Literary

Greek Literature

This dissertation surveys the representation of crowds in the two great epics of
Homer, the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comedian
Aristophanes. It covers each of these authors in varying levels of detail, and has two
major goals: to identify the vocabulary with which they describe crowds, and to infer
from these descriptions certain underlying concepts of group behavior and collective
psychology.
As a preliminary question, I must address whether such a thing as a crowd was
available as an object of representation during the period surveyed. This will require
establishing a distinction between two senses of the word “crowd.” According to the
modern, sociologically technical sense of the word, archaic Greece and classical Athens
clearly did not have crowds.
According to a broader sense of crowd, however, as any aggregation of people
exhibiting behavior interpreted by those who observe or represent it as threatening and/or
volatile, they clearly did. Such aggregations are universal human phenomena – indeed,
they are found in many other species of animal. If the goal is to determine, not to what
extent the ancient sources conform to our modern categories, but rather how these ancient
sources represent crowd-like formations and behavior on their own terms, this broader
definition is more useful.
Once this distinction between the narrow and broad understanding of “crowd” has
been established, we must consider two formulations of the problem of the crowd.
According to one school of thought, which I call the “lowest common denominator”
theory, crowds are dangerous because only a relatively few people are capable, or lawabiding,
or restrained in their actions, or whatever the quality is that crowds are thought
to lack. A large gathering of people, then, will tend to contain undesirable elements; as its
size increases, these elements will come to dominate.
The other theory is that of the “Group Mind.” On this model, crowds exhibit
problematic behavior not because of the prior character of their component members, but
because the very fact of aggregation “dumbs down” the members of the group
subordinates them to a collective entity that operates as its own organism, or some
combination of these two mechanisms.
Both these theories of why crowds are dangerous things are present in the
surveyed texts, implicitly and at times (especially in Euripides) explicitly. Especially in
the fifth century texts, written and performed during a period of increased mass
participation in politics and intermittent military mobilization, we find representations of
groups and group behavior as crucial elements.1
After a history of the development of the modern theory of the crowd, with
constant reference to its implications for the investigation of ancient texts, this
introductory Chapter offers a list of Greek words that directly denote or are often found
associated with descriptions of crowds. The stage will then be set for the examination of
individual authors’ works in the subsequent Chapters.
The major work to date in the field of classical studies on the subject of the crowd
is Fergus Millar’s The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic. This dissertation positions
itself, as it were, at the other end of the field: its subject Greece rather than Rome, its
sources read as literature rather than history. Millar’s own description of his project will
serve to highlight these contrasts.
At the beginning of his first chapter, Millar announces:
The first purpose of this book is to present a series of images of the
Roman people: assembling in the Forum, listening to orations there, and
responding to them; sometimes engaging in violence aimed at physical
control of their traditional public space; and dividing into their thirty-five
voting groups to vote on laws.2
A few pages earlier, in the preface, he defines his intent as “merely to try to feed into our
attempts to understand Republican Rome a sense of the possible significance of a series
of images of political meetings that are to be found in our literary sources.”3
Millar restricts his inquiry to images of the political crowd, and indeed his work
makes a political argument: that the Roman Republic was more democratic a system of
government than is usually appreciated.4 The role of mass assemblies in this system, he
maintains, has been neglected; the work (originally a series of lectures) redresses this
neglect. Arranged chronologically, it studies the political crowd from the post-Sullan
restoration of popular elections in the 70s B.C. to the decline of popular politics in the
50s and beyond.
Millar’s project is made possible by the (relatively) thorough documentation of
the late Republican period: “[T]he political life of these three decades,” he notes, “is
more fully recorded than that of any other period of the ancient world.”5 This dissertation
takes as its subject one of those “other” periods. It must be stressed at the beginning that
this is not an attempt, parallel to his, to assess the (actual, historical) role of the crowd in,
e.g., classical Athens. Rather, the focus is on the representation of crowds in canonical
archaic and classical Greek texts: specifically, Homer, the three tragedians, and
Aristophanes. A trade-off is made: we lose the specificity and thoroughness of Millar’s
study, but we access a broader range of sources, dig further into the roots of
representation, and engage larger questions in political and social theory.6
Where Millar’s study is a “deep” plumbing of a more narrowly defined historical
phenomenon, this dissertation is more in the way of a “broad” survey of a theme over
centuries and across genres. A necessary first step, one that Millar, his concerns being
different, does not take, is to define the term “crowd.” Again, my methods will employ a
trade-off in comparison to Millar’s. The phenomena he studies are more obviously
“crowd-like,” allowing him to avoid any theoretical discussion of “crowd-ness,” and to
make specific claims about their social role and historical development. Rome at its
height was far larger and denser than any center of population in the early Greek world;
its urban “mob” is therefore more directly analogous to that which concerns modern
theorists.
For my part, I must engage the theoretical issue of what we mean by “crowd”; I
will be forced to defend the “crowd-ishness” of some seemingly dubious textual
moments, and I cannot presume to pronounce judgment on the role of “the” crowd at a
particular historical juncture. Yet it is to be hoped that the theoretical discussion will not
be without its own interest and benefit. Adopting the insight of Elias Canetti (discussed in
detail below), who models “crowd” not as a mass modern urban phenomenon but as a
universal characteristic of human and other animal societies, I will in subsequent
Chapters examine the full range of human groupings represented in the texts I survey.
A more recent publication also stands in great contrast to Millar’s, but in a very
different way than does this dissertation. Millar’s is the work of one scholar, written from
a highly traditional, nontheoretical perspective, and investigating a clearly delineated
field of study. Crowds,7 edited by two scholars at the Stanford Humanities Laboratory,
presents the work of more than a score of writers. Its format and methodology are both
far from traditional. The book was accompanied by an art exhibit, and has its own
website.8 The anthology conveys a sense of why crowds are seen by many modern
scholars as “good to think with.”
The main body of the book’s text is devoted to the scholars’ essays, but the
margins are host to personal reminiscences of participation in crowd events (mostly
political protests of 60s/70s vintage),9 as well as brief lexical glosses on crowd
terminology in various languages.10 In the starkest contrast to Millar’s study, the essays
in Crowds are intensely “theoretical,” with constant reference to the modern theory of the
crowd, as well as robustly multidisciplinary in their use of art history, sociology, etc. The
material covers a wide range of topics and time periods, from crowd photography in
fascist Italy,11 to the French concept of “the masses” during and after the Revolution,12 to
the crowds of shoppers at a high-end fashion store.13
Classical material is included, with one essay14 discussing at length Roman
representations of the populus assembled. Yet, in keeping with the overall trend of the
collection, the main concern of even this essay is the modern socio-political valence of
the crowd: the Roman crowd as represented in American film. Most frustratingly for our
purposes, almost all the antiquarian references are to Roman material. The significant
exceptions are three: a brief discussion of the word ὄχλος;15 references to Homeric and
Olympic sports audiences;16 and an observation that “[n]ot a single purely Greek
institution was incorporated into the American or French constitutions of the late
1700s.”17 The point is to contrast the modern systems’ avoidance of Greek “direct
democracy” in favor of Roman “checks and balances;” the argument is prefaced by the
aphorism “Rome is not Greece; and here has lain its virtue.”18
Rome is, indeed, not Greece. The study of the Roman crowd has, as we have seen,
produced some significant works.19 The study of the Greek crowd, however, can truly be
said to be in its infancy,20 and has already faced the danger of being strangled in its crib.
Sergei Karpyuk, using a (for our purposes) overly restrictive definition, has concluded
that there were no “crowds” in pre-Hellenistic Greece. Karpyuk’s article is the only work
of scholarship treating the specific issue of the crowd in ancient Greece, and its negative
conclusion threatens the viability of my project.
Were I to accept Karpyuk’s conclusion, this dissertation would come to an abrupt
halt. To explain why I do not, it will be necessary, after engaging his argument, to
provide a broader survey of the history of crowd theory over the last century and more.
Thus will I attempt to combine the approaches of Millar and the contributors to Crowds:
limiting my inquiry to source material within the bounds of traditional “classics,” but
incorporating a discussion of the theoretical issues involved (and, not incidentally,
drawing on a broader range of source material).
In his article “Crowd in Archaic and Classical Greece,” Karpyuk states his
conclusion starkly: “May we suppose a crowd as a social phenomenon, and crowd
activities to have any importance in Greek political life in pre-Hellenistic period [sic]?
The answer is clear: no.”21 He attributes this alleged lack of crowds to two causes: the
small size22 of ancient Greek poleis, and the nature of Greek city institutions as “a
slightly organized civil crowd.”
The first posited cause – insufficient size – implies that crowds, properly socalled,
occur only in social settings larger than even such a large polis as Athens. Issues
of scale will be addressed later, and are at any rate of little importance here, since
Karpyuk himself identifies his second cause as “the main reason.” Quoted out of context,
this “main reason” seems nonsensical: Greece had no crowds because its institutions were
… crowds? This seeming contradiction can be resolved only with reference to his
proffered definition of “crowd.”
At the beginning of the article, he has adopted a definition of “crowd” as “a group
of persons with common traditions intentionally acting together outside of existing
channels to achieve one or more specifically defined goals.”23 It is the condition that
crowds must act “outside of existing channels” which leads to his second, and “main,”
explanation for the supposed absence of crowds. If a crowd is something that escapes,
erupts from, or boils over existing “channels” in a sort of socio-psychic “flood,” 24 and if
we accept that Greek political institutions were themselves crowd-like in nature, then
there was no need for further crowd actions outside of these institutions.
Already it is clear that one’s answer to the question “Were there crowds in ancient
Greece?” depends entirely on one’s definition of “crowd.” To Karpyuk, a key
requirement is that a crowd be unauthorized, paralegal or illegal: “It is necessary to note
that an unorganized mass gathering was an extremely rare phenomenon for archaic
Greece …”25 This claim comes near the beginning of his survey26 of “alleged cases of
crowd activities in pre-Hellenistic Greece.” A few pages later he writes “I could find no
sure trace [in Athens during the Peloponnesian War] of crowd activities, city riots and so
on.”27 (Already the problems with Karpyuk’s conclusion are evident. If we go beyond his
narrow time constraints, Ober has argued forcefully for a revolution in 508/7.)28
Karpyuk’s stated definition of “crowd,” quoted above, is further restricted near
the end of his introductory section. Discussing the evolution and social significance of the
term ὄχλος in fifth-century Athens, he observes: “[Although] used frequently by the
Greek authors in the meaning of “crowd,” [ὄχλος] can also mean (and did in fact very
often mean) the mob, the low strata of citizens, or non-citizens … i.e., it assumed social
or situational characteristics … [T]here is no word in ancient Greek to designate the
crowd separately from the mob …”29
Here Karpyuk’s flat statement, that “crowd as a social phenomenon” was absent
from Greek life during the period in question, begins to make more sense. An ὄχλος is
not a “true” crowd, because the term carries, or can be made to carry, a negative social
charge, making it more the equivalent of the English word “mob” (or, although Karpyuk
does not use this term, “rabble”). In his model, a “crowd,” properly so defined, cannot be
laden with “social or situational characteristics” beyond those given in his earlier
definition: group action outside existing channels, directed towards a specific goal.
Further semantic loading, e.g. aristocratic disdain for a lower-class group, takes the term
out of the realm of pure “crowd-ness.”
Even earlier than this, Karpyuk has opposed another term, “mass[es],” to his
restricted definition of “crowd.” “[S]ocial historians and classicists … usually substitute
the notion “crowd” for the notion “masses;”30 that is, they use the word “crowd” to
describe a social object which he feels does not merit that label. As an example, he cites
Millar’s work: “Fergus Millar in The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic … regard[s]
“crowd(s)” as a synonym to “the masses” … [p]lac[ing] “the populus Romanus – or the
crowd that represented it – in the center of our picture of the Roman system.””31
Karpyuk does not provide a definition of “masses,” but this reference to Millar
allows us to grasp at least some of what he means by the term.32 He objects to Millar’s
substitution of “crowd” for populus/“mass.” The “masses,” then, are “the people”
imagined as a corporate body, envisioned as separate from their elite leaders, yet most
definitely not as instantiated in a specific gathering or gatherings of some portion thereof.
If a “mob” is not a “crowd” because this is too specific and loaded a term – a group of
members of a certain class – then the “masses” are not, and should not be confused with,
“the crowd” for the opposite reason – “mass” is too general a concept, transcending any
particular assembly of people.33 With both these semantic fields defined out of the
picture, we are left with a narrow field in which to search for the “true” crowd.
Karpyuk, in the very first sentence of the article, proclaims a need to “define [his]
field clearly.” This is followed by citations – quickly replaced by the definition quoted
above – of sociological and psychological definitions of “crowd.”34 Shortly thereafter, he
notes that “[t]he pioneers in studying crowd behavior in historical contexts were the
students of 18th-19th century Europe, such as Gustave Le Bon or George Rude.”35 This
observation comes by way of discussing the nature of the sources used in modern crowd
studies (e.g. police reports), citing the absence of equivalent sources for antiquity as a
possible explanation for the “lack of scholarly interest”36 in Greek crowds. Still, it is
further evidence that Karpyuk is concerned to fit his inquiry into the modern tradition of
the study of crowd behavior. Such is his dilemma: after cataloguing, in the main body of
his essay, a number of crowd-like events in the ancient Greek city, he is forced, due to the
restricted37 model which he chooses to use, to declare these not to involve “real” crowds.
To justify my rejection of Karpyuk’s conclusion that the crowd was a nonexistent
or unimportant phenomenon in archaic and classical Greece, and at the same time to
justify my own method of inquiry in the following chapters, it now becomes necessary to
provide a brief history of the modern theory of the crowd.38 This will place Karpyuk’s
work in its broader intellectual context, revealing that his approach is only one of several
possible ways of thinking about group behavior. In the end, I will adopt the
understanding of crowd – for “definition” would be too restricted a term – found in the
work of Elias Canetti, according to which “crowds” in the modern sense are just one
point on a spectrum of human aggregations.
*
Writing in 1977, Robert A. Nye provides a useful summary of the origins and
chief characteristics of the modern psychological and sociological theory of the crowd:
The intellectual origins of collective psychology are rooted in the
protracted crisis which troubled European liberal political, social and
economic theory from 1848 to 1914. … This crisis … was generally
perceived to be a result of the destruction of the traditional patterns of life
thought to have been characteristic of European society in the preindustrial
age. …
Most writers agreed that crowds or other less physically unified
collectivities experienced a new form of unity that was qualitatively
different from the group considered as a sum of its parts. This collectivity
was described as a being whose influence over the behavior of its
individual members contrasted unfavorably with the liberal ideal of the
rational and conscious human individual. The crowd was non-rational and
was dominated by the ‘unconscious’ and instinctive emotions that were
freed in the general diminution of conscious control that overcame
individuals participating in collective phenomena. Crowds were
accordingly incapable of reflective ratiocination or discrimination, and
ideas ‘suggested’ to them quickly universalized themselves through the
automatic mechanism of ‘imitation’ or ‘mental contagion.’ The leader or
leaders of collectivities were thus of central importance. …
Collective psychology was far from being an observational or
experimental discipline, and reveals behind its ‘scientific’ rhetoric the
anxious efforts of a generation of liberal intellectuals to make conceptual
sense of the world’s most perilous threats to ‘individualism.’…
By defining the problems and strategies of democratic elitism in these
ways, collective psychology lent a certain conceptual bias to elite-mass
theory that later theorists found particularly difficult to avoid.
The heritage that collective psychology bestowed upon elite theory …
consisted of a certain pathologically-imbued concept of the nature of
collectivities in democratizing societies, an authoritarian concept of
leadership that sprang from a hypnotically-conceived leader-crowd
relationship, and the assurance that elites would continue to play an
important role in policy-making despite all appearances to the contrary.
By defining the problems and strategies of democratic elitism in these
ways, collective psychology lent a certain conceptual bias to elite-mass
theory that later theorists found particularly difficult to avoid.39
Nye’s work also serves as a marker for the point of theoretical exhaustion of sociological
discourse on crowd, with its origins in radical theoretical and revolutionary movements
of the early modern period and the elite reactions thereto. By the 1970s, mirroring the
trajectory of politics and ideology in the world at large, theories of group behavior had in
one corner of the academy ascended to the highly theoretical and “post-human” level of
such thinkers as Theweleit and Deleuze and Guattari, while in the field of political theory
proper they had gotten bogged down in a decades- and centuries-old ideological morass.
Nye criticizes this impasse, even as his work to some extent replicates its pathologies.
Just as the political and economic scene saw a (re)turn to the “right-wing” or
“classical” discourse of capitalist individualism following the exhaustion and collapse of
global leftism from the 1970s and especially 1980s, so too would the academic study of
collective action eventually be reborn as an individualist-behavioralist discipline drawing
on economics and game theory. These more recent developments will be surveyed briefly
below, but the story of how matters got to this point must first be related.
Describing the consensus of the past century’s scholarship, Schnapp and Tiews, in
the introduction to their anthology on Crowds, write: “The conviction in question held
that … a quantitative and qualitative difference distinguishes modern crowds from their
premodern counterparts. In some deep and essential sense, crowds are modernity.
Modern times are crowded times.”40
Specifically, both the appearance of the modern crowd, and the initiation of the
discourse on and debate over its nature and worth, are dated to the French Revolution.41
Yet the first generations of this discourse subordinate the crowd to other concerns. The
revolutionary crowd is praised or damned according to the author’s view of the
desirability of revolution. Not until the close of the nineteenth century does the attempt to
study the crowd, per se, begin.42 These latter works will attempt an objective study of the
nature of crowd phenomena in themselves, rather than solely an argument about their
political force. Of course the objectivity of these studies is very open to question, yet it is
with the beginning of this more “scientific” discourse on the crowd that I will begin a
more detailed narrative of the evolution of crowd theory.
Published in 1841, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the
Madness of Crowds is sometimes included in surveys of crowd theory. Yet, despite its
title, the book is not an examination of crowds per se, but rather of “panics” (mostly
financial and political). The real object of study is “public opinion,” with crowds as only
one possible manifestation of disturbances therein. Mackay’s work is indicative of a
rising concern with what will come to be called “mass psychology,” but does not focus
on crowds in the literal sense of aggregations of bodies in space.
The second round of European revolutions, in 1848, brought the role of the crowd
further into the forefront of social and intellectual concern. Yet even the most vociferous
advocates of radical change were not operating with a detailed theoretical model of the
crowds, as crowds, which they hoped to unleash. In The Communist Manifesto,43 the
physical aggregation of workers in factories under capitalism is posited as the dialectical
process through which capital, in its irresistible drive towards consolidation and
efficiencies, unwittingly provides the means of its own overthrow. But no clear
distinction is made between the proletariat as a “class,” on the one hand, and particular
revolutionary “crowds” in action. Since the latter are assumed to emerge inevitably from
the former, and both are putatively inevitable products of the (scientifically intelligible)
progress of history, no sustained attempt is made to understand them in themselves. The
revolutionary discourse, no less than the Burkean reactionary discourse, still keeps the
crowd waiting in the wings, as it were, not yet ready for its own moment in the spotlight.
That moment can be dated, although with some inevitable arbitrariness,44 to 1895,
with publication of Gustave Le Bon’s La Psychologie des foules (whose English
translations have been titled The Crowd). In his introduction to the 1961 Viking Press
edition, Robert K. Merton writes:
The enduring influence of Le Bon’s little book presents us with something
of a riddle. When first published in 1895, it might have been fairly
described as a vogue book, yet there must be something singular about a
vogue that endures for two-thirds of a century.45
He offers this as his own supplement to a quote from Allport’s Handbook of
Social Psychology: “[P]erhaps the most influential book ever written in social psychology
is Le Bon’s The Crowd.” Yet Merton is anything but uncritically reverent:46
[T]he riddle deepens as we consider the character of the book. Probably no
single truth in it has not been stated elsewhere more cogently …[S]ome
conceptions set forth in the book are now known to be misdirected,
misleading, or mistaken. And yet it remains indispensable reading for all
of us who are students of mass behavior.47
Merton later lists Le Bon’s “ideological curiosities:”48 “[R]ecurrent traces of
political conservatism, an unremitting hostility to every aspect of socialism, a distinct
kind of racial imagery, and a picture of woman as weak and acquiescent …”49 Yet he
asserts that “[A]ll these ideas lie only on the surface of the book. Once these are cleared
away as so much ideological debris, Le Bon’s fundamental conceptions of crowd
behavior remain reasonably intact, though incomplete.”
Viewed without charity, Le Bon’s work can indeed seem an expression of mere
reaction, tainted with the racism and elitism of his social position. On the first page of his
Author’s Preface, he introduces the concept of “race” as an essential, hereditary character
of human groups,50 before announcing that “[C]ertain new psychological characteristics
[of the crowd] … are added to the racial characteristics and differ from them at times to a
very considerable degree.”51 Even more troubling, in his Introduction he introduces a
biological metaphor: “In consequence of the purely destructive nature of their power,
crowds act like those microbes which hasten the dissolution of enfeebled or dead bodies.
When the structure of a civilization is rotten, it is always the masses that bring about its
downfall.”52
The political dimension of Le Bon’s project is not reaction but adaptation. He
seeks to assist the mainstream liberal/bourgeois/republican politician in understanding
and controlling the crowd, in an effort to prevent the triumph of the radical/workingclass/
socialist tendency.53 If the rise of the crowd is irreversible, it is the result of a
“profound modification in the ideas of the peoples.”54 Changes in the political system are
the result, not the cause, of the new order, which was established in the realm of ideology
before bearing fruit on the level of institutions.55 The century-long debate, sparked by the
French Revolution, ended in a decisive victory for the proponents of “[t]he entry of the
popular classes into political life … The introduction of universal suffrage … is not, as
might be thought, the distinguishing feature of this transference of political power.”56
Such, then, are the major elements of Le Bon’s worldview that render his views
problematic. Blessed with the benefit of hindsight, we have long since learned to beware
such essentialist and pseudo-scientific models. Yet there is much in Le Bon that
transcends these limitations. He is no simple reactionary. His analysis of the crowd, shot
through with veins of racism and misogyny as it may be,57 is not Burke’s “rhetoric of fear
and disgust.”58 For one thing, by Le Bon’s time it was clear that the crowd’s role in
politics was an established and growing fact, not something that could be argued away.
The old order was gone forever.
The dogmas whose birth we are witnessing will soon have the force of the
old dogmas. … The divine right of the masses is about to replace the
divine right of kings. … Universal symptoms, visible in all nations, show
us the rapid growth of the power of crowds. … Whatever fate it may
reserve for us, we shall have to submit to it. All reasoning against it is a
mere vain war of words.59
Le Bon begins the main body of his treatise by defining what he sees as the
essential quality of a “crowd” (foule):
In its ordinary sense the word “crowd” means a gathering of individuals
… whatever be the chances that have brought them together. From the
psychological point of view the expression “crowd” assumes quite a
different signification … Under certain given circumstances … an
agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from
those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the
persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their
conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed.60
This alleged “collective mind” is “[A]n organized crowd, or … a psychological
crowd. It forms a single being …”61 The essential and peculiar nature of the crowd is that
of a higher unity, a true entity formed of multiple individuals, who in forming a crowd
lose their very individuality. It is no mere abstraction; a crowd exists and acts as a living
thing. The member of a crowd “is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who
has ceased to be guided by his will.”62
To Le Bon, these newly-minted automata are guided by “unconscious”63 or
“reflex”64 motives. Being a member of a crowd shuts off one’s ability to reason, reducing
the collectivity to the lowest common denominator of human motives and abilities.65 This
is true regardless of the intellectual abilities of the individual members themselves: “The
decisions … come to by an assembly of men of distinction … are not sensibly superior to
the decisions that would be adopted by a gathering of imbeciles.”66
The reference to an “assembly” is not casual. Indeed, one great innovation of Le
Bon’s work is that he extends his analysis of collective behavior to include participatory
political institutions: juries, parliaments, and the mass electorate. He criticizes his
predecessors67 for restricting their inquiry to the “criminal” crowd (i.e., riots/“mobs”).
This move is highly significant for the debate, ancient and modern, over the so-called
“radical” democracy of classical Athens. In a sense, Le Bon is updating certain
arguments of Plato and other Greek anti-democrats.68 Perhaps mass psychology, as well
as philosophy, is in some sense a series of “footnotes to Plato?”
Le Bon assigns deliberative assemblies the same traits as other crowds:
suggestibility, irrationality, inconsistency.69 Still, “[t]he suggestibility of parliamentary
assemblies has very clearly defined limits …” These limits are, chiefly, two: the
obligation of representatives to their constituencies,70 and the role of leaders within the
parliament. Indeed, since in Le Bon’s view any crowd is essentially passive, they require
at all times the direction of a leader if they are to work towards any specific goal.71
Early in the work,72 Le Bon identifies two major causes of the crowd’s peculiar
characteristics, one internal to the psyche of the individual crowd member, the other an
inter-psychic process between these members. The first is “a sentiment of invincible
power, which allows him to yield to [repressed] instincts which, had he been alone, he
would perforce have kept under restraint … the sentiment of responsibility which always
controls individuals disappears entirely.” This points directly at the most basic descriptive
feature of a crowd: its multiplicity. “Power in numbers,” the proverbial phrase, is like an
intoxicant, temporarily transforming each member of a crowd into a superhuman
dynamo.
Le Bon calls the second cause of a crowd’s crowd-ness “contagion.” This is the
link established between members of the crowd, as opposed to the aggrandizement of self
within each member, and it is ill-defined. “Contagion is a phenomenon of which it is easy
to establish the presence, but that it is not easy to explain. It must be classed among those
phenomena of a hypnotic order … In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious …”
This is obviously a restatement of his initial definition of a crowd as a “collective mind.”
Contagion is then re-cast as an effect of a third cause, “suggestibility,” which is likened
to hypnotism. Here Le Bon is playing a sort of shell game, passing from one synonymous
label to another, with no real success in defining why members of crowds experience this
unifying link with the other members.
I have described Le Bon’s contribution at such length because it sets the
parameters for much of the next generation’s, even the next century’s, discourse on
collective psychology. For as Nye notes: “[M]ost subsequent commentators … were
obliged to absorb or refute him; they could not ignore him.”73 And it is the dual nature of
the crowd – a collection of individuals, who are somehow linked to form a collectivity
treated as an entity – which poses the major problem.74 It is on the attempt to explain this
link that Le Bon’s most prominent successor and critic focuses his attention.
Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego has been called “fairly
isolated in his larger work,”75 for asking the question “What are the emotional bonds that
hold collective entities … together?” As the work’s title suggests, the solution to the
riddle of the crowd is sought in the internal workings of the individual psyche. Yet right
at the start of this short76 treatise, Freud blurs the distinction between group and
individual psychology.77 Having thus incorporated the problem of mass behavior into his
larger project, he then seeks to solve the problem posed by Le Bon in the terms of his
own psychological model.78
Freud’s work occupies a problematic space in intellectual history. As one of the
three titanic figures credited with revolutionizing modern thought (along with Marx and
Einstein),79 his influence is in some sense inescapable; yet succeeding generations have
rejected many of his conclusions and questioned his underlying biases.80 In the field of
mass psychology specifically, his “leader model” is particularly problematic – yet it was
this understanding of group dynamics that structured much of the mid-century discourse
on fascism and totalitarianism.
A substantial portion81 of Merton’s introduction to Le Bon concerns itself with
Freud’s reception of his predecessor. As Merton notes, the first chapter of Freud’s work,
comprising almost a sixth of the total length, consists entirely of quotes from, glosses on,
and critiques of Le Bon’s The Crowd. Freud casts Le Bon as a “problem-finder,” and
himself as “problem-solver.”82 The chief critique is of Le Bon’s notion of “contagion;”
Freud notes that “suggestion” is more a synonym than an explanation for this
phenomenon.83
Freud “us[es] the concept of libido for the purpose of throwing light upon group
psychology.”84 In a characteristic move,85 the object of study – here, the “collective
mind” identified by Le Bon as the fundamental characteristic of a crowd – is translated
into the Freudian model of the psyche. The external link between members of a crowd,
Freud asserts, is a secondary effect of the internal structuring of each member’s mind.
“[T]he mutual tie between members of a group is in the nature of an identification … and
we may suspect that this common [identification] lies in the nature of the tie with the
leader.

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