When studying the fundamental characteristics of a crowd we

stated that it is guided almost exclusively by unconscious

motives. Its acts are far more under the influence of the spinal

cord than of the brain. In this respect a crowd is closely akin

to quite primitive beings. The acts performed may be perfect so

far as their execution is concerned, but as they are not directed

by the brain, the individual conducts himself according as the

exciting causes to which he is submitted may happen to decide. A

crowd is at the mercy of all external exciting causes, and

reflects their incessant variations. It is the slave of the

impulses which it receives. The isolated individual may be

submitted to the same exciting causes as the man in a crowd, but

as his brain shows him the inadvisability of yielding to them, he

refrains from yielding. This truth may be physiologically

expressed by saying that the isolated individual possesses the

capacity of dominating his reflex actions, while a crowd is

devoid of this capacity.

The varying impulses to which crowds obey may be, according to

their exciting causes, generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but

they will always be so imperious that the interest of the

individual, even the interest of self-preservation, will not

dominate them. The exciting causes that may act on crowds being

so varied, and crowds always obeying them, crowds are in

consequence extremely mobile. This explains how it is that we

see them pass in a moment from the most bloodthirsty ferocity to

the most extreme generosity and heroism. A crowd may easily

enact the part of an executioner, but not less easily that of a

martyr. It is crowds that have furnished the torrents of blood

requisite for the triumph of every belief. It is not necessary

to go back to the heroic ages to see what crowds are capable of

in this latter direction. They are never sparing of their life

in an insurrection, and not long since a general,[2] becoming

suddenly popular, might easily have found a hundred thousand men

ready to sacrifice their lives for his cause had he demanded it.

Any display of premeditation by crowds is in consequence out of

the question. They may be animated in succession by the most

contrary sentiments, but they will always be under the influence

of the exciting causes of the moment. They are like the leaves

which a tempest whirls up and scatters in every direction and

then allows to fall. When studying later on certain

revolutionary crowds we shall give some examples of the

variability of their sentiments.

This mobility of crowds renders them very difficult to govern,

especially when a measure of public authority has fallen into

their hands. Did not the necessities of everyday life constitute

a sort of invisible regulator of existence, it would scarcely be

possible for democracies to last. Still, though the wishes of

crowds are frenzied they are not durable. Crowds are as

incapable of willing as of thinking for any length of time.

A crowd is not merely impulsive and mobile. Like a savage, it is

not prepared to admit that anything can come between its desire

and the realisation of its desire. It is the less capable of

understanding such an intervention, in consequence of the feeling

of irresistible power given it by its numerical strength. The

notion of impossibility disappears for the individual in a crowd.

An isolated individual knows well enough that alone he cannot set

fire to a palace or loot a shop, and should he be tempted to do

so, he will easily resist the temptation. Making part of a

crowd, he is conscious of the power given him by number, and it

is sufficient to suggest to him ideas of murder or pillage for

him to yield immediately to temptation. An unexpected obstacle

will be destroyed with frenzied rage. Did the human organism

allow of the perpetuity of furious passion, it might be said that

the normal condition of a crowd baulked in its wishes is just

such a state of furious passion.

The fundamental characteristics of the race, which constitute the

unvarying source from which all our sentiments spring, always

exert an influence on the irritability of crowds, their

impulsiveness and their mobility, as on all the popular

sentiments we shall have to study. All crowds are doubtless

always irritable and impulsive, but with great variations of

degree. For instance, the difference between a Latin and an

Anglo-Saxon crowd is striking. The most recent facts in French

history throw a vivid light on this point. The mere publication,

twenty-five years ago, of a telegram, relating an insult supposed

to have been offered an ambassador, was sufficient to determine

an explosion of fury, whence followed immediately a terrible war.

Some years later the telegraphic announcement of an insignificant

reverse at Langson provoked a fresh explosion which brought about

the instantaneous overthrow of the government. At the same

moment a much more serious reverse undergone by the English

expedition to Khartoum produced only a slight emotion in England,

and no ministry was overturned. Crowds are everywhere

distinguished by feminine characteristics, but Latin crowds are

the most feminine of all. Whoever trusts in them may rapidly

attain a lofty destiny, but to do so is to be perpetually

skirting the brink of a Tarpeian rock, with the certainty of one

day being precipitated from it.

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