Bishop Fulton Sheen on Fanaticism

“A Victim of Fanaticism” by Nikolai Pimonenko, 1899

IN A HEATED discussion, the man who cannot argue always wants to bet. It is his way of withdrawing from the field of logic into the area of chance and daring. This is not necessarily a sign of fanaticism, but it suggests the first element in fanaticism — namely, flight from argument, logic, and objective standards of truth. Fanaticism is never primary either in a person or in a civilization; it is always preceded by a breakdown of reason. Any age which denies that there are objective standards of right and wrong, or which says that “one view of the universe is just as good as another,” or that “right and wrong are relative to the observer” has already given up the yardstick for measuring the cloth of truth, and is in danger of becoming fanatical.

THE DECLINE of logic and sound reason brings in its wake the second condition of fanaticism. When truth, goodness, and absolutes lose their value, it is only natural for fanaticism to center itself around certain persons who have the capacity to drag the non-thinking after them. Fanaticism never centers on an idea as such; for example, no one becomes a fanatic about the angles of a triangle being equal to two right angles, but he can become a fanatic about a mathematician who says they may equal three right angles in the stars.

At first sight, it would seem that the fanatics of communism love its dialectical philosophy as such, just as the fanatics of Nazism and Fascism loved the race philosophy and nationalistic philosophy of each system. But it must be noted that when Hitler, who was the symbol of Nazism, and Mussolini, who was the symbol of Fascism, disappeared, so did the fanatics of the two systems, except for isolated islands of insanity here and there.

Communism had its appeal under Lenin: it had its appeal later under Stalin, and presently the locum tenens of both, whoever he may be. The leader keeps the fanatics together. Any fanaticism against Jews or Christians, however abstract it may be expressed, is basically directed against the persons of Jews or persons of Christians.

THE THIRD basic attribute of fanaticism is that the soil in which it grows is the masses. There is a world of difference between the masses and the people. The Constitution of our country speaks of “We the people,” not “We the masses.” The people are persons, each with his own individuality, each guided by his own conscience and determined by some well-defined objectives. The masses are the people without consciences: they are people who become like individual nuts and bolts without reason or self-determination. All their actions are determined by equally irrational forces outside of them. The masses can never be identified: they have no faces; they just have the name “They” or “Everybody” (anonymous). They all read the same books, see the same movies, listen to the same commentators, without ever asking themselves whether these standardized means of communication should completely determine one’s own set of values. They thrive on scraps and shreds of pre-digested ideas in capsule form, find it difficult to read anything without pictures, and would not dare be out of step, even if everybody were walking to a precipice.

FANATICISM is born when all these three are put together: the loss of reason and sense of values, the rallying around a leader who satisfies emotions, and the enthronement of mediocrity in the masses.

On the lower levels, fanaticism wants to bet, instead of appealing to objective standards. On the higher levels, it wants to persecute instead of plead. The fanatics never think of ideas that have to be answered by logic: they only think of the persons who hold contrary ideas, as something to be overthrown and put out of the way. Every fanatic is the enemy of truth because he is the enemy of ideas, the foe of logic. The man who believes in truth will die for it, but he will never hate those who oppose Him. Rather, he will plead for those who hate Him, saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Bishop Fulton Sheen Writes – July 16, 1955, On Being Human, page 342-344

(h/t to Guy Stevenson)

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