Monday, March 21, 2011

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

For a down-loadable version of this article, click here.

Eric Hoffer published this book in 1951 (There have been 23 editions published.) after studying and reflecting on the mass movements of his recent past. Even though this book is 60 years old, it is perhaps more relevant now than it ever was. In America we have become irreconcilably polarized on a number of factors important to our future. His thoughts provide some insight on this issue.
And, its application to the issue of fanatical, radical fundamentalism internationally is quite obvious. While the book definitely has structure and a narrative, it is primarily a series of thoughts in 125 sections. As the book’s title suggests, it is about two things – the true believer and mass movements.

In the Introduction Hoffer describes his book. “This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer-the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause-and an attempt is made to trace his genesis and outline his nature. As an aid in this effort, use is made of a working hypothesis. Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord, it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind.”

Hoffer[1] does not take an exclusively negative view of true believers and the mass movements they begin.

Before the beginning of the book, Hoffer quotes Blaise Pascal from his book Pensées:

Man would fain[2] be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and sees that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against that truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.

This quote provides a pretty good summary of Hoffer’s description of a true believer. This discontent with the self is not limited to any economic strata. Shakespeare even has King Richard express this in his play Richard III:

"Now is the winter of our discontent" are the opening words of the play and lay the groundwork for the portrait of Richard as a discontented man who is unhappy in a world that hates him. Later he describes himself as "Deformed, unfinished, sent before his time into this breathing world, scarce half made up". This deformity, which has now been shown to have been exaggerated or even deliberately faked in portraits of Richard, is given as the source of his supposed evil doings. He says that as he "cannot prove a lover" he is "determined to be a villain".

Hoffer writes, “There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. "If anything ail a man," says Thoreau, "so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even ... he forthwith sets about reforming-the world."

It is understandable that those who fail should incline to blame the world for their failure. The remarkable thing is that the successful, too, however much they pride themselves on their foresight, fortitude, thrift and other "sterling qualities," are at bottom convinced that their success is the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances[3]. The self-confidence of even the consistently successful is never absolute. They are never sure that they know all the ingredients which go into the making of their success. The outside world seems to them a precariously balanced mechanism, and so long as it ticks in their favor they are afraid to tinker with it. Thus the resistance to change and the ardent desire for it spring from the same conviction, and the one can be as vehement as the other.”

Read complete article.

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

Eric Hoffer, Harper and Row, 1951, 177pp

[1] “The book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences. It merely tries to explain; and the explanations-all of them theories-are in the nature of suggestions and arguments even when they are stated in what seems a categorical tone. I can do no better than quote Montaigne: "All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed”."

[2] Archaic willingly; gladly

[3] Given what we now know about complex systems, this statement is probably true.

1 comment:

  1. Well done Mr. Schumnn.
    I ran across your piece when quickly googling that particular sentence rather than going to my book. I'd forgotten the exact sentence structure of the beginning of it (There is in us ...).
    I love Eric's sentences almost as much as I admire his awesome ability to understand and reason out what escaped so many.

    Should we ever meet I have many photographs of Eric you might love seeing.

    I liked your blog very much. Well done.
    Dan Stroud -