“The most important point is – and remains – not to take oneself seriously. There is no past, and, certainly, no future. There are but a few years -- ten at most. You pass your days as best you can, doing as little harm as possible. Let the desires be few and treat expectations as weeds. You read, scribble as the spirit moves you, hear some new music, see every week the few people you are attached to. Again: guard yourself, above all, against self-dramatization, a feeling of importance, and the sprouting of expectations.”
No mystic or desert father wrote this. The words are Eric Hoffer’s, written in 1954 but unpublished until 2005 when Harper’s printed “Sparks: The Art of the Notebook,” a selection from the 131 notebooks found after his death in 1983. The editing was done by Tom Bethell in the Hoover Institution’s Hoffer archives. I quote Hoffer’s notebooks in oblique response to a reader who asked of Thursday’s post:
“Do you think Hoffer's disgust with `do-gooders’ was absent of the type of meddling judgment that he seems to have reviled? In other words, did he have a desire to change them, and is that contradictory? What in its place? A world of solitary people?
“What about actual good, aside from pretentiousness? That exists, right? People do actually `do good’ for non utopian and self-congratulatory reasons.”
Hoffer, by all accounts, was a charismatic personality deeply suspicious of charisma. He stirred people with words in a manner we customarily associate with preachers and politicians. Hoffer’s gift was coupled with distaste for proselytizing. Though he recognized the seductiveness of his writing and debating, he resisted its blandishments, including converting others to his way of thinking. He seems to have harbored no dreams of personal power beyond the radius of his private life. Unlike the true believers he anatomized, Hoffer had no wish to change others or order them around. He merely shone a light on them and exposed their hypocrisy and bad faith.
Hoffer was a genuine, not fashion-driven, individualist. He was a crank, in the best sense, in an age of poseurs. Does “actual good,” my reader asks, exist? Of course. We witness it daily in unnumbered acts of kindness. For some, these anonymous gestures count for nothing. Goodness must be organized, preferably by government, to be real, and this is why “true believers,” in Hoffer’s sense, are often deeply unkind and unpleasant people. When goodness is institutionalized it tends quickly to turn bad. Hoffer writes in The Passionate State of Mind (1955): “Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.” This makes no sense to the professionally kind. And consider this entry from Before the Sabbath (1979), a selection from Hoffer’s journals, dated Nov. 29, 1974:
“I cannot see myself living in a socialist society. My passion is to be left alone and only a capitalist society does so.”
Hoffer understood that the most precious of all rights, the right that underlies all others, is the right to be left alone, to fashion one’s own mistakes and triumphs, and pay for them accordingly. Hoffer practiced what he preached and lived an outwardly quiet, hardworking, benevolent life that many self-designated “rebels” would have found impossibly dull. Some of us are happiest living and working in customized solitude. Hoffer wrote in his journal for April 4, 1975:
“Small tightly knit circles are a peculiarity of creative milieus. You find them in Periclean Athens, in Renaissance Florence and Antwerp, and in Paris and late Hapsburg Vienna. Emulation, example, praise, and assistance are at their best in such circles. Nevertheless, I shudder when I imagine what my life would have been as a member of such a circle. I always wanted to be left alone – not to have anyone to vie with, and not to have an example.”
[Apropos only of rereading Charles Lamb’s letters while also rereading Hoffer, here’s what the essayist wrote to his friend Thomas Manning on March 1, 1800: “Public affairs—except as they touch upon me, and so turn into private,—I cannot whip up my mind to feel any interest in....I cannot make these present times present to me.”]