Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thoughts on Mass Movements

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass MovementsThe True Believer: 
Thoughts on the Nature of 
Mass Movements 
by Eric Hoffer

"This book deals with some of the peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions, or national movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness." (from the Introduction)

I have read this book several times over the years, starting the summer before I entered college. It is a classic in the sense that it both retains a freshness upon rereading and succeeds in challenging the reader with the thoughts that it presents. I use the word thoughts in the sense that Pascal wrote his own Pensees in the Seventeenth Century. Hoffer's observations on the nature of mass movements are still essential reading for anyone who desires to understand the nature of the twentieth century culture--and even the twenty-first. His short collection of thoughtful essays are divided into four parts: 1)the appeal of mass movements, 2) the potential converts, 3) Self-sacrifice and other unifying agents, and 4) a concluding summing up of some particular aspects of true believers and the movements to which they adhere.

Early in the book Hoffer identifies many true believers as those who seek "substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources." (p 13) They are people "who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement. The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, nor can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication. They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be noble and good. Their innermost craving is for a new life -- a rebirth -- or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause." (p 12)

The book continues with a focus on Hoffer's analysis of the means used to motivate true believers and bind them together. He concludes his analysis with a discussion of the energumen of those who join both good and bad mass movements. His prose style is at once aphoristic and thoughtful. It is distinguished by a depth that is demonstrated by the breadth of his personal reading and studies. There are references to the thoughts of thinkers as disparate as Epictetus, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, and many more. His thoughts spurred my thinking more than forty years ago and rereading this short but challenging book continues to raise questions that help me better understand myself and the society around me. Eric Hoffer was a thinker whose writings in this and his several other books helped to shape my personal philosophy of life.

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Brian Joseph said...

You continue to read such interesting books James!

It seems like there is a lot of food for thought here.

I like your point about the value of reading something like this to better understand oneself.

I do sometimes think of Mass Movements and what that means. There are such intriguing issues involved. For instance how does one address situations when one disagrees with part of an agenda even if one generally support the agenda, and so forth.

I am going to try to read this one.

James said...

Food for thought is exactly what Eric Hoffer provides in his short books of which this is the best. As a self-taught "blue-collar" workingman he was as comfortable with the longshoremen on the docks as he was with intellectuals (a group with which he did not often associate).
Among his later books my favorite is Reflections on the Human Condition. Here is an aphorism from that work:
"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." Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition, aph. 60 (1973)