Revisited: Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

I’m re-reading Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, an 1841 compendium of suggestibility. Mackay, in his wry, amused way, wonderfully describes mob behavior through the ages, from the persecution of alleged witches to the insanity of inflated markets, from various end-time follies to the ever-popular search for eternal youth.

I could quote from his book all day long. It’s surprisingly droll and accessible for being 170 years old, and also surprisingly relevant, as it essentially offers a taxonomy of human sheep, of which we surely have no shortage today.

Take this passage: It’s about an outbreak of infectious disease in 1630s Italy, a pestilence that, of course, had to be the work of the devil, or of filthy foreigners, or both.

Prayers were offered up in all the churches, that the machinations of the Evil One might be defeated. Many persons were of opinion that the emissaries of foreign powers were employed to spread infectious poison over the city; but by far the greater number were convinced that the powers of hell had conspired against them, and that the infection was spread by supernatural agencies. … Every thing was believed to have been poisoned by the Devil; the waters of the wells, the standing corn in the fields, and the fruit upon the trees. It was believed that all objects of touch were poisoned; the walls of the houses, the pavements of the streets, and the very handles of the doors. The populace were raised to a pitch of ungovernable fury. A strict watch was kept for the Devil’s emissaries, and any man who wanted to be rid of an enemy, had only to say that he had seen him besmearing a door with ointment; his fate was certain death at the hands of the mob.

An old man, upwards of eighty years of age, a daily frequenter of the church of St. Antonio, was seen, on rising from his knees, to wipe with the skirt of his cloak the stool on which he was about to sit down. A cry was raised immediately that he was besmearing the seat with poison. A mob of women, by whom the church was crowded, seized hold of the feeble old man, and dragged him out by the hair of his head, with horrid oaths and imprecations. He was trailed in this manner through the mire to the house of the municipal judge, that he might be put to the rack, and forced to discover his accomplices; but he expired on the way.

It’s interesting to imagine what Mackay would make of today’s mass-psychological excesses — say, of the throngs of rabid Muslims seized by a perennial frenzy over cartoons and YouTube videos; or of the American climate of outsized fear that springs from a belief that our domestic safety is under constant mortal threat by them, “necessitating” trillions of dollars in military and DHS spending.

The book is still in print, in various editions no less, and easy to obtain online — for a song. You can even download it for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Fill a long winter’s night with Mackay’s tales of never-ending mass silliness and disastrous gullibility. But remember: it’s a cautionary tale, not a manual.

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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One Comment

  1. Posted February 2, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Great book. I’ve never read the whole thing, but the parts I read were amazing.