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The People vs. the Masses

 

IN AN essay posted at Tradition in Action, the late Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira examined nativity scenes by 17th-century Portuguese artists. He wrote:

At a first glance, [a scene by the sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro] might create an impression of disorder in some observers. We are accustomed to the disciplined and soulless crowds of large modern cities, the masses who file silently into movie theaters or grimly and hurriedly cross the streets when a traffic light or policeman’s whistle stops the flow of cars to let them pass. These crowds have become so soulless and standardized that at huge public gatherings they applaud as if they were one huge entity, in which the individual personalities were dissolved like drops of water in the ocean.

From this perspective, the group of people in [the picture above] – a detail from the Crèche of St. Vincent de Fora – seems strange. Having heard the angelic message, everyone is running to find the Crib. Even the dog in the foreground is rushing. But the individual character of each figure is so distinct and pronounced that the group as a whole has something [that is] effervescent and chaotic.

And indeed every face, every way of walking or running, expresses an entirely personal reaction regarding the Glad Tidings. The two boys in front seem to be moved simply by curiosity with the real and often excessive nonchalance of childhood. A more mature peasant with dilated eyes shining with joy and an intelligent face seems to have discerned the significance of the great event. Beside him, an old man with a raised brim hat shouts and cries with emotion. In the background, a hooded and white-bearded figure, who is hurrying yet still meditative, shows he is deeply moved.

Each soul in this group of lucid illiterates is like an interior world from which flows the expression of a vibrant personality.

Unlearned, illiterate, they were not subjected to the terrible process of standardization in the mechanical civilization of the 20th century. Their thinking has not been imposed by the same newspapers, their sensitivities modeled by the same films, their attention subjugated all day to the magnetic attraction of radio and television.

This reminds us of the admirable – and never sufficiently quoted – passage of Pius XII about “the people and the masses”: “The people and the shapeless multitude, that is to say, the masses, are two distinct concepts.

“The people lives and moves by its own life. The masses are inert of themselves and can only be moved by an external agent. The people lives from the fullness of life of the men who compose it, each of whom – in his proper place and way – is a person conscious of his own responsibilities and convictions. [cont.]

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