Eric Hoffer / Gray Hair Wisdom / what ails us?


What drives the minds of revolutionaries and fanatics and fuels the fires of mass movements?

The following post is excerpts from the  1951 book, The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. The quotes are all taken from  chapter 1, “The Desire for Change”. The book is a study of the mindset that leads to mass movements.

Today, mass movements are all over the Middle East. The leaders of these movements are “true believers” that preach and breed fanaticism, hatred and intolerance. We watch them grow from the safety of our homes shaking our heads while worrying about the future.

We all want to believe that we are not vulnerable to the hysteria that we see in places like the Middle East, but where is the line drawn between the fanatics and being simply enthusiastic. According to philosopher George Santayana, “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim“; according to Winston Churchill, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”. By either description the fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance.

Four years ago our country, whether we want to admit it or not, was smitten with Barack Obama and maybe still is. America was caught up in a campaign that was promising us a better future for America and the world. Hope and Change became our motto. Maybe there was nothing unusual about this campaign. The slogans and the hype of every political campaign borders on being a mass movement, yet they withdraw before becoming one. Did the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama take on a different tone? Looking back,  he did not offer us any more than “an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future.” He “kindled and fanned extravagant hope“.  And many people believed/believe he was/is an “infallible leader“.

According to Hoffer these are the emotions required by a leader to move a nation towards fundamental transformation; exactly the goal that Barack Obama began his presidential career with.  He said, “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming  the United States of America.” The crowds cheered and chanted. The future looked bright and we were assured that our planet would begin to heal. The question is, then, can America change its collective mind or will we move FORWARD?


“It is a truism that many who join a rising revolutionary movement are attracted by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change in their conditions of life. A revolutionary movement is a conspicuous instrument of change.

. . .

“There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. “If anything ail a man,” says Thoreau, “so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even  .  .  .  he forthwith sets about reforming –the world” 

It is understandable that those who fail should incline to blame the world for their failure. The remarkable thing is that the successful, too, however much they pride themselves on their foresight, fortitude, thrift and other “sterling qualities,” are at bottom convinced that their success is the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. The self-confidence of even the consistently successful is never absolute. They are never sure that they know all the ingredients which go into the making of their success. The outside world seems to them a precariously balanced mechanism, and so long as it ticks in their favor they are afraid to tinker with it. Thus the resistance to change and the ardent desire for it spring form the same conviction, and the one can be vehement as the other.


…The men who rush into undertakings of vast change usually feel they are in possession of some irresistible power. . . .

Even the sober desire for progress is sustained by faith — faith in the intrinsic goodness of human nature and in the omnipotence of science. It is  a defiant  and blasphemous faith, not unlike that held by the men who set out to build “a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven” and who believed that “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”

. . .


…Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, of heaven on earth, of plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world dominion. If the Communists win Europe and a large part of the world, it will not be because they know how to stir up discontent or how to infect people with hatred, but because they know how to preach hope.

 . . .


…When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them. It is as if ivied maidens and garlanded youth were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse.


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. The men who started the French Revolution where wholly without political experience. The same is true of the Bolsheviks, Nazis and the revolutionaries in Asia. The experienced man of affairs is a latecomer. He enters the movement when it is already a going concern. It is perhaps the Englishman’s political experience that keeps him shy of mass movements.”

I believe the last paragraph above is telling about where we have come. We are teetering on the edge of plunging headlong into an undertaking of vast changeWe meet all the criteria listed above. The biggest being that we are wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in our vast undertaking. And, unfortunately, we are no longer shy of mass movements.

I hope to continue with this book in future posts.


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