The True Believer by Eric Hoffer; book review

I recently read for the third time a book I was introduced to in PoliSci 101 as an extra credit assignment.  In the past, to me The True Believer; Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer was an interesting theoretical book about sociology, based on observations of the past.  This time, its voice was contemporary and reverberating.  Every paragraph was an elucidating commentary on the news of the day.

Its comments pertain to the Tea Party movement, the Obama campaign, political shock-jocks (Sean O’Limbeck and Air AmOlbermann), party politics and legislative maneuvering, terrorism, nationalism, torture, religion, power, kindness, leadership, creativity, personal fulfillment, and a thousand other topics that occupy our 21st Century minds, books and airwaves.

His commentary is bare and unapologetic.  He seems to have little patience for those weak-willed enough to be sucked in by a mass movement.  But he also acknowledges that some movements are good, while others are not.  He looks at only the characteristics and tactics, not the morality of the movement.  So he will use an example of the American Revolution alongside the Nazi movement to illustrate the same point.

Hoffer’s writing style is pithy and aphoristic.  Each word is precise; each paragraph is a meal to be digested.  There is no waste.  The author himself went blind at the age of seven but his sight returned at age 15.  “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, and Hoffer never abandoned his habit of voracious reading” (the Wikipedia article on him is quite interesting).  He was a gold prospector, a homeless genius, a door-to-door orange salesman, a migrant worker, and finally a longshoreman until he retired at 65.

Below are some (a LOT) of quotes from the book.  The timelessness of the thought demonstrates the soundness of the mind that produced them.  (One small explanation: a “radical” is a left-wing fanatic, while a “reactionary” is a right-wing fanatic.)

The True Believer will change the way you think about almost everything.  And it’s not for the faint of heart, testimony, or personal conviction, because the book itself could become a holy cause to some.


“[T]hough ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious.”

“Where power is not joined with faith in the future, it is used mainly to ward off the new and preserve the status quo.”

“[A] mass movement, particularly in its active revivalist phase, appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.”

“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.”

“[T]o the frustrated the present is irremediably spoiled.  Comforts and pleasures cannot make it whole.  No real content of comfort can ever arise in their minds but from hope.”

“There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members.”

“The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle.”

“Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach.”

“We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.”

“Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. And as freedom encourages a multiplicity of attempts, it unavoidably multiplies failure and frustration.”

“Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.”

“Where freedom is real, equality is the passion of the masses.  Where equality is real, freedom is the passion of a small minority.”

“The revulsion from an unwanted self, and the impulse to forget it, mask it, slough it off and lose it, produce both a readiness to sacrifice the self and a willingness to dissolve it by losing one’s individual distinctness in a compact collective whole.”

“[Armies’] uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music, and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death.”

“To lose one’s life is but to lose the present; and, clearly, to lose a defiled, worthless present is not to lose much.”

“There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience—the knowledge that our mighty deeds will come to the ears of our contemporaries or ‘of those who are to be.’”

“[T]here is no more potent dwarfing of the present that by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future.  Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past.”

“The conservative doubts that the present can be bettered, and he tries to shape the future in the image of the present.  He goes to the past for reassurance about the present. . . .”

“The reactionary does not believe that man has unfathomed potentialities for good in him.  If a stable and healthy society is to be established, it must be patterned after the proven models of the past.  He sees the future as a glorious restoration rather than an unprecedented innovation.”

“[The reactionary’s] image of the past is based less on what it actually was than on what he wants the future to be.”

“If [the radical] has to employ violence in shaping the new, his view of man’s nature darkens and approaches closer to that of the reactionary.”

“What surprises one, when listening to the frustrated as they decry the present and all its works, is the enormous joy they derive from doing so. Such delight cannot come from the mere venting of a grievance. There must be something more—and there is. By expatiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation.”

“Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible.  It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings.”

“Satan did not digress to tell all he knew when he said: ‘All that a man hath will he give for his life.’  All he hath—yes.  But he sooner dies than yield aught of that which he hath not yet.”

“It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible.”

“We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.”

“By kindling and fanning violent passions in the hearts of their followers, mass movements prevent the settling of an inner balance.”

“The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause.”

“[The fanatic] fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.”

“[The fanatics of various hues] hate each other with the hatred of brothers.  They are as far apart and close together as Saul and Paul.  And it is easier for a fanatic communist to be converted to fascism, chauvinism, or Catholicism than to become a sober liberal.”

“[The fanatic] sees in tolerance a sign of weakness, frivolity and ignorance.”

“Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”

“[L]ike an ideal deity, the ideal devil is omnipotent and omnipresent.”

“To qualify as a devil, a domestic enemy must be given a foreign ancestry.”

“[M]uch of our proselytizing consists perhaps in infecting others not with our brand of faith but with our particular brand of unreasonable hatred.”

“There is a guilty conscience behind every brazen word and act and behind every manifestation of self-righteousness.”

“To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred.  Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him.”

“There is a deep reassurance for the frustrated in witnessing the downfall of the fortunate and the disgrace of the righteous. They see in a general downfall an approach to the brotherhood of all. Chaos, like the grave, is a haven of equality.”

“[W]hen we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom—freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

“Propaganda by itself succeeds mainly with the frustrated. Their throbbing fears, hopes and passions crowd at the portals of their senses and get between them and the outside world. They cannot see but what they have already imagined, and it is the music of their own souls they hear in the impassioned words of the propagandist. Indeed, it is easier for the frustrated to detect their own imaginings and hear the echo of their own musings in impassioned double-talk and sonorous refrains than in precise words joined together with faultless logic.”

“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership.  What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.”

“There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts.”

“When the leader in a free society becomes contemptuous of the people, he sooner or later proceeds on the false and fatal theory that all men are fools, and eventually blunders into defeat.”

Quoting Hermann Rauschning: “Marching diverts men’s thoughts.  Marching kills thought.  Marching makes an end of individuality.”

“Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition within the ranks with the enemy threatening the movement from without.”

“It is [the chosen devil’s] voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges.”

Quoting Montaigne: “Our zeal works wonders when it seconds our propensity to hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, detraction, rebellion.”

“By elevating dogma above reason, the individual’s intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant.”

“Whenever we find a dispensation enduring beyond its span of competence, there is either an entire absence of an educated class or an intimate alliance between those in power and the men of words.”

“When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism.  We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point.”

“[The man of action (leader of a mass movement in its post-fanatical phase)] inclines, therefore, to rely mainly on drill and coercion.  He finds the assertion that all men are cowards less debatable than that all men are fools, and, in the words of Sir John Maynard, inclines to found the new order on the necks of the people rather than in their hearts.”

“[A]t the end of its vigorous span, the movement is an instrument of power for the successful and an opiate for the frustrated.”

“Where unity and self-sacrifice are indispensable for the normal functioning of a society, everyday life is likely to be either religiofied (common tasks turned into holy causes) or militarized.”


[…] It would be like filling a darkened room with a bunch of people and telling them to start swinging at each other to solve their problems. Everyone will get bruised and bloody and nothing would be solved. […]

Kenneth Morgan says:

A “review” full of quotes is NOT a review.

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