Book Review: The True Believer
On the recommendation of the Prodigal Son, a frequent commenter on the Shark's blog, I picked up The True Believer, written in 1951 by Eric Hoffer.
In this 168-page easy read, Hoffer explores the essential characteristics of mass movements and the "true believers" who make them possible. While the analysis is shallow and simplistic at times and the anti-Christian, anti-Muslim bias of the author distracting, Hoffer makes certain observations about fanatics that are nevertheless worth a read.
Fanaticism, according to Hoffer, derives from the frustration and sense of personal failure individuals experience during periods of rapid social change; it is the refuge of those for whom the present is irremediably spoiled, relying on a mythic future for hope. From this truism springs several axioms that find great relevance here in America and elsewhere.
The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.
A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business.
The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources -- out of his rejected self -- but finds it only by clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. He easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. And he is ready to sacrifice his life.
Faith, enthusiasm, and passionate intensity in general are substitutes for the self-confidence born of experience and the possession of skill. The substitute for self-confidence is faith; the substitute for self-esteem is pride; and the substitute for individual balance is fusion with others in a compact group. In the chemistry of the soul, a substitute is almost always explosive if for no other reason than that we can never have enough of it. We can never have enough of that which we really do not want. What we want is justified self-confidence and self-esteem. We can be satisfied with moderate confidence in ourselves and with a moderately good opinion of ourselves, but the faith we have in a holy cause has to be extravagant and uncompromising, and the pride we derive form an identification with a nation, race, leader, or party [religion] is extreme and overbearing.
It goes without saying that the fanatic is convinced that the cause he holds on to is monolithic and eternal - a rock of ages. Still, his sense of security is derived from his passionate attachment and not from the excellence of his cause. The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justness and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. Often, indeed, it is his need for passionate attachment which turns every cause he embraces into a holy cause.
[I]n 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. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. The effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.
Whence comes the impulse to proselytize? 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. The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse. It is doubtful whether a movement which does not profess some preposterous and patently irrational dogma can be possessed of that zealous drive which "must either win men or destroy the world." 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.
Hoffer opines that, among leaders of mass movements, a "failure in the management of practical affairs seems to be a qualification for success in the management of public affairs." If only for Bush's sake, that were true.