Eric Hoffer on intellectuals

Hoffer’s hostile attitude toward what he called intellectuals is complicated, even contradictory. On the one hand, he admired well-educated, articulate people, corresponded with them, and wrote down hundreds of quotations from their books. On the other, he despised those he identified as “men of words” and expressed contempt for them and their followers

In the usual sense of the word, Hoffer himself was an intellectual. He read books and wrote them. But he had no desire to teach others, he said, and this made him “a non-intellectual”. For the intellectual is someone who “considers it his God-given right to tell others what to do.”

What the intellectual craves in his innermost being is to turn the whole globe into a classroom and the world’s population into a class of docile pupils hanging onto the words of the chosen teacher.

“Even in a union meeting of more or less unlearned longshoremen, I never have the feeling that I know best, that I could tell them what to do”, Hoffer pleaded. He had faith in the competence of ordinary Americans to solve their own problems. …

One target was Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist political theorist who taught at Brandeis University. America suffered from “repressive tolerance”, Marcuse believed, and many leftist radicals of the day (such as Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis) admired him. Hoffer called Marcuse “a shabby would-be aristocrat”. …

Hoffer at one point defined an intellectual “as one who saw himself as born to teach, lead and command”; later as “a literate person who feels himself a member of … an intellectual elite.” He began to develop these ideas even as he was writing The True Believer. Mass movements are generated by non-creative men of words, he believed. …

He viewed them as a dangerous species. They scorn profit and worship power; they aim to make history, not money. Their abiding dissatisfaction is with “things as they are”. They want to rule by coercion and yet retain our admiration. They see in the common criminal “a fellow militant in the effort to destroy the existing system”. Societies where the common people are relatively prosperous displease them because intellectuals know that their leadership will be rejected in the absence of a widespread grievance. The cockiness and independence of common folk offend their aristocratic outlook. The free-market system renders their leadership superfluous. Their quest for influence and status is always uppermost.

A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual’s sense of worth as an automated economy is a threat to the worker’s sense of worth. Any social order, however just and noble, which can function well with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual.

All intellectuals are homesick for the Middle Ages, Hoffer wrote. It was “the El Dorado of the clerks”—a time when “the masses knew their place and did not trespass from their low estate”. Intellectuals enjoyed their first taste of blood when they started the French Revolution. Writers and revolutionaries had a new sense of their power. “They knew that the world was vulnerable to the potency of thought and that they were the new makers of history.”

But the nineteenth century had been a big disappointment. The workers had shown unwelcome signs of wanting to join rather than rebel against the bourgeoisie. The members of the intelligentsia, pushing too openly for revolution, had overplayed their hand and were discredited in the failed European revolutions of 1848. They didn’t return to the stage of history until the Russian Revolution.

Unless they are consulted and flattered, Hoffer argued, intellectuals constitute a destabilizing force in society. When a prevailing order is discredited or overthrown, it is often “the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance”. Even a vigorous and meritorious regime is likely to be swept away if it fails to win the allegiance of the articulate minority. When we hear of widespread disaffection within the society it is really the intellectuals who are disaffected. On the other hand, where that minority lacks a grievance, the prevailing order—however incompetent or corrupt—is likely to remain in power.

The modern faith in education as the solution to society’s ills had only made matters worse. Shortly before The True Believer was published, Hoffer noted that if it is true that “…the most rabid fanatic comes from among the non-creative men of words, then it is obvious that a spread of education and a reverence for creativeness is likely to multiply the number of those thwarted in their attempts to create.”

Possibly, then, “the diffusion of literacy in the Western world … has created a reservoir of fanatics of the most virulent kind.”

Educational efforts in Asia had kindled more resentments and grievances than solutions, he thought. “Many of the revolutionary leaders in India, China and Indonesia received their training in conservative Western institutions.”

— Thomas Bethell, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher


One response to “Eric Hoffer on intellectuals

  1. Pingback: Eric Hoffer on intellectuals | Reaction Times

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