Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/August 1895/The Work of Ideas in Human Evolution

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THE study of the different civilizations that have succeeded one another since the origin of the world proves that they have always been guided in their development by a very small number of fundamental ideas. If the history of peoples should be reduced to the story of their ideas, it would not be very long. We have shown in a previous essay that the evolution of a people is chiefly derived from its mental constitution. We found then that while the hereditary sentiments, the aggregation of which constitutes character, have great fixedness, they can nevertheless be transformed slowly under the influence of various factors. Among the most operative of these factors are ideas. But, for ideas to have influence, they must have progressively come down from the mobile regions of the conscious into the stable and unconscious regions of the feelings, where our thoughts and the motives of our actions are elaborated. They then form as it were a part of the character and act effectively on the conduct. When ideas have undergone this modification, and are fixed in the unconscious, their power over the mind is absolute. They cease then to be influenced by the reason. The convert who is dominated by a religious idea or by any belief is inaccessible to all arguments, however intelligent we may suppose him to be.

Governing ideas, formed as we have described, become established and disestablished very slowly. If it were otherwise, civilizations would have no stability. But if ideas, once established, could not be gradually transformed, and finally disappear, peoples would achieve no progress. In consequence of the slowness of our mental transformations, many human ages are required for the triumph of a new idea, and several ages more for its elimination. The most civilized peoples are those whose directing ideas have been maintained at an even distance from variability and fixity. History is strewn with the wrecks of those who have not been able to maintain this equilibrium.

The reader of history is struck with the paucity of the ideas of peoples, the slowness with which they are modified, and the power they exercise. Civilizations are the resultants of certain ideas, and when these ideas are changed, the civilization is inevitably transformed with them. The middle ages lived on two fundamental ideas—the religious and the feudal. From them issued all the arts of the period, its literature, and its whole conception of life. At the Renascence these ideas underwent a slight modification: an ideal recovered from the ancient Greek and Latin world imposed itself on Europe, and transformation of the conception of life, of the arts, philosophy, and literature at once set in. The authority of tradition was shaken, scientific truths began gradually to take the place of revealed truths, and civilization entered upon a new phase. To-day the old religious ideas have lost the greater part of their empire, and for that reason alone all the social institutions that rested upon them are threatened with dissolution.

Regarding ideas according to the importance of their working rather than to their worth, we may divide them into two classes. First are the great general directing and permanent ideas on which an entire civilization rests—the feudal and religious ideas of the middle ages, for example, and certain political conceptions of modern times; and, secondly, transient and changing ideas derived, to a certain extent perhaps, from the general ideas which arise and pass away in every age. Among these are the theories which guide art and literature at certain periods, such as those which have produced romanticism, naturalism, mysticism, etc. They are usually as superficial as the fashion, and change like it. They may be compared to the minor waves that are continually rising and vanishing on the surface of a river, while the fundamental ideas may be compared to the deep current that bears away the waters of the same river. Of the various transient ideas that arise in the course of ages, a few become in time fundamental directing ideas, but this is the result of rare combinations of special conditions.

It is as impossible to name the real creator of a great idea as to point out the author of a great invention. When an idea reaches the light and becomes capable of exercising influence, it is, like one of the great inventions, the sum of numerous anterior minor ideas. It has been subjected to long elaboration and numerous transformations. The originators of the idea are therefore far anterior to its propagators. The brains which conceived it live in regions inaccessible to the multitude. The results of their thought may exercise a considerable influence in the world, but they will not see it. If they were privileged to witness its development, they would not be likely to recognize the fruit of their meditations. From the intellectual heights whence the idea usually is derived, it comes down step by step, undergoing continual changes and modifications, till it takes on a shape accessible to the popular mind, when its triumph is assured. It then presents itself concentrated into a very small number of words, perhaps into only one, but that word evokes striking images, and consequently always impressive, whether they be seductive or terrible. Such were paradise and hell in the middle ages, short words that have the power of answering for everything, and to simple minds explaining everything. The word socialism represents to the modern workman one of these magical and synthetic formulas capable of ruling the mind.

We may discuss the value of an idea from a philosophical point of view; but from the point of view of its influence such discussion is without interest. The thing to be determined is not its value, but the action it exerts upon minds. In scientific affairs, the idea may have in itself a value independent of the time when it originated, and may preserve it beyond that time. In questions of institutions, creeds, morals, and government, the idea never having any but a relative value, its success depends primarily on the enthusiasm it inspires, and secondarily on the race and epoch in which it originated. Christianity could never have propagated itself till a particular epoch and among particular peoples. When the idea represented by the word Cæsarism dawned upon the Roman world, it had become necessary, because it survived its creator and every one of the persons who took his place, notwithstanding most of them died violent deaths. Two or three centuries earlier every effort to carry out such an idea would have miscarried. In this age representative governments, which are strongly rooted among some of the peoples of Europe, could not subsist among others.

The absolute truth of an idea is not, therefore, the thing to be considered. The value of an idea is measured by its success, its utility, or its danger, and these elements depend upon circumstances, media, and races. Only experience can demonstrate whether an idea is opportune. The notion of national unity, which is fundamental in modern politics, is very old, for Charlemagne tried to put it in operation. It could not be carried into the domain of facts, and the work of the great man perished with him. The idea of absolute religious submission to a representative of divinity, residing in the capital of Christianity, was for a long time an excellent one, but there came a time when, in the face of the advance of knowledge, it was no longer acceptable, and Philip II exhausted the force of his genius and the might of Spain, then predominant, in vain contentions with the spirit of free inquiry, which was then prevailing in Europe under the name of the Reformation.

The power of ideas, once fixed in the mind, is so great that no person is able to arrest their progress. Their evolutions must then inevitably be carried out, and all their consequences suffered. Most frequently, as with the socialists of the present time, their defenders are the ones marked to become their first victims. They are no better than sheep which docilely follow their leader to the slaughterhouse. We have to bow to the power of the idea. When it has reached a certain period of its evolution, no reasoning or demonstration can prevail against it. Centuries or violent revolutions—sometimes both—are required to free peoples from the yoke of a dominant idea.

Ideas are propagated in the minds of the multitude chiefly through affirmation, repetition, prestige, contagion, and faith. Reason does not conie within the enumeration, its influence in the matter being substantially null.

Affirmation, pure and simple, without reasoning and without proof, is one of the surest means of planting an idea in the popular mind. The more concise it is, the more free from every appearance of proofs and demonstration, the more authority it has. The religious books and the codes of all ages have always proceeded by simple affirmation. Statesmen called upon to defend any political cause and manufacturers advertising their goods know what it is worth. Yet it has no real influence, except it is constantly repeated, and, so far as possible, in the same terms. Napoleon said that repetition was the only serious figure in rhetoric. By repetition an affirmation is incrusted in the minds of hearers till they at last accept it as a demonstrated truth. What is called the current of opinion is formed, and then the potent mechanism of contagion comes in. Ideas that have reached a certain stage, in fact, possess a contagious power as intense as that of microbes. Not fear and courage only are contagious; ideas are, too, on condition that they are repeated often enough.

When the mechanism of contagion has begun to work, the idea enters upon the phase that leads to success. Opinion, which repelled it at first, ends by tolerating and then accepting it. The idea henceforward gains a penetrating and subtle force which sends it onward, while at the same time creating a sort of special atmosphere, a general way of thinking. Like the fine road dust which penetrates everywhere, the idea becomes general, and insinuates itself into all the conceptions and all the productions of an epoch. It then forms a part of that compact stock of hereditary commonplaces, of ready-made judgments, which are registered in books and imposed upon us by education. The final factor that gives the idea thus developed and spread its immense power is that mysterious force it acquires called prestige. Everything that rules in the world, whether of ideas or men, imposes itself principally through the irresistible force expressed by this word. It is a term which, while we comprehend the full meaning of it, is applied in too various fashions to be easily defined. Prestige comports with such feelings as admiration or fear, and is sometimes even based upon them, but it can easily exist without them. There are dead persons, and consequently beings we need not fear, like Alexander, Cæsar, Buddha, and Mohammed, who possess the highest degree of prestige; and there are other beings or fictions which we do not admire at all—like the monstrous divinities of the subterranean temples of India—which appear to us invested with it.

Prestige is a kind of domination exercised over our minds which paralyzes all our critical faculties and fills our hearts with astonishment and respect. The feeling provoked by it is, like all our feelings, inexplicable, but it is probably of similar order to the fascination experienced by a magnetized subject. It is the strongest moving spring of all domination. The gods, kings, and women would never have reigned without it. Many factors enter into its genesis, of which one of the most important is always success. Every man who succeeds, every idea which prevails, cease by that fact to be disputed; and when success ceases, prestige vanishes with it. The hero applauded by the multitude in the evening is spat upon in the morning if his fortune has failed him; and the reaction is quicker in proportion as the prestige has been more brilliant. Prestige likewise tends to disappear under the light of discussion. One must hold the multitude at a distance to keep their respect.

The details of the psychology of prestige may be studied by setting them at the end of a series that descends from the founders of religions and empires to the particular person who is trying to astonish his neighbors with a new coat or a decoration. Between the extreme terms of such a series we should place all the forms of prestige in the various elements of a civilization in the sciences, arts, literature, etc.—when we shall see that it constitutes the fundamental element of persuasion. Whether consciously or not, the being, the idea, or the thing possessing prestige is imitated at once, and imposes on a whole generation certain ways of thinking and of expressing thought. The four fifths of modern painters who reproduce the faded colors and stiff attitudes of the primitive school hardly suspect that they are imitators. They believe they are sincere; yet if an eminent master had not revived this form of art, they would still have seen in it only the childish side. Those who, at the instance of another illustrious master, flood their canvases with violet shades, do not see any more violet in Nature than was seen fifty years ago, but they have been infected with the personal and special impression of a painter who, in spite of this eccentricity, was able to gain great prestige. Similar examples might be found in all the elements of civilization.

Thus, through repetition, contagion, and prestige, men of each age come to possess a fund of ideas of an average sort which render them like one another, and to such a point that when centuries have accumulated over them, we recognize, by their artistic, scientific, philosophical, and literary productions, the age in which they lived. It is true that we can not say that they absolutely copied one another, but that they had in common modes of feeling and thinking conducive to productions strongly affiliated with, one another. We have reason to felicitate ourselves that this is so, for it is precisely this interweaving of identical traditions, ideas, feelings, creeds, and ways of thinking that constitutes the spirit of a people. That spirit is stable in proportion as the texture is solid.

So far as we have as yet studied the imposition of the idea, we have found it existing only in the upper ranks of the nation. For it to descend to the lowest strata and be spread among them in such a way as really to influence the mob, the intervention is required of that sort of believers in it whose faith is so intense as to impel them to propagate it—apostles. Men of this kind are usually converts so fascinated by the new idea that everything else vanishes from their thoughts. They are recruited chiefly from among those nervous, excitable persons who live on the borders of madness. However absurd may be the idea they defend and the end they are pursuing, all reasoning is blunt against their conviction. Despite and persecutions do not touch them, but only excite them all the more. They sacrifice personal interest and family, and so annul the instinct of self-preservation as to seek martyrdom as their only recompense. The intensity of their zeal gives their words a great suggestive force. The multitude is always ready to listen to any strong-willed man who may impose himself upon it. Men in a throng lose all their will, and turn instinctively to one who has any. An assembly of men is capable of acting only when it has a leader at its head.

The peoples have never had any lack of such leaders; but it is not necessary that they should all be actuated by the strong convictions that make apostles. They are more frequently subtle rhetoricians seeking personal interests alone, and trying to persuade by flattering base instincts. The influence they thus exert is usually very ephemeral. The great fanatics who have raised the spirits of mobs—Peter the Hermit, Luther, and Savanarola—did not exercise their peculiar fascination till they had themselves been fascinated by some belief. They could then create in souls that formidable power called faith, a still very mysterious force of which psychology afforded no explanation till it turned its investigations upon hypnotic phenomena, studied the unconscious transformation and combination of ideas into images and sensations, the doubling of the self, the coexistence of several personalities in the same individual, dying sensations, etc. Persons possessed by their faith may be compared to hypnotic subjects. They are, as it were, absolute slaves of their dream.

Whatever may be the real nature of faith, its power can not be contested. There is profound reason for the gospel affirmation that it can move mountains. The great events of history have been brought about by obscure fanatics armed with nothing but their faith. The great religions which have governed the world and the vast empires that have extended from one hemisphere to the other were not built up by men of letters, of science, or by philosophers. The creed on which the civilization under which we live was founded was first spread by obscure fishermen of a Galilean market town. Shepherds from the Arabian deserts, whose contemporaries hardly knew of their existence, were the men who subjected a part of the Greco-Roman world to the dogmas of Mohammed, and founded one of the vastest empires known in history.

A strong conviction is so irresistible that only an equal conviction has any chance of struggling victoriously against it. Faith has no enemy to be really afraid of except faith. It is sure of triumph when the material force opposed to it is the servant of weak emotions and of weak belief. But if it is brought to face a faith of the same intensity, the contest becomes very active, and success is then determined by accessory circumstances usually also of a moral order, such as the spirit of discipline and better organization. In studying the history of the Arabians, to whom we have just alluded, we find that in their first conquests, which are the most difficult and the most important, they met morally weak adversaries. They first bore their arms into Syria. They found nothing more formidable than Byzantine armies composed of mercenaries with little disposition to sacrifice themselves for any cause. Inspired by an intense faith that multiplied their forces by ten, they dispersed these armies without ideas as in ancient days a little handful of Greeks sustained by love for their city scattered the innumerable hosts of Xerxes. Numerous examples in history stand in proof that when equally powerful moral forces meet, the best organized always carry the day.

In religion, as in politics, success always goes to believers, never to skeptics; and if the future threatens to belong to the socialists notwithstanding the annoying absurdity of their doctrines, it is because they are to-day the only persons who are really convinced. The modern directing classes have lost faith in everything. They do not believe in anything, not even in the possibility of defending themselves against the dangerous flood of barbarians all around them.

When, after a longer or shorter period of trials, transformations, discussion, and propaganda, an idea has acquired a definite form and has penetrated the spirit of the multitude, it constitutes a dogma, or one of those absolute verities which are not subject to discussion. It then forms a part of those general beliefs on which the existence of societies reposes. Its great characteristic is its immunity from discussion. When a new dogma is thus implanted in a people, it becomes the inspiration of its institutions, arts, and conduct. Its empire over the minds of the people is absolute. Men of action think of nothing else than of carrying it out and applying it; and philosophers, artists, and literary men occupy themselves with presenting it in various forms. Transient accessory ideas may arise from the fundamental idea, always bearing the impress of the one from which they issued. Egyptian civilization, European civilization in the middle ages, and the Mussulman civilization of the Arabs, were all derived from a very small number of religious ideas that put their mark on the most minute elements of those civilizations, and made them distinguishable at once.

In fact, the men of every age are surrounded by a network of traditions, customs, and opinions, created by their ideas, from the yoke of which they can not subtract themselves, and which make them very like one another. Men are more than anything else led, with a despotism which no tyrant ever exercised, by custom and opinion, which regulate the slightest actions of our existence, and from which the most independent man never thinks of extricating himself. Asiatic sovereigns are often represented as despots guided only by their fancies. These fancies are really confined within singularly narrow limits. The network of traditions and the yoke of opinions are especially strong in the East. Religious traditions, which have been loosened with us, retain all their empire there. The most self-sufficient despot would never strike at these two masters, which he knows are infinitely more powerful than he.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

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