Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter Essay - Critical Essays

Trotter, Wilfred Batten Lewis


Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter 1872-1939

English philosopher and essayist.

A prominent English surgeon, Trotter was an essay writer and philosopher whose work intertwined medicine and philosophy. Known as an accessible and entertaining literary stylist, Trotter was greatly admired. Today he is primarily remembered for The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, a psychological analysis of the “herd mentality,” or the power of group dynamics.

Biographical Information

Trotter was born in Coleford, England, in 1872. At age 16, he moved to London to attend college, where he was an excellent student. Shortly after graduation, he entered medical school. An outstanding medical student, Trotter decided to specialize in surgery; he opened his own surgical practice after receiving his medical degree. In addition to his burgeoning medical career, Trotter was an aspiring essayist; he was particularly interested in the fields of science and philosophy. In 1908 Trotter published two papers about the herd mentality, which were precursors to his later, more famous, work. In the last years of his life, he taught at a medical school and turned to writing on a larger scale. The Collected Papers of Wilfred Trotter, an anthology of his final essays, appeared two years after his death in 1939.

Major Works

The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War is an astute analysis of group psychology and the ability of large numbers of people to be swayed by innate tendency. Trotter's writings about the herd mentality are considered an important breakthrough in understanding group dynamics. The phrase “herd mentality” refers to the tendency of a group to operate solely as a large unit and to discourage any form of individuality. This work foreshadowed the Nazi crisis and offered valuable insight into the German mind-set during World War II. Trotter's other works, linking the intellectual and the scientific, appeared sporadically during his lifetime. His last essays, published in The Collected Papers of Wilfred Trotter, examine the field of medicine and detail Trotter's search to bond philosophy to science and to merge the concrete with the abstract.

Critical Reception

Though Trotter is little known today, his analysis of herd mentality endures and is now used in many fields of thought from criminal justice to mass marketing. The concept of a unit overpowering individuality has only become more meaningful. Reprinted in 1990, The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War is considered a valuable psychological document as well as a provocative and eloquent philosophical treatise.

Principal Works

The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (nonfiction) 1916

The Collected Papers of Wilfred Trotter (essays) 1941


James Harvey Robinson (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: “Canada's National Policy,” in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, June, 1917, pp. 312-19.

[Robinson compares Trotter's work to that of the English philosopher Bertrand Russell.]

The importance of crises in all organic development has been emphasized by recent anthropologists and sociologists. The crisis or unexpected “fix” in which a creature finds itself furnishes the test of its capacity of readjustment. In the case of man, crisis centers attention on unobserved or ill-understood factors in a situation and may happily lead to more complete control and thus to escape from pressing difficulties. The present war is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, and is inevitably promoting thinking of unprecedented variety and depth in regard to man's woes, their origin, nature and remedy. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell, surprised in his abstract and subtle metaphysical and mathematical speculations by undreamed-of horrors, directs the resources of an extraordinarily free and highly trained intelligence to the solution of the problem of why we act as we do. He says:

To me the chief thing to be learnt through the war has been a certain view of the springs of human action, what they are, and what we may legitimately hope that they will become. This view, if it is true, seems to afford a basis for political philosophy more capable of standing erect in a time of crisis than the philosophy of traditional Liberalism has shown itself to be.

His chief theme is not war but rather the great and fundamental reconstruction of economic and social life which shall ultimately make war repugnant to men.

The writer is not versed in the social sciences; he betrays no knowledge of his predecessors in this field of speculation. But if he has read little, he seems to have lived much, and is evidently acquainted at first hand with men's hopes and dreads, their loves and hates, their timidity and heroism; “and without understanding and sympathy it is impossible to find a cure for the evil from which the world is suffering.” This understanding and sympathy combined with a simple and unaffected mode of presentation insure his little book a wide appeal. For they serve to disguise and palliate the absolute ruthlessness with which the author sweeps away the ancient foundations of morality and religion. His is clearly such an exceptionally sweet and decent and high-minded nature that even the timid conservative may forget to recoil with proper horror when he reaches page 200 and reads: “It ought to be recognized that the law is only concerned with marriage through the question of children, and should be indifferent to what is called ‘morality,’ which is based upon custom and texts of the Bible, not upon any real consideration of the needs of the community.” The gentle reader will already have weathered on page 134 the conclusion that “no good to the community, of any sort or kind, results from the private ownership of land. If men were reasonable, they would decree that it should cease tomorrow, with no compensation beyond a moderate life income to the present holders.” Taken from their context, these passages produce the impression of lawless radicalism; in the setting in which Mr. Russell places them they seem almost as safe and harmless as the fireside musings of a Presbyterian elder who has just lent ten thousand dollars on a six per cent mortgage.

The object of life is growth and to “the principle of growth” the author devotes his first lecture. Now our present institutions are not designed to promote the free and joyous development of the individual as a member of society, for “all our institutions have their historic basis in Authority,” and the main purpose of all ancient authority is to hamper the great mass of people and keep them in a safe routine. The promotion of personal adventure is not the object of the Justinian Code, the church, the state, the school, or the institution of matrimony. They all agree in harshly recommending a patient conformity rather than cheerful self-expansion. Accordingly Mr. Russell reviews the disastrous effects of existing institutions under the following headings: “The State,” “War as an Institution,” “Property,” “Education,” “Marriage and the Population Question,” “Religion and the Churches,” with a final chapter on “What we can Do.”

As for the state, the author's aim is to show “how great, how unnecessary, how harmful, many of its powers are, and how enormously they might be diminished without loss of what is useful in its activity.” “It is the essence of the State to suppress violence within and to facilitate it without. The State makes an entirely artificial division of mankind and of our duties towards them; towards one group we are bound by law, towards the other only by the prudence of highwaymen.” The very vastness of the modern state results in a sense of personal helplessness, which is paralyzing to individual initiative. So the state is “one of the chief causes of misery in the modern world and one of the main reasons for the discouragement which prevents men from growing to their full mental stature.” The remedy seems to lie in a complete revision of the external relations of states to one another, together with far more spontaneous internal social combination, of which syndicalism is an adumbration, under general state control.

Property represents an excessive emphasis on possession as against the joys of creation. The writer believes that

incalculable benefits might result from industrial democracy, either on the co-operative model or with the recognition of a trade or industry as a unit for purposes of government, with some kind of Home Rule such as syndicalism aims at securing. There is no reason why all governmental units should be geographical: this system was necessary in the past because of the slowness of means of communication, but it is not necessary now.

Our present methods of education fail conspicuously in “reverence” for the child's individuality and proper freedom. The joy of mental adventure Mr. Russell deems to be far commoner in the young than is ordinarily assumed. However this may be there is certainly no great tendency at present to give it a show.

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth. … It is fear that holds men back—fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be. Should the working man think freely about property? Then what will become of us, the rich? Should young men and young women think freely about sex? Then what will become of morality? Should soldiers think freely about war? Then what will become of military discipline?1

There are many frank and sagacious observations on marriage and the relations of men and women out of matrimony. Our old ideas are based on authority, the new must be based on liberty. “Here, as elsewhere, liberty is the basis of political wisdom. And when liberty has been won, what remains to be desired must be left to the conscience and religion of individual men and women.” For the older notions of religion Russell naturally has no sympathy; however appropriate they may have been when men knew less, modern knowledge and criticism have destroyed the assumptions on which they were based. To him the problem is to find a harmonious situation in which our fundamental instincts, our powers of reasoning and our kindly interest in our fellow men should one and all receive proper recognition. “Instinct, mind and spirit are each a help to the others when their development is free and unvitiated; but when corruption comes into any one of the three, not only does that one fail, but the others also become poisoned.” The writer is particularly sensitive to the dangerous suppression of instinct in historical religions, especially Christianity. He is also on his guard against an exaggerated intellectualism which is not blended with “reverence” for our fundamental impulses and for our fellow creatures....

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Wilfred Trotter (essay date 1919)

SOURCE: “Some Principles of A Rational Statecraft,” in Leviathan in Crisis, edited by Waldo R. Browne, The Viking Press, 1919, pp. 363-69.

[In this excerpt from The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, Trotter examines man's social instincts in contemporary society.]

If our foregoing discussion has been sound, we may attribute the impermanence of all civilizations of which we have knowledge to the failure of society to preserve with increasing magnitude of its communities a true homogeneity and a progressive integration of its elements.1 We have seen that there is a type of society—distinguished here as the socialized type—in which a trace...

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Frank Thilly (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: “Philosophy in France in 1919,” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 173, September, 1920, pp. 575-82.

[Thilly examines Trotter's definition of the herd mentality and the role of biological psychology in the successful future of society.]

[In Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War,] the first edition of which appeared in 1915, Mr. Trotter aims to show that psychology, especially when studied in relation to “other branches of biology,” is capable of becoming a guide in the actual affairs of life, and even of enabling us to foretell in a practical and useful way “some of the course of human behavior.” It is his ambition to lay the...

(The entire section is 3219 words.)

Oliver Warner (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: “Wilfred Trotter's Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War,” in The Quarterly Review, No. 546, October, 1940, pp. 206-14.

[Warner compares Germany and England in the light of Trotter's social theories.]

‘The moral is to the physical,’ so the oft repeated adage runs, ‘as three to one.’ It may be true; as true as the fact that such preponderance is and has always been ours against the Germany of Hitler; but precisely where is the fullness of this strength may not always be apparent. Moral preponderance is, in this country, assumed; but friends sometimes need solid reason why they should believe our cause superior, and the answer is—shortly and...

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R. W. Chapman (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “Wilfred Trotter's Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War,” in Sociological Review, Vol. 35, 1943, pp. 44-7.

[Chapman praises the construction of The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.]

Wilfred Trotter, the great surgeon who helped to save George the Fifth's life, died in November 1939, aged sixty-seven. His outstanding book, published in 1916, falls historically and bibliographically into three parts; (1) the first two essays in the book (pp. 1-66 of the first edition); (2) the main part; (3) the “Postscript” of 1919.

(1) In 1905 (or thereabouts) Trotter wrote an essay which he called “Herd Instinct and its Bearing upon...

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Martin Wilson (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: “The Wolves, the Sheep, and the Bees,” in Blackwood's Magazine, Vol. 254, July-December, 1943, pp. 73-6.

[Wilson offers a historical overview of critical reception to The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.]

Few characteristics in the English are more irritating to the foreigner, or seem more hypocritical, than the proverbial modesty. It is easy to see why; for it may turn into a trap, as it has done more than once under the test of war. It is a secret weapon always at the ready, more deadly than most yet produced by adversaries who, for all their skill and courage, have too often shown the mentality, made the same boastful noises, and proved quite as...

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Cecil W. Usher (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “The Philosophy of Wilfred Trotter,” in The Eugenics Review, Vol. XL, No. 3, October, 1948, pp. 149-53.

[Usher discusses Trotter's influence on eugenics, the study of external influences that affect innate societal qualities.]

Some years ago Wilfred Trotter, in his great work The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, drew attention to the vast difference in time scale of history and biology. “It is scarcely to be expected,” he said, “that even a gross movement on the cramped historical scale will be capable of detection in the vast gulf of time the biological series represents.”1 Nevertheless, he continued, “the infinitely long...

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T. W. Waddell (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: A review of The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, 1916-1919, in The Australian Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, March, 1954, pp. 114-16.

[Waddell reviews The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, and deems it an outstanding examination of society's primary influences.]

Wilfred Trotter, 1872-1939, was one of the foremost surgeons of his time and for many years an outstanding figure in British medicine. He was a humanist of great intellectual power, widely admired for his clinical wisdom and surgical craftsmanship and his inspiring gifts as a teacher. He devoted considerable attention to social psychology to which he made an original and...

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Harry A. Wilmer (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Peace and War,” in JAMA, Vol. 255, No. 20, May 23-30, 1986, pp. 2818-19.

[Wilmer offers a restrospective view of The Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, and points out its limitations.]

[Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War: 1916-1919,] has been republished in a handsome limited edition by the British Medical Association because of its present significance. It is a pioneering effort in applied social psychology. It offers insight into the world of today, threatened by the competing herd instincts of different nations, and within it societies gone awry, with actual and potential horrendous consequences.


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