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


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


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


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.

ILLUSIONS IMPULSIVENESS, MOBILITY, AND IRRITABILITY OF CROWDS. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail