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The Crowd_ a Study of the Popular Mind

The Crowd_ a Study of the Popular Mind

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Published by: Dominique A.M. Juntado on Jun 26, 2012
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A CLOSE parallel exists between the anatomical and psychological characteristics of living beings.

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In these anatomical characteristics certain invariable, or slightly variable, elements are met with, to change
which the lapse is necessary of geological ages. Side by side with these fixed, indestructible features are to be
found others extremely changeable, which the art of the breeder or horticulturist may easily modify, and at
times to such an extent as to conceal the fundamental characteristics from an observer at all inattentive.

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The same phenomenon is observed in the case of moral characteristics. Alongside the unalterable
psychological elements of a race, mobile and changeable elements are to be encountered. For this reason, in
studying the beliefs and opinions of a people, the presence is always detected of a fixed groundwork on which
are engrafted opinions as changing as the surface sand on a rock.

The opinions and beliefs of crowds may be divided, then, into two very distinct classes. On the one hand we
have great permanent beliefs, which endure for several centuries, and on which an entire civilisation may rest.
Such, for instance, in the past were feudalism, Christianity, and Protestantism; and such, in our own time, are
the nationalist principle and contemporary democratic and social ideas. In the second place, there are the
transitory, changing opinions, the outcome, as a rule, of general conceptions, of which every age sees the birth
and disappearance; examples in

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point are the theories which mould literature and the arts -- those, for instance, which produced romanticism,
naturalism, mysticism, &c. Opinions of this order are as superficial, as a rule, as fashion, and as changeable.
They may be compared to the ripples which ceaselessly arise and vanish on the surface of a deep lake.

The great generalised beliefs are very restricted in number. Their rise and fall form the culminating points of
the history of every historic race. They constitute the real framework of civilisation.

It is easy to imbue the mind of crowds with a passing opinion, but very difficult to implant therein a lasting
belief. However, a belief of this latter description once established, it is equally difficult to uproot it. It is
usually only to be changed at the cost of violent revolutions. Even revolutions can only avail when the belief
has almost entirely lost its sway over men's minds. In that case revolutions serve to finally sweep away what
had already been almost cast aside, though the force of habit prevented its complete abandonment. The
beginning of a revolution is in reality the end of a belief.

The precise moment at which a great belief is doomed is easily recognisable; it is the moment when its value
begins to be called in question. Every general belief being little else than a fiction,

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it can only survive on the condition that it be not subjected to examination.

But even when a belief is severely shaken, the institutions to which it has given rise retain their strength and
disappear but slowly. Finally, when the belief has completely lost its force, all that rested upon it is soon
involved in ruin. As yet a nation has never been able to change its beliefs without being condemned at the
same time to transform all the elements of its civilisation. The nation continues this process of transformation
until it has alighted on and accepted a new general belief: until this juncture it is perforce in a state of
anarchy. General beliefs are the indispensable pillars of civilisations; they determine the trend of ideas. They
alone are capable of inspiring faith and creating a sense of duty.

Nations have always been conscious of the utility of acquiring general beliefs, and have instinctively
understood that their disappearance would be the signal for their own decline. In the case of the Romans, the

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fanatical cult of Rome was the belief that made them masters of the world, and when the belief had died out
Rome was doomed to die. As for the barbarians who destroyed the Roman civilisation, it was only when they
had acquired certain commonly accepted beliefs that they attained a measure of cohesion and emerged from
anarchy.

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Plainly it is not for nothing that nations have always displayed intolerance in the defence of their opinions.
This intolerance, open as it is to criticism from the philosophic standpoint, represents in the life of a people
the most necessary of virtues. It was to found or uphold general beliefs that so many victims were sent to the
stake in the Middle Ages and that so many inventors and innovators have died in despair even if they have
escaped martyrdom. It is in defence, too, of such beliefs that the world has been so often the scene of the
direst disorder, and that so many millions of men have died on the battlefield, and will yet die there.

There are great difficulties in the way of establishing a general belief, but when it is definitely implanted its
power is for a long time to come invincible, and however false it be philosophically it imposes itself upon the
most luminous intelligence. Have not the European peoples regarded as incontrovertible for more than fifteen
centuries religious legends which, closely examined, are as barbarous
Note: [21] as those of Moloch? The frightful absurdity of the legend of a God who revenges himself for the
disobedience of one of his

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creatures by inflicting horrible tortures on his son remained unperceived during many centuries. Such potent
geniuses as a Galileo, a Newton, and a Leibnitz never supposed for an instant that the truth of such dogmas
could be called in question. Nothing can be more typical than this fact of the hypnotising effect of general
beliefs, but at the same time nothing can mark more decisively the humiliating limitations of our intelligence.

[21]

Note:

Barbarous, philosophically speaking, I mean. In practice they have created an entirely new civilisation, and
for fifteen centuries have given mankind a glimpse of those enchanted realms of generous dreams and of hope
which he will know no more.

As soon as a new dogma is implanted in the mind of crowds it becomes the source of inspiration whence are
evolved its institutions, arts, and mode of existence. The sway it exerts over men's minds under these
circumstances is absolute. Men of action have no thought beyond realising the accepted belief, legislators
beyond applying it, while philosophers, artists, and men of letters are solely preoccupied with its expression
under various shapes.

From the fundamental belief transient accessory ideas may arise, but they always bear the impress of the

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belief from which they have sprung. The Egyptian civilisation, the European civilisation of the Middle Ages,
the Mussulman civilisation of the Arabs are all the outcome of a small number of religious beliefs which have
left their mark on the least important elements of these civilisations and allow of their immediate recognition.

Thus it is that, thanks to general beliefs, the men

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of every age are enveloped in a network of traditions, opinions, and customs which render them all alike, and
from whose yoke they cannot extricate themselves. Men are guided in their conduct above all by their beliefs
and by the customs that are the consequence of those beliefs. These beliefs and customs regulate the smallest
acts of our existence, and the most independent spirit cannot escape their influence. The tyranny exercised
unconsciously on men's minds is the only real tyranny, because it cannot be fought against. Tiberius, Ghengis
Khan, and Napoleon were assuredly redoubtable tyrants, but from the depth of their graves Moses, Buddha,
Jesus, and Mahomet have exerted on the human soul a far profounder despotism. A conspiracy may
overthrow a tyrant, but what can it avail against a firmly established belief? In its violent struggle with Roman
Catholicism it is the French Revolution that has been vanquished, and this in spite of the fact that the
sympathy of the crowd was apparently on its side, and in spite of recourse to destructive measures as pitiless
as those of the Inquisition. The only real tyrants that humanity has known have always been the memories of
its dead or the illusions it has forged itself.

The philosophic absurdity that often marks general beliefs has never been an obstacle to their triumph.
Indeed the triumph of such beliefs

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would seem impossible unless on the condition that they offer some mysterious absurdity. In consequence, the
evident weakness of the socialist beliefs of to-day will not prevent them triumphing among the masses. Their
real inferiority to all religious beliefs is solely the result of this consideration, that the ideal of happiness
offered by the latter being realisable only in a future life, it was beyond the power of anybody to contest it.
The socialist ideal of happiness being intended to be realised on earth, the vanity of its promises will at once
appear as soon as the first efforts towards their realisation are made, and simultaneously the new belief will
entirely lose its prestige. Its strength, in consequence, will only increase until the day when, having triumphed,
its practical realisation shall commence. For this reason, while the new religion exerts to begin with, like all
those that have preceded it, a destructive influence, it will be unable, in the future, to play a creative part.

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