Elias Canetti (1905-1994) was a Jewish German-language writer born in Ruse, Bulgaria. His family moved to England, where his father died in 1912. His mother took their three sons back to Europe and settled in Vienna. In 1981, her son Elias was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas, and artistic power.”

 

Canetti wrote in his book The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, “I realized that there is such a thing as a crowd instinct, which is always in conflict with the personality instinct, and that the struggle between the two of them can explain the course of human history.” This idea became central to his life. It is the focus of his book Crowds and Power. He defined “crowd instinct” as an instinctive desire to be part of a crowd, to even dissolve one’s personality into a large mass of people. It often happens in mass rallies where impassioned orators fire up their audience and at rock concerts where young and old fans lose themselves in their wild admiration of the singers and their music.

 

The opposite of crowd instinct is “personality instinct.” We occasionally agree with crowds, but want to retain our ideas and values. We know from our knowledge of history that crowds have often become dangerous. Demagogues passed on false information, controlled the population, and drove them to do terrible things, even many murders.

 

In Crowds and Power, Canetti revolutionizes our analyses of politics and history. He shows many examples of the pathology of crowds in various countries and religions.  He even informs us of such mundane things as a ruler’s digestion can affect his power. He emphasizes that it takes people with strong personal instincts, people with a clear understanding of their ideas and values, who can overcome the phenomenal power of the crowd instinct. This could help us explain the rise of antisemitism around the world today and the sizable percentage of Americans who overlook the bestialities committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and protested for Hamas and violently destroyed much property during their protests.

 

He describes many kinds of crowds. Each is different. Each has its distinct behaviors and motivations. He reveals much sociology and psychology about each of them. There are open crowds, closed crowds, crowds as rings, invisible crowds, baiting crowds, flight crowds, prohibition crowds, reversal crowds, feast crowds, double men and women crowds, double living and dead crowds, war crowds, and crowd crystals.

 

There are also many smaller groupings, each, as the crowds, with distinct behaviors and motives. He calls the smaller groups packs. There are hunting packs, war packs, lamenting packs, increase packs, communion packs, and inward and tranquil packs.

 

He discusses much about crowds and pacts. These include their history, their appearance in legends, how they transform, and how they appear in Islam. Christianity, and Judaism.

 

This is offered to us in easy-to-read language, with many examples and details in the first 200 pages of this thought-provoking masterpiece. He follows the discussion of crowds and packs until page 495 with a brilliant discussion of power, its elements, its aspects, its survivors, details about commands, and transformation. As with crowds and packs, he fills his pages with fascinating details and examples from many cultures and history.

 

Among much else, he tells us that humans not only learned much by observing how animals act, but they also learned many valuable things by looking at their bodies. For example, “the feel of the hand of authority on his shoulder is usually enough to make a man give himself up without having to be actually seized. He cowers and goes quietly.” Humans learned much by thinking about their teeth. “The way they are arranged in rows and their shining smoothness are quite different from anything else in the body.” It taught humans about order, architecture, protection, dangers, smooth surfaces., and more. The nail on the index finger taught people about knives, spears, and more. The thumb led to thinking about grasping and the bow for arrows. The movement of the fingers led to how to weave and other arts. Even thinking about how he ate led people to invent new objects and goals.

 

Just as Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychology with need-to-know information written in very readable and entertaining language, Elias Canetti has done the same by revealing the truths about crowds and power.