Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1902 – May 21, 1983) was an American moral and social philosopher.
Hoffer was the author of ten books and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February 1983. His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen, although Hoffer believed that his book The Ordeal of Change was his finest work.
Hoffer was born in 1902 the Bronx, New York City, to Knut and Elsa (Goebel) Hoffer. His parents were immigrants from Alsace, then part of Imperial Germany. By age five, Hoffer could already read in both English and his parents’ native German. When he was five, his mother fell down the stairs with him in her arms. He later recalled, “I lost my sight at the age of seven. Two years before, my mother and I fell down a flight of stairs. She did not recover and died in that second year after the fall. I lost my sight and for a time my memory.” He was raised by a live-in relative or servant, a German immigrant named Martha. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was 15. Fearing he might lose it again, he seized on the opportunity to read as much as he could. His recovery proved permanent, but Hoffer never abandoned his reading habit.
Hoffer was a young man when he also lost his father. The cabinetmaker’s union paid for Knut Hoffer’s funeral and gave Hoffer about three hundred dollars insurance money. He took a bus to Los Angeles, and spent the next 10 years on skid row, reading, occasionally writing, and working at odd jobs.
In 1931, he considered suicide by drinking a solution of oxalic acid, but he could not bring himself to do it. He left skid row and became a migrant worker, following the harvests in California. He acquired a library card where he worked, dividing his time “between the books and the brothels.” He also prospected for gold in the mountains. Snowed in for the winter, he read the Essays by Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne impressed Hoffer deeply, and he often made reference to him. He also developed a respect for America’s underclass, which he said was “lumpy with talent.” He wrote a novel, Four Years in Young Hank’s Life, and a novella, Chance and Mr. Kunze, both partly autobiographical. He also penned a long article based on his experiences in a federal work camp, “Tramps and Pioneers.” This was never published, but a truncated version appeared in Harper’s Magazine after he became well known.
Hoffer tried to enlist in the U.S. Army at age 40 during World War II, but he was rejected because of a hernia. Instead, he worked as a longshoreman on the docks of The Embarcadero. At the same time, he began to write seriously.
Hoffer left the docks in 1967 and retired from public life in 1970. In 1970 he endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley.
Hoffer called himself an atheist, but he had sympathetic views of religion and described it as a positive force.