“What we know with certainty is not that talent and genius are rare exceptions but that all through history talent and genius have gone to waste on a vast scale.” — Eric Hoffer, The Temper of Our Time
Eric Hoffer was a San Francisco longshoreman and something of a social commentator and philosopher. In 1961 he wrote a book, The True Believer, which became a bestseller. In his rough-hewn political sensibility and solid, linear style he was a folk-hero to many.
I was in my teens when I first came across The True Believer, a book on fanaticism and mass movements. The fact that Hoffer was working down on the docks in San Francisco, only 75 miles from where I grew up, and writing books like that and The Temper of Our Time gave him a credibility that could only be matched in my lights by C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Edith Hamilton. I wasn’t all that discriminating in my reading, being subject to a syndrome that compelled my eyes to stray to print when not otherwise occupied. But Hoffer’s words rang true to me and he hit home with many a sentence laid down with deliberate care and an icy honesty.
His personal history was the stuff of a Dickens novel. Born in 1902 in Brooklyn, he suffered blindness from the age of seven, two years after he and his mother fell down a flight of stairs. She never recovered and died the same year he lost his sight. Mysteriously, his vision returned when he was fifteen and he began reading voraciously, afraid that his blindness might return. By the time he was a young man his father, a cabinetmaker, had died also. With the $300 the cabinetmaker’s union gave him after his father’s funeral, Hoffer took a bus to Los Angeles, where he kicked around on Skid Row for ten years, failed at a suicide attempt, and became a migrant worker up and down California and other Western states.
Trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a winter season, he read a book he’d picked up by impulse before making the trek into mining country. Montaigne’s Essays opened his eyes to the possibilities of writing and learning. Over the course of a long and vigorous life as a longshoreman on The Embarcadero in San Francisco, he wrote 11 books, was the subject of a 12-part interview with radio station KQED in San Francisco, was interviewed twice by Eric Sevareid, and in 1983, four months before he died, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. He never attended college or received any formal education beyond high school: he was a self-taught, self-made man through the acts of reading and writing.
One doesn’t have to agree with Hoffer’s sometimes stringent opinions to relish the way he can reframe an entire intellectual perspective. In a section of The True Believer he notes that, “The more selfish a person, the more poignant his disappointments. It is the inordinately selfish, therefore, who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness.” In a section on the poor as particularly susceptible to mass movements, Hoffer says, “Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some.”
Somebody once said, Nietzsche probably, that all philosophy is autobiography and in Hoffer’s case that certainly seems to be true. Having brought himself up by his own bootstraps and working with calloused hands and a bent back most of his life, Hoffer had an abiding contempt for “intellectuals” and a stalwart admiration for “the masses.” He considered intellectuals effete, useless, and power-hungry. Most of them, in his view, were foreign; it was almost unAmerican to be an intellectual.
He despaired that the age of men of action was fading as around the world intellectuals prized the power away from them. “By intellectual I mean a literate person who feels himself a member of the educated minority. It is not actual intellectual superiority which makes the intellectual but the feeling of belonging to an intellectual elite,” he said.
“One cannot escape the impression that the intellectual’s most fundamental incompatibility is with the masses,” he says. “In every age since the invention of writing he has given words to his loathing of the common man.” For Hoffer, the foreign intellectual is simply stymied at American resourcefulness. It’s not the intellectuals who built the dams, highways, skyscrapers, factories, cars, and airplanes in America. It was the solid, down-to-earth masses who showed what they could do without masters to shove them around. They built this country but somewhere along the way they lost it.
Hoffer was writing in the early 60s for Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Holiday, The Saturday Review, and Cavalier. Perhaps in those days when students were occupying the president’s office at Columbia, striking classes at Berkeley and demanding curricular changes at other campuses, he was understood as an oracle of freedom, a working-class hero who championed freedom of thought over against intellectuals who would stifle creativity.
Elsewhere in the world Hoffer saw the intelligentsia in Communist countries, as well as Asian and African nations, as the new colonialists. Having jettisoned Western masters, these new countries now found themselves ruled by native intellectuals, people trained in Western ways of thinking, who bent the thin reed of nascent freedom to their own advantage at the expense of their own people.
Oddly, for someone firmly planted in the working class, Hoffer believed automation would free up the masses for more erudite pursuits. He also believed that intellectuals, with their heads in the clouds and their hands in the till, didn’t want working people to become affluent. Perhaps tongue in cheek, he envisioned a time when most manual labor had been turned over to machines and the people could finally educate themselves.
Reading him today is a lesson in cultural metamorphosis and historical interpretation. Automation has accelerated production and trade, driven thousands out of work, and given millions access to devices Hoffer could not have foreseen. The intellectual elite, such as they are, now gamble with other people’s money on Wall Street, decide which new reality shows will draw the most eyeballs and occasionally figure out ways to make the world a better place for the masses.
In today’s milieu much of what Hoffer said would gladden the hearts of Tea Partiers, deeply suspicious as they are of the liberal Eastern establishment. They might bristle, though, at his statement that “where a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually chooses the latter.”
But Hoffer’s enduring theme—and his signature contribution to American social and political thought—is his steadfast belief that ordinary Americans are capable of producing great things. “The American intellectual rejects the idea that our ability to do things with little tutelage and leadership is a mark of social vigor. He would gauge the vigor of a society by its ability to produce great leaders,” he says at the end of The Temper of Our Time. “Yet it is precisely an America that in normal times can function well without outstanding leaders that so readily throws up outstanding individuals.”
He may be right, but the great conundrum facing us these days is those who desperately want to be our leaders probably shouldn’t be there, while the ones who could do the job aren’t electable under the current system.
My guess is that the country will be alright. No one is counted a great leader until after they’re dead. In the meantime, we’ll make do with people who have enough hope to try for the ideal and the courage it takes to achieve the possible.