Sowell on Hoffer

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.

4 thoughts on “Sowell on Hoffer”

  1. I agree that Sowell is the better scholar and writer of the two. Hoffer is an excellent antidote to political correctness, however.

    Your judgment of Hoffer would be more credible if you gave examples of how his lack of historical knowledge hurt his arguments.

    Certainly there have been times in history when the Roman church constituted a totalitarian entity, with the power to imprison and execute any political or religious heretics. One of the breakthroughs of modern western civilization is the separation of religious and political powers.

    If only the Islamic world could follow that example.

  2. Amongst the many longshoremen whose work I have read, Hoffer stands…well, alone. That is part of the charm, sort of like the talking dog.

  3. I really don’t have time go back and revisit Hoffer and provide examples. I’ll just leave the assertion there, and it can lodge in the back of your head the next time you look at his book, and you can agree or not. As to the Catholic Church being “totalitarian”, I think that is the wrong adjective. Corrupt and despotic and cruel in this or that place and time, sure. But bear in mind that the separation of Church and State is a Catholic notion, and exists nowhere else. The Eastern Churches were Caesaro-Papist. The Church carved out an autonomous sphere in the middle ages, with Caesar having his realm, but Christ (and his church) its own realm, with its own and higher dignity and its own material means. John Courtney Murray is good on this. So is Lord Acton. Anyway, I don’t usually blog about expressly religious issues. Writing anything about Catholicism provokes such a wave of hostility from libertarians and protestants, with so much heat and so little light generated, that I’m not that interested in getting into it. Perhaps this is moral cowardice. But I think it is just using my time efficiently.

  4. For what its worth I say you’re wrong about Hoffer. He compares to Hayek in the scope and depth of his thought. Sowell, however great a thinker, is ultimately a follower of both.

    If you think his point was to equate Catholicism and Nazism you’ve rather missed the point. What he might find in common between the two, is what he would find in common between Catholicism and Calvinism, wahabbism, environmenatlism, communism, etc. His point was, the psychology of the true believer is the same regardless of what cause he believes in.

    And this similarity in psychology is far more important than any difference in professed belief.

    Hoffer speant his entire adult life devouring books and became better educated than most formally trained academics. To dismiss his views as based on ignorance is kind of absurd.

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