If we must die--let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die--oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not b... Read more of If We Must Die at Martin Luther King.caInformational Site Network Informational
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PRESTIGE





Great power is given to ideas propagated by affirmation,
repetition, and contagion by the circumstance that they acquire
in time that mysterious force known as prestige.

Whatever has been a ruling power in the world, whether it be
ideas or men, has in the main enforced its authority by means of
that irresistible force expressed by the word "prestige." The
term is one whose meaning is grasped by everybody, but the word
is employed in ways too different for it to be easy to define it.
Prestige may involve such sentiments as admiration or fear.
Occasionally even these sentiments are its basis, but it can
perfectly well exist without them. The greatest measure of
prestige is possessed by the dead, by beings, that is, of whom we
do not stand in fear--by Alexander, Caesar, Mahomet, and Buddha,
for example. On the other hand, there are fictive beings whom we
do not admire--the monstrous divinities of the subterranean
temples of India, for instance--but who strike us nevertheless as
endowed with a great prestige.

Prestige in reality is a sort of domination exercised on our mind
by an individual, a work, or an idea. This domination entirely
paralyses our critical faculty, and fills our soul with
astonishment and respect. The sentiment provoked is
inexplicable, like all sentiments, but it would appear to be of
the same kind as the fascination to which a magnetised person is
subjected. 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.
It may be independent of personal prestige. Personal prestige,
on the contrary, is something essentially peculiar to the
individual; it may coexist with reputation, glory, and fortune,
or be strengthened by them, but it is perfectly capable of
existing in their absence.

Acquired or artificial prestige is much the most common. The
mere fact that an individual occupies a certain position,
possesses a certain fortune, or bears certain titles, endows him
with prestige, however slight his own personal worth. A soldier
in uniform, a judge in his robes, always enjoys prestige. Pascal
has very properly noted the necessity for judges of robes and
wigs. Without them they would be stripped of half their
authority. The most unbending socialist is always somewhat
impressed by the sight of a prince or a marquis; and the
assumption of such titles makes the robbing of tradesmen an easy
matter.[18]



is to be traced in all countries, even in those in which the
sentiment of personal independence is the most strongly
developed. I quote in this connection a curious passage from a
recent book of travel, on the prestige enjoyed in England by
great persons.

"I had observed, under various circumstances, the peculiar sort
of intoxication produced in the most reasonable Englishmen by the
contact or sight of an English peer.

"Provided his fortune enables him to keep up his rank, he is sure
of their affection in advance, and brought into contact with him
they are so enchanted as to put up with anything at his hands.
They may be seen to redden with pleasure at his approach, and if
he speaks to them their suppressed joy increases their redness,
and causes their eyes to gleam with unusual brilliance. Respect
for nobility is in their blood, so to speak, as with Spaniards
the love of dancing, with Germans that of music, and with
Frenchmen the liking for revolutions. Their passion for horses
and Shakespeare is less violent, the satisfaction and pride they
derive from these sources a less integral part of their being.
There is a considerable sale for books dealing with the peerage,
and go where one will they are to be found, like the Bible, in
all hands."




The prestige of which I have just spoken is exercised by persons;
side by side with it may be placed that exercised by opinions,
literary and artistic works, &c. Prestige of the latter kind is
most often merely the result of accumulated repetitions.
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. For a modern reader the perusal of
Homer results incontestably in immense boredom; but who would
venture to say so? The Parthenon, in its present state, is a
wretched ruin, utterly destitute of interest, but it is endowed
with such prestige that it does not appear to us as it really is,
but with all its accompaniment of historic memories. 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. The popularity of these opinions is independent of
the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely
regulated by their prestige.

I now come to personal prestige. Its nature is very different
from that of artificial or acquired prestige, with which I have
just been concerned. It is a faculty independent of all titles,
of all authority, and possessed by a small number of persons whom
it enables to exercise a veritably magnetic fascination on those
around them, although they are socially their equals, and lack
all ordinary means of domination. They force the acceptance of
their ideas and sentiments on those about them, and they are
obeyed as is the tamer of wild beasts by the animal that could
easily devour him.

The great leaders of crowds, such as Buddha, Jesus, Mahomet, Joan
of Arc, and Napoleon, have possessed this form of prestige in a
high degree, and to this endowment is more particularly due the
position they attained. Gods, heroes, and dogmas win their way
in the world of their own inward strength. They are not to be
discussed: they disappear, indeed, as soon as discussed.

The great personages I have just cited were in possession of
their power of fascination long before they became illustrious,
and would never have become so without it. It is evident, for
instance, that Napoleon at the zenith of his glory enjoyed an
immense prestige by the mere fact of his power, but he was
already endowed in part with this prestige when he was without
power and completely unknown. When, an obscure general, he was
sent, thanks to influential protection, to command the army of
Italy, he found himself among rough generals who were of a mind
to give a hostile reception to the young intruder dispatched them
by the Directory. From the very beginning, from the first
interview, without the aid of speeches, gestures, or threats, at
the first sight of the man who was to become great they were
vanquished. Taine furnishes a curious account of this interview
taken from contemporary memoirs.


"The generals of division, amongst others Augereau, a sort of
swashbuckler, uncouth and heroic, proud of his height and his
bravery, arrive at the staff quarters very badly disposed towards
the little upstart dispatched them from Paris. On the strength
of the description of him that has been given them, Augereau is
inclined to be insolent and insubordinate; a favourite of Barras,
a general who owes his rank to the events of Vendemiaire who has
won his grade by street-fighting, who is looked upon as bearish,
because he is always thinking in solitude, of poor aspect, and
with the reputation of a mathematician and dreamer. They are
introduced, and Bonaparte keeps them waiting. At last he
appears, girt with his sword; he puts on his hat, explains the
measures he has taken, gives his orders, and dismisses them.
Augereau has remained silent; it is only when he is outside that
he regains his self-possession and is able to deliver himself of
his customary oaths. He admits with Massena that this little
devil of a general has inspired him with awe; he cannot
understand the ascendency by which from the very first he has
felt himself overwhelmed."


Become a great man, his prestige increased in proportion as his
glory grew, and came to be at least equal to that of a divinity
in the eyes of those devoted to him. General Vandamme, a rough,
typical soldier of the Revolution, even more brutal and energetic
than Augereau, said of him to Marshal d'Arnano in 1815, as on one
occasion they mounted together the stairs of the Tuileries:
"That devil of a man exercises a fascination on me that I cannot
explain even to myself, and in such a degree that, though I fear
neither God nor devil, when I am in his presence I am ready to
tremble like a child, and he could make me go through the eye of
a needle to throw myself into the fire."

Napoleon exercised a like fascination on all who came into
contact with him.[19]



that he added to it by treating rather worse than stable lads the
great personages around him, and among whom figured some of those
celebrated men of the Convention of whom Europe had stood in
dread. The gossip of the period abounds in illustrations of this
fact. One day, in the midst of a Council of State, Napoleon
grossly insults Beugnot, treating him as one might an unmannerly
valet. The effect produced, he goes up to him and says, "Well,
stupid, have you found your head again?" Whereupon Beugnot, tall
as a drum-major, bows very low, and the little man raising his
hand, takes the tall one by the ear, "an intoxicating sign of
favour," writes Beugnot, "the familiar gesture of the master who
waxes gracious." Such examples give a clear idea of the degree
of base platitude that prestige can provoke. They enable us to
understand the immense contempt of the great despot for the men
surrounding him--men whom he merely looked upon as "food for
powder."



Davoust used to say, talking of Maret's devotion and of his own:
"Had the Emperor said to us, `It is important in the interest of
my policy that Paris should be destroyed without a single person
leaving it or escaping,' Maret I am sure would have kept the
secret, but he could not have abstained from compromising himself
by seeing that his family got clear of the city. On the other
hand, I, for fear of letting the truth leak out, would have let
my wife and children stay."

It is necessary to bear in mind the astounding power exerted by
fascination of this order to understand that marvellous return
from the Isle of Elba, that lightning-like conquest of France by
an isolated man confronted by all the organised forces of a great
country that might have been supposed weary of his tyranny. He
had merely to cast a look at the generals sent to lay hands on
him, and who had sworn to accomplish their mission. All of them
submitted without discussion.


"Napoleon," writes the English General Wolseley, "lands in France
almost alone, a fugitive from the small island of Elba which was
his kingdom, and succeeded in a few weeks, without bloodshed, in
upsetting all organised authority in France under its legitimate
king; is it possible for the personal ascendency of a man to
affirm itself in a more astonishing manner? But from the
beginning to the end of this campaign, which was his last, how
remarkable too is the ascendency he exercised over the Allies,
obliging them to follow his initiative, and how near he came to
crushing them!"


His prestige outlived him and continued to grow. It is his
prestige that made an emperor of his obscure nephew. How
powerful is his memory still is seen in the resurrection of his
legend in progress at the present day. 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.

I have invoked, no doubt, in this case a quite exceptional
example of prestige, but one it was useful to cite to make clear
the genesis of great religions, great doctrines, and great
empires. Were it not for the power exerted on the crowd by
prestige, such growths would be incomprehensible.

Prestige, however, is not based solely on personal ascendency,
military glory, and religious terror; it may have a more modest
origin and still be considerable. Our century furnishes several
examples. One of the most striking ones that posterity will
recall from age to age will be supplied by the history of the
illustrious man who modified the face of the globe and the
commercial relations of the nations by separating two continents.
He succeeded in his enterprise owing to his immense strength of
will, but also owing to the fascination he exercised on those
surrounding him. To overcome the unanimous opposition he met
with, he had only to show himself. He would speak briefly, and
in face of the charm he exerted his opponents became his friends.
The English in particular strenuously opposed his scheme; he had
only to put in an appearance in England to rally all suffrages.
In later years, when he passed Southampton, the bells were rung
on his passage; and at the present day a movement is on foot in
England to raise a statue in his honour.

"Having vanquished whatever there is to vanquish, men and things,
marshes, rocks, and sandy wastes," he had ceased to believe in
obstacles, and wished to begin Suez over again at Panama. He
began again with the same methods as of old; but he had aged,
and, besides, the faith that moves mountains does not move them
if they are too lofty. The mountains resisted, and the
catastrophe that ensued destroyed the glittering aureole of glory
that enveloped the hero. His life teaches how prestige can grow
and how it can vanish. After rivalling in greatness the most
famous heroes of history, he was lowered by the magistrates of
his country to the ranks of the vilest criminals. When he died
his coffin, unattended, traversed an indifferent crowd. Foreign
sovereigns are alone in rendering homage to his memory as to that
of one of the greatest men that history has known.[20]



indulged on the subject of the destiny of de Lesseps in
reflections marked by a most judicious psychological insight. I
therefore reproduce them here:--

"After the condemnation of Ferdinand de Lesseps one has no longer
the right to be astonished at the sad end of Christopher
Columbus. If Ferdinand de Lesseps were a rogue every noble
illusion is a crime. Antiquity would have crowned the memory of
de Lesseps with an aureole of glory, and would have made him
drink from the bowl of nectar in the midst of Olympus, for he has
altered the face of the earth and accomplished works which make
the creation more perfect. The President of the Court of Appeal
has immortalised himself by condemning Ferdinand de Lesseps, for
the nations will always demand the name of the man who was not
afraid to debase his century by investing with the convict's cap
an aged man, whose life redounded to the glory of his
contemporaries.

"Let there be no more talk in the future of inflexible justice,
there where reigns a bureaucratic hatred of audacious feats. The
nations have need of audacious men who believe in themselves and
overcome every obstacle without concern for their personal
safety. Genius cannot be prudent; by dint of prudence it could
never enlarge the sphere of human activity.

". . . Ferdinand de Lesseps has known the intoxication of triumph
and the bitterness of disappointment--Suez and Panama. At this
point the heart revolts at the morality of success. When de
Lesseps had succeeded in joining two seas princes and nations
rendered him their homage; to-day, when he meets with failure
among the rocks of the Cordilleras, he is nothing but a vulgar
rogue. . . . In this result we see a war between the classes of
society, the discontent of bureaucrats and employes, who take
their revenge with the aid of the criminal code on those who
would raise themselves above their fellows. . . . Modern
legislators are filled with embarrassment when confronted by the
lofty ideas due to human genius; the public comprehends such
ideas still less, and it is easy for an advocate-general to prove
that Stanley is a murderer and de Lesseps a deceiver."



Still, the various examples that have just been cited represent
extreme cases. To fix in detail the psychology of prestige, it
would be necessary to place them at the extremity of a series,
which would range from the founders of religions and empires to
the private individual who endeavours to dazzle his neighbours by
a new coat or a decoration.

Between the extreme limits of this series would find a place all
the forms of prestige resulting from the different elements
composing a civilisation--sciences, arts, literature, &c.--and it
would be seen that prestige constitutes the fundamental element
of persuasion. Consciously or not, the being, the idea, or the
thing possessing prestige is immediately imitated in consequence
of contagion, and forces an entire generation to adopt certain
modes of feeling and of giving expression to its thought. This
imitation, moreover, is, as a rule, unconscious, which accounts
for the fact that it is perfect. The modern painters who copy
the pale colouring and the stiff attitudes of some of the
Primitives are scarcely alive to the source of their inspiration.
They believe in their own sincerity, whereas, if an eminent
master had not revived this form of art, people would have
continued blind to all but its naive and inferior sides. Those
artists who, after the manner of another illustrious master,
inundate their canvasses with violet shades do not see in nature
more violet than was detected there fifty years ago; but they are
influenced, "suggestioned," by the personal and special
impressions of a painter who, in spite of this eccentricity, was
successful in acquiring great prestige. Similar examples might
be brought forward in connection with all the elements of
civilisation.

It is seen from what precedes that a number of factors may be
concerned in the genesis of prestige; among them success was
always one of the most important. Every successful man, every
idea that forces itself into recognition, ceases, ipso facto, to
be called in question. 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. The hero whom the crowd acclaimed yesterday is insulted
to-day should he have been overtaken by failure. The reaction,
indeed, will be the stronger in proportion as the prestige has
been great. The crowd in this case considers the fallen hero as
an equal, and takes its revenge for having bowed to a superiority
whose existence it no longer admits. While Robespierre was
causing the execution of his colleagues and of a great number of
his contemporaries, he possessed an immense prestige. When the
transposition of a few votes deprived him of power, he
immediately lost his prestige, and the crowd followed him to the
guillotine with the self-same imprecations with which shortly
before it had pursued his victims. Believers always break the
statues of their former gods with every symptom of fury.

Prestige lost by want of success disappears in a brief space of
time. It can also be worn away, but more slowly by being
subjected to discussion. This latter power, however, is
exceedingly sure. 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.





Next: FIXED BELIEFS.

Previous: THE MEANS OF ACTION OF THE LEADERS: AFFIRMATION, REPETITION, CONTAGION



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