Friday, August 22, 2014

Eric Hoffer: some thoughts on freedom

Some random quotations from Eric Hoffer on the nature of freedom:

No. 55

We take for granted the need to escape the self.  Yet the self can also be a refuge.  In totalitarian countries the great hunger is for private life.  Absorption in the minutiae of an individual existence is the only refuge from the apocalyptic madhouse staged by maniacal saviors of humanity.

Fortunately we don't have any of these maniacal saviors of humanity, around here, do we?  We don't have people here who are convinced that they and they alone have the Truth and God's blessing on them and their ideas and are willing to create chaos and massive disruption unless they get their way, do we?  We are so lucky, aren't we?

No. 56

One of the chief objectives of freedom is to make it possible for a person to feel himself a human being first.  Any social order in which people see themselves primarily as workingmen, businessmen, intellectuals, members of a church, nation, race, or party is deficient in genuine freedom.

Since I retired, I've met a number of retired people who are unhappy, confused, and lost.  They do not know how to define themselves anymore.   They no longer are teachers, business executives, engineers, police officers, clerks. . .  They defined themselves in the past by their occupations, and now, since they no longer work, many are lost and no longer see themselves as anything.  They are lost and bitterly speak about retirement for they no longer have an identity.

Others take refuge in politics and redefine themselves as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Greens.  Politics, which had been of lesser importance in the past now becomes their all-consuming interest. They now become staunch supporters of their party, complete with closed minds and unwilling or unable to listen to opposing views for fear that they may develop doubts and again lose their identity.  And others turn to religion, again rejecting and demonizing those who think differently.

On the other hand, it's harder to see oneself as a human being only because then one has to make one's own decisions about the pressing issues of the day.  Being a staunch member of a political party or a religious group gives one a ready-made collection of maxims or rules to follow, a set of criteria for making the "right" decision, and leaders who explain the right way to think, the approved opinions and ideas.

It isn't just retired people who are this way.  There are many who are not retired but show the same attitudes about the groups they belong to and also about those who are different.  I'm not saying all members of any political party or religious group are like this, but they are there and generally they are the ones who cause the most problems.  They have a way of making others, who are not as adamant or unswerving in their faith, appear to be less than genuine members of the group.  They are loud in their condemnation of others who are not really True Believers, as defined by them, True Believers really being those who think the same way as they do.  They and they alone are qualifed to decide who is and who is not a real member of the group.

These true believers are really slaves, trapped within an imperfect belief system, as all human systems are, and cannot really breath the fresh air of freedom for they spend their waking hours making sure that they and all others are on the One True Path to Paradise.

Quotations are from
Eric Hoffer
Reflections on the Human Condition


  1. Being human is more than being an individual content with being alone with one's self. Humans must engage with others -- that is our blessing and our curse -- and this is the reason some people (like me) cannot retire -- their "jobs" are their engagement. As for options, I would argue that the reclusive, isolated contemplative is not human; perhaps that soul is something better than human, or perhaps that soul is something else. Now that I've put all of this on the screen in front of me, I wonder if I make sense. I am, you see, merely human -- attempting engagement. If I were simply to keep to myself -- what would I become instead. And so ends this incoherent utterance.

  2. I think people can be individuals, even as they belong to a group. However, will their fear of being rejected by the group affect their expression of that individuality? Some will just go along with the "group think" (at least in external talk and actions) in order to be liked and given higher social status within that group.

  3. RT,

    "the reclusive, isolated contemplative is not human"?

    Was it the recluse who was responsible for all the wars of the past and present and, no doubt, future? Who is it that is bombing civilians--men, women, and children--in the name of a government or religion? Reclusives?

    How many millions of innocent people have the
    reclusive, isolated contemplatives murdered? If those involved in society, firmly tied with bonds to the community are human and who see no problem in massacring those who disagree with them, then I would prefer to be a recluse, and as you say, "not human."

    I am retired, joyfully so. I now feel more free than I have ever felt in the past. I am a human being first, and I felt that way even in the past when I was a teacher or personnel analyst or research analyst or an enlisted man in the USAF. I never wanted those labels to restrict what I saw as my humanity.

    1. Fred, you make some great points, and I hope you will not be offended by my assertions, and I hope you will understand something: when I join the conversation, I am asserting a point of view that I may or may not wholly embrace but think is worth considering. I guess my tendency to converse in this way comes from my ancient debate team days (high school and college) and my many years as an English composition teacher (urging students to engage in arguments in essays). To me, the conversation -- the dialogue of the argument -- is just as important as the correctness of a position. You may be correct in your assertions, I may be correct in my assertions, but -- more importantly -- I hope we can continue in conversations.

  4. Cheryl,

    Yes, I agree. People can be individuals even though they belong to various groups, but how much of an individual they can be depends upon the group. Some groups require strict, perfect adherence to a code of conduct and a belief system while others allow a greater degree of independence, but all have some limits beyond which a member must not go.

    I suspect that the relationships between members and groups are many and varied and probably at least one large book could be written discussing this issue--more than likely, it would be several volumes.

  5. RT,

    I am not offended, just confused a bit. The problem is my lack of understanding your "assertions" -- that a recluse is not human. That seems a bit harsh to me when one considers the types of behavior engaged in by many who definitely are not recluses, but who engage in behavior that I would consider inhumane.

  6. Fred,

    Perhaps the key to retaining a person's individuality is for him to choose the groups he is willing to belong to based on cost to freedom/benefit to self. Some groups, like religious organizations or a workplace, you'd have alot of freedom in choosing. Other, like the type of government for the area you live in, you might not be lucky enough to choose for yourself. I am willing to go along with some rules of some groups either because I agree with them or because the rules aren't too obtrusive to me, while I get alot of benefit from that group. For example, government. Do I love everything about that group? No. But I get alot of benefit from it (maintained roads, protection by fire dept., ambulance, water & sewer, social security and medicare, etc.). And where I am lucky enough to live, I have the opportunity to change that group (at least somewhat) by voting.

  7. Cheryl,

    I suspect a lot of us are this way. We join those groups because of some perceived benefits, keeping in mind that we can always leave if necessary.

    Government, of course, is different as we have little to say about the form of it when we are born into the area. If we don't like it, we can try to change it, or leave, if possible, or even adapt to it if necessary..