A Profile of Genius: Gustave Le Bon

While I’m certain there are many definitions for what the word ‘genius’ means based upon the defining source both academically as well as personally I’d like to go ahead and give you mine. To me a genius is someone whose idea (or ideas) stand the test of time in that they theory or theories prove as close to accurate today as they did when they were postulated. For this first ‘profile of genius’ I’ve selected an individual I’m quite certain many have not before heard of – the French polymath Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon…or simply known as Gustave Le Bon.

Born the 7th of May 1841 in Nogent-le-Rotrou France, a tiny commune in Northern France – population roughly 11,000, Le Bon would go on to receive his qualification as Doctor of Medicine from the University of Paris in 1861. While his career in the practice never materialized he would later take the knowledge he acquired from his education and apply it to the field of anthropology after time serving in the Franco-Prussian war. Influenced by experiences in the Paris Commune of 1871 and time spent traveling throughout the world he would ultimately hone his focus on the field of sociology.

It was during this time period, the 1890’s, he would begin to release a series of well received works. Of them was my personal favorite and title from which I will share excerpts to unequivocally demonstrate his foresight and genius – ‘Psychologie des Foules’ or as it translated into English ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ published in 1895. So groundbreaking was this work at the time it was printed into 19 languages within the first year of its appearance. While acknowledging and highlighting the true inner workings of society his text dispelled many of the hard-held beliefs of the idealist socialist class throughout Europe.

Turning the fanciful doctrine of what is now modern liberal thought on it’s head he recognized that throughout the world cultural formation is built upon many similarities and that it is the assembly of individuals into not merely collectives but groups of immense proportion that self-sabotage the ability of people to make advancement whether it be personally, financially or through any other mechanism. As I’m sure you will read upon further research the cast of unsightly characters influenced by this and many other titles I’d ask that you reflect on the following passages I’ve pulled from the publication:

“It is only by obtaining some sort of insight into the psychology of crowds that it can be understood how slight is the action upon them…that it is not with rules based on theories of pure equity that they are to be led, but by seeking what produces an impression on them and what seduces them.”

“The heterogenous [those who are different] is swamped by the homogenous [those who are the same] and the unconscious qualities obtain the upper hand. This very fact that crowds possess in common ordinary qualities explains why they can never accomplish acts demanding a high degree of intelligence.”

“From the moment that they form a crowd the learned man and the ignoramus are equally incapable of observation.”

“When a civilization is analyzed it is seen that, in reality, it is the marvelous and the legendary that are its true supports. Appearances have always played a much more important part than reality in history.”

These four powerful statements, written over a hundred and twenty years ago and contained within just the first half of the book, are as true today as they were in 1895. Fight as we continue to do against the reality of things in an attempt to create an idealized world it is in the very process of coming together on a grand scale that we ultimately fall apart. With the exception of certain times of war, which can be argued are often spurred on by the sentiments of crowds themselves, our ability to come together to rectify problems or issues has rarely worked or been severely slowed by the enormity of the systems themselves. This insight, still likely to be repudiated by a healthy part of the population today, is as true in modern times as it was when Le Bon wrote this master piece. It is this observation along with the courage to catalogue and write about it that makes this renaissance man a true genius in the field of social science and someone whose works continue to be in desperate need of our attention.

The Linked In Principle

Flashback to the 1960’s, a decade of immense change, civil unrest and the height of the counter-culture revolution. While many famous faces and names came and went during that time there’s one in particular I’d like to draw attention to. As you probably already guessed if you’ve read any of my other posts this person was not only keenly observant but willing to share his thoughts on what he discovered despite the potential backlash. The man I’m speaking of was Canadian-born educator Laurence Peter and the gift he gave the world came in the 1969 publication of his book ‘The Peter Principle’.

For those of you unfamiliar with the work I’ll give you the cliff notes version (though I suggest you read it because a) it’s insightful and b) it’s short). Peter states that “in a [business] hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” that “in most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence” and that the presence of extremely skilled and productive employees “disrupts and…violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.” At the time such an attack on American business culture was likely out of the question. Dr. Laurence therefore wrote the book as more of a satire than say in Chomsky-like prose.

While it was at the time and to an extent still popular today amongst certain circles I feel it’s still not as well known as it should be. The way in which this system has continued to grow and evolve in modern times is equally impressive. In fact, an almost entirely new principled system has emerged and at the expense of using a term some other writer may already have (for which I apologize and will certainly give she or he credit in a later revision) I’m going to call it ‘The Linked in Principle.’ Yes, this is a direct shot at the website of the same name (which the author fully admits to have had an account with). The site, much like the structure of countless organizations throughout the US, is tantamount to a game of career musical chairs cleverly hidden behind the façade of being a business version of Facebook©.

I’m not going to argue the central causes of employment instability nor am I going to fault career focused individuals for watching their backs so to speak but Dr. Laurence hit the nail on the head when he revealed the “skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with what is required to do the job itself.” It is here we have the central thesis of the ‘linked in principle’ – that a majority of jobs are not obtained by demonstrated ability or even necessarily a perceived set – but rather through a popularity contest. The direct result of our desire to be sociable triumphing over the lesser need to be correct in the decision-making process.

The other caveat, and subsequent observation, is that because many of these individuals (often white-collar workers) tend to be placed in teams and are therefore more easily able to stake the success of an idea or program to their contributed efforts – when in fact they may have either had nothing to do with the action or the said decision may even have had serious unfortunate longer-term consequences – results in the inability of company’s to properly identify truly incompetent employees. It is to this I lead in to the last point of the principle, a slight deviation from Peter’s, which states ‘a person will rise or fall directly in proportion to their ability to network and market themselves.’  At the end of the day the structure and struggle of corporations, particularly larger ones, is a result of none of the smart kids being allowed to sit at the cool kid table.