Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Eric Hoffer

Part 10 of an occasional series

I am a collector of quotations. I have been ever since I learned how to write, I mean professionally, not in primary school.

I am particularly fond of what I like to call "pithy prose". These short quotations can cover an unlimited variety of subjects: love, religion, politics, human nature, etc. What unites them is their ability to say more in one or two sentences than could be expressed in a thousand-word treatise. It's like being able to pour a liter of liquid into a half-liter bottle.

They are superb examples of Mark Twain's famous dictum, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

In principle, all writers and public speakers are capable of producing pithy prose, but clearly some are better at it than others.

Any collection of pithy prose must necessarily be biased in terms of what it includes and excludes. I make no apologies for my selections, only for the hundreds of other meritorious quotations I had to leave out.

No one will agree with all these quotations; this was not their intention. You may even find some of them repugnant or outrageous. This was their intention.

We seldom learn anything of value from what we already agree with. Only those ideas that grate on our nerves can open our minds. As with oysters, irritation can produce pearls. So if anything you are about to read annoys or shocks you, try to think clearly and dispassionately about what it is saying. You will either be confirmed in your current belief or shaken into re-examining it.

Either way, you win!

This article is part of an occasional series. In each article, I will be offering more amusing, educating, and exasperating quotations to your judgment. But just to be certain that we agree on what we are talking about, here it is in a nutshell.

Pithy Prose: A quotation where at first you may not be quite certain what it means. But when you become certain, you become equally certain that it couldn't have been said better any other way. In short, big ideas in small packages.

If you have a better definition of pithy prose, please contact me. I would love to hear it.

Who Is Eric Hoffer?

Eric Hoffer (1902 - 1983) was known as "the longshoreman philosopher". Born in New York City, he was largely unschooled because he became temporarily blind at the age of seven; however, when he regained his sight at the age of 16, he read voraciously. At 18 he went to California, where he became both a migrant farm laborer and a longshoreman (dockworker). "The True Believer" (1951), his first and best known work, is a study of fanaticism and mass movements. It was widely praised for its pungent, aphoristic style and deep sociological insights.

1. A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed.

2. A man by himself is in bad company.

3. Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable to effective leadership.

4. Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.

5. Creativity is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature.

6. Every intense desire is perhaps a desire to be different from what we are.

7. Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem.

8. Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves.

7. Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.

8. In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

9. It is a sign of creeping inner death when we can no longer praise the living.

10. It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak.

11. It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one's neighbor.

12. It is not actual suffering but the taste of better things which excites people to revolt.

13. It is not so much the example of others we imitate as the reflection of ourselves in their eyes and the echo of ourselves in their words.

14. It is often the failure who is the pioneer in new lands, new undertakings, and new forms of expression.

15. It is remarkable by how much a pinch of malice enhances the penetrating power of an idea or an opinion. Our ears, it seems, are wonderfully attuned to sneers and evil reports about our fellow men.

16. It is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to action, while the distant hope acts as an opiate.

17. It is the malady of our age that the young are so busy teaching us that they have no time left to learn.

18. It sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents.

19. It still holds true that man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities.

20. Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.

21. Man is the only creature that strives to surpass himself, and yearns for the impossible.

22. Many of the insights of the saint stem from their experience as sinners.

23. Men weary as much of not doing the things they want to do as of doing the things they do not want to do.

24. Nationalist pride, like other variants of pride, can be a substitute for self-respect.

25. Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.

26. Our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man's spirit than when we win his heart.

27. People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them.

28. Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.

29. Rudeness is a weak imitation of strength.

30. Social improvement is attained more readily by a concern with the quality of results than with the purity of motives.

31. Someone who thinks the world is always cheating him is right. He is missing that wonderful feeling of trust in someone or something.

32. Sometimes we feel the loss of a prejudice as a loss of vigor.

33. Take away hatred from some people, and you have men without faith.

34. The beginning of thought is in disagreement - not only with others but also with ourselves.

35. The fear of becoming a 'has-been' keeps some people from becoming anything.

36. The greatest weariness comes from work not done.

37. The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

38. The only way to predict the future is to have power to shape the future.

39. The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.

40. The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.

41. The weakness of a soul is proportionate to the number of truths that must be kept from it.

42. There are no chaste minds. Minds copulate wherever they meet.

43. There would be no society if living together depended upon understanding each other.

44. Those in possession of absolute power cannot only prophesy and make their prophecies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true.

45. Thought is a process of exaggeration. The refusal to exaggerate is not infrequently an alibi for the disinclination to think or praise.

46. To know a person's religion we need not listen to his profession of faith but must find his brand of intolerance.

47. To spell out the obvious is often to call it in question.

48. To the old, the new is usually bad news.

49. We are least open to precise knowledge concerning the things we are most vehement about.

50. We are more prone to generalize the bad than the good. We assume that the bad is more potent and contagious.

51. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.

52. We have rudiments of reverence for the human body, but we consider as nothing the rape of the human mind.

53. When people are bored it is primarily with themselves.

54. When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.

55. Wise living consists perhaps less in acquiring good habits than in acquiring as few habits as possible.

56. You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.

57. You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy.

Previously in this series

Part 1 Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain
Part 2: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde
Part 3: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of People Named "W"
Part 4: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Anatole France
Part 5: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Ambrose Bierce
Part 6: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Friedrich Nietzsche
Part 7: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Anon
Part 8: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of People Named "H"
Part 9: Pithy Prose: The Wit & Wisdom of Johann Goethe

Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the I of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com).

For further information, contact:

Philip Yaffe
Brussels, Belgium
Tel: +32 (0)2 660 0405
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