Eric Hoffer

From Academic Kids

Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1902 - May 21,1983) was an American social writer. He produced ten books and won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983 from Ronald Reagan. His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic. This book, which he considered his best, established his reputation, and he remained a successful writer for most of his remaining years.

Hoffer was born in New York City, the son of German immigrants. By the age of five, he could read in both German and English. At age seven, and for unknown reasons, Hoffer went blind. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was fifteen. Fearing he would again go blind, he seized upon the opportunity to read as much as he could for as long as he could. His eyesight remained, but Hoffer never abandoned his habit of voracious reading.

Both his parents passed away while he was still a young man. Seeking opportunity, and an occupation that would allow him to read constantly, Hoffer made his way across the country to California. A rumour is that he enlisted in the Armed forces, because he was fervently anti-Nazi, but was rejected for medical reasons. Fighting this setback he went to San Francisco to work at the Naval Shipyard and support the war effort in what way he could. There he began to do manual labor while educating himself on the side. He had library cards for borrowing at libraries up and down the train line near his home in San Francisco. He was to continue at odd jobs throughout his life, such as migrant farm laborer, gold prospector, and longshoreman. Despite daily work, often strenuous, he managed to read more books than many academics. He was stirred to writing after felicitously encountering the Essays of Michel de Montaigne in a secondhand bookshop.


Hoffer and the roots of mass movements

Hoffer was among the first to recognize the central importance of self-esteem to psychological well-being. While most recent writers focus on the benefits of a positive self-esteem, Hoffer focused on the consequences of a lack of self-esteem. Concerned about the rise of totalitarian governments, especially those of Hitler and Stalin, he tried to find the roots of these "madhouses" in human psychology. He discovered that fanaticism and self-righteousness are rooted in self-hatred, self-doubt, and insecurity. As he describes in The True Believer, a passionate obsession with the outside world or with the private lives of other people is merely a craven attempt to compensate for a lack of meaning in one's own life. Extensively researched, this slim volume contains more ideas per page than some entire books.

His work was not only original, it was completely out of step with dominant academic trends. In particular, it was completely non-Freudian, at a time when almost all American psychology was confined to the Freudian paradigm. In avoiding the academic mainstream, Hoffer managed to avoid the straitjacket of established thought. Many argue that it is because of his lack of a University education that his book has remained a classic and insightful (ie non-Freudian). He appeared twice on television with Eric Sevareid, and both times he drew wide response for his patiently considered but unorthodox views.

Hoffer and "Intellectuals"

Hoffer was also one of the most pro-American writers of his day. He did not consider himself an "intellectual", and he scorned the term as descriptive of the mostly anti-American academics of the West. Academics, he believed, most of all craved power; but they were denied it in the democratic countries of the West (though they were not in totalitarian countries, which Hoffer saw as an intellectual's dream). So instead, he believed, they chose to bite the hand that fed them in their quest to feel important.

Hoffer himself drew confidence from his working-class environment, seeing in it vast human potential. He took solace in being an outcast, believing that the outcasts have always been the pioneers of society. Though he felt opposed to "liberal" intellectuals, it would be wrong to call Hoffer's thinking "conservative". Rather, it was completely apart from the mainstream. As he said, "my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree." When called an intellectual, he insisted that he was a longshoreman.


1951 The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements ISBN 0060505915
1955 The Passionate State Of Mind
1967 The Temper Of Our Time
1969 Working And Thinking on The Waterfront
1973 Reflections on the Human Condition
1976 The Ordeal Of Change
1976 In Our Time
1979 First Things, Last Things
1979 Before the Sabbath
1982 Between the devil and the dragon : the best essays and aphorisms of Eric Hoffer ISBN 0060149841
1983 Truth Imagined


Tomkins, Calvin. Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey New York; E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968 Baker, James Eric Hoffer Boston; Twayne, 1982 ISBN 0805773592 Twayne's United States authors series


"The Renaissance was a time of mercenary soldiers, ours is a time of mercenary labor." --Before the Sabbath.

"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." --The True Believer.

"For though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious." --The True Believer.

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