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THE CHANGEABLE OPINIONS OF CROWDS





Above the substratum of fixed beliefs, whose power we have just
demonstrated, is found an overlying growth of opinions, ideas,
and thoughts which are incessantly springing up and dying out.
Some of them exist but for a day, and the more important scarcely
outlive a generation. We have already noted that the changes
which supervene in opinions of this order are at times far more
superficial than real, and that they are always affected by
racial considerations. When examining, for instance, the
political institutions of France we showed that parties to all
appearance utterly distinct--royalists, radicals, imperialists,
socialists, &c.--have an ideal absolutely identical, and that
this ideal is solely dependent on the mental structure of the
French race, since a quite contrary ideal is found under
analogous names among other races. Neither the name given to
opinions nor deceptive adaptations alter the essence of things.
The men of the Great Revolution, saturated with Latin literature,
who (their eyes fixed on the Roman Republic), adopted its laws,
its fasces, and its togas, did not become Romans because they
were under the empire of a powerful historical suggestion. 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.

As an example, let us take a very short period of French history,
merely that from 1790 to 1820, a period of thirty years'
duration, that of a generation. In the course of it we see the
crowd at first monarchical become very revolutionary, then very
imperialist, and again very monarchical. In the matter of
religion it gravitates in the same lapse of time from Catholicism
to atheism, then towards deism, and then returns to the most
pronounced forms of Catholicism. These changes take place not
only amongst the masses, but also amongst those who direct them.
We observe with astonishment the prominent men of the Convention,
the sworn enemies of kings, men who would have neither gods nor
masters, become the humble servants of Napoleon, and afterwards,
under Louis XVIII., piously carry candles in religious
processions.

Numerous, too, are the changes in the opinions of the crowd in
the course of the following seventy years. The "Perfidious
Albion" of the opening of the century is the ally of France under
Napoleon's heir; Russia, twice invaded by France, which looked on
with satisfaction at French reverses, becomes its friend.

In literature, art, and philosophy the successive evolutions of
opinion are more rapid still. Romanticism, naturalism,
mysticism, &c., spring up and die out in turn. The artist and
the writer applauded yesterday are treated on the morrow with
profound contempt.

When, however, we analyse all these changes in appearance so far
reaching, what do we find? All those that are in opposition with
the general beliefs and sentiments of the race are of transient
duration, and the diverted stream soon resumes its course. The
opinions which are not linked to any general belief or sentiment
of the race, and which in consequence cannot possess stability,
are at the mercy of every chance, or, if the expression be
preferred, of every change in the surrounding circumstances.
Formed by suggestion and contagion, they are always momentary;
they crop up and disappear as rapidly on occasion as the
sandhills formed by the wind on the sea-coast.

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.

A phenomenon quite new in the world's history, and most
characteristic of the present age, has resulted from these
different causes; I allude to the powerlessness of governments to
direct opinion.

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. To-day the writers have lost all influence, and the
newspapers only reflect opinion. As for 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.

The opinion of crowds tends, then, more and more to become the
supreme guiding principle in politics. It goes so far to-day as
to force on alliances, as has been seen recently in the case of
the Franco-Russian alliance, which is solely the outcome of a
popular movement. 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. Formerly it might have been correct to say
that politics were not a matter of sentiment. Can the same be
said to-day, when politics are more and more swayed by the
impulse of changeable crowds, who are uninfluenced by reason and
can only be guided by sentiment?

As to the press, which formerly directed opinion, it has had,
like governments, to humble itself before the power of crowds.
It wields, no doubt, a considerable influence, but only because
it is exclusively the reflection of the opinions of crowds and of
their incessant variations. Become a mere agency for the supply
of information, the press has renounced all endeavour to enforce
an idea or a doctrine. It follows all the changes of public
thought, obliged to do so by the necessities of competition under
pain of losing its readers. The old staid and influential organs
of the past, such as the Constitutionnel, the Debats, or the
Siecle, which were accepted as oracles by the preceding
generation, have disappeared or have become typical modern
papers, in which a maximum of news is sandwiched in between light
articles, society gossip, and financial puffs. There can be no
question to-day of a paper rich enough to allow its contributors
to air their personal opinions, and such opinions would be of
slight weight with readers who only ask to be kept informed or to
be amused, and who suspect every affirmation of being prompted by
motives of speculation. Even the critics have ceased to be able
to assure the success of a book or a play. They are capable of
doing harm, but not of doing a service. The papers are so
conscious of the uselessness of everything in the shape of
criticism or personal opinion, that they have reached the point
of suppressing literary criticism, confining themselves to citing
the title of a book, and appending a "puff" of two or three
lines.[22] In twenty years' time the same fate will probably
have overtaken theatrical criticism.



the Translator.



The close watching of the course of opinion has become to-day the
principal preoccupation of the press and of governments. The
effect produced by an event, a legislative proposal, a speech, is
without intermission what they require to know, and the task is
not easy, for nothing is more mobile and changeable than the
thought of crowds, and nothing more frequent than to see them
execrate to-day what they applauded yesterday.

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. Questions
of doctrine, such as socialism, only recruit champions boasting
genuine convictions among the quite illiterate classes, among the
workers in mines and factories, for instance. 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.

The evolution which has been effected in this direction in the
last twenty-five years is striking. During the preceding period,
comparatively near us though it is, opinions still had a certain
general trend; they had their origin in the acceptance of some
fundamental belief. By the mere fact that an individual was a
monarchist he possessed inevitably certain clearly defined ideas
in history as well as in science, while by the mere fact that he
was a republican, his ideas were quite contrary. A monarchist
was well aware that men are not descended from monkeys, and a
republican was not less well aware that such is in truth their
descent. It was the duty of the monarchist to speak with horror,
and of the republican to speak with veneration, of the great
Revolution. There were certain names, such as those of
Robespierre and Marat, that had to be uttered with an air of
religious devotion, and other names, such as those of Caesar,
Augustus, or Napoleon, that ought never to be mentioned
unaccompanied by a torrent of invective. Even in the French
Sorbonne this ingenuous fashion of conceiving history was
general.[23]



professors of history that are very curious from this point of
view. They prove too how little the critical spirit is developed
by the system of university education in vogue in France. I cite
as an example the following extracts from the "French Revolution"
of M. Rambaud, professor of history at the Sorbonne:

"The taking of the Bastille was a culminating event in the
history not only of France, but of all Europe; and inaugurated a
new epoch in the history of the world!"

With respect to Robespierre, we learn with stupefaction that "his
dictatorship was based more especially on opinion, persuasion,
and moral authority; it was a sort of pontificate in the hands of
a virtuous man!" (pp. 91 and 220.)



At the present day, as the result of discussion and analysis, all
opinions are losing their prestige; their distinctive features
are rapidly worn away, and few survive capable of arousing our
enthusiasm. The man of modern times is more and more a prey to
indifference.

The general wearing away of opinions should not be too greatly
deplored. That it is a symptom of decadence in the life of a
people cannot be contested. 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. Crowds are occasionally
easy-going masters, as were Heliogabalus and Tiberius, but they
are also violently capricious. 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. Could anything
postpone for a while the hour of its ruin, it would be precisely
the extreme instability of the opinions of crowds and their
growing indifference with respect to all general beliefs.





Next: HETEROGENEOUS CROWDS

Previous: FIXED BELIEFS 2



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