By the age of five, Eric Hoffer could read English and German. At seven, he went blind. At fifteen, he regained his sight for the rest of his life. But the fifteen-year-old boy did not yet know it would be for the rest of his life.
And so, for more than sixty years, Eric Hoffer read books like he might lose his sight again tomorrow. A poor boy who was eventually orphaned, Hoffer took this voracity with him to the West Coast in 1920: “Logic told me that California was the poor man’s country,” was his conclusion. Ten years in LA’s skid row, most of the Depression as a migrant worker, and the 1940s as a San Francisco longshoreman could not keep him from books. He devoured them.
Hoffer burst onto the national scene in 1951 with a classic work of sociology, The True Believer, but he later regarded his best book as The Ordeal of Change, a 128-page reflection on how humans interact with change. Here, the aphoristic Hoffer gives sketches of “the emerging individual.” That is, Hoffer sees a significant condition occurring when man cannot continue to be part of a self-contained community. This is a frightful new state, but it is here that he can also cultivate his abilities in a way previously unknown. To Hoffer, the maladies of the present day are due to the substitutes we accept for the self-confidence, self-esteem, and individual balance that we really hunger for in an unlimited, changing world.
Standard humanist rugged-individualism, you say? Perhaps in a sense, but Hoffer is no Ayn Rand. He does not offer a boasting vision for a hard-fought future. Seeing massive social problems through the lens of psychological disturbance, Hoffer hopes for a soul-ish solution, but he offers no Platonic vision for the grand whole. In this, Hoffer is embarking on a very old reaction to politics and social strife.
The Stoics did not reject politics, like the Epicureans. In fact, Stoicism became the main Greek appeal to Roman politicians. In general, though, the Stoics tended to show a curious ability to retreat from politics. For them, none of the physical conditions of life could ever be called wholly good or bad – only the response of a rational individual mattered. Most human problems, said the Stoics, had to do with people’s inability to line up their judgments with their true nature. That is, we let incorrect emotions and desires cloud our good thought.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this note of the growth of Stoicism in a Greece that was losing its political independence: “In the political and social context of the Hellenistic period … Stoicism provided a psychological fortress which was secure from bad fortune.” The Stoics made a remarkable insistence on the need for mastery of oneself, and the irrelevance (adiaphora) of all other factors.
A curious revitalization of Stoic philosophy grew up in the 16th century world of religious and political chaos. During the French wars of religion, a variety of individuals dissented from the militant religious enforcers on each side, as well as from the new Machiavellian politiques just now entering the scene. For these individuals, the conquest of the whole was a red herring – true happiness was to be found in the virtuous and not-too-passionate self. Foremost among these new Stoics was the essayist Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s personal reflections are often described as a new literary style, in which the writer’s probing of himself interacted with his critique of the world around him. This was not the same as the Christian confession, which Augustine had pioneered. Rather, Montaigne incorporated humanistic moralizing into a social dismay – a combination that is often supposed to adumbrate the psychology of the modern individual.
It is probably no irrelevant fact that Eric Hoffer carried with him, through those fields and workyards, a copy of Montaigne’s Essays – a thick book in small type, making for the greatest possible number of words a man might reasonably trek across California. Hoffer’s Stoic response to his surrounding conditions is not merely a cynical dejection any more than it is a progressive dream. Rather, man’s startling condition is a combination of social and psychological dislocation, with a realization that man must cultivate himself. Typically, political theorists search for the best order, based on man’s condition as he is. The Stoic, with his seamless combination of philosophy and personal discipline, insists on finding happiness and freedom in individual perfection. Being social is still a part of human nature, and therefore part of that perfection, but it is a cultivation within oneself: “The capacity for getting along with our neighbor depends to a large extent on the capacity for getting along with ourselves” (Hoffer).
Hoffer is only a social or political theorist insofar as he theorizes about the individual psychology of social or political man. This is why he offers no social prescription for human woes. In fact, sometimes he acknowledges that there is no satisfactory solution. On the role of intellectuals in society, Hoffer laments the fact that they are precluded from being a benefit to American practicality; on the other hand, he shows the horrible results of intellectuals gaining power or allying themselves with power. His best solution is that intellectuals must not have power, but they do have a vital role in expounding and defending politics, so they must have some role in it.
With a Stoic view of material goods, his preferred role for intellectuals is not for the sake of any material benefit, but for the interior good of men: “So it is better to be bossed by men of little faith, who set their hearts on toys, than by men animated by lofty ideals who are ready to sacrifice themselves and others for a cause.” This apparent cynicism should not distract us, for again Hoffer is not seeking a perfect order. He is seeking the fully developed man:
The severing of the individual from the compact group is an operation from which the individual never fully recovers. The individual on his own remains a chronically incomplete and unbalanced entity, His creative efforts and passionate pursuits are at bottom a blind striving for wholeness and balance. The individual striving to realize himself and prove his worth has created all that is great in literature, art, music, science, and technology. The individual, also, when he can neither realize himself nor justify his existence by his own efforts is a breeding cell of frustration and the seed of the convulsions which shake a society to its foundations.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.