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Why Go?

Was browsing through my copy of Eric Hoffer’s The Ordeal of Change this afternoon, and came across this interesting passage in the essay “The Role of Undesirables”:

Who were the pioneers? Who were the men who left their homes and went into the wilderness? A man rarely leaves a soft spot and goes deliberately in search of hardship and privation. People become attached to the places they live in; they drive roots. A change of habitat is a painful act of uprooting. A man who has made good and has a standing in his community stays put. The successful businessmen, farmers, and workers usually stayed where they were. Who then left for the wilderness and the unknown? Obviously those who had not made good: men who went broke or never amounted to much; men who though possessed of abilities were too impulsive to stand the daily grind; men who were slaves of their appetites — drunkards, gamblers, and women chasers; outcasts — fugitives from justice and ex-jailbirds. There were no doubt some who went in search of health — men suffering with TB, asthma, heart trouble. Finally there was a sprinkling of young and middle-aged in search of adventure.

All these people craved change, some probably actuated by the naive belief that a change in place brings with it a change in luck. Many wanted to go to a place where they were not known and there make a new beginning. Certainly they did not go out deliberately in search of hard work and suffering. If in the end they shouldered enormous tasks, endured unspeakable hardships, and accomplished the impossible, it was because they had to. They became men of action on the run. They acquired strength and skill in the inescapable struggle for existence. It was a question of do or die. And once they tasted the joy of achievement, they craved for more.

While Hoffer is referring to the California pioneers who made the deserts bloom, he could just as well be talking about the pioneers of the future: those who will tackle the enormous tasks of settling and developing the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and free space. While some of the particulars will be different (it’s hard to imagine drunkards and lungers as future lunar or martian colonists), his core argument — that it is those who don’t fit into the established socio-economic-political order who end up finding their place as pioneers — may well hold true, specifically in the case of those people with abilities and talents who lack a discipline-imparting environment or motivating cause in which to use them here on Earth.

It’s another facet of the oftused (and occasionally handwringingly eulogized) “space as frontier” meme, but it points to something often overlooked in discussions from other perspectives: what happens when these “misfits” don’t have a suitable outlet for their abilities and solution to their personal frustrations.

2 comments to Why Go?

  • It’s worth noting that a large number of the Age of Discovery explorers, their financiers and proponents at Court, and their crews were Marranos and Conversos, men whose families had been forced to convert from Judiasm to Catholicism by the Inquisition, some of whom still practiced Judaism in secret. Their choice was either torture and death, conversion and loss of cultural/religious identity, or exile. Talk about your “Undesirables” and “misfits”!

    Why this would lead to men like Columbus (rumored to be a Maranno, and many in his crew definitely were Marranos) thus wanting to explore and seek out new lands should be obvious…

  • You have a valid point, and religious motivations may play some role in the settlement of future “new worlds” (though hopefully under more positive circumstances than the choice between alternatives presented to the non-Catholic Spaniards).

    However, Hoffer isn’t talking about people with that kind of motivation, founded as it is in identification with a particular (disfavored) group — he is describing a particular internal motivation: a dysfunctional dissatisfaction with things as they are, rooted in aspects of the individual’s character. His description wouldn’t apply to Columbus nearly as well as to Cortez and his men, many of whom were “second sons”, criminals, disgruntled soldiers or the like, “men of action” seeking an adventure in the New World (I think Bernal Diaz even said as much, in his own way, but I can’t find the relevant passage).