The True Believer


For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Finally, they must be wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking. Experience is a handicap.

There are few works whose words are like pebbles on a calm lake. Each thought creating ripples and more ripples in the mind. Thoughts which, stand alone, are worth pondering over a cigarette or mulling over a cup of piping hot tea.

One such work is Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer and I highly recommend it to all readers of Country Squire Magazine.

Hoffer eloquently mixes psychology, history, and sociology to explain how mass movements arise, endure, and succeed (or fail). His examples are mostly limited to mass movements of the 20th century, and his arguments rely on the sweeping generalisations that are juicy targets for experts.

Once your cigarette is lit or your tea cup filled, let me hand you a few Hoffer pebbles to throw:

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

“People with a sense of fulfilment think it is a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favour radical change.”

“The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement.”

“Things which are not” are indeed mightier than “things that are”. In all ages men have fought most desperately for beautiful cities yet to be built and gardens yet to be planted.”

“To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred. Conversely, to treat an enemy with magnanimity is to blunt our hatred for him”

“There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members. Though manifestly unfair, this tendency has some justification. For the character and destiny of a group are often determined by its inferior elements.”

Hoffer does not take an exclusively negative view of “true believers” and the mass movements they begin. He gives examples of how the same forces that give rise to true believer mass movements can be channelled in more positive ways:

“There are, of course, rare leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, even F.D.R., Churchill, and Nehru. They do not hesitate to harness man’s hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world…. They know that no one can be honourable unless he honours mankind”.

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. Written in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen, although Hoffer believed that his book The Ordeal of Change was his finest work.

I urge you to read The True Believer. Then respond in the comments below with your opinions as to whether or not the book changed your thoughts, if not the way you live.

Guest writer for Country Squire, Paddy Miller is a gas trader in the City of London and lives in Winchester. 


One thought on “The True Believer

  1. I’ve read this already. I didn’t think it had much effect on me at the time. In fact I found it annoying. A thinking too much book. But Hoffer hits certain truths like nails on the head. Well worth thinking through.

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