The Ordeal of Change
Imagine this if you can.
Suppose you were a fan of Sunday-morning talking-head shows. Or maybe its easier to picture yourself as the type who prefers a weeknight alternative, say Charlie Rose or the PBS News Hour.
Whichever, I’m sure you have some sense of who you’d expect to see. There’s a great leveling force at work on those shows such that academicians, experts and everyone else shows up looking as somber as a banker.
Now blink and take in the sudden appearance of a guest, billed as a philosopher, or maybe as a great social observer, dressed like the guy you saw at the lumber yard yesterday morning. Oh, and he’ s the author of a bestseller from a major house that the intelligentsia have embraced.
You’d be forgiven if you thought your favorite show had suddenly turned into a Fellini script.
Yet there is such an author, now long deceased, whose work has sat in my ‘I’ll-get-around-to-it-someday’ stack since my undergraduate days. The present volume bears a note that I acquired it in 1987 making it one of the longer-waiting tomes in the pile.
I had heard of Hoffer, heard enough to grab a title or two, but then I let habit intrude. Erics terrify me. From Eric Sevareid, delivering those Nordic-seeming commentaries, to Erich Maria Remarque and the butchery of the war to end all wars, I’d developed a healthy fear of, and a seeming inability to wade through, anything from an Eric.
Shame on me.
Because Hoffer is the real deal, a close observer of life who can get to the universal from the particular in essentially plain language. One of those rare types who embodies ‘moral’ when it appears in front of ‘philosopher.’
It’s worth telling a bit of Hoffer’s story just to set the stage. Hoffer was born in The Bronx just before the 20th century arrived. In fact, he’s an almost exact contemporary of my Bronx-raised grandfather who also arrived in ’98 and who checked out about a year before Hoffer did. At an early age Hoffer lost his sight and when it returned, at age 15, he started reading and never lost the habit.
In 1951 he published the work by which he would forever after be known, The True Believer, and became, at age 52 or 3, an overnight sensation. And then what did he do? The same thing he’d been doing for the last twenty years: worked three days a week on the docks and spent the rest in the library reading and writing. The most virtuous philosopher alive today can’t hold a candle to this principled, auto-didactic son and member of the working class.
Alright, I’m gushing. (There are limits to an AHC gush. My cultural roots frown upon too much praise so you’re forgiven if you haven’t recognized the above as such.) Maybe it’s best to just pull quotes at random from this slim, 120-page volume to illustrate why it’s a valuable read.
Where things have not changed at all, , there is the least likelihood of revolution.” (p. 6)
“Though it remains doubtful whether a Communist regime can instill in the masses an enduring readiness to work, there is no doubt that it knows how to mold backward populations into an effective army….”(p. 19)
“There in no unequivocal evidence that the intellectual is at his creative best when left wholly on his own.” (p.31)
“It is as if the Occident had first to conceive a God who was a scientist and technician before it could create a civilization dominated by science and technology.” (p. 61)
“Men never philosophize or tinker more freely than when they know their speculation or tinkering leads to no weighty results.” (p. 91)
:It is questionable whether he who can move mountains and tell rivers whither to flow has as exquisite a sense of power as he who can command the multitude and turn human beings into animated
automata.” (p. 99)
You can almost pick any page at random and come up with your own set of meaningful quotes.
Of course nothing is perfect. The risk of autodidacticism is that you miss something that undermines whatever you have come to believe is true. So a certain humility is called for. Hoffer displays that, but I wish he’d have used more standard methods of citation. The primary effect of the approach he takes, for me, was that of an extended essay. There’s nothing wrong with it but it takes a lot for granted in the common understanding department.
And then there are the things he could not have foreseen. Hoffer spends considerable time on the idea that writing, in its origins, was the handmaiden of power–keeping inventories and the like. And that informs an ever-present need for the intellectual–who has to be a writer even though that’s never stated; I can’t imagine a more implicit authorial assumption–to have a relationship with power.
In the course of that argument he contrasts the Incas and the Egyptians and the impact of a written system on the development of society. Trouble is, in a rather recent development the ‘talking knots’ that Inca messengers carried seem to actually have been written records and messages. Sometimes the detail is not the friend of the argument.
Still, I came away from this read with a lot to think about. And a whole lot of reverence for Eric Hoffer.
Maybe it will help me get past that Eric issue I keep having.