Monthly Archives: December 2022

Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Thomas Bethell

From my notion book review template

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. This book is an honest account of the life of Eric Hoffer. It is an honest summary, including actual independent research and not just Hoffer’s version of his life. Bethell focuses his attention on his life and hot his political views.


I liked it a lot – it did actual research and dispelled lots of the Eric Hoffer self created legend and made him a much more interesting and mysterious character. This is one of the rare cases where more details adds mystery instead of taking it away.

How I Discovered It

An Amazon recomendation

Who Should Read It?

Eric Hoffer Fans

How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

I don’t think it will change anything – perhaps it increases my willingness to disbelieve weird life origin stories in favor of even weirder life origin stories.

My Top 6 Quotes

  • Quite possibly, he was born in Germany and never became a legal resident of the United States.
  • It seems extraordinary, then, that no one from Hoffer’s early life should ever have shown up. Possibly—just possibly—he actually came to America for the first time across the Mexican border in 1934, the year after the El Centro camp was opened. Perhaps he walked to San Diego and was by then every bit as hungry as he said he was, ate some cabbage “cow fashion,” and found the truck driver who took him to El Centro.
  • It’s understandable that Hoffer might have concealed his background if he were indeed undocumented. If born abroad he was not an American citizen, for he never went through any naturalization ceremony. Congress severely restricted immigration to the United States in 1924 and by the 1930s, when jobs were scarce, U.S. residents found to be here illegally were deported without due process. Some were minor children born in the United States. In one report, “between 1929 and 1935 some 164,000 people were deported for being here illegally, about 20 percent of them Mexican.”32 Others estimate that between 1929 and 1939 as many as a million people were unceremoniously repatriated, many of them to Mexico. If Hoffer himself was in the United States illegally, he was wise to keep quiet about it.
  • Hoffer’s blindness has functioned in all accounts as an alibi, explaining why he didn’t go to school, didn’t have friends, spoke with a German accent, had “shadowy” recollections, and so on. How reliable is his blindness story?
  • Much later, Hoffer decided that “the social scientist is no more a scientist than a Christian scientist is a scientist.”
  • An ideal environment for him, he said, was one in which he was surrounded by people and yet not part of them.

Summary + Notes


As for Hoffer, Selden said: “All his conclusions are wrong—every one of them. But he writes beautifully and he asks the right questions.” They remained on good terms, and when Eric Hoffer died two years later, in the room where we had met, Selden was with him.

His date of birth is uncertain, often given as 1902 but more likely 1898.

And the account he often gave of losing his sight at an early age and then regaining it several years later doesn’t fit with some


Quite possibly, he was born in Germany and never became a legal resident of the 
United States.


Over the next thirty-three years she knew him better than anyone in the world. But, she said: “I never met anyone who knew Eric in his earlier life.”


One day, when he was six, she fell down a flight of stairs while she was carrying him. Two years later, she died and Hoffer went blind. His blindness lasted for eight years. When asked, “Did the fall cause those things?” he responded, “I don’t know.”5 Hoffer also didn’t remember the fall itself, nor could he recall whether his sight returned suddenly or gradually. In an early account he said that he went “practically blind,” followed by a “gradual improvement.”


Martha Bauer was a “Bavarian peasant” and his German accent came from


It seems extraordinary, then, that no one from Hoffer’s early life should ever have shown up. Possibly—just possibly—he actually came to America for the first time across the Mexican border in 1934, the year after the El Centro camp was opened. Perhaps he walked to San Diego and was by then every bit as hungry as he said he was, ate some cabbage “cow fashion,” and found the truck driver who took him to El Centro.

and during those fifteen years Cole saw Hoffer almost every week. His account coincides with Lili’s: “I never met a single person who knew him before he worked on the waterfront.”

It’s understandable that Hoffer might have concealed his background if he were indeed undocumented. If born abroad he was not an American citizen, for he never went through any naturalization ceremony. Congress severely restricted immigration to the United States in 1924 and by the 1930s, when jobs were scarce, U.S. residents found to be here illegally were deported without due process. Some were minor children born in the United States. In one report, “between 1929 and 1935 some 164,000 people were deported for being here illegally, about 20 percent of them Mexican.”32 Others estimate that between 1929 and 1939 as many as a million people were unceremoniously repatriated, many of them to Mexico. If Hoffer himself was in the United States illegally, he was wise to keep quiet about it.

Hoffer also spoke German and did so fluently.

Hoffer’s blindness has functioned in all accounts as an alibi, explaining why he didn’t go to school, didn’t have friends, spoke with a German accent, had “shadowy” recollections, and so on. How reliable is his blindness story?

There is no Martha, and in this account he clearly lived with this aunt for a year after his father died, thus accounting for the gap between his father’s 1920 death and his 1922 departure for Los Angeles. Hoffer’s later and oft-repeated account of a $300 legacy from his father’s guild is also contradicted.

“Martha had often consoled him with the advice: ‘Don’t worry Eric. You come from a short-lived family. You will die before you are forty. Your troubles will not last long.’ ” These thoughts

All attempts to locate Hoffer or his parents, Knut and Elsa, in the Bronx, either through census data or, have drawn a blank.

He was almost forty years old before he acquired a definite street address.


What may be more likely is that Hoffer came to America as a teenager or young adult and never did live in New York.

It’s easy to understand why Hoffer would make up an American background if he was eager to avoid questions about his citizenship, but why so elaborate a ruse? Hoffer was a great storyteller, and he insisted that a writer should entertain as well as inform his audience. He was also a master at diverting attention from his own background. Finally, he did provide a few hints that his story shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Much later, Hoffer decided that “the social scientist is no more a scientist than a Christian scientist is a scientist.” But

Although they were white Anglo-Americans, Starr writes, and often fleeing from the Dustbowl in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere, they were regarded as a despised racial minority by much of white California.

In 1935 California had 4.7 percent of the nation’s population but triple that percentage of its dependent transients.

worked.” He described Hoffer as a natural loner; in fact, all his life he wanted to be left alone. For many years his relations with women were therefore confined, with one exception, to prostitutes.19 Koerner adds that Hoffer was “terrifically lusty”:


The earliest documentary record of Hoffer’s existence is a photostat of his application for a Social Security account, filled out on June 10, 1937. He said at the time that he was thirty-eight years old, having been born in New York City on July 25, 1898. If so, of course, he was four years older than he claimed at other times.

identified himself as the son of Knut Hoffer and Elsa Goebel, and gave his address as 101 Eye Street, Sacramento. His employer at the time was the U.S. Forest Service in Placerville, California. It is the only documentary evidence of his life to be found in the archives before he moved permanently to San Francisco.

Vigorous walking seems to ease the flow of words; and

The feeling of being a stranger in this world is probably the result of some organic disorder. It is strongest in me when I’m hungry or tired. But even when nothing is wrong I sometimes find it easy to look at the world around me as if I saw it for the first time.

The war, the nationwide draft, and a labor shortage on the docks made it possible for him to become a longshoreman at the age of forty-five.

There were many accidents. In 1943 a five-ton crate crashed to the wharf and just missed him, but it destroyed his right thumb. He was in the hospital for months as a new one was reconstructed from his own thigh. It was little more than a stump.

my case conditions seem ideal. I average about 40 hours a week, which is more than enough to live on. And all I have to do is put in 20 hours of actual work. It’s a racket and I love it.

Selden became a “diet faddist,” and Hoffer noticed that, too. How true is it, he wondered, “that true believers have an affinity for diet cults? You attain immortality either by embracing an eternal cause or by living forever.” Selden told Eric that when he ate, he methodically chewed so many times on one side, so many times on the other.

“It would be hard to find another occupation with so suitable a combination of freedom, exercise, leisure and income,” he wrote to Margaret Anderson in 1949. “By working only Saturday and Sunday (eighteen hours at pay and a half) I can earn 40–50 dollars a week. This to me is rolling in dough.”10 But in a 1944 notebook he recorded that creative thought was incompatible with hard physical work.

An ideal environment for him, he said, was one in which he was surrounded by people and yet not part of them.

But routine work was compatible with an active mind. On the other hand a highly eventful life could be mentally exhausting and drain all creative energy. He cited John Milton, who wrote political pamphlets throughout the Puritan agitation, and postponed Paradise Lost until his life was more peaceful.

Clumsiness, he concluded, is inconspicuous for those who are not on their home turf. Similarly, the cultural avant-garde attracts people without real talent, “whether as writers or artists.” Why? Because everybody expects innovators to be clumsy. “They are probably people without real talent,” he decided. But those who experiment with a new form have a built-in excuse.11

and it began with this issue. The union “was run by nobodies,” just like America, Hoffer said.

“It did not occur to the intellectuals,” Hoffer commented, “that in this country nobodies perform tasks which in other countries are reserved for elites.” It was one of his favorite reflections.

Financial records show that Hoffer made $4,100 as a longshoreman and $1,095 in True Believer royalties in 1953.

The examples of Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, where intellectually undistinguished men made themselves through faith and single-minded dedication into shapers of history is a challenge to every mediocrity hungering for power and capable of self delusion.

During the day it occurred to me that if it were true that all my life I have had but a single train of thought then it must be the problem of the uniqueness of man.

Most days he set off for a “five mile hike in the Golden Gate Park,” he wrote, and there he found that he could “think according to schedule”: I have done it every day for weeks. Each day I took a problem to the park and returned with a more or less satisfactory solution . . . The book was written in complete intellectual isolation. I have not discussed one idea with any human being, and have not mentioned the book to anyone but

A visiting reporter, Sheila K. Johnson of the Los Angeles Times, said of this apartment: “There are no pictures on the walls, no easy chair, no floor lamps, no television set, no radio, no phonograph. There are in short no distractions.”

Hoffer himself received his retirement papers from the longshoremen’s union in 1966. He may have already received that news when he accompanied Tomkins to the docks later that

Here is a case where a genuine belief in God would make a difference. He is obviously drifting to an unmarked grave in a godforsaken graveyard. In lucid intervals he drifts back to San Francisco but does not stay long.2

“He wanted to change the world, and he wanted to change it alone,” Lili recalled. “He made a single convert—his mother.” Years after his death, reflecting on her former husband’s impractical nature, Lili still seemed amazed. “The idea that he chose to express his ideas was by leaflets,” she said with an emphasis that conveyed her frustration.

Reflecting on Hoffer’s account of his early life, and the implausibility of his claim that as a large child he was carried downstairs by a small woman who tumbled and then died, Gladstone said: “I don’t believe a word of it.”

In 1979, Eric moved to Alaska, became a fisherman, married, and had a family. He lives in western Alaska to this day.

At the San Francisco reception following his mother’s funeral in October 2010, Eric (by now the father of six) was receptive to the idea that Hoffer’s account of his early life didn’t quite add up. He thought Hoffer’s case might be comparable to that of B. Traven, the mysterious German author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. (B. Traven was a pen name for a German novelist whose actual identity, nationality, and date and place of birth are still unknown. The book, published in Germany in 1927, then in English in 1935, was made into the famous movie of the same name in 1948.)

Of the paternity question, Stephen said, “Has there been a DNA test? No. But Eric suspected that Hoffer [which he pronounced Hoafer] was his father. He asked my mother and she said yes.”

I have been generous with myself and my money and the truth is that Selden did not love Lili and felt my invasion as a liberation. He told me yesterday that my intrusion enriched the children’s life and whatever I have saved will be theirs when I am gone. My attachment to Lili after 33 years is undiminished. In Lili’s hand beneath she wrote: “Dear, dear Eric! Always beloved.”

Some of these fanatics act out of the weakness of their personalities, the reviewer added; some out of the strength. But by the end of the book Hoffer had brought “the fanatical leader and the fanatical follower into a single natural species.”

True believers don’t start mass movements, Hoffer wrote. That is achieved by “men of words.” But the true believers do energize those movements. Hoffer’s understanding of the relationship between true believers and mass movements was Hitler’s relationship to the Nazi Party. The German Workers Party—its name was later changed—was founded in 1919. Hitler soon joined it and ousted the founder, Anton Drexler, in 1921. With all the zeal of the true believer, Hitler infused it with fanaticism and Nazism became a mass movement. Hoffer did not make this Hitler relationship explicit in his book but it was his unstated guide.

“the preoccupation with the book is with theories—right or wrong. I cannot get excited about anything unless I have a theory about

For a movement to prevail, the existing order must first be discredited. And that “is the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance.” If they lack a grievance, the prevailing dispensation may persist indefinitely.8 Sometimes, a regime in power may survive by co-opting the intellectuals. The partnership between the Roman rulers and the Greek men of words allowed the Roman Empire to last for as long as it did.

As Hoffer saw it, then, men of words laid the groundwork for mass movements by creating receptivity to a new faith. This could be done only by men who were first and foremost talkers or writers, recognized as such by all. If that ground had not been prepared, the masses wouldn’t listen. True believers could move in and take charge only after the prevailing order had been discredited and had lost the allegiance of the masses.11 Mass movements are not equally good or bad, Hoffer wrote. “The tomato and the nightshade are of the same family, the Solanaceae,” and have many traits in common. But one is nutritious and the other poisonous.12 In adding this he was probably responding to another caution from Fischer, who wrote that some in-house readers “. . . got the impression that Hoffer is implying that all mass movements are equally good or bad, that the ideas on which they are based are always predominantly irrational, and that from the standpoint of value judgments there is not much distinction between, say, the Nazi movement, Christianity, and the Gandhi movement in India.”

The Harper contract to publish the book was sent to Hoffer in June 1950. Harper scheduled the book for publication and, not surprisingly, wanted some independent report about this mysterious author who was unreachable by phone, worked on the docks, had never gone to school, and yet wrote so well.

After publication, some reviewers, including the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, also called the work cynical—“as cynical about human motives as Machiavelli.”14 The libertarian author Murray Rothbard, writing for Faith and Freedom under the pen name Jonathan Randolph, was also highly critical. “Hoffer may be anti-Communist,” he wrote, “but only because he sneers at all moral and political principles.”

Hoffer later became openly political, attacking Stalin, Communism, and leftist intellectuals en masse. He had “a savage heart,” he reflected, and “could have been a true believer myself.”17 America and Israel were to become his great causes. But the neutrality of The True Believer contributed to its critical success.

Fischer also pointed out that the book would be more readable “if the author would make greater use of examples and illustrations.” Readers of The True Believer do indeed encounter a sea of abstractions—fanaticism, enthusiasm, substitution, conversion, frustration, unification—and many will have scanned its pages, often in vain, looking for the tall masts and capital letters of a proper name.

As a historical assessment, nonetheless, Hoffer’s treatment was questionable on several fronts. Longevity was just one. Nazism lasted for twelve years, Communism’s span was measured in decades, while Christianity has endured for two thousand years and shows no sign of disappearing.

Pipes has great admiration for Hoffer and assigned The True Believer to his Harvard class. “Mass movements do occasionally occur,” he added, “but my feeling is that most such movements are organized and directed by minorities simply because the ‘masses,’ especially in agrarian societies, have to get back to work to milk the cows and mow the hay. They don’t make revolutions: they make a living.”

Communism resembled a religion but it was the faith of disaffected Western intellectuals, not of the masses. After the immediate revolutionary fervor cooled it was sustained, in Russia and everywhere else, by coercion and terror. Communism never did bring about a release of human energies—or if so, only for a short time.

The explosive component in the contemporary scene, Hoffer wrote, was not “the clamor of the masses but the self righteous claims of a multitude of graduates from schools and universities.” An “army of scribes” was working to achieve a society “in which planning, regulation and supervision are paramount, and the prerogative of the educated.”

In its May 22, 1983, obituary on Hoffer, the Washington Post said that The True Believer is “difficult to summarize [but] easy to admire.”

In contemplating the mystery of Eric Hoffer, Lili Osborne would ask herself how a self-educated laborer came to write so abstract a work. His early manuscripts had shown that he was a polished writer before he (apparently) had much experience of writing anything. His comments to Margaret Anderson give one or two clues. Looking back over his earlier notebooks, he was surprised to find how hard it had been for him to reach insights “which now seem to me trite.” The key was that “the inspiration that counts is the one that comes from uninterrupted application.” Sitting around waiting for lightning to strike got one nowhere.

His rewritten drafts of The True Believer showed how much he owed to perseverance. His self-assurance and stylistic mastery were remarkable coming from someone who had not yet published anything. But if his success with The True Believer were to be attributed to any single quality, it would be his capacity to concentrate and persevere. His ability to exercise these talents also explained his self-confidence. Still, the mystery never quite goes away.

warning them that woe betides a society that reaches a turning point and does not turn.

He worried that if workers’ skills were no longer needed they might become “a dangerously volatile element in a totally new kind of American society.” America itself might be undermined—no longer shaped by “the masses” but by the intellectuals. Hoffer increasingly saw them emerging as villains in the continuing American drama.

The culmination of the industrial revolution should enable the mass of people to recapture the rhythm, the fullness and the variety of pre-industrial times.

By now Hoffer’s life story was fixed. The KQED version became, in effect, the canonical account. In later interviews—by Tomkins, James Koerner, Eric Sevareid, and others—Hoffer stuck to the same script, sometimes almost word for word. He told the same anecdotes with no new details. The inconsistencies in his earlier accounts were gone. It was as though by 1963 he had settled on the story of his life and he no longer deviated from it.

Later, the FBI heard that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, an assistant professor at Berkeley at that time, might have visited the class; at one point, agents combed through Hoffer’s papers at Hoover. “Anyone could drop in to Hoffer’s class,” Cole said. “But they never established that Ted Kaczynski was there. Lili asked me if I remembered him. I didn’t.”

So he taught himself Hebrew, “and his pronunciation was wonderful.” Cole heard Hoffer “more than a few times say something in Hebrew. He had such a great ear.” Hoffer told another interviewer that he had learned Hebrew while on skid row in Los Angeles. “I think I mastered it. I can speak it, but I cannot make out the text,” he said.

He memorialized this appeal to brevity by funding the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Essay Prize at UC–Berkeley. It is awarded each year for the best essays of 500 words or less on a topic chosen by the Committee on Prizes.

At least one of these columns was read by Pauline Phillips, the author of the “Dear Abby” column, who had been friends with Hoffer for some time.

At the time of the anti-Soviet revolt in East Germany in 1953, Hoffer recognized the Communist evil. He noticed, too, that the West held Communism in awe.9 But he was also impressed by what Communism had apparently achieved. Stalin had shown unbounded contempt for human beings, but he could justify it by pointing to “the breathtaking results of sheer coercion.” Cruelty worked, in other words. “Idealism, courage, tremendous achievements both cultural and material, faith and loyalty unto death can be achieved by relentless, persistent coercion.”

That industrial production had in fact collapsed following the Bolshevik Revolution and had made only a faltering recovery was not appreciated for decades. Led by U.S. government agencies that took Soviet statistics at face value, policy analysts and economic textbooks continued making the same mistake right up to 1989.

As always, he was aiming for the widest generalization.

An enduring problem was that Hoffer was not interested in economics and paid little attention to political institutions. He either took private property and the rule of law for granted, or thought them unimportant. “Far more important than the structure of a governmental system is the make-up of the men who operate it,” he wrote in 1952.

He persisted, surely, because his underlying argument—mass movements had animated societies by releasing pent-up energies—came from The True Believer.13 Abandon this search, then, and his argument about the role of mass movements might collapse. He had referred to his new book as “vol. 2.” His prolonged difficulty with that unwritten book was rooted in “vol. 1,” on which his reputation was largely based. Later on, Hoffer was inclined to ignore and even to disparage mass movements.

He had no wife and no debts, and his rent was as low as rents in San Francisco ever get. His expenses were minimal and his frugality ingrained. Pen, paper, and books from the public library were for him the key ingredients of contentment. When

A related theme was often found in his notebooks: “What tires us most is work left undone.” He kept insisting that he was not a writer, but to continue functioning he had to keep on writing:

He also saw reasons for believing that “Russia’s day of judgment will come sometime in the 1990s.” (The Soviet Union was always “Russia” in Hoffer’s lexicon.) “And when the day comes everyone will wonder that few people foresaw the inevitability of the end.”

There will be no peace in this land for decades. The journalists have had a taste of history-making and have become man-eating tigers. Life will become a succession of crises . . . What will political life be like when history is made by journalists?

As a symptom of aging, he noted what many in retirement have reported: he felt hurried though no one was pursuing him.

Working on an essay about the old, he knew that “to function well the old need praise, deference, special treatment—even when they have not done anything to deserve it. Old age is not a rumor.”

They say that on his deathbed Voltaire, asked to renounce the devil, said: “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

This talk of living a life of quiet desperation is the blown-up twaddle of juveniles and if it hits the mark it does so with empty people. I have no daemon in me; never had. There is a murderous savagery against people I have never met; a potential malice which is not realized because of a lack of social intercourse.

In the usual sense of the word, Hoffer himself was an intellectual. He read books and wrote them. But he had no desire to teach others, he said, and this made him “a non-intellectual.” For the intellectual is someone who “considers it his God-given right to tell others what to

Another correspondent was the community organizer Saul Alinsky.

the language is cryptic because the idea is not clear.”

He viewed them as a dangerous species. They scorn profit and worship power; they aim to make history, not money. Their abiding dissatisfaction is with “things as they are.” They want to rule by coercion and yet retain our admiration. They see in the common criminal “a fellow militant in the effort to destroy the existing system.” Societies where the common people are relatively prosperous displease them because intellectuals know that their leadership will be rejected in the absence of a widespread grievance. The cockiness and independence of common folk offend their aristocratic outlook. The free-market system renders their leadership superfluous. Their quest for influence and status is always uppermost.

free society is as much a threat to the intellectual’s sense of worth as an automated economy is a threat to the worker’s sense of worth. Any social order, however just and noble, which can function well with a minimum of leadership, will be anathema to the intellectual.

The intellectual regards the masses much as a colonial official views the natives. Hoffer thought it plausible that the British Empire, by exporting many of its intellectuals, had played a counter-revolutionary role at home. Employment and status abroad for a large portion of the educated class may have “served as a preventive of revolution.”

All intellectuals are homesick for the Middle Ages, Hoffer wrote. It was “the El Dorado of the clerks”—a time when “the masses knew their place and did not trespass from their low estate.”

Eric Osborne recalled one humorous incident: “Once Eric Hoffer was talking and a rabbi was in the audience; or maybe Hoffer was talking to a bunch of rabbis, and he was telling them that there is no God. One rabbi said, ‘Mr. Hoffer, there is no God and you are His prophet.’

Yet he continued to ponder the nature of God. It was speculation without faith—more philosophy than religion—but it was never far from his mind. In his notebooks he often wrote as though God was a reality whether he believed in Him or not. And he did (sometimes) capitalize the pronoun.

Sometimes you think how much of a better world it would be if Judaism, Christianity and Islam with their driving vehemence had never happened. Then you think of all the misery and boundless cruelty practiced in lands that never heard of Jehovah, his son and his messenger.

Hoffer’s ideas about the uniqueness of man and the great error of trying to assimilate man into nature—a key dogma of modernity—was perhaps his most original venture into philosophy.

Hoffer was strongly opposed to the modern tendency to see science and religion as antagonists. On the contrary, religious ideas about the Creator had inspired the early scientists. They tried to work out how God had created the world and science emerged from this study.

He believed Israel revealed that history is not a mere process, but an unfolding drama.

The insights and thoughts that survive and endure are those that can be put into everyday words. They are like the enduring seed—compact, plain looking and made for endurance.

La Rochefoucauld, in his maxims, delighted Hoffer with his brevity and wit, sometimes bordering on cynicism (“We are always strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others”).

Philosophers, on the other hand, had little to boast about. Why was this? Russell concluded, “As soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible this subject ceases to be called philosophy and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton’s great work was called ‘The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.’ Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now become separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology. . . . [Only those questions] to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.”1

He once wrote that “the trouble with the Germans is that they are trying to express in prose what could only be expressed in music.”

There was “a German desire for murkiness,” Hoffer argued, “a fear of the lucid and tangible.” Worse, “the German disease of making things difficult” had conquered the world.

The less we know of motives, the better we are off. Worse than having unseemly motives is the conviction that our motives are all good. The proclamation of a noble motive can be an alibi for doing things that are not noble. Other people are much better judges of our motives than we are ourselves. And their judgment, however malicious, is probably correct. I would rather be judged by my deeds than by my motives. It is indecent to read other people’s minds. As for reading our own minds, its only worthwhile purpose is to fill us with humility.

Nowhere is freedom more cherished than in a non-free society, for example. “An affluent free society invents imaginary grievances and decries plenty as a pig heaven.”

As for deciphering others, the only real key is our self. And considering how obscure that is, “the use of it as a key in deciphering others is like using hieroglyphs to decipher hieroglyphs.”

Sophistication is for juveniles and the birds. For the essence of naivety is to see the familiar as if it were new and maybe also the capacity to recognize the familiar in the unprecedentedly new. There can be no genuine acceptance of the brotherhood of men without naivety.

The most intense insecurity comes from standing alone. We are not alone when we imitate. So, too, when we follow a trail blazed by others, even a deer trail.

At times he felt euphoric and he wondered how that arose. He came to believe that “the uninterrupted performance of some tasks” was the key to happiness. It was not the quality of the task, which could be trivial or even futile. “What counts is the completion of the circuit—the uninterrupted flow between conception and completion. Each such completion generates a sense of fulfillment.”

Whenever conditions are so favorable that struggle becomes meaningless man goes to the dogs. All through the ages there were wise men who had an inkling of this disconcerting truth. . . . There is apparently no correspondence between what man wants and what is good for him.

Flaubert and Nietzsche have emphasized the importance of standing up and walking in the process of thinking. The peripatetics were perhaps motivated by the same awareness. Yet purposeful walking—what we call marching—is an enemy of thought and is used as a powerful instrument for the suppression of independent thought and the inculcation of unquestioned obedience.

Originality is not something continuous but something intermittent—a flash of the briefest duration. One must have the time and be watchful (be attuned) to catch the flash and fix it. One must know how to preserve these scant flakes of gold sluiced out of the sand and rocks of everyday life. Originality does not come nugget-size.

Like Hoffer, Montaigne almost never mentioned his mother, who came from a family of Sephardic Jews. Hoffer said that when he read Montaigne’s essays in 1936 he felt “all the time that he was writing about me. I recognize myself on every page.”

Overall, however, he found it remarkable “how little we worry about the things that are sure to happen to us, like old age and death, and how quick we are to worry ourselves sick about things which never come to pass.” Montaigne said something very similar. His life had been full of “terrible misfortunes,” he said, “most of which never happened.”

Theorizing in the future, he predicted, would tend to regard humanity “as unchangeable and unreformable.”

“I shall not welcome death,” Hoffer wrote. “But the passage to nothingness seems neither strange nor frightful. I shall be joining an endless and most ancient caravan. Death would be a weary thing had I believed in heaven and life beyond.”

September 27, 1981 How does a man die? Does he know when death approaches? Friday night (25th) I vomited the first time in my life. The vomit was dark and bitter. The new experience of vomiting gave me the feeling that I was entering the realm of the unknown.

As they lay there in the dark, Selden once again heard Eric’s heavy breathing. Reassured, Selden went back to sleep. But when he woke up again, perhaps an hour or two hours later, Eric’s breathing could be heard no more. He was gone—you could say that he didn’t say goodbye to anyone.

He was buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, just outside San Francisco. Lili Osborne’s grave is next to his.

the well-off will no longer be able to derive a sense of uniqueness from riches. In an affluent society the rich and their children become radicalized. They decry the value of a materialist society and clamor for change. They will occupy positions of power in the universities, the media, and public life. In some affluent societies the children of the rich will savor power by forming bands of terrorists.

Bacon touches upon two crucial differences between Judeo-Christianity and other religions. In a monotheistic universe nature is stripped of divine qualities—this is a downgrading of nature. At the same time, in a monotheistic universe, man is wholly unique, unlike any living thing. It would have gone against Bacon’s aristocratic grain to point out that the monotheistic God, unlike the God of other religions, is not an aristocrat but a worker, a skilled engineer. Bacon could have predicted the coming of a machine age by suggesting that if God made man in his own image, he made him in the image of a machine-making engineer.

An aphorism states a half truth and hints at a larger truth. To an aphorist all facts are perishable. His aim is to entertain and stimulate. Instruction means the stuffing of people with perishable facts. And since in human affairs the truthful is usually paradoxical, aphoristic writing is likely to prove helpful.

The French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath were the first instances of history on a large scale made by nobodies.

The intellectuals loathe democracy because democracy creates a political climate without deference and worship. In a democracy the intellectual is without an unquestioned sense of superiority and a sense of social usefulness. He is not listened to and not taken seriously. The sheer possession of power does not satisfy the intellectual. He wants to be worshipped.

years of pauseless killing of the First World War. This tangibility of death created a climate inhospitable to illusion..

But it is probably true that from the beginning of time talents have been wasted on an enormous scale. It is the duty of a society to create a milieu optimal for the realization of talents. Such a society will preach self-development as a duty—a holy duty to finish God’s work.

Where the creative live together they live the lives of witches.