A Philosophical Dictionary, Volume 05

A Philosophical Dictionary, Volume 05



Fanaticism is the effect of a false conscience, which makes religion subservient to the caprices of the imagination, and the excesses of the passions.

It arises, in general, from legislators entertaining too narrow views, or from their extending their regulations beyond the limits within which alone they were intended to operate. Their laws are made merely for a select society. When extended by zeal to a whole people, and transferred by ambition from one climate to another, some changes of institution should take place, some accommodation to persons, places, and circumstances. But what, in fact, has been the case? Certain minds, constituted in a great degree like those of the small original flock, have received a system with equal ardor, and become its apostles, and even its martyrs, rather than abate a single iota of its demands. Others, on the contrary, less ardent, or more attached to their prejudices of education, have struggled with energy against the new yoke, and consented to receive it only after considerable softenings and mitigations: hence the schism between rigorists and moderates, by which all are urged on to vehemence and madness – the one party for servitude and the other for freedom.

Let us imagine an immense rotunda, a pantheon, with innumerable altars placed under its dome. Let us figure to ourselves a devotee of every sect, whether at present existing or extinct, at the feet of that divinity which he worships in his own peculiar way, under all the extravagant forms which human imagination has been able to invent. On the right we perceive one stretched on his back upon a mat, absorbed in contemplation, and awaiting the moment when the divine light shall come forth to inform his soul. On the left is a prostrate energumen striking his forehead against the ground, with a view to obtain from it an abundant produce. Here we see a man with the air and manner of a mountebank, dancing over the grave of him whom he invokes. There we observe a penitent, motionless and mute as the statue before which he has bent himself in humiliation. One, on the principle that God will not blush at his own resemblance, displays openly what modesty universally conceals; another, as if the artist would shudder at the sight of his own work, covers with an impenetrable veil his whole person and countenance; another turns his back upon the south, because from that quarter blows the devil's tempest. Another stretches out his arms towards the east, because there God first shows His radiant face. Young women, suffused with tears, bruise and gash their lovely persons under the idea of assuaging the demon of desire, although by means tending in fact rather to strengthen his influence; others again, in opposite attitudes, solicit the approaches of the Divinity. One young man, in order to mortify the most urgent of his feelings, attaches to particular parts of his frame large iron rings, as heavy as he can bear; another checks still more effectually the tempter's violence by inhuman amputation, and suspends the bleeding sacrifice upon the altar.

Let us observe them quit the temple, and, full of the inspiration of their respective deities, spread the terror and delusion over the face of the earth. They divide the world between them; and the four extremities of it are almost instantly in flames: nations obey them, and kings tremble before them. That almost despotic power which the enthusiasm of a single person exercises over a multitude who see or hear him; the ardor communicated to each other by assembled minds; numberless strong and agitating influences acting in such circumstances, augmented by each individual's personal anxiety and distress, require but a short time to operate, in order to produce universal delirium. Only let a single people be thus fascinated and agitated under the guidance of a few impostors, the seduction will spread with the speed of wild-fire, prodigies will be multiplied beyond calculation, and whole communities be led astray forever. When the human mind has once quitted the luminous track pointed out by nature, it returns to it no more; it wanders round the truth, but never obtains of it more than a few faint glimmerings, which, mingling with the false lights of surrounding superstition, leave it, in fact, in complete and palpable obscurity.

It is dreadful to observe how the opinion that the wrath of heaven might be appeased by human massacre spread, after being once started, through almost every religion; and what various reasons have been given for the sacrifice, as though, in order to preclude, if possible, the escape of any one from extirpation. Sometimes they are enemies who must be immolated to Mars the exterminator. The Scythians slay upon the altars of this deity a hundredth part of their prisoners of war; and from this usage attending victory, we may form some judgment of the justice of war: accordingly, among other nations it was engaged in solely to supply these human sacrifices, so that, having first been instituted, as it would seem, to expiate the horrors of war, they at length came to serve as a justification of them.

Sometimes a barbarous deity requires victims from among the just and good. The Getæ eagerly dispute the honor of personally conveying to Zamolxis the vows and devotions of their country. He whose good fortune has destined him to be the sacrifice is thrown with the greatest violence upon a range of spears, fixed for the purpose. If on falling he receives a mortal wound, it augurs well as to the success of the negotiation and the merit of the envoy; but if he survives the wound, he is a wretch with whom the god would not condescend to hold any communication.

Sometimes children are demanded, and the respective divinities recall the life they had but just imparted: "Justice," says Montaigne, "thirsting for the blood of innocence!" Sometimes the call is for the dearest and nearest blood: the Carthaginians sacrificed their own sons to Saturn, as if Time did not devour them with sufficient speed. Sometimes the demand was for the blood of the most beautiful. That Amestris, who had buried twelve men alive in order to obtain from Pluto, in return for so revolting an offering, a somewhat longer life – that same Amestris further sacrifices to that insatiable divinity twelve daughters of the highest personages in Persia; as the sacrificing priests have always taught men that they ought to offer on the altar the most valuable of their possessions. It is upon this principle that among some nations the first-born were immolated, and that among others they were redeemed by offerings more valuable to the ministers of sacrifice. This it is, unquestionably, which introduced into Europe the practice prevalent for centuries of devoting children to celibacy at the early age of five years, and shutting up in a cloister the brothers of an hereditary prince, just as in Asia the practice is to murder them.

Sometimes it is the purest blood that is demanded. We read of certain Indians, if I recollect rightly, who hospitably entertain all who visit them and make a merit of killing every sensible and virtuous stranger who enters their country, that his talents and virtues may remain with them. Sometimes the blood required is that which is most sacred. With the majority of idolaters, priests perform the office of executioner at the altar; and among the Siberians, it is the practice to kill the priests in order to despatch them to pray in the other world for the fulfilment of the wishes of the people.

But let us turn our attention to other frenzies and other spectacles. All Europe passes into Asia by a road inundated with the blood of Jews, who commit suicide to avoid falling into the hands of their enemies. This epidemic depopulates one-half of the inhabited world: kings, pontiffs, women, the young and the aged, all yield to the influence of the holy madness which, for a series of two hundred years, instigated the slaughter of innumerable nations at the tomb of a god of peace. Then were to be seen lying oracles, and military hermits, monarchs in pulpits, and prelates in camps. All the different states constitute one delirious populace; barriers of mountains and seas are surmounted; legitimate possessions are abandoned to enable their owners to fly to conquests which were no longer, in point of fertility, the land of promise; manners become corrupted under foreign skies; princes, after having exhausted their respective kingdoms to redeem a country which had never been theirs, complete the ruin of them for their personal ransom; thousands of soldiers, wandering under the banners of many chieftains, acknowledge the authority of none and hasten their defeat by their desertion; and the disease terminates only to be succeeded by a contagion still more horrible and desolating.

The same spirit of fanaticism cherished the rage for distant conquests: scarcely had Europe repaired its losses when the discovery of a new world hastened the ruin of our own. At that terrible injunction, "Go and conquer," America was desolated and its inhabitants exterminated; Africa and Europe were exhausted in vain to repeople it; the poison of money and of pleasure having enervated the species, the world became nearly a desert and appeared likely every day to advance nearer to desolation by the continual wars which were kindled on our continent, from the ambition of extending its power to foreign lands.

Let us now compute the immense number of slaves which fanaticism has made, whether in Asia, where uncircumcision was a mark of infamy, or in Africa, where the Christian name was a crime, or in America, where the pretext of baptism absolutely extinguished the feelings of humanity. Let us compute the thousands who have been seen to perish either on scaffolds in the ages of persecution, or in civil wars by the hands of their fellow citizens, or by their own hands through excessive austerities, and maceration. Let us survey the surface of the earth, and glance at the various standards unfurled and blazing in the name of religion; in Spain against the Moors, in France against the Turks, in Hungary against the Tartars; at the numerous military orders, founded for converting infidels by the point of the sword, and slaughtering one another at the foot of the altar they had come to defend. Let us then look down from the appalling tribunal thus raised on the bodies of the innocent and miserable, in order to judge the living, as God, with a balance widely different, will judge the dead.


In a word, let us contemplate the horrors of fifteen centuries, all frequently renewed in the course of a single one; unarmed men slain at the feet of altars; kings destroyed by the dagger or by poison; a large state reduced to half its extent by the fury of its own citizens; the nation at once the most warlike and the most pacific on the face of the globe, divided in fierce hostility against itself; the sword unsheathed between the sons and the father; usurpers, tyrants, executioners, sacrilegious robbers, and bloodstained parricides violating, under the impulse of religion, every convention divine or human – such is the deadly picture of fanaticism.


If this term has at present any connection with its original meaning it is exceedingly slight.

"Fanaticus" was an honorable designation. It signified the minister or benefactor of a temple. According to the dictionary of Trévoux some antiquaries have discovered inscriptions in which Roman citizens of considerable consequence assumed the title of "fanaticus."

In Cicero's oration "pro domo sua," a passage occurs in which the word "fanaticus" appears to me of difficult explanation. The seditious and libertine Clodius, who had brought about the banishment of Cicero for having saved the republic, had not only plundered and demolished the houses of that great man, but in order that Cicero might never be able to return to his city residence he procured the consecration of the land on which it stood; and the priests had erected there a temple to liberty, or rather to slavery, in which Cæsar, Pompey, Crassus, and Clodius then held the republic. Thus in all ages has religion been employed as an instrument in the persecution of great men. When at length, in a happier period, Cicero was recalled, he pleaded before the people in order to obtain the restoration of the ground on which his house had stood, and the rebuilding of the house at the expense of the Roman people. He thus expresses himself in the speech against Clodius (Oratio pro Domo sua, chap. xl): "Adspicite, adspicite, pontifices, hominem religiosum… monete eum, modum quemdam esse religionis; nimium esse superstitiosum non oportere. Quid tibi necesse fuit anili superstitione, homo fanatice, sacrificium, quod aliænæ domi fieret invisere?"

Does the word "fanaticus," as used above, mean senseless, pitiless, abominable fanatic, according to the present acceptation, or does it rather imply the pious, religious man, the frequenter and consecrator of temples? Is it used here in the meaning of decided censure or ironical praise? I do not feel myself competent to determine, but will give a translation of the passage:

"Behold, reverend pontiffs, behold the pious man… suggest to him that even religion itself has its limits, that a man ought not to be so over-scrupulous. What occasion was there for a sacred person, a fanatic like yourself, to have recourse to the superstition of an old woman, in order to assist at a sacrifice performed in another person's house?"

Cicero alludes here to the mysteries of the Bona Dea, which had been profaned by Clodius, who, in the disguise of a female, and accompanied by an old woman, had obtained an introduction to them, with a view to an assignation with Cæsar's wife. The passage is, in consequence, evidently ironical.

Cicero calls Clodius a religious man, and the irony requires to be kept up through the whole passage. He employs terms of honorable meaning, more clearly to exhibit Clodius's infamy. It appears to me, therefore, that he uses the word in question, "fanaticus" in its respectable sense, as a word conveying the idea of a sacrificer, a pious man, a zealous minister of a temple.

The term might be afterwards applied to those who believed themselves inspired by the gods, who bestowed a somewhat curious gift on the interpreters of their will, by ordaining that, in order to be a prophet, the loss of reason is indispensable.

Les Dieux à leur interprète
Ont fait un étrange don;
Ne peut on être prophète
Sans qu'on perde la raison?

The same dictionary of Trévoux informs us that the old chronicles of France call Clovis fanatic and pagan. The reader would have been pleased to have had the particular chronicles specified. I have not found this epithet applied to Clovis in any of the few books I possess at my house near Mount Krapak, where I now write.

We understand by fanaticism at present a religious madness, gloomy and cruel. It is a malady of the mind, which is taken in the same way as smallpox. Books communicate it much less than meetings and discourses. We seldom get heated while reading in solitude, for our minds are then tranquil and sedate. But when an ardent man of strong imagination addresses himself to weak imaginations, his eyes dart fire, and that fire rapidly spreads; his tones, his gestures, absolutely convulse the nerves of his auditors. He exclaims, "The eye of God is at this moment upon you; sacrifice every mere human possession and feeling; fight the battles of the Lord" – and and they rush to the fight.

Fanaticism is, in reference to superstition, what delirium is to fever, or rage to anger. He who is involved in ecstasies and visions, who takes dreams for realities, and his own imaginations for prophecies, is a fanatical novice of great hope and promise, and will probably soon advance to the highest form, and kill man for the love of God.

Bartholomew Diaz was a fanatical monk. He had a brother at Nuremberg called John Diaz, who was an enthusiastic adherent to the doctrines of Luther, and completely convinced that the pope was Antichrist, and had the sign of the beast. Bartholomew, still more ardently convinced that the pope was god upon earth, quits Rome, determined either to convert or murder his brother; he accordingly murdered him! Here is a perfect case of fanaticism. We have noticed and done justice to this Diaz elsewhere.

Polyeuctes, who went to the temple on a day of solemn festival, to throw down and destroy the statues and ornaments, was a fanatic less horrible than Diaz, but not less foolish. The assassins of Francis, duke of Guise, of William, prince of Orange, of King Henry III., of King Henry IV., and various others, were equally possessed, equally laboring under morbid fury, with Diaz.

The most striking example of fanaticism is that exhibited on the night of St. Bartholomew, when the people of Paris rushed from house to house to stab, slaughter, throw out of the window, and tear in pieces their fellow citizens not attending mass. Guyon, Patouillet, Chaudon, Nonnotte, and the ex-Jesuit Paulian, are merely fanatics in a corner – contemptible beings whom we do not think of guarding against. They would, however, on a day of St. Bartholomew, perform wonders.

There are some cold-blooded fanatics; such as those judges who sentence men to death for no other crime than that of thinking differently from themselves, and these are so much the more guilty and deserving of the execration of mankind, as, not laboring under madness like the Clements, Châtels, Ravaillacs, and Damiens, they might be deemed capable of listening to reason.

There is no other remedy for this epidemical malady than that spirit of philosophy, which, extending itself from one to another, at length civilizes and softens the manners of men and prevents the access of the disease. For when the disorder has made any progress, we should, without loss of time, fly from the seat of it, and wait till the air has become purified from contagion. Law and religion are not completely efficient against the spiritual pestilence. Religion, indeed, so far from affording proper nutriment to the minds of patients laboring under this infectious and infernal distemper, is converted, by the diseased process of their minds, into poison. These malignant devotees have incessantly before their eyes the example of Ehud, who assassinated the king of Eglon; of Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes while in bed with him; of Samuel, hewing in pieces King Agag; of Jehoiada the priest, who murdered his queen at the horse-gate. They do not perceive that these instances, which are respectable in antiquity, are in the present day abominable. They derive their fury from religion, decidedly as religion condemns it.

Laws are yet more powerless against these paroxysms of rage. To oppose laws to cases of such a description would be like reading a decree of council to a man in a frenzy. The persons in question are fully convinced that the Holy Spirit which animates and fills them is above all laws; that their own enthusiasm is, in fact, the only law which they are bound to obey.

What can be said in answer to a man who says he will rather obey God than men, and who consequently feels certain of meriting heaven by cutting your throat?

When once fanaticism has gangrened the brain of any man the disease may be regarded as nearly incurable. I have seen Convulsionaries who, while speaking of the miracles of St. Paris, gradually worked themselves up to higher and more vehement degrees of agitation till their eyes became inflamed, their whole frames shook, their countenances became distorted by rage, and had any man contradicted them he would inevitably have been murdered.

Yes, I have seen these wretched Convulsionaries writhing their limbs and foaming at their mouths. They were exclaiming, "We must have blood." They effected the assassination of their king by a lackey, and ended with exclaiming against philosophers.

Fanatics are nearly always under the direction of knaves, who place the dagger in their hands. These knaves resemble Montaigne's "Old Man of the Mountain," who, it is said, made weak persons imagine, under his treatment of them, that they really had experienced the joys of paradise, and promised them a whole eternity of such delights if they would go and assassinate such as he should point out to them. There has been only one religion in the world which has not been polluted by fanaticism and that is the religion of the learned in China. The different sects of ancient philosophers were not merely exempt from this pest of human society, but they were antidotes to it: for the effect of philosophy is to render the soul tranquil, and fanaticism and tranquillity are totally incompatible. That our own holy religion has been so frequently polluted by this infernal fury must be imputed to the foil and madness of mankind. Thus Icarus abused the wings which he received for his benefit. They were given him for his salvation and they insured his destruction:

Ainsi du plumage qu'il eut
Icare pervertit l'usage;
Il le reçut pour son salut,
Il s'en servit pour son dommage.
– BERTAUT, bishop of Séez.

Fanatics do not always fight the battles of the Lord. They do not always assassinate kings and princes. There are tigers among them, but there are more foxes.

What a tissue of frauds, calumnies, and robberies has been woven by fanatics of the court of Rome against fanatics of the court of Calvin, by Jesuits against Jansenists, and vice versa! And if you go farther back you will find ecclesiastical history, which is the school of virtues, to be that of atrocities and abominations, which have been employed by every sect against the others. They all have the same bandage over their eyes whether marching out to burn down the cities and towns of their adversaries, to slaughter the inhabitants, or condemn them to judicial execution; or when merely engaged in the comparatively calm occupation of deceiving and defrauding, of acquiring wealth and exercising domination. The same fanaticism blinds them; they think that they are doing good. Every fanatic is a conscientious knave, but a sincere and honest murderer for the good cause.


Read, if you are able, the five or six thousand volumes in which, for a hundred years together, the Jansenists and Molinists have dealt out against each other their reproaches and revilings, their mutual exposures of fraud and knavery, and then judge whether Scapin or Trevelin can be compared with them.

One of the most curious theological knaveries ever practised is, in my opinion, that of a small bishop – the narrative asserts that he was a Biscayan bishop; however, we shall certainly, at some future period find out both his name and his bishopric – whose diocese was partly in Biscay and partly in France.

In the French division of his diocese there was a parish which had formerly been inhabited by some Moors. The lord of the parish or manor was no Mahometan; he was perfectly catholic, as the whole universe should be, for the meaning of catholic is universal. My lord the bishop had some suspicions concerning this unfortunate seigneur, whose whole occupation consisted in doing good, and conceived that in his heart he entertained bad thoughts and sentiments savoring not a little of heresy. He even accused him of having said, in the way of pleasantry, that there were good people in Morocco as well as in Biscay, and that an honest inhabitant of Morocco might absolutely not be a mortal enemy of the Supreme Being, who is the father of all mankind.

The fanatic, upon this, wrote a long letter to the king of France, the paramount sovereign of our little manorial lord. In this letter he entreated his majesty to transfer the manor of this stray and unbelieving sheep either to Lower Brittany or Lower Normandy, according to his good pleasure, that he might be no longer able to diffuse the contagion of heresy among his Biscayan neighbors, by his abominable jests. The king of France and his council smiled, as may naturally be supposed, at the extravagance and folly of the demand.

Our Biscayan pastor learning, some time afterwards, that his French sheep was sick, ordered public notices to be fixed up at the church gates of the canton, prohibiting any one from administering the communion to him, unless he should previously give in a bill of confession, from which it might appear that he was not circumcised; that he condemned with his whole heart the heresy of Mahomet, and every other heresy of the like kind – as, for example, Calvinism and Jansenism; and that in every point he thought like him, the said Biscayan bishop.

Bills of confession were at that time much in fashion. The sick man sent for his parish priest, who was a simple and sottish man, and threatened to have him hanged by the parliament of Bordeaux if he did not instantly administer the viaticum to him. The priest was alarmed, and accordingly celebrated the sacred ordinance, as desired by the patient; who, after the ceremony, declared aloud, before witnesses, that the Biscayan pastor had falsely accused him before the king of being tainted with the Mussulman religion; that he was a sincere Christian, and that the Biscayan was a calumniator. He signed this, after it had been written down, in presence of a notary, and every form required by law was complied with. He soon after became better, and rest and a good conscience speedily completed his recovery.

The Biscayan, quite exasperated that the old patient should have thus exposed and disappointed him, resolved to have his revenge, and thus he set about it.

He procured, fifteen days after the event just mentioned, the fabrication, in his own language or patois, of a profession of faith which the priest pretended to have heard and received. It was signed by the priest and three or four peasants, who had not been present at the ceremony; and the forged instrument was then passed through the necessary and solemn form of verification and registry, as if this form could give it authenticity.

An instrument not signed by the party alone interested, signed by persons unknown, fifteen days after the event, an instrument disavowed by the real and credible witnesses of that event, involved evidently the crime of forgery; and, as the subject of the forgery was a matter of faith, the crime clearly rendered both the priest and the witnesses liable to the galleys in this world, and to hell in the other.

Our lord of the manor, however, who loved a joke, but had no gall or malice in his heart, took compassion both upon the bodies and souls of these conspirators. He declined delivering them over to human justice, and contented himself with giving them up to ridicule. But he declared that after the death of the Biscayan he would, if he survived, have the pleasure of printing an account of all his proceedings and manœuvres on this business, together with the documents and evidences, just to amuse the small number of readers who might like anecdotes of that description; and not, as is often pompously announced, with a view to the instruction of the universe. There are so many authors who address themselves to the universe, who really imagine they attract, and perhaps absorb, the attention of the universe, that he conceived he might not have a dozen readers out of the whole who would attend for a moment to himself. But let us return to fanaticism.

It is this rage for making proselytes, this intensely mad desire which men feel to bring others over to partake of their own peculiar cup or communion, that induced the Jesuit Châtel and the Jesuit Routh to rush with eagerness to the deathbed of the celebrated Montesquieu. These two devoted zealots desired nothing better than to be able to boast that they had persuaded him of the merits of contrition and of sufficing grace. We wrought his conversion, they said. He was, in the main, a worthy soul: he was much attached to the society of Jesus. We had some little difficulty in inducing him to admit certain fundamental truths; but as in these circumstances, in the crisis of life and death, the mind is always most clear and acute, we soon convinced him.

This fanatical eagerness for converting men is so ardent, that the most debauched monk in his convent would even quit his mistress, and walk to the very extremity of the city, for the sake of making a single convert.

We have all seen Father Poisson, a Cordelier of Paris, who impoverished his convent to pay his mistresses, and who was imprisoned in consequence of the depravity of his manners. He was one of the most popular preachers at Paris, and one of the most determined and zealous of converters.

Such also was the celebrated preacher Fantin, at Versailles. The list might be easily enlarged; but it is unnecessary, if not also dangerous, to expose the freaks and freedoms of constituted authorities. You know what happened to Ham for having revealed his father's shame. He became as black as a coal.

Let us merely pray to God, whether rising or lying down, that he would deliver us from fanatics, as the pilgrims of Mecca pray that they may meet with no sour faces on the road.


Ludlow, who was rather an enthusiast for liberty than a fanatic in religion – that brave man, who hated Cromwell more than he did Charles I., relates that the parliamentary forces were always defeated by the royal army in the beginning of the civil war; just as the regiment of porters (portes-cochères) were unable to stand the shock of conflict, in the time of the Fronde against the great Condé. Cromwell said to General Fairfax: "How can you possibly expect a rabble of London porters and apprentices to resist a nobility urged on by the principle, or rather the phantom, of honor? Let us actuate them by a more powerful phantom – fanaticism! Our enemies are fighting only for their king; let us persuade our troops they are fighting for their God.

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