Fanaticism May be Alarming, but It's Not NewRoundup
tags: political history, radicalism, Political theory, Fanaticism
Zachary R. Goldsmith is the author of Fanaticism: A Political Philosophical History (Penn Press, 2022). He is a political theorist at Purdue University.
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.