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


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


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.

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