The Future of Insanity

William Ophuls | December 4, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Photo by Nishanth Jois | Flickr

Photo by Nishanth Jois | Flickr

Insanity in individuals is something rare—but in groups,

parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule

Friedrich Nietzsche[1]

Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow[2]

The simplest definition of insanity is, “Extreme foolishness; total folly.”[3] At first glance, Nietzsche’s dictum seems bizarre: Is extreme foolishness and total folly really the rule in human affairs? Perhaps not everywhere or at all times, but history is indeed marked by madness, and our own age is no exception. In fact, we may the maddest of all. To cite just the latest report from the climate front, we are approaching one or more tipping points that could trigger an inexorable slide into “Hothouse Earth,” a state utterly incompatible with life as we know it.[4] Yet we are only gesturing at solutions, when what is required is “a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behavior, institutions, economies, and technologies.”[5] If this is not extreme foolishness and total folly, then what is?[6]

However, what Nietzsche had in mind is something more common—namely, an ordinary feature of human history rather than an uncommon development threatening to extinguish the possibility of civilization itself. As Nietzsche did not explain his thinking, we turn to Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study in Popular Philosophy (1896) to understand the origin and nature of collective madness. Le Bon is sometimes dismissed as reactionary, but his account, published over two hundred years ago, remains a seminal work on crowd psychology. And he was by no means the first or the last to see the dangers lurking in crowds. As Aristotle said in his Politics, “[man] is born with weapons for wisdom and virtue which it is possible to employ entirely for the opposite ends.”[7] Hence,” when sundered from law and justice,” he can become “the most unholy and savage of animals,” a fact amply borne out by ancient Greek history.[8] Thucydides’s gripping account of the civil war in Corcyra would be sufficient by itself to inspire a fear of popular madness.[9] Because Le Bon addresses a perennial problem, he has had an enduring impact both intellectually and politically, as we shall see below.

Le Bon’s essential point is that crowds amplify every human defect and manifest new ones of their own. In crowds, said Le Bon, independent minds are submerged in a collective mind that stifles dissent and stirs up emotion at the expense of intellect. Hence crowds are moved by simple ideas, striking images, and repeated slogans that drive out deeper thought. To make matters worse, the anonymity of crowds induces individuals to behave viscerally, discarding both prudence and morality. In addition, because crowds are moved by images that are not logically connected or rooted in fact, members of crowds have a hard time distinguishing between reality and illusion. Thus, said Le Bon,

Crowds are only powerful for destruction. Their rule is always tantamount to a barbarian phase. A civilization involves fixed rules, discipline, a passing from the instinctive to the rational state, forethought for the future, an elevated degree of culture—all of them conditions that crowds, left to themselves, have invariably shown themselves incapable of realizing.[10]

Freud, Jung, and other depth psychologists elucidated the dynamic underlying Le Bon’s description: crowds are subject to “psychic contagion.” Unless the irrational forces within the human mind are culturally and socially contained, they can go on a rampage, leading to mass manias, collective delusions, and religious frenzies. “The masses,” said Jung, “always incline to herd psychology, hence they are easily stampeded; and to mob psychology, hence their witless brutality and hysterical emotionalism.”[11] All of which, said Le Bon, makes crowds ripe for demagogic leadership by “men of action . . . . recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness.”[12]

If this last brings to mind Adolf Hitler and all the other madmen in the grip of insane ideologies who killed millions of people and inflicted immense suffering on the human race during the 20th century, then Nietzsche and Le Bon are not so easily dismissed.[13] If anything, recent developments, such as television, have rendered them both more cogent and more salient.

  All media present an abstract and selective version of reality, but compared to print television is not an informative medium at all, but a dramatic one: it transmits images, not ideas; it evokes emotions, not thoughts; and it arouses passion, not deliberation. Indeed, at its worst, it is frankly inflammatory. . . . [At best], because it portrays the world in ever small “bites” of sound and image, television creates what is tantamount to a cartoon of reality.[14]

To make matters worse, this caricature is grossly distorted by commercialism: “The purpose of television is to lure a mass audience with mass entertainment so that mass advertising can promote mass consumption.”[15] In effect, television creates the preconditions for an electronic mob exhibiting on a societal or even global scale all the defects and dangers of Le Bon’s crowd.[16]

These defects and dangers are greatly amplified by the internet, which gives this mob a voice, provides even greater anonymity (“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”), and sidelines the gatekeepers who once policed public discourse. Thus the marketplace of ideas has become an epistemological free-for-all—an anarchy—and anarchies rarely do well in the long term.[17]

The ideologues who celebrated the radical openness of the internet reckoned without human nature. Absent sophisticated and responsible gatekeepers, public discourse is subject to Gresham’s Law. Bad ideas and information drive out good; saner voices are drowned out by a digital mob of charlatans, schemers, extremists, and trolls disgorging misinformation, disinformation, and venom.[18] Yes, “elite” gatekeepers have biases, blind spots, and axes to grind, but these can usually be kept in check by competing gatekeepers. To expect a good result from throwing the crooked timber of humanity together into one giant arena, instead of allowing the truest timbers to set standards and make rules, is a kind of madness.

Human beings are herd animals who find it hard to keep their heads when everyone around them is losing theirs. Indeed, to depart too far from what is “normal” risks being judged “crazy.” To be sane can therefore mean going against the grain of a society intent on imposing its mindset and mores. Relatively few will even make the attempt, and those who do soon discover that their options are limited or require an inordinate sacrifice. In this way, the accepted madness—in our case, the insane ideology that puts us on a trajectory toward the tipping points—prevails until it brings on the wrath of the gods.


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[1] Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Helen Zimmern (Radford, VA: Wilder, 2008), 56. Other translations prefer madness to insanity, but the import is the same.

[2] From “The Masque of Pandora,” 1875, but in one form or another it is an ancient adage.

[3] American Heritage Dictionary, 1975 edition

[4] Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, et al., PNAS August 14, 2018. 115 (33) 8252-8259;

[5] Ibid.

[6] Another folly: mortgaging the future with ever-increasing debt.

[7] Aristotle, Politics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1944, I, i

[8] Ibid.

[9] It was their knowledge of this history that led the framers of the American Constitution to establish checks on popular democracy.

[10] The Crowd, xiii.

[11] Carl G. Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, trans. Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 6.

[12] The Crowd, 73

[13] For what it is worth, the Wikipedia article on Le Bon contains the following paragraph: George Lachmann Mosse claimed that fascist theories of leadership that emerged during the 1920s owed much to Le Bon’s theories of crowd psychology. Adolf Hitler is known to have read The Crowd and in Mein Kampf drew on the propaganda techniques proposed by Le Bon.[46][47] Benito Mussolini also made a careful study of Le Bon.[48] Le Bon also influenced Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.[49]

[14] Ophuls, Requiem for Modern Politics, 81-82.

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Many of the issues touched on in this essay are treated at greater length in ibid., chap. 2, 6, and 7.

[17] Some governments, China first and foremost, are now beginning to police their national networks, which only means that anarchy will be replaced by despotism.

[18] A recent example of mob rule online: enraged Twitterers forced the editor of The New Yorker to rescind a controversial invitation. See Bret Stephens, “Now Twitter Edits The New Yorker,” New York Times, September 4, 2018.

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • ThisOldMan

    It should not, however, be forgotten that Hitler borrowed his “übermenchen” bylines from Nietzsche.

  • Joshua M. Rosenau

    The term “crowd” needs to be defined and contextualized in this discussion. For instance –

    “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are sociological categories introduced by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies for two types of human association.

    Gemeinschaft is found in small social structures such as the family, tribe, or village where human relationships are prized and the welfare of the whole has precedence over the individual. Industrial societies, on the other hand, are characterized by Gesellschaft, where human associations are governed by rationality and self-interest.”

    The “crowd” in this sense, is a new phenomenon, emerging out of industrialism. Any discussion about the “nature” of human beings or human organization must be set within the archaeological and evolutionary timeline of man, and not be limited to the myopia of modern “Gesellschaft” civilizations.

    When this discussion is historically framed, we see that the author is not contributing anything new. The insanity that is discussed in this article is arguably the same as the insanity that drove Edvard Munch to paint the scream in 1893.

    Archaeologically speaking, human beings have only experienced Gesellschaft for a very short time. This experience has depended first upon population increases that came from the agricultural revolution, which sped up with the advancement of that revolution by the industrial revolution.

    Our human niche before the industrial revolution and before the agricultural revolution did not produce this peculiar form of insanity, this suicidality, because it was limited by time-space requirements of subsistence practices.

    These earlier experiences in mobile, Gemeinschaft societies, constitute 90 percent of our time as a species. These societies did not produce the forms of population expansion wrought by sedentary societies that later grew into Gesellschaft societies, from which the “insanity” analyzed by the author necessarily extends.

  • Richard Blaber

    The ‘Longfellow’ quote is to be found in earlier versions by Seneca & John Dryden, inter alia. The use of the term ‘insanity’ is unfortunate, to say the least, given the experience many have, & have had, with mental illness & the stigma that is still attached to it – although it ought not to be. I take the point about the effect of crowd behaviour, & the impact of – for example – social media & advertising. Propagandists from Joseph Goebbels onwards have known all about ‘creating the truth’; that perception ‘is’ reality. We now see the consequences: the victories of Donald Trump & Jair Bolsonaro; Brexit; the advance of the Far Right in Europe; the anti-environmentalist ‘Gilets Jeunes’ riots in France – & so on.

    It is all very well advocating the principle, to quote the slogan to be found in London’s ‘Reform Club’, that we should ‘Trust the People’; but supposing we can’t? Supposing democracy keeps coming up with all the wrong answers – like it did in the Gaza Strip, when the voters elected Hamas, or in Egypt, when they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, or in 1930s Germany, when they voted for the Nazis? Democracies can – & do vote for their own extinction, & when they vote for politicians who are committed to anti-environmentalist policies, as Donald Trump & Jair Bolsonaro are, they are voting for the extinction of human civilisation at the very least, & quite possibly the extinction of the human race. Can we really allow them to get away with that?

  • JohnTaves

    Here’s what is insane. Population scientists publishing articles like this instead of articles aimed at ensuring the fundamental principles of reproduction in a finite space are known by all and taught to every child.

    1) Averaging more than 2 causes children do die at the rate of (x-2)/x. For example, if we average 3 babies world wide, then 1/3rd of the children must die.

    2) We are and have always averaged too many babies. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is proof that we are averaging too many babies world wide right now.

    3) If your descendants average more than 2, they will cause child mortality even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies.

    4) To ensure you and your ancestors don’t contribute to averaging more than 2 babies, you must not create another if you already have 2. You must not create another if your parents already have 4 grandchildren. You must not create another if your grandparents already have 8 great grandchildren. This is called TwoFourEight.

    5) In the past few hundred years we have discovered how to burn fossil fuels and consume many other resources faster than they renew and that has enabled more subsistence production. Increasing subsistence production enables the population to grow and while the population can grow the the child mortality rate is less than (x-2)/x. However, that increased subsistence production is temporary. When those resources become scarce, the population will be killed down to the level that the remaining resources can keep alive. This tells us we must average less than 2 world wide until we no longer consume resources faster than they renew.

    What is insane is the fact our population scientists, like the founders of MAHB, don’t teach these facts. They must not know these facts. That’s the only explanation I can imagine.

    Population scientists have their own belief system. They have lots of data that they have combed through and found some fascinating correlations and trends. I can only speculate what is going on in their heads, but it seems to me that these correlations and trends lead them to believe that somehow humans regulate their fertility to ensure that we do not over breed. I am guessing that they assume that the signs of overbreeding will be obvious and not present, and therefore there must be some magical fertility rate regulator.

    “Absent sophisticated and responsible gatekeepers, public discourse is subject to Gresham’s Law.”— In this case, it is the other way around. The de-facto population experts, demographers, like the founders of MAHB, are the sophisticated and “responsible” gatekeepers, but unfortunately they are unwilling to put down their belief system founded upon correlations and trends, and rethink the fundamental principles involved.

    The MAHB has not replied to any of the 5 statements listed above, except to say that they are listening and care.

  • We could use a contribution from Richard Dawkins to this discussion, because the all too obvious Elephant in this room is religion, the most widespread form of insanity for both individuals and groups. -Eric Burr, Mazama WA USA

  • Heartlander11

    I do not see the academic community evidencing urgency — logging millions of airline miles, using precious resources at home and while away, and oftentimes owning more than one home. What exactly is it that you want people to do. I know the answer will be “vote the way I do” – but I believe we all need to feel the changes, to make the changes, to live differently, to suffer inconveniences to be able to truly understand that we can not go on the way we are. If we do not change hearts and minds AND behavior — we’ll get the protests in France. I would really like to the academic and professional science communities lead the way.

  • Charles Johnston

    As a psychiatrist and futurist, I agree that we live in times when much is insane, or certainly could have some very insane consequences. But I disagree with Nietzsche that insanity with groups is the rule. In fact, history suggests that societies as systems tend ultimately to be creative — witness the Renaissance. The essential question is whether we can manifest the kind of creativity or times require. It is very possible that we cannot. But I think supporting that possibility must be out task. (See or the Cultural Maturity blog