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THE IDEAS OF CROWDS





WHEN studying in a preceding work the part played by ideas in the
evolution of nations, we showed that every civilisation is the
outcome of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very
rarely renewed. We showed how these ideas are implanted in the
minds of crowds, with what difficulty the process is effected,
and the power possessed by the ideas in question when once it has
been accomplished. Finally we saw that great historical
perturbations are the result, as a rule, of changes in these
fundamental ideas.

Having treated this subject at sufficient length, I shall not
return to it now, but shall confine myself to saying a few words
on the subject of such ideas as are accessible to crowds, and of
the forms under which they conceive them.

They may be divided into two classes. In one we shall place
accidental and passing ideas created by the influences of the
moment: infatuation for an individual or a doctrine, for
instance. In the other will be classed the fundamental ideas, to
which the environment, the laws of heredity and public opinion
give a very great stability; such ideas are the religious beliefs
of the past and the social and democratic ideas of to-day.

These fundamental ideas resemble the volume of the water of a
stream slowly pursuing its course; the transitory ideas are like
the small waves, for ever changing, which agitate its surface,
and are more visible than the progress of the stream itself
although without real importance.

At the present day the great fundamental ideas which were the
mainstay of our fathers are tottering more and more. They have
lost all solidity, and at the same time the institutions resting
upon them are severely shaken. Every day there are formed a
great many of those transitory minor ideas of which I have just
been speaking; but very few of them to all appearance seem
endowed with vitality and destined to acquire a preponderating
influence.

Whatever be the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise
effective influence on condition that they assume a very
absolute, uncompromising, and simple shape. They present
themselves then in the guise of images, and are only accessible
to the masses under this form. These imagelike ideas are not
connected by any logical bond of analogy or succession, and may
take each other's place like the slides of a magic-lantern which
the operator withdraws from the groove in which they were placed
one above the other. This explains how it is that the most
contradictory ideas may be seen to be simultaneously current in
crowds. According to the chances of the moment, a crowd will
come under the influence of one of the various ideas stored up in
its understanding, and is capable, in consequence, of committing
the most dissimilar acts. Its complete lack of the critical
spirit does not allow of its perceiving these contradictions.

This phenomenon is not peculiar to crowds. It is to be observed
in many isolated individuals, not only among primitive beings,
but in the case of all those--the fervent sectaries of a
religious faith, for instance--who by one side or another of
their intelligence are akin to primitive beings. I have observed
its presence to a curious extent in the case of educated Hindoos
brought up at our European universities and having taken their
degree. A number of Western ideas had been superposed on their
unchangeable and fundamental hereditary or social ideas.
According to the chances of the moment, the one or the other set
of ideas showed themselves each with their special accompaniment
of acts or utterances, the same individual presenting in this way
the most flagrant contradictions. These contradictions are more
apparent than real, for it is only hereditary ideas that have
sufficient influence over the isolated individual to become
motives of conduct. It is only when, as the result of the
intermingling of different races, a man is placed between
different hereditary tendencies that his acts from one moment to
another may be really entirely contradictory. It would be
useless to insist here on these phenomena, although their
psychological importance is capital. I am of opinion that at
least ten years of travel and observation would be necessary to
arrive at a comprehension of them.

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. This
explains the fact that, from the social point of view, there is
in reality scarcely any such thing as a hierarchy of ideas--that
is to say, as ideas of greater or less elevation. However great
or true an idea may have been to begin with, it is deprived of
almost all that which constituted its elevation and its greatness
by the mere fact that it has come within the intellectual range
of crowds and exerts an influence upon them.

Moreover, from the social point of view the hierarchical value of
an idea, its intrinsic worth, is without importance. The
necessary point to consider is the effects it produces. The
Christian ideas of the Middle Ages, the democratic ideas of the
last century, or the social ideas of to-day are assuredly not
very elevated. Philosophically considered, they can only be
regarded as somewhat sorry errors, and yet their power has been
and will be immense, and they will count for a long time to come
among the most essential factors that determine the conduct of
States.

Even when an idea has undergone the transformations which render
it accessible to crowds, it only exerts influence when, by
various processes which we shall examine elsewhere, it has
entered the domain of the unconscious, when indeed it has become
a sentiment, for which much time is required.

For it must not be supposed that merely because the justness of
an idea has been proved it can be productive of effective action
even on cultivated minds. This fact may be quickly appreciated
by noting how slight is the influence of the clearest
demonstration on the majority of men. 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. See him again after the lapse of a few
days and he will put forward afresh his old arguments in exactly
the same terms. He is in reality under the influence of anterior
ideas, that have become sentiments, and it is such ideas alone
that influence the more recondite motives of our acts and
utterances. It cannot be otherwise in the case of crowds.

When by various processes an idea has ended by penetrating into
the minds of crowds, it possesses an irresistible power, and
brings about a series of effects, opposition to which is
bootless. The philosophical ideas which resulted in the French
Revolution took nearly a century to implant themselves in the
mind of the crowd. Their irresistible force, when once they had
taken root, is known. The striving of an entire nation towards
the conquest of social equality, and the realisation of abstract
rights and ideal liberties, caused the tottering of all thrones
and profoundly disturbed the Western world. During twenty years
the nations were engaged in internecine conflict, and Europe
witnessed hecatombs that would have terrified Ghengis Khan and
Tamerlane. The world had never seen on such a scale what may
result from the promulgation of an idea.

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. All statesmen are well aware to-day of the
admixture of error contained in the fundamental ideas I referred
to a short while back, but as the influence of these ideas is
still very powerful they are obliged to govern in accordance with
principles in the truth of which they have ceased to believe.





Next: THE REASONING POWER OF CROWDS

Previous: 1. THE IDEAS OF CROWDS.



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