Men Of Words

"Whatever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity."

"...the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves."

-- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

The true believer, Hoffer tells us, is a frustrated, self-loathing individual who compensates for a weak identity by finding some crusade to invest himself in. The mass movement is perfect for such persons: it "appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self. A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation."

It is characteristic of weak selves to see power and liveliness "out there" in the world rather than within. "I am nothing," they say, "but the forces that shape people's lives are everything." Hoffer offers a wonderful line from Thoreau: "If anything ail (sic) a man, so that he does not perform his functions...he forthwith sets about reforming -- the world."

Mass movements can be good or bad, wholesome or destructive, but they all "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 demand blind faith and singlehearted allegiance."

Though written some fifty years ago, The True Believer has much to offer a world that still teems with religious fanatics, super-patriots, and the rigid and dogmatic of all stripes. It also offers insight into those Hoffer calls the "men of words." These are intellectuals, scribes, professors, orators -- anyone at all who enjoys a facility for language who is able to rouse popular sentiment and prey upon the anger, insecurities, and confusion of the masses.

The "men of words" are not themselves true believers. They are not the kind to lead a bloody coup, or to sustain a mass movement over any length of time, or to repose absolute faith in any dogma or creed. What influence they wield is a function of where they happen to stand in relation to power. What they crave most is recognition and approbation. If lauded and embraced by power, they tend to cultivate a sympathy for the strong against the weak; if excluded, ignored or calumnied, their sympathies become more ardent and demotic.

The passages below expand upon this point. Hoffer's genius lies in treating behavior as the mirror of the psyche, reflecting either wounded or vibrant selves.

"Mass movements do not usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited. The discrediting is not an automatic result of the blunders and abuses of those in power, but the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance...

"The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, of familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating a receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all. As long as the existing order functions in a more or less orderly fashion, the masses remain basically conservative. They can think of reform but not of total innovation. The fanatical extremist, no matter how eloquent, strikes them as dangerous, traitorous, impractical or even insane. They will not listen to him...

"The division between men of words, fanatics and practical men of not meant to be categorical. Men like Gandhi and Trotsky start out as apparently ineffectual men of words and later display exceptional talents as administrators or generals. A man like Mohammed starts out as a man of words, develops into an implacable fanatic and finally reveals a superb practical sense. A fanatic like Lenin is a master of the spoken word, and unequaled as a man of action. What the classification attempts to suggest is that the readying of the ground for a mass movement is done best by men whose chief claim to excellence is their skill in the use of the spoken or written word; that the hatching of an actual movement requires the temperament and the talents of the fanatic; and that the final consolidation of the movement is largely the work of practical men of action...

"The men of words are of diverse types. They can be priests, scribes, prophets, writers, artists, professors, students and intellectuals in general...

"Whatever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity. 'Vanity,' said Napoleon, 'made the Revolution; liberty was only a pretext.' There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of every intellectual, be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day. What de Remusat said of Thiers is perhaps true of most men of words: 'he has much more vanity than ambition; and he prefers consideration to obedience, and the appearance of power to power itself. Consult him constantly, and then do just as you please. He will take more notice of your deference to him than of your actions.'

"There is a moment in the career of almost every fault-finding man of words when a deferential or conciliatory gesture from those in power may win him over to their side. At a certain stage, most men of words are ready to become timeservers and courtiers...

"However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal. His pity is usually hatched out of his hatred for the powers that be. 'It is only a few rare and exceptional men who have that kind of love toward mankind at large that makes them unable to endure patiently the general mass of evil and suffering, regardless of any relation it may have to their own lives.' [This is a quote from Bertrand Russell's Proposed Roads to Freedom -- ed.] Thoreau states the fact with fierce extravagance: 'I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted...and he will forsake his generous companions without apology.' When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak. A Luther, who, when first defying the established church, spoke feelingly of 'the poor, simple, common folk,' proclaimed later, when allied with German princelings, that 'God would prefer to suffer the government to exist no matter how evil, rather than to allow the rabble to riot, no matter how justified they are in doing so.' A Burke patronized by lords and nobles spoke of the 'swinish multitude' and recommended to the poor 'patience, labor, sobriety, frugality, and religion.' The pampered and flattered men of words in Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia feel no impulsion to side with the persecuted and terrorized against the ruthless leaders and their secret police.

"Where all learned men are clergymen, the church is unassailable. Where all learned men are bureaucrats or where education gives a man an acknowledged superior status, the prevailing order is likely to be free from movements of protest.

"The Catholic Church sank to its lowest level in the tenth century, at the time of Pope John XII. It was then far more corrupt and ineffectual than at the time of the Reformation. But in the tenth century all learned men were priests, whereas in the fifteenth century, as the result of the introduction of printing and paper, learning had ceased to be the monopoly of the church. It was the nonclerical humanists who formed the vanguard of the Reformation. Those of the scholars affiliated with the church or who, as in Italy, enjoyed the patronage of the Popes, 'showed a tolerant spirit on the whole toward existing institutions, including the ecclesiastical abuses, and, in general, cared little how long the vulgar herd was left in superstitious darkness which befitted their state.'...

"When we debunk a fanatical faith or prejudice, we do not strike at the root of fanaticism. We merely prevent its leaking out at a certain point, with the likely result that it will leak out at some other point. Thus by denigrating prevailing beliefs and loyalties, the militant man of words unwittingly creates in the disillusioned masses a hunger for faith. For the majority of people cannot endure the barrenness and futility of their lives unless they have some ardent dedication, or some passionate pursuit in which they can lose themselves. Thus, in spite of himself, the scoffing man of words becomes the precursor of a new faith.

"The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy. If he formulates a philosophy and a doctrine, they are more an exhibition of brilliance and an exercise in dialectics than a program of action and the tenets of a faith. His vanity, it is true, often prompts him to defend his speculations with savagery and even venom; but his appeal is usually to reason and not to faith. The fanatics and the faith-hungry masses, however, are likely to invest such speculations with the certitude of holy writ, and make them the fountainhead of a new faith. Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist."

(From the New American Library edition, 1951, pp.121-128.)