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.
“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.
One popular agent of change straddled this line more deceptively than any other: “To attach people to words,” Hoffer noticed, “is to detach them most effectively from life and possessions.” While he examined this detachment at its most extreme in The True Believer, Hoffer knew that a complete surrender to verbal voodoo wasn’t possible in his homeland. “The American is much better than his words,” he wrote in one of his private notepads, archived at the Hoover Institution. “Their acts are more sensitive and original than their professed opinions.”
But then everything changed: The Russians launched a toy into space, and we reacted by going to school. Long before anyone else Hoffer saw what the resulting cult of college meant for the American character. “After October 1957,” he mourned, “many young people who would normally have gone into business ended up climbing academic ladders and throwing their weight around literary and artistic cliques. It was these misplaced tycoons who set the tone and shaped events in the 1960s.” As ecophiles, they easily confused Mother Nature with human nature; as victim-mongers, they cultivated permanent alibis for the hard work of achievement; as youth-worshippers, they rejected the most fundamental source of change in their fear of growing up. By identifying the profound inertness of these academically transmitted movements, Eric Hoffer exposed their secret aversion to the kind of true, quietly dynamic progress of a free society.
Though Hoffer’s commentary on such matters earned him much controversial fame, what matters most is his literary legacy. Like most good sociologists, Hoffer wasn’t really a sociologist, or even a philosopher. He was a grateful cynic—an agnostic who thanks God for original sin—who thought the well of human mystery too deep for systemic drainage. Faces, moodswings, and Ernest Renan’s History of the People of Israel were equally fruitful to his mind, and in reading through his body of work, private and public, you follow a train of thought uniquely prone to encounter truths it didn’t seek.
Here a brooding, morbid series of reflections ends up in praise of lighthearted frivolity. There a bonfire of pretensions finishes with an ode to gesture and exaggeration. Even an offhand, unpublished remark—“It’s only when the oyster keeps its mouth shut that a grain of sand within may become a pearl”—feels like it was written just yesterday. The witty, assertive tone of the aphorisms only underscores their role as original questions, as deadly to the potential laziness and self-deception of their own author as to yours or mine.
“I have Hitler in me, I have Stalin in me,” Hoffer explained in a television interview in 1967. Viewers could see his point. The presence on screen—with his huge, mangled hands, epic face, and bellowing pan-accented voice, violent one syllable and wounded the next—was what journalists would call charisma. The audience hung on every word. And once he noticed the warm, instant rapport he could form with total strangers from a lectern, Eric Hoffer did what any decent person would, and stopped talking in public for years.
Alec Mouhibian is a writer in Los Angeles.