Who Are the Hippies?

From the NR archives

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article first appeared in the August 8, 1967, issue of National Review.

The hippie movement, if indeed it can be called a movement, confronts the curious observer as a strange paradox. On the One hand, it is generally held to be part of the New Left, itself a vague conglomerate of youthful and not so youthful malcontents, pronouncing the most frightful imprecations upon our society and culture, and threatening the most ferocious assaults upon things as they are. On the other hand, these hippies appear to be so harmless, so peaceful, so utterly absorbed in love and bongo. Where do they fit into the picture of the New Left?

Who are the hippies, what are they? Most emphatically, they are not to be identified with the old-line beatniks, with whom they may have some tenuous historical connection. They do not have the truculence, the menacing air, the ideological ferocity of the old-line beatnik; they do not congregate in foul dens in the slums. They are the “gentle people,” sun worshipers, love-mystics. No, they are not beatniks; but what are they?

The Secessionists

The sociology of the hippies is not yet well understood or sufficiently investigated. But what we do know suggests that they are largely young, though many approaching middle age may be found among them; mostly of good middle-class families, and with some education. They say they cannot stand the constraints, the conventionalities, and the hypocrisies of our society, and so they have determined to secede and establish their own “joy” society in the midst of ours, but inwardly dissociated from it. They are inner expatriates, going off to live their authentic lives, not to Paris or the South Seas, but to the sidewalks, parks, and beaches of our big cities, particularly on the West Coast, though we are not without our experience of them in Mayor Lindsay’s Fun City as well. They seem to associate in tribes with odd names — the best known of which is perhaps the Oracle Tribe — and they flaunt their tribal banners when they settle down in a park or on a beach. And they have their tribal beads, which they rattle. Their dress is unconventional, but not uniform, as was, or is, the case with the beatniks; one can find them in bathing suits, togas, sarongs, blue jeans, miniskirts, even leather jackets (the old beatnik garb). Lately, some of the girls have taken to disfiguring their faces with scrawls and inscriptions, relating to their hippie slogans or their tribal membership. The few children among them — they are still below school age — are brought up in the hippie way as “flower children.” In the wintertime, they are holed up in the “bohemian” quarters of the cities (the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco near Golden Gate Park is widely known as Hippieland); or else they pitch their tents just anywhere, hungry and homeless. It is the warm parts of the year they really look forward to: life is easier, and besides they can worship the sun. Scores of thousands of hippies gathered on the public beaches of Los Angeles and San Francisco toward the end of June to welcome the summer solstice with appropriate songs and ceremonies. And many have remained there since.

How do these hippies manage to live? Some, of course, have private incomes, or allowances from their parents. Other hold odd jobs, mostly part-time; indeed, in San Francisco, they have their own employment agency, clothing cooperative, and housing agency (called the “British Embassy”). But mostly they live on handouts, or what they can scrounge; here, too, in San Francisco, they have an organization, the Diggers, who provide hundreds of hot meals a day, free, out of funds or supplies they solicit or beg. Obviously, the hippies are pretty well organized for a spontaneous “joy” group.

How many hippies are there ? No one seems to know. Estimates in the San Francisco area place the number as high as 100,000 or more; much the same for the Los Angeles area. In New York, the number is said to be considerably smaller. But it must be remembered that the hippie population is a floating population; there are all-year-round hippies, and there are seasonal hippies, those who go in for it during the summer (school vacation) months. But even here we have no real information.

So far our account has been largely external. What about the inner meaning of the hippie phenomenon? What is the hippie secret, the secret of hippie existence?

Enjoyment, Bliss, Ecstasy

The deepest truth about the hippie style of life seems to be that the hippies are compulsive “enjoyers.” They totally reject, in word and in fact, the idea of work, production, achievement; for them, the right kind of life is the life of enjoyment, bliss, even ecstasy. They wallow in life, so to speak: wallow in nature, wallow in “love,” wallow in wallowing. Their ideal, quite literally, is a pure and unadulterated self-indulgence, a self-indulgence on a strange primitivistic level. In their utter absorption in enjoyment, and horrified rejection of work and production, they are — strange as it may seem — distantly related to David Riesman’s “other-directed” suburbanite, who, too, views the older work-conscious, production-minded ethos with marked distaste, and strains for “gracious living” and the “civilized” enjoyment of the “finer things of life.” But the suburbanite’s enjoyment is anxiously “civilized” and conventional; the hippie’s enjoyment is perhaps as anxiously “wild” and primitivistic. Yet there is a connection.

The keynote of the hippies’ life of bliss is love. Theirs is indeed an orgiastic love-mystique. The term “love” appears everywhere, in everything the Hippies have anything to do with, on their banners, on their persons, on their scanty possessions. Their articulate expressions are always about love; their gatherings are “love-ins”; their chants are “Buddhist love-songs” (of doubtful provenance). They meet every situation with proclamations of love. When they were ousted from Tompkins Square Park in New York for making too much noise with their bongo drums, guitars and chants, they sweatily announced that they “loved the cops” (although one hippie girl, in a frenzy, did bite a policeman). A Left group with a love so comprehensive as to include the cops is a phenomenon indeed!

The corporate mental life of the hippies would seem to be rather vacuous. They do show some talent for organization (after all, they’re all Americans, aren’t they?), but the thinking they do, if indeed thinking it can be called, is more like orgiastic love-spluttering than coherent thought. Unlike the more pretentious beatniks of yore, they do not claim to be producing a new and esoteric kind of poetry or music; they just want to be left alone to wallow in their “love-ins” and their nature” happenings.”

Yet, paradoxically, though their style of life is orgiastic wallowing, and wallowing in love, the hippies exhibit a rather low level of sexual vitality. They are essentially epicene. In appearance and in dress, the men and women look very much alike: the men make no effort to exhibit an aggressive masculinity, nor the women a passionate feminine lure. The hippies themselves say that, in their usage, love does not mean sex; there is, naturally, a good deal of sexual activity among them, but they almost never bring sex into their hippie style of life. This, I think, is a point of considerable significance in an attempt to understand hippiedom.

The hippies have their drug problem. Many come with, or acquire, serious narcotic addictions; the hippies in San Francisco have established their own clinic to deal with the worst of these cases. But their attitude to LSD is quite different. Remember that their whole mode of life is wallowing in “experience,” and LSD comes to them as a most promising agent — to deepen “experience,” to widen it, to extend it, as a way toward the life of higher ecstasy. Marijuana and LSD are said to be rampant among the hippies, as part of their cultic way. In this, of course, they resemble other ‘‘far-out’’ groups in this country, by whom these drugs have also been adopted as “consciousness-extending,” “life-enhancing,” “ecstasy-inducing.” The inducement of ecstasy and ecstatic visions has indeed been the function of a number of drugs (mescal, hashish) employed by religious cults in the past, which the hippie cult rather curiously resembles, though in a loose way.

The hippies, with their cult of love, are naturally almost all pacifists, and many are also Vietniks. But political agitation, even well-defined political ideology, is remote from their anti-activist style of life, and they do not make much of an appearance in today’s so-called protest movements.

So far, what do we have? We have a picture of a kind of primitivistic sect of uncertain size, loosely organized, devoted to a life of orgiastic enjoyment of nature, of “experience,” of love, love, love . . . with no interest in any of the usual public preoccupations of Left groups. All this information is measurably true, and it does serve to fill out the hippie image. But somehow, we feel that we are missing something, that we have not yet got the hippie in proper focus.

Latter-Day Adamites

Perhaps a proper focus may be obtained if we try to see the hippie phenomenon in longer perspective. There was once, perhaps as far back as the beginning of the second century, a small Christian sect known as the “Adamites.” It was their conviction that, in becoming Christians, they had been restored to the sinless purity of before the Fall, in fact, to Adam’s primitive innocence in Paradise. (The sect was also known as the Paradisals.) They advocated a thoroughgoing antinomianism and anarchism, the community of goods, vegetarianism, sexual promiscuity, and nudity, as obviously belonging to the paradisal state they were enjoying.

Now let us examine some of the better-defined positions of the Adamite-Paradisals:

1. A sense of primal innocence, without “knowledge of good and evil.”

2. Antinomianism, rejection, in principle, if not always in practice, of all restrictive law imposed from the “outside.”

3. Hostility to all authority, as in fringing upon their paradisal freedom.

4. Pacifism, since there can be no hurt in Paradise.

5. Sexual freedom, and no sense of shame, like Adam and Eve in Paradise.

6. Community of goods.

7. Free-floating fantasy-thinking: impatience with critical thinking as the product of man’s fall.

8. Emotional self-indulgence: resentment at demands for inner restraint and emotional self-discipline.

9. A comprehensive cult of love, as appropriate to the sinless life in Paradise.

Such was the so-to-speak official way of life of the Adamites nearly two thousand years ago; it is amazing how, at nearly every point, it recalls the way of life practiced, or, at least, professed, by the hippies at this very moment! Here, at long last, I think, we come to the heart of the matter: the hippies are the Adamites of our time.

No Coercion, Authority

Yes, like their ancient prototypes, who also used to conduct “live-ins” in gardens or the open air in imitation of Paradise, the hippies rejoice in a sense of primal innocence: they are the “children of love,” embracing all mankind, indeed, all being, in love; incapable of doing hurt to man, beast, or nature. They resent all coercion and authority; they affirm pacifism, sexual freedom, and freedom from shame; they have a vague “leftist” leaning toward socialism. But, above all, it is in their orgiastic wallowing in enjoyment and love that they recall the Adamites; for the Adamites, despite Scripture which tells us that Adam and Eve were put into Paradise to “keep and to tend it,” in other words to work and cultivate it, always insisted that Paradise was for “bliss and joy.” The hippies, I imagine, are not much on the Bible or the Christian tradition (they prefer Krishna and the Buddhist sutras), and so they probably do not see the connection; but nothing could be more obvious to the observer with insight than that they are the latter-day embodiment of that queer ancient heretical sect. In the perspective of this prototype, we are, I think, able to understand the hippies much better for what they really are.

But what of it? Queer these hippies may well be, it is said, even reminiscent of ancient heresy; but they are so innocent, so harmless, so loving. . . Isn’t that what we need — more love, more innocence, more harmlessness? Let us examine more closely this line of apology.

I will pass over the dangers to society that the hippie way of life brings with it — widespread drug addiction, rising incidence of infectious hepatitis and venereal diseases, danger of outbreaks of polio and typhoid. I will also pass over the false and dangerous consequences of the hippie “ideology,” such as their antinomianism, their hostility to authority, their sexual looseness, their leftist leanings. All these dangers, while real enough, are of a secondary order; primary in criticizing the hippies is their doctrine of love, upon which they so pride themselves.

Love, for them, is an orgiastic feeling in which they wallow in self-indulgence. This kind of love is corrupting both to the cultist and those upon whom it is lavished. Love, in any true sense, does not arise spontaneously as dumb feeling, to lose itself in a turbid morass of love mystique. Love is concern and commitment in its ultimate dimension. Not he loves his neighbor who sings love chants and invites the “experience of love,” but he who understands how to share his neighbor’s hopes and concerns, and to support his neighbor by helping to erect personal and social protections for his neighbor against the sinful self-aggrandizement of men in society. Love as feeling without doing rots and spoils; and surely it would be hard to find anything so rancid as the love-unction of the hippie love mongers.

And now we come to the final point. It is not innocent to pretend to an innocence impossible for man; unacknowledged sinfulness is a deadly poison, ruinous to the individual and to society both. For unacknowledged sinfulness means a refusal to see oneself in realistic perspective; it means a loss of the sense of ambiguity in life, of its hopes and possibilities, indeed, but also of its perversions and frustrations. The hippies, with their paradisal naiveté, would encourage this illusion of primal innocence in us and in mankind, an illusion so appealing that we are forever falling into it even without encouragement. The hippie spectacle is a kind of Medusa head; but it will turn those who gaze upon it without adequate protection not into stone images, but into fools and simpletons.

Perhaps the most shattering comment on the hippie love-mystique was made long in advance by that well-known protagonist of the Old Left, V. I. Lenin. It is a familiar hippie slogan, as an expression of love, love, love, that “if it moves, fondle it. . .” Keep this in mind. An anecdote is recalled about Lenin, years before the Revolution. Lenin was passionately fond of classical music; and, one day, as he was listening to something from Beethoven, his favorite composer, he turned to his companion, and said: “What greatness, what beauty, men have produced. One feels like patting them on the head for such marvelous achievements. . . .” Then, suddenly, he caught himself and exclaimed: ‘‘But be careful! They’ll bite your hand off!”

Saint Augustine somewhere says very much the same thing. And when Augustine and Lenin agree on something, it is surely a something well worth taking note of.

— Will Herberg was a writer and social philosopher. This article originally appeared in the August 8, 1967, issue of National Review.


The Latest