Sunday, May 07, 2006

Book Review: The True Believer

On the recommendation of the Prodigal Son, a frequent commenter on the Shark's blog, I picked up The True Believer, written in 1951 by Eric Hoffer.

In this 168-page easy read, Hoffer explores the essential characteristics of mass movements and the "true believers" who make them possible. While the analysis is shallow and simplistic at times and the anti-Christian, anti-Muslim bias of the author distracting, Hoffer makes certain observations about fanatics that are nevertheless worth a read.

Fanaticism, according to Hoffer, derives from the frustration and sense of personal failure individuals experience during periods of rapid social change; it is the refuge of those for whom the present is irremediably spoiled, relying on a mythic future for hope. From this truism springs several axioms that find great relevance here in America and elsewhere.

The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.

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.

The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources -- out of his rejected self -- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. He easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life.

Faith, enthusiasm, and passionate intensity in general are substitutes for the self-confidence born of experience and the possession of skill. The substitute for self-confidence is faith; the substitute for self-esteem is pride; and the substitute for individual balance is fusion with others in a compact group. In the chemistry of the soul, a substitute is almost always explosive if for no other reason than that we can never have enough of it. We can never have enough of that which we really do not want. What we want is justified self-confidence and self-esteem. We can be satisfied with moderate confidence in ourselves and with a moderately good opinion of ourselves, but the faith we have in a holy cause has to be extravagant and uncompromising, and the pride we derive form an identification with a nation, race, leader, or party [religion] is extreme and overbearing.

It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal - a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. 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.

[I]n order to be effective, a doctrine must not be understood, but has rather to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. The effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.

Whence comes the impulse to proselytize? The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have. It is a search for a final and irrefutable demonstration that our absolute truth is indeed the one and only truth. The proselytizing fanatic strengthens his own faith by converting others. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse. It is doubtful whether a movement which does not profess some preposterous and patently irrational dogma can be possessed of that zealous drive which "must either win men or destroy the world." It is also plausible that those movements with the greatest inner contradiction between profession and practice - that is to say with a strong feeling of guilt - are likely to be the most fervent in imposing their faith on others.

Hoffer opines that, among leaders of mass movements, a "failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs." If only for Bush's sake, that were true.


At 9:16 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Reign of Reason said...

I’ll have to put this on my list…

I think the excerpts you’ve provided sum up a lot of my feelings on the subject: personal inadequacy – whether perceived or actual – is the foundation for belief in something greater than oneself. It addresses a need the individual can’t seem to fill on his own.

Taken to the extreme, as does our dear leader, it is a dangerous trait indeed.

At 9:37 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Odysseus said...

"The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure."

That sounds like many people I know, and incidentally, that is the aim of corporate media.

They spend billions of dollars and Euros to make you feel so inadequate and insecure that you need to buy things you never thought of before, and it has been proven to work. You need the right kind of clothes, the right kind of car, a 'good' normal job, and an unhealthy dose of cynicism. You can see it happening on the road to work every day if you drive to work. One person per car, isolated, listening to intensive programming on the radio, convinced they're doing the right thing.

'Communities' are designed to isolate. Our vast majority of public areas are parking lots, and there no one talks to strangers for fear of robbery or whatever. And it's no accident, places are designed this way.

Divide and conquer. It works. Crappy leaders are democratically elected.

At 10:35 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Possum said...

I find more truth in odysseus' odd comment than in what Hoffer has written: we seek to fill emptiness in our lives with stuff and companies are out to make money filling the gap.

Whereas Hoffer seems to think that faith is a bogus crutch to fill that same gap.

I'll use a personal description to demonstrate how far off the mark Hoffer is:
1)I don't prostelthyze to make myself feel better. When I do write anything vaugely in that category I typically come off feeling inadequate to the cause rather than bolstered by my effort.

2)There is nothing wrong with my present except too many bills. I have a beautiful family and a wonderful home. I am not lacking for friends or happiness.

3)The people who don't like me are typically put off by my self-secure attitude and carriage, which I do not intentionally project but I know it comes out that way sometimes.

4) IF I do engage someone in a faith-in-Jesus context it is to share my hope that is a filling and positive experience.

Now it's my turn:
Hoffer and those who would engage his writings show a kind of bitterness towards those who proclaim a faith. They belittle someone else's hope as foolish and self-motivated without invitation. Their Freudian analysis of replacing self-esteem with faith seems to be based in their own lacking of the same hope.

In short, they would rather crush hope as another's crutch rather than look at their own relationship to God.

The root of this excerpt is this: Because Hoffer doesn't believe in God no smart or self assured person should. Therein lies the foundation of his philosophy, and that is the flaw.

At 10:44 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Thou dost protest much Possum. He was talking about fanatics, not your plain old rank and file religious person. Does the shoe fit?

At 11:24 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...

That quote was bullshit and only applies to SOME people, even SOME fanatics. I think he makes some very broad generalizations. Some people truly believe in the rightness of what they are doing. For example, just because someone is willing to die for their cause doesn't make them a "fanatic."

Gandhi led mass movements that led the Brits to call him a fanatic, did these qualities describe him? Was Gandhi's faith the result of a "lack of self-confidence"??

I really like what Possum wrote, especially point #3. There are lot of people out there that despise religion, most particularly the religion of others. They seek to have everyone join them in the pit of hopelessness. I refuse.

At 11:52 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Possum said...

If I am reading a blog that is demonstrably liberal where I have been labeled a "Fundie" am I wrong to assume the direction of the statement?

Keep in mind, no harm no foul, it's a clean debate.

Next point: If I am willing to die for my beliefs does that make me a fanatic? YES-I am willing to die for them.

I am a True Beleiver in Jesus. Apparently True Believers in other religions have self confidence issues and questionable thinking. If the argument is that I don't fit the "crazy fanatic" mold than perhaps it is because the belief I hold is the real and true loving God?

At 11:55 AM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...


Hoffer really wasn't focused on religion. Much of the discussion was focused on Naziism and Communism, so it is amusing to me that you and Possum automatically assume he is dissing religious folk.

You and Possum crack me up. If you look up reviews of this book on the internet, it's a bunch of people thrilled to finally understand the nature of our "enemies", to understand what drives Bin Laden and what motivated the 9/11 crazies, etc. and you two are bent out of shape because you assume it's an insult of religion in general. Right wing nuts out there love this book because they don't think it applies to them! Funny how one's own biases color their reading of quotes. Thou dost protest much.

Mass movements, of course, include religious movements like the reformation. But Hoffer didn't single out religion for the insult (although it's obvious he has a disdain for Islam and a more subtle dislike of Christianity).

Funny you mention Gandhi because Hoffer specifically addresses him in a very positive light. The fact that the Brits called Gandhi a fanatic didn't make him one by Hoffer's criteria. Read the book before you get your feathers all ruffled.

You are right that the fact that someone is willing to die doesn't make one a fanatic. There are many elements that get someone to that point.

At 12:08 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...


Have I ever labeled you a fundie?

What does it mean that you are willing to die for your beliefs? Under what specific circumstances would you be willing to leave your child fatherless? You believe in Jesus. Ok. Well, since he's dead, you don't need to fight his physical battle. If you truly believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, what is there to fight about? What is there to die for?

To make other people believe the same thing?

Oh, and how is my blog demonstrably "liberal"? That's laughable.

At 12:33 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...


Your post was a little confusing. I thought he was critizing anyone with strong beliefs.

At 12:48 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

No, it's not generic about people with strong beliefs. He's discussing people who are "true believers", i.e. fanatics, in mass movements. Although the discussion can be considered negative, there are certain fundamentals of mass movements that don't lend themselves to character judgments.

For example, Hoffer argues that the people who become fanatics are those who have lost all hope in the present. That is neither good nor bad, but probably true. I am sure that is what spawned the civil rights movement. Because the present is a place of misery, they place their hope in the future, which ultimately becomes defined by the holy cause. The French Revolution is an example Hoffer cites. Naziism is another great example. The former is "good", while the latter was "bad". They were both mass movements nonetheless.

He also makes the point that all mass movements are interchangeable, i.e. that the fundamental characteristics of the fanatics are the same regardless of whether the movement is seemingly benign or not.

About Gandhi (and probably MLK - written before his time), however, the leaders are different from the followers and have their own set of characteristics. It is the responsibility of the leaders to channel that fanatacism into something sustainable and that is where the difference in movements lies.

You, of all people, would enjoy the book. Like I said in the post, it is shallow and simplistic in places, but some of the observations are interesting. Especially as we see American society polarizing.

At 2:05 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...


I'm damn near totally lost. It's hopeless. I really don't get his point. :-)

At 2:09 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Read the book. :-)

At 2:57 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Reign of Reason said...

“They seek to have everyone join them in the pit of hopelessness.”

Why are atheists “hopeless” … I have a lot of “hope” – which I consider somewhat realistic since I base it on an analysis of human behavior, not the (unlikely) intervention of some super-natural being.

I am not opposed to “belief”, “faith” or religion … only to its use in the analysis and resolution of problems: particularly social ones. “Faith” in the rightness of your cause can be determined by critical thinking: not by comparing your actions or thoughts to those prescribed by some tribesmen running around the middle-east 2000+ years ago.

Religious faith is a crutch: if you need it great – just don’t weld it out as a public policy tool. It’s based on groundless superstition and those who subscribe to it are, in my opinion, weak minded and bound to lead in the wrong direction (as most-every religious leader has and continues to do).

At 6:03 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

II, are you a closet fundie? :)

At 7:40 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Chris said...

II's a fundie? Oh man - and I've been reading this. I'm gonna have to go wash my eyes out with soap... :-)

Any kind of extreme is dangerous (to toss out another blanket statement). We need historical context, however, to define what's extreme. That boob that stuck himself in a goldfish bowl in the middle of New York for a week - that's extreme. Extremely what I don't know, exactly...

At 10:48 PM, May 08, 2006 , Blogger Stalin the Shark said...

I'm just sitting here chuckling that Possum (and to a lesser extent BOB) see the need to defend themselves against what to is clearly written with 20th century totalitarianism in mind.

There are degrees to everything. There are literally billions of peaceful christians, muslims, jews, hindus, whatever, living in the world today, people who live the kind of full lives that Hoffer describes. Then there are the barking fanatics like bin Laden, Pat Robertson and whoever runs the hindu party in India (sidebar: for the first time in history, we are seeing fanatical hindus - never happened before). A new kind of religious extremism is this century's flavor of totalitarianism, in every continent and every culture. But that doesn't mean that every religious person is a part of that, quite the contrary.

It's also noteworthy that American "conservatism", which Possum presumably seeks to defend, isn't really conservative. It's a cohesive ideology aiming to create a mythical utopia only loosely based on an idealized past. The eschatology is christian in flavor, but not in substance. In short, it's Communism with different texts. If you want to understand the neocons, read Trotsky. And just like Communism, Nazism, or Qaedaism, the utopia Possum longs for is likely to be a screaming nightmare for all of us.

:-), StS

At 9:09 AM, May 09, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

Hey Stalin. I pride myself on my vocabulary, but I had to open the dictionary on that post.

My take on this whole thing ties a lot to lack of personal accountability. The manipulators of public opinion, basically take the stance of blaming somebody else for our lot is life.

The lack of accountability today is staggering.

A good public stoning would do wonders today. These CEO criminals fleecing todays stockholders are great candidates for this treatment.

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