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IMAGES, WORDS, AND FORMULAS





When studying the imagination of crowds we saw that it is
particularly open to the impressions produced by images. These
images do not always lie ready to hand, but it is possible to
evoke them by the judicious employment of words and formulas.
Handled with art, they possess in sober truth the mysterious
power formerly attributed to them by the adepts of magic. They
cause the birth in the minds of crowds of the most formidable
tempests, which in turn they are capable of stilling. A pyramid
far loftier than that of old Cheops could be raised merely with
the bones of men who have been victims of the power of words and
formulas.

The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is
quite independent of their real significance. Words whose sense
is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most
influence. Such, for example, are the terms democracy,
socialism, equality, liberty, &c., whose meaning is so vague that
bulky volumes do not suffice to precisely fix it. Yet it is
certain that a truly magical power is attached to those short
syllables, as if they contained the solution of all problems.
They synthesise the most diverse unconscious aspirations and the
hope of their realisation.

Reason and arguments are incapable of combatting certain words
and formulas. They are uttered with solemnity in the presence of
crowds, and as soon as they have been pronounced an expression of
respect is visible on every countenance, and all heads are bowed.
By many they are considered as natural forces, as supernatural
powers. They evoke grandiose and vague images in men's minds,
but this very vagueness that wraps them in obscurity augments
their mysterious power. They are the mysterious divinities
hidden behind the tabernacle, which the devout only approach in
fear and trembling.

The images evoked by words being independent of their sense, they
vary from age to age and from people to people, the formulas
remaining identical. Certain transitory images are attached to
certain words: the word is merely as it were the button of an
electric bell that calls them up.

All words and all formulas do not possess the power of evoking
images, while there are some which have once had this power, but
lose it in the course of use, and cease to waken any response in
the mind. They then become vain sounds, whose principal utility
is to relieve the person who employs them of the obligation of
thinking. Armed with a small stock of formulas and commonplaces
learnt while we are young, we possess all that is needed to
traverse life without the tiring necessity of having to reflect
on anything whatever.

If any particular language be studied, it is seen that the words
of which it is composed change rather slowly in the course of
ages, while the images these words evoke or the meaning attached
to them changes ceaselessly. This is the reason why, in another
work, I have arrived at the conclusion that the absolute
translation of a language, especially of a dead language, is
totally impossible. What do we do in reality when we substitute
a French for a Latin, Greek, or Sanscrit expression, or even when
we endeavour to understand a book written in our own tongue two
or three centuries back? We merely put the images and ideas with
which modern life has endowed our intelligence in the place of
absolutely distinct notions and images which ancient life had
brought into being in the mind of races submitted to conditions
of existence having no analogy with our own. When the men of the
Revolution imagined they were copying the Greeks and Romans, what
were they doing except giving to ancient words a sense the latter
had never had? What resemblance can possibly exist between the
institutions of the Greeks and those designated to-day by
corresponding words? A republic at that epoch was an essentially
aristocratic institution, formed of a reunion of petty despots
ruling over a crowd of slaves kept in the most absolute
subjection. These communal aristocracies, based on slavery,
could not have existed for a moment without it.

The word "liberty," again, what signification could it have in
any way resembling that we attribute to it to-day at a period
when the possibility of the liberty of thought was not even
suspected, and when there was no greater and more exceptional
crime than that of discussing the gods, the laws and the customs
of the city? What did such a word as "fatherland" signify to an
Athenian or Spartan unless it were the cult of Athens or Sparta,
and in no wise that of Greece, composed of rival cities always at
war with each other? What meaning had the same word "fatherland"
among the ancient Gauls, divided into rival tribes and races, and
possessing different languages and religions, and who were easily
vanquished by Caesar because he always found allies among them?
It was Rome that made a country of Gaul by endowing it with
political and religious unity. Without going back so far,
scarcely two centuries ago, is it to be believed that this same
notion of a fatherland was conceived to have the same meaning as
at present by French princes like the great Conde, who allied
themselves with the foreigner against their sovereign? And yet
again, the same word had it not a sense very different from the
modern for the French royalist emigrants, who thought they obeyed
the laws of honour in fighting against France, and who from their
point of view did indeed obey them, since the feudal law bound
the vassal to the lord and not to the soil, so that where the
sovereign was there was the true fatherland?

Numerous are the words whose meaning has thus profoundly changed
from age to age--words which we can only arrive at understanding
in the sense in which they were formerly understood after a long
effort. 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?

Words, then, have only mobile and transitory significations which
change from age to age and people to people; and when we desire
to exert an influence by their means on the crowd what it is
requisite to know is the meaning given them by the crowd at a
given moment, and not the meaning which they formerly had or may
yet have for individuals of a different mental constitution.

Thus, when crowds have come, as the result of political upheavals
or changes of belief, to acquire a profound antipathy for the
images evoked by certain words, the first duty of the true
statesman is to change the words without, of course, laying hands
on the things themselves, the latter being too intimately bound
up with the inherited constitution to be transformed. The
judicious Tocqueville long ago made the remark that the work of
the consulate and the empire consisted more particularly in the
clothing with new words of the greater part of the institutions
of the past--that is to say, in replacing words evoking
disagreeable images in the imagination of the crowd by other
words of which the novelty prevented such evocations. The
"taille" or tallage has become the land tax; the "gabelle," the
tax on salt; the "aids," the indirect contributions and the
consolidated duties; the tax on trade companies and guilds, the
license, &c.

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.
Taine justly observes that it was by invoking liberty and
fraternity--words very popular at the time-- that the Jacobins
were able "to install a despotism worthy of Dahomey, a tribunal
similar to that of the Inquisition, and to accomplish human
hecatombs akin to those of ancient Mexico." The art of those who
govern, as is the case with the art of advocates, consists above
all in the science of employing words. 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.

In the preceding examples it is especially time that has been
made to intervene as the principal factor in the changing of the
meaning of words. If, however, we also make race intervene, we
shall then see that, at the same period, among peoples equally
civilised but of different race, the same words very often
correspond to extremely dissimilar ideas. It is impossible to
understand these differences without having travelled much, and
for this reason I shall not insist upon them. I shall confine
myself to observing that it is precisely the words most often
employed by the masses which among different peoples possess the
most different meanings. Such is the case, for instance, with
the words "democracy" and "socialism" in such frequent use
nowadays.

In reality they correspond to quite contrary ideas and images in
the Latin and Anglo-Saxon mind. For the Latin peoples the word
"democracy" signifies more especially the subordination of the
will and the initiative of the individual to the will and the
initiative of the community represented by the State. It is the
State that is charged, to a greater and greater degree, with the
direction of everything, the centralisation, the monopolisation,
and the manufacture of everything. To the State it is that all
parties without exception, radicals, socialists, or monarchists,
constantly appeal. Among the Anglo-Saxons and notably in America
this same word "democracy" signifies, on the contrary, the
intense development of the will of the individual, and as
complete a subordination as possible of the State, which, with
the exception of the police, the army, and diplomatic relations,
is not allowed the direction of anything, not even of public
instruction. It is seen, then, that the same word which
signifies for one people the subordination of the will and the
initiative of the individual and the preponderance of the State,
signifies for another the excessive development of the will and
the initiative of the individual and the complete subordination
of the State.[13]



Peoples," I have insisted at length on the differences which
distinguish the Latin democratic ideal from the Anglo-Saxon
democratic ideal. Independently, and as the result of his
travels, M. Paul Bourget has arrived, in his quite recent book,
"Outre-Mer," at conclusions almost identical with mine.





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Previous: 1. IMAGES, WORDS AND FORMULAE.



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