The Crowd, A Study of the Popular Mind Book Review

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The Crowd, A Study of the Popular Mind

Book Review


The Crowd, A Study of the Popular Mind is a great book written by Gustave Le Bon. My first instinct is that this is the kind of book that should be included as mandatory or at least selected readings in liberal art universities, like PKU. However, on second thought, I see the futility in it. The moment a reader puts this kind of great books down, majorities of the sparkles and enlightenment this brilliant book bring forth will have already diminished, almost to oblivion, even if a moment ago this reader was sighing, applauding, and even taking notes for the book. There is only that little a person can improve by a specific book, I guess, statistically.


I am aware that I am obliged to give a summary of the book, as a duty bestowed by custom. However, there exists a hesitation bring forth by an awareness that my summary might not necessarily be accurate. Reading and understanding of a book by an author over a century apart, educated in a different continent, living in a differed culture, will inevitably be a very hard mission, even if not mission impossible. For example, the term like “socialism” means something so different in this book and my mind that I don’t know how to explain. I am also aware of the fact that I have minimal knowledge to most of the writers and philosophers Le Bon cited. Nevertheless, I record my attempt for inaccurate summary as below.


First, as a background, time is the eventual master that slowly and powerfully shapes and forms race, and race in turn creates and distinguishes crowds. These, I believe, could help explain why the nations and the development of nations differ, and why history is almost too broad topic to be generally understood or serve as easily serve as useful guidance.


In essence, the book examines the unavoidable mediocrity of the general crowd, claiming that education or “instruction neither renders a man more moral nor happier,” and, at times, instruction is “much more pernicious than useful.” An inference from the above may bring an interesting explanation to the debate, separation and hatred between the democratic and republican parties in America: the differences could partly be enlarged due to the expansion of education systems. Similarly, will better education systems in Europe make Europe stronger as expected?


On the other hand, the book recognizes the huge power of crowds in all major historical events, noticing that the crowd is capable of unimaginable cruelties and the noblest sacrifices beyond reasoning. We don’t need dig far in the history of certain countries to find the best examples to prove these points, be it the young students burning their fathers’ IOU notes in front of their fathers’ debtors, or a county party chief manipulating the numbers of food production despite millions in danger of hunger and malnutrition.


The book brilliantly analyzes the roles played by “morbidly nervous, excitable, half-deranged” leaders. The above terms could very well be used to describe certain North Korean or U.S. leaders. The crowd only obeys a leader when influenced by his prestige, not by any sentiment of interest or gratitude. The crowds psychologically need their leaders, and leaders lead by “affirmation, repetition and contagion”. Well, again, Trump arguably fits into this profile quite well. Le Bon notes that “it’s impossible for crowd to follow someone quite superior because otherwise imitation world be too difficult”, therefore righteously blame those who place the problematic leaders as chiefs. When we criticize leaders, be them Hitler, Chairman Mao, or Trump, we should realize that “a leader is seldom in advance of public opinion; almost always all he does is to follow it and to espouse all its errors.”


One of my main take-aways from this book is expressed in the following quote: “The only real tyrants that humanity has known have always been the memories of its dead or the illusions it has forged itself.” So, if this book will have some impact on me at all, I would have to examine: what could be our existing illusions?


First, it could be the illusion of these two great counties: United States or China and their respective races. Yes, the Chinese and American races are both so long lasting, prestigious, and great that Americans want it to be “great again”, and Chinese want it to be “great rejuvenation”, both terms of essentially the same meaning as “great forever”. But crowds, nations and even races are transient, with their ups and downs, births and deaths.


Second, it could be the illusion of values such as freedom, right and liberty. Aren’t they all great values worth fighting for? Isn’t the liberation of human beings meaningful for the intellectuals and men of morals? Well, the book mercilessly specifies that “the increase of apparent liberty must needs be followed by the decrease of real liberty.” So, what does the empowerment, given to the participates of me-too victims and LGBTQIA or whatever the aberrations will grow to, will mean to real liberty of society at large?


Then comes the illusion of education. It’s some counterintuitive to read the following quotations, and for fear my trying to deciphering them would only blur their meanings, I just put them intact as below:

“The worst enemies of society are recruited among the prize-winners of schools”.

“It is in the school room that socialists and anarchists are found nowadays.”

“Criminality increases with the generalization of instruction”.


Next, the illusion of equality is something that should be examined. Le Bon cites Tocqueville and expresses that when equalities are achieved, all human are alike without distinctions, and would inevitably lose faith on others because others are no better. Besides, “this same similitude gives them an almost limitless confidence in the judgment of the public”, because under equality, “truth and numerical superiority should” inevitably coincide and “go hand in hand.” That’s rather a pathetic result as the pyramids of intellect would fall and everyone would be equally benighted.


Then what about the illusion about knowledge? Isn’t knowledge the power to conquer the darkness? Le Bon ruthlessly smashes our fantasies that intellects are better equipped than general public: “It doesn’t follow because an individual knows Greek or mathematics, is an architect, a veterinary surgeon, a doctor, or a barrister, that he is endowed with a special intelligence of social problems.” Le Bon goes on to dwell on the inescapable fate of our vast ignorance: “The explanation is that their science is only a very attenuated form of our universal ignorance. With regard to social problems, owing to the number of unknown quantities they offer, men are substantially, equally ignorant.”


Now comes to the illusion of laws and rule by laws. Are they really going to help the society by “confining government power to an institutional cage”? Well, the realities speak louder in the world. Be it America, China, Russia, Europe, or Africa, their laws only increase the power of government while rendering citizens powerless. “The 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”. Le Bon foresees the bureaucracy a century ago: “The administrative caste is alone in being untouched by these changes, is alone in possessing irresponsibility, impersonality, and perpetuity.” He goes on to explain the paralyzing effects of those seemingly beautiful yet poisonous illusions: “Victims of the delusion that equality and liberty are the better assured by the multiplication of laws......they soon end by desiring servitude, and lose all saponaceousness and energy……They are then no more than vain shadowed, passive, in resisting and powerless automata.”


What about the political illusions of separation of powers and election? Le Bon states that the right and proper opinions won’t win, and “in consequence parliaments are more especially representative of extreme opinions”, as if he were a prophet, knowing the current election in U.S.


The book also shatters our previous judgment concerning the condemning of governmental suppression of ideas, be it in Trump’s criticism of media, or his Chinese counterpart’s attempts at silencing dissidents. Le Bon maintains that “Nations have always displayed intolerance in the defense of their opinions”, arguing that the governments are  merely trying to defend their legality and existences.


With all the above illusions, or alternatively called values, shattered, that obscure fate of humans as individuals and in a group looks nothing but promising. So plausibly it’s a blessing that we are starting to forget this book already. Forgetfulness is a blessing or else mother wouldn’t attempt to have second or third children post their traumas.


It’s time to attempt a conclusion for this book that has no conclusion.


Eventually, race is the result of the beliefs that glue a crowd together and “men forming a crowd can’t do without a master “.


After the institutions as governments are established, we only need to look around to see that “the function of government necessarily increases in proportion as the indifference and helplessness of the citizens grow…. The state becomes an all-powered god.”


Then citizens, be them Americans or Chinese, will inevitably want to know as to the next step. Le Bon predicts that “still experience shows that the power of such gods was never either very durable or very strong.”


Le Bon emphasizes that “the beginning of a revolution is in reality the end of a belief.” Once such beliefs fall apart, a nation, however great it used to be, will walk to its perdition. Then, by the master of time, new hopes and illusions grow out of the destructed to create new crowds.


Sophie Li

August 31, 2018

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