A Meditation on Crowds

The just-completed American presidential campaigns, the election, and the inauguration together have taught us a lesson about crowds. Our electronically mediated presidential campaigns thrive on crowds and on the social phenomena that attend them: one might list unified cheering, rhythmic repetition of slogans, emotive activations of the body, swooning, flag-waving, and an eagerness to respond, in “Simon-says” style, to broad cues from a designated leader. Our political spectacles differ hardly at all in their outward appearance from our sportive entertainments. Another word for a crowd is a mob, a mass of people mobilized in unanimity and thus demoting itself freely and spontaneously from the status of the responsible individual to that of a collective instrument of agitation or coercion – and for a purpose more than likely not its own. Crowds are mobile, but they are also motile, that is to say, fickle. The crowd that shouts “Ave Rabbi!” will swiftly transform itself into the crowd that shouts, “Crucifigatur!

Both Guy LeFort and René Girard identify the crowd with primitive religiosity and things sacred. As Girard points out inveterately, the sacred is related to sacrifice. As the crowd militates against individuality, it militates against conscience; but it also militates against clear perception and straight thinking. Crowds subsume the individual and they foster delusion – projective delusion. Crowds hallucinate visions of deity and enmity at the same time; moved in a panic fashion, they reify their movement in the figure of an agency that drives them, and that, in its power, seems to transcend them in the hierarchy of being. In the same moment as they feel driven, crowds also yearn to see revealed an object of their compulsion, for any movement must have a goal as well as a cause. Thus crowds seek a malefactor, an irritant whose pranks or transgressions justify the violent lust that comes from a clash of elbows within the throng. As Girard as made explicit, in this manner the victim is born. The etiquette of “Hail Rabbi!” is inseparable from the demand to “Crucify him!

One of the earliest analyses of crowd-behavior is the Euripidean drama The Bacchae, about the return of the god Dionysus to his birthplace of Thebes. Girard has called Dionysus “le dieu du Lynchage,” or “the God of Lynching.” In the Bacchic myth, no appearance of the god goes without the designation and sacrifice of at least one supposed malefactor. In The Bacchae, it is King Pentheus, whose “crime” is nothing less than to disapprove of the failure of lawfulness in the city that he rules. This same lawlessness arises from the deliberate provocations of the vengeful god, who, quite as Girard claims, is simply the embodiment of free-floating ire and resentment, which seeks discharge in any community. The more he opposes the chaos in his state, the more the agents of chaos hate their critic, until finally Dionysus arranges for the crazed women of the city to rip Pentheus limb from limb, led in the orgy by the king’s own mother. It is a short step from the implied criticisms of Euripides to the explicit criticisms of the Old Testament prophets, whose reiterated theme is the wickedness of crowds, of sacrifices, and of mindless collective agitation.

In a remarkable scene in Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, an aggregation of Russian soldiers, retreating from the Germans and Austrians in the military debacle of 1917, has gathered inchoately at a railway junction. Czarist officers present among them try to provoke them back into discipline and to revive their unit-loyalty. Communist agitators also move among these men, appealing to their humiliation and inciting them to resentment against a regime said to have betrayed them. One loyalist officer, standing on an improvised podium in the form of a pickle barrel, has managed to attract of nucleus of attention and even seems to have made some rhetorical headway in returning the prevalent démorale to a semblance of discipline. Just at that moment, the lid of the pickle barrel cracks and the officer falls into the brine. This contingent event, meaningless in reference to any argument, nevertheless jolts the milling soldiery into sudden oneness on the side of the revolutionary orators. What is the reason? In splashing into the brine, the officer suddenly looks like a buffoon, a literal “fall guy,” who becomes the instant object of a tendency to crude derision that one can identify as an element of human nature. Had the officer succeeded, the men would have rejoined in ranks, assuming an actual structure with a hierarchical principle. In the officer’s failure, the shoal of stragglers, previously diffuse, assembles into the simple, unanimous, seething mass waiting to be led. Since loyal officialdom now seems clownish and a fit object of spite, the revolutionaries now seem providentially, and by contrast, to be the legitimate leaders.

One might trace a literary history of the crowd as a theme. In his Odyssey, Homer represents a crowd par excellence in the suitors who squat in Odysseus’ palace in the latter years of his absence and vie for the hand of the absent lord’s presumed widow; meanwhile they consume flesh and wine from larders not their own that they have no intention of replenishing. Antinous, whose name means “The Unreasonable,” serves as the suitors’ spokesman and never utters a word without at least implying a threat. Odysseus’ son Telemachus recognizes the danger inherent in any mob and makes a speech to assembly in which he says, in a few concise phrases, that the throng currently eating him out of house and home will soon turn its appetite on other houses.

As my philosopher friend Richard Cocks reminded me over lunch not long ago, there is a passage in Plato’s Republic (we think it’s in The Republic) where Socrates remarks on the compulsory character of theatrical performances: how when the moment of catharsis comes in the tragedy, the spectator fuses with all the other spectators in attending, whether he wills it or not, to the riveting scene. The passage belongs to Plato’s much-misunderstood suspicion of bardic recitation and of drama as collective ritual. It also belongs to Plato’s skepticism about democracy, as a form of dictatorship. The audience’s compulsory unanimity at the moment of catharsis resembles the unanimity worked up by clever orators in the civic assembly, often aimed at the demotion or punishment of ethical individuals who stand for conscience against wicked schemes. Crowds yearn for victims. There is Pasternak’s officer who drowns in the pickle barrel and there is Socrates, condemned in the assembly by scheming demagogues who embody the corruption of the Athenian polity in the troubled aftermath of the Peloponnesian wars.

In one of his Letters, the Stoic philosopher Seneca records how one day in the noon hour he found himself walking in a metropolitan quarter devoted to entertainments and pastimes. Seneca emphasizes his lonely status on the occasion, his feeling of detachment from society. Not a frequenter of theaters or arenas, he felt a sudden curiosity about goings-on in one such nearby establishment. Inside he found a gladiatorial show in progress. One man fell wounded, just as Seneca took his seat. As the stricken gladiator collapsed to the sand and his vanquisher stood over him, the hitherto listless clientele sprang to life, letting out a roar with one voice demanding a lethal finale. Seneca mentions with embarrassment how he felt himself swept up in the ruddy emotion and how he then guiltily snuck away from the premises.

In an echo of Plato’s suspicion about theatrics and of Seneca’s guilty report of witnessing a brutal entertainment, Augustine, in his Confessions, tells the story of his friend Alypius, who like the autobiographer had made a journey from pagan dissolution to Christian conversion. In his prior life Alypius, like Augustine, had led a libertine existence and, in particular, was an aficionado of gladiatorial spectacle. He had recognized the indignity of his obsession and was striving mightily to wean himself from his propensity. One afternoon Alypius met old friends on their way to the arena – the story takes place in Milan – who persuaded him against his better notion to accompany them. Feeling intensely culpable as he sat in the tiers, Alypius shut his eyes and tried not to look. As Augustine says, however, when Alypius heard the shout, he could no longer resist. Relinquishing his conscience he fused with the crowd and felt the old shameful thrill.

Might one draw a principle from these wayward references and somewhat loose musings? No matter how well behaved, as at one of the carefully staged presidential rallies of the 2008 campaigns, a crowd always at least portends something atavistic, some swift recursion from civic courtesy – an institution that required struggling centuries to achieve and is maybe not yet perfected – into thoughtless, purely appetitive behaviors. Some events one cannot imagine in conjunction with a crowd. The intense debates of the Founders that yielded the Constitution provide an example. The Symposia recorded in Plato’s dialogues are likewise exemplary. Other events one cannot imagine except in conjunction with a crowd or crowds. I have been wrestling recently with Le livre noir de la revolution française (“The Black Book of the French Revolution”), whose 800 pages saw publication earlier this year in Paris, in which the words foule (“crowd”) and émeute (“riot”) appear in proximity with one another on almost every page.

A CNSNews.com article on last Tuesday’s festivities in Washington DC quotes participants in that event on their emotional responses to the occasion. The reporter opens with this comment: “President Barack Obama is similar to the Biblical character of Joshua and Martin Luther King Jr. was like Moses, boxing promoter Don King told CNSNews.com on Tuesday.” The article quotes actor Denzel Washington’s mother as saying: “The apostle Paul, Moses, John the Baptist – [Obama is] any one of them. Seriously, he is like one of those apostles for our day. He came to lead us to the original design of what we are supposed to do on this earth.” Washington himself disputes such sacred identifications, but his reasoning hardly reassures an astute observer: “As Mr. Obama has said, it’s not about him. It’s about us. It’s about what we do collectively.” The article also quotes musician Smokey Robinson as calling Obama “a world leader who brought people together.” The past tense seems rather odd in the context, except that there is something inexorably sacrificial about democracy and elections.

Such sentiments as Washington’s, no doubt widely shared, go in tandem with a desire to identify and punish villains.  A Fox News report ascribes to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi the disposition of being “receptive to the idea of prosecuting some Bush administration officials, while letting others who are accused of misdeeds.” Metaphysically speaking, all politicians probably deserve prosecution. The nastiness of Pelosi’s opinion lies exactly in its partisan character. As William F. Buckley once wrote, no movement is so incapable of living with dissent as liberalism.

For a decade at least the mantra of “bipartisanship” has been the ill-defined and destructive ideal of American politics, which meanwhile has become increasingly divided and rancorous. Do we not discern in the compromise inherent in “bipartisanship” the surrender of conscience that marks the vitality of a mob? The contestants smile through clenched teeth and elbow one another while the juggernaut that they together constitute rolls on according to its own dumb needs. Phrases like “the original design of what we are supposed to do on earth” or “it’s about what we do collectively” take on a grim cast in light of crowd-theory, as articulated not only by LeFort and Girard, but also by James G. Frazer in The Golden Bough and the critics of Twentieth Century socialism like Oswald Spengler and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  

Our notion of the sanctity of the individual – as of the individual’s inalienable rights, as of conscience – must be connected in some deep way with a reasoned suspicion of the mob.

From A Friend


Your dissertations, readable and enjoyable as they are, are a waste of providential talent. Certainly, you are keenly adept at dissection, and historical linkages, in all manner of things. I believe you to be Conservative, as opposed to being a Conservative, such being the question that nags at the fibrous soul.

I, for one, would love to read your commentary on current socio-political issues. Voices raised, do not make vices being heard. Yours is one such voice the world requires to better understand the swirling maelstrom surrounding not just American, but world problems as well.

I shall await your decision to accomodate the thirsty travellers, crossing the deserts of their time.