Men of Words

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)

Leaders of Movements

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“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world”

~Eric Hoffer

What does it take to be a leader of a movement?

“It needs the iron will, daring and vision of an exceptional leader to concert and mobilize existing attitudes and impulses into the collective drive of a mass movement. The leader personifies the certitude of the creed and the defiance and grandeur of power. He articulates and justifies the resentment damned up in the souls of the frustrated. He kindles the vision of a breathtaking future so as to justify the sacrifice of a transitory present. He stages the world of make-believe so indispensable for the realization of self-sacrifice and united action. He evokes the enthusiasm of communion — the sense of liberation from a petty and meaningless individual existence.

“What are the talents requisite for such a performance? Exceptional intelligence, noble character and originality seem neither indispensable nor perhaps desirable. The main requirements seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonies); unbounded brazenness which finds expression in a disregard of consistency and fairness; a recognition that the innermost cravings of a following is for communion and that there can never be too much of it; a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants. This last faculty is one of the most essential and elusive. The uncanny powers of a leader manifest themselves not so much in the hold he has on the masses as in his ability to dominate and almost bewitch a small group of able men. These men must be fearless, proud, intelligent and capable of organizing and running large-scale undertakings, and yet they must submit wholly to the will of the leader, draw their inspiration and driving force from him, and glory in this submission.

“Not all the qualities enumerated above are equally essential. The most decisive for the effectiveness of a mass movement leader seem to be audacity, fanatical faith in a holy cause, an awareness of the importance of a close-knit collectivity, and, above all, the ability to evoke fervent devotion in a group of able lieutenants.”
(The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, HarperCollins Publishing, New York, pg. 114-115)

In the initial phase of a movement (Hoffer calls it the “dynamic phase”), there will be rapid growth, almost too fast to take an account of — like the seven years of plenty in the story of Joseph, they just stopped keeping count after awhile. With rapid growth like that it doesn’t matter if you steward the resources well, because the money, the people, and the assets keeping pouring in.

But, that rapid growth phase will not, can not, go on forever. Eventually growth will slow down and begin to plateau. What kind of leader is needed when the slow-down occurs? As Hoffer writes later on…

“The danger of the fanatic (the movement’s initial leadership) to the development of a movement is that he cannot settle down. Once victory has been won and the new order begins to crystallize, the fanatic becomes an element of strain and disruption… Thus on the morrow of victory most mass movement find themselves in the grip of dissension. The ardor which yesterday found an outlet in a life-and-death struggle with external enemies now vents itself in violent disputes and clash of factions.”
(pg. 146)

A Man of Action — who knows how to steward the resources generously, who knows how to maintain good relationships with individuals (mainly the lieutenants), who is honest about the reality of the state of the movement, who considers the mission of the movement to be more important than its survival, and who won’t sacrifice everything in his life for the movement — must come to power.

“If allowed to have their way, the fanatics may split a movement into schism and heresies which threaten its existence. Even when the fanatics do not breed dissension, they can still wreck the movement by driving it to attempt the impossible. Only the entrance of a practical man of action can save the achievements of the movement.”
(pg. 147)

“The man of action saves the movement from the suicidal dissensions and the recklessness of the fanatics. But his appearance usually marks the end of the dynamic phase of the movement. The war with the present is over. The genuine man of action is intent not on renovating the world but on possessing it. Whereas the life and breath of the dynamic phase was protest and a desire for drastic change, the final phase is chiefly preoccupied with the administering and perpetuating the power won.”
(pg. 149)

Related reading: Visionary Leaders Vs. Masters