I’m back. Originally posted February 17, 2004.
Self-education has its benefits; it’s generated by true desire for knowledge, unclouded by the bureaucracy of formal education, uses straight-forward language as its vehicle. Formal education has some good points as well: that degree looks good on your wall. (Calm down, all you PhDs, JDs, MDs, etc.; just yanking your chain. You know that it’s envy. Really.)
As it happens, I found out about one of the best products of self-education, Eric Hoffer, from one of the best that formal education has to offer, Thomas Sowell.
While reading The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (Perennial Classics), I was struck by several of Hoffer’s observations. The narrative lays out all the ingredients necessary for the success of Mass Movements: the people, the pre-conditions, the attitudes and the actions/reactions. He makes no moral judgments on the phenomenon, but merely lists the pre-cursors for the main event —like listing the ingredients for a main course. Would that I could do better than Mr. Hoffer in explaining the mass movement phenomenon, but I can’t. So here are a few of the statements that had meaning for me.
“A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement [like many practical organizations], but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.”
The newly poor: “This class has a vivid memory of affluence and dominion and is not likely to reconcile itself to straitened conditions and political impotence.”
The bored: “Where people live autonomous lives and are not badly off, yet are without abilities or opportunities for creative work or useful action, there is no telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts they might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.”
The inordinately selfish: “The more selfish a person, the more poignant his disappointments. It is the inordinately selfish, therefore, who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness.”
Self-sacrifice [leading to] united action are the primary engines of a mass movement and must be inculcated into its proponents, says Mr. Hoffer. Sounds like basic training, yes, fellow military persons? (A distinction is drawn, however, between armies and mass movements: one promises “salvation;” the other is mainly used to “preserve or expand an established order.”)
“To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must stripped of his individual identity and distinctness.” “The fully assimilated individual does not see himself and others as human beings.” Some of Star Trek’s writers must have been reading Hoffer before creating the Borg.
“People who live full, worthwhile lives are not usually ready to die for their own interests nor for their country nor for a holy cause.” Here, Mr. Hoffer is right, but incompletely so. Such people are often ready to die rather that live in a world in which others are ready to take their full, worthwhile lives and turn them into that of a slave.
On hatred, the great unifying agent:
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.”
“Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”
“Often, when we are wronged by one person, we turn our hatred on a wholly unrelated person or group.” Great and Lesser Satans everywhere, now you know what the jihad thing is about.
The book is fascinating. (Read about leadership as a unifying agent in mass movements. It’s not what you might expect.) Uncluttered by high-sounding concepts using high-sounding words, the anatomy and function of mass movements are made plain. You know the people that Mr. Hoffer observed; at least you do if you’ve been paying attention. You might have caught yourself exhibiting these characteristics a time or two—for good or ill.
Check this one out. And the next summer [sic], when the naked protesters upstate start uglying up the countryside and you ask yourself “why,” Mr. Hoffer will have provided you will some plausible answers.
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