Biography of Eric Hoffer

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American moral and social philosopher

Eric Hoffer
Eric Hoffer in 1967, in the Oval Office, visiting President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Eric Hoffer in 1967, in the Oval Office, visiting President Lyndon Baines Johnson
Born(1902-07-15)July 15, 1902
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedMay 21, 1983(1983-05-21) (aged 80)
San Francisco, California, U.S.
OccupationAuthor, longshoreman
GenreSocial psychology, political science
Notable awardsPresidential Medal of Freedom, 1983

Eric Hoffer (July 15, 1902 – May 21, 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher. He was the author of ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983. His first book, The True Believer (1951), was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen, although Hoffer believed that The Ordeal of Change (1963) was his finest work.

Early life

Hoffer was born in 1902 in The Bronx, New York, to Knut and Elsa (Goebel) Hoffer. His parents were immigrants from Alsace, then part of Imperial Germany. By age five, Hoffer could already read in both English and his parents' native German. When he was five, his mother fell down the stairs with him in her arms. He later recalled, "I lost my sight at the age of seven. Two years before, my mother and I fell down a flight of stairs. She did not recover and died in that second year after the fall. I lost my sight and, for a time, my memory." Hoffer spoke with a pronounced German accent all his life, and spoke the language fluently. He was raised by a live-in relative or servant, a German immigrant named Martha. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was 15. Fearing he might lose it again, he seized on the opportunity to read as much as he could. His recovery proved permanent, but Hoffer never abandoned his reading habit.

Hoffer was a young man when he also lost his father. The cabinetmaker's union paid for Knut Hoffer's funeral and gave Hoffer about $300 insurance money. He took a bus to Los Angeles and spent the next 10 years wandering, as he remembered, “up and down the land, dodging hunger and grieving over the world.” Hoffer eventually landed on Skid Row, reading, occasionally writing, and working at odd jobs.

In 1931, he considered suicide by drinking a solution of oxalic acid, but he could not bring himself to do it. He left Skid Row and became a migrant worker, following the harvests in California. He acquired a library card where he worked, dividing his time "between the books and the brothels." He also prospected for gold in the mountains. Snowed in for the winter, he read the Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne impressed Hoffer deeply, and Hoffer often made reference to him. He also developed a respect for America's underclass, which he said was "lumpy with talent."


He wrote a novel, Four Years in Young Hank's Life, and a novella, Chance and Mr. Kunze, both partly autobiographical. He also penned a long article based on his experiences in a federal work camp, "Tramps and Pioneers." It was never published, but a truncated version appeared in Harper's Magazine after he became well known.

Hoffer tried to enlist in the US Army at age 40 during World War II, but he was rejected due to a hernia. Instead, he began work as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco in 1943. At the same time, he began to write seriously.

Hoffer left the docks in 1964, and shortly after became an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He later retired from public life in 1970. “I'm going to crawl back into my hole where I started,” he said. “I don't want to be a public person or anybody's spokesman... Any man can ride a train. Only a wise man knows when to get off.” In 1970, he endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hoffer called himself an atheist but had sympathetic views of religion and described it as a positive force.

He died at his home in San Francisco in 1983 at the age of 80.

Working-class roots

Hoffer was influenced by his modest roots and working-class surroundings, seeing in it vast human potential. In a letter to Margaret Anderson in 1941, he wrote:

.mw-parser-output .templatequote{overflow:hidden;margin:1em 0;padding:0 40px}.mw-parser-output .templatequote .templatequotecite{line-height:1.5em;text-align:left;padding-left:1.6em;margin-top:0} My writing is done in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck, and at noon after lunch. Towns are too distracting.

He once remarked, "my writing grows out of my life just as a branch from a tree." When he was called an intellectual, he insisted that he simply was a longshoreman. Hoffer has been dubbed by some authors a "longshoreman philosopher."

Personal life

Hoffer, who was an only child, never married. He fathered a child with Lili Fabilli Osborne, named Eric Osborne, who was born in 1955 and raised by Lili Osborne and her husband, Selden Osborne. Lili Fabilli Osborne had become acquainted with Hoffer through her husband, a fellow longshoreman and acquaintance of Hoffer's. Despite the affair and Lili Osborne later co-habitating with Hoffer, Selden Osborne and Hoffer remained on good terms.

Hoffer referred to Eric Osborne as his son or godson. Lili Fabilli Osborne died in 2010 at the age of 93. Prior to her death, Osborne was the executor of Hoffer's estate, and vigorously controlled the rights to his intellectual property.

In his 2012 book Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, journalist Tom Bethell revealed doubts about Hoffer's account of his early life. Although Hoffer claimed his parents were from Alsace-Lorraine, Hoffer himself spoke with a pronounced Bavarian accent. He claimed to have been born and raised in the Bronx but had no Bronx accent. His lover and executor Lili Fabilli stated that she always thought Hoffer was an immigrant. Her son, Eric Fabilli, said that Hoffer's life may have been comparable to that of B. Traven and considered hiring a genealogist to investigate Hoffer's early life, to which Hoffer reportedly replied, "Are you sure you want to know?" Pescadero land-owner Joe Gladstone, a family friend of the Fabilli's who also knew Hoffer, said of Hoffer's account of his early life: "I don't believe a word of it." To this day, no one ever has claimed to have known Hoffer in his youth, and no records apparently exist of his parents, nor indeed of Hoffer himself until he was about forty, when his name appeared in a census.

Books and opinions

The True Believer

Hoffer came to public attention with the 1951 publication of his first book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, which consists of a preface and 125 sections, which are divided into 18 chapters. Hoffer analyzes the phenomenon of "mass movements," a general term that he applies to revolutionary parties, nationalistic movements, and religious movements. He summarizes his thesis in §113: "A movement is pioneered by men of words, materialized by fanatics and consolidated by men of actions."

Hoffer argues that fanatical and extremist cultural movements, whether religious, social, or national, arise when large numbers of frustrated people, believing their own individual lives to be worthless or spoiled, join a movement demanding radical change. But the real attraction for this population is an escape from the self, not a realization of individual hopes: "A mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation."

Hoffer consequently argues that the appeal of mass movements is interchangeable: in the Germany of the 1920s and the 1930s, for example, the Communists and National Socialists were ostensibly enemies, but sometimes enlisted each other's members, since they competed for the same kind of marginalized, angry, frustrated people. For the "true believer," Hoffer argues that particular beliefs are less important than escaping from the burden of the autonomous self.

Harvard historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said of The True Believer: "This brilliant and original inquiry into the nature of mass movements is a genuine contribution to our social thought."

Later works

Subsequent to the publication of The True Believer (1951), Eric Hoffer touched upon Asia and American interventionism in several of his essays. In "The Awakening of Asia" (1954), published in The Reporter and later his book The Ordeal of Change (1963), Hoffer discusses the reasons for unrest on the continent. In particular, he argues that the root cause of social discontent in Asia was not government corruption, "communist agitation," or the legacy of European colonial "oppression and exploitation," but rather that a "craving for pride" was the central problem in Asia, suggesting a problem that could not be relieved through typical American intervention.

For centuries, Hoffer notes, Asia had "submitted to one conqueror after another." Throughout these centuries, Asia had "been misruled, looted, and bled by both foreign and native oppressors without" so much as "a peep" from the general population. Though not without negative effect, corrupt governments and the legacy of European imperialism represented nothing new under the sun. Indeed, the European colonial authorities had been "fairly beneficent" in Asia.

To be sure, Communism exerted an appeal of sorts. For the Asian "pseudo-intellectual," it promised elite status and the phony complexities of "doctrinaire double talk." For the ordinary Asian, it promised partnership with the seemingly emergent Soviet Union in a "tremendous, unprecedented undertaking" to build a better tomorrow.

According to Hoffer, however, Communism in Asia was dwarfed by the desire for pride. To satisfy such desire, Asians would willingly and irrationally sacrifice their economic well-being and their lives as well.

Unintentionally, the West had created this appetite, causing "revolutionary unrest" in Asia. The West had done so by eroding the traditional communal bonds that once had woven the individual to the patriarchal family, clan, tribe, "cohesive rural or urban unit," and "religious or political body."

Without the security and spiritual meaning produced by such bonds, Asians had been liberated from tradition only to find themselves now atomized, isolated, exposed, and abandoned, "left orphaned and empty in a cold world."

Certainly, Europe had undergone a similar destruction of tradition, but it had occurred centuries earlier at the end of the medieval period and produced better results thanks to different circumstances.

For the Asians of the 1950s, the circumstances differed markedly. Most were illiterate and impoverished, living in a world that included no expansive physical or intellectual vistas. Dangerously, the "articulate minority" of the Asian population inevitably disconnected themselves from the ordinary people, thereby failing to acquire "a sense of usefulness and of worth" that came by "taking part in the world's work." As a result, they were "condemned to the life of chattering posturing pseudo-intellectuals" and coveted "the illusion of weight and importance."

Most significantly, Hoffer asserts that the disruptive awakening of Asia came about as a result of an unbearable sense of weakness. Indeed, Hoffer discusses the problem of weakness, asserting that while "power corrupts the few... weakness corrupts the many."

Hoffer notes that "the resentment of the weak does not spring from any injustice done them but from the sense of their inadequacy and impotence." In short, the weak "hate not wickedness" but themselves for being weak. Consequently, self-loathing produces explosive effects that cannot be mitigated through social engineering schemes, such as programs of wealth redistribution. In fact, American "generosity" is counterproductive, perceived in Asia simply as an example of Western "oppression."

In the wake of the Korean War, Hoffer does not recommend exporting at gunpoint either American political institutions or mass democracy. In fact, Hoffer advances the possibility that winning over the multitudes of Asia may not even be desirable. If on the other hand, necessity truly dictates that for "survival" the United States must persuade the "weak" of Asia to "our side," Hoffer suggests the wisest course of action would be to master "the art or technique of sharing hope, pride, and as a last resort, hatred with others."

During the Vietnam War, despite his objections to the antiwar movement and acceptance of the notion that the war was somehow necessary to prevent a third world war, Hoffer remained skeptical concerning American interventionism, specifically the intelligence with which the war was being conducted in Southeast Asia. After the United States became involved in the war, Hoffer wished to avoid defeat in Vietnam because of his fear that such a defeat would transform American society for ill, opening the door to those who would preach a stab-in-the-back myth and allow for the rise of an American version of Hitler.

In The Temper of Our Time (1967), Hoffer implies that the United States as a rule should avoid interventions in the first place: "the better part of statesmanship might be to know clearly and precisely what not to do, and leave action to the improvisation of chance." In fact, Hoffer indicates that "it might be wise to wait for enemies to defeat themselves," as they might fall upon each other with the United States out of the picture. The view was somewhat borne out with the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and Chinese-Vietnamese War of the late 1970s.

In May 1968, about a year after the Six-Day War, he wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times titled "Israel's Peculiar Position:"

The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it. Turkey threw out a million Greeks and Algeria a million Frenchman. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel, the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single one.

Hoffer asks why "everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world" and why Israel should sue for peace after its victory.

Hoffer believed that rapid change is not necessarily a positive thing for a society and that too rapid change can cause a regression in maturity for those who were brought up in a different society. He noted that in America in the 1960s, many young adults were still living in extended adolescence. Seeking to explain the attraction of the New Left protest movements, he characterized them as the result of widespread affluence, which "is robbing a modern society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize the attainment of manhood." He saw the puberty rites as essential for self-esteem and noted that mass movements and juvenile mindsets tend to go together, to the point that anyone, no matter what age, who joins a mass movement immediately begins to exhibit juvenile behavior.

Hoffer further noted that working-class Americans rarely joined protest movements and subcultures since they had entry into meaningful labor as an effective rite of passage out of adolescence while both the very poor who lived on welfare and the affluent were, in his words, "prevented from having a share in the world's work, and of proving their manhood by doing a man's work and getting a man's pay" and thus remained in a state of extended adolescence. Lacking in necessary self-esteem, they were prone to joining mass movements as a form of compensation. Hoffer suggested that the need for meaningful work as a rite of passage into adulthood could be fulfilled with a two-year civilian national service program (like programs during the Great Depression such as the Civilian Conservation Corps): "The routinization of the passage from boyhood to manhood would contribute to the solution of many of our pressing problems. I cannot think of any other undertaking that would dovetail so many of our present difficulties into opportunities for growth."

Hoffer appeared on public television in 1964 and then in two one-hour conversations on CBS with Eric Sevareid in the late 1960s.


Hoffer's papers, including 131 of the notebooks he carried in his pockets, were acquired in 2000 by the Hoover Institution Archives. The papers fill 75 feet (23 m) of shelf space. Because Hoffer cultivated an aphoristic style, the unpublished notebooks (dated from 1949 to 1977) contain very significant work. Although available for scholarly study since at least 2003, little of their contents has been published. A selection of fifty aphorisms, focusing on the development of unrealized human talents through the creative process, appeared in the July 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Published works

1951 The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature of Mass Movements. .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-free a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .id-lock-registration a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .id-lock-subscription a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/9px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:linear-gradient(transparent,transparent),url("//")right 0.1em center/12px no-repeat}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:none;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:block;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:block;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .citation .mw-selflink{font-weight:inherit}ISBN 0-06-050591-5

1955 The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms. ISBN 1-933435-09-7

1963 The Ordeal of Change. ISBN 1-933435-10-0

1967 The Temper of Our Time. ISBN 978-1-933435-22-0

1968 Nature and The City

1969 Working and Thinking on the Waterfront: A Journal, June 1958 to May 1959

1971 First Things, Last Things

1973 Reflections on the Human Condition. ISBN 1-933435-14-3

1976 In Our Time

1979 Before the Sabbath

1982 Between the Devil and the Dragon: The Best Essays and Aphorisms of Eric Hoffer. ISBN 0-06-014984-1

1983 Truth Imagined. ISBN 1-933435-01-1


  • Conversations with Eric Hoffer, twelve-part television interview by James Day of KQED, San Franscisco, 1963.
  • "Eric Hoffer: The Passionate State of Mind" with Eric Sevareid, CBS, September 19, 1967 (re-broadcast on November 14, due to popular demand).
  • "The Savage Heart: A Conversation with Eric Hoffer," with Eric Sevareid, CBS, January 28, 1969.

Awards and recognition

  • 1971, May – Honorary Doctorate; Stonehill College
  • 1971, June – Honorary Doctorate; Michigan Technological University
  • 1978 – Bust of Eric Hoffer by sculptor Jonathan Hirschfeld; commissioned by Charles Kittrell and placed in Bartlesville, Oklahoma
  • 1983, February 13 – Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by Ronald Reagan
  • 1985, September 17 – Skygate unveiling in San Francisco; dedication speech by Eric Sevareid


Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop extensively referred to Hoffer's book The True Believer when in a 2015 speech she closely compared the psychological underpinnings of ISIS with that of Nazism.

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