Eric Hoffer's True Believer Checklist

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Eric Hoffer's acclaimed 1950's bestseller, The True Believer, was a seminal and timely analysis on fanaticism. His critical arguments can be expressed by the following:

1. Fanaticism is not total commitment to a particular ideology, but a general frame of mind; to the fanatic, ideologies are interchangeable.
2. Fanaticism derives from the frustration and sense of personal failure individuals experience during periods of rapid social change.
3. Fanaticism sometimes serves a good end; a nation's creative potential better survives revolution than social stagnation.
4. Successful mass movements foster self-sacrifice over self-fulfillment. The latter is assigned to an ever-receding future, often evoked from an idealized past.
5. As the past and future are fictionalized, so must be the present. Mass leaders must invest their goal with drama and make-believe in order to exact that degree of self-sacrifice that alone liberated them and their followers from self-contempt and self-rejection.
6. Successful mass movements are largely effected by negative personality types acting upon their most negative impulses (cowardice, for example, may compel belief in fanatical ideology in order to rationalize craven behavior).
7. The hope, pride, and confidence enjoyed by the "unified" (politically committed) individual derive from his sense of being "delivered from the meaningless burden of an autonomous existence."
8. Some sort of faith is indispensable for most people. Those who discredit one faith create the need for another.
9. Only the fanatic can effect total upheaval. He will not accept reform because the world that has thwarted his own (often artistic) aspiration must be torn up root and branch. He alone will proceed beyond propaganda to coercion.
10. Slogans to the contrary, the fanatic has no use for "freedom and equality" as commonly understood. To him "freedom" means never having to make a choice and "equality" means never encountering his betters.

The most visible contemporary "true believers" manifest themselves in the Religious Right, particularly televangelism. True Believers are sharply contrasted with self-motivated people who aren't afraid to take a stand for their own carefully considered commitments.


-excerpted from a Free Inquiry article by Richard Arnold, Winter 1994/95 issue