The madness of crowds

Review of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay.

We are living through some very silly times right now. From 2013, the Woke movement swept up many and in 2020, what little sanity we had left went out the window.

That’s normal.

Writing in 1841, long before many well-known bouts of hysteria, Charles looks further back into history and sees a pattern in our madness.

The most fascinating aspect of these accounts is how familiar they are. Forget smartphones and social media; we’ve always been like this.

Charles begins with three instances of financial bubbles – the Mississippi Scheme, the South Sea Bubble, and who could forget Tulipomania.

The reader who recalls the 2008 housing crash or the 2001 tech wreck will already have a strong understanding of the euphoria and greed leading up to these moments. Then as in our own century, those who managed to get out in time made profits while most of the money disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Then as now, sensible people would hold back for a long time before finally getting caught up in the madness and investing at the worst possible time. So long as they cashed out, the ones who went mad first, went mad best.

Like Dogecoin.

Charles goes on to stick the boot into various superstitions, with chapters on Catholic relics, fortune tellers, duels, trials by ordeal (which were once taken very seriously and considered the final word on any matter), haunted houses and so on. He writes exactly as you’d expect of a Victorian Protestant, snarking at the Papists wherever he spots an opportunity while assuming that his own creed is the apogee of reason and advanced civilisation.

However, when he gets to the long chapter about the witch hunts, Charles briefly admits that the Protestants were just as bad and then rushes past the topic as fast as he can.

I thought about skipping this chapter because I already knew a lot about it, but after skimming a few pages I was sucked in and read the rest. I’d forgotten how organised it was, with Witch-hunter Generals travelling from town to town in order to identify and burn the wicked. I’d also forgotten the support from kings and churches; how mainstream it was.

There’s that Finnish fellow who claims it was really a Karen-hunt in order to eliminate antisocial elements so communities could cooperate sufficiently to survive harsh winters. Certainly there are real ‘witches’ in every village. You probably know a few. They don’t literally curse livestock but they are poisonous enough without any magic.

However, I suspect that village Karens were more likely to be accusers than accused. After all, they’re the ones filming maskless kids playing in the park.

Though I’ve read much about it, the witch hunts remain one of the greatest historical enigmas to me. The oddest thing is that they went on for two centuries then faded out as rapidly and mysteriously as they faded in. I’ve heard every biological, theological, cultural and psychological theory about the causes and I keep coming to the same, unsatisfying conclusion: people go nuts sometimes.

I have mixed feelings about the chapter on the Crusades, another area where I already knew quite a lot. I learned more about the mania that led to ordinary people downing tools and walking towards the Holy Land in suicidal quests ahead of the main, military expeditions. They usually stirred up trouble passing through Hungary and got slaughtered by locals.

On the other hand, mania can be advantageous. Many cases go something like this: the Crusaders are holed up in an oriental city, starving, diseased and hopelessly outnumbered. They decide to make one last stand to fight their way out. Someone yells that a funny-shaped cloud is the angels coming to save them. The mania spreads through the Christian host, the sick and starving few begin fighting in a devout frenzy and the bewildered Saracens flee.

If that’s madness, we need it on occasion. I guess it’s hard for a Victorian Protestant to admit that, especially after his bit about the relics.

Charles also has chapters on miscellaneous social delusions. One discusses how people tend to see criminals as folk heroes, a trend that continues to this day. Another chapter discusses how people are very willing to believe marvelous absurdities but slow to accept newly discovered facts that are true:

Keppler, when he asserted [Galileo’s theory], could gain no bread, and little credence; but when he pretended to tell fortunes and cast nativities, the whole town flocked to him, and paid him enormous fees for his falsehood.

Charles also mentions that poor people refused to believe that the smallpox vaccine would work and dreaded that it would turn their children into cows.

Most of the book deals with Western delusions but one chapter deals with the weird Thuggee murder cult. I’d previously thought this was a militant independence movement demonised by the British authorities and that Indiana Jones film, but apparently they were real. No lava and pulling out beating hearts but plenty of strangling travelers on the road.

Summing up, here’s an oft-quoted sentence:

Men . . . go made in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

Charles explains these phenomenon as a contagion, with each afflicted person socially infecting others. This is a description which holds up well today and we now have the term ‘social infection’, which is sometimes used to explain suicide clusters, transgender manias, and should probably be used to explain quite a lot more.

‘Social infection.’ Start using it. The term, that is.

Charles has less to say about why these things occur, but his snarks at Catholics and lower classes suggests that he thinks ignorance is primarily to blame. Surely an educated, middle-class Protestant Englishman wouldn’t fall for such nonsense? But then, a few cases he points out do include such proto-WASPS, which is perhaps why he only hints at the explanation rather than argues it outright.

Charles does not attempt a general theory to explain what ends a mania. Each case is different. The witch hunts seemed to go out of fashion of their own accord, with the upper classes the first to lose interest. The crusades were doomed by depleted energy – you can’t keep up a frenzy forever, plus kings were getting sick of funding it. Financial bubbles can pop all at once for reasons we still don’t understand.

Many of the delusions he mocks are still going strong. Look up ‘haunted houses’ or ‘prophesies’ on YouTube.

One phenomenon Charles misses is the Dancing Mania, which was finally solved by keeping the dancers isolated and thus breaking the chain of infection.

There is no magic bullet for mass hysteria. However, having read this book together with Barbara W. Tuchman’s The March of Folly, here are some layman’s suggestions:

  1. ANYONE can be infected. If you think that you are so strong-minded that you are impervious to contagion, you are at especially high risk and indeed might be going berko about something right now.
  2. Having identified a likely mania, break the chain of infection. If you only have the power to isolate yourself, do that. Turn off the TV. Log off social media. Read an old book – maybe Charles’ book.
  3. Save the ones you can but do not put on your shoulders the burden of curing the whole society. These delusions can last for centuries or longer unless there is a necessary end-point like the money running out.
  4. Stay under the radar. Maniacs who come at you will not listen to reason. That is a tautology.
  5. Nurture a gentle skepticism about all things. It is healthy to wonder occasionally if you might be the crazy one, because the deeply insane lose such insight.

Looking back, I have been afflicted by social contagions in the past. I will likely be infected again in the future. So will you.

A humble attitude is our best protection, and our most fervent beliefs are the ones we must be most cautious about.


There will be a post investigating what ends bouts of hysteria on March 15th.

7 comments

  1. Kentucky Gent · March 2

    “Charles goes on to stick the boot into various superstitions, with chapters on Catholic relics,…”

    OK, Nikolai, I will stop right there. Relics of saints are not a “superstition”, anymore thansomeone having a photo on their mantle of their great-great-grandfather. Veneration of saints and their relics is essentially just showing respect to someone you hold in esteem.

    There are more things in your post with which I disagree, but I will limit my criticisms to just the one. Because, at heart, our disagreement is not about this or that point, but about world views. People who dismiss the supernatural, who dismiss miracles and witchcraft and demonic activity, as mere “superstition”, have simply assumed their conclusion.

    The reasoning goes like this “I don’t believe in religious stuff, therefore religion cannot possibly be an explanation.” But that in no way negates the possibility of the miraculous.

    Like

    • mblanc46 · March 3

      And, by parity of reasoning, nothing that substantiates it.

      Like

    • Liz · March 4

      Even folks who subscribe to the supernatural view of things (I do) should know not every strange occurrence has a supernatural explanation. There is the supernatural, and there is just plain nuttery. These are not mutually exclusive things.

      Like

  2. Liz · March 3

    However, I suspect that village Karens were more likely to be accusers than accused. After all, they’re the ones filming maskless kids playing in the park.

    Exactly. Furthermore, in eastern europe up to 80 percent of those executed for witchcraft were men. Overall the figure is something like 25 percent.

    Like

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