Friday, July 29, 2016

Eric Hoffer

[Editor's Note:  From time to time we will again offer a Friday profile of someone little-known or unknown in the history of our culture.]

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."

Since the profession of full-time pastor is drying up along with mainstream Protestantism itself, many of my ordained colleagues have become, in the euphemism of the church, "tent-maker clergy".  In other words, and based on how St. Paul's was employed while spreading the Word of God, they have jobs, usually in the secular realm, that they fulfill along with serving a parish.

During the week I will work three days for a parish, one or two days as a drywall installer or carpenter, and one or two days as a luthier.  One morning a week, I serve as an unofficial chaplain for an independent school.  A good friend serves on weekends at a parish in New York City as its priest-in-charge and during the remainder of the week works for a Wall Street banking corporation.  We have both noted in conversation that, while we do not have any days off, we often don't miss them as our duties can be very different from day to day.  When we're becoming fatigued with pastoral work, we have our other, rather different, duties, and vice versa.

Personally, I find that nothing better aids the mind and the organization of thought than spending time working a blank of ash into an electric guitar body.  Between the jigsaw and the router, the sander and the airbrush, some of my best sermons and teaching plans have also been shaped.  Just when I get tired of the sawdust and noise, I can sit with an elderly parishioner in a hospital and speak of eternal notions, or watch the youth of the parish design a liturgy, or simply celebrate the Holy Mysteries behind the altar.  It is a refreshing type of occupational "cross-training" and I have sought to do so most of my professional life.

My model for this was my favorite English professor, whose specialty was comparative literature and, to facilitate his international education, worked as a merchant seaman for some years.  The juxtaposition served him well as his insight and lectures were easily the most accessible and popular in his department, no doubt as he saw the world through a much richer and more colorful lens.

When I asked him about this style of experiential learning, he told me of Eric Hoffer, who had served as his model.  I had never heard of Hoffer, which was not unusual since he wasn't terribly popular in the university system of the 1970's as he was not a product of the Ivy League machine, but when I read his works I realized that the relationship between "common" labor and intellectual perception was far more important than many realized.

Eric Hoffer was born in The Bronx in 1898, which often surprises people as, until the day of his death, he spoke with a strong German/Alsatian accent.  Such were ethnic neighborhoods once upon a time, with native languages spoken on the street and in the homes and written on the signs in the butcher's window, that one could be born and raised in a place that retained even the accent of "the old country".

Orphaned at an early age, blinded in an accident, Hoffer was all but helpless until, in an event that would forever baffle his physicians, his sight was suddenly restored at the age of fifteen.   Fearing, as one would, that he would just as suddenly become blind again, he read every book he could lay his hands on and then, as he became more confident that his vision would last, sought to see as much of the world and its wonders as he could.

Of course, not having money, a trust fund, or any inheritance, Hoffer worked at a series of jobs, usually in the labor trades.  He lived on Skid Row in Los Angeles, sometimes homeless, for the better part of a decade.  When his despair at his condition became acute, resulting in a near suicide, he left L.A. to become a migrant worker, railroad man, and prospector.  His only, and cherished, possession in these days was his library card.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the 43-year-old Hoffer volunteered for service with the U.S. Army.  Being a little suspicious of someone fluent in German with little in the way of a documented history, he was turned down.  Instead, he became a longshoreman in San Francisco, a job he would hold for the next twenty-five years.

Feeling that America's "underclass" was underrepresented in philosophic inquiry [no kidding, check out 21st century political philosophy, where two entitled millionaire establishment figures are seeking to represent the rest of us], and having read philosophy in quiet times during his prospector days, Hoffer wrote The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, his first book.  Published in 1951, it is a philosophical examination of the nature of fanaticism such as through the world had suffered with Nazism and Stalinism.  The fact that this volume may still be read and be relevant is a testimony to the burgeoning nihilism of the past seventy years.

In marketing the book, Hoffer's publisher branded him "The Longshoreman Philosopher", a title that he would carry for the rest of his days.

As he wrote in the preface:
All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance.

All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.
Hoffer had noted that the membership of the Nazi and the Communist Parties tended to be interchangeable, despite the gross difference between the two philosophies, indicating that the politics weren't as important as the "movement" in addressing an underlying need that was not being served by general society. In The True Believer and subsequent works, Hoffer observed that cultural movements were historically organized through largely predictable situations. Since a positive self-regard is necessary for personal happiness, when such esteem is lost, people will go to extraordinary lengths to claim the absent sense of well-being.  By extension, when they believe that their lives are useless and have been made so by a corrupt, untouchable Other, and that the only recourse is for individuals to gather together and foment or force radical change, movements then take life.  Depending on the depth of alienation, mass movements can be brutal.

Hoffer observed that this was the case even with relatively benign movements, such as Christianity, which he noted managed to take an eager persecutor like Saul of Tarsus and alter his thinking and practices so that he became St. Paul, an equally zealous apologist for the faith.

It does not take a philosopher to note that, during this particularly fractious year in politics, there is a remarkable similarity between some of the supporters of Sanders, Trump, and Clinton, with people reduced to rage, tears, dramatic gestures, chanting, and other emotionally compromised behavior, to see Hoffer's perspective has longevity.  Even a cursory glance at Islamism would reveal the same.

The True Believer was remarkably popular, written and published as it was during the height of American literacy.  It turned Hoffer into a minor celebrity, with positive interviews appearing in print and in the relatively new world of television.  By the mid-1950's, Hoffer was working three days a week as a longshoreman and one day as a philosophy lecturer at Berkeley [Where else?].  He would often be introduced as a "public intellectual", only to correct the speaker by replying, "No, just a longshoreman".

Hoffer would live into his 80's, residing no longer on Skid Row but in an apartment overlooking the San Francisco docks where he used to work.  He would publish twelve more books, most of which are still in print.  In addition, the Hoover Institution has archived an enormous collection of Hoffer's notebooks that include enough material for several other volumes.  In 1983, shortly before his death, he was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom.