“The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer (1951) – Part 4 – Beginning & End

Chapter 15 – Men of Words (104-109)

  • 104 – Mass movements don’t usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited. Discrediting is not automatically the result of blunders & abuse of those in power but the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance. When the articulate are absent, or without a grievance, the prevailing order will continue in power until it falls & crumbles on its own.
    • A full-blown mass movement is a ruthless affair & its management only gives the appearance of spontaneity to a consent obtained by coercion. These fanatics can make in & take charge when the prevailing order has been discredited & has lost the public’s confidence.
    • Undermining institutions & introducing ideas of change can only be done by talkers & writers. If the order works well, the masses are conservative & only look for reform. The fanatical extremist to them seems dangerous, traitorous, impractical or insane. The authorities will be violent toward him.
    • A man of words is only listened to because they know that words don’t have immediate results. Authorities are usually light on him.
    • Classifying men of action & men of words shows that different stages requires different skills & temperaments.
  • 105 – Men of words can be priests, scribes, prophets, writers, artists, professors, students & intellectuals.
    • There’s a deep-seated craving for recognition above the rest. There’s also an insecurity in all intellectuals, whether he’s creative or not. Even the most gifted & prolific live in self-doubt & have to prove themselves. At certain points in their careers, they may be prisoners or courtiers.
    • A man of words will see himself as the champion of the downtrodden & injured. The grievance that animates him is often personal & private. His pity usually comes from his hatred of the powers that be for not recognizing his talents. When he’s recognized, he finds ways to side with the strong against the weak.
  • 106 – When we find a dispensation beyond its span of competence, there’s either no educated class or an intimate alliance between those in power & men of words. When the learned men are all clergymen, the church is unassailable. When they’re bureaucrats or when education gives a man superior status, the prevailing order tends to be free from protest movements.
  • 107 – In the past (French Revolution, Reformation, etc.), the intellectuals discredited those in power from the outside by satirizing or denouncing the clergy in their writings. Modern mass movements are pioneered by poets, writers, historians & scholars. Handfuls of impractical men were at the beginning of all nationalist movements.
  • 108 – Fault-finding men of words shake prevailing beliefs & loyalties, & introduce ideas of change through persistent ridicule & denunciation. It’s not clear how that directly sets the stage for the fanatical faith. It’s strange how militant men of words who show us how authority is illegitimate & devoid of justice but they set the groundwork for blind faith & not for freethinking in individuals.
    • When we debunk fanatical faith or prejudice, we don’t strike at its roots. We merely create disillusioned masses hungering for another faith. Most people can’t stand a barren life without dedication to lose themselves in.
    • The genuine man of words is fine without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as the truth itself. He delights in clash of thought & controversy. His vanity prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery & venom. But his appeal is to reason & not faith. However, the fanatics want the certitude of a holy write & make it a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian & Marx was not a Marxist.
  • 109 – The tragic figures in the history of a mass movement are the intellectual precursors who live long enough to see the downfall of the old order by the action of the masses. There’s an idea that mass movements arise from the resolve of the masses to overthrow an oppressive tyranny & win freedom, all inspired by the words of an intellectual. But they often result in less individual freedom that the order they overthrow & replace.
    • The intellectuals deride the old order’s irrationality & incompetence, denounce its illegitimacy & oppressiveness & call for freedoms. They take it for granted that the mass movement will respond to their words & will crave the same things. But the mass movements don’t want those freedom but rather freedom from an autonomous existence & of free choice. They want a faith to establish uniformity & individual anonymity.

Chapter 16 – The Fanatics (110-112)

  • 110 – When the time is right, only a fanatic can hatch a mass movement. Without him, the disaffection engendered by the writings of the men of words can’t be directed & don’t go anywhere. Without him, the old way of life remains unchanged & any change in government is just a transfer of power from one set of men to another. & without him, there can be no beginning.
    • When the old order begins to fall apart, men of words who longed for that day are depressed. They are scared by the anarchy. They forget all the nice things they said about the poor fold & run for help from the powerful who know how to deal with the chaos.
    • The fanatic embraces the chaos. He glories in the sight of a world coming to an end. Reforms are useless to him. Everything about the old order has to be swept away for a new one to be built up. He shoves away the men of words, even as he continues to extol their doctrines & repeats their slogans. He alone knows what the masses crave. Posterity is king & woe to those who hang on to the present.
  • 111 – Fanatics usually come from the ranks of non-creative men of words. Finding fulfillment in creativity is a dividing line amongst men of words. Creative men of words, even as they deride it, are attached to the present. When mass movements show up for them, they turn them into mild affairs. They initiate superficial reforms that don’t change much. When a victory can only be had through unity & self-sacrifice, the creative men get shoved aside & the mass movement falls into the hands of the non-creative men – eternal misfits & contemners of the present.
    • The man who wants to create a great work or become a great mind, & knows it’ll never happen, will never find peace in a stable social order. His life is irrevocably spoiled & the world seems out of joint. He only feels at home in chaos. Even when he submits to an iron will, it’s only to attain eternal flux & eternal becoming. Only when engaging in change does he have a sense of freedom, growth & development. He fears finality & fixed order.
    • The creative man is ill at ease in an active movement. As long as he’s conscious of the creative flow, he won’t be happy leading millions. When the movement starts, he either moves aside or gets pushed aside.
  • 112 – The danger of a fanatic to a mass movement is that he can’t settle down. When the victory is won & the new order crystallizes, the fanatic becomes an element of strain & disruption. He still needs activity & looks for extremes. After the victory, mass movements see dissension & split into factions. With no more enemies to destroy, members destroy each other. The ensuing schisms threaten the movement & only practical men can save its achievements.

Chapter 17 – The Practical Men of Action (113-116)

  • 113 – A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics & consolidated by men of action. These roles should be played by different men succeeding each other as needed. When the same person or persons lead from inception to maturity, it usually ends in disaster. There’s always a possibility for a man to change his character from a fanatic into a practical man. But usually there’s a reversion to the original type.
  • 114 – The man of action saves the movement from suicidal dissensions & the recklessness of fanatics. His appearance marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement & the war with present is over. Genuine men of action are not intent on renovating the world but possessing it. They dynamic phase was a protest & a desire for change. The final phase wants to administer & perpetuate the power won.
    • With his appearance, the explosive vigor is embalmed & seals in sanctified institutions. Religious movements crystallize in a hierarchy & ritual. Revolutionary movements in organs of vigilance & administration. In nationalist movements, governmental & patriotic institutions.
    • Establishment of a church marks the end of the revivalist spirit. Organs of a successful revolution, liquidate the revolutionary mentality & technique.
    • Members of the institutionalized collective body are expected to act as one man but must also represent a loose aggregation rather than a spontaneous coalescence. They must be unified through unquestioning loyalty to institutions. Spontaneity is suspect & duty is prized above devotion.
  • 115 – The main preoccupation a man of action once his movement has “arrived” is to fix & perpetuate its unity & readiness for self-sacrifice. The ideal is a compact & invincible whole. He can’t rely on enthusiasm because that is ephemeral. Persuasion is unpredictable. He relies on drill & coercion. He then finds that most men are cowards. He’s not a man of faith but of law.
    • He’s still in awe of the achievements of faith & spontaneity of the early days when the mass movement was conjured from the void. Its memory is still vivid. He preserves it with an impressive façade of faith & produces a steady flow of propaganda & relies on force to persuade.
    • He’s eclectic in the methods he uses to endow the new order with stability & permanence. He even draws from the old order for techniques, unintentionally establishing continuity with the past.
  • 116 – In his hands, the mass movement ceases to be a refuge from the agonies & burdens of an individual existence & becomes a means of self-realization for the ambitious. It attracts those looking for careers, showing a drastic change in its character, because of its reconciliation with the present.

Chapter 18 – Good & Bad Mass Movements (117-125)

The Unattractiveness & Sterility of the Active Phase

  • 117 – This book deals mostly with the active phase of mass movements, molded & dominated by the true believer. But no matter how noble this original purpose of the mass movement is, & how beneficial the result is, the active phases seems unpleasant, if not evil. The true believer is unattractive, ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, petty & rude. He’s ready to sacrifice his friends & family for his cause.
    • No mass movement can be good if the active phase is over long & especially if it is continued after it is in power. Mass movements we consider beneficial – the Reformation, the French & American Revolutions, etc. – had relatively short active phases but had the imprint of the fanatic.
    • When a mass movement preserves the active phase, the result is usually a stagnation – a dark age. When there’s a genuine period of creativity associated with a mass movement, it either precedes or follows the active phase, as long as it doesn’t last too long. It serves to inspire the movement before & enshrines it afterwards.
  • 118 – Interference of the mass movement with the creative process is deep & manifold.
    • Its fervor drains the energy needed to create.
    • It subordinates creative work to the advancement of the movement.
    • Where a mass movement opens vast fields of action, there’s an additional drain of energy to keep people away from creative activities.
    • The fanatical state of mind can stifle creative work.
  • 119 – When the active mass movement displays originality, its usually to do with application & scale. The principles, methods, techniques, etc. it uses are a product of creativity from outside the movement.

Some Factors Which Determine the Length of the Active Phase

  • 120 – A mass movement with a concrete & limited objective is likely to have a shorter active phase than one with a nebulous indefinite objective. The vague objective is indispensable for the development of chronic extremism.
    • Whether the mass movement wants to free a nation from tyranny, resist an aggressor or renovate a backward society, there’s a natural point of termination once the struggle with an enemy or reorganization is over. When the objective is an ideal society, the active phases will never end.
  • 121 – In mot instances where there was an attempt to realize an ideal society & it gave birth to ugliness & violence of a prolonged active mass movement, it was an experiment on a vast scale & on a heterogeneous population. The horror of a small nation doing this would necessitate quickly an internal harmony & safeguard against aggression from without – & make the people feel a part of one family. The further the active phase goes on, the more malleable & vulnerable the people are to further atrocities.
  • 122 – The personality of the leader is crucial to the nature & duration of a mass movement. Good leaders try to curb the inherent evil & put an end to the mass movement once the object is more or less realized. A medieval mind & tribal ruthlessness (Stalin) prolongs the dynamism of the mass movement.
  • 123 – The manner in which a mass movement starts can affect the duration & mode of termination. In mass movements that resulted positively, the active phase was short & social order marked an increase in individual liberty, easily seen in their early days. They start out by defying & overthrowing a long-established authority. The more clear-cut the initial act of defiance, the more likely the result will be positive. When it’s not clear-cut, there’s no clear goal & anything (usually bad) can result.

Useful Mass Movements

  • 124 – To the true believer, people who have no holy cause are without backbone & character, pushovers. True believers, even if they hate each other’s causes, respect each other’s strength. All true believers of our times declaim the decadence of Western democracies, as too soft, hedonist, selfish for an holy causes, which is indicative of inner rot. They are no match for the congregations of the faithful about to inherit the earth.
  • 125 – Mass movements often play a role in awakening & renovating stagnant societies. This, in large, heterogeneous societies, depends on the presences of widespread, fervent enthusiasm only a mass movement can generate & maintain. Inability to produce this can be a handicap to a social body. It’s probably best when a government shows signs of chronic incompetence that it should be overthrown by a mass upheaval than for it crumble on its own. Mass uprising is an invigorating, renovating & integrating process. When a government dies on its own, there’s irremediable decay. Since men of words play a large role in the rise of mass movements, the presence of an educated & articulate minority is indispensable to a social body. These men should not be in an intimate alliance with the established authority or else the stagnation & decay will continue.
    • There’s a revolutionary effect in the educational work of Western colonizing powers, influencing men of words to awaken the colonies. Foreign influences usually only create the educated minority as the first link in the process. The last link shakes society out of stagnation – for good if controlled, & for bad if not controlled.

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