A fanatic, according to whom?

Nayeli L. Riano

Politics cannot be understood without reference to emotions. We can recall the first line of the Iliad, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus.” Anger sets the epic into motion, and the rest of its magnificent lines showcase the interplay of human passions—pride, lust, love, honor, grief—in one of the greatest stories ever told. Consider, then, the literature of Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, or the political and historical writings of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Hobbes: their works emphasize the propensity of our emotions—in virtue and in vice—to interpret the nature of politics and the inevitable conflict therein.
Passion, it would appear, is a fact of political life. We can look to history to understand the role of passion and the times in which it has veered too far in one direction. Passions, after all, are volatile—reactive to the conditions and circumstances of the times that may either exacerbate or placate them.
Montaigne described the distortive effects that civil war has upon the passions in his essay “On Physiognomy”: An unnatural war!…It comes to cure sedition, and is full of it; it sets out to punish disobedience, and gives an example of it; and, though waged in defence of the laws, performs its share of rebellion against its own. What state have we come to? Our medicine spreads infection. At the beginning of these general maladies we can distinguish the sound from the sick. But when they come to stay, as ours has, the whole body is infected from head to foot; no part is free from corruption.
Montaigne was, of course, writing about the French Wars of Religion, which lasted from 1562-1598. Notice how Montaigne compares such war to sickness of the body, but also describes war as possessing passions of its own that, upon reaching a certain point in the chaos, render them indistinguishable from better passions (“the sound from the sick”). The disobedience and rebellion that fueled people during these wars extend to the characteristic of civil war, which “sets out to punish disobedience, and gives an example of it…” There is a question of directionality in Montaigne’s treatment of civil war that we must ponder: do the circumstances of the times influence our passions, or do our passions—unrestrai-ned—influence the times?
The question might strike as an echo of the chicken or the egg problem, yet it is relevant if we want to posit an answer to the question of whether it is possible to change or control our passions, and consequently cure whatever “maladies,” to borrow Montaigne’s apt word, are in our political climate. Zachary Goldsmith offers a thought-provoking way to engage with these questions in his book, Fanaticism: A Political Philosophical His-tory. In the work, he follows in this tradition of tre-ating emotions as a central quality of political analysis but incorporates a helpful methodology within intellectual history of tracing the evolution of concepts t-hrough their linguistic ada-ptations to historical condition. Those of us who are sympathetic to the idea that any subject is enriched by studying its origins and ev-olutions across cultures and historical periods will welcome Goldsmith’s book as an opportunity to dig deeper into the history of fanaticism.
Types of Fanaticism
The book opens with a discussion of passion and its development into enthusiasm and fanaticism. The first chapter aims to define fanaticism and describes the psychological function that fanaticism has on our minds. Goldsmith describes passion as a feature that is internal to politics but, invoking Weber’s ethics of conviction and responsibility as the two poles on wh-ich passion must balance, adds that passion should never become excessive. The second chapter traces the transformation of the concept of fanaticism across three periods: the ancient, the early modern Christian, and the late modern Enlightenment.
Within the first period, Goldsmith takes us through the Latin etymology of the contemporary word fanatic to better understand its origins in cultic practice as a concept of sacredness that was value-neutral. He then explains the Greek etymology of our word enthusiasm, which is also rooted in a concept of sacredness and religion in Ancient Greek society. After describing these two origins, Goldsmith discusses how the concept of fanaticism evolves in the early modern period to mean a “mistaken religious belief;” while the late modern period reveals a political fanaticism that departs from its previous religious connotations.
The historical sequence of these three periods with regards to the evolutions of fanaticism is compelling: fanaticism began as a type of social engagement in the ancient world which then transformed into a religious concept during the Middle Ages and Reformation and finally transmuted into pol-itical fanaticism during the Enlightenment, culminating in the French Revol-ution.
These first and second chapters are particularly enjoyable. Goldsmith’s discussion on Plato’s treatment of enthusiasm and its connection to his infamous hostility towards poetry in The Republic provided an interesting reading of Plato. Citing the dialogue Ion, Goldsmith points out Socrates’ distinction between art, which is based on knowledge, and poetry, which is based on enthusiasm. The danger of the poet, then, lies in his ability to arouse others to share in this enthusiasm and draw them away from reason.
Goldsmith also discusses several other figures, like St. Augustine, Rousseau, Locke, and Luther in the section on fanaticism as a religious phenomenon and puts them in conversation with each other in a way that nicely situates their thinking under this theme. Though the historical progression of the concept of fanaticism he describes is linear, Goldsmith recognizes that concepts do not simply replace one another. Goldsmith pays close attention to the ways that concepts evolve, such that it requires “successive iterations and applications to various situations, experiences, and ideas.” The concept of fanaticism, therefore, “has never been totally free from religious and political meaning.”
There is, however, an o-mitted discussion in the tre-atment of religious and po-litical fanaticism: civil war. Figures like Montaigne and Hobbes feared civil war as the worst event that could befall a nation for the distortive effects it had on people’s perceptions and consequent actions. Fanaticism’s dangerous traits are often connected to the historical circumstance which elicits them and people’s fear of such catastrophic events. In other words, if fanaticism is a phenomenon that does not appear in a vacuum, we must consider whether the historical events that give rise to fanaticism merit more attention (or fault) than the emotion they elicit.
Immanuel Kant
With regard to modern political thought, Goldsmith explores Kant, Burke, and Dostoevsky’s treatments of fanaticism. Goldsmith brings attention to the way that Kant’s philosophical endeavor to understand the limits of reason connects to fanaticism and his rejection of revolution, despite his sympathetic treatment of the French Revolution. Goldsmith also engages with Kant’s aesthetic theory and its connection to his political theory, adding that Kant “offers an antidote to political fanaticism,” which can be found “hidden” in his writings on political judgments. Goldsmith notes that Kant’s thought is best understood “as a philosophy in search of proper limits: limits to reason and limits to passion,” and focuses on Kant’s theories of various types of judgment. After discussing these different modes of judgment in Kantian philosophy, Goldsmith concludes that Kant’s understanding of aesthetic judgment “naturally lends itself to an understanding of the political world.” That is,
If one seeks a form of p-olitical judgment that avoi-ds, on the one hand, adherence to a preordained dog-ma against which all political decisions are made, w-hile, on the other hand, preserves standards of validity and avoids a descent into total relativism, a mode of judgment that is both subjective yet universally valid is appealing.
This unique mode entails an unbiased judgment that, through sympathy, still has a unifying end aimed at universal validity that supplies us with “a proper dose of affect without transgressing the bounds of reason.” Goldsmith connects this method to the work of philosophers like John Ra-wls and Jurgen Habermas, who have borrowed from Kant’s principles in their own theories of the original position (Rawls) and ideal speech (Habermas).
Although Goldsmith reads Kant well, the move toward ideal theory seems to be at odds with Golds-mith’s alleged commitment to historicist methods, especially in the Cambridge School. The problems of ideal theory for anyone who believes that historical study is necessary to ground political theory are many, but suffice it to say that with something as subjective and precarious as emotions, especially fanaticism, the matter of identifying and producing such a judgment as the type that Kant provides would hardly resolve the question of what produces fanaticism.
It also does not provide us—especially today—with the moral tools to judge whether someone is a “fanatic,” for that requires a knowledge of ethics that we would most likely disagree over. Rawlsian ethics (utilitarian) or Kantian ethics (deontological) are two of the various ethical theories, but neither pays much attention to historical circumstance. The discussion of Kant suggests the further question of whether fanaticism (or any harmful emotions that have a tangible effect on our society) ought to be understood historically or philosophically in order to be resolved (assuming, of course, that a resolution is possible). If philosophy offers a way to think about fanaticism, then why not include a discussion on virtue ethics—such as Aristotle’s golden mean—as another ethical theory: one that emphasizes moderation and self-formation?
Edmund Burke
Goldsmith rightly notes Edmund Burke’s criticism of the “philosophical fanatics” who fueled the French Revolution, but Goldsmith places fanaticism too much at the center of Burke’s thought: “the true import of Burke’s words is to be found not so much in the actual denunciation of the French Revolution…but in the analysis of the particular mindset and political ethos behind it, which Burke understood as fanaticism.” Later again in this chapter, “In his opposition to the Revolution, Burke was…primarily arguing against a new political way of life—namely fanaticism.”
It would be misleading to consider Burke a thinker on fanaticism, rather than a thinker on prudence and moderation who emphasizes the use of history to guide our judgment given our fallibility. Surely, both these descriptions of Burke have significant overlap, yet describing Burke as someone whose thought was primarily concerned with fanaticism deemphasizes the more important points of his political thinking. What’s more, Burke’s rhetoric taken on its own without considering the substance of what he’s actually saying comes off as being fairly fanatic. Mary Wollstonecraft and Burke’s own contemporaries often accused him of being too passionate, even coming off as “insane” in his speeches. Burke’s own cousin, William, branded him as a zealot (for an excellent example of Burke defending himself against similar charges of fanaticism, look at his Guildhall speech).
However, Burke is a most appropriate person to focus on for a study on fanaticism. Though certainly zealous about the causes he cared about, Burke always made it clear that misdirected passion that falls outside the framework of government is the danger. Legal means of reform are the way to change a political reality, but change that is not affected through the right means and that results in violent revolutions earns his staunch disapproval. For this reason, Burke himself saw enthusiasm or fanaticism less as a psychological derangement and more as a phenomenon that could be elucidated by considering environmental conditions.
In addition, the emphasis that Burke placed on the French Revolution as a Jacobin and atheistic movement merited more attention in this book, since it is connected to Burke’s understanding of the importance of morals and customs. Many of us are familiar with the phrasing of Burke’s delightful rejoinder against the French Revolution:
We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helv-etius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers.
The spirit of revolution that Burke was so quick to label as fanaticism is rooted in its blatant disregard for religious convention and social tradition, or as J. G. A. Pocock has put it, Burke’s Anglicanism explained his belief that “the social order must possess a dimension of sacrality.” That Burke emphasizes in so many parts throughout his Reflections on the Revolution in France and his Letters on a Regicide Peace the atheistic characteristic of French Revolutionaries indicates that there is something more at play in Goldsmith’s transition from fanaticism as a religious concept to a political one that regards the particular problem (as Burke saw it, at least) of a “spirit of atheistical fanaticism.”
Considering Burke’s treatment of the uniqueness of atheistic enthusiasm could help answer a lingering question in Goldsmith’s theory about fanaticism’s evolution from a religious to a political concept, which is whether there isn’t something fundamentally different about fanaticism when driven by religious conviction versus non-religious motive. Burke seemed to believe that the latter was far more dangerous politically, even going so far as to say that it was something different altogether. It does not seem that Goldsmith would agree with Burke here.
Goldsmith’s conclusion in the chapter on Burke raises moderation as another antidote to fanaticism. The emphasis on moderation in Burke is certainly a welcome discussion on the topic of fanaticism, though it would have been interesting to know whether Goldsmith prefers Kant’s “antidote” to Burke’s, since the two differ greatly. One can even say they are irreconcilable, since Goldsmith describes Kant’s philosophic treatment of fanaticism as an “epistemological and deontological critique of fanaticism” and Burke’s as an emphasis on historical experience. But, given how drastically different the two antidotes are, further guidance by Goldsmith on parsing the differences and advantages between the two would have been helpful. Burke’s “antidote” of moderation, after all, is more in line with Aristotelian ethics than Kantian deontology.
The treatment of Dostoevsky’s Demons changes the pace of the book as it becomes a literary analysis of the main characters in this story. At a point in the book, Goldsmith mentions that Kant and Burke “go further” than Dostoevsky in their treatment of fanaticism—a statement that makes one wonder why Dostoevsky is included in the first place. As an effort to vindicate the use of Dostoevsky in this work, allow me to offer some thoughts.
Certainly, literature upholds the same principles that we can see in historical study, especially when it comes to the role and permanence of passions. What is more compelling about a novelist or poet’s treatment of passions, however, is that the novelist and poet provide us with a constant in men: they depict how a particular character’s passion plays out in a story (consider the Iliad, Shakespeare’s history plays, or Dostoevsky’s novels) without offering us a comprehensive theory of any sort. The interpretation is left to us as readers, and a solution to our passions is seldom clear. We are left with the literary experience as the historical memory to guide our actions. In this sense, Burke’s and Dostoevsky’s treatment of fanaticism complement each other better in terms of their “antidote,” leaving Kant as the outlier, methodologically speaking.
A Useful Concept?
Fanaticism is a worthwhile read that opens the concept of fanaticism both to historical and contemporary discussions. Goldsmith recognizes some tension in this balance between historical study and contemporary application, but he does not always apply this distinction in this study. For example, he notes that “concepts, their meanings, valences, and connotations are all subject to contestation, and, because of their iterative nature, change over time.” However, he also writes:
Understanding the concept in all of its inherent complexity can better help us understand our own political reality and its relationship to the political reality we desire. Hopefully, by unearthing this concept in all of its vast complexity we can better hope to live in a world with as little fanaticism as is possible.
Although Goldsmith is right to note that fanaticism is anti-liberal and anti-democratic in ways that undermine the principles of pluralism and toleration, the complexity that is inherent in fanaticism is a feature—not a bug—of the complexity inherent in all societies.
As mentioned earlier, the book could be enriched by a longer conversation on the connection of fanaticism to civil war, and the question of whether our passions generate this type of dangerous civil disarray or whether we are more likely to become fanatics when our political environment stimulates our passions to extremes. Again, this distinction matters, since the two explanations have two distinct outcomes. In the former, where fanaticism generates civil disarray, our passions are the drivers of our actions and must therefore always be checked; in the latter, we are compelled to look at historical circumstance and social systems as the instigator of extreme passions. And what about cases where fanaticism drives a particular ideology, but implements relatively unreflecting actors to carry out its wishes? (Adolf Eichmann comes to mind as just one example). There is, of course, an opportunity to consider both individual formation and socio-cultural analysis to understand, and even remedy, fanaticism, but it requires that we think about the type of education that is necessary for such individual formation to triumph over the circumstance. In this case, a discussion of ethics is indispensable.
Then there is the other lingering question: a fanatic, according to whom? We hear from both sides in the discourses and sophisms of today that the opponent is a “fanatic.” Marxists are fanatics, Christians are fanatics, depending on who you ask—how to parse the distinction? Perception of fanaticism can be just as dangerous—if not more dangerous in a civil society—as fanaticism itself. While Goldsmith clarifies that fanaticism is not merely a subjective opinion we can hold about another person we dislike, the criteria for fanaticism he provides at the end of the book—messianism, irrationalism, the embrace of abstraction, the desire for novelty, opposition to limits, embracing violence, certitude, and its tendency to be “an opium for intellectuals”—circumvent the question of what is necessary so as to not become a fanatic.
Simply lacking in these qualities, or being able to recognize them, does not mean that we have avoided fanaticism. Something else must be present in ourselves and in our societies to replace fanaticism. That is a much harder question to answer, and one that is not satisfactorily answered by the principle of pluralism or liberalism, as history well proves by now. Goldsmith’s book is a great foray into the history of fanaticism, and this review is only meant to add questions and thoughts to an already-formidable topic that we could never exhaust—hence its permanence in our literature. Thinking reflexively about fanaticism is also a worthwhile task in and of itself, and we should certainly appreciate Goldsmith for taking up the challenge with such historical breadth.