April 20, 2013

Rational Fanaticism

Category: History :: Permalink

In his biography of Robespierre, Hilaire Belloc identifies two kinds of fanaticism:

Those whom it is customary in soft times to call fanatics are of two kinds.  There is he who maintains what he very well knows to be incapable of positive proof, and very far from being a self-evident proposition — as, that the Book of Mormon fell from heaven, that Pinkish Elephants are alone of animals divine, or that some chief or king is descended from a Bear.  The fanatic that would convince others of these truths will sometimes threaten with the sword, or be at the pains of working wonders to prove them; but most commonly it is by an earnest advocacy and by the power of insistent repetition that he will convert his hearers to accept his vision.  It is his glory that the thing he premises has in it something wholly  unusual, and he praises it as a chief virtue in his proselytes that they accept reality by the channels of affection and appreciation rather than by those of comparison and experience.  Robespierre was emphatically not of this kind.

But there is a second kind which has often, oddly enough, a more irritant effect upon humanity than the first.  They attach themselves to some principle which is highly probable, or generally acceptable, or even self-evident, and armed with this truth, which few care (and sometimes none are able) to deny, they proceed to a thousand applications of their rule which they lay down as an iron standard, crushing the multiple irregularities of living things.  Of these it has been well said that they go to the devil by logic.  It is in their nature to see nothing of the mysteries, and to forget that the aspects of truth must be co-ordinated.  They do not remember that the Divine Nature in which all truths are contained and from which all proceed, has not as yet been grasped by the human mind, and they fail to perceive at how prodigious a rate the probability of divergence increases as deduction proceeds step by step from its first base in principle.

Yet so strong is the current of deduction in us that when such fanatics most disturb and torture us by their practical enormities we are forever reproaching ourselves with the unreasonableness of our instinctive opposition, and thinking, as their system reposes on a truth and is consistent, that therefore its last conclusions may not be denied; and it is this weakness in us that gives fanatics of the latter sort their power.  Of this kind were the lawyers of the later middle ages, of this kind are the defenders of many modern economic theories, and of this kind was Robespierre (Robespierre 33-34).

And of this kind may be some people in the church today.  And of this kind may be (at some times and in some ways) some of us, piling deduction upon deduction and pressuring others to follow our reasoning all the way to conclusions that they feel to be wrong (but what are feelings against our deductions?!) and that we (in our own eyes) are bold enough to embrace.  No one wants to be a Robespierre, but sometimes we meet them today and sometimes we are closer to that sort of fanaticism than we think.

Belloc goes on to add that such men have other notable characteristics.  Robespierre appeared to be conceited or vain, but that is misleading: he didn’t think he was devoted to himself; he thought he was devoted to the principles he was applying, with which (he thought) others agreed.  He was suspicious of others because he was convinced of these principles and because others said and did things that didn’t seem consistent with that sort of conviction.

Again, this unique conviction destroyed humour and proportion.  Did he hear a gibe against his wearisome insistence?  It seemed to him a gibe against the liberty and the God whom he preached.  He missed relative values, so that he was in politics like a man who in battle has no sense of range; he blundered unexpectedly upon oppositions; he shot short or over the heads of his opponents (35).

He was “bewildered by the opportunist,” Belloc says (36), and he saw inconsistencies as the result of some moral flaw:

That practical temper and those inconsistencies of affection which are the general tone of all mankind, he, on the contrary, imagined to be peculiar to some few evil and exceptional men, and these he was for removing as abhorrent to the perfect State and corrupting to it.  “You say that self-government is of right, and yet you will not immediately grant the suffrage to all?  You are insincere, a liar, a deceiver of the people.”  “You say you believe in God, and yet you oppose the execution of this atheist?  You are corrupt and perhaps bribed.  If God be really God, this infinite God and his Majesty must certainly be defended.  But perhaps you do not believe in Him — then you also must go the way of the man you are defending.”  “You say the people are sovereign, and yet you are seen in the house of men who approved of the middle class militia firing on the crowd?  Then you are a traitor.”  Wherever men of the usual sort perceive but one of the million inconsistencies of life — inconsistencies that vary infinitely in degree, and that must be of a rare sort to be counted as crimes or aberrations — Robespierre saw but glaring antitheses; something unjust, untrue, and very vile” (36-37).

More than that, he lacked love or even friendship:

While theory thus led him to violent animosities, it forbade him sincere affections.  This, which is the widest gap in the texture of his mind and the principal symptom of his unnatural abstraction, explains a great part of his adventures.  There can be no better corrector of intellectual extravagance than the personal love of friends, for this gives experience of what men are, educates the mind to complexity, makes room for healthy doubt, puts stuff into the tenuous framework of the mind, and prevents the mere energy of thought from eating inward” (37).


Posted by John Barach @ 10:52 am | Discuss (0)

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