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FIXED BELIEFS 2





A close parallel exists between the anatomical and psychological
characteristics of living beings. In these anatomical
characteristics certain invariable, or slightly variable,
elements are met with, to change which the lapse is necessary of
geological ages. Side by side with these fixed, indestructible
features are to be found others extremely changeable, which the
art of the breeder or horticulturist may easily modify, and at
times to such an extent as to conceal the fundamental
characteristics from an observer at all inattentive.

The same phenomenon is observed in the case of moral
characteristics. Alongside the unalterable psychological
elements of a race, mobile and changeable elements are to be
encountered. For this reason, in studying the beliefs and
opinions of a people, the presence is always detected of a fixed
groundwork on which are engrafted opinions as changing as the
surface sand on a rock.

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;
examples in point are the theories which mould literature and the
arts--those, for instance, which produced romanticism,
naturalism, mysticism, &c. Opinions of this order are as
superficial, as a rule, as fashion, and as changeable. They may
be compared to the ripples which ceaselessly arise and vanish on
the surface of a deep lake.

The great generalised beliefs are very restricted in number.
Their rise and fall form the culminating points of the history of
every historic race. They constitute the real framework of
civilisation.

It is easy to imbue the mind of crowds with a passing opinion,
but very difficult to implant therein a lasting belief. However,
a belief of this latter description once established, it is
equally difficult to uproot it. It is usually only to be changed
at the cost of violent revolutions. 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.

But even when a belief is severely shaken, the institutions to
which it has given rise retain their strength and disappear but
slowly. Finally, when the belief has completely lost its force,
all that rested upon it is soon involved in ruin. As yet a
nation has never been able to change its beliefs without being
condemned at the same time to transform all the elements of its
civilisation. The nation continues this process of
transformation until it has alighted on and accepted a new
general belief: until this juncture it is perforce in a state of
anarchy. General beliefs are the indispensable pillars of
civilisations; they determine the trend of ideas. They alone are
capable of inspiring faith and creating a sense of duty.

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. As for the barbarians who destroyed
the Roman civilisation, it was only when they had acquired
certain commonly accepted beliefs that they attained a measure of
cohesion and emerged from anarchy.

Plainly it is not for nothing that nations have always displayed
intolerance in the defence of their opinions. This intolerance,
open as it is to criticism from the philosophic standpoint,
represents in the life of a people the most necessary of virtues.
It was to found or uphold general beliefs that so many victims
were sent to the stake in the Middle Ages and that so many
inventors and innovators have died in despair even if they have
escaped martyrdom. It is in defence, too, of such beliefs that
the world has been so often the scene of the direst disorder, and
that so many millions of men have died on the battlefield, and
will yet die there.

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. Have not the European peoples regarded as
incontrovertible for more than fifteen centuries religious
legends which, closely examined, are as barbarous[21] as those of
Moloch? The frightful absurdity of the legend of a God who
revenges himself for the disobedience of one of his creatures by
inflicting horrible tortures on his son remained unperceived
during many centuries. Such potent geniuses as a Galileo, a
Newton, and a Leibnitz never supposed for an instant that the
truth of such dogmas could be called in question. Nothing can be
more typical than this fact of the hypnotising effect of general
beliefs, but at the same time nothing can mark more decisively
the humiliating limitations of our intelligence.



they have created an entirely new civilisation, and for fifteen
centuries have given mankind a glimpse of those enchanted realms
of generous dreams and of hope which he will know no more.



As soon as a new dogma is implanted in the mind of crowds it
becomes the source of inspiration whence are evolved its
institutions, arts, and mode of existence. The sway it exerts
over men's minds under these circumstances is absolute. Men of
action have no thought beyond realising the accepted belief,
legislators beyond applying it, while philosophers, artists, and
men of letters are solely preoccupied with its expression under
various shapes.

From the fundamental belief transient accessory ideas may arise,
but they always bear the impress of the belief from which they
have sprung. The Egyptian civilisation, the European
civilisation of the Middle Ages, the Mussulman civilisation of
the Arabs are all the outcome of a small number of religious
beliefs which have left their mark on the least important
elements of these civilisations and allow of their immediate
recognition.

Thus it is that, thanks to general beliefs, the men of every age
are enveloped in a network of traditions, opinions, and customs
which render them all alike, and from whose yoke they cannot
extricate themselves. Men are guided in their conduct above all
by their beliefs and by the customs that are the consequence of
those beliefs. These beliefs and customs regulate the smallest
acts of our existence, and the most independent spirit cannot
escape their influence. The tyranny exercised unconsciously on
men's minds is the only real tyranny, because it cannot be fought
against. Tiberius, Ghengis Khan, and Napoleon were assuredly
redoubtable tyrants, but from the depth of their graves Moses,
Buddha, Jesus, and Mahomet have exerted on the human soul a far
profounder despotism. A conspiracy may overthrow a tyrant, but
what can it avail against a firmly established belief? In its
violent struggle with Roman Catholicism it is the French
Revolution that has been vanquished, and this in spite of the
fact that the sympathy of the crowd was apparently on its side,
and in spite of recourse to destructive measures as pitiless as
those of the Inquisition. The only real tyrants that humanity
has known have always been the memories of its dead or the
illusions it has forged itself.

The philosophic absurdity that often marks general beliefs has
never been an obstacle to their triumph. Indeed the triumph of
such beliefs would seem impossible unless on the condition that
they offer some mysterious absurdity. In consequence, the
evident weakness of the socialist beliefs of to-day will not
prevent them triumphing among the masses. Their real inferiority
to all religious beliefs is solely the result of this
consideration, that the ideal of happiness offered by the latter
being realisable only in a future life, it was beyond the power
of anybody to contest it. The socialist ideal of happiness being
intended to be realised on earth, the vanity of its promises will
at once appear as soon as the first efforts towards their
realisation are made, and simultaneously the new belief will
entirely lose its prestige. Its strength, in consequence, will
only increase until the day when, having triumphed, its practical
realisation shall commence. For this reason, while the new
religion exerts to begin with, like all those that have preceded
it, a destructive influence, it will be unable, in the future, to
play a creative part.





Next: THE CHANGEABLE OPINIONS OF CROWDS

Previous: FIXED BELIEFS.



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