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The Legacy of Eric Hoffer: Part II By: Thomas Sowell
Townhall.com | Thursday, June 19, 2003


"There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life."

This is just one of the pungent insights of Eric Hoffer, who died twenty years ago. This particular quote is from his book of short sayings called The Passionate State of Mind. In another such book, Before the Sabbath, he saw the "Nixon tragedy" as that of an "opportunist who missed his greatest opportunity."

Some of Hoffer's books are collections of short, sharp insights, while others -- The True Believer, The Ordeal of Change, and The Temper of Our Times, for example -- offer more extended discussions of particular issues.

Although Eric Hoffer was perhaps at his zenith during the 1960s, he was completely at odds with the pious cant and slippery evasions of that rhetoric-ridden decade, whose tragic consequences are still with us today.

When a black man declared his "rage," Eric Hoffer shot back: "Mister, it is easy to be full of rage. It is not easy to go to work and build something." For this, he was accused of "racism" for not rolling over and playing dead at the sound of one of the buzzwords of the times -- and, unfortunately, of our times as well.

Hoffer was convinced that the black leadership was taking the wrong approach, if they wanted to advance the people in whose name they spoke. Only achievement would win the respect of the larger society and -- more important -- their own self-respect. And no one else can give you achievement.

Hoffer's strongest words were for the intellectuals -- or rather, against the intellectuals. "Intellectuals," he said, "cannot operate at room temperature." Hype, moral melodrama, and sweeping visions were the way that intellectuals approached the problems of the world.

But that was not the way progress was usually achieved in America. "Nothing so offends the doctrinaire intellectual as our ability to achieve the momentous in a matter-of-fact way, unblessed by words."

Since the American economy and society advanced with little or no role for the intelligentsia, it is hardly surprising that anti-Americanism flourishes among intellectuals. "Nowhere at present is there such a measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America," Eric Hoffer said.

Some of the outrageous comments from intellectuals and academics, that the 9-11 terrorist attacks were somehow our own fault, bore out what Hoffer had said many years earlier.

Eric Hoffer never bought the claims of intellectuals to be for the common man. "A ruling intelligentsia," he said, "whether in Europe, Asia or Africa, treats the masses as raw material to be experimented on, processed and wasted at will."

One of the many conceits of contemporary intellectuals that Hoffer deflated was their nature cult. "Almost all the books I read spoke worshipfully of nature," he said, recalling his own personal experience as a migrant farm worker that was full of painful encounters with nature, which urban intellectuals worshipped from afar.

Hoffer saw in this exaltation of nature another aspect of intellectuals' elitist "distaste for man." Implicit in much that they say and do is "the assumption that education readies a person for the task of reforming and reshaping humanity -- that is equips him to act as an engineer of souls and manufacturer of desirable human attributes."

Eric Hoffer called it "soul raping" -- an apt term for what goes on in too many schools today, where half-educated teachers treat the classroom as a place for them to shape children's attitudes and beliefs in a politically correct direction.

This is creating the next generation of "true believers," indoctrinated with ideologies that provide "fact-proof screens from reality" in Hoffer's words. It is the antithesis of education.

Eric Hoffer was ahead of his time. It is a literary treat to read him in order to catch up with our own times.

Note: Part One of this series on Eric Hoffer can be read here.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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