Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Gustave Le Bon and the Study of the Crowd, by Richard Le Gallienne 1896

Gustave Le Bon and the Study of the Crowd, by Richard Le Gallienne 1896

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The eminent psychologist, M. Gustave le Bon, has been making a study of the laws of crowds, and he gives us the results of his observations in a significant book, “The Crowd, a Study of the Popular Mind,” which Mr. Fisher Unwin has just added to his successful “Criminology Series.” It is a book of many conclusions, and no conclusion. M. le Bon is anti-democratic, beyond doubt, and for the most part scouts the idea embodied in the phrase once so popular a motto for Radical journals— Vox populi, Vox Dei; yet, with the impartiality of a truly scientific observer, he seems to be left with a sort of belief in a mysterious collective wisdom of mankind, which, working through many and absurd blunders, still evolves nearer and nearer to the truth of things. The anima mundi of the old philosophers, and the modern poet’s

soul of the wide world
   Dreaming of things to come,

no doubt seem more fancies to the typically-modern mind; and yet such books as Mr. Kidd’s "Social Evolution," and this of M. le Bon’s, would certainly seem to bear out the old fable.

“So far as the majority of their acts are considered,” writes M. le Bon in his preface, “crowds display a singularly inferior mentality; yet there are other acts in which they appear to be guided by those mysterious forces which the ancients denominated destiny, nature, or providence, which we call the voices of the dead, and whose power it is impossible to overlook, although we ignore their essence. It would seem, at times, as if there were latent forces in the inner being of nations which serve to guide them.”

Mr. Herbert Spencer has declared that in a crowd an average is struck of the various qualities of its component members; but M. le Bon vigorously disputes this, and says that, on the contrary, as in a chemical compound, a crowd is something quite different in character from an of the ingredients that go to form it, and that this is one of the most mysterious things about it. All crowds, whatever their admixture of intelligence, are broadly alike, and race alone is the factor that introduces any variability. Only the very simplest and coarsest qualities of humanity—the animal, instinctive, emotional, and barbarous characteristics, all that are sub-conscious — survive in a crowd. A philosopher entering a crowd is stripped of his wisdom, all habits of mind that have been superimposed on primitive man by civilisation and culture fall away, everything that is merely second nature vanishes, and original nature alone speaks, either to slay or to pity. Reason, except in the form of such old reason as has become transformed into unreasoning superstitious instinct, has no voice, for, so far from a nation being wiser than its wisest man, a crowd is only as wise as its biggest fool. It is disheartening to think that only as grain by grain of wisdom is grasped by the brain of the dullest, can civilisation advance, and that the pace of the world must ever be set by its slowest, if not indeed by its cripples. Well may Nietzsche ask, “Doth life also require rabble?”

On the other hand, as M. le Bon reminds us, reason and logic are very far from being everything. Some of the things of life we value most, indeed all, are beyond reason. “It is not by reason,” says our author, “but most often in spite of it, that are created those sentiments that are the mainsprings of all civilisation—sentiments such as honour, self-sacrifice, religious faith, patriotism, and the love of glory.” M. le Bon might have added love and beauty to the number. Again, if crowds are slow to assimilate enlightened ideas, they are sure. They are “profoundly conservative" and only superficially revolutionary, for which, in a day of so much shallow democratic philosophy, we cannot be too thankful. Yet for all this slowness of assimilation M. le Bon seems to regard the Socialistic deluge as a certainty of the near future, though we must remember, in reading his more uneasy portents, that all the time he is speaking more particularly of France. Of what this may mean in retardation of higher social progress M. le Bon gives this striking illustration: “Had democracies,” he says, “possessed the power they wield to-day at the time of the invention of mechanical looms, or of the introduction of steam-power and of railways, the realisation of these inventions would have been impossible, or would have been achieved at the cost of revolutions and repeated massacres. It is fortunate for the progress of civilisation that the power of crowds only began to exist when the great discoveries of science and industry had already been effected.”

Much evidently depends on the leaders of crowds, for crowds are proverbially nothing without a leader, whom they follow by a species of hypnotic suggestion; but powerful indeed would be the leader who could lead the modem world away from its promised land of democracy. For, M. le Bon points out, that leaders tend more and more to be the mere mouthpieces, instead of the prophets, of the crowd, waiting deferentislly to voice its opinions rather than inspiring it with their own. For those interested in the art of managing crowds, M. le Bon has many wise counsels, among which is—never reason with them, but always make absolute statement, as absolute as possible.

“Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all proof,” he says, “is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the mind of crowds. The conciser an affirmation is, the more destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the more weight it carries. The religious books and the legal codes of all ages have always resorted to simple allirmation. States— men called upon to defend a political cause, and commercial men pushing the sale of their products by means of advertising, are acquainted with the value of affirmation.” M. le Bon particularly insists on the almost omnipotent power of words, and the power of prestige, personal or however attained. These matters and others in his book will be no news to public men. Anyone accustomed to deal with crowds will know them instinctively but it will be of great benefit to such to have them thus luminously systematised; and to the general reader the book is one of great suggestiveness and entertainment. One of his most significant side-lights on his theme is his chapter on juries. These entirely bear out his theory of the uniformity of crowds. At one time jurors in France were picked from the more enlightened classes, professional men of all kinds, &c., now they are chosen indiscriminately, but mainly from the tradesman class. “To the great astonishment of specialist writers," says M. le Bon, “whatever the composition of the jury has been, its decisions have been identical." “On general questions,” he says elsewhere, “a vote recorded by forty academicians is no better than that of forty water-carriers." In this chapter on juries he tells an amusing anecdote of the great French advocate Lachaud, who always paid particular attention in his pleading to the one or two jurymen who his quick eye told him were hostile, and as a rule with success. “On one occasion, however, in the provinces, he had to deal with a juryman whom he plied in vain for threequarters of an hour with his most cunning arguments; the man was the seventh juryman, the first on the second bench. The case was desperate. Suddenly, in the middle of a passionate demonstration, Lachaud stopped short, and addressing the President of the court, said: ‘Would you give instructions for the curtain there in front to be drawn? The seventh juryman is blinded by the sun.’ The juryman in question reddened, smiled, and expressed his thanks. He was won over for the defence.” RICHARD LE GALLIENNE.

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