The Compassionate Wisdom of Eric Hoffer

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Here are some words that struck me, from Eric Hoffer’s collection of short essays In Our Time:

“In the alchemy of man’s soul almost all noble attributes—courage, honor, love, hope, faith, duty, loyalty—can be transmuted into ruthlessness. Compassion also stands apart from the continuous traffic between good and evil within us. Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: Where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.

Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1898 – May 21, 1983) is a tragically overlooked 20th century intellectual. He worked as a longshoreman and was self-educated by reading library books in his spare time. Later in life he became a writer. His prose is simple and direct, free of any academic pretension. Although Hoffer was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the last year of his life,  only one of his books, The True Believer, is still in print by a major publisher. President Eisenhower recommended this book to a desperate World War II veteran during his correspondence as president, writing:

“’Faith in a holy cause,’” Hoffer wrote, ‘is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.’”

In this letter, Eisenhower explained to the veteran that Hoffer “points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems—freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.” The authoritarian follower, Eisenhower suggested, desired nothing more than insulation from the pressures of a free society.

I see Eric Hoffer as a wizened old man, fluent in the nooks and crannies of human history, from Medieval times to post-World War II America. A keen observer and participant in human nature. Through books he’d lived thousands of years and been witness to as many lives. His published writing is from the last 30 years of his life, looking back in the postwar era and all that came before it and wondering how mankind got to now.

Hoffer was as much a social historian as he was a philosopher, and had much to say on how people lived and thought. Some of his ideas are out of date, and others fall flat, but he writes with a unique sense of curiosity and wonderment.

He’s a bemused but cautious optimist. His philosophy on life was so simple that he believed it made compassion a reflexive instinct:

“It could well be that the adoption of a certain view of life would be fruitful of benevolence and compassion. We feel close to each other when we see ourselves as strangers and outsiders on this planet or see the planet as an island of life in a dark immensity of nothingness. We also draw together when we are aware that night must close in on all living things; that we are condemned to death at birth, and that life is a bus ride to the place of execution. All our squabbling and vying are about seats in the bus, and the ride is over before we know it.

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