THE IDEAS OF CROWDS





WHEN studying in a preceding work the part played by ideas in the

evolution of nations, we showed that every civilisation is the

outcome of a small number of fundamental ideas that are very

rarely renewed. We showed how these ideas are implanted in the

minds of crowds, with what difficulty the process is effected,

and the power possessed by the ideas in question when once it has

been accomplished. Finally we saw that great historical

perturbations are the result, as a rule, of changes in these

fundamental ideas.



Having treated this subject at sufficient length, I shall not

return to it now, but shall confine myself to saying a few words

on the subject of such ideas as are accessible to crowds, and of

the forms under which they conceive them.



They may be divided into two classes. In one we shall place

accidental and passing ideas created by the influences of the

moment: infatuation for an individual or a doctrine, for

instance. In the other will be classed the fundamental ideas, to

which the environment, the laws of heredity and public opinion

give a very great stability; such ideas are the religious beliefs

of the past and the social and democratic ideas of to-day.



These fundamental ideas resemble the volume of the water of a

stream slowly pursuing its course; the transitory ideas are like

the small waves, for ever changing, which agitate its surface,

and are more visible than the progress of the stream itself

although without real importance.



At the present day the great fundamental ideas which were the

mainstay of our fathers are tottering more and more. They have

lost all solidity, and at the same time the institutions resting

upon them are severely shaken. Every day there are formed a

great many of those transitory minor ideas of which I have just

been speaking; but very few of them to all appearance seem

endowed with vitality and destined to acquire a preponderating

influence.



Whatever be the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise

effective influence on condition that they assume a very

absolute, uncompromising, and simple shape. They present

themselves then in the guise of images, and are only accessible

to the masses under this form. These imagelike ideas are not

connected by any logical bond of analogy or succession, and may

take each other's place like the slides of a magic-lantern which

the operator withdraws from the groove in which they were placed

one above the other. This explains how it is that the most

contradictory ideas may be seen to be simultaneously current in

crowds. According to the chances of the moment, a crowd will

come under the influence of one of the various ideas stored up in

its understanding, and is capable, in consequence, of committing

the most dissimilar acts. Its complete lack of the critical

spirit does not allow of its perceiving these contradictions.



This phenomenon is not peculiar to crowds. It is to be observed

in many isolated individuals, not only among primitive beings,

but in the case of all those--the fervent sectaries of a

religious faith, for instance--who by one side or another of

their intelligence are akin to primitive beings. I have observed

its presence to a curious extent in the case of educated Hindoos

brought up at our European universities and having taken their

degree. A number of Western ideas had been superposed on their

unchangeable and fundamental hereditary or social ideas.

According to the chances of the moment, the one or the other set

of ideas showed themselves each with their special accompaniment

of acts or utterances, the same individual presenting in this way

the most flagrant contradictions. These contradictions are more

apparent than real, for it is only hereditary ideas that have

sufficient influence over the isolated individual to become

motives of conduct. It is only when, as the result of the

intermingling of different races, a man is placed between

different hereditary tendencies that his acts from one moment to

another may be really entirely contradictory. It would be

useless to insist here on these phenomena, although their

psychological importance is capital. I am of opinion that at

least ten years of travel and observation would be necessary to

arrive at a comprehension of them.



Ideas being only accessible to crowds after having assumed a very

simple shape must often undergo the most thoroughgoing

transformations to become popular. It is especially when we are

dealing with somewhat lofty philosophic or scientific ideas that

we see how far-reaching are the modifications they require in

order to lower them to the level of the intelligence of crowds.

These modifications are dependent on the nature of the crowds, or

of the race to which the crowds belong, but their tendency is

always belittling and in the direction of simplification. This

explains the fact that, from the social point of view, there is

in reality scarcely any such thing as a hierarchy of ideas--that

is to say, as ideas of greater or less elevation. However great

or true an idea may have been to begin with, it is deprived of

almost all that which constituted its elevation and its greatness

by the mere fact that it has come within the intellectual range

of crowds and exerts an influence upon them.



Moreover, from the social point of view the hierarchical value of

an idea, its intrinsic worth, is without importance. The

necessary point to consider is the effects it produces. The

Christian ideas of the Middle Ages, the democratic ideas of the

last century, or the social ideas of to-day are assuredly not

very elevated. Philosophically considered, they can only be

regarded as somewhat sorry errors, and yet their power has been

and will be immense, and they will count for a long time to come

among the most essential factors that determine the conduct of

States.



Even when an idea has undergone the transformations which render

it accessible to crowds, it only exerts influence when, by

various processes which we shall examine elsewhere, it has

entered the domain of the unconscious, when indeed it has become

a sentiment, for which much time is required.



For it must not be supposed that merely because the justness of

an idea has been proved it can be productive of effective action

even on cultivated minds. This fact may be quickly appreciated

by noting how slight is the influence of the clearest

demonstration on the majority of men. Evidence, if it be very

plain, may be accepted by an educated person, but the convert

will be quickly brought back by his unconscious self to his

original conceptions. See him again after the lapse of a few

days and he will put forward afresh his old arguments in exactly

the same terms. He is in reality under the influence of anterior

ideas, that have become sentiments, and it is such ideas alone

that influence the more recondite motives of our acts and

utterances. It cannot be otherwise in the case of crowds.



When by various processes an idea has ended by penetrating into

the minds of crowds, it possesses an irresistible power, and

brings about a series of effects, opposition to which is

bootless. The philosophical ideas which resulted in the French

Revolution took nearly a century to implant themselves in the

mind of the crowd. Their irresistible force, when once they had

taken root, is known. The striving of an entire nation towards

the conquest of social equality, and the realisation of abstract

rights and ideal liberties, caused the tottering of all thrones

and profoundly disturbed the Western world. During twenty years

the nations were engaged in internecine conflict, and Europe

witnessed hecatombs that would have terrified Ghengis Khan and

Tamerlane. The world had never seen on such a scale what may

result from the promulgation of an idea.



A long time is necessary for ideas to establish themselves in the

minds of crowds, but just as long a time is needed for them to be

eradicated. For this reason crowds, as far as ideas are

concerned, are always several generations behind learned men and

philosophers. All statesmen are well aware to-day of the

admixture of error contained in the fundamental ideas I referred

to a short while back, but as the influence of these ideas is

still very powerful they are obliged to govern in accordance with

principles in the truth of which they have ceased to believe.





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

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