Excerpts from The True Believer

The True Believer
Eric Hoffer, 1951
Harper & Row, Publishers
ISBN 0-06-091612-5

The following quotes are from Eric Hoffer's book, and are posted here because of their strong relevance to life in The New American Wing cult. They are grouped together by topic -- these groupings have been created for this web site and are not meant to follow the chapters or themes of the actual book. This is only a taste of what you will find in the complete original text, and you are encouraged to purchase it for yourself.


How it all fits together

It is of interest to note the means by which a mass movement accentuates and perpetuates the individual incompleteness of its adherents. By elevating dogma above reason, the individualís intelligence is prevented from becoming self-reliant. Economic dependence is maintained by centralizing economic power and by a deliberately created scarcity of the necessities of life. Social self-sufficiency is discouraged by crowded housing or communal quarters, and by enforced daily participation in public functions. Ruthless censorship of literature, art, music and science prevents even the creative few from living self-sufficient lives. The inculcated devotions to church, party, country, leader and creed also perpetuate a state of incompleteness. For every devotion is a socket which demands the fitting in of a complementary part from without. Thus people raised in the atmosphere of a mass movement are fashioned into incomplete and dependent human beings even when they have within themselves the making of self-sufficient entities. Though strangers to frustration and without grievance, they will yet exhibit the peculiarities of people who crave to lose themselves and be rid of an existence that is irrevocably spoiled. (p. 128)

The lure of meaning and purpose

[The true believerís] innermost craving is for a new life - a rebirth - or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by identification with a holy cause. An active mass-movement offers them opportunities for both. If they join the movement as full converts they are reborn to a new life in its close-knit collective body, or if attracted as sympathizers they find elements of pride, confidence, and purpose by identifying with the efforts, achievements, and prospects of the movement. (p. 12-13)

It is impressive to observe how with a fading of the individualís creative powers there appears a pronounced inclination toward joining a mass movement. (p. 34)

But the true believer who is wholly assimilated into a compact collective body is no longer frustrated. He has found a new identity and a new life. He is one of the chosen, bolstered and protected by invincible powers, and destined to inherit the earth. His is a state of mind the very opposite of that of the frustrated individual; yet he displays, with increased intensity, all the reactions which are symptomatic of inner tension and insecurity. (p. 126)

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a societyís ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. [...] In their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed. (p. 51-52)

Boredom accounts for the almost invariable presence of spinsters and middle-aged women at the birth of mass movements. [...] By embracing a holy cause and dedicating their energies and substance to its advancement, they find a new life full of purpose and meaning. (p. 52-53)

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It curs the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves - and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole. (p. 41)

Exaggerating the feeling of shame

A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation. (p. 12)

Self-surrender, which is [...] the source of a mass-movementís unity and vigor, is a sacrifice, an act of atonement, and clearly no atonement is called for unless there is a poignant sense of sin. Here, as elsewhere, the technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure. (p. 54)

An effective mass movement cultivates the idea of sin. It depicts the autonomous self not only as barren and helpless but also as vile. To confess and repent is to slough off oneís individual distinctness and separateness, and salvation is found by losing oneself in the holy oneness of the congregation. (p. 54)

... whether or not [religious organizations] develop into mass movements depends less on the doctrine they preach and the program they project than on the degree of their preoccupation with unity and the readiness for self-sacrifice. (p. 59)

Creating a new sense of self

The technique of fostering a readiness to fight and to die consists in separating the individual from his flesh-and-blood self - in not allowing him to be his real self. This can be achieved by the thorough assimilation of the individual into a compact collective body; by endowing him with an imaginary self (make-believe); by implanting in him a deprecating attitude toward the present and riveting his interest on things that are not yet; by interposing a fact-proof screen between him and reality (doctrine); by preventing, through the injection of passions, the establishment of a stable equilibrium between the individual and his self (fanaticism). (p. 61)

To ripen a person for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. He must cease to be George, Hans, Ivan, or Tadao - a human atom with an existence bounded by birth and death. The most drastic way to achieve this end is by the complete assimilation of the individual into a collective body. [...] The effacement of individual separateness must be thorough. In every act, however trivial, the individual must by some ritual associate himself with the congregation, the tribe, the party, etcetera. [...] Above all, he must never feel alone. Though stranded on a desert island, he must still feel that he is under the eyes of the group. To be cast out from the group should be equivalent to being cut off from life. (p. 62-63)

Once the harmony with the self is upset, and a man is impelled to reject, renounce, distrust, or forget his self, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, poised and self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or another. (p. 84)

Homogeneity

Imitation is often a shortcut to a solution. We copy when we lack the inclination, the ability or the time to work out an independent solution. People in a hurry will imitate more readily than people at leisure. Hustling thus tends to produce uniformity. And in the deliberate fusing of individuals into a compact group, incessant action will play a considerable role. (p. 103)

The ready imitativeness of a unified following is both an advantage and a peril to a mass movement. The faithful are easily led and molded, but they are also particularly susceptible to foreign influences. One has the impression that a thoroughly unified group is easily seduced and corrupted. The preaching of all mass movements bristles with admonitions against copying foreign models and "doing after all their abominations." The imitation of outsiders is branded as treason and apostasy. [...] Every device is used to cut off the faithful from intercourse with unbelievers. Some mass movements go to the extreme of leading their following into the wilderness in order to allow an undisturbed settling of the new pattern of life. Contempt for the outside world is of course the most effective defense against disruptive imitation. (p. 103-104)

Action is a unifier. [...] All mass movements avail themselves of action as a means of unification. [...] Even mere marching can serve as a unifier. The Nazis made vast use of this preposterous variant of action. Hermann Rauschning, who at first thought this eternal marching a senseless waste of time and energy, recognized later its subtle effect. "Marching diverts menís thoughts. Marching kills thought. Marching makes an end of individuality." (p. 120-121)

Unification is more a process of diminution than of addition. In order to be assimilated into a collective medium a person has to be deprived of free choice and independent judgment. Many of his natural bents and impulses have to be suppressed or blunted. All these are acts of diminution. (p. 127)

An atmosphere of suspicion

Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves. Thus when the frustrated congregate in a mass movement, the air is heavy-laden with suspicion. There is prying and spying, tense watching and a sense of being watched. The surprising thing is that this pathological mistrust within the ranks leads not to dissension but to strict conformity. Knowing themselves continually watched, the faithful strive to escape suspicion by adhering zealously to prescribed behavior and opinion. Strict orthodoxy is as much the result of mutual suspicion as of ardent faith. (p. 124)

Now and then innocent people are deliberately accused and sacrificed in order to keep suspicion alive. Suspicion is given a sharp edge by associating all opposition within the ranks with the enemy threatening the movement from without. This enemy - the indispensable devil of every mass movement - is omnipresent. (p. 124-125)

"Men of strong convictions and strong passions, when leagued together, watch one another with suspicion, and find their strength in it; for mutual suspicion creates mutual dread, binds them as by an iron band, prevents desertion, and braces them against moments of weakness." (p. 125, quote from Ernest Renan, "Antichrist", p. 381)

Maintaining dependency

It is obvious that a proselytizing mass movement must break down all existing group ties if it is to win a considerable following. The ideal potential convert is the individual who stands alone, who has no collective body he can blend with and lose himself in and so mask the pettiness, meaninglessness and shabbiness of his individual existence. (p. 35)

Almost all our contemporary movements showed in their early stages a hostile attitude toward the family, and did all they could to discredit and disrupt it. They did it by undermining the authority of the parents; by facilitating divorce; by taking over the responsibility for feeding, educating and entertaining the children; and by encouraging illegitimacy. (p. 36)

It is doubtful whether the fanatic who deserts his holy cause or is suddenly left without one can ever adjust himself to an autonomous individual existence. [...] An individual existence, even when purposeful, seems to him trivial, futile and sinful. To live without an ardent dedication is to be adrift and abandoned. (p. 87)

The origin of fanaticism

Whence comes the impulse to proselytize? Intensity of conviction is not the main factor which impels a movement to spread its faith to the four corners of the earth. [...] Nor is the impulse to proselytize an expression of an overabundance of power. [...] 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. [...] 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. (p. 110-111)

The inordinately selfish are particularly susceptible to frustration. 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.
The fiercest fanatics are often selfish people who were forced, by innate shortcomings or external circumstances, to lose faith in their own selves. They separate the excellent instrument of their selfishness from their ineffectual selves and attach it to the service of some holy cause. And though it be a faith of love and humility they adopt, they can neither be loving nor humble. (p. 48)

Fervent patriotism as well as religious and revolutionary enthusiasm often serves as a refuge from a guilty conscience. It is a strange thing that both the injurer and the injured, the sinner and he who is sinned against, should find in the mass movement an escape from a blemished life. Remorse and a sense of grievance seem to drive people in the same direction. (p. 53)

Life in prison

Mass movements are usually accused of doping their followers with hope of the future while cheating them of the enjoyment of the present. (p. 15)

It is true that the adherents of a rising movement have a strong sense of liberation even though they live and breathe in an atmosphere of strict adherence to tenets and commands. This sense of liberation comes from having escaped the burdens, fears and hopelessness of an untenable individual existence. It is this escape which they feel as a deliverance and redemption. (p. 32)

Not only does a mass movement depict the present as mean and miserable - it deliberately makes it so. It fashions a pattern of individual existence that is dour, hard, repressive and dull. It decries pleasures and comforts and extols the rigorous life. It views ordinary enjoyment as trivial or even discreditable, and represents the pursuit of personal happiness as immoral. (p. 69)

... the mysticism of a movement is also a means of deprecating the present. It sees the present as the faded and distorted reflection of a vast unknown throbbing underneath and beyond us. The present is a shadow and an illusion. (p. 70)

By expatiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation. It is as if they said: "Not only our blemished selves, but the lives of all our contemporaries, even the most happy and successful, are worthless and wasted." Thus by deprecating the present they acquire a vague sense of equality. (p. 75)

Participating in a cosmic drama

... there is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. Thus, though a mass movement at first turns its back on the past, it eventually develops a vivid awareness, often specious, of a distant glorious past. [...] This preoccupation with the past stems not only from a desire to demonstrate the legitimacy of the movement and the illegitimacy of the old order, but also to show up the present as a mere interlude between past and future. [...] The followers of a mass movement see themselves on the march with drums beating and colors flying. They are participators in a soul-stirring drama played to a vast audience - generations gone and generations yet to come. (p. 71-72)

Dying and killing seem easy when they are part of a ritual, ceremonial, dramatic performance or game. There is need for some kind of make-believe in order to face death unflinchingly. [...] It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture. It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn or light-hearted dramatic performance. (p. 66-67)

In the practice of mass movements, make-believe plays perhaps a more enduring role than any other factor. When faith and the power to persuade or coerce are gone, make-believe lingers on. There is no doubt that in staging its processions, parades, rituals and ceremonials, a mass movement touches a responsive chord in every heart. [...] There is an exhilaration and getting out of oneís skin in both participants and spectators. (p. 68)

The illusion of growth

The self-mastery needed in overcoming their appetites gives them an illusion of strength. The feel that in mastering themselves, they have mastered the world. [...] Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings. For when we fail in attempting the possible, the blame is solely ours; but when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task. (p. 77)

The attitude of absolute certainty

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. (p. 79)

"So tenaciously should we cling to the world reveal by the Gospel, that were I to see all the Angels of Heaven coming down to me to tell me something different, not only would I not be tempted to doubt a single syllable, but I would shut my eyes and stop my ears, for they would not deserve to be either seen nor heard." (Luther, "Table Talk, 1687", quoted by Eric Hoffer on page 79, as an example of how doctrine and faith are taken as "more real" than reality.)

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from its meaning but from its certitude. No doctrine however profound and sublime will be effective unless it is presented as the embodiment of the one and only truth. It must be the one word from which all things are and all things speak. (p. 80)

It is obvious, therefore, that in 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. (p. 80-81)

If a doctrine is not unintelligible, it has to be vague; and if neither unintelligible nor vague, it has to be unverifiable. One has to get to heaven or the distant future to determine the truth of an effective doctrine. (p. 81)

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. (p. 82)

The vanity of "a Seeker"

The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless towards others. The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit this earth and the kingdom of heaven, too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen shall perish. (p. 99-100)

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. (p. 14-15)

The perfect leader

The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment dammed up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breathtaking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. He stages the world of make-believe so indispensable for the realization of self-sacrifice and united action. He evokes the enthusiasm of communion - the sense of liberation from a petty and meaningless individual existence. (p. 114)

The total surrender of a distinct self is a prerequisite for the attainment of both unity and self-sacrifice; and there is probably no more direct way of realizing this surrender than by inculcating and extolling the habit of blind obedience. [...] All mass movements rank obedience with the highest virtues and put it on a level with faith. [...] "Not to reason why" is considered by all mass movements the mark of a strong and generous spirit. (p. 117)

[When] the leader can exact blind obedience, he can operate on the sound theory that all men are cowards, treat them accordingly and get results. (p. 119)

A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of action. It is usually an advantage to a movement, and perhaps a prerequisite for its endurance, that these roles should be played by different men succeeding each other as conditions require. [...] With the appearance of the man of action the explosive vigor of the movement is embalmed and sealed in sanctified institutions. A religious movement crystallizes in a hierarchy and a ritual. (p. 147-149)

The diminishing capacity for original thought

[The true believer] subordinates creative work to the advancement of the movement. Literature, art and science must be propagandistic and they must be "practical." The true-believing writer, artist or scientist does not create to express himself, or to save his soul or to discover the true and the beautiful. His task, as he see it, is to warn, to advise, to urge, to glorify and to denounce. (p. 155)

The blindness of the fanatic is a source of strength (he sees no obstacles), but it is the cause of intellectual sterility and emotional monotony. The fanatic is also mentally cocky, and hence barren of new beginnings. At the root of his cockiness is the conviction that life and the universe conform to a simple formula - his formula. His is thus without the fruitful intervals of groping, when the mind is as it were in solution - ready for all manner of new reactions, new combinations and new beginnings. (p. 156)


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