The Essential Book for Times of Madness
Robert, Loved this piece. I think it is one of your best. I had never heard of Hoffer, I am ashamed to say. I have already ordered his book and I posted your piece on my FB page. Best, Rick
> “What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: it must be ‘contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure.’”
Wow, that's a surprisingly cynical take from the guy who created Pascal's Wager!
Keep 'em coming Robert. Here's a new category: the one substack you would take with you to a desert island. Yours is it, with several close seconds.
I read Hoffer's "True Believers" a couple of years ago. He also reminds me of another writer, more popular with the common folks: Louis L'Amour (1908-1988). While L'Amour's family background is known (his parents were of French-Canadian and Irish ancestry) and he was born in North Dakota, his early years included a lot of hard work in various fields--farm work, ranch labor, mining, boxing, and later as a merchant seaman--he was always a reader. He left school at 15; but his autobiography, "Education of a Wandering Man," details how much classic literature he read before he became a writer himself. While he is best known for his Western novels, he started out writing crime stories and foreign adventure stories. He eventually settled into Westerns because they sold better. And even in his Westerns, he often stressed reading and the importance of educating oneself.
Let me beat the crowd in saying, "OK, Boomer." I suspect this marvelous essay will hit tightly closed eyes and ears, but it's compelling.
The question this leads to is -- what changed? Are there more intellectuals now, or a different kind, or a new weakness in younger minds? I would guess the second; intellectualism, as you said, is rigid and intolerant of dissent these days. I was a stereotypical liberal freshman back in the seventies, and one of the best-remembered epiphanies came in a sophomore Western Civilization class. (I wonder if they still have those.) The professor (Hi, Dr Trainor) was a Lincolnesque fellow with weathered features, aquiline nose, and wild gray-streaked long hair. He was a great lecturer and tried to teach how to think about history, not what to think. Anyway, toward the end of the course he was talking about modern trends (e.g. unification of Europe) and a student asked him what he thought about the state of the world. His eyebrows shot up and he said "Me? I think we're all going to hell in a handbasket." I never thought a respected professor would sound a lot like my working-class old man.
This requires a lot more mental digestion. Thanks.
Hoffer wrote that mass movements pass through three stages. First, a disgruntled intellectual like Rachel Carson, Martin Luther, or Ralph Nader attacks the existing order. If there are enough bored, frustrated people looking for a cause and a little excitement to liven up their ennui, the people Graboyes is referring to take up the cause. Hoffer called them the "fanatics." Finally, if there is enough public sentiment for the cause, practical men of action turn the movement into a power structure like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Protestant Church, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or the racial grievance industry. Yet, some mass movements never make the transition to the third stage however fanatical their fanatics. Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street. The feminists' biggest project, the Equal Rights Amendment, failed ratification. The nuclear freeze movement melted. Therefore my question, Professor, is whether the parlor pinks cheering on the Hamas terrorists will ever create any permanent power structure. Or, will they fade away like the Industrial Workers of the World, the Black Panthers, the Communist Party of the USA and the Women's Christian Temperance Union?
This is the single most fascinating piece I’ve read on Substack. Prior to reading it, I was completely ignorant of Eric Hoffer and his work. It is no exaggeration to say that reading this has enriched my intellectual life, with the promise of more enrichment to come after I read THE TRUE BELIEVER. When I hit the blue “send” arrow, I will become a paid subscriber. Thank you, Professor Graboyes.
Equally interesting as Hoffer’s book is The Captive Mind by Polish author Czeslaw Milosz, also published in 1951. He makes many of the same points and can add his personal experience from his life under the Soviets.
I was preparing for travel when you posted this, and I'm overdue for posting a comment of praise for this brilliant and timely piece. I read The True Believer long ago, and had remembered only some basic outlines. I'm thankful for your refreshing my memory ... yet chagrined that your essay is so timely. It's worse than that: there are people believing, in effect, that 2+2=5, going full cognitive dissonance on Hamas war crimes. As a feminist, I'm furious at the lack of condemnation by my supposed community and movement of the use of rape as a tactic of war. Crickets chirping. Eric Hoffer, call your office.
Brilliant one, Bob.