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I'm reading Emma Goldman's essay "Minorities versus Majorities" where she quotes Thomas Stockman saying

The most dangerous enemies of truth and justice in our midst are the compact majorities, the damned compact majority

This phrase "compact majority" appears in other parts of the essay, for example

The majority, that compact, immobile, drowsy mass, the Russian peasant, after a century of struggle, of sacrifice, of untold misery, still believes that the rope which strangles "the man with the white hands" brings luck

The only meanings of "compact" that I can find relate to "things packed closely together", but here it is used in a pejorative way, meaning, I guess, "ignorant"? Where does this come from?

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  • It is an extension of the literal meaning you cite. It refers to a majority of people who stubbornly stick to some values or customs. The sense is negation in the specific context but not necessarily so.
    – user 66974
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 17:38
  • It's the 'firmly packed, established, unchangeable' sense. There's the nuance of 'complacent'. But please show the research you've done. Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 17:45
  • @EdwinAshworth I think I missed the "unchangeable" part. It probably doesn't help that there is a word in my native language that is very similar ("kompaktowy") which also means firmly packed, but with a more positive meaning, as in "conveniently small". I guess in English this means more like "pressed together into something dense and firm", and not necessarily in a good way?
    – Dunno
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 18:43
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    It's not a common usage here (hence the difficulty in finding it in a dictionary). The writing (both quotes) is flowery, and should not be seen as examples of modern idiomatic English. Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 19:46

4 Answers 4

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The phrase you quote appears to be defining the term you are looking at:

The majority, that compact, immobile, drowsy mass...

I would assume that wherever else the author uses the phrase "compact majority" they are referring to this description.

Compact means "densely packed", but also carries connotations of "hard to break apart" "hard to move", which definitely tie in with the way the author is trying to describe the "majority". It doesn't necessarily mean ignorant, but it is intended to imply that their views don't change with new information or discoveries. "Immobile" and "drowsy" also convey similar ideas.

It could also mean "doesn't interact with those around", specifically that it is not informed by new information or discoveries.

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Thomas Stockmann is the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen's play "An Enemy of the People." It can be read as a political parable focused on small-town democratic government (one reviewer likens it to "Jaws"). Dr. Stockmann has made the scientific discovery that the water of the town's newly built spa, a hoped-for, money-making tourist draw, is in fact contaminated and pathogenic; a journalist notes that when the news of this is published, the government will be embarrassed, but the doctor will enjoy the support of "the compact majority."

But when the mayor turns the people's mood against the doctor, calling him "an enemy of the people" for seeking to impoverish them, the same "compact majority" now ostracizes him. So from the way the expression is used, it seems to be equivalent to "solid majority," i.e. one in which one of the voters' options is so heavily favored that there can be no dispute as to who or what won.

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  • Satyajit Ray directed an excellent adaptation of "An Enemy of the People" in 1989, reset in India, with religious elements introduced to further complicate the conflict between motives of science and the common good on the one hand and political and economic advantage on the other. It's timely and well worth seeing, although I don't think the script uses the term "compact majority" at any point.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 1 at 6:12
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Impossible to determine in context. It could be a reference to the way that compacting materials makes them hard to break up (the way it is used in rammed walls to make dirt suitable as building material).

It could also be a reference to the way they are unified and so difficult to break up by a divide-and-conquer strategy.

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Several meanings of "compact" seem to fit the author's usage. The meanings already cited seem to fit best. However, one definition of compact as a noun is: an agreement to form a sort of union, or a block, or coalition, or association, e.g. the Mayflower Compact, in order to achieve a common goal. That meaning seems to be along the same lines. I don't think that's what the author meant literally, but that definition sheds some insights into the origin.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/compact?topic=small

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