Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds, by Charles MacKay
There is no doubt that this 400 page long book is a classic source of information about the fads and fashions that have roiled civilization over the past few centuries. Yet this book must be understood in its context. For one, this work springs from the late 19th century, and the work is not as well cited as a contemporary book would have been. It is clear the author has done a lot of reading and research about the popular delusions he discusses in sometimes painful detail, but it is not as obvious to contemporary readers where he did his research. Aside from that, the author does a really good job at looking at the reasons why delusions and the madness of crowds persists, and though it is easy to throw stones with this book and its contents, a wise reader will reflect about why so many of the lies and deceptions discussed here are matters of permanent occurrence in our own lives and in our own situations, for there are few people who are wholly immune to the sort of things that the author talks about here as being a sign of reason gone awry. We are not as reasonable as we fancy ourselves.
Given its size, this is a book that has a lot of content in it, and it consists of two volumes combined together into one massive tome. The author begins with John Law’s Mississippi scheme, moves on to the south-sea bubble, the mania over tulips, the lies of alchemists, various prophetic frenzies, fortune telling, those who believed in animal magnetism and mesmerism, and the influence of politics and religion on hair style. Together these materials take up about half of the book. The second half of the book discusses the crusades, the mania over witchcraft in early modern Europe, slow poisoners, haunted houses, the fads of big cities, the popular admiration of great thieves, duels and trials by ordeal, and relics. Again, this material takes up the second half of the book, and the chapters are not numbered, making this book a bit less convenient to read than many books are at present. As full as this book is of detail, the author definitely focuses on Europe and misses the chance to discuss the fad language of American cities, the Millerite prophecy mania of 1840-1843, the Salem witch trials, and our own fondness of haunted city tours in the present age.
This book is, sadly a somewhat depressing read. It would be one thing if one was led to simply laugh at other people as a result of reading this volume, but for this reader at least, reading this book made me think about the popular madness of contemporary crowds. The author critiques anti-Semitism and points out rather fiercely that in the crashes after periods of irrational exuberance that ordinary people tend not to reflect on their own greed but rather seek scapegoats for their difficulties. Indeed, the author’s comments about the way that people who are struggling seek to abuse foreigners and strangers and wanderers in their midst when times are tough is a reminder that our own times would do well to take heed about. My concern about this book is that it seems that all too many readers have simply picked and chosen among its many areas of discussion and have not examined the work as a coherent whole or sought to understand how it is that human beings never seem to move beyond the underlying problems that popular delusions demonstrate. However our technology has developed, our moral development has not been very great, if at all, and there is little joy that one can take from that.