The Power of the Herd can corrupt the mind.
People are social creatures, we yearn to have contact with other people. There exist a term called herd mentality that is a result of this nature, a well documented idea in psychology that people are like sheep, and copy each other’s behavior without knowing why. Researchers at Leeds University did an experiment where a group of volunteers were told to randomly walk in a hall without talking. A few with specific instructions were told to walk in a certain direction without given reasons and scientist discovered that 95% of the people ended up following these 5% who looked like they knew what they were doing. The main point was the 95% did this without being conscious of their copycat behavior.
Seneca wisely warns us of associating with large crowds. The more people you associate with, the more likely you are to become influenced by their vices unawares, especially when you are being entertained together. He believes that the human mind is impressionable and does not have a firm control on what is right and wrong, suggesting that even people like Socrates and Cato’s principles would be shaken in an environment of people whose values differed much from their own. I have much experience with this weakness and often succumb to temptations that my peers indulge in (like spending money on virtual card games when I clearly decided not to.)
It is therefore imperative that you choose the right people to associate with for associating with such people is likely to improve you. Also gather those whom you can help improve. For Seneca says that men learn as they teach. As a teacher I can attest very much to that. When I’m forced to think about how to explain things to people, it really deepens my understanding of the topic. That’s probably the greatest reason I chose to stay as one. I realize that I’m learning from the people I’m teaching as much as they are learning from me. I can better understand how different people think when I teach, their strengths and weaknesses in their mental approaches which allows me to further refine the methods of thinking I have.
Seneca writes these words in his letters to his friend Lucilius. And in the final paragraph he offers this words: “my dear Lucilius, may you scorn the pleasure that comes from the majority’s approval.” In this he means that we should only concern ourselves with the few friends who are of virtue, and not worry about the opinions of the mass majority of people.
When in the presence of less than virtuous people, guard well thy virtue.
Extracts from Letters from a Stoic.
By Lucius Annaeus Seneca.