Great power is given to ideas propagated by affirmation,

repetition, and contagion by the circumstance that they acquire

in time that mysterious force known as prestige.

Whatever has been a ruling power in the world, whether it be

ideas or men, has in the main enforced its authority by means of

that irresistible force expressed by the word "prestige." The

term is one whose meaning is grasped by everybody, but the word

is employed in ways too different for it to be easy to define it.

Prestige may involve such sentiments as admiration or fear.

Occasionally even these sentiments are its basis, but it can

perfectly well exist without them. The greatest measure of

prestige is possessed by the dead, by beings, that is, of whom we

do not stand in fear--by Alexander, Caesar, Mahomet, and Buddha,

for example. On the other hand, there are fictive beings whom we

do not admire--the monstrous divinities of the subterranean

temples of India, for instance--but who strike us nevertheless as

endowed with a great prestige.

Prestige in reality is a sort of domination exercised on our mind

by an individual, a work, or an idea. This domination entirely

paralyses our critical faculty, and fills our soul with

astonishment and respect. The sentiment provoked is

inexplicable, like all sentiments, but it would appear to be of

the same kind as the fascination to which a magnetised person is

subjected. Prestige is the mainspring of all authority. Neither

gods, kings, nor women have ever reigned without it.

The various kinds of prestige may be grouped under two principal

heads: acquired prestige and personal prestige. Acquired

prestige is that resulting from name, fortune, and reputation.

It may be independent of personal prestige. Personal prestige,

on the contrary, is something essentially peculiar to the

individual; it may coexist with reputation, glory, and fortune,

or be strengthened by them, but it is perfectly capable of

existing in their absence.

Acquired or artificial prestige is much the most common. The

mere fact that an individual occupies a certain position,

possesses a certain fortune, or bears certain titles, endows him

with prestige, however slight his own personal worth. A soldier

in uniform, a judge in his robes, always enjoys prestige. Pascal

has very properly noted the necessity for judges of robes and

wigs. Without them they would be stripped of half their

authority. The most unbending socialist is always somewhat

impressed by the sight of a prince or a marquis; and the

assumption of such titles makes the robbing of tradesmen an easy


is to be traced in all countries, even in those in which the

sentiment of personal independence is the most strongly

developed. I quote in this connection a curious passage from a

recent book of travel, on the prestige enjoyed in England by

great persons.

"I had observed, under various circumstances, the peculiar sort

of intoxication produced in the most reasonable Englishmen by the

contact or sight of an English peer.

"Provided his fortune enables him to keep up his rank, he is sure

of their affection in advance, and brought into contact with him

they are so enchanted as to put up with anything at his hands.

They may be seen to redden with pleasure at his approach, and if

he speaks to them their suppressed joy increases their redness,

and causes their eyes to gleam with unusual brilliance. Respect

for nobility is in their blood, so to speak, as with Spaniards

the love of dancing, with Germans that of music, and with

Frenchmen the liking for revolutions. Their passion for horses

and Shakespeare is less violent, the satisfaction and pride they

derive from these sources a less integral part of their being.

There is a considerable sale for books dealing with the peerage,

and go where one will they are to be found, like the Bible, in

all hands."

The prestige of which I have just spoken is exercised by persons;

side by side with it may be placed that exercised by opinions,

literary and artistic works, &c. Prestige of the latter kind is

most often merely the result of accumulated repetitions.

History, literary and artistic history especially, being nothing

more than the repetition of identical judgments, which nobody

endeavours to verify, every one ends by repeating what he learnt

at school, till there come to be names and things which nobody

would venture to meddle with. For a modern reader the perusal of

Homer results incontestably in immense boredom; but who would

venture to say so? The Parthenon, in its present state, is a

wretched ruin, utterly destitute of interest, but it is endowed

with such prestige that it does not appear to us as it really is,

but with all its accompaniment of historic memories. The special

characteristic of prestige is to prevent us seeing things as they

are and to entirely paralyse our judgment. Crowds always, and

individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on

all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of

the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely

regulated by their prestige.

I now come to personal prestige. Its nature is very different

from that of artificial or acquired prestige, with which I have

just been concerned. It is a faculty independent of all titles,

of all authority, and possessed by a small number of persons whom

it enables to exercise a veritably magnetic fascination on those

around them, although they are socially their equals, and lack

all ordinary means of domination. They force the acceptance of

their ideas and sentiments on those about them, and they are

obeyed as is the tamer of wild beasts by the animal that could

easily devour him.

The great leaders of crowds, such as Buddha, Jesus, Mahomet, Joan

of Arc, and Napoleon, have possessed this form of prestige in a

high degree, and to this endowment is more particularly due the

position they attained. Gods, heroes, and dogmas win their way

in the world of their own inward strength. They are not to be

discussed: they disappear, indeed, as soon as discussed.

The great personages I have just cited were in possession of

their power of fascination long before they became illustrious,

and would never have become so without it. It is evident, for

instance, that Napoleon at the zenith of his glory enjoyed an

immense prestige by the mere fact of his power, but he was

already endowed in part with this prestige when he was without

power and completely unknown. When, an obscure general, he was

sent, thanks to influential protection, to command the army of

Italy, he found himself among rough generals who were of a mind

to give a hostile reception to the young intruder dispatched them

by the Directory. From the very beginning, from the first

interview, without the aid of speeches, gestures, or threats, at

the first sight of the man who was to become great they were

vanquished. Taine furnishes a curious account of this interview

taken from contemporary memoirs.

"The generals of division, amongst others Augereau, a sort of

swashbuckler, uncouth and heroic, proud of his height and his

bravery, arrive at the staff quarters very badly disposed towards

the little upstart dispatched them from Paris. On the strength

of the description of him that has been given them, Augereau is

inclined to be insolent and insubordinate; a favourite of Barras,

a general who owes his rank to the events of Vendemiaire who has

won his grade by street-fighting, who is looked upon as bearish,

because he is always thinking in solitude, of poor aspect, and

with the reputation of a mathematician and dreamer. They are

introduced, and Bonaparte keeps them waiting. At last he

appears, girt with his sword; he puts on his hat, explains the

measures he has taken, gives his orders, and dismisses them.

Augereau has remained silent; it is only when he is outside that

he regains his self-possession and is able to deliver himself of

his customary oaths. He admits with Massena that this little

devil of a general has inspired him with awe; he cannot

understand the ascendency by which from the very first he has

felt himself overwhelmed."

Become a great man, his prestige increased in proportion as his

glory grew, and came to be at least equal to that of a divinity

in the eyes of those devoted to him. General Vandamme, a rough,

typical soldier of the Revolution, even more brutal and energetic

than Augereau, said of him to Marshal d'Arnano in 1815, as on one

occasion they mounted together the stairs of the Tuileries:

"That devil of a man exercises a fascination on me that I cannot

explain even to myself, and in such a degree that, though I fear

neither God nor devil, when I am in his presence I am ready to

tremble like a child, and he could make me go through the eye of

a needle to throw myself into the fire."

Napoleon exercised a like fascination on all who came into

contact with him.[19]

that he added to it by treating rather worse than stable lads the

great personages around him, and among whom figured some of those

celebrated men of the Convention of whom Europe had stood in

dread. The gossip of the period abounds in illustrations of this

fact. One day, in the midst of a Council of State, Napoleon

grossly insults Beugnot, treating him as one might an unmannerly

valet. The effect produced, he goes up to him and says, "Well,

stupid, have you found your head again?" Whereupon Beugnot, tall

as a drum-major, bows very low, and the little man raising his

hand, takes the tall one by the ear, "an intoxicating sign of

favour," writes Beugnot, "the familiar gesture of the master who

waxes gracious." Such examples give a clear idea of the degree

of base platitude that prestige can provoke. They enable us to

understand the immense contempt of the great despot for the men

surrounding him--men whom he merely looked upon as "food for


Davoust used to say, talking of Maret's devotion and of his own:

"Had the Emperor said to us, `It is important in the interest of

my policy that Paris should be destroyed without a single person

leaving it or escaping,' Maret I am sure would have kept the

secret, but he could not have abstained from compromising himself

by seeing that his family got clear of the city. On the other

hand, I, for fear of letting the truth leak out, would have let

my wife and children stay."

It is necessary to bear in mind the astounding power exerted by

fascination of this order to understand that marvellous return

from the Isle of Elba, that lightning-like conquest of France by

an isolated man confronted by all the organised forces of a great

country that might have been supposed weary of his tyranny. He

had merely to cast a look at the generals sent to lay hands on

him, and who had sworn to accomplish their mission. All of them

submitted without discussion.

"Napoleon," writes the English General Wolseley, "lands in France

almost alone, a fugitive from the small island of Elba which was

his kingdom, and succeeded in a few weeks, without bloodshed, in

upsetting all organised authority in France under its legitimate

king; is it possible for the personal ascendency of a man to

affirm itself in a more astonishing manner? But from the

beginning to the end of this campaign, which was his last, how

remarkable too is the ascendency he exercised over the Allies,

obliging them to follow his initiative, and how near he came to

crushing them!"

His prestige outlived him and continued to grow. It is his

prestige that made an emperor of his obscure nephew. How

powerful is his memory still is seen in the resurrection of his

legend in progress at the present day. Ill-treat men as you

will, massacre them by millions, be the cause of invasion upon

invasion, all is permitted you if you possess prestige in a

sufficient degree and the talent necessary to uphold it.

I have invoked, no doubt, in this case a quite exceptional

example of prestige, but one it was useful to cite to make clear

the genesis of great religions, great doctrines, and great

empires. Were it not for the power exerted on the crowd by

prestige, such growths would be incomprehensible.

Prestige, however, is not based solely on personal ascendency,

military glory, and religious terror; it may have a more modest

origin and still be considerable. Our century furnishes several

examples. One of the most striking ones that posterity will

recall from age to age will be supplied by the history of the

illustrious man who modified the face of the globe and the

commercial relations of the nations by separating two continents.

He succeeded in his enterprise owing to his immense strength of

will, but also owing to the fascination he exercised on those

surrounding him. To overcome the unanimous opposition he met

with, he had only to show himself. He would speak briefly, and

in face of the charm he exerted his opponents became his friends.

The English in particular strenuously opposed his scheme; he had

only to put in an appearance in England to rally all suffrages.

In later years, when he passed Southampton, the bells were rung

on his passage; and at the present day a movement is on foot in

England to raise a statue in his honour.

"Having vanquished whatever there is to vanquish, men and things,

marshes, rocks, and sandy wastes," he had ceased to believe in

obstacles, and wished to begin Suez over again at Panama. He

began again with the same methods as of old; but he had aged,

and, besides, the faith that moves mountains does not move them

if they are too lofty. The mountains resisted, and the

catastrophe that ensued destroyed the glittering aureole of glory

that enveloped the hero. His life teaches how prestige can grow

and how it can vanish. After rivalling in greatness the most

famous heroes of history, he was lowered by the magistrates of

his country to the ranks of the vilest criminals. When he died

his coffin, unattended, traversed an indifferent crowd. Foreign

sovereigns are alone in rendering homage to his memory as to that

of one of the greatest men that history has known.[20]

indulged on the subject of the destiny of de Lesseps in

reflections marked by a most judicious psychological insight. I

therefore reproduce them here:--

"After the condemnation of Ferdinand de Lesseps one has no longer

the right to be astonished at the sad end of Christopher

Columbus. If Ferdinand de Lesseps were a rogue every noble

illusion is a crime. Antiquity would have crowned the memory of

de Lesseps with an aureole of glory, and would have made him

drink from the bowl of nectar in the midst of Olympus, for he has

altered the face of the earth and accomplished works which make

the creation more perfect. The President of the Court of Appeal

has immortalised himself by condemning Ferdinand de Lesseps, for

the nations will always demand the name of the man who was not

afraid to debase his century by investing with the convict's cap

an aged man, whose life redounded to the glory of his


"Let there be no more talk in the future of inflexible justice,

there where reigns a bureaucratic hatred of audacious feats. The

nations have need of audacious men who believe in themselves and

overcome every obstacle without concern for their personal

safety. Genius cannot be prudent; by dint of prudence it could

never enlarge the sphere of human activity.

". . . Ferdinand de Lesseps has known the intoxication of triumph

and the bitterness of disappointment--Suez and Panama. At this

point the heart revolts at the morality of success. When de

Lesseps had succeeded in joining two seas princes and nations

rendered him their homage; to-day, when he meets with failure

among the rocks of the Cordilleras, he is nothing but a vulgar

rogue. . . . In this result we see a war between the classes of

society, the discontent of bureaucrats and employes, who take

their revenge with the aid of the criminal code on those who

would raise themselves above their fellows. . . . Modern

legislators are filled with embarrassment when confronted by the

lofty ideas due to human genius; the public comprehends such

ideas still less, and it is easy for an advocate-general to prove

that Stanley is a murderer and de Lesseps a deceiver."

Still, the various examples that have just been cited represent

extreme cases. To fix in detail the psychology of prestige, it

would be necessary to place them at the extremity of a series,

which would range from the founders of religions and empires to

the private individual who endeavours to dazzle his neighbours by

a new coat or a decoration.

Between the extreme limits of this series would find a place all

the forms of prestige resulting from the different elements

composing a civilisation--sciences, arts, literature, &c.--and it

would be seen that prestige constitutes the fundamental element

of persuasion. Consciously or not, the being, the idea, or the

thing possessing prestige is immediately imitated in consequence

of contagion, and forces an entire generation to adopt certain

modes of feeling and of giving expression to its thought. This

imitation, moreover, is, as a rule, unconscious, which accounts

for the fact that it is perfect. The modern painters who copy

the pale colouring and the stiff attitudes of some of the

Primitives are scarcely alive to the source of their inspiration.

They believe in their own sincerity, whereas, if an eminent

master had not revived this form of art, people would have

continued blind to all but its naive and inferior sides. Those

artists who, after the manner of another illustrious master,

inundate their canvasses with violet shades do not see in nature

more violet than was detected there fifty years ago; but they are

influenced, "suggestioned," by the personal and special

impressions of a painter who, in spite of this eccentricity, was

successful in acquiring great prestige. Similar examples might

be brought forward in connection with all the elements of


It is seen from what precedes that a number of factors may be

concerned in the genesis of prestige; among them success was

always one of the most important. Every successful man, every

idea that forces itself into recognition, ceases, ipso facto, to

be called in question. The proof that success is one of the

principal stepping-stones to prestige is that the disappearance

of the one is almost always followed by the disappearance of the

other. The hero whom the crowd acclaimed yesterday is insulted

to-day should he have been overtaken by failure. The reaction,

indeed, will be the stronger in proportion as the prestige has

been great. The crowd in this case considers the fallen hero as

an equal, and takes its revenge for having bowed to a superiority

whose existence it no longer admits. While Robespierre was

causing the execution of his colleagues and of a great number of

his contemporaries, he possessed an immense prestige. When the

transposition of a few votes deprived him of power, he

immediately lost his prestige, and the crowd followed him to the

guillotine with the self-same imprecations with which shortly

before it had pursued his victims. Believers always break the

statues of their former gods with every symptom of fury.

Prestige lost by want of success disappears in a brief space of

time. It can also be worn away, but more slowly by being

subjected to discussion. This latter power, however, is

exceedingly sure. From the moment prestige is called in question

it ceases to be prestige. The gods and men who have kept their

prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. For the crowd

to admire, it must be kept at a distance.

PREPARATORY FACTORS OF THE BELIEF OF CROWDS REASON facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail