The True Believer by Eric Hoffer is a modern philosophy classic, originally published in 1951. The book cover to the left, which I found on Pinterest (no you’re not going to find me with a bound up stack of actual paper), is from the 1963 edition. It’s a lot cooler looking than the present day cover.
The book, which was considered a classic very soon after being published, was written during the decade after WWII ended. The concepts of mass coercion, extermination and ideological war were fresh in the minds of Westerners. The West was afraid of communism, of fascism, of totalitarian rule and the destruction of personal liberties. And to satiate those fears, to direct them, or to inspire them, Hoffer wr0te his philosophical, though “not authoritative”, treatise on the underpinnings of mass movements, as well as their architecture through fulfillment.
Hoffer starts with the assumption that “the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord…”; It is dissatisfaction with the present that initiates the early stages of a mass movement–whether that is frustration from liberty, or lack thereof. They are the poor, the misfits, the inordinately selfish, the ambitious with unlimited opportunity, the minorities, the bored and the “sinners”–all likely converts to a mass movement.
As all mass movements must progress, in Hoffer’s philosophy, they progress through the hands of men of different types. Men of Words, who discuss and stir discontent. Fanatics, who take their stirred emotional state to wild extremes–to brazen sacrifice of self and the things and people they love. And finally men of action, who take the wobbling imprecision of a mass movement and systemize, stabilize and institute.
Institution marks the end of a mass movement, as Hoffer explains. The “active phase” of a mass movement, that is. Jesus was a man of words, the apostles fanatics, and the pope a man of action. Where Jesus stirred the mind, the apostles died for his ideas, and the pope makes an institution out of it.
Faith and holy cause, instead of being the supreme purpose, become mere lubricants for the machine of action. The true believer who succeeds in all he does gains self-confidence and becomes reconciled with his self and the present. He no longer sees his only salvation in losing himself in the oneness of a corporate body and in becoming an anonymous particle with no will, judgment and responsibility of his own.
Hoffer explicitly states that his work is not authoritative, but a reader who immediately rejects what he’s saying outright is perhaps “fanatically” devoted to a competing set of ideas. Probably a set of ideas that is in competition with virtually all other ideas, as would often appear to be the case with the fanatics of mass movements. What I’m really saying is, Hoffer’s book became a classic so fast, because it’s just chock full of interesting questions about the nature of being a human, being a part of the collective human body.
It’s also chock full of ideas about what it means to be an individual. Could Hoffer’s ideas about the man of words, the fanatic and the man of action be applied in some way, to our personal understanding of self? I feel in some way that I have represented each of those figureheads to myself at some point or another. Can someone become a ‘true believer’ in their own personal cult of personality?
Maybe. And that’s why The True Believer was an outstanding read.