Men of Words

by Harley Voogd

tb 001“The men of words are of diverse types. They can be priests, scribes, prophets, writers, artists, professors, students and intellectuals in general… Whatever the type, there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity.”

~Eric Hoffer

“Mass movements do not usually rise until the prevailing order has been discredited. The discrediting is not an automatic result of the blunders and abuses of those in power, but the deliberate work of men of words with a grievance. Where the articulate are absent or without a grievance, the prevailing dispensation, though incompetent and corrupt, may continue in power until it falls and crumbles of itself.” (“The True Believer”, by Eric Hoffer, HarperCollins Publishing, New York, pg. 130)

Here Hoffer is describing the climate of a society before a mass movement begins, but I think we can also apply this statement to a mass movement that has passed its “dynamic stage” but the original fanatical leadership has not yet stepped down, and is in fact doing damage to the movement. The men of words can rise up again at this stage in the movement, inspiring the masses to change the leadership to a practical man of action.

“The preliminary work of undermining existing institutions, of familiarizing the masses with the idea of change, and of creating receptivity to a new faith, can be done only by men who are, first and foremost, talkers or writers and are recognized as such by all. As long as the existing order functions in a more or less orderly fashion, the masses remain basically conservative. They can think of reform but not of total innovation. The fanatical extremist, no matter how eloquent, strikes them as dangerous, traitorous, or even insane. They will not listen to him…

“Things are different in the case of the typical man of words. The masses listen to him because they know that his words, however urgent, cannot have immediate results. The authorities either ignore him or use mild methods to muzzle him. Thus imperceptibly the man of words undermines established institutions, discredits those in power, weakens prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and sets the stage for the rise of a mass movement.” (pp. 130-131)

Again, even after the movement has begun and has been running for several years, the men of words can do the same thing to the established authority of whomever started the movement. As shown in my last article about Hoffer’s book, the most important people to the leadership of a mass movement are the lieutenants. It is these lieutenants that can and should be swayed by the man of words if one wants to see a change in leadership.

What is a man of words like?

“There is apparently an irremediable insecurity at the core of every intellectual (man of words), be he noncreative or creative. Even the most gifted and prolific seem to live a  life of eternal self-doubting and have to prove their worth anew each day.

“‘…he has much more vanity than ambition; and he prefers consideration to obedience, and the appearance of power to power itself. Consult him constantly, and then do just as you please. He will take more notice of your deference to him than of your actions.’ (Hoffer quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections [New York: Macmillan Company, 1896], pg. 331.)” (pp. 132-133)

The man of words is fickle, pledging loyalty to whomever will give him an ear.

“However much the protesting man of words sees himself as the champion of the downtrodden and injured, the grievance which animates him is, with very few exceptions, private and personal. His pity is usually hatched out of his hatred for the powers that be.” However, “When his superior status is suitably acknowledged by those in power, the man of words usually finds all kinds of lofty reasons for siding with the strong against the weak.” (pp. 133-134)

“It is easy to see how the faultfinding man of words, by persistent ridicule and denunciation, shakes prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and familiarizes the masses with the idea of change. What is not so obvious is the process by which the discrediting of existing beliefs and institutions makes possible the rise of a new fanatic faith.

“The genuine man of words himself can get along without faith in absolutes. He values the search for truth as much as truth itself. He delights in the clash of thought and in the give-and-take of controversy.” (pp. 139-140)

But, the future that the man of words hopes for, a society of free thinking people, is usually not what comes. Rather, what is created is a “corporate society that cherishes utmost unity and blind faith.” (pg. 139)

“The tragic figures in the history of a mass movement are often the intellectual precursors (the men of words) who live long enough to see the downfall of the old order by the action of the masses.” (pg. 141)

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