Understanding Fanatics

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Anyone wanting to understand the psychology, motivations and goals of fanatics—and we seem to have so many these days, whether of the religious, political, social, cultural or other stripe—should read or reread Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Originally published in 1951 and most recently reissued by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, it remains relevant, eye opening and entertaining.

The entertainment value comes from the epigrammatic Hoffer’s pungent language and frequent insights that carry the ring of revealed truth. For me they made this book of political philosophy into a page-turner. For example:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves.”

“The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”

“All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.”

“It is the inordinately selfish…who are likely to be the most persuasive champions of selflessness.”

“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.”

“Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us.”

“…[W]here a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually choses the latter.”

“The creed whose legitimacy is most easily challenged is likely to develop the strongest proselytizing impulse.”

“Self-contempt, however vague, sharpens our eyes for the imperfections of others. We usually strive to reveal in others the blemishes we hide in ourselves.”

“The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.”

And, finally, a cautionary word to fellow writers (and readers):

“The true-believing writer, artist or scientist does not create to express himself, or to save his soul or to discover the true and the beautiful. His task, as he sees it, is to warn, to advise, to urge, to glorify and to denounce.”

I could on. But such gems are found on most every page, so the only way to really appreciate the San Francisco stevedore philosopher Hoffer is to read the book. In doing so you might find, as I did, that The True Believer stands as a validation and call for individualism, liberty, civil order and prosperity—the very things that by their nature oppose and subvert fanaticism.

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Ben Macintyre on duplicity

book cover philbyBritish journalist Ben Macintyre’s absorbing new book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal examines and exposes the human damage done in the real world by fanatical adherence to abstract dogma—in this case, communism and Soviet ideals. It continues Macintyre’s entertaining investigation of 20th century European espionage, following on the heels of Double Cross, Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag—which the Boston Globe called “the best book ever written.” Ah, for blurbs like that. Coming from a privileged British upbringing and Cambridge, Philby was born to rule. Despite his university days’ conversion to the communist cause and recruitment as a Soviet spy,  he was readily accepted into the high ranks of the British intelligence service because most everyone there knew his family. In the 1940s and 50s he fed the Soviets information that enfeebled both British and American intelligence operations and cost hundreds of lives—not just intelligence operatives but also freedom fighters in Greece, Albania and elsewhere as Philby tipped off the Russians on their operations. Macintyre’s driving narrative of how Philby managed to pull the wool over the eyes of folks who should have known better makes this an engrossing read. An added bonus is a revealing afterword by John Le Carré on his interviews with one of the key players in this real-life drama of betrayal.