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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Hoffer, Eric (1902 - 1983)
"Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.

Eric Hoffe

Eric Hoffer was an American social writer. He produced ten books and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983 from Ronald Reagan. His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic. This book, which he considered his best, established his reputation. He remained a successful writer for most of his remaining years.

Hoffer was born in New York City, the son of German immigrants. By the age of five, he could read in both German and English. At age seven, and for unknown reasons, Hoffer went blind. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was fifteen. Fearing he would again go blind, he seized upon the opportunity to read as much as he could for as long as he could. His eyesight remained, but Hoffer never abandoned his habit of voracious reading.

Both his parents died while he was still a young man. Seeking opportunity, and an occupation that would allow him to read constantly, Hoffer made his way across the country to California. A rumour is that he enlisted in the Armed forces, because he was fervently anti-Nazi, but was rejected for medical reasons. Fighting this setback he went to San Francisco to work at the Naval Shipyard and support the war effort in what way he could.

There he began to do manual labor while educating himself on the side. He had library cards for borrowing at libraries up and down the train line near his home in San Francisco. He was to continue at odd jobs throughout his life, such as migrant farm laborer, gold prospector, and longshoreman. Despite daily work, often strenuous, he managed to read more books than many academics. He was stirred to writing after felicitously encountering the Essays of Michel de Montaigne in a secondhand bookshop.

Hoffer and the roots of mass movements
Hoffer was among the first to recognize the central importance of self-esteem to psychological well-being. While most recent writers focus on the benefits of a positive self-esteem, Hoffer focused on the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. Concerned about the rise of totalitarian governments, especially those of Hitler and Stalin, he tried to find the roots of these "madhouses" in human psychology.

He discovered that fanaticism and self-righteousness are rooted in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity. As he describes in The True Believer, a passionate obsession with the outside world or with the private lives of other people is merely a craven attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life. Extensively researched, this slim volume contains more ideas per page than some entire books.

His work was not only original, it was completely out of step with dominant academic trends. In particular, it was completely non-Freudian, at a time when almost all American psychology was confined to the Freudian paradigm. In avoiding the academic mainstream, Hoffer managed to avoid the straitjacket of established thought.

Many argue that it is because of his lack of a University education that his book has remained a classic and insightful (ie non-Freudian). Hoffer appeared on Public Television in 1964 and then in two one-hour conversations on CBS with Eric Sevareid in the late 1960s. Both times he drew wide response for his patiently considered but unorthodox views.

Hoffer and "Intellectuals"
Hoffer was also one of the most pro-American writers of his day. He did not consider himself an "intellectual", and he scorned the term as descriptive of the mostly anti-American academics of the West. Academics, he believed, most of all craved power; but they were denied it in the democratic countries of the West (though they were not in totalitarian countries, which Hoffer saw as an intellectual's dream). So instead, he believed, they chose to bite the hand that fed them in their quest to feel important.

Hoffer himself drew confidence from his working-class environment, seeing in it vast human potential. He took solace in being an outcast, believing that the outcasts have always been the pioneers of society. Though he felt opposed to "liberal" intellectuals, it would be wrong to call Hoffer's thinking "conservative". Rather, it was completely apart from the mainstream. As he said, "my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree." When called an intellectual, he insisted that he was a longshoreman.


"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."

"Take away hatred from some people, and you have men without faith."

"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."

"The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than a deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without."

"Take man's most fantastic invention -- God. Man invents God in the image of his longings, in the image of what he wants to be, then proceeds to imitate that image, vie with it, and strive to overcome it."

"To know a person's religion we need not listen to his profession of faith but must find his brand of intolerance."

"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you."

"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."

"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."

"Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt 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."

"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."

"Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power."

"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."

"I doubt if the oppressed ever fight for freedom. They fight for pride and for power -- power to oppress others. The oppressed want above all to imitate their oppressors; they want to retaliate."

"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 lives."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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.'

"There is always a chance that he who sets himself up as his brother's keeper will end up by being his jail-keeper."

"When we believe ourselves in possession of the only truth, we are likely to be indifferent to common everyday truths."

"All mass movements avail themselves of action as a means of unification. The conflicts a mass movement seeks and incites serve not only to down its enemies but also to strip its followers of their distinct individuality and render them more soluble in the collective medium."

"It is part of the formidableness of a genuine mass movement that the self-sacrifice it promotes includes also a sacrifice of some of the moral sense which cramps and restrains our nature."

"Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.... We join a mass movement to escape from individual responsibility, or, in the words of an 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?"

"People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

"The suspicious mind believes more than it doubts. It believes in a formidable and ineradicable evil lurking in every person."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"The most gifted members of the human species are at their creative best when they cannot have their way, and must compensate for what they miss by realizing and cultivating their capacities and talents."

"I hang onto my prejudices, they are the testicles of my mind."

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