The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer, book review

The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer.

A great book in my opinion.  I highly recommend it.  Five of five stars for excellent literature.  This is the second time I’ve read it, the first being three or four years ago.  Though written post-WWII (1951) it is as timely as ever in light of this a presidential election year, when political parties (mass movements?) never seemed further apart.

Thoughts indeed.  A non-fiction discourse, treatise perhaps, an exposition.  Aphoristic.  A loud, pealing ring of truth with which I could not disagree.  Terse and mercifully brief (less than 200 pages).  Little if any ‘fluff’ that causes one to skip over passages.

It’s one of those books that must be read carefully, with focus.  As 19th Century lecturer John Ruskin said in Sesames and Lilies:

“…you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning, syllable by syllable – nay, letter by letter.”

“…you might read all the books in the British Museum (if you could live long enough) and remain an utterly “illiterate,” uneducated person; but that if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by letter, – that is to say, with real accuracy, – you are forevermore in some measure an educated person.”

I’m likely to remain illiterate, but this book deserves the kind of attention to which Ruskin refers.  I found, and a friend concurred, that this book is a ‘slow’ read (thus my gratefulness for its brevity).  No frills, no waste.  If you are prone to highlighting noteworthy passages (as I did during this second reading) you might save yourself some time by putting a left bracket at the beginning of the book and a right bracket at the end.

As the book jacket notes, Hoffer (1902-1983) was self-educated.  He worked as a longshoreman in San Francisco for twenty-five years.  He was the author of more than ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

I’ll let the author speak for himself via my surfeit of highlighting.  All quotes are from the First Perennial Classics edition published 2002.  (Original copyright is 1951.)

“This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements.” (p. xii)

“It is necessary for most of us these days to have some insight into the motives and responses of the true believer.  For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious.  The true believer is everywhere on the march and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image.” (p. xiii) [How true in the U.S. with polar politicians and in the modern world of radical religious fundamentalists.]

“This book passes no judgments, and expresses no preferences.  …I can do no better than quote Montaigne: “All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice.  I should not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed.”” (p. xiii)

Part 1, The Appeal of Mass Movements: I. The Desire for Change:

“Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us.  …It is understandable that those who fail should incline to blame the world for their failure.” (p. 6)

“…extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring.  For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power–a slogan, a work, a button.” (p. 9)  [Sound familiar?  Hope and Change?]

II. The Desire for Substitutes:

“…a mass movement …appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.” (p. 12)

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.” (p. 14)

“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft.  …There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem.” (p. 14)

These are just a few tidbits from the first 14 pages.  I’d love to share more but I’d be copying the entire book.  This would be a great book for a club or discussion group to cover.  You can get another sample at

As the book was written just post-World War II there are noteworthy references to Hitler and the rise of National Socialism in Germany.

Lest we forget.  As we continue through 2012 and the 21st century are we Americans slowly surrendering our individual freedoms in the name of mass movement?  Enlighten and inform yourself.

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