THE CHANGEABLE OPINIONS OF CROWDS





Above the substratum of fixed beliefs, whose power we have just

demonstrated, is found an overlying growth of opinions, ideas,

and thoughts which are incessantly springing up and dying out.

Some of them exist but for a day, and the more important scarcely

outlive a generation. We have already noted that the changes

which supervene in opinions of this order are at times far more

superficial than real, and that they are always affected by

racial considerations. When examining, for instance, the

political institutions of France we showed that parties to all

appearance utterly distinct--royalists, radicals, imperialists,

socialists, &c.--have an ideal absolutely identical, and that

this ideal is solely dependent on the mental structure of the

French race, since a quite contrary ideal is found under

analogous names among other races. Neither the name given to

opinions nor deceptive adaptations alter the essence of things.

The men of the Great Revolution, saturated with Latin literature,

who (their eyes fixed on the Roman Republic), adopted its laws,

its fasces, and its togas, did not become Romans because they

were under the empire of a powerful historical suggestion. The

task of the philosopher is to investigate what it is which

subsists of ancient beliefs beneath their apparent changes, and

to identify amid the moving flux of opinions the part determined

by general beliefs and the genius of the race.



In the absence of this philosophic test it might be supposed that

crowds change their political or religious beliefs frequently and

at will. All history, whether political, religious, artistic, or

literary, seems to prove that such is the case.



As an example, let us take a very short period of French history,

merely that from 1790 to 1820, a period of thirty years'

duration, that of a generation. In the course of it we see the

crowd at first monarchical become very revolutionary, then very

imperialist, and again very monarchical. In the matter of

religion it gravitates in the same lapse of time from Catholicism

to atheism, then towards deism, and then returns to the most

pronounced forms of Catholicism. These changes take place not

only amongst the masses, but also amongst those who direct them.

We observe with astonishment the prominent men of the Convention,

the sworn enemies of kings, men who would have neither gods nor

masters, become the humble servants of Napoleon, and afterwards,

under Louis XVIII., piously carry candles in religious

processions.



Numerous, too, are the changes in the opinions of the crowd in

the course of the following seventy years. The "Perfidious

Albion" of the opening of the century is the ally of France under

Napoleon's heir; Russia, twice invaded by France, which looked on

with satisfaction at French reverses, becomes its friend.



In literature, art, and philosophy the successive evolutions of

opinion are more rapid still. Romanticism, naturalism,

mysticism, &c., spring up and die out in turn. The artist and

the writer applauded yesterday are treated on the morrow with

profound contempt.



When, however, we analyse all these changes in appearance so far

reaching, what do we find? All those that are in opposition with

the general beliefs and sentiments of the race are of transient

duration, and the diverted stream soon resumes its course. The

opinions which are not linked to any general belief or sentiment

of the race, and which in consequence cannot possess stability,

are at the mercy of every chance, or, if the expression be

preferred, of every change in the surrounding circumstances.

Formed by suggestion and contagion, they are always momentary;

they crop up and disappear as rapidly on occasion as the

sandhills formed by the wind on the sea-coast.



At the present day the changeable opinions of crowds are greater

in number than they ever were, and for three different reasons.



The first is that as the old beliefs are losing their influence

to a greater and greater extent, they are ceasing to shape the

ephemeral opinions of the moment as they did in the past. The

weakening of general beliefs clears the ground for a crop of

haphazard opinions without a past or a future.



The second reason is that the power of crowds being on the

increase, and this power being less and less counterbalanced, the

extreme mobility of ideas, which we have seen to be a peculiarity

of crowds, can manifest itself without let or hindrance.



Finally, the third reason is the recent development of the

newspaper press, by whose agency the most contrary opinions are

being continually brought before the attention of crowds. The

suggestions that might result from each individual opinion are

soon destroyed by suggestions of an opposite character. The

consequence is that no opinion succeeds in becoming widespread,

and that the existence of all of them is ephemeral. An opinion

nowadays dies out before it has found a sufficiently wide

acceptance to become general.



A phenomenon quite new in the world's history, and most

characteristic of the present age, has resulted from these

different causes; I allude to the powerlessness of governments to

direct opinion.



In the past, and in no very distant past, the action of

governments and the influence of a few writers and a very small

number of newspapers constituted the real reflectors of public

opinion. To-day the writers have lost all influence, and the

newspapers only reflect opinion. As for statesmen, far from

directing opinion, their only endeavour is to follow it. They

have a dread of opinion, which amounts at times to terror, and

causes them to adopt an utterly unstable line of conduct.



The opinion of crowds tends, then, more and more to become the

supreme guiding principle in politics. It goes so far to-day as

to force on alliances, as has been seen recently in the case of

the Franco-Russian alliance, which is solely the outcome of a

popular movement. A curious symptom of the present time is to

observe popes, kings, and emperors consent to be interviewed as a

means of submitting their views on a given subject to the

judgment of crowds. Formerly it might have been correct to say

that politics were not a matter of sentiment. Can the same be

said to-day, when politics are more and more swayed by the

impulse of changeable crowds, who are uninfluenced by reason and

can only be guided by sentiment?



As to the press, which formerly directed opinion, it has had,

like governments, to humble itself before the power of crowds.

It wields, no doubt, a considerable influence, but only because

it is exclusively the reflection of the opinions of crowds and of

their incessant variations. Become a mere agency for the supply

of information, the press has renounced all endeavour to enforce

an idea or a doctrine. It follows all the changes of public

thought, obliged to do so by the necessities of competition under

pain of losing its readers. The old staid and influential organs

of the past, such as the Constitutionnel, the Debats, or the

Siecle, which were accepted as oracles by the preceding

generation, have disappeared or have become typical modern

papers, in which a maximum of news is sandwiched in between light

articles, society gossip, and financial puffs. There can be no

question to-day of a paper rich enough to allow its contributors

to air their personal opinions, and such opinions would be of

slight weight with readers who only ask to be kept informed or to

be amused, and who suspect every affirmation of being prompted by

motives of speculation. Even the critics have ceased to be able

to assure the success of a book or a play. They are capable of

doing harm, but not of doing a service. The papers are so

conscious of the uselessness of everything in the shape of

criticism or personal opinion, that they have reached the point

of suppressing literary criticism, confining themselves to citing

the title of a book, and appending a "puff" of two or three

lines.[22] In twenty years' time the same fate will probably

have overtaken theatrical criticism.






the Translator.







The close watching of the course of opinion has become to-day the

principal preoccupation of the press and of governments. The

effect produced by an event, a legislative proposal, a speech, is

without intermission what they require to know, and the task is

not easy, for nothing is more mobile and changeable than the

thought of crowds, and nothing more frequent than to see them

execrate to-day what they applauded yesterday.



This total absence of any sort of direction of opinion, and at

the same time the destruction of general beliefs, have had for

final result an extreme divergency of convictions of every order,

and a growing indifference on the part of crowds to everything

that does not plainly touch their immediate interests. Questions

of doctrine, such as socialism, only recruit champions boasting

genuine convictions among the quite illiterate classes, among the

workers in mines and factories, for instance. Members of the

lower middle class, and working men possessing some degree of

instruction, have either become utterly sceptical or extremely

unstable in their opinions.



The evolution which has been effected in this direction in the

last twenty-five years is striking. During the preceding period,

comparatively near us though it is, opinions still had a certain

general trend; they had their origin in the acceptance of some

fundamental belief. By the mere fact that an individual was a

monarchist he possessed inevitably certain clearly defined ideas

in history as well as in science, while by the mere fact that he

was a republican, his ideas were quite contrary. A monarchist

was well aware that men are not descended from monkeys, and a

republican was not less well aware that such is in truth their

descent. It was the duty of the monarchist to speak with horror,

and of the republican to speak with veneration, of the great

Revolution. There were certain names, such as those of

Robespierre and Marat, that had to be uttered with an air of

religious devotion, and other names, such as those of Caesar,

Augustus, or Napoleon, that ought never to be mentioned

unaccompanied by a torrent of invective. Even in the French

Sorbonne this ingenuous fashion of conceiving history was

general.[23]






professors of history that are very curious from this point of

view. They prove too how little the critical spirit is developed

by the system of university education in vogue in France. I cite

as an example the following extracts from the "French Revolution"

of M. Rambaud, professor of history at the Sorbonne:



"The taking of the Bastille was a culminating event in the

history not only of France, but of all Europe; and inaugurated a

new epoch in the history of the world!"



With respect to Robespierre, we learn with stupefaction that "his

dictatorship was based more especially on opinion, persuasion,

and moral authority; it was a sort of pontificate in the hands of

a virtuous man!" (pp. 91 and 220.)







At the present day, as the result of discussion and analysis, all

opinions are losing their prestige; their distinctive features

are rapidly worn away, and few survive capable of arousing our

enthusiasm. The man of modern times is more and more a prey to

indifference.



The general wearing away of opinions should not be too greatly

deplored. That it is a symptom of decadence in the life of a

people cannot be contested. It is certain that men of immense,

of almost supernatural insight, that apostles, leaders of

crowds--men, in a word, of genuine and strong convictions--exert

a far greater force than men who deny, who criticise, or who are

indifferent, but it must not be forgotten that, given the power

possessed at present by crowds, were a single opinion to acquire

sufficient prestige to enforce its general acceptance, it would

soon be endowed with so tyrannical a strength that everything

would have to bend before it, and the era of free discussion

would be closed for a long time. Crowds are occasionally

easy-going masters, as were Heliogabalus and Tiberius, but they

are also violently capricious. A civilisation, when the moment

has come for crowds to acquire a high hand over it, is at the

mercy of too many chances to endure for long. Could anything

postpone for a while the hour of its ruin, it would be precisely

the extreme instability of the opinions of crowds and their

growing indifference with respect to all general beliefs.





REASON THE EXAGGERATION AND INGENUOUSNESS OF THE SENTIMENTS OF CROWDS. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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