Eric Hoffer

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Eric Hoffer
Born (1898-07-25)July 25, 1898
New York City, U.S.
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San Francisco, U.S.
Occupation Author, longshoreman
Nationality American
Genre Social psychology, political science
Notable awards Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983

Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1898 – May 21, 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher. He was the author of ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983. His first book, The True Believer (1951), was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen,[1] although Hoffer believed that The Ordeal of Change was his finest work.[2]

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Life and career

Hoffer was born in 1898[3][4] in The Bronx, New York, to Knut and Elsa (Goebel) Hoffer.[5] His parents were immigrants from Alsace, then part of Imperial Germany. By age five, Hoffer could already read in both English and his parents' native German.[6][7] When he was five, his mother fell down the stairs with him in her arms. He later recalled, "I lost my sight at the age of seven. Two years before, my mother and I fell down a flight of stairs. She did not recover and died in that second year after the fall. I lost my sight and, for a time, my memory."[8] He was raised by a live-in relative or servant, a German immigrant named Martha. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was 15. Fearing he might lose it again, he seized on the opportunity to read as much as he could. His recovery proved permanent, but Hoffer never abandoned his reading habit.

Hoffer was a young man when he also lost his father. The cabinetmaker's union paid for Knut Hoffer's funeral and gave Hoffer about $300 insurance money. He took a bus to Los Angeles and spent the next 10 years on Skid Row, reading, occasionally writing, and working at odd jobs.[9]

In 1931, he considered suicide by drinking a solution of oxalic acid, but he could not bring himself to do it.[10] He left Skid Row and became a migrant worker, following the harvests in California. He acquired a library card where he worked, dividing his time "between the books and the brothels." He also prospected for gold in the mountains. Snowed in for the winter, he read the Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne impressed Hoffer deeply, and he often made reference to him. He also developed a respect for America's underclass, which he said was "lumpy with talent." He wrote a novel, Four Years in Young Hank's Life, and a novella, Chance and Mr. Kunze, both partly autobiographical. He also penned a long article based on his experiences in a federal work camp, "Tramps and Pioneers." This was never published, but a truncated version appeared in Harper's Magazine after he became well known.

Hoffer tried to enlist in the U.S. Army at age 40 during World War II, but he was rejected because of a hernia.[11] Instead, he worked as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. At the same time, he began to write seriously.

Hoffer left the docks in 1967 and retired from public life in 1970.[12] In 1970 he endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hoffer called himself an atheist, but he had sympathetic views of religion and described it as a positive force.[13]

He died at his home in San Francisco in 1983 at the age of 84.[14]

Working class roots

Hoffer was influenced by his modest roots and working-class surroundings, seeing in it vast human potential. In a letter to Margaret Anderson in 1941, he wrote:

My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight,
in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch.
Towns are too distracting.

He once remarked, "my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree." When called an intellectual, he insisted that he was a longshoreman. Hoffer has been dubbed by some authors a "longshoreman philosopher."[7]

Books and opinions

The True Believer

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Hoffer came to public attention with the 1951 publication of his first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Concerned about the rise of totalitarian governments, especially those of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, he tried to find the roots of these "madhouses" in human psychology.

Hoffer argued that fanatical and extremist cultural movements, whether religious or political, arose under predictable circumstances: when large numbers of people come to believe that their individual lives are worthless and ruined, that the modern world is irreparably corrupt, and that hope lies only in joining a larger group that demands radical changes. Hoffer believed that self-esteem and a sense of satisfaction with one's life was of central importance to psychological well-being. He thus focused on what he viewed as the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. For example, Hoffer noted that leaders of mass movements were often frustrated intellectuals, from Adolf Hitler in 20th Century Europe to Hong Xiuquan's failure to advance in the Chinese bureaucracy of the 19th Century.

A core principle in the book is Hoffer's assertion that mass movements are interchangeable: in the Germany of the 1920s and '30s the Communists and Nazis were ostensibly enemies but routinely swapped members as they competed for the same kind of marginalized, angry people and fanatical Communists became Nazis and vice versa. Almost two thousand years previously, Saul, a fanatical persecutor of Christians, became Paul, a Christian. For the "true believer," Hoffer argued that substance of any particular group is less important than being part of an energized movement.

Hoffer also claimed that a passionate obsession with the outside world or the private lives of others was an attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life. The book discusses religious and political mass movements, and includes extensive discussions of Islam and Christianity.

Hoffer's work was non-Freudian, at a time when much of American psychology was informed by the Freudian paradigm. Hoffer appeared on public television in 1964 and then in two one-hour conversations on CBS with Eric Sevareid in the late 1960s.

Later works

Subsequent to the publication of The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer touched upon Asia and American interventionism in several of his essays. In “The Awakening of Asia” (1954), published in The Reporter and later his book The Ordeal of Change (1963), Hoffer discusses the reasons for unrest on the continent. In particular, he argues that the root cause of social discontent in Asia was not government corruption, “communist agitation,” or the legacy of European colonial “oppression and exploitation.” Rather a “craving for pride” was the central problem in Asia, suggesting a problem that could not be relieved through typical American intervention.[15]

For centuries, Hoffer notes that Asia had “submitted to one conqueror after another." Throughout these centuries, Asia had “been misruled, looted, and bled by both foreign and native oppressors without” so much as “a peep” from the general population. Though not without negative effect, corrupt governments and the legacy of European imperialism represented nothing new under the sun. Indeed, the European colonial authorities had been “fairly beneficent” in Asia.[15]

To be sure, communism exerted an appeal of sorts. For the Asian “pseudo-intellectual” it promised elite status and the phony complexities of “doctrinaire double talk." For the ordinary Asian, it promised partnership with the seemingly emergent Soviet Union in a “tremendous, unprecedented undertaking” to build a better tomorrow.[15]

According to Hoffer, however, communism in Asia was dwarfed by the desire for pride. To satisfy such desire, Asians would willingly and irrationally not only sacrifice their economic well-being, but their lives as well.[15]

Unintentionally, the West had created this appetite, causing “revolutionary unrest” in Asia. The West had done so by eroding traditional communal bonds, bonds that once had woven the individual to the patriarchal family, clan, tribe, “cohesive rural or urban unit,” and “religious or political body." Without the security and spiritual meaning produced by such bonds, Asians had been liberated from tradition only to find themselves now atomized, isolated, exposed, and abandoned, “left orphaned and empty in a cold world."[15]

Certainly, Europe had undergone a similar destruction of tradition, but it had occurred centuries earlier at the end of the Medieval period and produced better results thanks to different circumstances.

For the Asians of the 1950s, the circumstances differed markedly. Most were illiterate and impoverished, living in a world that included no expansive physical or intellectual vistas. Dangerously, the “articulate minority” amongst the Asian population inevitably disconnected themselves from the ordinary people, thereby failing to acquire “a sense of usefulness and of worth” that came by “taking part in the world’s work." As a result, they were “condemned to the life of chattering posturing pseudo-intellectuals,” who coveted “the illusion of weight and importance."[15]

Most significantly, Hoffer asserts that the disruptive awakening of Asia came about as a result of an unbearable sense of weakness. Indeed, Hoffer discusses the problem of weakness, asserting that while “power corrupts the few.. . weakness corrupts the many.”[15]

Hoffer notes that “the resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done [to] them but from the sense of their [own] inadequacy and impotence.” In short, the weak “hate not wickedness” but hate themselves for being weak. Consequently, self-loathing produces explosive effects that cannot be mitigated through social engineering schemes, such as programs of wealth redistribution. In fact, American “generosity” is counterproductive, perceived in Asia simply as an example of Western “oppression."[15]

In the wake of the Korean War, Hoffer does not recommend exporting at gunpoint either American political institutions or mass democracy. In fact, Hoffer advances the possibility that winning over the multitudes of Asia may not even be desirable. If on the other hand, necessity truly dictates that for “survival” the United States must persuade the “weak” of Asia to “our side,” Hoffer suggests the wisest course of action would be to master “the art or technique of sharing hope, pride, and as a last resort, hatred with others."[15]

During the Vietnam War, despite his disgust for the anti-war movement and acceptance of the notion that the war was somehow necessary to prevent a third world war, Hoffer remained skeptical concerning American interventionism, specifically the intelligence with which the war was being conducted in Southeast Asia. After the United States became involved in the war, Hoffer wished to avoid defeat in Vietnam because of his fear that such a defeat would transform American society for ill, opening the door to those who would preach a stab-in-the-back myth and allow for the rise of an American version of Hitler.[16]

In The Temper of Our Time (1967), Hoffer implies that the United States as a rule should avoid interventions in the first place, writing that “the better part of statesmanship might be to know clearly and precisely what not to do, and leave action to the improvisation of chance.” In fact, Hoffer indicates that “it might be wise to wait for enemies to defeat themselves,” as they might fall upon each other with the United States out of the picture.[17] This view was somewhat borne out with the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and Chinese-Vietnamese War of the late 1970s.

In May 1968, about a year after the Six Day War, he wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times titled "Israel's Peculiar Position:"

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The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it. Turkey threw out a million Greeks and Algeria a million Frenchman. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel, the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single one.[18]

Hoffer asks why "everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world" and why Israel should sue for peace after its victory.[18]

Hoffer believed that rapid change is not necessarily a positive thing for a society, and too rapid change can cause a regression in maturity for those who were brought up in a different society. He noted that in America in the 1960s, many young adults were still living in extended adolescence. Seeking to explain the attraction of the New Left protest movements, he characterized them as the result of widespread affluence, which, in his words, "is robbing a modern society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize the attainment of manhood." He saw these puberty rites as essential for self-esteem, and noted that mass movements and juvenile mindsets tend to go together, to the point that anyone, no matter what age, who joins a mass movement immediately begins to exhibit juvenile behavior.

Hoffer further noted that the reason why working-class Americans did not, by and large, join protest movements and subcultures was that they had entry into meaningful labor as an effective rite of passage out of adolescence, while both the very poor who lived on welfare and the affluent were, in his words, "prevented from having a share in the world's work, and of proving their manhood by doing a man's work and getting a man's pay," and thus remained in a state of extended adolescence, lacking in necessary self-esteem, and prone to joining mass movements as a form of compensation. Hoffer suggested that this need for meaningful work as a rite of passage into adulthood could be fulfilled with a two-year civilian national service program (not unlike programs during the Great Depression such as the Civilian Conservation Corps). He wrote: "The routinization of the passage from boyhood to manhood would contribute to the solution of many of our pressing problems. I cannot think of any other undertaking that would dovetail so many of our present difficulties into opportunities for growth."

Hoffer's papers

Hoffer's papers, including 131 of the notebooks he carried in his pockets, were acquired in 2000 by the Hoover Institution Archives. The papers fill 75 feet (23 m) of shelf space. Because Hoffer cultivated an aphoristic style, the unpublished notebooks (dated from 1949 to 1977) contain very significant work. Available for scholarly study since at least 2003, little of their contents has yet been published. A selection of fifty aphorisms, focusing on the development of unrealized human talents through the creative process, appeared in the July 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine.[19]

Published works

1951 The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature of Mass Movements ISBN 0-06-050591-5
1955 The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms ISBN 1-933435-09-7
1963 The Ordeal of Change ISBN 1-933435-10-0
1967 The Temper of Our Time
1968 Nature and The City
1969 Working and Thinking on the Waterfront: A Journal, June 1958 to May 1959
1971 First Things, Last Things
1973 Reflections on the Human Condition ISBN 1-933435-14-3
1976 In Our Time
1979 Before the Sabbath
1982 Between the Devil and the Dragon: The Best Essays and Aphorisms of Eric Hoffer ISBN 0-06-014984-1
1983 Truth Imagined ISBN 1-933435-01-1


"Conversations with Eric Hoffer," 12 part interview by James Day of KQED, San Franscisco, 1963. "Eric Hoffer: The Passionate State of Mind" with Eric Sevareid, CBS, September 19, 1967 (rebroadcast on November 14, due to popular demand). "The Savage Heart: A Conversation with Eric Hoffer," with Eric Sevareid, CBS, January 28, 1969.

Awards and recognition

  • 1971, May - Honorary Doctorate; Stonehill College
  • 1978 – Bust of Eric Hoffer by sculptor Jonathan Hirschfeld; commissioned by Charles Kittrell and placed in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
  • 1983, February 13 – Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Ronald Reagan.
  • 1985, September 17 – Skygate unveiling in San Francisco; dedication speech by Eric Sevareid.

Eric Hoffer Award

On the 1st January, 2001, the Eric Hoffer Award for books and prose was launched internationally in his honor.

In 2005, the Eric Hoffer Estate granted its permission for the award. Also in that year Christopher Klim became the award's Chairperson.[20]


Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop extensively referred to Hoffer's book The True Believer when in a 2015 speech she closely compared the psychological underpinnings of ISIS with that of Nazism.[21]

See also


  1. "Hoffer, Eric". Encyclopædia Britannica, from Encyclopaedia Britannica 2003 Ultimate Reference Suite CD-ROM. Copyright 1994–2002 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2002.
  2. According to longtime companion Lili Fabilli Osborne, executrix of the Hoffer Estate; also noted in personal archives stored at the Hoover Institute.
  3. "United States Census, 1940," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 22 December 2014), California > Monterey > Monterey Judicial Township > 27-34 Monterey Judicial Township outside Monterey City bounded by (N) township line; (E) township line; (S) Highway 117; (W) Monterey City Limits, Highway 56; also Seaside (part) > image 102 of 126; citing NARA digital publication of T627, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
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  6. Truth Imagined
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  8. [Truth Imagined p.1 ]
  9. [Truth Imagined]
  10. [Truth Imagined p. 35-39]
  11. Hoover Institution – Hoover Digest – The Longshoreman Philosopher
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  19. Tom Bethell, "Sparks: Eric Hoffer and the art of the notebook", Harper's Magazine, July 2005, pp. 73–77 (complete article on scribd).
  20. The Eric Hoffer Award,
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  22. The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict by Robert S. Ellwood Publisher: Rutgers University Press ISBN 0-8135-2346-X ISBN 978-0-8135-2346-0 [1]

Further reading

"American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of Eric Hoffer", Shachtman, Tom, Titusville, NJ, Hopewell Publications, 2011. ISBN 978-1-933435-38-1.

  • Eric Hoffer; an American Odyssey Tomkins, Calvin, New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968 ISBN 0-8057-7359-2 Part of Twayne's United States authors series
  • Hoffer's America, Koerner, James D., La Salle, Ill., Library Press, 1973 ISBN 0-912050-45-4
  • Eric Hoffer, Baker, James Thomas. Boston : Twayne, 1982 ISBN 0-8057-7359-2 Twayne's United States authors series
  • Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, Bethell, Thomas, Stanford, Calif., Hoover Institution Press, 2012 ISBN 0-817914-14-5

External links

Template:Winners of the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize