The True Believer:
Thoughts on the Nature of
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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