Close Up Those Barren Leaves

More from Eric Hoffer:

According to Bergson “the intellect is characterized by an inability to comprehend life.” Kant was certain that “the origin of the cosmos will be explained sooner than the mechanism of a plant or caterpillar.” How outlandish then is the belief that the intellect can fathom men’s soul.

How can science unravel the chemistry of the soul when what we have here is actually an alchemy? Good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and error, love and hatred, the sublime and the ridiculous continually pass into each other. And alchemy is ruled not by the intellect but by magic.

Before the Sabbath, p. 79

Magic? Really? Well, let’s see how it goes; we’re only just getting warmed up. And we’ve already made surprisingly good progress with those caterpillars.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Before you take the poor guy down a notch, is a charitable interpretation of Hoffer’s “magic” possible? Is he the kind of man who, after writing so incisively about human beings’ individual and group behavior, would throw out a term like “magic” and mean it literally?

    Full disclosure: I’m a Hoffer fan after reading his The True Believer, a book that deals with the psychology of mass movements — religious, communist, and otherwise. The book was given to me by my sophomore year biology teacher in high school; I was a frothing creationist and biblical literalist at the time, and didn’t bother opening Hoffer’s book until about sophomore year in college. It wasn’t until I’d started Believer that I realized what my bio teacher had been trying to tell me about myself and where I was headed.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 12:21 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    …is a charitable interpretation of Hoffer’s “magic” possible? Is he the kind of man who, after writing so incisively about human beings’ individual and group behavior, would throw out a term like “magic” and mean it literally?

    That’s what I was wondering. I admire Mr. Hoffer very much.

    C.P. Snow wrote of the great division between the Two Cultures — the scientific and the humanist — and Mr. Hoffer does seem to be squarely in the latter. It is perhaps not so much that he really believes, literally, that there is magic at work in the human soul, but that he wishes it to be so, and would see us as diminished by a contrary finding.

    It is also true, and certainly also part of what he had in mind here, that scientific reductionism can only give us the mechanisms that make us tick; the infinite variety of human experience is quite beyond its scope.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    I think it’s pretty easy to find a charitable reading of Hoffer here.

    Just note Hoffer’s own contrast of “magic” with “science” — then consider the limits of the grab bag of finite procedures that we honorifically dub the “scientific method” — then embrace Hofferian magic.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    So what, then, on a charitable interpretation, is meant by “magic”? That which is presently beyond the grasp of science, or that which is so in principle?

    I’m also curious about “fathom”.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    I suspect Hoffer believed (probably correctly) there are many important truths about human existence that, as a matter of principle, empirical methods can neither disclose nor confirm. As for what he meant by ‘fathom,’ I’d guess it means something roughly similar to “getting to the bottom of things.”

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    I’m not sure about “probably correctly” as a matter of principle; I’m trying to imagine what sort of truths those would be. (Various aspects of subjective experience, no doubt.) I can certainly imagine that the claim might turn out to be true in practice, depending on what sort of progress we are able to make, but I wouldn’t use the word “magic” for that.

    I suppose I am being too stingy here regarding poetic license, as I sometimes tend to be. When a thinker of Hoffer’s caliber starts talking seriously about “magic”, it makes me fidgety.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – What sort of truths about human existence would be beyond the ken of empirical science? For Hoffer, I think it’s safe to say, the list would probably start with ethical truths. I’d be more inclined to start with Gödel’s proofs that our formal systems must remain incomplete.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Well, I’m not at all sure that ethical “truths” even exist in any objective sense, and to the extent that they do, I don’t see them as being outside the purview of science. Human morality seems increasingly explicable.

    But that’s for me, and you did say “for Hoffer”.

    Posted April 26, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

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