Gustave le Bon
Part 4 out of 4
"The commonplaces and redundancies of pedagogic eloquence and
Latin culture at the service of a mind childish rather than
undistinguished, and limited in its notions of attack and defence
to the defiant attitude of schoolboys. Not an idea, not a happy
turn of phrase, or a telling hit: a storm of declamation that
leaves us bored. After a dose of this unexhilarating reading one
is attempted to exclaim `Oh!' with the amiable Camille
It is terrible at times to think of the power that strong
conviction combined with extreme narrowness of mind gives a man
possessing prestige. It is none the less necessary that these
conditions should be satisfied for a man to ignore obstacles and
display strength of will in a high measure. Crowds instinctively
recognise in men of energy and conviction the masters they are
always in need of.
In a parliamentary assembly the success of a speech depends
almost solely on the prestige possessed by the speaker, and not
at all on the arguments he brings forward. The best proof of
this is that when for one cause or another a speaker loses his
prestige, he loses simultaneously all his influence, that is, his
power of influencing votes at will.
When an unknown speaker comes forward with a speech containing
good arguments, but only arguments, the chances are that he will
only obtain a hearing. A Deputy who is a psychologist of
insight, M. Desaubes, has recently traced in the following lines
the portrait of the Deputy who lacks prestige:--
"When he takes his place in the tribune he draws a document from
his portfolio, spreads it out methodically before him, and makes
a start with assurance.
"He flatters himself that he will implant in the minds of his
audience the conviction by which he is himself animated. He has
weighed and reweighed his arguments; he is well primed with
figures and proofs; he is certain he will convince his hearers.
In the face of the evidence he is to adduce all resistance would
be futile. He begins, confident in the justice of his cause, and
relying upon the attention of his colleagues, whose only anxiety,
of course, is to subscribe to the truth.
"He speaks, and is at once surprised at the restlessness of the
House, and a little annoyed by the noise that is being made.
"How is it silence is not kept? Why this general inattention?
What are those Deputies thinking about who are engaged in
conversation? What urgent motive has induced this or that Deputy
to quit his seat?
"An expression of uneasiness crosses his face; he frowns and
stops. Encouraged by the President, he begins again, raising his
voice. He is only listened to all the less. He lends emphasis
to his words, and gesticulates: the noise around him increases.
He can no longer hear himself, and again stops; finally, afraid
that his silence may provoke the dreaded cry, `The Closure!' he
starts off again. The clamour becomes unbearable."
When parliamentary assemblies reach a certain pitch of excitement
they become identical with ordinary heterogeneous crowds, and
their sentiments in consequence present the peculiarity of being
always extreme. They will be seen to commit acts of the greatest
heroism or the worst excesses. The individual is no longer
himself, and so entirely is this the case that he will vote
measures most adverse to his personal interests.
The history of the French Revolution shows to what an extent
assemblies are capable of losing their self-consciousness, and of
obeying suggestions most contrary to their interests. It was an
enormous sacrifice for the nobility to renounce its privileges,
yet it did so without hesitation on a famous night during the
sittings of the Constituant Assembly. By renouncing their
inviolability the men of the Convention placed themselves under a
perpetual menace of death and yet they took this step, and were
not afraid to decimate their own ranks, though perfectly aware
that the scaffold to which they were sending their colleagues
to-day might be their own fate to-morrow. The truth is they had
attained to that completely automatic state which I have
described elsewhere, and no consideration would hinder them from
yielding to the suggestions by which they were hypnotised. The
following passage from the memoirs of one of them,
Billaud-Varennes, is absolutely typical on this score: "The
decisions with which we have been so reproached," he says, "WERE
NOT DESIRED BY US TWO DAYS, A SINGLE DAY BEFORE THEY WERE TAKEN:
IT WAS THE CRISIS AND NOTHING ELSE THAT GAVE RISE TO THEM."
Nothing can be more accurate.
The same phenomena of unconsciousness were to be witnessed during
all the stormy sittings of the Convention.
"They approved and decreed measures," says Taine, "which they
held in horror--measures which were not only stupid and foolish,
but measures that were crimes--the murder of innocent men, the
murder of their friends. The Left, supported by the Right,
unanimously and amid loud applause, sent to the scaffold Danton,
its natural chief, and the great promoter and leader of the
Revolution. Unanimously and amid the greatest applause the
Right, supported by the Left, votes the worst decrees of the
revolutionary government. Unanimously and amid cries of
admiration and enthusiasm, amid demonstrations of passionate
sympathy for Collot d'Herbois, Couthon, and Robespierre, the
Convention by spontaneous and repeated re-elections keeps in
office the homicidal government which the Plain detests because
it is homicidal, and the Mountain detests because it is decimated
by it. The Plain and the Mountain, the majority and the
minority, finish by consenting to help on their own suicide. The
22 Prairial the entire Convention offered itself to the
executioner; the 8 Thermidor, during the first quarter of an hour
that followed Robespierre's speech, it did the same thing again."
This picture may appear sombre. Yet it is accurate.
Parliamentary assemblies, sufficiently excited and hypnotised,
offer the same characteristics. They become an unstable flock,
obedient to every impulsion. The following description of the
Assembly of 1848 is due to M. Spuller, a parliamentarian whose
faith in democracy is above suspicion. I reproduce it from the
Revue litteraire, and it is thoroughly typical. It offers an
example of all the exaggerated sentiments which I have described
as characteristic of crowds, and of that excessive changeableness
which permits of assemblies passing, from moment to moment, from
one set of sentiments to another entirely opposite.
"The Republican party was brought to its perdition by its
divisions, its jealousies, its suspicions, and, in turn, its
blind confidence and its limitless hopes. Its ingenuousness and
candour were only equalled by its universal mistrust. An absence
of all sense of legality, of all comprehension of discipline,
together with boundless terrors and illusions; the peasant and
the child are on a level in these respects. Their calm is as
great as their impatience; their ferocity is equal to their
docility. This condition is the natural consequence of a
temperament that is not formed and of the lack of education.
Nothing astonishes such persons, and everything disconcerts them.
Trembling with fear or brave to the point of heroism, they would
go through fire and water or fly from a shadow.
"They are ignorant of cause and effect and of the connecting
links between events. They are as promptly discouraged as they
are exalted, they are subject to every description of panic, they
are always either too highly strung or too downcast, but never in
the mood or the measure the situation would require. More fluid
than water they reflect every line and assume every shape. What
sort of a foundation for a government can they be expected to
Fortunately all the characteristics just described as to be met
with in parliamentary assemblies are in no wise constantly
displayed. Such assemblies only constitute crowds at certain
moments. The individuals composing them retain their
individuality in a great number of cases, which explains how it
is that an assembly is able to turn out excellent technical laws.
It is true that the author of these laws is a specialist who has
prepared them in the quiet of his study, and that in reality the
law voted is the work of an individual and not of an assembly.
These laws are naturally the best. They are only liable to have
disastrous results when a series of amendments has converted them
into the outcome of a collective effort. The work of a crowd is
always inferior, whatever its nature, to that of an isolated
individual. It is specialists who safeguard assemblies from
passing ill-advised or unworkable measures. The specialist in
this case is a temporary leader of crowds. The Assembly is
without influence on him, but he has influence over the Assembly.
In spite of all the difficulties attending their working,
parliamentary assemblies are the best form of government mankind
has discovered as yet, and more especially the best means it has
found to escape the yoke of personal tyrannies. They constitute
assuredly the ideal government at any rate for philosophers,
thinkers, writers, artists, and learned men--in a word, for all
those who form the cream of a civilisation.
Moreover, in reality they only present two serious dangers, one
being inevitable financial waste, and the other the progressive
restriction of the liberty of the individual.
The first of these dangers is the necessary consequence of the
exigencies and want of foresight of electoral crowds. Should a
member of an assembly propose a measure giving apparent
satisfaction to democratic ideas, should he bring in a Bill, for
instance, to assure old-age pensions to all workers, and to
increase the wages of any class of State employes, the other
Deputies, victims of suggestion in their dread of their electors,
will not venture to seem to disregard the interests of the latter
by rejecting the proposed measure, although well aware they are
imposing a fresh strain on the Budget and necessitating the
creation of new taxes. It is impossible for them to hesitate to
give their votes. The consequences of the increase of
expenditure are remote and will not entail disagreeable
consequences for them personally, while the consequences of a
negative vote might clearly come to light when they next present
themselves for re-election.
In addition to this first cause of an exaggerated expenditure
there is another not less imperative--the necessity of voting all
grants for local purposes. A Deputy is unable to oppose grants
of this kind because they represent once more the exigencies of
the electors, and because each individual Deputy can only obtain
what he requires for his own constituency on the condition of
acceding to similar demands on the part of his colleagues.
 In its issue of April 6, 1895, the Economiste published a
curious review of the figures that may be reached by expenditure
caused solely by electoral considerations, and notably of the
outlay on railways. To put Langayes (a town of 3,000
inhabitants, situated on a mountain) in communication with Puy, a
railway is voted that will cost 15 millions of francs. Seven
millions are to be spent to put Beaumont (3,500 inhabitants) in
communication with Castel-Sarrazin; 7 millions to put Oust (a
village of 523 inhabitants) in communication with Seix (1,200
inhabitants); 6 millions to put Prade in communication with the
hamlet of Olette (747 inhabitants), &c. In 1895 alone 90
millions of francs were voted for railways of only local utility.
There is other no less important expenditure necessitated also by
electioneering considerations. The law instituting workingmen's
pensions will soon involve a minimum annual outlay of 165
millions, according to the Minister of Finance, and of 800
millions according to the academician M. Leroy-Beaulieu. It is
evident that the continued growth of expenditure of this kind
must end in bankruptcy. Many European countries--Portugal,
Greece, Spain, Turkey--have reached this stage, and others, such
as Italy, will soon be reduced to the same extremity. Still too
much alarm need not be felt at this state of things, since the
public has successively consented to put up with the reduction of
four-fifths in the payment of their coupons by these different
countries. Bankruptcy under these ingenious conditions allows
the equilibrium of Budgets difficult to balance to be instantly
restored. Moreover, wars, socialism, and economic conflicts hold
in store for us a profusion of other catastrophes in the period
of universal disintegration we are traversing, and it is
necessary to be resigned to living from hand to mouth without too
much concern for a future we cannot control.
The second of the dangers referred to above--the inevitable
restrictions on liberty consummated by parliamentary
assemblies--is apparently less obvious, but is, nevertheless,
very real. It is the result of the innumerable laws--having
always a restrictive action--which parliaments consider
themselves obliged to vote and to whose consequences, owing to
their shortsightedness, they are in a great measure blind.
The danger must indeed be most inevitable, since even England
itself, which assuredly offers the most popular type of the
parliamentary regime, the type in which the representative is
most independent of his elector, has been unable to escape it.
Herbert Spencer has shown, in a work already old, that the
increase of apparent liberty must needs be followed by the
decrease of real liberty. Returning to this contention in his
recent book, "The Individual versus the State," he thus expresses
himself with regard to the English Parliament:--
"Legislation since this period has followed the course, I pointed
out. Rapidly multiplying dictatorial measures have continually
tended to restrict individual liberties, and this in two ways.
Regulations have been established every year in greater number,
imposing a constraint on the citizen in matters in which his acts
were formerly completely free, and forcing him to accomplish acts
which he was formerly at liberty to accomplish or not to
accomplish at will. At the same time heavier and heavier public,
and especially local, burdens have still further restricted his
liberty by diminishing the portion of his profits he can spend as
he chooses, and by augmenting the portion which is taken from him
to be spent according to the good pleasure of the public
This progressive restriction of liberties shows itself in every
country in a special shape which Herbert Spencer has not pointed
out; it is that the passing of these innumerable series of
legislative measures, all of them in a general way of a
restrictive order, conduces necessarily to augment the number,
the power, and the influence of the functionaries charged with
their application. These functionaries tend in this way to
become the veritable masters of civilised countries. Their power
is all the greater owing to the fact that, amidst the incessant
transfer of authority, the administrative caste is alone in being
untouched by these changes, is alone in possessing
irresponsibility, impersonality, and perpetuity. There is no
more oppressive despotism than that which presents itself under
this triple form.
This incessant creation of restrictive laws and regulations,
surrounding the pettiest actions of existence with the most
complicated formalities, inevitably has for its result the
confining within narrower and narrower limits of the sphere in
which the citizen may move freely. Victims of the delusion that
equality and liberty are the better assured by the multiplication
of laws, nations daily consent to put up with trammels
increasingly burdensome. They do not accept this legislation
with impunity. Accustomed to put up with every yoke, they soon
end by desiring servitude, and lose all spontaneousness and
energy. They are then no more than vain shadows, passive,
unresisting and powerless automata.
Arrived at this point, the individual is bound to seek outside
himself the forces he no longer finds within him. The functions
of governments necessarily increase in proportion as the
indifference and helplessness of the citizens grow. They it is
who must necessarily exhibit the initiative, enterprising, and
guiding spirit in which private persons are lacking. It falls on
them to undertake everything, direct everything, and take
everything under their protection. The State becomes an
all-powerful god. Still experience shows that the power of such
gods was never either very durable or very strong.
This progressive restriction of all liberties in the case of
certain peoples, in spite of an outward license that gives them
the illusion that these liberties are still in their possession,
seems at least as much a consequence of their old age as of any
particular system. It constitutes one of the precursory symptoms
of that decadent phase which up to now no civilisation has
Judging by the lessons of the past, and by the symptoms that
strike the attention on every side, several of our modern
civilisations have reached that phase of extreme old age which
precedes decadence. It seems inevitable that all peoples should
pass through identical phases of existence, since history is so
often seen to repeat its course.
It is easy to note briefly these common phases of the evolution
of civilisations, and I shall terminate this work with a summary
of them. This rapid sketch will perhaps throw some gleams of
light on the causes of the power at present wielded by crowds.
If we examine in their main lines the genesis of the greatness
and of the fall of the civilisations that preceded our own, what
do we see?
At the dawn of civilisation a swarm of men of various origin,
brought together by the chances of migrations, invasions, and
conquests. Of different blood, and of equally different
languages and beliefs, the only common bond of union between
these men is the half-recognised law of a chief. The
psychological characteristics of crowds are present in an eminent
degree in these confused agglomerations. They have the transient
cohesion of crowds, their heroism, their weaknesses, their
impulsiveness, and their violence. Nothing is stable in
connection with them. They are barbarians.
At length time accomplishes its work. The identity of
surroundings, the repeated intermingling of races, the
necessities of life in common exert their influence. The
assemblage of dissimilar units begins to blend into a whole, to
form a race; that is, an aggregate possessing common
characteristics and sentiments to which heredity will give
greater and greater fixity. The crowd has become a people, and
this people is able to emerge from its barbarous state. However,
it will only entirely emerge therefrom when, after long efforts,
struggles necessarily repeated, and innumerable recommencements,
it shall have acquired an ideal. The nature of this ideal is of
slight importance; whether it be the cult of Rome, the might of
Athens, or the triumph of Allah, it will suffice to endow all the
individuals of the race that is forming with perfect unity of
sentiment and thought.
At this stage a new civilisation, with its institutions, its
beliefs, and its arts, may be born. In pursuit of its ideal, the
race will acquire in succession the qualities necessary to give
it splendour, vigour, and grandeur. At times no doubt it will
still be a crowd, but henceforth, beneath the mobile and changing
characteristics of crowds, is found a solid substratum, the
genius of the race which confines within narrow limits the
transformations of a nation and overrules the play of chance.
After having exerted its creative action, time begins that work
of destruction from which neither gods nor men escape. Having
reached a certain level of strength and complexity a civilisation
ceases to grow, and having ceased to grow it is condemned to a
speedy decline. The hour of its old age has struck.
This inevitable hour is always marked by the weakening of the
ideal that was the mainstay of the race. In proportion as this
ideal pales all the religious, political, and social structures
inspired by it begin to be shaken.
With the progressive perishing of its ideal the race loses more
and more the qualities that lent it its cohesion, its unity, and
its strength. The personality and intelligence of the individual
may increase, but at the same time this collective egoism of the
race is replaced by an excessive development of the egoism of the
individual, accompanied by a weakening of character and a
lessening of the capacity for action. What constituted a people,
a unity, a whole, becomes in the end an agglomeration of
individualities lacking cohesion, and artificially held together
for a time by its traditions and institutions. It is at this
stage that men, divided by their interests and aspirations, and
incapable any longer of self-government, require directing in
their pettiest acts, and that the State exerts an absorbing
With the definite loss of its old ideal the genius of the race
entirely disappears; it is a mere swarm of isolated individuals
and returns to its original state--that of a crowd. Without
consistency and without a future, it has all the transitory
characteristics of crowds. Its civilisation is now without
stability, and at the mercy of every chance. The populace is
sovereign, and the tide of barbarism mounts. The civilisation
may still seem brilliant because it possesses an outward front,
the work of a long past, but it is in reality an edifice
crumbling to ruin, which nothing supports, and destined to fall
in at the first storm.
To pass in pursuit of an ideal from the barbarous to the
civilised state, and then, when this ideal has lost its virtue,
to decline and die, such is the cycle of the life of a people.
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