At the end of my previous post, I summarized Voltaire’s entry for “Fanaticism” in his Philosophical Dictionary:
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 were 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.This is the context and spirit in which the play Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, should be read and understood. It’s essential that we keep readily in mind that Voltaire worked to comprehend and present fanaticism as a generic psychological and social phenomenon, as a universal danger rather than a characteristic tendency of any particular religion or culture.
To read the play in the belief that it applies specifically or exclusively to Muslims is contrary to Voltaire’s clear intent (as described in my previous post), and smacks of intellectual dishonesty and bad faith. True, a reader could always think “I know how Voltaire saw it, but I believe some sorts of people – like Muslims – are especially susceptible to fanaticism and that I myself or my culture have largely advanced beyond that danger.” But such a belief is plainly unsustainable in the face of the historical and sociological evidence. Furthermore, clinging to it despite all indications to the contrary tends toward precisely the sort of fanatical bigotry Voltaire warned against, as when he offered as an example of Christian fanaticism a certain “Biscayan bishop” who “even accused” the lord of a parish in his diocese “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.”
Even more important is that reading the play as describing a specific religion or culture serves to block virtually any insights we might otherwise gain from it about ourselves, our societies (including historical and contemporary Muslim societies), and the sources and appeal of fanaticism in the past and present. Which is why, while I highly recommend reading both the play and the dictionary entry, I don’t think the play should be performed as it’s written, at least outside of predominantly Muslim contexts. Updating the work so that it can be set in the modern era would be complicated, but this would undoubtedly be the best way to draw out its insights.
While Voltaire included in the category of fanatics many Crusaders, Inquisitors, and Conquistadors, he lived only at the very birth of modern political movements. He certainly recognized the overlap between fanatical religious and political movements, but his frame of reference was primarily religious. The modern gods of History, Race, State, Civilization, and so on were still being crafted. But a critical and educational production of his work now would take this political landscape into account. Not Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet, but Fanaticism, or Lenin the Bolshevik; Fanaticism, or Hitler the Racist; Fanaticism, or North the Cold Warrior; Fanaticism, or Pinochet the Dictator; Fanaticism, or Pol Pot the Revolutionary; Fanaticism, or Putin the Strongman; Fanaticism, or Franco the Caudillo; Fanaticism, or Friedman the Neoliberal;...
As several of these examples make clear, even today no sharp line can be drawn between “religious” and “political” movements or fanaticisms. And I don’t mean by offering these suggestions to imply that a contemporary religious movement – maybe especially an Islamist movement - wouldn’t make a valid subject for an updated version of the play. But, again, if the point is to lead people to think about fanaticism and its persistent sources and dangers, that choice of subject would likely be intellectually counterproductive in addition to fomenting bigotry.
Voltaire didn’t have much choice when it came to the subject of his play about religious-political fanaticism. If the play was going to be performed, it had to situate fanaticism in another culture, preferably one to which the more fanatical of his own society were hostile. While the more enlightened in the audience would likely recognize the broader target, this inevitably carried the risk of leaving his society’s fanaticisms unquestioned by those most caught up in them (though the danger was cleverly addressed and minimized by the anonymous dictionary entry).
Today we have much more choice, the consequences for Muslims of using the play’s original subject and setting are more serious, and the need to expose the fanaticisms of our own culture is more pressing than ever. When a person whose views many (for some reason) take seriously can write something as ill-informed and idiotic as
It is time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development. This is a radically impolitic thing to say, of course, but it seems as objectively true as saying that not all societies have equal material resources. We might even conceive of our moral differences in just these terms: not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth…. To say of another culture that it lags a hundred and fifty years behind our own in social development is a terrible criticism indeed, given how far we’ve come in that time. Now imagine the benighted Americans of 1863 coming to possess chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. This is more or less the situation we confront in much of the developing world.and claim the US is a “well-intentioned giant,” we should all recognize of the urgent necessity of shining a light on our own society’s murderous fanaticisms. Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet understood generically and applied to movements within our culture can enlighten; Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet seen through the lens of prejudice, arrogance, and, well, fanaticism can only do harm. It’s time for Fanaticism, or Bush the President.