Meeting Eric Hoffer

In the unfolding of the individual’s life, chance is everything. In a vigorous society, chance and example have full play, and in such a society the talented are likely to be lucky. - Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the luck of meeting Eric Hoffer.

Unfortunately, Hoffer died in 1983, so my luck is limited to getting to know him through his writing. I first met him when I recently read The True Believer, a short analysis of the people who join mass movements and their reasons for doing so. It was written in the early 1950’s but is stunningly relevant today. Hoffer was a longshoreman in San Francisco who spent nearly all of his available time reading, studying people, and writing. He became suddenly famous when President Eisenhower praised this book in a speech. Read it, and you’ll long for a president with similar insight.

Another of Hoffer’s works is a short book called Reflections on the Human Condition. Like The True Believer, it is stunning in its depth of insight. Hoffer believed that the essence of our humanity was our constant questioning:

Language was invented to ask questions. Answers may be given by grunts and gestures, but questions must be spoken. Humanness came of age when man asked the first questions. Social stagnation results not from a lack of answers but from the absence of the impulse to ask questions.

Here are Hoffer’s thoughts on some important questions. The questions are mine; the answers and questions they raise are his.

When will I feel grown up?

Both the revolutionary and the creative individual are perpetual juveniles. The revolutionary does not grow up because he cannot grow, while the creative individual cannot grow up because he keeps growing.

Why do I feel like I am in a constant rush?

The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is on the contrary born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else -- we are the busiest people in the world.

How can I resist discouragement?

Our achievements speak for themselves. What we have to keep track of are our failures, discouragements, and doubts. We tend to forget the past difficulties, the many false starts, and the painful groping. We see our past achievements as the end result of a clean forward thrust, and our present difficulties as signs of decline and decay.

Why is it so hard to stop wanting things that I can’t have?

So true it is that the path of desire once trodden remains frequented that we not only keep wanting what we cannot have but go on wanting what we no longer really want.

Am I investing in the things that matter to me?

How frighteningly few are the persons whose death would spoil our appetite and make the world seem empty.

Did I forget how good it is to be here right now?

The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

This is a great selection of quotes. Hoffer had an amazing life that he chronicled in his memoir “Truth Imagined.” It relates his experiences from early childhood until he became a longshoreman and wrote “The True Believer.” I put his answer to “how to resist discouragement” on a wall in my office, it’s a good one to look at from time to time.

Sean Murphy — May 4, 2008

I have long been a fan of Eric Hoffer’s work, since reading him as an undergraduate at California State University Sacramento in the early 70s. Like William Saroyan, another Californian of humble roots (he wrote the “Human Comedy”), there is in Hoffer’s writing such an admirable connectedness to the practical man.

As editor of a Tucson publication devoted to transitional housing programs for homeless veterans (Esperanza Sentinel Post, or ESP), I was surfing the net looking for Hoffer’s statement that “America was built by the scum of the earth.” ESP is part of a 501©3 not-for-profit that is partially funded by the Veterans Administration.

In the context of Hoffer’s work, a psychiatrist by the name of Thomas Szasz (Ideology and Insanity, the Myth of Mental Illness, Ceremonial Chemistry, and others) invokes Hoffer as an exemplar of admirable caution when it comes to applying labels.

Do you know Bill Atkinson? One of my favorite Apple Programmers. I used to teach at the local medical school and made it a point to teach HyperCard to generations of physician-wanna-be types.

I have a theory that PTSD is exacerbated by self-imposed social distancing and would like to do a long term study of interactions between street vets and communications evoking ai.

Steve Louie, BSN, MBA, LCDR-I, USNR fibonacci — May 8, 2009