Gustave Le Bon affirms that the evolution of political institutions, religions or ideologies is only a decoy. Despite superficial changes, the same collective soul would continue to express itself in different forms. A fierce opponent of egalitarian ideas and the enlightenment of time, Gustave Le Bon does not believe so much in the role of the individual in history. It understands people as higher and autonomous bodies whose constituent cells are individuals. The short existence of each is therefore part of a much longer collective life. The soul of a people is the result of a long hereditary sedimentation and an accumulation of habits that have resulted in the existence of a "network of traditions, ideas, feelings, beliefs, fashions. to think in common ”in spite of an apparent diversity which remains of course between the individuals of the same people. These elements constituting the synthesis of the past of a people and the heritage of all its ancestors: "infinitely more numerous than the living, the dead are also infinitely more powerful than them. They govern the immense domain which holds under its empire all the manifestations of intelligence and character. It is by its dead, much more than by its living, that a people is led. It is by them alone that it is founded. Century after century, they have created our ideas and feelings, and therefore all the motives for our conduct. The extinct generations not only impose their physical condition on us, they also impose their thoughts on us. The dead are the only undisputed masters of the living. We bear the weight of their faults, we receive the reward for their virtues… ”.
The individual is therefore infinitely indebted to his ancestors and those of his people.
The French psychologist claims that historical events are capable of modifying only the accessory qualities of a people but do not alter its soul. Even subjected to violent and large-scale events, people inevitably return to their deep aspirations "like the surface of a lake after a storm". As long as they do not attack the very substance of a people, historical ruptures are therefore only superficial. The French Jacobin system, for example, proved to be just as centralizing, authoritarian and despotic as the French monarchy it claimed to destroy. For Gustave Le Bon, the institutions of the French Revolution conformed to the reality of the soul of the French people, a predominantly Latin people favorable to the absorption of the individual by the state. People also inclined to seek the providential man to whom to submit and whom Napoleon embodied. From a completely different mentality, the English people have built their soul around the love of freedom. Gustave Le Bon recalls how this English people has refused over the centuries foreign domination and interference with the successive rejections of Roman law and the Catholic Church. This taste for independence and particularism resonates to this day through England's conflicted relations with the European continent. These reflections lead Le Bon to judge severely the colonial ideal of his time in that he advocates the imposition of political institutions and ideologies on peoples who are foreign to it. Frontally opposing the legacy of Enlightenment thoughts and their quest for the perfect and universal political system, he believes that good political institutions are above all those that suit the deep mentality of the people concerned.
Essentially, the souls of the people also remain insensitive to religious revolutions. The conversion of a people to a new religion is most often reflected over time in its adaptation to the deep aspirations of the converted people. Fascinated by Indian civilization, Gustave Le Bon recalls that Islam, an egalitarian religion, has never managed to permanently challenge the caste system in India. Islam has not yet imposed eastern polygamy on Berber populations who have been converted for centuries. Likewise, Catholicism was very largely permeated by pagan European traditions, often concealing by formal Christianization the concessions made to the beliefs of converted peoples. It is again through the souls of the peoples concerned that Gustave Le Bon explains the birth of Protestantism in Germanic countries and the successes of the Reformed religion in northern Europe. Lovers of individual freedom, autonomy and independence, these Nordic and Germanic peoples were inclined to individually discuss their faith and could not sustainably accept the mediation of the Church that Latin servility was more conducive to accept. In the civilization of India, the French anthropologist also explains how Indian Buddhism, which emerged from a religious revolution, was gradually absorbed into Hinduism, the carnal religion of the Indian peoples and their Indo-Iranian elites.
Each people brings out the peculiarities of its soul in different areas. Religion, the arts, political or military institutions are all grounds on which a civilization can achieve excellence and express the best of its soul. Convinced of the instinctive capacity of artists to translate the soul of a people, Gustave Le Bon pays particular attention to the analysis of the arts. He notes that the Romans struggled to develop an art of their own but distinguished themselves by their political and military institutions and their literature. However, even in their architecture largely inspired by Greece, the Romans expressed a part of themselves. Roman palaces, bas-reliefs and triumphal arches embodied the cult of strength and military passion. Gustave Le Bon admits of course that peoples do not live in autarky and inspire each other, especially in the artistic field. Yet he maintains that these inspirations are only incidental. Imported elements are only a raw material that the deep aspirations of the importing people never fail to reshape. Thus, the art of ancient Egypt irrigated the artistic creation of other peoples for centuries. But this art, essentially religious and funerary and whose massive and imperturbable aspect recalled the fascination of the Egyptians for death and the quest for eternal life, reflected too much the Egyptian soul to be taken up unaltered by others. First communicated to the peoples of the Near East, this Egyptian art inspired the Greek cities. But Gustave Le Bon believes that these Egyptian influences irrigated these peoples through the prism of their own minds. Until it broke away from oriental models, Greek art remained for several centuries at a stage of pale imitation. It was only with a sudden metamorphosis and a break with oriental art that Greek art reached its peak through an authentically Greek art, that of the Parthenon. From an identical material that is the Egyptian model transmitted by the Persians, Indian civilization has achieved a result radically different from Greek art. Having reached a high stage of refinement in the centuries preceding our era but having only changed very little thereafter, Indian art bears witness to the organic stability of the Indian people: "until the time when it was subject to the law of Islam, India has always absorbed the various conquerors who invaded it without letting itself be influenced by them ”.
Nevertheless, Gustave Le Bon admits that ideas can penetrate a people into its soul. He recognizes in religious ideas a particular force, capable of leaving a lasting imprint on collective psychology even if they are most often fleeting and allow the old popular fund to reappear. Only a tiny number of new ideas are intended to change the soul of a people, and these ideas take a long time to do so. They are initially defended by a small number of individuals who have developed an intense faith in them. Believing that "crowds allow themselves to be persuaded by suggestions, never by demonstrations", Gustave Le Bon explains that these ideas are propagated by the prestige of their representatives or by the collective passions that they know how to stir up. After having passed the intellectual stage, which is too fragile to turn into feelings, certain ideas reach the status of dogmas.
They are then firmly anchored in collective mentalities and can no longer be discussed. Gustave Le Bon believes that civilizations need this fixity in order to build themselves. It is only during phases of decadence that the certainties of a people can be called into question. Gustave Le Bon does not elude the question of the birth of peoples and of the soul they embody. Far from any dogmatism, the French anthropologist emphasizes that it is the dynamics of history that gives birth to peoples. Only marginal peoples living withdrawn from the world could claim not to be the fruit of history and the mixing of populations. Historical peoples, as they exist today, have been built up over time by slow hereditary and cultural accumulations which have homogenized their mentalities. The historical periods producing mergers of populations are the best way to give birth to a new people. However, their immediate effect will be to break up the merged peoples thus causing the decay of their civilizations. Le Bon illustrates his point with the example of the fall of the Roman Empire. For him, this had for first cause the disappearance of the original Roman people. Conceived by and for this founding people, the Roman institutions could not survive it. The dilution of the Romans in the conquered populations would have made the Roman soul disappear. The efforts of the conquerors to maintain the Roman institutions, the object of their admiration, could therefore not but be in vain.
Thus, from the dust of the vanished peoples, new peoples are called to be born. All European peoples were born this way. These times of turmoil and confusion are also times of increasing possibilities. The weakening of the collective soul strengthens the role of individuals and promotes the free discussion of ideas and religions. Historical events and the environment can then help forge new mentalities. However, deprived of any collective impetus and held back by the heterogeneity of characters, such decadent societies can only build the beginnings of civilization. By describing the genesis and death of peoples in this way, Gustave Le Bon reveals that his theory of civilizations is based on the alternation of movement and fixity. The creative destruction caused by mixtures of populations is followed by periods of sedimentation which leave a significant place for history and sometimes for individuals. It is only after the completion of this sedimentation that the establishment of collective mentalities will make it possible to build a new soul, the basis of a new civilization. Until this soul is destroyed, the fate of its people will depend closely on it.
The French psychologist also defends the role of "character" in the destiny of a people. Unlike the soul which is fixed, the character of a people changes with the times. Character is defined by the ability of a people to believe in and abide by its dogmas with perseverance and energy. While the soul embodies the collective determinism of peoples and while intelligence is an individual given unequally distributed among the same people, character is the fruit of a collective will equally distributed among a people. The content of the character determines the destiny of the people in relation to their rivals: "it is by the character that 60,000 Englishmen hold under the yoke 250 million Hindus, many of whom are at least their equals in intelligence, and of whom a few some go beyond them immensely in artistic tastes and the depth of philosophical views ”. Admiring the character of the English and American peoples of his time, Gustave Le Bon asserts that they are among the only to equal that of the early Roman people. Gustave Le Bon has developed an original reflection on the notion of people. his thinking differs both from the abstract idealism of the Enlightenment and from Darwinian materialism. In him, soul and character are notions that combine heredity and history, also leaving room for the collective will.