Highlights from “The Crowd” (Gustave Le Bon)
Post from March 11, 2020 (↻ May 15, 2023), filed under Everything Else (feed).
Another part of my random, untargeted book highlight series, here are some snippets from Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895).
Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad (and unacademic). Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (The only thing the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When a detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.
The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts.
The present epoch is one of these critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation.
Two fundamental factors are at the base of this transformation. The first is the destruction of those religious, political, and social beliefs in which all the elements of our civilisation are rooted. The second is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries.
The age we are about to enter will in truth be the Era of Crowds.
It is by association that crowds have come to procure ideas with respect to their interests which are very clearly defined if not particularly just, and have arrived at a consciousness of their strength.
Little adapted to reasoning, crowds, on the contrary, are quick to act. As the result of their present organisation their strength has become immense. The dogmas whose birth we are witnessing will soon have the force of the old dogmas; that is to say, the tyrannical and sovereign force of being above discussion. The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.
There is no power, Divine or human, that can oblige a stream to flow back to its source.
History tells us, that from the moment when the moral forces on which a civilisation rested have lost their strength, its final dissolution is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds known, justifiably enough, as barbarians. Civilisations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.
[…]A civilisation involves fixed rules, discipline, a passing from the instinctive to the rational state, forethought for the future, an elevated degree of culture […].
When the structure of a civilisation is rotten, it is always the masses that bring about its downfall.
It is only by obtaining some sort of insight into the psychology of crowds that it can be understood how slight is the action upon them of laws and institutions, how powerless they are to hold any opinions other than those which are imposed upon them, and that it is not with rules based on theories of pure equity that they are to be led, but by seeking what produces an impression on them and what seduces them.
[…]men never shape their conduct upon the teaching of pure reason.
The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics. The gathering has thus become
[…]an organised crowd, or, if the term is considered preferable, a psychological crowd. It forms a single being, and is subjected to the Law of the Mental Unity of Crowds.
The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation.
The conscious life of the mind is of small importance in comparison with its unconscious life.
The greater part of our daily actions are the result of hidden motives which escape our observation.
Men the most unlike in the matter of their intelligence possess instincts, passions, and feelings that are very similar.
[…]From the intellectual point of view an abyss may exist between a great mathematician and his boot maker, but from the point of view of character the difference is most often slight or non-existent.
It is precisely these general qualities of character
[…]that in crowds become common property.
This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence.
In crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated.
[…]the individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint. He will be the less disposed to check himself from the consideration that, a crowd being anonymous, and in consequence irresponsible, the sentiment of responsibility which always controls individuals disappears entirely.
In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest. This is an aptitude very contrary to his nature, and of which a man is scarcely capable, except when he makes part of a crowd.
[…]the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into acts; these, we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a crowd. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.
Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct.
An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.
It is for these reasons that juries are seen to deliver verdicts of which each individual juror would disapprove, that parliamentary assemblies adopt laws and measures of which each of their members would disapprove in his own person.
[…]the individual in a crowd differs essentially from himself.
[…]the crowd is always intellectually inferior to the isolated individual, but that, from the point of view of feelings and of the acts these feelings provoke, the crowd may, according to circumstances, be better or worse than the individual. All depends on the nature of the suggestion to which the crowd is exposed.
The varying impulses to which crowds obey may be, according to their exciting causes, generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but they will always be so imperious that the interest of the individual, even the interest of self-preservation, will not dominate them.
Crowds are as incapable of willing as of thinking for any length of time.
[…]a crowd, as a rule, is in a state of expectant attention, which renders suggestion easy.
As is the case with all persons under the influence of suggestion, the idea which has entered the brain tends to transform itself into an act.
A crowd scarcely distinguishes between the subjective and the objective.
The ways in which a crowd perverts any event of which it is a witness ought, it would seem, to be innumerable and unlike each other
[…]. But this is not the case. As the result of contagion the perversions are of the same kind, and take the same shape in the case of all the assembled individuals.
From the moment that they form part of a crowd the learned man and the ignoramus are equally incapable of observation.
As soon as a few individuals are gathered together they constitute a crowd, and, though they should be distinguished men of learning, they assume all the characteristics of crowds with regard to matters outside their speciality. The faculty of observation and the critical spirit possessed by each of them individually at once disappears.
[…]witnesses even in number may give circumstantial relations which are completely erroneous, but whose result is that, if their descriptions are accepted as exact, the phenomena they describe are inexplicable by trickery.
[…]the affirmation of the first witness, himself a victim of illusion, had sufficed to influence the other witnesses.
[…]the starting-point of the suggestion is always the illusion produced in an individual by more or less vague reminiscences, contagion following as the result of the affirmation of this initial illusion. If the first observer be very impressionable, it will often be sufficient that the corpse he believes he recognises should present—apart from all real resemblance—some peculiarity, a scar, or some detail of toilet which may evoke the idea of another person. The idea evoked may then become the nucleus of a sort of crystallisation which invades the understanding and paralyses all critical faculty.
It will be remarked that these recognitions are most often made by women and children—that is to say, by precisely the most impressionable persons.
[…]As far as children, more especially, are concerned, their statements ought never to be invoked. […]children invariably lie; the lie is doubtless innocent, but it is none the less a lie. It would be better to decide the fate of an accused person by the toss of a coin than, as has been so often done, by the evidence of a child.
Do we know in the case of one single battle exactly how it took place? I am very doubtful on the point. We know who were the conquerors and the conquered, but this is probably all.
[…]what we know of the psychology of crowds shows that treatises on logic need on this point to be rewritten. […]To say that a fact has been simultaneously verified by thousands of witnesses is to say, as a rule, that the real fact is very different from the accepted account of it.
Unfortunately, legends—even although they have been definitely put on record by books—have in themselves no stability. The imagination of the crowd continually transforms them as the result of the lapse of time
[…]history is scarcely capable of preserving the memory of anything except myths.
The exaggeration of the sentiments of a crowd is heightened by the fact that any feeling when once it is exhibited communicating itself very quickly by a process of suggestion and contagion
The violence of the feelings of crowds is also increased, especially in heterogeneous crowds, by the absence of all sense of responsibility.
[…]In crowds the foolish, ignorant, and envious persons are freed from the sense of their insignificance and powerlessness, and are possessed instead by the notion of brutal and temporary but immense strength.
Given to exaggeration in its feelings, a crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. An orator wishing to move a crowd must make an abusive use of violent affirmations. To exaggerate, to affirm, to resort to repetitions, and never to attempt to prove anything by reasoning are methods of argument
[…]on the stage a crowd demands from the hero of the piece a degree of courage, morality, and virtue that is never to be found in real life.
A play which provokes the enthusiasm of the crowd in one country has sometimes no success in another, or has only a partial and conventional success, because it does not put in operation influences capable of working on an altered public.
[…]by the mere fact that an individual forms part of a crowd, his intellectual standard is immediately and considerably lowered.
Crowds are only cognisant of simple and extreme sentiments; the opinions, ideas, and beliefs suggested to them are accepted or rejected as a whole, and considered as absolute truths or as not less absolute errors.
Dictatorialness and intolerance are common to all categories of crowds
Crowds exhibit a docile respect for force, and are but slightly impressed by kindness, which for them is scarcely other than a form of weakness.
[…]It is true that willingly trample on the despot whom they have stripped of his power, but it is because, having lost his strength, he has resumed his place among the feeble, who are to be despised because they are not to be feared.
The type of hero dear to crowds will always have the semblance of a Caesar. His insignia attracts them, his authority overawes them, and his sword instils them with fear.
It was the proudest and most untractable of the Jacobins who acclaimed Bonaparte with greatest energy when he suppressed all liberty and made his hand of iron severely felt.
It is fortunate for the progress of civilisation that the power of crowds only began to exist when the great discoveries of science and industry had already been effected.
[…]it is quite evident that crowds are too impulsive and too mobile to be moral. If, however, we include in the term morality the transitory display of certain qualities such as abnegation, self-sacrifice, disinterestedness, devotion, and the need of equity, we may say, on the contrary, that crowds may exhibit at times a very lofty morality.
A crowd may be guilty of murder, incendiarism, and every kind of crime, but it is also capable of very lofty acts of devotion, sacrifice, and disinterestedness, of acts much loftier indeed than those of which the isolated individual is capable. Appeals to sentiments of glory, honour, and patriotism are particularly likely to influence the individual forming part of a crowd, and often to the extent of obtaining from him the sacrifice of his life.
Personal interest is very rarely a powerful motive force with crowds, while it is almost the exclusive motive of the conduct of the isolated individual.
Even in the case of absolute scoundrels it often happens that the mere fact of their being in a crowd endows them for the moment with very strict principles of morality.
This moralisation of the individual by the crowd is not certainly a constant rule, but it is a rule frequently observed.
If, then, crowds often abandon themselves to low instincts, they also set the example at times of acts of lofty morality.
Ideas being only accessible to crowds after having assumed a very simple shape must often undergo the most thoroughgoing transformations to become popular. It is especially when we are dealing with somewhat lofty philosophic or scientific ideas that we see how far-reaching are the modifications they require in order to lower them to the level of the intelligence of crowds. These modifications are dependent on the nature of the crowds, or of the race to which the crowds belong, but their tendency is always belittling and in the direction of simplification.
Even when an idea has undergone the transformations which render it accessible to crowds, it only exerts influence when
[…]it has entered the domain of the unconscious, when indeed it has become a sentiment, for which much time is required.
Evidence, if it be very plain, may be accepted by an educated person, but the convert will be quickly brought back by his unconscious self to his original conceptions.
The philosophical ideas which resulted in the French Revolution took nearly a century to implant themselves in the mind of the crowd.
A long time is necessary for ideas to establish themselves in the minds of crowds, but just as long a time is needed for them to be eradicated. For this reason crowds, as far as ideas are concerned, are always several generations behind learned men and philosophers.
[…]as the influence of these ideas is still very powerful are obliged to govern in accordance with principles in the truth of which they have ceased to believe.
The inferior reasoning of crowds is based, just as is reasoning of a high order, on the association of ideas, but between the ideas associated by crowds there are only apparent bonds of analogy or succession. The mode of reasoning of crowds resembles that of the Esquimaux who, knowing from experience that ice, a transparent body, melts in the mouth, concludes that glass, also a transparent body, should also melt in the mouth; or that of the savage who imagines that by eating the heart of a courageous foe he acquires his bravery; or of the workman who, having been exploited by one employer of labour, immediately concludes that all employers exploit their men.
Astonishment is felt at times on reading certain speeches at their weakness, and yet they had an enormous influence on the crowds which listened to them, but it is forgotten that they were intended to persuade collectivities and not to be read by philosophers.
[…]the powerlessness of crowds to reason aright prevents them displaying any trace of the critical spirit, prevents them, that is, from being capable of discerning truth from error, or of forming a precise judgment on any matter.
Judgments accepted by crowds are merely judgments forced upon them and never judgments adopted after discussion.
Appearances have always played a much more important part than reality in history, where the unreal is always of greater moment than the real.
Bread and spectacular shows constituted for the plebeians of ancient Rome the ideal of happiness, and they asked for nothing more. Throughout the successive ages this ideal has scarcely varied. Nothing has a greater effect on the imagination of crowds of every category than theatrical representations.
The unreal has almost as much influence on them as the real. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.
The power of conquerors and the strength of States is based on the popular imagination.
[…]all the great statesmen of every age and every country, including the most absolute despots, have regarded the popular imagination as the basis of their power, and they have never attempted to govern in opposition to it [.]
“It was by becoming a Catholic,” said Napoleon to the Council of State, “that I terminated the Vendeen war. By becoming a Mussulman that I obtained a footing in Egypt. By becoming an Ultramontane that I won over the Italian priests, and had I to govern a nation of Jews I would rebuild Solomon’s temple.”
It is not, then, the facts in themselves that strike the popular imagination, but the way in which they take place and are brought under notice.
[…]To know the art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them.
[…]it may be said that all beliefs have a religious form.
The crowd demands a god before everything else.
When historians tell us that the massacre of Saint Bartholomew was the work of a king, they show themselves as ignorant of the psychology of crowds as of that of sovereigns. Manifestations of this order can only proceed from the soul of crowds.
[…]At the bottom of such events is always to be found the working of the soul of the masses, and never the power of potentates.
The factors which determine these opinions and beliefs are of two kinds: remote factors and immediate factors.
[…]remote factors are those which render crowds capable of adopting certain convictions and absolutely refractory to the acceptance of others. […]
are race, traditions, time, institutions, and education.
[…]in spite of fallacious appearances, neither language, religion, arts, or, in a word, any element of civilisation, can pass, intact, from one people to another.
Traditions represent the ideas, the needs, and the sentiments of the past.
A people is an organism created by the past, and, like every other organism, it can only be modified by slow hereditary accumulations.
Neither a national genius nor civilisation would be possible without traditions.
[…]Civilisation is impossible without traditions, and progress impossible without the destruction of those traditions. The difficulty, and it is an immense difficulty, is to find a proper equilibrium between stability and variability. Should a people allow its customs to become too firmly rooted, it can no longer change […].
[…]the invisible masters that reign in our innermost selves are safe from every effort at revolt, and only yield to the slow wearing away of centuries.
The action of centuries is sufficient to transform any given phenomenon. It has been justly observed that an ant with enough time at its disposal could level Mount Blanc. A being possessed of the magical force of varying time at his will would have the power attributed by believers to God.
Institutions and governments are the product of the race. They are not the creators of an epoch, but are created by it.
Centuries are required to form a political system and centuries needed to change it.
The destinies of peoples are determined by their character and not by their government.
To lose time in the manufacture of cut-and-dried constitutions is, in consequence, a puerile task, the useless labour of an ignorant rhetorician.
Peoples are governed by their character
[…]eminent philosophers, among them Herbert Spencer, have had no difficulty in showing that instruction neither renders a man more moral nor happier, that it changes neither his instincts nor his hereditary passions, and that at times—for this to happen it need only be badly directed—it is much more pernicious than useful.
[…]at present 3,000 educated criminals are met with for every 1,000 illiterate delinquents, and that in fifty years the criminal percentage of the population has passed from 227 to 552 for every 100,000 inhabitants [.]
From the primary school till he leaves the university a young man does nothing but acquire books by heart without his judgment or personal initiative being ever called into play. Education consists for him in reciting by heart and obeying.
“Learning lessons, knowing by heart a grammar or a compendium, repeating well and imitating well—that,” writes a former Minister of Public Instruction, M. Jules Simon, “is a ludicrous form of education whose every effort is an act of faith tacitly admitting the infallibility of the master, and whose only results are a belittling of ourselves and a rendering of us impotent.”
Instead of preparing men for life French schools solely prepare them to occupy public functions, in which success can be attained without any necessity for self-direction or the exhibition of the least glimmer of personal initiative.
The acquisition of knowledge for which no use can be found is a sure method of driving a man to revolt.
“Ideas, he says, are only formed in their natural and normal surroundings; the promotion of the growth is effected by the innumerable impressions appealing to the senses which a young man receives daily in the workshop, the mine, the law court, the study, the builder’s yard, the hospital; at the sight of tools, materials, and operations; in the presence of customers, workers, and labour, of work well or ill done, costly or lucrative.”—M. Taine
[…]the fully-developed man appears, and he is often a used-up man. Settled down, married, resigned to turning in a circle, and indefinitely in the same circle, he shuts himself up in his confined function, which he fulfils adequately, but nothing more.
The instruction given the youth of a country allows of a knowledge of what that country will one day be.
It has been said with truth that much study is necessary merely to arrive at conceiving what was signified to our great grandfathers by such words as the “king” and the “royal family.” What, then, is likely to be the case with terms still more complex?
One of the most essential functions of statesmen consists, then, in baptizing with popular or, at any rate, indifferent words things the crowd cannot endure under their old names. The power of words is so great that it suffices to designate in well-chosen terms the most odious things to make them acceptable to crowds.
[…]One of the greatest difficulties of this art is, that in one and the same society the same words most often have very different meanings for the different social classes, who employ in appearance the same words, but never speak the same language.
From the dawn of civilisation onwards crowds have always undergone the influence of illusions. It is to the creators of illusions that they have raised more temples, statues, and altars than to any other class of men.
The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste
Experience constitutes almost the only effective process by which a truth may be solidly established in the mind of the masses
[…]. To this end, however, it is necessary that the experience should take place on a very large scale, and be very frequently repeated.
The laws of logic have no action on crowds.
Logical minds, accustomed to be convinced by a chain of somewhat close reasoning, cannot avoid having recourse to this mode of persuasion when addressing crowds, and the inability of their arguments always surprises them.
[…]If the attempt be made to convince by reasoning primitive minds—savages or children, for instance—the slight value possessed by this method of arguing will be understood.
As soon as a certain number of living beings are gathered together, whether they be animals or men, they place themselves instinctively under the authority of a chief.
A crowd is a servile flock that is incapable of ever doing without a master.
The leaders we speak of are more frequently men of action than thinkers. They are not gifted with keen foresight, nor could they be, as this quality generally conduces to doubt and inactivity.
The intensity of their faith gives great power of suggestion to their words.
[…]that formidable force known as faith, which renders a man the absolute slave of his dream.
To endow a man with faith is to multiply his strength tenfold. The great events of history have been brought about by obscure believers, who have had little beyond their faith in their favour.
In every social sphere, from the highest to the lowest, as soon as a man ceases to be isolated he speedily falls under the influence of a leader.
These ringleaders and agitators may be divided into two clearly defined classes. The one includes the men who are energetic and possess, but only intermittently, much strength of will, the other the men, far rarer than the preceding, whose strength of will is enduring.
What a strong and continuous will is capable of is not always properly appreciated. Nothing resists it; neither nature, gods, nor man.
Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all proof, is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the mind of crowds. The conciser an affirmation is, the more destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the more weight it carries.
Affirmation, however, has no real influence unless it be constantly repeated, and so far as possible in the same terms. It was Napoleon, I believe, who said that there is only one figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely, repetition. The thing affirmed comes by repetition to fix itself in the mind in such a way that it is accepted in the end as a demonstrated truth.
In the case of men collected in a crowd all emotions are very rapidly contagious, which explains the suddenness of panics.
“Man, like animals, has a natural tendency to imitation.
[…]It is by examples not by arguments that crowds are guided.”
For the same reason too Europeans, in spite of all the advantages of their civilisation, have so insignificant an influence on Eastern people; they differ from them to too great an extent.
Contagion is so powerful a force that even the sentiment of personal interest disappears under its action.
In the long run it is intelligence that shapes the destiny of the world, but very indirectly.
Prestige is the mainspring of all authority. Neither gods, kings, nor women have ever reigned without it.
The various kinds of prestige may be grouped under two principal heads: acquired prestige and personal prestige. Acquired prestige is that resulting from name, fortune, and reputation.
[…]Personal prestige, on the contrary, is something essentially peculiar to the individual […].
Acquired or artificial prestige is much the most common.
History, literary and artistic history especially, being nothing more than the repetition of identical judgments, which nobody endeavours to verify, every one ends by repeating what he learnt at school, till there come to be names and things which nobody would venture to meddle with.
The special characteristic of prestige is to prevent us seeing things as they are and to entirely paralyse our judgment.
Crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects.
Ill-treat men as you will, massacre them by millions, be the cause of invasion upon invasion, all is permitted you if you possess prestige in a sufficient degree and the talent necessary to uphold it.
The nations have need of audacious men who believe in themselves and overcome every obstacle without concern for their personal safety.
The proof that success is one of the principal stepping-stones to prestige is that the disappearance of the one is almost always followed by the disappearance of the other.
Believers always break the statues of their former gods with every symptom of fury.
From the moment prestige is called in question it ceases to be prestige. The gods and men who have kept their prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. For the crowd to admire, it must be kept at a distance.
The opinions and beliefs of crowds may be divided, then, into two very distinct classes. On the one hand we have great permanent beliefs, which endure for several centuries, and on which an entire civilisation may rest. Such, for instance, in the past were feudalism, Christianity, and Protestantism; and such, in our own time, are the nationalist principle and contemporary democratic and social ideas. In the second place, there are the transitory, changing opinions, the outcome, as a rule, of general conceptions, of which every age sees the birth and disappearance
It is easy to imbue the mind of crowds with a passing opinion, but very difficult to implant therein a lasting belief.
[…]Even revolutions can only avail when the belief has almost entirely lost its sway over men’s minds. In that case revolutions serve to finally sweep away what had already been almost cast aside, though the force of habit prevented its complete abandonment. The beginning of a revolution is in reality the end of a belief.
The precise moment at which a great belief is doomed is easily recognisable; it is the moment when its value begins to be called in question. Every general belief being little else than a fiction, it can only survive on the condition that it be not subjected to examination.
Nations have always been conscious of the utility of acquiring general beliefs, and have instinctively understood that their disappearance would be the signal for their own decline. In the case of the Romans, the fanatical cult of Rome was the belief that made them masters of the world, and when the belief had died out Rome was doomed to die.
Plainly it is not for nothing that nations have always displayed intolerance in the defence of their opinions.
There are great difficulties in the way of establishing a general belief, but when it is definitely implanted its power is for a long time to come invincible, and however false it be philosophically it imposes itself upon the most luminous intelligence.
The tyranny exercised unconsciously on men’s minds is the only real tyranny, because it cannot be fought against.
The only real tyrants that humanity has known have always been the memories of its dead or the illusions it has forged itself.
The task of the philosopher is to investigate what it is which subsists of ancient beliefs beneath their apparent changes, and to identify amid the moving flux of opinions the part determined by general beliefs and the genius of the race.
In the absence of this philosophic test it might be supposed that crowds change their political or religious beliefs frequently and at will. All history, whether political, religious, artistic, or literary, seems to prove that such is the case.
At the present day the changeable opinions of crowds are greater in number than they ever were, and for three different reasons.
The first is that as the old beliefs are losing their influence to a greater and greater extent, they are ceasing to shape the ephemeral opinions of the moment as they did in the past. The weakening of general beliefs clears the ground for a crop of haphazard opinions without a past or a future.
The second reason is that the power of crowds being on the increase, and this power being less and less counterbalanced, the extreme mobility of ideas, which we have seen to be a peculiarity of crowds, can manifest itself without let or hindrance.
Finally, the third reason is the recent development of the newspaper press, by whose agency the most contrary opinions are being continually brought before the attention of crowds. The suggestions that might result from each individual opinion are soon destroyed by suggestions of an opposite character. The consequence is that no opinion succeeds in becoming widespread, and that the existence of all of them is ephemeral. An opinion nowadays dies out before it has found a sufficiently wide acceptance to become general.
In the past, and in no very distant past, the action of governments and the influence of a few writers and a very small number of newspapers constituted the real reflectors of public opinion.
[…]statesmen, far from directing opinion, their only endeavour is to follow it. They have a dread of opinion, which amounts at times to terror, and causes them to adopt an utterly unstable line of conduct.
A curious symptom of the present time is to observe popes, kings, and emperors consent to be interviewed as a means of submitting their views on a given subject to the judgment of crowds.
This total absence of any sort of direction of opinion, and at the same time the destruction of general beliefs, have had for final result an extreme divergency of convictions of every order, and a growing indifference on the part of crowds to everything that does not plainly touch their immediate interests.
[…]Members of the lower middle class, and working men possessing some degree of instruction, have either become utterly sceptical or extremely unstable in their opinions.
It is certain that men of immense, of almost supernatural insight, that apostles, leaders of crowds—men, in a word, of genuine and strong convictions—exert a far greater force than men who deny, who criticise, or who are indifferent, but it must not be forgotten that, given the power possessed at present by crowds, were a single opinion to acquire sufficient prestige to enforce its general acceptance, it would soon be endowed with so tyrannical a strength that everything would have to bend before it, and the era of free discussion would be closed for a long time.
[…]A civilisation, when the moment has come for crowds to acquire a high hand over it, is at the mercy of too many chances to endure for long.
We shall break up these organised crowds into the following divisions :
- Anonymous crowds (street crowds, for example).
- Heterogeneous crowds
- Homogeneous crowds
- Not anonymous crowds (juries, parliamentary assemblies, &c.).
- Sects (political sects, religious sects, &c.).
- Castes (the military caste, the priestly caste, the crowds. working caste, &c.).
- Classes (the middle classes, the peasant classes, &c.).
are composed of individuals of any description, of any profession, and any degree of intelligence.
[…]their collective psychology differs essentially from their individual psychology [.]
A Latin crowd, however revolutionary or however conservative it be supposed, will invariably appeal to the intervention of the State to realise its demands. It is always distinguished by a marked tendency towards centralisation and by a leaning, more or less pronounced, in favour of a dictatorship. An English or an American crowd, on the contrary, sets no store on the State, and only appeals to private initiative. A French crowd lays particular weight on equality and an English crowd on liberty. These differences of race explain how it is that there are almost as many different forms of socialism and democracy as there are nations.
The inferior characteristics of crowds are the less accentuated in proportion as the spirit of the race is strong.
The sect represents the first step in the process of organisation of homogeneous crowds.
The caste represents the highest degree of organisation of which the crowd is susceptible.
The class is formed of individuals of diverse origin, linked together not by a community of beliefs, as are the members of a sect, or by common professional occupations, as are the members of a caste, but by certain interests and certain habits of life and education almost identical.
The crowd of murderers numbered some three hundred persons, and was a perfectly typical heterogeneous crowd.
[…]Under the influence of the suggestion received they are perfectly convinced […]that they are accomplishing a patriotic duty. They fill a double office, being at once judge and executioner, but they do not for a moment regard themselves as criminals.
Like all crowds, juries are very strongly impressed by sentimental considerations, and very slightly by argument.
[…]the fact is proved by statistics, that the application of a punishment inflicted for the first time infallibly leads to further crime
As in all crowds, so in juries there are a small number of individuals who serve as guides to the rest.
The man forming part of a crowd whom one has succeeded in pleasing is on the point of being convinced, and is quite disposed to accept as excellent any arguments that may be offered him.
is the only protection we have against the errors, really very frequent, of a caste that is under no control. A portion of these writers advocate a jury recruited solely from the ranks of the enlightened classes; but we have already proved that even in this case the verdicts would be identical with those returned under the present system.
[…]It is difficult to see how these would-be reformers can forget that the errors for which the jury is blamed were committed in the first instance by judges […].
constitutes, perhaps, the only category of crowd that cannot be replaced by any individuality.
I should not prefer to have to deal with a jury rather than with magistrates. I should have some chance that my innocence would be recognised by the former and not the slightest chance that it would be admitted by the latter.
The power of crowds is to be dreaded, but the power of certain castes is to be dreaded yet more.
It is of primary importance that the candidate should possess prestige. Personal prestige can only be replaced by that resulting from wealth. Talent and even genius are not elements of success of serious importance.
The reason why the electors, of whom a majority are working men or peasants, so rarely choose a man from their own ranks to represent them is that such a person enjoys no prestige among them.
The candidate’s written programme should not be too categorical, since later on his adversaries might bring it up against him; in his verbal programme, however, there cannot be too much exaggeration.
Crowds have opinions that have been imposed upon them, but they never boast reasoned opinions.
The reign of crowds is the reign of committees, that is, of the leaders of crowds. A severer despotism cannot be imagined.
To exert an influence over them is not difficult, provided the candidate be in himself acceptable and possess adequate financial resources.
The greatness of a civilisation cannot assuredly depend upon the votes given by inferior elements boasting solely numerical strength.
“In an era of equality, men have no faith in each other on account of their being all alike; yet this same similitude gives them an almost limitless confidence in the judgment of the public, the reason being that it does not appear probable that, all men being equally enlightened, truth and numerical superiority should not go hand in hand.”—Tocqueville
[…]on general questions, a vote, recorded by forty academicians is no better than that of forty water-carriers.
All our political economists are highly educated, being for the most part professors or academicians, yet is there a single general question—protection, bimetallism, &c.—on which they have succeeded in agreeing? The explanation is that their science is only a very attenuated form of our universal ignorance.
[…]were the electorate solely composed of persons stuffed with sciences their votes would be no better than those emitted at present. They would be guided in the main by their sentiments and by party spirit.
In parliamentary assemblies we have an example of heterogeneous crowds that are not anonymous.
[…]the idea, psychologically erroneous, but generally admitted, that a large gathering of men is much more capable than a small number of coming to a wise and independent decision on a given subject.
[…]owing to the mere fact that the individual members are a part of a crowd, they are always inclined to exaggerate the worth of their principles, and to push them to their extreme consequences. In consequence parliaments are more especially representative of extreme opinions.
Parliamentary crowds are very open to suggestion; and, as in the case of all crowds, the suggestion comes from leaders possessing prestige; but the suggestibility of parliamentary assemblies has very clearly defined limits, which it is important to point out.
Men forming a crowd cannot do without a master
[…]the leader endowed with sufficient prestige wields almost absolute power.
A leader is seldom in advance of public opinion; almost always all he does is to follow it and to espouse all its errors.
“Debates in the House of Commons,” says the English philosopher Maine, “may be constantly read in which the entire discussion is confined to an exchange of rather weak generalities and rather violent personalities.
[…]It will always be easy to make a crowd accept general assertions, presented in striking terms, although they have never been verified, and are perhaps not susceptible of verification.”
It is all to the interest of the leaders to indulge in the most improbable exaggerations. The speaker of whom I have just cited a sentence was able to affirm, without arousing violent protestations, that bankers and priests had subsidised the throwers of bombs, and that the directors of the great financial companies deserve the same punishment as anarchists. Affirmations of this kind are always effective with crowds. The affirmation is never too violent, the declamation never too threatening. Nothing intimidates the audience more than this sort of eloquence. Those present are afraid that if they protest they will be put down as traitors or accomplices.
In times of crisis its power is still further accentuated.
In a parliamentary assembly the success of a speech depends almost solely on the prestige possessed by the speaker, and not at all on the arguments he brings forward.
When parliamentary assemblies reach a certain pitch of excitement they become identical with ordinary heterogeneous crowds
The work of a crowd is always inferior, whatever its nature, to that of an isolated individual.
In spite of all the difficulties attending their working, parliamentary assemblies are the best form of government mankind has discovered as yet, and more especially the best means it has found to escape the yoke of personal tyrannies.
[…]in reality only present two serious dangers, one being inevitable financial waste, and the other the progressive restriction of the liberty of the individual.
[…]the increase of apparent liberty must needs be followed by the decrease of real liberty.
This incessant creation of restrictive laws and regulations, surrounding the pettiest actions of existence with the most complicated formalities, inevitably has for its result the confining within narrower and narrower limits of the sphere in which the citizen may move freely.
[…]Accustomed to put up with every yoke, [nations] soon end by desiring servitude, and lose all spontaneousness and energy.
The functions of governments necessarily increase in proportion as the indifference and helplessness of the citizens grow.
[…]The State becomes an all-powerful god. Still experience shows that the power of such gods was never either very durable or very strong.
With the progressive perishing of its ideal the race loses more and more the qualities that lent it its cohesion, its unity, and its strength. The personality and intelligence of the individual may increase, but at the same time this collective egoism of the race is replaced by an excessive development of the egoism of the individual, accompanied by a weakening of character and a lessening of the capacity for action. What constituted a people, a unity, a whole, becomes in the end an agglomeration of individualities lacking cohesion, and artificially held together for a time by its traditions and institutions. It is at this stage that men, divided by their interests and aspirations, and incapable any longer of self-government, require directing in their pettiest acts, and that the State exerts an absorbing influence.
With the definite loss of its old ideal the genius of the race entirely disappears; it is a mere swarm of isolated individuals and returns to its original state—that of a crowd. Without consistency and without a future, it has all the transitory characteristics of crowds. Its civilisation is now without stability, and at the mercy of every chance.
To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the civilised state, and then, when this ideal has lost its virtue, to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.
Read the whole book: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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