“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.”-Voltaire, “Fanaticism,” Philosophical Dictionary
In my report from the panel discussion about Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, I noted that in his introduction Ed Berenson had mentioned an 18th-century play by Voltaire about Mohammed: Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet. Having now read it, I’m surprised the play hasn’t received more attention.
Most striking is its modernity. And I don’t just mean the 2013 translator Hanna Burton’s decision to render Voltaire’s verse into modern prose (though that helps). I mean its psychological-sociological examination of fanaticism as a social phenomenon. Many people, it seems, are focused on the question of who the play is “really” about. People have discussed Voltaire’s knowledge or ignorance of and attitudes toward the historical Mohammed and the early Islamic movement. They’ve pointed to various indications within and without the work - his arguments about historical fact being secondary to artistic effect, his use of imaginary place names,… – as suggesting that he didn’t intend it to be a work of historical accuracy. Many have suggested that the “real” target of the play was Catholicism (or specific sects or movements within it), and that the use of the Muslim figure was just a means to get around Church censorship and avoid persecution.1
It seems to me that these arguments are both right and wrong. The play is about both early Islam and contemporary Catholicism and at the same time about no religion in particular. It’s a very modern work about a social phenomenon: fanaticism. This seems clear from Voltaire’s later Philosophical Dictionary, published anonymously, which contained an entry for “Fanaticism.”2 The play seems to be a dramatized version of the argument Voltaire sets forth in the extended entry.
Fanaticism as a global problem and its consequences
Voltaire’s dictionary entry about fanaticism as a generic social phenomenon was ahead of its time. “Fanaticism,” as Voltaire defines it, is “the effect of a false conscience, which makes religion subservient to the caprices of the imagination, and the excesses of the passions.” He encourages the reader to imagine a temple filled with religious fanatics of various sorts, all engaging in the bizarre practices they believe are demanded by or pleasing to their gods. They then, “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.”
He presents fanaticism as a global phenomenon, to which all humans are vulnerable. Throughout the entry, Voltaire uses concrete examples – some no doubt historically and anthropologically questionable – to illustrate the various bloody consequences and social-psychological characteristics of the phenomenon. These are by no means limited to a particular culture. Fanaticism almost invariably leads to some form of human (he doesn’t talk about animal) sacrifice: “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.” He describes the various categories of people marked for sacrifice in different religious cultures - enemies, children, the “just and good,” the “most beautiful” and “most valuable,” the “purest,” the “most sacred” – offering specific examples of each from a variety of cultures.
He discusses fanaticism’s role in the crusades and the genocidal European conquest of the “New World”:
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.Fanaticism, he argues, gives rise to wars, persecution, and massacres:
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.Fanaticism leads to a violent and destructive intolerance. Voltaire discusses a monk who murdered his brother for holding different beliefs; “Polyeuctes, who went to the temple on a day of solemn festival, to throw down and destroy the statues and ornaments”; the “assassins of Francis, duke of Guise, of William, prince of Orange, of King Henry III., of King Henry IV.; and “various others” - all “equally possessed, equally laboring under morbid fury...” “The most striking example of fanaticism,” notably, is close to home: “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.”
Fanaticism as a progressive illness
Voltaire saw fanaticism as a sort of contagious illness, a “religious madness” or “malady of the mind, which is taken in the same way as smallpox.”3 More precisely, it was akin to a symptom marking the advanced nature of an illness:
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.The prognosis for advanced cases – individual or collective - was in his view generally negative:
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.Anticipating 19th- and early 20th-century elite fears about crowds and masses, Voltaire contends that people assembled in crowds are particularly susceptible to fanatical passions and irrationalities:
…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.
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.His most subtle analysis concerns the leaders of fanatical movements. On the one hand, he presents them as cynical and self-serving manipulators:
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 they rush to the fight.
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.He offers as an example of the cynical use of fanaticism Oliver Cromwell:
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.”Fairfax then “composed his regiment of red-coated brothers, of gloomy religionists, whom he made obedient tigers. Mahomet himself was never better served by soldiers.”4
But, despite what this story suggests, he doesn’t argue that the leaders are merely cloaking their self-serving, material goals in the language of religion. They, too, are fanatics:
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. [emphasis added]What can check the growth of fanaticism?
As noted above, Voltaire was pessimistic about the prospects for recovery from the illness of fanaticism. Neither laws nor (it almost shouldn’t need to be said) religion could counteract it: “[W]hen 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.”
In fact, “Religion…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.” (With one exception: “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.”)
Laws, he argues,
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.There was only one treatment and prophylactic - 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.” While fanaticism both thrived on inflamed passions and further inflamed them, the spirit of philosophy worked through inducing mental calm: “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 tranquility are totally incompatible.”
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?
But even this antidote wasn’t always successful. Troublingly, fanaticism could strike even the most reasonable. “It seems as if superstition were an epidemic disease,” Voltaire lamented, “from which the strongest minds are not always exempt”; “[o]ver what precipices do not men fall, notwithstanding their boasted leading-strings of reason!” Even Isaac Newton hadn’t been immune:
Were it allowable for us to reveal the disgrace of those to whom we owe the sincerest respect, I should observe here, that Newton, the great Newton himself, discovered in the “Apocalypse” that the pope was Antichrist, and made many other similar discoveries…. [I]f the exalted Newton imagined that he found the modern history of Europe in the “Apocalypse,” we may say: Alas, poor human beings!In sum, then, rather than attributing it to any particular religion, Voltaire saw fanaticism as a global scourge with devastating consequences. He tried to find the psychological and social conditions in which fanaticism and fanatical movements took root and spread. He viewed fanaticism as a sort of contagious illness, progressive and almost always incurable – once “the human mind has…quitted the luminous track pointed out by nature,” it was nearly impossible to return to it. He sought to capture the dual nature of the leaders of fanatical movements, both self-serving manipulators and themselves suffering from the same sickness. Finally, he considered possible checks to the growth of fanaticism, arguing that neither law nor religion was effective and placing his hopes in a reason grounded in nature, the tranquil “spirit of philosophy,” while acknowledging that even this didn’t always protect us.
If this were a critical review, I would take issue with some of Voltaire’s arguments, but my intent is really just to summarize them in order to provide the necessary intellectual and political context for reading the play. In my next post on the subject, I’ll talk about the play within this context.
1 Which he did. As Burton notes in the introduction to her translation (p. 16), after some Catholic officials raised objections and forced the play’s withdrawal from the stage, Voltaire wrote to the Vatican and received papal approval from Benedict XIV. Lord Chesterfield, Malise Ruthven mentions in her preface (p. 8), saw the play as a veiled attack on Jesus, and was flummoxed to hear the response of a Catholic ‘who was extremely edified by the way in which this impostor and enemy of Christianity had been depicted’.
2 I had a hell of a time with this. The text I quote from here was published online by the University of Adelaide in Australia. They state that it’s “[d]erived from The Works of Voltaire, A Contemporary Version, (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901), A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming. I was unsure about the entry because it doesn’t appear in this Project Gutenberg version from 1764. But the entry is included in Volume V, which does appear in the Project Gutenberg version of The Works of Voltaire. I also found a version of the full entry in French from 1826, after Voltaire’s death. It appears Voltaire reworked and expanded on the PD throughout his life, so this might have been the last version. I haven’t been able to discover when exactly this version of the entry was completed or originally published.
3 Voltaire takes care to distinguish between two types of fanatics, of which one bears greater moral responsibility: “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.” [emphasis added]
4 Here Voltaire is quite sociological. He argues that Cromwell could only have succeeded in certain conditions: “in order to inspire this fanaticism, you must be seconded and supported by the spirit of the times.” To “make and to guide fanatics” requires the “profoundest dissimulation and the most determined intrepidity,” but “everything depends, after these previous requisites are secured, on coming into the world at a proper time.”