Posted by Lexington Green on June 22nd, 2003 (All posts by Lexington Green)
Jonathan sent me this, and this essay by Thomas Sowell, on the 20th anniversary of the death of Eric Hoffer. I read Hoffer’s book The True Believer a few weeks after 9/11, based on an essay in the WSJ. I’d had a copy on the shelf for years but never gotten to it. Hoffer put Catholicism and Nazism in the same category — delusional beliefs for the weak. Ouch. So wrong for so many reasons. A silent prayer for the repose of his manifestly well-intentioned soul is an appropriate response, which I am happy to provide and repeat as I type this. But this type of thing happens throughout the book, which is a mix of clever and wise insights commingled with historical and factual error and over-generalization. It makes the book a lot weaker than it ought to be. Hoffer was trying to do too much. Instead of just describing the membership of modern mass political movements, which he understood pretty well, he tried to write a book which spanned all of history. And he did not know enough of all of history to do that very well.
Sowell’s affection for Hoffer seems to turn mainly on Hoffer’s uncompromising stand against the stupidities of the day which were rampant in the 1960s, at least as much as on the quality of Hoffer’s books. I have read almost everything by Sowell, who is usually very solid. His more recent books are not as good as his earlier, meatier work. For example, Knowledge and Decisions is excellent. (I just noticed that my copy seems to have disappeared … . All is not always orderly here at Fortress Lex.) Sowell’s books are better than his punditry, which can occasionally be superficial. All in all, Sowell is a better writer and thinker than Hoffer was, at least based on my sampling.