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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
away hatred from some people, and you have men without faith."
opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist
but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not."
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."
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
know a person's religion we need not listen to his profession
of faith but must find his brand of intolerance."
can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means
he uses to frighten you."
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."
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."
is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us."
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
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."
faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
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.'
is always a chance that he who sets himself up as his brother's
keeper will end up by being his jail-keeper."
we believe ourselves in possession of the only truth, we are likely
to be indifferent to common everyday truths."
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."
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."
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
who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks
suspicious mind believes more than it doubts. It believes in a
formidable and ineradicable evil lurking in every person."
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."
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."
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."
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
"I hang onto
my prejudices, they are the testicles of my mind."