As I was reading The Drama of Doctrine towards the end of 2015, I spotted an interesting reference to this work from French social psychologist Gustave LeBon, and decided to give it a read. I found the work fascinating. Outside the text, LeBon seems to be a fascinating figure. Legends hold that he claimed credit for discovering radioactivity and the theory of relativity. The Crowd is his best known work, a description of the psychology of crowds, rooted heavily in the context of late 19th century Europe.
His writing is easy enough to follow, and I found myself easily agreeing with a number of his observations. The aim of The Crowd was not to explain, but rather to observe the condition of collective humanity. Similarly, he offers no changes or solutions to perceived problems, instead offering suggestions as to how change might be affected. Curious is the fact that he contends leaving certain anomalies (even those he obviously disdains) in place, simply because crowds seem to function better with them than without. Again, the book consists of observation rather than explanation or prescription.
It would be an understatement to say that LeBon presents a low opinion of crowds.
“Crowds are only powerful for destruction.” (p. 38)
Broadly speaking, he believes that individuality, along with any particular moral or intellectual prowess, is rendered null and void by interaction with a crowd. He describes the leveling of the crowd as something of a reduction to the lowest common denominator, the basest desires of humanity. As such, he holds that there is no benefit to a crowd of “elites,” as they will present no differently than the common peasant. As an aside, he notes this to be the reasoning behind a jury of common men rather than society’s greats. Both, he claims, will render the same decision because in a crowd the collective humanity will always lean on the same instincts.
“An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.” (p. 53)
LeBon’s disdain for religion is unmasked and unashamed, in fact attributing the acceptance of religion to some of the less-than-flattering qualities expounded in the book. It was on this point, obviously, that my pastoral heart took interest. And it is at this point that I’d like to interact with the text for a moment. LeBon is quick to point out the human propensity towards religion.
“A person is not religious solely when he worships a divinity, but when he puts all the resources of his mind, the complete submission of his will, and the whole-souled ardour of fanaticism at the service of a cause or an individual who becomes the goal and guide of his thoughts and actions.” (p. 94)
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” In other words, the imprint of eternity is found on the heart of every image-bearer, even if we cannot fully comprehend God’s purposes. We are eternal beings, and as such we have a particular longing to pursue the eternal. This search naturally leads us to God, the creator. The heavens declare his glory (Psalm 19:1). His eternal attributes and divine power are on display for all to see, even if the truth of his supremacy is suppressed by the sinful human heart (Romans 1:18-23) By virtue of our sin-stained existence, our hearts – perpetual “idol factories” in the words of John Calvin – reject the right view of eternity when left to our devices (Jeremiah 17:9).
What I found to be ironic, then, was LeBon’s own tendency to elevate time to the position of deity, declaring it to be “the sole real creator and the sole great destroyer. It is time that has made mountains with grains of sand and raised the obscure cell of geological eras to human dignity… a being possessed of the magical force of varying time at his will would have the power attributed by believers to God.” (p. 106) As is the case for most who have adopted a materialistic worldview, time is the great power to which must be ascribed all honor. For if time is unlimited, even the random and purposeless is apparently possible.
In his observations of collective humanity, he makes note that race is the greatest factor of distinction between crowds.
“… the power of race is such that no element can pass from one people to another without undergoing the most profound transformations.” (p. 103)
From a biblical perspective (because what else would I attempt to offer?), I found this to be an intriguing affirmation of the truth of Genesis 11, which contains the story of Babel. Mankind, in an effort to make much of themselves, erected a city with a tower. God, in his wisdom and mercy, rather than letting mankind achieve full and final destruction, descends to view the paltry attempt to reach the heavens and confuses the speech of men, scattering them across the earth. LeBon’s observations affirm the Scriptures in identifying the depth of the separation imparted by God. Sin brings separation and alienation. First with God, then with self, third with other men, and finally with the earth itself. Such racial divides coincide with God’s truth.
“The frightful absurdity of the legend of a God who revenges himself for the disobedience of one of his creatures by inflicting horrible tortures on his son remained unperceived during many centuries.” (p. 166)
I am thankful for the wisdom of God in the face of such a statement. One of the great features of the Scriptures is that God beat Gustave LeBon to the punch. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1Corinthians 1:18) How glorious the fact that LeBon so beautifully demonstrates! We cannot argue, for God’s mercy defies our reason. While I do believe Christianity is beyond thorough in regards to reason, I also firmly believe that no one separated from Christ would believe this to be the case. God in his wisdom affirmed LeBon’s position 18 centuries before his birth. Where LeBon is drastically incorrect is in his assertion that the foolishness of the cross has been unperceived. To the contrary, the folly of the good news has been either in preparation or on display since the fall.
In conclusion, I enjoyed the book. It has sparked within me an interest in social psychology. I can’t help but engage the text (you should hear the conversation in my head while I read!) from a biblical perspective. Regardless of LeBon’s religious views, though, the realities of collective humanity are fascinating. We do behave differently with each other than we would in solitude. It is as if we believe differently. Our intellect is often erased, our morality smudged. We become susceptible. We act on different impulses. The observations are real.
I look forward to further interaction with the subject. I’ll be sure to share what I come across!
For other brief reviews, keep an eye on my Reading page.