Posts Tagged ‘Eric Hoffer’

Quotes from The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer

September 27, 2015

Eric Hoffer is a very interesting thinker, and I very much enjoyed his The Ordeal of Change. If possible, I would quote large parts of the book, but have to settle for some short excerpts. Many of them demonstrate Hoffer’s deep understanding of the human psyche. I try to quote generously rather than commenting too much.

It has been often said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the fruits of weakness. The resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done to them but from the sense of their inadequacy and impotence. We cannot win the weak by sharing our wealth with them They feel our generosity as oppression. […] Nor can we win the weak by sharing our hope, pride, or even hatred with them. […] Our healing gift to the weak is the capacity for self-help. We must learn how to impart to them the technical, social, and political skills which would enable them to get bread, human dignity, freedom, and strength by their own efforts [pp. 11-12*].

While written more than fifty years ago, certain parts feel oddly relevant for the present-day social media driven self-realization epidemic:

An autonomous existence is heavily burdened and beset with fears, and can be endured only when bolstered by confidence and self-esteem. The individual’s most vital need is to prove his worth, and this usually means an insatiable hunger for action. For it is only the few who can acquire a sense of worth by developing and employing their capacities and talents. The majority prove their worth by keeping busy. A busy life is the nearest thing to a purposeful life. But whether the individual takes the path of self-realization or the easier one of self-justification by action he remains unbalanced and restless. For he has to prove his worth anew each day [p. 25].

On creativity of the intellectual:

There is no unequivocal evidence that the intellectual is at his creative best when left wholly on his own. It is not at all certain that individual freedom is a vital factor in the release of creative energies in literature, art, music, and science. Many of the outstanding achievements in these fields were not realized in an atmosphere of absolute freedom. […] There is a chronic insecurity at the core of the creative person, and he needs a milieu that will nourish his confidence and sense of uniqueness. Discerning appreciation and a modicum of deference and acclaim are probably more vital for his creative flow than freedom to fend for himself. Thus a despotism that recognizes and subsidizes excellence might be more favorable for the performance of the intellectual than a free society that does not take him seriously. […] It is of course conceivable that a wholly free society might become imbued with a reverence for the fine arts; but up to now the indications have been that where common folk have room enough there is not much room for the dignity and rank of the typical writer, artist, and intellectual in general [pp. 31-32].

More on the intellectual:

One cannot escape the impression that the intellectual’s most fundamental incompatibility is with the masses. He has managed to thrive in social orders dominated by kings, nobles, priests, and merchants, but not in societies suffused with the tastes and values of the masses. The trespassing by the masses into the domain of culture and onto the stage of history is seen even by the best among the intellectuals as a calamity [pp. 42-43].

Ordeal is not really a book in the typical sense, but rather a collection of essays that revolve around a common theme. Thus, Hoffer ranges far and wide in topics and relations, and takes the opportunity to comment on, for example, history:

From their first appearance civilizations almost everywhere were preoccupied with the spectacular, the fantastic, the sublime, the absurd, and the playful—with hardly a trickle of ingenuity seeping into the practical and useful. The prehistoric discoveries and inventions remained the basis of everyday life in most countries down to our time. Technologically, the Neolithic Age lasted even in Western Europe down to the end of the eighteenth century [p. 48].

In an essay on ‘the brotherhood of men’, Hoffer points out a surprisingly accurate contrast between my relationship with those close and humanity in general. (But I remain ambivalent, and my relationships are repeatedly turned up side down. Perhaps I need the maturity of Hoffer to settle.)

It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor. There may even be a certain antagonism between love of humanity and love of neighbor; a low capacity for getting along with those near us often goes hand in hand with a high receptivity to the idea of the brotherhood of men. […] The capacity for getting along with our neighbor depends to a large extent on the capacity for getting along with ourselves. The self-respecting individual will try to be as tolerant of his neighbor’s shortcomings as he is of his own. Self-righteousness is a manifestation of self-contempt. When we are conscious of our worthlessness, we naturally expect others to be finer and better than we are, and it is as if we wished to be disappointed in them. Rudeness luxuriates in the absence of self-respect [pp. 74-75].

According to Hoffer, modern man strives with self-respect, and with a certain grandeur, he connects it with global conflict.

The unattainability of self-respect has […] grave consequences. In man’s life the lack of an essential component usually leads to the adoption of a substitute. The substitute is usually embraced with vehemence and extremism, for we have to convince ourselves that what we took as second choice is the best there ever was. Thus blind faith is to a considerable extent a substitue for the lost faith in ourselves; insatiable desire a substitute for hope; accumulation a substitute for growth; fervent hustling a substitute for purposeful action; and pride a substitute for unattainable self-respect .The pride that at present pervades the world is the claim that one is a member of a chose group—be it a nation, race, church, or party. No other attitude has so impaired the oneness of the human species and contributed so much to the savage strife of our time [p. 76].

On the writer:

To the genuine writer the word is an end in itself and the center of his existence. He may dream of spectacular action and be lured to play an active role, but in the long run he does not feel at home in the whirl of busy life. […] It is only when the creative flow within him materializes in serried ranks of words that he feels at home in the world [p. 87].

Playfulness and creativity:

[…] the tendency to carry youthful characteristics into adult life, which renders man perpetually immature and unfinished, is at the root of his uniqueness in the universe, and is particularly pronounced in the creative individual. Youth has been called a perishable talent, but perhaps talent and originality are always aspects of youth, and the creative individual is an imperishable juvenile. When the Greeks said, “Whom the gods love die young” they probably meant, as Lord Sankey suggested, that those favored by the gods stay young till the day they die; young and playful [p. 93].

* Page numbers refer to the limited edition printed by Buccaneer Books, Inc. The Ordeal of Change was first published in 1963.

Related post:

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric Hoffer

September 17, 2014

I got inspired to read Eric Hoffer’s Working and Thinking on the Waterfront after a couple of quotes from it in Jacques Barzun’s Simple & DirectWorking and Thinking is Hoffer’s journal that he kept from June 1958 to May 1959, a period that was critical in Hoffer’s thinking (according to the dust cover). One way or the other, it makes for rather interesting reading. The entries are a combination of tidbits from Hoffer’s life as a San Francisco longshoreman, his social life, and his observations and thinking about little things and large things. Mostly large things.

Working and Thinking on the Waterfront by Eric HofferHoffer thinks about a great deal of things, many related to how societies functions, now and earlier, far and near. While the journal entries naturally are fragmented and rather brief, they offer many interesting perspectives and ideas. Here are some of the better:

Eventually, national churches came into being […] in the West, and nations crystallized around these churces. This is a significant point: The compact churchly organization of Christianity promoted nation formation, while Islam, being without a churchly organization, could not supply a nucleus for national crystallization [pp. 13-14*].

While nation forming is a rather slow process that began eons ago, Hoffer’s observation still seem oddly relevant against the backdrop of the current situation in the Middle East. Now, nation forming is decidedly a large thing. Hoffer also thinks of maintenance, certainly a smaller thing, and how it plays a role over the centuries.

It is the capacity for maintenance which is the best test for the vigor and stamina of a society. Any society can be galvanized for a while to build something, but the will and the skill to keep things in good repair day in, day out are fairly rare. […] I read somewhere that in ancient Rome a man was disqualified as a candidate for office because his garden showed neglect [p. 21].

Nietzsche’s description of the idealist:

A creature who has reasons for remaining in the dark about himsellf, and who is also clever enough to remain in the dark concerning these reasons [p. 49].

On creativity, and I think he is right:

We somehow assume that inner contradictions, if severe enough, may bring about the breakdown of a society or a system [or an individual, my remark]. Actually, vigor and creative flow have their source in internal strains and tensions. It is the pull of opposite poles that streches souls. And only stretched souls make music [p. 56].

Let me add that the metaphor of stretching reaches far; something stretched is in a dynamic condition, and only when exploiting ones inherent dynamics can one reach ones full potential. Hoffer has further thoughts on creativity:

How explain the primacy of painting, music, and dancing; the primacy of the non-utilitarian and the extravagant? Here are probably the roots of the uniqueness of man. Man’s inventiveness is to be sought in his impracticalness and extravagance. All other forms of life are tremendously practical and serious. Man’s creativeness has its source in his playfulness and his penchant for the superfluous. It is significant that to both children and artists luxuries are more necessary than necessities. We dare more, and are more inventive, when striving for superfluities than for necessities. Our utilitarian devices are mostly an application of insights and skills gained in the pursuit of the non-utilitarian [p. 74].

Children and artists! I am a child! And Hoffer has more:

Our originality shows itself most strikingly not in what we wholly originate but in what we do with that which we borrow from others. If this be true it is obvious that second-rate writers or artists may stimulate our originality more than first-rate ones, since we borrow more readily from the former [p. 89].

Ultimately, Hoffer is able to connect his observations about creativity to ideas from Nietzsche and to ancient developments:

I compared the stretched soul to the stretched string of a musical instrument when I said that only a stretched soul makes music. Nietzsche likened the stretched soul to a tensely-strained bow with which one can aim at the furthest goals. The bow is said to have been a musical instrument before it became a weapon [p. 173].

Hoffer also reflect on writing:

My brevity is partly the result of a reluctance or inability to write. Delight in the act of writing breeds expansiveness. One shudders at the thought of the innumerable thick volumes which come into existence as the result of the sheer habit of writing. How many people with nothing to say keep writing so many pages a day in order that their body, particularly in old age, should perform its functions [p. 131].

Writing as (bodily) exercise! I think, by the way, that the above quote was referred by Barzun and thus convinced me that Hoffer was able to make sense.

The scribe’s role in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was not unlike that of a lawyer in present-day America. He was a multipurpose human type. He could fit into any field of human endeavor—economic, political, diplomatic, military, religious, and so on. The American lawyer is a potential recruit for corporations, universities, government, unions, banks and whatnot.

In every society there is a multipurpose type. In America it is the lawyer, in Russia the commissar, in Britain the politician, in France the writer, in Germany the professor, in Japan the Samurai [pp. 158-159].

How do Hoffer know all these things about all these different societies? Perhaps because he takes an intrinsic interest in civilization:

To be civilized is perhaps to rise above passion; to be able to observe and report without giving way to anger or enthusiasm [p. 169].

In his journal, Hoffer also reports on his reading, and he reads alot. Working and Thinking is a goldmine of great book suggestions and several of the books Hoffer reports on reading are now on my mental to-read list.

Ultimately, the book inspired me to put Hoffer’s Ordeal of Change on my to-read list because Hoffer is obviously a profound thinker. Hoffer also seem to have an uncanny ability to make deep observations that are on the verge of tautologies when they first have been suggested: ‘We die alone’ (p. 91). ‘It is […] clear how vital it is not to take oneself seriously’ (p. 95).

* Page numbers refer to the 1969-edition.