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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

© 1922



        Superstitious terrors are by no means confined to race; they are common to all races. For example, among the aborigines of Australia a native will die after the infliction of even the most superficial wound, if he is scared by the suggestion that the weapon which inflicted the wound has been sung over, and thus endowed with magical virtue. He simply lies down, refuses food, and pines away.

        Similarly among some of the Indian tribes of Brazil, if the medicine-man predicted the death of anyone who had offended him, "the wretch took to his hammock instantly in such full expectation of dying, that he would neither eat nor drink, and the prediction was effectually executed."

        Speaking of certain African races Major Leonard observes: "I have seen more than one hardened old Haussa soldier dying steadily and by inches, because he believed himself to be bewitched; so that no nourishment or medicines that were given to him had the slightest effect either to check the mischief or to improve his condition in any way, and nothing was able to divert him from a fate which he considered inevitable.

        "In the same way, and under very similar conditions, I have seen Kru-men and others die, in spite of every effort that was made to save them, simply because they had made up their minds, not (as we thought at the time) to die, but that being in the clutch of malignant demons they were bound to die."

        The gregarious individual must obey the master leader on pain of death. In gregarious life the whole pack attacks the disobedient individual for challenging the chief, king, priest, the god-man, the lord of the horde. Obedience is a virtue, disobedience is a mortal sin, affecting the whole horde, hence a horrible death of the sinner is the sole punishment. The independent personality is inhibited, the individual falls into a state of social somnambulism, and the will-less, self-less subconscious, a semblance of personality, charged with self-preservation and fear instinct, obeys the commands of the master leader who is often a brutal type, a Nero, a Domitian, a Caracalla, a Caligula, a John the Terrible.

        In a society where the socio-static press is always at work, where political pressure is far stronger than even in the ancient despotic monarchies, where a class government is in possession of all modern improvements, where gray uniformity and drowsy monotony reign supreme, obedience must be the rule. Blind, stupid obedience, that slavish obedience which is peculiar to somnambulic subjects, characterizes such societies.

        Servility is well illustrated by the following historical incident: Prince Sougorsky, ambassador to Germany in 1576, fell sick en route in Courland. The duke of the province often inquired as to his health. The reply was always the same: "My health matters nothing, provided the sovereign's prospers." The duke, surprised, said, "How can you serve a tyrant with so much zeal?" He replied, "We Russians are always devoted to our Czars, good or cruel. My master (Ivan the Terrible) impaled a man of mark for a slight fault, who for twenty-four hours, in his dying agonies, talked with his family, and without ceasing kept repeating, 'Great God, protect the Czar!'"

        The same is true of modern class societies where the Demos is the despot. God preserve the Demos! When the business demon of the Demos requires sacrifice, self immolation, anticipate his order. Pray for the Demos; Great God, protect the greedy Demos! The Demos is my Lord, to him is due my servile loyalty.

        It is interesting to observe that the superstitious, the savage, and the soldier are excellent subjects for hypnotic purposes. Soldiers as experiments show, have a strong predisposition to hypnotic states. I was told by Professor Münsterberg that the hypnotic predisposition was strongly developed in the German soldier. M. Liebault experimented on ten hundred and twelve persons, and found only twenty-seven refractory. Berenheim remarks on this that "It is necessary to take into account the fact that M. Liebault operates chiefly upon the common people."

        The great pressure exerted on the lower social strata, and especially on soldiers, the dull monotony of their life, the habit of strict obedience to command, predisposes them to social subconscious automatisms,—to the formation of mobs, clubs, unions, lodges, associations, parties, clans, sects, mobocracies. In all such organizations there is present the same servile spirit—the impersonal self and the gregarious fear instinct—the basis of subconscious, social somnambulism.

        Man is a social somnambulist, he lives, dreams, and obeys with his eyes open. Whenever the impulse of self-preservation gets a special grip on the gregarious individual, when he becomes wild with terror in the bosom of the herd, then he may be regarded as a psychopathic victim.

        The historian of the future will represent our age as dark, barbaric, savage, an age of the cruel Napoleonic wars, of commercial crises, financial panics, religious revivals, vicious, brutal, savage world wars,—mobs, crazes, plagues, social pests of all sorts and description. . . .

        A herd of sheep stand packed close together, looking stupidly into space. . . . Frighten them,—and if one begins to run, frantic with terror, the rest are sure to follow,—a stampede ensues, each sheep scrupulously reproduces the identical movements of the one in front of it. This susceptibility to imitation is but what we, in relation to man, term suggestibility, which consists in the impressing on the person of an idea, image, movement, however absurd and senseless, which the person in his hypnotized state reproduces like an automaton,—although he or she thinks it is done quite voluntarily. Suggestibility is natural to man as a social animal. Under specially favorable conditions this suggestibility which is always present in human beings may increase to an extraordinary degree, and the result is a stampede, a mob, an epidemic.

        It is sometimes claimed that somnambulic persons are asleep. Sleep and somnambulism have been identified. This is a misuse of words since there are a whole series of subconscious states in which not one symptom of sleep appears. Extreme susceptibility to suggestions and mental automatisms are the chief traits of the subconscious.

        Gregarious men and women carry within themselves the germs of the possible mob, or of mental epidemics. As social creatures men and women are naturally suggestible. When this susceptibility or sensitivity to suggestions becomes abnormally intense, we may say that they are thrown into a social subconscious, somnambulic state.

        We know by psychological and psychopathological experiments that limitation of voluntary movements and inhibition of free activities induce a subconscious state. This subconscious state is characterized by inhibition of the will power,—memory remains unaffected; consciousness appears intact; the subject is aware of all that goes on.

        Keeping this in mind, we can understand social life, and especially morbid, social movements, mob life of all ages.

        A subconscious state is induced in the organized individual by the great limitation of his voluntary activities and by the inhibition of his free critical thought. Bound fast by the strings of tradition and authority, social men and women are reduced to subconscious automata. The subconscious rises with the growth of organized civilization, while the critical, independent powers of the individual correspondingly fall. Hence the apparent social paradox that the growth of society tends to destroy the mental forces which helped to build up civilization.

        In such societies the individual staggers under the burden of laws and taboos. Individuality is stifled under the endless massive excretions of legislators. Recently even the lawgivers or law manufacturers began to object to the labor involved in the work on the ever growing mass of bills introduced into the legislature of one state alone. Thus a senator of a Western state complained that in one year over 1700 bills passed through the mill of his Legislature. Multiply that figure by the number of states, add the municipal edicts, and the endless laws turned out by the Federal Government, and one can form some faint idea of the vast burden laid on the shoulders of the individual citizen.

        The Los Angeles Times, which no one will accuse of radicalism, pointedly remarks: "The State has just issued a reference index to the laws of California since 1850—it is of itself a bulky volume of more than 1300 pages. When it takes a book of that size merely as an index it would seem that the lawmakers had about done their worst."

        Over-production of laws is one of the great evils of modern civilization. Civilized society is apt to be obsessed by a state of law-mania which is a danger and a menace to the free development of the individual citizen.

        The Roman legal thinkers left us two significant sayings: Ex Senatus consultis et plebiscitis, crimina execrentur,—(Senatorial decisions and popular decrees give rise to crimes) and: Ut olim vitiis, sic nunc legibus laboramus,—(As we formerly suffered from vices and crimes so we suffer at present from laws and legislation) . . .

        In describing the gregariousness of the Damara oxen Francis Galton writes: "Although the ox has so little affection for, or interest in, his fellows, he cannot endure even a momentary severance from his herd. If he be separated from it by stratagem or force, he exhibits every sign of mental agony; he strives with all his might to get back again, and when he succeeds, he plunges into the middle to bathe his whole body with the comfort of closest companionship. This passionate terror is a convenience to the herdsman. . . ." When an animal accustomed to a gregarious life is isolated from the herd, it is agitated with extreme terror. The same holds time of man who is a social animal. Man must go with the herd or with the pack, and he is terrified to stand alone, away from the crowd,—and still more terrorized when the crowd disapproves of him. Man is gregarious, and as such he must go with the mass, with the crowd. He is in mortal fear of social taboo. As a gregarious animal man lives in fear of external danger, and is in terror of social authority.

        As Galton writes: "The vast majority of persons of our race have a natural tendency to shrink from the responsibility of standing and acting alone; they exalt the vox populi, even when they know it to be the utterance of a mob of nobodies, into the vox Dei; they are willing slaves to tradition, authority and custom. The intellectual deficiencies corresponding to these moral flaws are shown by the rareness of free and original thought as compared with the frequency and readiness with which men accept the opinions of those in authority as binding on their judgment." This slavish obedience is intimately bound up with one of the most fundamental of all instincts,—the fear instinct.

        The individual is so effectively trained by the pressure of taboo based on self and fear, that he comes to love the yoke that weighs him down to earth. Chained to his bench like a criminal galley slave, he comes to love his gyves and manacles. The iron collar put around his neck becomes a mark of respectability, an ornament of civilization. Tarde finds that society is based on respect, a sort of an alloy of fear and love, fear that is loved. A respectable citizen is he who is fond of his bonds, stocks, and shekels, and comes to love his bonds, stocks, and shackles of fears and taboos.

        Human institutions depend for their existence and stability on the impulse of self-preservation and its close associate,—the fear instinct.


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