas stuck together.
I could never figure out — or probably did not take the trouble to figure out — what the great philosophical problems are about. The momentous statements I come across are at best a storm in a teacup. There are quite a number of people who have a vested interest in the stuff, make a noble living out of it, and they conspire with one another to keep it alive.
Disraeli felt that "nothing could compensate his obscure youth, not even a glorious old age." Practically all writers and artists are aware of their destiny and see themselves as actors in a fateful drama. With me, nothing is momentous: obscure youth, glorious old age, fateful coincidences — nothing really matters. I have written a number of good sentences. I have kept free of delusions. I know I am going to die soon.
One would like to see mankind spend the balance of the century in a total effort to clean up and groom the surface of the globe — wipe out the jungles, turn deserts and swamps into arable land, terrace barren mountains, regulate rivers, eradicate all pests, control the weather, and make the whole land mass a fit habitation for Man. The globe should be our and not nature's home, and we no longer nature's guests.
America meant freedom and what is freedom? To Hoffer it is the capacity to feel like oneself. He felt like Eric Hoffer; sometimes like Eric Hoffer, working man. It could be said, I believe, that he is the first important American writer, working class born, who remained working class — in his habits, associations, environment. I cannot think of another. Therefore, he was a national resource. The only one of its kind in the nation's possession.
The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves: we do unto others as we do unto ourselves. We hate others when we hate ourselves. We are tolerant toward others when we tolerate ourselves. We forgive others when we forgive ourselves. We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves. It is not love of self but hatred of self which is at the root of the troubles that afflict our world.
It's disconcerting to realize that businessmen, generals, soldiers, men of action are less corrupted by power than intellectuals... You take a conventional man of action, and he's satisfied if you obey. But not the intellectual. He doesn't want you just to obey. He wants you to get down on your knees and praise the one who makes you love what you hate and hate what you love. In other words, whenever the intellectuals are in power, there's soul-raping going on.
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.
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
I have never felt that I had a thought too profound for others to understand. On the contrary, it always seemed to me axiomatic that what was clear to me should be clear and easy to everyone else. This despite the fact that it often took me years to grope my way to an idea.... I can spend days and even months on a single sentence. I do not know how to skip. To think and write with me is like putting brick on brick.
In all my life I never competed for fortune, for a woman, or for fame. I learned to write in total isolation. My first work was also my best, and the first thing published. I never belonged to a circle or clique. I did not know I was writing a book until it was written. When my first book was published there was no one near me, an acquaintance let alone a friend, to congratulate me. I have never savored triumph, never won a race.
Thinking with me is like looking for a person whose address I don't know. I stand on a street corner all day long waiting for him to pass by. Certainly there are more efficient ways of locating a person whose address you don't know. But if you have a whole lifetime to wait and enjoy watching things go by, then waiting on street corners is as good a method as any. If you don't find the person you are looking for, you might meet someone else.
The most important point is — and remains — not to take oneself seriously. There is no past, and, certainly, no future. There are but a few years — ten at the most. You pass your days as best you can, doing as little harm as possible. Let the desires be few and treat expectations as weeds. You read, scribble as the spirit moves you, hear some new music, see every week the few people you are attached to. Again: guard yourself, above all, against self-dramatization, a feeling of importance, and the sprouting of expectations.
There is a fundamental difference between the appeal of a mass movement and the appeal of a practical organization. The practical organization offers opportunities for self-advancement, and its appeal is mainly to self-interest. On the other hand, a mass movement, particularly in its active, revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.
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." It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?
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. The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. he echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already "know."
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. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression. St. Vincent De Paul cautioned his disciples to deport themselves so that the poor "will forgive them the bread you give them."
The urge to escape our real self is also an urge to escape the rational and the obvious. The refusal to see ourselves as we are develops a distaste for facts and cold logic. There is no hope for the frustrated in the actual and the possible. Salvation can come to them only from the miraculous, which seeps through a crack in the iron wall of inexorable reality. They ask to be deceived. What Stresemann said of the Germans is true of the frustrated in general: "[They] pray not only for [their] daily bread, but also for [their] daily illusion." The rule seems to be that those who find difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and led.
In exceptional cases, like Puerto Rico and Israel, where capital and skills are available, rapid modernization is not incompatible with a considerable measure of individual freedom. To some extent, the present dominant role of the intellectual in the modernization of backward countries also militates against the prevalence of individual freedom. Not only does the intellectual's penchant for tutoring, directing, and regulating promote a regimented social pattern, but his craving for the momentous is bound to foster an austere seriousness inhospitable to the full play of freedom. The intellectual "transforms the prosaic achievements of society into Promethean tasks, glorious defeats, tragic epics." The strained atmosphere of an eternal drama working up toward a climax and a crisis is optimal for heroes and saints but not for the autonomous individual shaping his life to the best of his ability. The chances are that should an advanced country come into the keeping of the intellectual it would begin to show many of the hectic traits which seem to us characteristic of a backward country in the throes of awakening.
It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one's neighbor. There may even be a certain antagonism between love of humanity and love of neighbor; a low capacity for getting along with those near us often goes hand in hand with a high receptivity to the idea of the brotherhood of men. About a hundred years ago a Russian landowner by the name of Petrashevsky recorded a remarkable conclusion: "Finding nothing worthy of my attachment either among women or among men, I have vowed myself to the service of mankind." He became a follower of Fourier, and installed a phalanstery on his estate. The end of the experiment was sad, but what one might perhaps have expected: the peasants — Petrashevsky's neighbors-burned the phalanstery. Some of the worst tyrannies of our day genuinely are "vowed" to the service of mankind, yet can function only by pitting neighbor against neighbor. The all-seeing eye of a totalitarian regime is usually the watchful eye of the next-door neighbor. In a Communist state love of neighbor may be classed as counter-revolutionary.
A fateful process is set in motion when the individual is released "to the freedom of his own impotence" and left to justify his existence by his own efforts. 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 call of frustration, and the seed of the convulsions which shake our world to its foundations. The individual on his own is stable only so long as he is possessed 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. 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.
To the intellectual the struggle for freedom is more vital than the actuality of a free society. He would rather "work, fight, talk, for liberty than have it." The fact is that up to now the free society has not been good for the intellectual. It has neither accorded him a superior status to sustain his confidence nor made it easy for him to acquire an unquestioned sense of social usefulness. For he derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning — from minding other people's business — and is bound to feel superfluous and neglected where people believe themselves competent to manage individual and communal affairs, and are impatient of supervision and regulation. A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual's sense of worth as an automated economy is to the workingman's sense of worth. Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual. The intellectual craves a social order in which uncommon people perform uncommon tasks every day. He wants a society throbbing with dedication, reverence, and worship. He sees it as scandalous that the discoveries of science and the feats of heroes should have as their denouement the comfort and affluence of common folk. A social order run by and for the people is to him a mindless organism motivated by sheer physiologism.
The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. ...For self-sacrifice is an unreasonable act. ...All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. ...by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. ...To rely on the evidence of senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs.
It is the individual only who is timeless. Societies, cultures, and civilizations — past and present — are often incomprehensible to outsiders, but the individual's hunger, anxieties, dreams, and preoccupations have remained unchanged through the millennia. Thus, we are up against the paradox that the individual who is more complex, unpredictable, and mysterious than any communal entity is the one nearest to our understanding; so near that even the interval of millennia cannot weaken our feeling of kinship. If in some manner the voice of an individual reaches us from the remotest distance of time, it is a timeless voice speaking about ourselves.
The best education will not immunize a person against corruption by power. The best education does not automatically make people compassionate. We know this more clearly than any preceding generation. Our time has seen the best-educated society, situated in the heart of the most civilized part of the world, give birth to the most murderously vengeful government in history. Forty years ago the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead thought it self-evident that you would get a good government if you took power out of the hands of the acquisitive and gave it to the learned and the cultivated. At present, a child in kindergarten knows better than that.
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. 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.
The attitude of the intellectual community toward America is shaped not by the creative few but by the many who for one reason or another cannot transmute their dissatisfaction into a creative impulse, and cannot acquire a sense of uniqueness and of growth by developing and expressing their capacities and talents. There is nothing in contemporary America that can cure or alleviate their chronic frustration. They want power, lordship, and opportunities for imposing action. Even if we should banish poverty from the land, lift up the Negro to true equality, withdraw from Vietnam, and give half of the national income as foreign aid, they will still see America as an air-conditioned nightmare unfit for them to live in.
Social stability is the product of an equilibrium between a vigorous majority and violent minorities. Disorder does not come from an increased inner pressure or from the interaction of explosive ingredients. There is no reason to believe that the nature of the violent minorities is now greatly different from what it was in the past. What has changed is the will and ability of the majority to react. It is hard to tell what causes the pervasive timidity. One thinks of video-induced stupor, intake of tranquilizers, fear of not living to enjoy the many new possessions and toys, the example of our betters in cities and on campuses who high-mindedly surrender to threats of violence and make cowardice fashionable.
The explosive component in the contemporary scene is not the clamor of the masses but the self-righteous claims of a multitude of graduates from schools and universities. This army of scribes is clamoring for a society in which planning, regulation, and supervision are paramount and the prerogative of the educated. They hanker for the scribe's golden age, for a return to something like the scribe-dominated societies of ancient Egypt, China, and Europe of the Middle Ages. There is little doubt that the present trend in the new and renovated countries toward social regimentation stems partly from the need to create adequate employment for a large number of scribes. And since the tempo of the production of the literate is continually increasing, the prospect is of ever-swelling bureaucracies.
The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it, Turkey threw out a million Greeks, and Algeria a million Frenchman. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese — and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab. Arnold Toynbee calls the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis. Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace.
There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement.
It is easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad. We cannot hate those we despise. The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we could hate them. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners. An American's hatred for a fellow American (for Hoover or Roosevelt) is far more virulent than any antipathy he can work up against foreigners. It is of interest that the backward South shows more xenophobia than the rest of the country. Should Americans begin to hate foreigners wholeheartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.
There is, for instance, the fact that there is a greater readiness to work in a society with a high standard of living than in one with a low standard. We are more ready to strive and work for superfluities than for necessities. People who are clear-sighted, undeluded, and sober-minded will not go on working once their reasonable needs are satisfied. A society that refuses to strive for superfluities is likely to end up lacking in necessities. The readiness to work springs from trivial, questionable motives. … A vigorous society is a society made up of people who set their hearts on toys, and who would work for superfluities than for necessities. The self-righteous moralists decry such a society, yet it is well to keep in mind that both children and artists need luxuries more than they need necessities.
Those who see their lives as spoiled and wasted crave equality and fraternity more than they do freedom. If they clamor for freedom, it is but freedom to establish equality and uniformity. The passion for equality is partly a passion for anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority. 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.
Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world. Other nations when they are defeated survive and recover but should Israel be defeated it would be destroyed. Had Nasser triumphed last June he would have wiped Israel off the map, and no one would have lifted a finger to save the Jews. No commitment to the Jews by any government, including our own, is worth the paper it is written on. There is a cry of outrage all over the world when people die in Vietnam or when two Negroes are executed in Rhodesia. But when Hitler slaughtered Jews no one remonstrated with him. The Swedes, who are ready to break off diplomatic relations with America because of what we do in Vietnam, did not let out a peep when Hitler was slaughtering Jews. They sent Hitler choice iron ore, and ball bearings, and serviced his troop trains to Norway.
One should see the dominant role of the weak in shaping man's fate not as a perversion of natural instincts and vital impulses, but as the starting point of the deviation which led man to break away from, and rise above, nature — not as degeneration but as the generation of a new order of creation. The corruption inherent in absolute power derives from the fact that such power is never free from the tendency to turn man into a thing, and press him back into the matrix of nature from which he has risen. For the impulse of power is to turn every variable into a constant, and give to commands the inexorableness and relentlessness of laws of nature. Hence absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep. The taint inherent in absolute power is not its inhumanity but its anti-humanity.
The weak are not a noble breed. Their sublime deeds of faith, daring, and self-sacrifice usually spring from questionable motives. The weak hate not wickedness but weakness; and one instance of their hatred of weakness is hatred of self. All the passionate pursuits of the weak are in some degree a striving to escape, blur, or disguise an unwanted self. It is a striving shot through with malice, envy, self-deception, and a host of petty impulses; yet it often culminates in superb achievements. Thus we find that people who fail in everyday affairs often show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. They become responsive to grandiose schemes, and will display unequaled steadfastness, formidable energies and a special fitness in the performance of tasks which would stump superior people. It seems paradoxical that defeat in dealing with the possible should embolden people to attempt the impossible, but a familiarity with the mentality of the weak reveals that what seems a path of daring is actually an easy way out: It is to escape the responsibility for failure that the weak so eagerly throw themselves into grandiose undertakings. For when we fail in attaining the possible the blame is solely ours, but when we fail in attaining the impossible we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task.
It has been often stated that a social order is likely to be stable so long as it gives scope to talent. Actually, it is the ability to give scope to the untalented that is most vital in maintaining social stability. For not only are the untalented more numerous but, since they cannot transmute their grievances into a creative effort, their disaffection will be more pronounced and explosive. Thus the most troublesome problem which confronts social engineering is how to provide for the untalented and, what is equally important, how to provide against them. For there is a tendency in the untalented to divert their energies from their own development into the management, manipulation, and probably frustration of others. They want to police, instruct, guide, and meddle. In an adequate social order, the untalented should be able to acquire a sense of usefulness and of growth without interfering with the development of talent around them. This requires, first, an abundance of opportunities for purposeful action and self advancement. Secondly, a wide diffusion of technical and social skills so that people will be able to work and manage their affairs with a minimum of tutelage. The scribe mentality is best neutralized by canalizing energies into purposeful and useful pursuits, and by raising the cultural level of the whole population so as to blur the dividing line between the educated and the uneducated. If such an arrangement lacks provisions for the encouragement of the talented it yet has the merit of not interfering with them.