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Where does Fanaticism Come from?

Is it Closer to Mysticism or to Enthusiasm?

All invasive moral states and passionate enthusiasms make one feelingless to evil in some direction. The common penalties cease to deter the patriot, the usual prudences are flung by the lover to the winds. When the passion is extreme, suffering may actually be gloried in, provided it be for the ideal cause, death may lose its sting, the grave its victory. In these states, the ordinary contrast of good and ill seems to be swallowed up in a higher denomination, an omnipotent excitement which engulfs the evil, and which the human being welcomes as the crowning experience of his life. This, he says, is truly to live, and I exult in the heroic opportunity and adventure.

William James

No one understands the psychology of a religious fanatic better than I do, for the simple reason that I used to be one myself. Twenty years ago, when I was newly converted from Confucianism to Christianity, I felt so cocksure of my religious beliefs that whenever I was introduced to a new friend, my first question invariably was, May I ask whether you are a Christian? If the answer was yes, I felt as though I had got one more companion in Heaven. But if the answer was in the negative, I felt as though I saw before my eyes a man on the point of drowning—and of course eternal drowning was an infinitely more serious case than simply drowning in the river. What could be more logical under such an emergency than to raise an alarm? “So, you are not a Christian!” I would exclaim: “It is too bad! You must read the Bible and be converted!”...But the thing is that with the advent of doubt, I have lost my peace forever. I have never been so happy as when I was trying to save people’s souls.

John Wu (1899-1986)

The secularist and the sceptic have denounced Christianity first and foremost, because of its encouragement of fanaticism; because religious excitement led men to burn their neighbours and to dance naked down the street. How queer it all sounds now. Religion can be swept out of the matter altogether, and still there are philosophical and ethical theories which can produce fanaticism enough to fill the world. Fanaticism has nothing at all to do with religion... And if any one doubts this proposition—that fanaticism has nothing to do with religion, but has only to do with human nature—let him take this case of Tolstoy and the Doukhabors. A sect of men start with no theology at all, but with the simple doctrine that we ought to love our neighbour and use no force against him, and they end in thinking it wicked to carry a leather handbag, or to ride in a cart. A great modern writer who erases theology altogether, denies the validity of the Scriptures and the Churches alike, forms a purely ethical theory that love should be the instrument of reform, and ends by maintaining that we have no right to strike a man if he is torturing a child before our eyes. He goes on, he develops a theory of the mind and the emotions, which might be held by the most rigid atheist, and he ends by maintaining that the sexual relation out of which all humanity has come, is not only not moral, but is positively not natural. This is fanaticism as it has been and as it will always be... The truth is that Tolstoy, with his immense genius, with his colossal faith, with his vast fearlessness and vast knowledge of life, is deficient in one faculty and one faculty alone. He is not a mystic: and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism: they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men sane. The thing that has driven them mad was logic.

G. K. Chesterton

Belief in a cause is a source of happiness to large numbers of people. I am not thinking only of revolutionaries, socialists, nationalists in oppressed countries, and such; I am thinking also of many humbler kinds of belief. The men I have known who believed that the English were the lost ten tribes were almost invariably happy, while as for those who believed that the English were only the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, their bliss know no bounds.

Bertrand Russell

If Mr. Balfour [British Prime Minister, 1902-05] could be converted to a religion which taught him that he was morally bound to walk into the House of Commons on his hands, and he did walk on his hands, if Mr. Wyndham could accept a creed which taught that he ought to dye his hair blue, and he did dye his hair blue, they would both of them be, almost beyond description, better and happier men than they are. For there is only one happiness possible or conceivable under the sun, and that is enthusiasm—that strange and splendid word that has passed through so many vicissitudes, which meant, in the eighteenth century the condition of a lunatic, and in ancient Greece the presence of a god.

G. K. Chesterton

In this description of George Bernard Shaw in old age, Leonard Woolf may have identified something central in fanaticism, namely, self-absorption: ‘...he would come up and greet one with what seemed to be warmth and pleasure and he would start straight away with a fountain of words scintillating with wit and humour... But if you happened to look into that slightly fishy, ice-blue eye of his, you got a shock. It was not looking at was looking through you or over you into a distant world or universe inhabited almost entirely by G.B.S., his thoughts and feelings, fancies and fantasies.’

Thoughts about Fanaticism & Enthusiasm
(along with some plausible examples)

A fanatic is a person who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.

Winston Churchill

An anyonymous reviewer, known as Philonous, had this to say about the book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence: ‘In this remarkable book, the South African philosopher David Benatar attempts to solve, in a most unusual way, some related moral problems concerning matters of life and death. Benatar claims, inter alia, that deliberate procreation is immoral; that abortion is morally mandatory if possible before approximately 30 weeks of gestation; and that the morally optimal size of the human population is ZERO. On the face of it, this may strike the reader as absurd, or even insane, but Benatar is most certainly not a madman, as any reader who gives this book a fair chance will soon acknowledge.’

Generally speaking, human beings are extremely tolerant of nonsense.

Fear those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.

Umberto Eco

We’re invincible. And if they have to kill our entire people to crush the Revolution, then the people—behind their party and their leaders—are ready to die. We’re ready to water our ideas with our blood.

Fidel Castro (1993 speech)

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.

Daniel Dennett

We are all exact and scientific on the subjects we do not care about. We all immediately detect exaggeration in an exposition of Mormonism or a patriotic speech from Paraguay. We all require sobriety on the subject of the sea serpent. But the moment we begin to believe a thing ourselves, that moment we begin easily to overstate it; and the moment our souls become serious, our words become a little wild.

G. K. Chesterton

In a broadcast to the nation after the defeat at Stalingrad Hitler said, ‘What is life? Life is the nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the individual is the nation.’

The vanity of ideas is even more dangerous than the vanity of the ego.

Ian Hunter

Insanity in individuals is rare—but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Men will always be mad and those who think they can cure them are the maddest of all.


It is only the language of symbol that can express a faith which is pure vision, and has no wish to attack or improve on anyone else’s faith. In short, the language of symbols is the language of love, and that, as Paul reminds us, will last longer than any other form of human communication.

Northrop Frye

Every one is more or less mad on one point.

Rudyard Kipling

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Superficially one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are.

G. K. Chesterton

Physicist Raymond LaFlamme says he would work every hour of every day if it weren’t for his children (and, we presume, for his wife).

I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.

Nikola Tesla

Putty is exactly like human can twist it and pat it and model it into any shape you like; and when you have shaped it, it will set so hard that you would suppose that it could never take any other shape on earth... the Soviet Government has shaped the Russian putty very carefully...and it has set hard and produced quite a different sort of animal.

George Bernard Shaw

There is such a thing as human nature, with its norms which every reformer and every specialist will be tempted to distort, unless restrained by the broad sanity of public opinion.

G. K. Chesterton

The [scientific] knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.

Bertrand Russell

The more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal.

William James

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