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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Hoffer’

The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements” (1951©)  —  book review
Today’s review if for the “quasi”-political science book: “The True Believer“, written by Eric Hoffer.  I stumbled on this book on a list of “books which changed my life” article.  Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to record the author or site where I found the recommendation.  I’ve had this book on my waiting list for only a few months and it was kicked to the front because it was so positively reviewed and because I wanted a change of pace (something social / political) to read.
Eric Hoffer is a self-educated philosopher.  He spent a good chunk of his life living rather rough as a field-hand / farm worker in California’s central valley and then as a docker in San Francisco (after WWII).  Hoffer is kind of a “working man’s philosopher”. He ultimately wrote ten books on social philosophy and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.  This book, is is most famous and is considered to be a “classic”.
My version of this book is 168 pages of text and another nine pages of footnotes / citations.  This book is not a “formal” analysis of politics, society or political movements.  It is, to me anyway, a proposal based on observation by the author and by the sources he cites in the “Notes” section.  As far as I can tell, the sources are purely anecdotal, too.  If you are a “popularized” science (“science for the masses”) reader, this book will be enticing, if not affirming.  If you are a person who prefers evidence to anecdote, you will probably not find much in this book.
So, what is the book about?  Hoffer believes there are main types of mass movements: revolutionary (American, French, Communist), nationalistic (Fascist, Nazi) and religious (Christian, Islamic).  Hoffer proposes there are three main types of people: the man of words, the fanatical and the men of action.  The man of words is the thinker / philosophizer who sees “wrong” and argues to change it.  The fanatic is the person who adopts the idea of change with a “religious” fervor – that is, an absolute belief that will overcome all obstacles because it is fated to do so.  And, lastly, the man of action is the group (or individual) who must bend the circumstance of the changed world into a functional society (after the movement has succeed in toppling the old regime).  The books main target for analysis is the man in the middle – the fanatic – who has lost himself and then found himself again in the movement.  This is very much shades of Saul (the Christian persecutor) on the road to Damascus, who, upon seeing a vision of Christ, is converted into the fanatical Saint Paul who seeks to pass on the new faith’s teachings not only to the Jewish community, but to the entire world.  Hoffer believes the “movement” itself is fairly irrelevant to the conversion.  It is the personal frustration and then the societal release which matters to the fanatic and which justifies all actions – no matter how barbaric the action or the movement.
So, is this book any good?  Did it convince me to agree with Hoffer about the nature of “True Believers“?  And, I guess, did this book change my life?  In order, so-so to yes; so-so to no; and, lastly, no – not really even a little.  If you like soft analysis and you want to believe the author’s stories, you will LOVE this book.  The book is kind of a cross between John Dean’s “Conservative Trilogy” philosophy and Malcolm Gladwell’s pleasant story telling.  I honestly liked the book and found over thirty quotes to post on this blog (eventually, but no hurry).  They (the quotes) are just things which made me pause and think.  If you can get that many ideas from only 168 pages, the author is doing something right.
Final recommendation: strong but not highly recommended.  I really enjoyed reading this short book and it made me repeatedly stop and think, but there wasn’t enough underlying / provable material for me to feel like this was a “life-changing” book.  That’s not to say light / soft books can’t be life-changers, but for me, this wasn’t one of those books.  I can see why this book is considered a “significant work” and even a “classic”, but I think it’s because I am predisposed to agree with author’s observations, not because I think he has proven his argument.
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To become really mature is to return to the age of five, to be able to recapture the capacity for absorption, for learning, to recapture the tremendous hunger to master skills that you had at five years.
     —     Eric Hoffer
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It is a paradox that in our time of drastic rapid change, when the future is in our midst devouring the present before our eyes, we have never been less certain about what is ahead of us.
     —    Eric Hoffer
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