I recently picked up this book from the library, afterwhich I found out it was listed as one of the “7 books that will change how you see the world” on MarkManson.net, a personal favourite website of mine.
Though this book is essentially talking about mass movements, revolutions and war, I came across many points in the book that resonates everyday behaviour. Hence, I extracted some quotes from the book that speaks more directly to me. These are for my own personal future reference, and to record my thoughts and/or personal understanding of those points.
The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer
Part 1: The Appeal of Mass Movement
I The Desire for Change
“There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfilment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change.”
When people are contented with their own lives, they will naturally preserve the current state in fear that any change will cause a ripple to their calmness. On the other end of the spectrum, the not-so-successful would think that change could cause a positive ripple in their stagnant position.
“The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on.”
People may think that by changing external conditions, their internal state of being will improve. In actual fact, the biggest change one can make is himself. The change in your internal conditions (a better attitude, developing more skills, self-grooming, self-care and self-love), will reflect in your external situation.
“When our mode of life is so precarious as to make it patent that we cannot control the circumstances of our existence, we tend to stick to the proven and the familiar. We counteract a deep feeling of insecurity by making of our existence a fixed routine.”
When people can’t see that they can make a change, they submit to whatever that life serves them. They are not used to an environment where change is active hence are willing to take on the routine that life has written for them. In contrast, a person like me, who believes that life is up to my control and change is always possible, will never get used to “familiar” and can never accept a routine that is not my own.
“The abjectly poor, too, stand in awe of the world around them and are not hospitable to change. It is a dangerous life we live when hunger and cold are at our heels.”
However, some people have no choice of controlling and changing their lives because they are barely self-sufficient. To be able to survive on the minimum state of conditions, that is enough. The search for more is not even a least bit of the concerns in their minds that are occupied with fulfilling basic needs.
“The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”
It’s with faith that people see possibilities. It is those possibilities that motivates the actions to achieve them.
“For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power – a slogan, a word, a button.”
When one has hope, one has already implicitly set their hearts to make a change. Nothing more needs to be employed to give strength, and those “sources” are just something tangible to latch your ideas onto.
“If the Communists win Europe and a large part of the world, it will not be because they know how to stir up discontent or how to infect people with hatred, but because they know how to preach hope.”
“Thus the differences between the conservative and the radical seem to spring mainly from their attitude toward the future. Fear of the future causes us to lean against and cling to the present, while faith in the future renders us receptive to change.”
It depends on whether one has great foresight of seeing change in the future, great courage to take the risks of change, and great desire to carve one’s future.
II The Desire for Substitutes
“To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources.”
A person’s call for change may be a person’s call for escape from one’s self which one cannot seem to find satisfaction with. One hopes that in effecting change, one can gain a new self and be rid of the self that one has already grown tired of.
“The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. “
Sometimes, helping others with their problems is a distraction from your own.
“When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for.”
“Hence the embracing of a substitute will necessarily be passionate and extreme.”
When life is still, there is a need to find a cause where one can generate the desire and passion that humankind craves.
“We cannot be sure that we have something worth living for unless we are ready to die for it.”
Part 2: The Potential Converts
IV The Role of the Undesirables in Human Affairs
“There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members.”
I think most of us are guilty of this at some point in life, and now I’m starting to remind myself that there’s so much more to an entity than one skewed view about it.
“The decent, average people who do the nation’s work in cities and on the land are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both ends – the best and the worst.”
V The Poor
“It is usually those whose poverty is relatively recent, the “new poor”, who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as fire in their veins”
I would like to relate this to a quote I recently came across – “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” One who had tasted and knew success, and is mercilessly stripped off it may not be able to accept and adapt to the new less-than-ideal plight. One will persistently believe that one deserves more.
“The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives. To be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility. The goals are concrete and immediate. Every meal is a fulfillment; to go to sleep on a full stomach is a triumph; and every windfall a miracle.”
The need to achieve tremendously may cripple one’s sense of self-satisfaction. When needs and expectations are little, goals are attainable, which fuels the sense of fulfillment – even if the goals are little. In comparison with having a big goal which is unattainable, or at least in the short-run, the sense of fulfillment of the individual dwindles.
“Misery does not automatically generate discontent, nor is the intensity of discontent directly proportionate to the degree of misery. Discontent is likely to be highest when misery is bearable; when conditions have so improved that an ideal state seems almost within reach.”
When you know that you can do something about your misery, the discontentment of being stuck in it intensifies, fueling the need for action and change.
“The intensity of discontent seems to be in inverse proportion to the distance from the object fervently desired.”
When your dream is within reach but you can’t seem to grasp it yet, that is when desperation seeps in. The closer you are to the dream, the more anxious one gets in wanting to attain it.
“We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.”
And sometimes that one thing becomes the purpose of your entire existence, and no matter how many other things you get, you still will never feel satisfied. This is akin to having many achievements but still feeling like you’re missing something because you are not pursuing your true passion. On the other hand, if one is lacking much, one will be occupied with trying to develop one’s basic self, placing less emphasis on that one true desire first, until the point of stagnantation arrives.
“Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual.”
You have no one to blame but yourself. You are responsible for your actions and consequences. This is the price, and the exhilariting beauty, of freedom.
“Nothing so bolsters our self-confidence and reconciles us with ourselves as the continuous ability to create; to see things grow and develop under our hand, day in, day out.”
When one sees the impact that one has the ability to create, one can see – again and again – how purposeful and meaningful life can be.
VI The Misfits
“The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irrparable defect in body or mind cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. No achievement, however spectacular, in other fields can give them a sense of fulfillment.”
When you are not where you want to be or doing what you want to do, you feel like you don’t belong as you are not where you feel like you are meant to be.
X The Bored
“When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom.”
Life is never boring. It’s the self that gets boring hence bored.
Part 3: United Action and Self-Sacrifice
XIII Factors Promoting Self-sacrifice
“The purpose of the Iron Curtain is perhaps more to prevent the Russian people from reaching out – even in thought – toward an outside world, than to prevent the infiltration of spies and saboteurs. The curtain is both physical and psychological.”
A psychological barrier as much as a physical one.
“It is one of the main tasks of a real leader to mask the grim reality of dying and killing by evoking in his followers the illusion that they are participating in a grandiose spectacle, a solemn or light-hearted dynamic performance.” “Their uniforms, flags, emblems, parades, music, and elaborate etiquette and ritual are designed to separate the soldier from his flesh-and-blood self and mask the overwhelming reality of life and death.”
Things can be viewed in a vastly different angle if you package it differently.
“we are less ready to die for what we have or are than for what we wish to have and to be”
Because our desires overshadows our contentment.
“ “Things which are not” are indeed mightier than “things that are”. In all ages men have fought most desperately for beautiful cities yet to be built and gardens yet to be planted.”
“We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.”
There are many interpretations that will arise when something can be understood. When something is not understood, it will just be a fixed mystery, an uncovered truth, that is acceptable by all.
“The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not. The atheist is a religious person. He believes in atheism as though it were a new religion.”
XIV Unifying Agents
“We do not usually look for allies when we love. Indeed, we often look on those who love with us as rivals and trespassers. But we always look for allies when we hate.”
When we hate something, we like to gather other energies with us to validate the issue that we hate on. When we love something, our need to possess the love interest creates a trace of jealousy that prevents any neutral and open feelings about sharing the loving process.
“It is easier to hate an enemy with much good in him than one who is all bad. We cannot hate those we despise. The Japanese had an advantage over us in that they admired us more than we admired them. They could hate us more fervently than we could hate them. The Americans are poor haters in international affairs because of their innate feeling of superiority over all foreigners.”
“The best yardstick for the value of his attitude, for the sincerity of his conviction, and the force of his well is the hostility he receives from the…enemy.”
“The less satisfaction we derive from being ourselves, the greater is our desire to be like others. We are therefore more ready to imitate those who are different from us than those nearly like us,”
“The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe.”
“The gifted propagandist brings to a boil ideas and passions already simmering in the minds of his hearers. He echoes their innermost feelings. Where opinion is not coerced, people can be made to believe only in what they already “know”.”
“Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others;”
People will choose to hear only what they believe in. Section 93
“People whose lives are barren and insecure seem to show a greater willingness to obey than people who are self-sufficient and self-confident.”
XVIII Good and Bad Mass Movements Section 120
“A mass movement with a concrete, limited objective is likely to have a shorter active phase than a movement with a nebulous, indefinite objective. The vague objective is perhaps indispensable for the development of chronic extremism. Said Oliver Cromwell: “A man never goes so far as when he does not know whither he is going.””
“When a mass movement is set in motion to free a nation from tyranny, either domestic or foreign, or to resist an aggressor, or to renovate a backward society, there is a natural point of termination once the struggle with the enemy is over or the process of reorganization is nearing completion. On the other hand, when the objective is an ideal society of perfect unity and selflessness – whether it be a City of God, a Communist heaven on earth, or Hitler’s warrior state – the active phase is without an automatic end.”
All quotes are cited from The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer.