Reviewed in the United States on July 19, 2018
“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.’’ (58)
Le Bon writing in 1896. How right he was! Worldwide political, economic, religious, cultural foundation broke apart in World War 1. Has not reconnected yet.
“The complexity of social facts is such, that it is impossible to grasp them as a whole and to foresee the effects of their reciprocal influence. It seems, too, that behind the visible facts are hidden at times thousands of invisible causes. Visible social phenomena appear to be the result of an immense, unconscious working, that as a rule is beyond the reach of our analysis.’’ (3)
‘Beyond our reach’ indeed. This modest expression fits Le Bon’s book. Definite where appropriate, careful where needed.
“The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought. The reason these great events are so rare is that there is nothing so stable in a race as the inherited groundwork of its thoughts. The present epoch  is one of these critical moments in which the thought of mankind is undergoing a process of transformation.’’
‘Human thought transforming’! Less than decade later in 1914, the world ‘transformed’ into something totally . . . completely new!
“Two fundamental factors are at the base of this transformation. The first is the destruction of those religious, political, and social beliefs in which all the elements of our civilisation are rooted. The second is the creation of entirely new conditions of existence and thought as the result of modern scientific and industrial discoveries.’’ (8)
‘Destruction and creation’ — of beliefs.
“The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.’’ (11)
Yes it did! What else?
“Science promised us truth, or at least a knowledge of such relations as our intelligence can seize: it never promised us peace or happiness.’’ (12)
Well . . . maybe now, a century later, many assume science can bring peace and happiness.
“History tells us, that from the moment when the moral forces on which a civilisation rested have lost their strength, its final dissolution is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds known, justifiably enough, as barbarians. Civilisations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction. Their rule is always tantamount to a barbarian phase. A civilisation involves fixed rules, discipline, a passing from the instinctive to the rational state, forethought for the future, an elevated degree of culture—all of them conditions that crowds, left to themselves, have invariably shown themselves incapable of realising. In consequence of the purely destructive nature of their power crowds act like those microbes which hasten the dissolution of enfeebled or dead bodies. When the structure of a civilisation is rotten, it is always the masses that bring about its downfall. It is at such a juncture that their chief mission is plainly visible, and that for a while the philosophy of number seems the only philosophy of history.’’ (13)
Remember Le Bon is French. The French Revolution, Napoleon, Paris commune, German military defeat, play on the surface of his mind. These drastic upheavals occurred in his life or his father.
What conclusion does he draw from all these mass movements?
“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.’’
Yep, he knew people who were there!
“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.’’ (59)
‘Abstract ideas’ conquers all! Who would have imagined ideas more destructive than Ghengis Khan!
Why? Why France and not England? What are the causes? Any remedies? Etc., etc..
BOOK I. THE MIND OF CROWDS
CHAPTER I. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CROWDS—PSYCHOLOGICAL LAW OF THEIR MENTAL UNITY
CHAPTER II. THE SENTIMENTS AND MORALITY OF CROWDS
CHAPTER III. THE IDEAS, REASONING POWER, AND IMAGINATION OF CROWDS
CHAPTER IV. A RELIGIOUS SHAPE ASSUMED BY ALL THE CONVICTIONS OF CROWDS
BOOK II. THE OPINIONS AND BELIEFS OF CROWDS
CHAPTER I. REMOTE FACTORS OF THE OPINIONS AND BELIEFS OF CROWDS
CHAPTER II. THE IMMEDIATE FACTORS OF THE OPINIONS OF CROWDS
CHAPTER III. THE LEADERS OF CROWDS AND THEIR MEANS OF PERSUASION
CHAPTER IV. LIMITATIONS OF THE VARIABILITY OF THE BELIEFS AND OPINIONS OF CROWDS
BOOK III. THE CLASSIFICATION AND DESCRIPTION OF THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF CROWDS
“It is only by obtaining some sort of insight into the psychology of crowds that it can be understood how slight is the action upon them of laws and institutions, how powerless they are to hold any opinions other than those which are imposed upon them, and that it is not with rules based on theories of pure equity that they are to be led, but by seeking what produces an impression on them and what seduces them.’’
‘Led by images’. This becomes ongoing theme. Reason, logic, even words — don’t make any impression on the crowd. Images only!
How severe is this . . . handicap?
“The decisions affecting matters of general interest come to by an assembly of men of distinction, but specialists in different walks of life, are not sensibly superior to the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles.’’ (25)
What! ‘Imbeciles’! Well . . . reflect on the twentieth century . . . Why crowds so . . . different?
“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.’’ (34)
‘Feeling irresistible power’! Yep, that’s what happened. Still here.
What about words and thoughtful analysis?
“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 formulas. 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, etc., whose meaning is so vague that bulky volumes do not suffice to precisely fix it.’’
Interesting that Le Bon nailed the very words that still drive the crowd! Wow!
“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 combating 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.’’
This is ‘Religion’, secular not biblical, but a faith that dominates.
Many, many other striking connections. Odd that this century-old essay is just . . . just . . . so current!
I was surprised to find the ease, the smooth presentation in this work. Over a century old, translated from French, focusing on past intellectual, political experiences — I just didn’t expect this much deep, clear, vivid, amazing explanation!
Fascinating. Shrewd. Insightful.
Can be reread . . . reread . . . reread . . .