Fanaticism can increase at an alarming rate. But this is a very old problem.


Commenting on the protests outside the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial claims we live by”fanatical time when political violence is all too possible. Referring to the events of January 6, 2021, Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, called the rioters “a handful of fanatics”, while a recent article by Slate invites us to “Meet the Trump fanatics who took control of the election in a critical swing state”. But what are we talking about when we talk about “fanaticism”?

Far from being a Trump-era invention, the term fanaticism has a long history that dates back to the ancient Greco-Roman world. It became associated with political violence during the French Revolution, ultimately spurring some of the prominent philosophers of the time to develop the very solutions that could help our society today.

Although it might be hard to believe now given its current usage, fanaticism began as a neutral and purely descriptive term, referring to a particular type of Roman religious experience that took place in a particular type of Roman temple. called fanum. The priests of these ancient “mystery cults”, existing approximately between the 5th century BC. AD and the 5th century AD. AD, were the first fanatics in history.

But, in Christian times, the concept took on its decidedly negative tinge, as a reference to someone with wandering and dangerous religious beliefs. Martin Luther, for example, the renegade Catholic priest who would become the leader of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, often denounced revolutionary priests who went even further in their religious and political iconoclasm than he did, calling them “false prophets.” » and « miserable ». fanatics. By rejecting the validity of any secular temporal authority, these populist priests sought to bring heaven down to earth, a bridge too far for Luther.

Two centuries later, during the French Revolution—when observers witnessed a form of passion and zeal hitherto known only in matters of religion—the concept of fanaticism expanded to allow for an overtly political version. Commenting on events across the Channel, the English historian Horace Walpole wrote in 1793 that the French Revolution had shown “enthusiasm [often a synonym for fanaticism] without religion. Similarly, an English pamphleteer of the time, writing under the name of Junius, argued that these events proved the existence of “a mistaken zeal in politics as in religion”.

These commentators observed the same type of errors of thought displayed by earlier religious fanatics, deployed this time not on matters of religious dogma, but on political matters.

Two of the best commentators on this new political fanaticism were the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the British thinker and statesman Edmund Burke. While offering very different philosophical systems, each approached the French Revolution and the modern era it ushered in with the idea of ​​fanaticism central to their thinking.

Opposing revolution in all its forms, Kant came surprisingly close to endorsing the events unfolding in France in 1789. On the other hand, Burke, who had no such universal and abstract opposition to revolution – and probably supported the American Revolution – abhorred the events. in France from the start. Both, however, saw fanaticism as a serious political problem highlighted by events in France.

Writing in 1798, Kant argued that the “disinterested sympathy” of European observers of the revolution was positive proof of a “moral character of mankind” relentlessly inclined towards “progress”. However, this kind of passionate involvement in politics, according to Kant, could easily break the lashes of reason and slip into the “oppressive passion” of fanaticism.

Burke had a totally different view of the French Revolution. In his famous “Reflections on the Revolution in France“, writing at the start of the revolution in 1790, Burke asserted that the “political men of letters” orchestrating the revolution sought to completely reshape France “with a degree of zeal which had hitherto been discovered only in the propagators of a certain system of piety. It was the “spirit of fanaticism” that Burke identified as the origin of the French Revolution. The idea that an ideal society could be created on the ruins of the existing (even imperfect) French state was pure fanaticism, Burke thought, similar to the beliefs of religious utopians of bygone eras.

While Kant and Burke had different definitions of fanaticism, they also offered different solutions to the problems posed by it.

For Kant, fanaticism could be avoided by careful political judgment. He encouraged people to be “open-minded” and “unselfish” in their political judgments, asking what kind of decisions we would make about politics if we were in someone else’s shoes.

For Burke, a statesman could avoid bigotry by embracing a moderate political ethos characterized by prudence and concern for order and stability. Burke argued in his “Reflections,” “In most matters of state there is a middle. There is more than the simple alternative of absolute destruction or unreformed existence.

With the rise of bigotry in American politics, perhaps we can learn from the diagnoses of those great thinkers who came before us and their proposed antidotes to being more reasonable, broad-minded, and moderate in our own politics. Rather than ultimate battles between light and darkness, or truth versus falsehood, Kant and Burke (despite their many differences) would both tell us that politics properly understood demands a moderation of our own passions and a corresponding respect for the value and inherent rights of our fellow citizens.