The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fanaticism may be rising alarmingly fast. But it’s a very old problem.

Several of history’s greatest thinkers offered solutions to the problem plaguing our politics

Abortion rights demonstrators march toward the home of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in Chevy Chase, Md., on July 2. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Commenting on protests outside Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s home, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial claims we live in “fanatical times when political violence is all too possible.” Referring to the events of Jan. 6, 2021, Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, called the rioters “a handful of fanatics,” while a recent piece in Slate invites us to “Meet the Trump Fanatics Who Have Taken Over Elections in a Critical Swing State.” But what do we mean when we talk about “fanaticism”?

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

Although it may be hard to believe now given its current use, fanaticism began as a value-neutral, purely descriptive term, referring to a particular type of Roman religious experience that took place at a particular type of Roman temple called a fanum. The priests of these ancient “mystery cults,” existing roughly between the 5th century B.C. and the 5th century A.D., were history’s first fanatics.

But, during the Christian era, the concept took on its decidedly negative hue, as a reference to someone with errant 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 the revolutionary priests who went even further in their religious and political iconoclasm than he did as “false prophets” and “wretched fanatics.” In rejecting the validity of all 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 only known to exist in matters of religion — the concept of fanaticism expanded to allow for an overtly political version. Remarking on the events across the channel, English historian Horace Walpole wrote in 1793 that the French Revolution displayed “enthusiasm [often a synonym for fanaticism] without religion.” Similarly, an English pamphleteer of the time, writing under the name Junius, argued that these events proved the existence of a “mistaken zeal in politics as well as religion.”

These commentators observed the same kind of errors in thought displayed by earlier religious fanatics, this time deployed not on issues of religious dogma, but matters of politics.

Two of the best commentators on this new political fanaticism were German philosopher Immanuel Kant and the British thinker and statesman Edmund Burke. While propounding vastly different philosophical systems, each of them approached the French Revolution and the modern era it inaugurated with the idea of fanaticism front and center in their thinking.

An opponent of revolution in any form, 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 outset. Both, however, saw fanaticism as a serious political problem that was brought to the fore by the events in France.

Writing in 1798, Kant argued that the “disinterested sympathy” of European observers of the revolution was proof positive of “a moral character of humanity” that implacably inclined toward “progress.” However, this sort of passionate involvement in politics, in Kant’s view, could easily break the lashes of reason and slip into the “oppressive passion” of fanaticism.

Burke held a totally different view of the French Revolution. In his famous “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” written near the outset of the revolution in 1790, Burke argued that the “political men of letters” orchestrating the revolution sought to completely refashion France “with a degree of zeal which hitherto had been discovered only in the propagators of some system of piety.” It was the “spirit of fanaticism” that Burke identified at the root of the French Revolution. The idea that an ideal society could be created atop the ruins of the existing (however imperfect) French state was pure fanaticism, thought Burke, akin to the beliefs of religious utopians of bygone eras.

While both 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 “broad minded” and “disinterested” 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 fanaticism by adopting a moderate political ethos characterized by prudence and a concern for order and stability. Burke argued in his “Reflections,” “in most questions of state, there is a middle. There is something else than the mere alternative of absolute destruction or unreformed existence.”

With fanaticism on the rise in American politics, perhaps we can learn from the diagnoses of these great thinkers that came before us and from their proposed antidotes to be more reasonable, broad minded and moderate in our own politics. Rather than ultimate battles between light and darkness, or truth against falsehood, Kant and Burke (despite their many differences) would both tell us that politics rightly understood requires a tempering of our own passions and a corresponding respect for the inherent value and rights of our fellow citizens.

Loading...