Eric Hoffer (July 25 1902 (or 1898) – May 21 1983) was an American social writer. He produced ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983 by President of the United States Ronald Reagan. His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen.
Hoffer was a young man when his father, a cabinetmaker, died. The cabinetmaker's union paid for the funeral and gave Hoffer a little over three hundred dollars. Sensing that warm Los Angeles was the best place for a poor man, Hoffer took a bus there in 1920. He spent the next ten years on Los Angeles' skid row, reading, occasionally writing, and working odd jobs. On one such job, selling oranges door-to-door, he discovered he was a natural salesman and could easily make good money. Uncomfortable with this discovery, he quit after one day.
In 1931, he attempted suicide by drinking a solution of oxalic acid, but the attempt failed as he could not bring himself to swallow the poison. The experience gave him a new determination to live adventurously. It was then he left skid row and became a migrant worker. Following the harvests along the length of California, he collected library cards for each town near the fields where he worked, and living, by preference, “between the books and the brothels.” A seminal event for Hoffer occurred in the mountains where he had gone in search of gold. Snowed in for the winter, he read the Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne's book impressed Hoffer deeply, and he often made reference to its importance for him. He also developed a great respect for America's underclass, which, he declared, was “lumpy with talent.”
Hoffer was in San Francisco by 1941. He attempted to enlist in the Armed forces there in 1942 but was rejected because of a hernia. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, he found ample opportunity as a longshoreman on the docks of The Embarcadero. It was there he felt at home and finally settled down. He continued reading voraciously and soon began to write while earning a living loading and unloading ships. He continued this work until he retired at age 65.
Hoffer considered his best work to be The True Believer, a landmark explanation of fanaticism and mass movements. The Ordeal of Change is also a literary favorite. In 1970 he endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hoffer was a charismatic individual and persuasive public speaker, but said that he didn’t really care about people. Despite authoring ten books and a newspaper column, in retirement Hoffer continued his robust life of the mind, thinking and writing alone, in an apartment near San Francisco’s waterfront. A longtime smoker, Hoffer developed emphysema towards the end of his life.
Hoffer drew confidence and inspiration from his modest roots and working-class surroundings, seeing in it vast human potential. In a letter to Margaret Anderson in 1941, he wrote:
Hoffer also took solace in being an outcast, believing that the outcasts have always been the pioneers of society. He did not consider himself an "intellectual", and scorned the term as descriptive of the allegedly anti-American academics of the West. He believed academics craved power but were denied it in the democratic countries of the West (though not in totalitarian countries, which Hoffer understood to be an intellectual's dream). Instead, Hoffer believed academics chose to bite the hand that fed them in their quest for power and influence.
Though Hoffer did not identify with "liberal intellectuals" and often criticized the radical ideology of many activists of the New Left, it would be wrong to characterize Hoffer's thinking as "conservative". Similarly, though his writings were often likened to the centrist political philosophies of mid 20th century liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., his thinking was not "liberal," either. Rather, his structural approach to analyzing and understanding mass movements and their ideologies often led Hoffer to consistently nonideological positions. 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. He has since become known as the "longshoreman philosopher."
The mass movements discussed in The True Believer include religious mass movements as well as political, including extensive discussions of Islam and Christianity. They also include seemingly benign mass movements which are neither political nor religious. A core principle in the book is Hoffer's insight that mass movements are interchangeable; he notes fanatical Nazis later becoming fanatical Communists, fanatical Communists later becoming fanatical anti-Communists, and Saul, persecutor of Christians, becoming Paul, a fanatical Christian himself. For the true believer the substance of the mass movement isn't so important as that he or she is part of that movement. Hoffer furthermore suggests that it is possible to head off the rise of an undesirable mass movement by substituting a benign mass movement, which will give those prone to joining movements an outlet for their insecurities.
Hoffer's work was original, staking out new ground largely ignored by dominant academic trends of his time. In particular, Hoffer's work was completely non-Freudian, at a time when almost all American psychology was confined to the Freudian paradigm. Many argue Hoffer's lack of a formal University education contributed to his independent thought, with his book remaining an insightful classic today. 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.
Coaching Myself beyond Self-Doubt: The Significance of the Subconscious Mind in the Sociological Imagination
Oct 01, 2005; Abstract: Although it appears that I have been blessed with a successful life and enjoy many of the benefits our society values,...