What Intellectuals Get Wrong. (Contrasting Nietzsche, Hoffer, Marx; and the Mindsets of the Masses, Intellectuals, Elites.)


To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever compared and contrasted the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) and Eric Hoffer (1902 – 1983). So this is bound to be an adventure in ideas. Nietzsche needs no introduction, of course. The late Eric Hoffer was the American “longshoreman philosopher”: a complete autodidact who’d dropped out of grade school, learned all that he knew from self-study in libraries, while earning a meager living getting his hands dirty with America’s working class — the masses, if you will.

Nietzsche, predictably, did not much care for the masses. For example:

“To me, the masses seem to be worth a glance only in three respects: first as blurred copies of great men, presented on bad paper with worn out printing plates, then as the resistance against the great men, and finally as working implements of the great. For the rest, let the devil and statistics carry them off!”

He saw them as mostly mindless followers. His worry was that any attempt to open intellectual doors to the rise of the overman would also open it to the masses who instead become “last men” indulging mindless pursuits, not greatness. In our last post, we saw how Nietzsche actually went as far as to suggest that such inferiors ultimately should not even be allowed to breed.

Eric Hoffer, the American autodidactic sociological philosopher best known for his The True Believer (1951), took a more positive view of the masses. In the 1960s he told CBS’s Eric Sevareid (I’ve edited slightly for flow):*

“You know the only people who really feel at home in this country are the common people. America is God’s gift to the poor…. For the first time [in] history, the common people could do things on their own. Nobody mentions it! But this is a business civilization! This is the only mass civilization to ever work! The masses, Mr. Sevareid! [They] eloped with history to America and we have been living in common law marriage with it — without the incantations of the intellectuals there.  

Hoffer goes on to opine that intellectuals have generally been better off elsewhere, e.g., in Europe. Europeans listened to intellectuals. Americans, by and large, found them uninteresting.

But the intellectual was coming into his own in the America of the 1960s. Hoffer expressed discomfort with this. From the same interview:

“ … I’m convinced that the intellectual, as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action, are not corrupted by power like intellectuals…. You take a conventional man of action. He acts right if you obey, huh? But not the intellectual. He doesn’t want just obeying. He wants you to get down on your knees and pray to the one who makes you hate what you love and love what you hate. In other words, whenever intellectuals are in power, there is total raping going on….

Take that! I doubt he would have put it so strongly today. Hoffer has an addendum to Lord Acton’s well known adage, how “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He says: “Power corrupts the few. Weakness corrupts the many.”

The Mindset of the Masses.

I will speak of the masses, intellectuals, and elites, in order to compare and contrast Nietzsche, Hoffer, and other writers who might be relevant, then drawing my most important conclusion about what intellectuals do wrong that alienates them from guys like Hoffer, who might be taken as exemplifying the mindset of the man in the street, we shall call him.** Where can we begin, talking about these three separate aggregates of humanity? Where is each strongest and dangerous; and where, weakest and corruptible, and therefore as dangerous if not more so?

One way is to note their quite different apprehensions and organizing of their experience. I’ve written in two places (here and here) of “piercing the veils.” The masses are mostly “behind the first veil,” learning the skills they use to keep their lives together, but typically not much more. “First veilers” make up at least 90 percent of the human race. This description can be enhanced. We are all problem-solvers, but we do not all apprehend the same things as problems. Perhaps more importantly, we do not apprehend them as our problems. The “first veilers” — the masses — see and try to solve the problems closest to them, problems in their immediate surroundings, of family, home, work, health, and personal comfort and convenience. At work many will excel at what they do, be it using their hands, driving vehicles, or selling (which, interestingly, if it is to be effective, implies some instinctive understanding into what motivates people to buy). At home, they may enjoy stable and loving relationships with spouses and children, even if they cannot articulate the core values behind their enjoyment. They will be content in the present — something difficult for intellectuals and elites as we’ll see presently.

In other words, the problems the masses apprehend as important are proximate to them, and local: what affects them or their families directly (or, in some cases, what might affect them). They do not see much beyond, or believe they need to see much beyond, a horizon of immediacy.

Intellectuals (and perhaps a few of the more intelligent of the masses) might be “second veilers,” “third veilers,” or in a few cases “fourth veilers.” The “second veiler” gains some insight into politics and policy, studies an issue perhaps, takes a position, articulates a defense of it. He may be right or not, insightful or not. The “third veiler” goes deeper, discovering systems of governance such as constitutionalism, theories about markets, and so on. The “fourth veiler” finds himself exploring how elites operate to control both visible government and business through money flows, thus circumventing governance and markets in order to dominate. The “fourth veiler” might be an elite, or just an observer of elites.   

The Mindset of Intellectuals.

The intellectual is driven by ideas, by reason, and by the sense that even if he doesn’t have it all yet, he’s on his way to learning comprehensive truth about the way the world (or some part of it) works, or how society should work and can be made to work — if only he were in charge! Abstract truth and systematicity is what he cares about — for better or for worse, and sometimes to the neglect of the problems the mass man is motivated to solve immediately.

According to intellectual historian Paul Johnson, the mark of an intellectual is that he cares more about ideas than he does about people, and thus has a highly idealized view of “humanity in the abstract,” about which he’ll say he cares a great deal. Meanwhile he might neglect his family (think: Karl Marx). The problems he sees as important are “big picture” issues of societal order, not “little picture” matters such as ensuring enough food to eat.

In other words, the intellectual either doesn’t see the masses as they are — or, when he does see them, he dislikes what he sees either because the aggregate “beneath him” has no interest in these “big picture” problems, or because it refuses to behave as his abstract theory says it should. The masses, of course, are too busy keeping food on the table — or perhaps safeguarding what they have so that their children can inherit it, as opposed to intrusive others getting their grubby fingers on it.  

This difference helps explain, I think, the disdain most intellectuals have always felt for the masses. Problems such as “global poverty” (e.g.) don’t resonate with them.

Let me take this one step further. The mass man is a native empiricist. He goes off what his five senses tell him, and what he is told by those he knows and trusts, especially if he has been around them all his life: parents, other relatives, friends, neighbors, pastor or priest, coworkers. Thus the proximate nature of his problems, e.g., I need to get up at a certain hour to get to work on time. Does the car need a tune-up? The roof is leaking; who can I call to have it fixed (or should I try to fix it myself and save money)? What should I bring to the church picnic this Saturday?

Eric Hoffer was very sympathetic with all this. Having been born working class, with no special privileges and probably some major disadvantages (losing his mother at a very young age, for example), he was around the working class mindset his entire life. Where he differed was in his insatiable curiosity, which drove him into libraries during his off hours. He learned plenty about professional intellectuals just from reading them. A few, such as French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592), earned his respect. Most did not, especially those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Intellectuals and Elites; the Elite Mindset.

Hoffer notes in his essay “The Intellectual and the Masses” (in The Ordeal of Change, 1963) that intellectuals in the past tended to align their interests with those of elites. Sometimes they saw themselves as part of the elite, which would accord with Hoffer’s conviction that their primary motive was fascination with power.  

Elites, of course, are not merely fascinated with power, they have it. Having a certain amount of power, not accountable to the masses, is what it means to be elite. How to maintain power, and what to do with it, are the elite problem sets. Elites have solved the immediate problems of living that are ongoing concerns for the masses: they hire servants to do the real work. Specific ideas or strategies or lines of thought from intellectuals might or might not have helped them. If so, it was because they addressed problems of governance in ways that resonated with them. The right institutions or other scaffolding of societal support then worked to the intellectual’s advantage.  

Thus in what I call Second Stage civilization (pre-scientific, pre-industrial), many intellectuals dwelt in monasteries and implicitly supported the feudal system of king, landowners with vast estates, and church, as they lived cloistered lives and debated the fine points of metaphysics and philosophical theology. Nothing overt emerges to bring the two mindsets into conflict.

The scientific revolution, the Protestant revolution, and then the Enlightenment, however, mostly dethroned those older elites. In Third Stage civilization, the new elites were bankers and financiers (think: Rothschild), industrialists (think: Rockefeller), military men (think: Bismarck). Though having far greater resources than the masses, most elites probably share a native empiricist epistemology. Because of their resources, they can see over that horizon of immediacy.

In Third Stage civilization, though, at first glance intellectuals are out of place. They are not a part of the banking/financial elite which does not need them (except, perhaps, for the occasional Adam Smith to theorize the system). Capitalism’s triumph was its capacity to sell to the masses, enabling them to sell to each other. Intellectuals rarely had any goods or services to sell. Their monasteries closed, they ended up warehoused in “research universities,” or in other institutions that would pay for research and writing, provided they behaved themselves. Naturally, there were intellectuals who found this oppressive and refused to kowtow.

Intellectuals and “the Proletariat”  

Alienated from centers of power, some intellectuals began to fancy themselves spokesmen for the masses. Marx is the obvious case, differentiating between bourgeois capitalists (elite captains of industry, new owners of land, controllers of money flows) and the proletariat laborers (owners only of their labor). He saw history as the history of class conflict — between those who owned the means of production and those who did not. According to Marx, processes put in motion by the former would increasingly impoverish the latter until the latter revolted and instituted a new society that would benefit “humanity in the abstract” instead of the elite few.

Thus the Marxian dialectical materialist theory of history. The history of Marxism, though, is an object lesson in what happens when intellectuals get their hands on power. Here the great difference in problem sets and motivations made all the difference in the world. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, all became tyrants in the name of “humanity in the abstract,” which by its own dialectical “law” would advance the world toward Perfect Communism.

There was no place in that mindset for the masses as they are. Their “uncontrolled impulses,” e.g., to buy and live according to their own choices and not those of the elites, to start businesses of their own when and where they could, to join the hated bourgeoisie if they could, and deal with each other without the permission of the intellectuals, could not be tolerated. Markets were far too anarchic for those thinking in terms of the “ideal system.”

The mass man usually disdains socialism if he learns about it. People should carry their own weight, he will say. The intellectual tends to favor socialism, since socialism favors him. The elites, I often suspect, do not care that much about “isms” except perhaps as tools to be used.  

Returning to both Nietzsche, definitely an elitist, and Hoffer, a mass man: both disdained socialism, but for entirely different reasons.

Nietzsche saw socialism as continuing the slave morality it had inherited from Christianity while removing God from the world picture. Abstractions all. The overman, Nietzsche felt, would embody a master morality doing away with Christian meekness and self-sacrifice.

Hoffer just tells us that there is no real affinity between pro-socialist intellectuals and the pro-capitalist masses. The former’s mind is essentially aristocratic. The intellectual seeks to be a leader. His vision of himself (akin to that of the elites) is as a superior form of life. He is a man of ideas. But he is also striving for validation in these terms (unlike the elites whose power constitutes self-validation).

The masses do not seek to be a “proletariat,” or to conform to any other intellectual construction. This was clear by the time of the Frankfurt School, which was responding in its own way, that the masses wanted to improve themselves economically by their own means, i.e., becoming “bourgeois.” The masses sought leadership, but from those who understood them — who spoke their language and could claim to have at least some competence at solving practical problems they could not solve on their own. (This goes a long way to explaining Donald Trump’s appeal and why he defeated first far more seasoned elitist Republican politicians getting the GOP nomination, and then arch-elitist Hillary Clinton, back in 2016 — just piling on the reasons why intellectuals hated all this so much.)  

The intellectual can’t lead the masses. His thinking is too abstract. So the masses ignore him. Not on purpose. They simply don’t see him. He is invisible to them. Perhaps it is fortunate that Third Stage civilization made a place for him in academia.

He then looks down his nose from his academic cubicle at what he considers the abject stupidity of those who do not “get” his superiority. The masses notice this, even if they cannot be troubled to articulate what bothers them about this university guy who uses big words and acts so superior. They just sheer off. Arguably they did this with Nietzsche, whose books were ignored and who, once outside university life because of poor health, never had any real connections or was able to make any contributions of the sort the masses treasure. The intellectual burns with resentment about his relative invisibility in Third Stage industrial civilization. He soon ceases to be a champion of the masses and becomes their detractor, as Nietzsche did. “Mass society” repels him as much as his abstract intellectualism bores the mass man.

Elites Over Intellectuals and Mass Society.

Intellectuals may be drawn to power, but they do not really understand power (though Machiavelli might have been an exception). Elites are therefore able to exploit intellectuals’ emotional reactions to their sense of powerlessness. They can encourage — through what their agents, especially in universities, choose to bankroll — intellectual movements that elevate victimhood to near-religious standing, exploit historical grievances legitimate or not, divide groups based on the identities thus resulting, and above all: further encourage the burning resentment that tears apart a society based on principles able to serve as a basis for resisting total domination by the elites. Let’s realize that they, like intellectuals, believe themselves most fit to rule — to redesign a world with themselves at the helm. Unlike the intellectuals they have the resources to attempt the project of global rule. It used to be called the New World Order. Now it’s called the Great Reset. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

One can view mass society in either of (at least) two ways, or embodying two systems, which given the complexity of actual Third Stage civilization surely exist side by side.

The first is of what Eric Hoffer observed all around him: common people helping common people. Some see or think of solutions to problems not yet solved, and these lead to new products and services, and therefore to interactions in markets of various sorts. Again, the intellectual doesn’t see those kinds of problems (or if he does, he doesn’t deem them important), and so isn’t interested in solving them. But this is the basis of what there is of the free marketplace.

The second is to look at the whole of industrial civilization as best we can, as a system, and realize that it really is centralized, coordinated, and filled with control mechanisms that operate from the top down. Third Stage elites—banking, etc.—were created an empowered by its mechanisms.***  It has established numerous parameters within these, in which a wide variety of largely free interactions and transactions are possible (free in the sense that the masses can choose A over B, or B over A without constraint).

These controls, to ensure that most mass behavior is predictable, because it responds to incentives and “nudges,” may well be a structural requirement of the industrial system itself. Generally it operates to protect and grow the moneymaking or power interests of the elites, even as it keeps the system maximally stable. This process is generally so subtle that the masses do not see it. If the intellectuals see it, they filter it through some ideology such as Marxism, and they probably benefit from it (if paid by a university).

This reflects their training. Microspecialization diverts their attention away from the whole, even if they still profess great concern about “humanity in the abstract” or “planetary issues” (e.g., climate). Those not diverted by microspecialization, who pursue inquiries into the nature and activities of the elites, have found their reputations and careers as professional intellectuals sullied, as their books are disdained by reviewers however thoroughly researched (part of the elite-protection system). Think: Antony C. Sutton who demonstrated quite clearly the role of specific financial elites in supporting both the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s, among other behind-the-scenes activities.

If all else fails, the “fourth veiler” intellectual who is manifestly outside the elite orbit and looks to close and too deep down the “rabbit hole” of elite activities for comfort — especially seeing those I deemed superelite in my book Four Cardinal Errors — can be delegitimized by being labeled conspiracist. His subsequent work is then simply ignored. In many respects, though, these superelites constitute the overman Nietzsche claimed to foresee. They operate “beyond good and evil.” Their primary interest is in maintaining and increasing their power. Their secondary interest is in doing this maintaining stability — though they will disrupt this stability if they are facing major challenges from within the peasant classes (think: covid lockdowns!). Their third is money. (The past three years have seen some of the largest transfers of wealth from the bottom and middle to the top in human history.)   

The Cardinal Error of the Intellectual.

The intellectual likes the idea of ruling over society. That would give him validation. He generally doesn’t appreciate that society already has a ruling class. That would be too “conspiratorial,” and he thinks that to be “irrational.”  So he forges ahead with his abstract plans.

In the end, the intellectual, the man moved by ideas such as “humanity in the abstract” and the restless sense that the existing ordering of society doesn’t validate him, wants to live in a society that does. He cannot identify with either the power elites or the masses, neither of whom need him. He’s typically warehoused in a university, although these days he may not have been fortunate enough to obtain academic warehousing.  

We come to his biggest and deadliest mistake: the mistake made by Plato fortunately at a time when there was no means of implementing the society depicted in his Republic, made more recently by Marx when very shortly it would become possible, and being made by globalist-minded technocrats of the Klaus Schwab ilk today when more than enough technology exists to at least try to implement it.

The mistake is to think in terms of a comprehensive and often very detailed vision of society as a whole that can only be implemented, its policies imposed, from the top echelons downward.

At the ideal best, you’ll have place for everything (everyone) and everything (everyone) in its (their) place(s). Since the ideal is almost never realized in practice, one conspicuous result is that there will always be some who do not “fit the plan” and will have to be discarded via eugenics or genocide. For the Nazis this was the Jews. For the Soviets, this was any of their masses who had the temerity to resist Soviet collective farming. Anyone who objects to the plan on intellectual grounds will by definition not fit: a reason actual power elites, even those who started out as intellectuals, have always found intellectuals threatening and vowed to keep them on short leashes.

All of which makes top-down comprehensive visions for social order inherently dangerous, in addition to whatever intellectual objections may exist to their Utopianism. To those whose core moral values include freedom, such visions are immoral to their core and to be resisted wherever and however possible.

So what is the intellectual to do?

What the Intellectual Can Do.

At first glance, the intellectual who realizes all of this is a complete outsider, unable to identify with the masses or offer them anything they want, cast out by the elites (as Nietzsche would have been in a heartbeat), not even really fitting in with his fellow intellectuals to the extent they support the top-down globalist agenda and most of its methods, by their silence if not through direct complicity.  

How should he respond?

He should respond by taking a different approach to what he wants to accomplish for the betterment of society. He should embrace first the great difference between constructing abstract visions that can only be implemented from the top down, and instead work from concrete realities and build better communities from the bottom up. Starting with himself.

What does this mean?

It means that Hoffer had essentially the right idea. Intellectuals are not going to change the masses, and can only do harm in trying. The intellectual who wants to do good in this world must therefore become more of a native empiricist as I defined this above, or at least try to understand the native empiricism of the masses from the inside.  

He must discern what they care about. What do they care about? I supplied the beginning of a list of their commonplace concerns above. That was not intended to be an exhaustive list. They also want validation, even if on a much smaller scale. They want to be able to live ordinary lives more effectively, and to believe that their ordinary lives made a difference in the lives of those around them. What barriers do they face? Can the intellectual as counselor help them overcome these barriers?

Is the intellectual not ceasing to be an intellectual by getting so down-to-Earth? There is a way he can advise, and even invoke the sort of abstract principle he likes. This is by embracing the starting point the Stoics relied on when giving counsel: the difference between what one can control and what one cannot control. Elsewhere I called this Stoicism’s first and greatest principle.

It is both the easiest principle to understand — one does not need a PhD or any university education whatsoever to “get it” — and the hardest to learn to implement. 000

Doing so, however, is manifestly the path to a better, more peaceful, and therefore contented life.

Is this not something the masses want? Of course they do!

And it is something the intellectual who takes the right attitude can supply: first by mastering the principle himself, and then in training others how to do it. The ancient Stoics — many of whom began, or sometimes subsisted, in far worse situations than any of us are likely to find ourselves in today — did this.

Perhaps this is why we have seen an awakening of interest in Stoicism. Some are disdainful of the “Silicon Valley Stoic,” of course. Whether this judgment is justified, I’ll leave to others. For whether a Silicon Valley billionaire embraces Stoicism or not, or claims to do so, is not something I can control. But even Silicon Valley billionaires face death. Their billions won’t help them against it. There are therefore potentially frightening realities not even they can control.  

What have we accomplished? We started with the idea of comparing Nietzsche’s intellectual mindset with Hoffer’s mass mindset, and then working with the latter’s observations on how intellectuals once aligned their interests with the elites, realized the elites had little use for them, turned to the masses, only to see the masses go their own way (especially in America!). Nietzsche disdained the masses, and as we saw earlier this month, his disdain led him to anticipate eugenics — an idea I would argue is very much alive whenever an intellectual such as Yuval Noah Harari informs us of the all the “useless people” out there (or however he put it). Hoffer embraced the mass mindset as it manifested itself in America. He saw the rising intellectual mindset of the 1960s as a danger since so many intellectuals are drawn to power and prone to abuse it. They are drawn to power because they want a societal order that will validate them when the existing one does not. Few have any understanding of real power, which has no need of abstract ideologies and principles (besides, perhaps, “money talks”).

When intellectuals get their hands on power, the results have generally been disastrous. Think: Lenin and Stalin (both trained intellectuals) in the former Soviet Union, and Mao Tse-Tung (a trained intellectual) in Communist China. Hitler, too, had a vision he originally presented in Mein Kampf. In that sense he was an intellectual. There are any number of other such visions penned by intellectuals who never acquired power. One might object that we don’t have that many examples of intellectuals who obtained power to work from. The answer is that this is probably fortunate.

The wise intellectual will forget about power in this sense. Self-mastery is enough of a challenge. Most intellectuals have not truly mastered themselves, especially their capacity to focus their energies on what they can control (or learn). Once an intellectual can clearly articulate a few basic principles that, if executed, will significantly improve his life and the lives of those around him, he may have something valuable to the masses around him, and possibly therefore even the validation he craves.  

*          I first read The True Believer when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. I am grateful to Jack Carney for drawing my attention to this material and reviving my interest in Eric Hoffer’s life and thought.

**        Re: my use of he and expressions such as man in the street and mass man: I am taking the liberty of using the generic he throughout this essay not to offend feminists but because it greatly simplifies our language by, e.g., avoiding awkward “he or she” locutions in every other sentence in order to virtue-signal, or avoiding the issue by pluralizing and using them or themselves.

***      Industrial civilization could not really develop apart from processes such as the extraction of fossil fuels, their transportation over varying distances, and their refinement into usable products. These required large operations, for which money had to be available up front, not from profits earned later. Where was this up-front money to come from? From moneylending institutions, of course. These lent out what was needed for industrial operations and charged interest on it. The interest was never loaned out and so could not be repaid. Though a fuller account goes well outside the scope of this piece (I suggest starting here), this process alone helped create an elite able to dictate policy since money is generally not lent without strings attached.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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