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From the Waterfront

The working wisdom of Eric Hoffer.

Jun 28, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 39 • By ALEC MOUHIBIAN
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Illiteracy has never been wordier. Life has never been wordier. Experts say more language is consumed now than ever before. Not read. Not written. Consumed—like burgers and gasoline. 

From the Waterfront

Eric Hoffer, Lyndon Johnson, 1967

Photo Credit: Corbis

“He ran largely on language,” declared the New Yorker, in its wrap of Election 2008. “Last Tuesday night was a very good night for the English language.” So it makes perfect sense that the most prescient prophet of this victory of words turns out to be a man who used fewer than perhaps any other significant American writer. “Words have always been to me accidental, unnatural,” Eric Hoffer reflected, shortly before his death in 1983. “I have spent my life trying to master words, but they never became part of me.” As they become a larger part of us by the moment, anyone seeking to retain autonomy can find a real hope in the long-lost wisdom of the longshoreman philosopher. 

When he is remembered at all, Eric Hoffer is most famous for The True Believer (1951), his original study of fanaticism and mass movements that exposed, in a chain of insights spanning 192 pages, the internal carpentry of the much-cited road to hell. Tracing the “alchemy of conviction” by which words can transform guilt into hate, self-contempt into pride, and frustration into wild hope, it speaks as clearly on Internet hysteria and jihadism as on the Nazi and Soviet regimes that inspired it. Reading it is no less jolting today than when it came out six decades ago. Where many saw strange, foreign horrors, Hoffer saw himself, and he was that rare writer who could write about himself and about you at the same time. 

Which is why he has never seemed more alive. At a Senate hearing Charles Schumer of New York acts like Nelson Muntz, and Hoffer explains: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” George Clooney apologizes for something, and Hoffer reminds us that “humility is not renunciation of pride but the substitution of one pride for another.” Markets collapse across the world and Hoffer delivers once again: “It is only when the rich no longer feel rich that you find them wallowing in guilt.” Michelle Obama declares, in her “broken soul” speech, “We believe our pain is our own. We don’t realize the struggles and challenges of all of us are the same.” And Hoffer shoots back, from 1973: “The troublemakers are they who need public cures for their private ails.”

In ten slim books, including The Passionate State of Mind and Reflections on the Human Condition, two masterpieces of the aphorism that means more than it says, one can find a pitch-perfect caption for nearly every event in our world. In a way, Hoffer was no closer to his world than he is to ours. Blind from the age of 7 to 15, and completely alone by 18, he spent the opening two decades of his adulthood on skid row and as a migratory worker before settling down on the San Francisco waterfront at the outbreak of World War II. He had never spent a day in school. The man who would eventually be quoted by Ike, courted by LBJ, and awarded a Medal of Freedom came almost literally from nowhere. 

The broken upbringing, destitute and anonymous, had its clear advantages. For one, it obviated the vanities that usually fuel a desire to write. Though he had read nonstop since recovering his eyesight, Hoffer didn’t jot a word until his thirties, and by then he was too fascinated by what Montaigne termed the difference between us and ourselves to care about justifying any particular version of his own. This was the difference that made some virtues so ugly, some vices so redeeming, so many trivial motives so important. Its central paradox was the passionate intensity of human weakness—the source of all creative and destructive change—and Hoffer’s path as a thinker began with his particular epiphany that St. Paul was a wiser sociologist than Charles Darwin.

That epiphany was another gift from the migratory trail. Chasing the California harvest from garden to grove to desert in the 1930s, Hoffer learned that his fellow transients were the same wayward, alcoholic misfits who had civilized the Wild West a few generations before. There seemed to be a fine line between the fanatic and the misfit and the pioneer, and it became Hoffer’s mission to explore that line, conducting most of his archival research in a mirror. 

His introspective sociology identified two basic kinds of change. There was change by growth, proceeding “quietly, and in degrees scarcely to be perceived.” And change by substitution, born of our need to compensate for our natural deficiencies. A substitute could spur growth if it healed the gap between what we are and what we long to be, but it could also replace one nasty trait for a close relative (envy for greed) or a mere camouflage (charity for selfishness)—doing so with a righteous glue that freezes any chance of growth.

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