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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Wisdom of Eric Hoffer, Part II

Hoffer was more than a little skeptical of power and the lust for it. I think I see it the same way he did.

The first of this two-part article summarized philosopher Eric Hoffer’s unusual background and excerpted from his most popular work, The True Believer. He himself regarded The Ordeal of Change to be his best book. He wrote eight others, all chockful of insights and simultaneously accessible to a lay audience. Agree with him or not, Eric Hoffer was a non-stop thought provoker (and for me, an endless source of quotable quotes for Facebook posts over the years).

He caught the attention of the powerful and the influential. President Eisenhower distributed copies of The True Believer to friends. Indeed, Hoffer was known as “Ike’s Favorite Author.” Eric Sevareid of NBC News brought Hoffer into the homes of millions of Americans with a 1967 television interview. President Reagan bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him shortly before the longshoreman philosopher’s death in 1983.

Readers of Part I might wonder where Hoffer would place himself on the political spectrum. I myself am not sure, but as a libertarian interested in the intersection of liberty and personal character, I find little in Hoffer with which I disagree. He defended the individual against collectivism in any form. He despised the Nazi and Communist regimes of his day. His analysis of the anti-individualist fanaticism in statist-oriented mass movements strikes me as dead-on accurate, and applicable today to such phenomena as Antifa and Islamic fundamentalism. He celebrated wealth-creators and abjured the pomposity of state-worshiping intellectuals. He nailed power and power-seekers for the toxic influences they are.

Having quoted extensively from The True Believer in Part I, let’s take a look now at some Hoffer aphorisms from his other books as well as from his interview with Sevareid. We’ll focus on his observations about power, followed by his thoughts on freedom:

It’s disconcerting to realize that businessmen, generals, soldiers, men of action are less corrupted by power than intellectuals…You take a conventional man of action, and he’s satisfied if you obey. But not the intellectual. He doesn’t want you just to obey. He wants you to get down on your knees and praise the one who makes you love what you hate and hate what you love. In other words, whenever the intellectuals are in power, there’s soul-raping going on.

Those in possession of absolute power can not only prophesy and make their prophecies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true.

Some of the worst tyrannies of our day genuinely are “vowed” to the service of mankind, yet can function only by pitting neighbor against neighbor. The all-seeing eye of a totalitarian regime is usually the watchful eye of the next-door neighbor.

The intellectual craves a social order in which uncommon people perform uncommon tasks every day. He wants a society throbbing with dedication, reverence, and worship. He sees it as scandalous that the discoveries of science and the feats of heroes should have as their denouement the comfort and affluence of common folk.

The corruption inherent in absolute power derives from the fact that such power is never free from the tendency to turn man into a thing, and press him back into the matrix of nature from which he has risen. For the impulse of power is to turn every variable into a constant, and give to commands the inexorableness and relentlessness of laws of nature. Hence absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep. The taint inherent in absolute power is not its inhumanity but its anti-humanity.

The significant point is that people unfit for freedom—who cannot do much with it—are hungry for power. The desire for freedom is an attribute of a “have” type of self. It says: leave me alone and I shall grow, learn, and realize my capacities. The desire for power is basically an attribute of a “have-not” type of self. If Hitler had had the talents and the temperament of a genuine artist, if Stalin had had the capacity to become a first-rate theoretician, if Napoleon had had the makings of a great poet or philosopher they would hardly have developed the all-consuming lust for absolute power.

The best education will not immunize a person against corruption by power. The best education does not automatically make people compassionate. We know this more clearly than any preceding generation. Our time has seen the best-educated society, situated in the heart of the most civilized part of the world, give birth to the most murderously vengeful government in history. Forty years ago the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead thought it self-evident that you would get a good government if you took power out of the hands of the acquisitive and gave it to the learned and the cultivated. At present, a child in kindergarten knows better than that.

No matter how noble the objectives of a government, if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and suspicion—it is an evil government.

Hoffer was more than a little skeptical of power and the lust for it. I think I see it the same way he did. As I wrote in an article about the role of power lust in the decline of ancient Rome, it is “the most corrosive influence in the affairs of humankind. It’s a mental poison that twists and warps even the best of men and women if they allow it to take root in their souls.” It’s an unhealthy desire to exercise control over others and “simply the pursuit of it, whether one ultimately attains it or not, is itself an intoxicant.”

One who repudiates the lust for power should be a defender of human freedom. On that score, Hoffer doesn’t disappoint:

A fateful process is set in motion when the individual is released to the freedom of his own impotence and left to justify his existence by his own efforts. The autonomous individual, striving to realize himself and prove his worth, has created all that is great in literature, art, music, science and technology. The autonomous individual, also, when he can neither realize himself nor justify his existence by his own efforts, is a breeding call of frustration, and the seed of the convulsions which shake our world to its foundations.

The real “haves” are they who can acquire freedom, self-confidence, and even riches without depriving others of them. They acquire all of these by developing and applying their potentialities. On the other hand, the real “have nots” are they who cannot have aught except by depriving others of it. They can feel free only by diminishing the freedom of others, self-confident by spreading fear and dependence among others, and rich by making others poor.

Freedom gives us a chance to realize our human and individual uniqueness. Absolute power can also bestow uniqueness: to have absolute power is to have the power to reduce all the people around us to puppets, robots, toys, or animals, and be the only man in sight. Absolute power achieves uniqueness by dehumanizing others. To sum up: Those who lack the capacity to achieve much in an atmosphere of freedom will clamor for power.

The history of this country was made largely by people who wanted to be left alone. Those who could not thrive when left to themselves never felt at ease in America.

The monstrous evils of the twentieth century have shown us that the greediest money grubbers are gentle doves compared with money-hating wolves like Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, who in less than three decades killed or maimed nearly a hundred million men, women, and children and brought untold suffering to a large portion of mankind.

“If anybody asks me what I have accomplished,” Eric Hoffer once said, I will say all I have accomplished is that I have written a few good sentences.” Obviously, he could be a master of understatement when he wanted to be.

Eric Hoffer bequeathed future generations a wealth of sagacity and discernment. Almost entirely self-taught, he was the consummate home schooler, a keen observer who carved himself from the rock of commonality but never lost the common touch. Perhaps that makes it especially fitting to close with something he wrote about education in his 1973 book, Reflections on the Human Condition:

The central task of education is to implant a will and a facility for learning; it should produce not learned but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together. In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Recommended Readings

Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Tom Bethell

American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer by Tom Shachtman

Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey by Calvin Tomkins

For more books by Hoffer, click here.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is