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The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements was written by Eric Hoffer, first published in 1951 and became a bestseller. My copy is small soft cover book with 192 pages and a yellow and red cover. The ISBN number is 0060916125 . It is very readable and full of insight. In both brevity and profundidty, it has been described as a book of aphorisms.

Eric Hoffer was "a dock worker with no formal education" when he wrote the book.

The influence of the nazi and fascist mass-movements that caused so much political upheaval in the 1940s is clear in the book, but it also provides insight into Christianity and Communism, and can be applied to various new-age movements of the second half of the 20th century, and many other diverse institutions of a political, patriotic, spiritual or religious nature.

Not suprisingly, given the time when the book was written, Hoffer is unsparingly negative towards these institutions:

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.

This writeup is dedicated to theonomist, because it is an antidote to his imitation religious rant trolling, which I don't find funny in the slightest.

Here is an extract on the subject of doctrine that I typed up a while back:


The readiness for self-sacrifice is contingent on an imperviousness to the realities of life. He who is free to draw conclusions from his individual experience and observation is not usually hospitable to the act of martyrdom. For self-sacrifice is an unreasonable act. It cannot be the end product of a process of probing and deliberating. 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 based from his experience or observations but from holy Writ. "So tenaciously should we cling to the word of the Gospel, that were I to see all the Angels of heaven coming down 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 seen or heard." To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realise how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs. The fanatical Communist refuses to believe any unfavourable report or evidence about Russia, nor will he be disillusioned by seeing with his own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land.

Thus 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 the world as it is. What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any doctrine: it must be “contrary to nature, common sense and to pleasure.”

The effectiveness of a doctrine does not come from it’s meaning but it’s 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. Crude absurdities, trivial nonsense and sublime truths are all equally potent in readying people for self-sacrifice if they are accepted as the sole, eternal truth.

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 only be absolutely certain of things that we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. Once we understand a thing, it is as if it had originated in us. And, clearly, those who are asked to renounce the self and sacrifice it cannot see eternal certitude in anything that originated in that self. The fact that they understand a thing fully impairs its reality and certitude in their eyes.

When a movement begins to rationalise it’s doctrine and make it intelligible, it is a sign that its dynamic span in over; that it is primarily interested in stability. For, the stability of a regime requires the allegiance of the intellectuals, and it is to win them rather than to foster self-sacrifice in the masses that a doctrine is made intelligible.

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 the doctrine. When some part of the doctrine is relatively simple, there is a tendency among the faithful to complicate and obscure it. Simple words are made pregnant with meaning and made to look like symbols in a secret language.


Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden...We join a mass movement to escape from individual responsibility, or, in the words of an ardent young Nazi, 'to be free from freedom.' It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?

Sources: quotes are from The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, like you didn't know that. Some additional material was taken from Amazon.com's reviews of this book.

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer examines what qualities make men to become fanatics and the process by which a mass movement takes hold in a society.

In a book full of interesting insights, perhaps the most interesting (if the most banal) is that based only on their features, there is no difference between a religion, a political movement or a fashion. This holistic perspective give his observations a wryly cynical air, which is strengthened by his horizontal comparisons, across contemporaneous societies; as well as vertical ones, drawing from the history of the west; showing how everything is due to human impulses. And so even though it is a slim book, it is astonishingly well researched as evidenced by its bibliography. That, its cross referencing and aphoristic style make it quite a scholarly work. And it is delightful when one recognizes an unacknowledged reference, such pleasure tempered by the realization that many others have been missed because one hasn't read widely enough.

The book seems descriptive rather than prescriptive. It reminds me of the story told about the state of physics before publication of Newton's Principia. While scientists could describe many natural phenomena, they did not know why those things happened until Newton discovered and published his laws of motion. So this book which seems an expatiation of chapters 10 & 12 of Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is, like Hayek's, limited by dependence on events in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to illustrate its observations. Even though this book draws more widely from the history of the world, the rules laid down by its unifying thesis are subject to many exceptions. While these are technically flaws, they don't detract from the quality of his insights. Further, since the subject is human beings, any work that seeks to establish immutable rules predicting their behavior would be extraordinarily ambitious. If such a thing were possible, it would be like the fictional science of psychohistory in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.

So, this is a good book, easy to read but requiring much concentration to be enjoyed. It is highly recommended. Even if just for bragging rights.

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