Politics and Fanaticism

  • Stephen Paul Foster
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 154)


The work of religious fanatics figured prominently in Gibbon’s history of Christianity’s ascendancy in the Roman empire and in Hume’s account of the Reformation in England and Scotland. Religious fanaticism was indeed a subject which greatly challenged them as philosophic historians. There was a certain inexplicability about it, yet they were required to find both entertainment and moral instruction in a phenomenon that closely followed the career of Christianity itself. “Fanatics,” Hume writes, “may suppose, that dominion is founded on grace, and that saints alone inherit the earth; but the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers, and teaches them by the severest discipline, that a rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive.” (EPM, 193, original italics) Hume pits the religious fanatic (the purveyor of speculative ideals) against the magistrate (the representative of the social order) and sides with the magistrate. Hume was referring here to the seventeenth-century English Puritans who toppled Charles I from the throne at the conclusion of a bloody civil war and then beheaded him as a traitor. “That there were religious fanatics of this kind in England, during the civil wars, we learn from history; though it is probable, that the obvious tendency of these principles excited such horror in mankind, as soon obliged the dangerous enthusiast to renounce, or at least conceal their tenets. Perhaps the levellers, who claimed an equal distribution of property, were a kind of political fanatics, which arose from the religious species, and more openly avowed their pretensions; as carrying a more plausible appearance, of being practicable in themselves, as well as useful to human society.” (EPM, 193, original italics)1 Hume links religious and political fanaticism. They are not tight, firmly distinguishable categories; they fade into each other. Religion and politics would seem to have a large region of interpenetration. The avowal of economic equality by Hume’s Levellers, though wearing the face of utility and seemingly of a purely political nature, is ultimately grounded in speculative religious idealism.


Original Italic Roman Empire Conventional Morality Philosophic Historian Divine Knowledge 
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  1. 1.
    Compare Hume’s censorious remarks about the Levellers with those of Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Fairlawn, NJ: Essential Books, Inc. 1957), who spends much of the book discussing the antinomian effects of religious enthusiasm in medieval Christianity. See 226–36 for his discussion of the levelling Bohemian Taborites of the fifteenth century. “Unfortunately for their social experiment, the laborite revolutionaries were so preoccupied with common ownership that they altogether ignored the need to produce.” (230) These “men of the Law of God” believed themselves entitled to plunder the rich. In the Spring of 1420 the Taborites proclaimed the abolition of all feudal bonds. They then began plundering the lands of the peasants.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Peter Drucker, The End of Economic Man: A Study of the New Totalitarianism (New York: John Day Co., 1939), 14. “For the last two thousand years, ever since Aristotle, the justification of power and authority has been the central problem of European political thought and of European political history. And since Europe became Christian there has never been any other approach to this problem than that of seeking justification in the benefit which the exercise of power confers upon its subjects—be it the salvation of their souls, the ‘good life,’ or the highest standard of living for the greatest number.”Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 202. Nisbet makes, in my view, a very profound observation about equality as a political ideal. The observation would seem to support Hume’s critique of the Levellers’ program and his observation that the notion is ultimately of a religious or utopian nature. Equality “resembles some of the religious ideals or passions which offer, just by virtue of the impossibility of ever giving them adequate representation in the actual world, almost unlimited potentialities for continuous onslaught against institutions.” Equality as an ideal, Nisbet argues, is unmanageable. “Equality has a built-in revolutionary force lacking in such ideas as justice or liberty. For once the ideal of equality becomes uppermost it can become insatiable in its demands.”Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion,trans. Ephriam Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 202. Weber writes of the great sense of spiritual superiority the Puritans possessed once their conviction of grace was set. “Predestination provides the individual who has found religious grace with the highest possible degree of certainty of salvation, once he has attained assurance that he belongs to the very limited aristocracy of salvation who are the elect.”Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    See Lionel Gossman, The Empire Unpossess’d: An Essay on Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall.’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, 26, where he writes: “[o]ne of the least attractive aspects of Christianity, for instance, and a sign, for Gibbon, of the lack of credibility, is its continual division of itself into innumerable sects.”Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    The Soviet Union, especially under Stalin, is history’s most conspicuous, most extreme example of this phenomena. See Leonard Schapiro, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union,2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1971), 477. Schapiro writes: “[nlo one understood better than Stalin that the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought immediately reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion,203. Weber, writing of the Puritans observes: “ [elvery consistent doctrine of predestined grace inevitably implied a radical and ultimate devaluation of all magical, sacramental, and institutional distributions of grace, in view of god’s sovereign will, a devaluation that actually occurred wherever the doctrine of predestination appeared in its full purity and maintained its strength. By far the strongest such devaluation of magical and institutional grace occurred in Puritanism.”Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    E. G. Hardy, Christianity and the Roman Government: A Study in Imperial Administration ( London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1894 ), 46.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Michael Grant, Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 226–7 writes: “[i]t is a mocking travesty of justice to call such a murderer Constantine the Great. Or, perhaps not: for what does Greatness mean? Constantine was, as we have seen, a superlative military commander, and a first-rate organizer. He was also an utterly ruthless man, whose ruthlessness extended to the execution of his nearest kin, and who believed that he had God behind him in everything he did.”Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Grant, Constantine the Great, 107. “[A]s Gibbon rightly discerned, Constantine was also unlimitedly, ruthlessly ambitious. Highly emotional and religious (or superstitious, for his religious views were in a bit of a muddle), and didactically devoted to lecturing all and sundry, he was dedicated to his own personal success, and despotically determined at all cost to achieve it....”Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Paul Foster
    • 1
  1. 1.Central Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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