Eric Hoffer on The Trader and The Scribe

Eric Hoffer (July 25, 1898 – May 21, 1983) is an interesting writer. His writing is accessible—he writes simply and is brimming with ideas—but he’s such a product of his times that a lot of the things he says sound dated today. In The Ordeal of Change, he spends a lot of time comparing and contrasting the goods and ills of communism—something that hasn’t been an issue in my lifetime. Still, his insights are keen:

Capitalism can produce abundance. It gives full scope to the energies of the individual, and is an optimal milieu for people who can help themselves and want to be helped. But capitalism cannot do much for the helpless. It cannot turn the chronically poor into active, useful citizens. Nor does it know how to cope with people who are more interested in quality of life than in a high standard of living.

I enjoy him for the spirit in which he throws out ideas. I don’t always agree with his, and some of the things he writes are incomprehensible to me, reading in 2015, but his insights are valuable. Consider the trader, written about in In Our Time(which is sadly out of print). I’ve edited out the paragraphs that I feel are irrelevant and make no sense:

It seems strange that we know so little of the history of the trader. The trader preceded the cultivator and the herder, and he is probably more ancient than the hunter and the warrior.

The trader and the artist are probably of equal antiquity, and the most uniquely human. There are animal hunters and warriors, and some any species engage in activities reminiscent of cultivating and herding, but nowhere in the animal world is there anything remotely equivalent to the trader and the artist.

That early man, so naked to the elements and predators, should have survived at all seems miraculous. But the situation becomes doubly miraculous when we find that earliest man was the only lighthearted being in a deadly serious universe, given to playing and tinkering, and exerting himself more in the pursuit of superfluities than of necessities. He had ornaments before he had clothing, and clay figurines before clay pots. From his earliest beginning man was a luxury-loving animal, and the earliest trade was in luxuries. Trade in necessities was a late development.

The trader was probably the first individual. He became an individual not by choice but by circumstances. He was either a straggler left behind or a fugitive or a sole survivor. Earliest trade was foreign trade and the trader was a foreigner. Even at present in backward parts of the world most traders are foreigners: Indians in East Africa, Lebanese and Greeks in West Africa, Parsees in India, and Chinese in Southeast Asia. I can see the first trader, an outsider, approaching a strange human group, bearing a gift of something new and desirable, and then going on from group to group exchanging gifts.

Considering the trader’s antiquity and the vital role he played in the evolution of civilization, it is difficult to understand the scorn and disdain he evoked in other human types, particularly in the warrior and the scribe. To the warrior who made history and the scribe who recorded it, the trader was the embodiment of greed, dishonesty, cowardice, dishonor, mendacity and corruption in general. Yet it was the trader who first gave weapons to the warrior and the craft of writing to the scribe. Traders’ tags and marks of ownership preceded clay tablets and papyrus rolls. Later, when the scribe had made writing so cumbersome and complex that one needed a lifetime to master it, the Phoenician trader moved in to simplify it by introducing the phonetic alphabet.

In free societies, the tug of war between the trader and scribe has had beneficent effects. The trader cracked the scribe’s monopoly of learning by diffusing literacy through popular education, while the scribe has been in the forefront of every movement that set out to separate the trader from his wealth. As a result, both learning and riches have leaked out to wider sections of the population.

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