Sunday, September 28, 2008

Elections, Change and the Religious Society of Friends

The True Believer - 1951
The Ordeal of Change - 1963
by Eric Hoffer

Non - Fiction

Review by QiN-Hombre
Will historians 50 years hence mark the 2008 U.S. Presidential election as the beginning of ‘change’? These two books, written 50 years ago, by Eric Hoffer, a self-taught, workingman-philosopher have much to say about mass social change - as a poor substitute for true change.
In his two books above, Hoffer’s use of aphorisms and quotes of famous historical figures riveted the public - which during the 1960s was strangely - in the midst of mass social change. Hoffer's recommendation for what ‘we need’ - individual self-interest leading to a balanced individual self - didn't much coincide with the mass social movement of 1960s counterculture.

Hoffer reminds us of spoken truths - many times created in the day-to-day affairs of ‘men of action’, are the most valuable for true change to occur in individuals. Hoffer tells us that written thoughts, realized in quiet contemplation by ‘men of words’ are poor substitutes to the spoken words by 'men of action'. And the use of substitutes (for example, a government solution to every problem) is where the danger begins.
The spoken quotes and aphorisms abundant in both of these books are the succinct rhetoric which lead the reader to resonant truth. In the same way the Gospels were essentially collections of the sayings of Jesus, Hoffer penned a famous aphorism: “Jesus was not a Christian, nor was Marx a Marxist.” The resonance at putting down either of these two books for a breather might be similar to the resonance at taking a walk in the cool crisp air after a set of one-liners in a crowded Manhattan comedy club. How pithy and true these quotes resound when we come back to them time and time again.
Hoffer was arguably a laborer first and an observer second. His writing style was to the point - none too highbrow - again like the punch line of a one-line comic. The author's self-education, might have embodied the Quaker ethos of a basic and moral education, which sought knowledge for the common person to apply usefully in this world. His example was not of filling himself with erudite, theoretical knowledge. And, he was not afraid of hard physical work and its by-product - sweat.
Most, if not all, modern-day Quakers shy away from ‘blue collar’, ‘sweat equity’ jobs. Elite Quaker schools convene student conferences to discuss ‘sweatshops’ in developing countries. The declining membership of the Religious Society of Friends goes as far as to dissuade the people who do such work from joining Friends. How many plumbers are Friends?
Modern Friends mostly occupy erudite careers in academia and law (the careers Friends were first barred from) and vie for the few professional Quaker jobs at the American Friends Service Committee, Quaker Schools, the Democratic Party and other non-profits. It is not hard for the observer of Friends Society, or even any group of people, to see the enticement of taking the easy top-down solution to problem (by electing someone new) – in order to talk about change, but mostly to do nothing, and to stay the same. And this is probably why Hoffer entitled his 2nd book, The Ordeal of Change – because change is uncomfortable hard work.
Regarding the importance of work, Herbert Hoover, the first Quaker elected president of the U.S., on his eighty-second birthday echoed a widespread feeling when he said that a man who retires from work “shrivels up into a nuisance to all mankind.”
Nuisances, like the raised-a-Quaker, Thomas Paine, a man of words, are instrumental in achieving revolution, however are not seen by the powerful men of action - as worthy of office or status after the 'change' takes effect. Thomas Paine was not given any office or power after the creation of the United States.
Hoffer is big on differentiating between those who have the drive and the responsibility to better themselves individually in self-interest and those who don’t. Hoffer says that those who don’t, tend to substitute improving themselves with joining mass movements, which (try to) effect systemic (political) change.
Mass movements can be religious, as manifest by organized churches, or they can be civil, as in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The important concept, according to Hoffer, the loss of oneself in a mass movement is dangerous in that like the Bosheviks, who had nothing left of themselves to draw from when another mass movement, such as that of Stalin’s purge, came along and crushed the former. One loses oneself in a movement, and in top-down change by focusing not on our own personal development, but what might be or should be (which, by the way, never happens) for the whole society in the future.
We hold on to hope and try to have faith that these changes will happen (although they ‘most likely’ will not). I’ve used aphoristic rhetoric, no matter how stark and painful they might sound, to emphasize truths in some of my own writing, for example quoting Benjamin Franklin: “Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.” Some modern religious folk are big on ‘fasting’ as an important spiritual learning tool. Why would this aphorism by such a sage be so off-putting to honest Quaker people? Bigger and bigger Quaker religious budget appetites when the constituent members can’t, or won’t pay for them unless they pay for them with ‘other people’s money’ means Friends Society is going to bed every night on a full stomach in debt. Just imagine the bad dreams.
Is hard physical work a mediator of wisdom? Hoffer makes one of many brilliant observations as to the ‘Protestant work ethic’ during the Reformation on page 26 of 'The Ordeal of Change' -
"…in the Middle Ages people did not show any marked inclination to work more than was necessary to maintain a fairly low standard of living. It was only in the sixteenth century that we see emerging a strange addiction to work…."
Quakers certainly felt, in their 1st and 2nd generations through the recent past that ‘meaningful work’ by the common person (the right amount and type of work which goes to some use of applied benefit) was somehow important to our spiritual condition. So where did ‘meaningful’ work end and ‘addictive’ work begin? Protestants must have been ‘addicted’ before Quakers were able to discern what ‘meaningful work’ meant. The Friends in the Truth (the early name for the Religious Society of Friends) weren’t gathered by George Fox until the middle of the 17th Century.
And work should go to enhance the self-interest of the one who took the risk, faced the uncertainty, acquired the skill, expended the energy and lost the sweat to do the task, no? Hoffer believed that those who were fearful of such self-improvement, who somehow lacked focus or the skills to mind one’s own business resorted to substitutes, such as religious faith. Hoffer quotes George Fox’s military superior in the English Civil War and later Fox’s Lord Protector – "Cromwell used to say that common folk needed ‘the fear of God before them’ to match the soldierly cavaliers.”
So Hoffer advances and hypothesizes: The substitute for self-confidence is faith; the substitute for self-esteem is pride; and the substitute for individual balance is fusion with others into a compact group (mass movement).”
The problem when whole society substitutes are inserted in place of the natural emphasis on individual self-interest, is when the real trouble begins, Hoffer feels. The loss of individual balance in human beings fosters movements such as Communism, Stalinism, Nazism, Fascism, and Nationalism. The inability to mind ones own business and the need to mind others’ business also creates religious movements.
Again from The Ordeal of Change:
“If we cannot have the originals, we can never have enough of the substitutes. We can be satisfied with moderate confidence in ourselves and with a moderately good opinion of ourselves, but the faith we have in a holy cause has to be extravagant and uncompromising, and the pride we derive from an identification with a nation, race, leader, or party is extreme and overbearing.”
The newly converted Nazi, Fascist, Communist was more than willing to sacrifice individuality and freedom of choice if it meant he could also get rid of his blemished, imperfect self. Hoffer points out in The True Believer, “When we lose our individual independence in the corporate-ness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom – freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder, and betray without shame and remorse.”

The Quaker Society of Friends in its various Yearly Meetings, ‘wider governments’ and professional political action organizations might have been taken over by ‘misfits’ - those who mind others’ business to bring about ‘change’.

These would be the potential failed artists turned demagogue (the current elite ministers) who find it difficult to focus on improving themselves, who instead turn to ambient causes (like protesting anything and everything that doesn't directly concern them). These are the dishonest Friends who might find it difficult to remember when the last time they sweat in the carrying out of some task as a part of earning their living.

We might put our faith in the more sensible and practical, albeit few, young adults born after 1959 now up and coming among the Religious Society of Friends. Do we really want change? If so, where should that change begin?