on 6 November 2014
I have read one or two books which struck me as profound and troubling. The reason some books are troubling is that they reveal a harsh truth. They dig deep into the parts of ourselves which we prefer to remain hidden. I now understand why well reasoned fact heavy arguments rarely persuade the majority of anything. People prefer a entertaining, colourful, charismatic tyrant who reflects back the populist mindset. People really do judge a book by its cover. In fact it would seem that our entire mental libraries contain little else. This applies equally to academics, statesman and priests once they are in the thrall of a crowd.
I had just finished Patrick Buchanans book-Churchill, Hitler and the unnecessary war. That book posited the failure of politicians and foreign policy, but I see there were no errors as such. The reality is the absolute domination of crowd sentiment which drives events and actions of even the most resilient individual.
on 26 June 2015
This is one of those books that will completely give you a different and more coherent understanding of what's passing around you in the world of today and of what has passed in the world of the past. Humans like to think that they're in control of their own actions and thoughts but, in reality, at least in civilizations, every one of them is subject to the power of crowds.
Crowds are characterized by their impulsiveness, irritability, incapability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment and of critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments and of extreme credulity. These are caused by the disappearance of the sense of responsibility, the contagious nature of feelings, thoughts and actions in crowds, and the complete loss of individual conscious personality as he is immersed in a crowd, similar to what results from being hypnotized.
Crowds are not only those anonymous gatherings on streets; they can be juries, parliamentary assemblies, castes (eg. military, clergy), classes, etc. Electoral crowds and parliamentary assemblies, in particular, have an extreme lack of foresight. Policies that go along with democratic ideals and sem beneficial for everybody in the short-term are most likely unsustainable in the long-term but the effects seem far off in the future and politicians don't want to lose their vote. Indeed, the general characteristics of crowds are to be met in parliamentary assemblies: intellectual simplicity, irritability, suggestibility, the exaggeration of sentiments and the preponderating influence of a few leaders
Crowds need a leader: one that is able to excite them, making general assertions, presented in striking terms, invoking images in their minds and selling them illusions: "Crowds never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduces them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim." Moreover, a leader is needed because "Men gathered in a crowd lose all force of will, and turn instinctively to the person who possesses the quality they lack". Therefore, a strong-willed men who is able to impose himself upon crowds will always have their support. The influence of such leader is largely determined by his prestige, an element that "entirely paralyses our critical thinking and fells our soul with astonishment and respect".
A leader normally must be of narrow intellect or to possess the capacity to understand the minds of crowds as possessing intelligence and being able to 'connect the dots' may do a person that wants to get the attention of a crowd more harm than good. Because by showing how complex things are, he's not understood by crowds due to their incapacity to reason. "Whatever the ideas suggested to crowds they can only exercise effective influence on condition that they assume a very absolute, uncompromising and simple shape" " The powerlessness of crowds to reason aright prevents them displaying any trace of critical spirit; prevents them from discerning truth from error, or of forming a precise judgment in any matter". Moreover, he may expose inconvenient truths and crowds often prefer to be deluded if this delusion pleases them. Moreover, a leader of crowds often espouses their beliefs, he does not go against them.
The understanding of crowds is fundamental to understand the history of a civilization: yet, they are one of its most ignored aspects. The worst atrocities and the best acts of bravery and heroism are normally committed by crowds. The crowd effect is as fundamental today as it was in the ancient world. I couldn't stop associating what Le Bon was saying to my country Portugal and to the industrialised world in general. For example: "Bread and spectacular shows constituted for the Plebeians of ancient Rome the ideal of happiness and they asked for nothing more." In Portugal, (similarly to almost all developed countries) football, reality shows and materialism are the ideal of happiness; and we ask for nothing more.
Civilizations are driven by general beliefs. They give sense of the world and provide a purpose. Our civilization's belief is Progress, the moral righteousness of expanding western democracy to everywhere on earth (except to those places in which it isn't strategically advantageous) and the moral imperative to 'develop' parts of the world so that they in the future are able to have our enlightened way of life. Ancient Romans also believed that it was a moral right to expand 'civilization to the 'uncivilized' parts of the world (except to those which weren't advantageous on terms of plunder and resources such as barbaric Germanic tribes) and built Roman-style cities even in its most remote outposts. Gustav Le Bon says something very important that is evident applied to the modern industrial world: "The philosophical absurdity that often marks general beliefs has never been an obstacle to their triumph. Indeed the triumph ofsuch beliefs would seem impossible unless on the condition that they often some mysterious absurdity". Isn't Progress mysteriously absurd? The view that history has a purpose that is the ever-increasing improvement of the human condition and knowledge and that technology will always resolve whatever problems we may face is part of our modern belief system. It's espoused by intellectuals, politicians, commoners, scientists, atheists,etc; but it is no less absurd than the dominant narratives that preceded us.
It's impossible to do justice to this book in such a small review. It is one of the most illuminating books that anyone will ever read. It is highly readable and deserves a slow read. It exposes what is hidden inside everyone of us. It explains the general trends of history, its worst atrocities and best acts of heroism and to what extent so many events are influenced by the action of crowds. Ignore the references to race or to 'primitive beings': Le Bon was a victim of the beliefs of his time. Crowds have more influence today than ever before: if you want to understand the world you need to read his book. I'd say that this is one of the most important works of the 19th century, if not of the modern world. It gives you power: being influenced by a crowd is not inevitable. If you understand the trends you can have a critical spirit even within a crowd and avoid being dragged by the flock. This is why this book is so important.