Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Eric Hoffer: The downside of some revolutions

No. 63

The link between ideas and action is rarely direct.  There is almost always an intermediary step in which the idea is overcome.  De Tocqueville points out that it is at times when passions start to govern human affairs that ideas are most obviously transformed into political action.  The translation of ideas into action is usually in the hands of people least likely to follow rational motives.  Hence it is that action is often the nemesis of ideas, and sometimes of the men who formulated them.

One of the marks of a truly vigorous society is the ability to dispense with passion as a midwife of action--the ability to pass directly from thought to action. 
-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

Within the past decade or so, how many popular revolutions or coups have we seen that successfully replaced dictatorships or tyrannies with regimes that are as bad or worse, in spite of the rhetoric that accompanied them?

Is Hoffer suggesting that the great majority of people can't be moved to act through reason or by intelligent thought but that they have to be stirred up by strong emotions or passion to accomplish something?

Are shouting, bullying, insulting comments, or emotionally laden slogans more likely to move people to act than calm reason and facts?


  1. I think there is truth in that statement that a lot of people are manipulated by their emotions rather than reason.
    I remember being forced to attend a lecture (as a teacher) from a "education expert". Talk about mindless drivel for four hours (at the taxpayers' expense)! But at the very end she put up a photo of her daughter who had been recently killed. It had nothing to do with anything she was talking about, totally random.
    BUT....many other teachers I talked to went on and on about how wonderful this speaker was. When I tried to get them to specify what exactly they found so wonderful, it boiled down to "wasn't that awful about her poor daughter?"
    That's only one example. I could bore you with many others.

    I think today it's worse than the past because with the media, the average person under 35 doesn't think with words but rather with images. So they cannot tell you why they think a certain way, it's just that they "feel" a certain way.

  2. Sharon,

    Yes, that's an excellent example of how emotion can cloud our judgement. That's why it's standard practice for politicians to include "family" photos in their campaign materials and to have family with them while campaigning.

    Part of the problem today is information overload--we get too much information, and it comes so quickly that we find it difficult to use reason.

  3. My naïve observation of American politics and society convinces me that people (e.g., voters) who make decisions based upon rational thought are an endangered species. Moreover, people who study (really study!) history should know that reliance upon passion instead of reason can lead to unspeakable horrors. I worry that America's future as a "civilization" may be doomed because passion so often trumps (absolutely no current-even pun intended) reason. And -- in the interest of full disclosure -- I know that I am also guilty of responding to irrationality often when reason should guide me. (Hence, I voted for Jimmy Carter!) Such is life.

  4. Ha, ha RT. Trumps. I think that's funny whether it was intentional or not.
    I agree with you. Young people especially are concerned about image how they look. Their actions are largely determined by what makes them feel "hip" and cool. Not all, my twenty year old son is a big exception as well as his friends. They're quite individualistic and opinionated about their views (I have NO IDEA how he got that way). They run into a lot of conflict with others their age who don't want to reason or argue because they haven't really thought through why they think the way they do.

    It seems deconstructionist arguing is the trend now. "I don't know that to be true". I have a hair pulling conversation with a young man about a topic and his whole platform was, "I don't know that. I don't know that's true or not."

    Maybe I digress.

  5. Oh, one more thing. I was a kid, but I remember Jimmy Carter's campaign. I think there were more photos of his daughter Amy than him. Very effective.

    1. Sharon, you suddenly make me feel very old.

  6. Sharon,

    What did he know to be true? If he doesn't know anything "to be true," than I think I would say that talking to him was a waste of time and simply walk away. I don't deal with people who play mind games any more.