N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
Concerning Fanaticism, Orthodoxy and Truth
(1937 – #430)
[translator note: Russian useage has two different words both which translate as “orthodoxy”. The word “ortodoksiya”, which we render throughout in uncapitalised form as “orthodox”, bears a generic and pejorative sense of a narrow-minded adherence to a “right-belief” of whatever the teaching, be it an orthodox Marxism or an orthodox atheism even. In contrast, the Russian word “pravoslavniya” (“right-glory” or “right-doxology”) refers to Orthodox Christianity, and is capitalised throughout as “Orthodoxy”, which as Berdyaev observes, properly precludes fanaticism].
The theme of fanaticism, connected with an adherence to orthodox teachings, is very relevant. History is rhythmic, in it the shifting of psychical reactions plays an enormous role. And we are entering a cycle, when there is prevalent the inclination towards an obligatory orthodoxy for all, towards an arrangement, stifling for freedom. This is a reaction against the XIX Century, against its love of freedom and humanity. The mass psychology of intolerance and fanaticism is being perfected. Amidst this, the sense of balance is shattered and man allows himself a maniacal obsession. The individual man is rendered a sacrifice of collective psychoses. There then transpires a strange effect of consciousness, the smothering and erasing of many essential human features, within all the complex of the emotional and intellectual life of man. Unity is attained not through fullness, but through ever greater and greater an impairment. Intolerance has an affinity with zeal. Zealotry is a psychosis, amidst which there is lost the sense of realities. The inner emotional life becomes distorted and fixates itself upon a single point, but that point, upon which the fixation occurs, is perceived altogether in an unreal way.
The man, in whom intolerance reaches the point of flaming up, of fanaticism, is like a jealous person, and he sees everywhere only one thing, only the treason, the betrayal, only the breaking of fidelity to this single thing, he becomes suspicious and mistrustful, he discovers everywhere conspiracies against his beloved idea, against the object of his faith and love. The man fanatically intolerant, just like the jealous person, is very difficult to bring back to reality. The fanatic, obsessed with a maniac pursuit, sees all around the snares of the devil, but he is always the one who himself persecutes, torments and executes. The man, in the grip of a persecution mania, and who senses enemies all around him, — is a very dangerous being, he always becomes the persecutor, he it is that persecutes, rather than that they are persecuting him.
Fanatics, acting with the greatest of malice, coercion and cruelty, always sense themselves surrounded by dangers, and always they are beset by fear. A man always reacts with force out of fear. The emotion of fear is deeply connected with fanaticism and intolerance. To the fanatic, the devil always seems terrible and strong, and he believes in him moreso, than he believes in God. Fanaticism possesses religious roots, but it readily passes over into the national and the political sphere. The national or the political fanatic likewise believes in the devil and his snares, though the religious category of the devil be completely alien herein. Against the powers of the devil there is always created an inquisition or a committee of the common salvation, an omnipotent secret police, a Cheka. These dreadful institutions are always created out of fear of the devil. But the devil has always proved himself to be the stronger, for he penetrates into these institutions and guides them.
There is nothing stronger than fear. The spiritual healing from fear is necessary for every man. The intolerant fanatic acts with force, he always excommunicates, imprisons and executes, but in essence he is weak, and not strong, he is smothered by fear and his consciousness is terribly narrow, for he less believes in God than do the tolerant. In a certain sense it might be said, that a fanatic faith is a weakness of faith, a lack of faith. This is a negative faith. Archimandrite Photii in the epoch of Alexander I believed chiefly in the devil and the Anti-Christ. The power of God seemed to him as nothing in comparison to the power of the devil. There was as little a belief in the power of Christian truth within the Inquisition, as there is in the Communist truth within the Soviet GPU [State Political Department]. Fanatic intolerance involves always a profound lack of faith in man, in the Image of God within man, a lack of faith in the power of truth, i.e. in the final end, a lack of faith in God. Lenin indeed lacked faith in man and in the power of truth, just like Pobedonostsev did: they were of one and the same sort. The man, having allowed himself to come under the obsessive grip of the idea of a worldwide peril and worldwide conspiracy of Masons ,of Jews, of Jesuits, of Bolsheviks or of an occult society of killers, — such a man ceases to believe in the power of God, in the power of truth, and he trusts only in his own coercions, cruelties and murderings. Such a man is, in essence, an object of psychopathology and for psychoanalysis.
A maniacal idea, inspired by fear, also is quite extreme a danger. At the present time fanaticism, the pathos of an universally-obligatory orthodoxy of truth is to be seen in Fascism, in Communism, in extreme forms of religious dogmatism and traditionalism. Fanaticism always divides the world and mankind into two parts, into two hostile camps. This is a war setting. Fanaticism does not permit of the co-existence of various ideas and world-outlooks. There exists only the enemy. The hostile powers become blended together and present themselves as a single enemy. This is entirely like, as if a man were to make the division not into the I and a multiplicity of other I’s, but rather into the I and the not-I’s, wherein the not-I presents itself to him as a single being. This strange simplification facilitates the struggle.
For the Communists there is at present  only one enemy in the world — Fascism. Every antagonist of Communism is thereby already a Fascist, and vice versa. For the Fascists every antagonist is thereby already a Communist. Amidst this setting the quantity of Fascists and Communists in the world has grown immeasurably. People hostile to Communism are placed on the side of Fascism and those hostile to Fascism — are made out to be on the side of Communism. It is an union that transpires as regards one’s attitude of the devil, which is the other half of the world. They put before you an uneasy either/or choice, either Fascism or Communism. It is inconceivable, why I should have to choose between the two powers, both which deny the worth of the human person and freedom of spirit, both indeed practise making use of the lie and coercion, as methods suited to the struggle. It is clear, that I ought to be on the side of some sort of third power: as in France happens with the trend, connected with “Esprit” and “La Fleche”, simultaneously hostile to Capitalism, Fascism and Communism. Fanatic intolerance always presents one a false choice and produces a false line of division. But it is interesting, that the pathos of fanatic intolerance in our time is the result not of a passionate faith and conviction, but rather instead a contrived air of tension, often a stylisation, and it is the result of a collective agitation and demagoguery. There are, certainly, individual Communists and Fascists, believing and convinced to the point of fanaticism, particularly among the Russian Communists and the German Nazis, while rather less so amongst the Italian Fascists, who are more sceptical and susceptible to economic politics. But with the Communist and Fascist masses there are no sort of firm and thought-out beliefs and convictions. This is a mass, which is stylised under Fascism in consequence of agitation and imitation, but which also is interesting.
The contemporary pathos of intolerance is very distinct from the Medieval; back then there was actually a deep faith. The average man of our time possesses not ideas, he possesses instincts and affections. His intolerance is bound up with military matters and a thirst for order. He knows only whatever the truth, useful for organisation. The twofold division of the world, evoked by demands for war, has its own inevitable consequences. Our epoch does not know critical and intellectual dispute nor does it know the struggle of ideas. It knows only exposing, expelling and chastisement. Those thinking differently are looked upon as transgressors. With the transgressor they do not dispute. In essence, there are no more intellectual enemies, there are only military enemies, belonging to mutually hostile domains. Dispute means tolerance, the most dangerous disputant — is the tolerant man, he allows for the co-existence of ideas different than his own idea, he thinks, that from the colliding of ideas the truth can better be revealed. But at present in the world, there occurs no sort of struggle of ideas, there occurs rather the struggle of special interests and pugilists. The Communists, the Fascists, the fanatics of an “orthodox” be it Orthodoxy, Catholicism or Protestantism, dispute not with any sort of ideas, they rid themselves of the antagonist off into the opposing camp, upon which they then direct their polemic tirade.
The pathos of having an orthodox doctrine, which renders itself useful for the struggle and for the organisation, leads to the complete lack of interest for thoughts and for ideas, for cognition, for intellectual culture, and a comparison with the Middle Ages is very hapless for our times. No sort of ideational creativity amidst all this is to be discerned. In this regard, our intolerant epoch is dramatically ungifted and wretched, in it creative thought has become placid, and it parasitically feeds on former epochs. The thinkers of the greatest influence in contemporary Europe, — like Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, — belong to that XIX Century, against which at present the reaction occurs. The sole area, in which is to be found a dizzying level of creativity, is the area of technical discoveries. We live under the banner of the social, and in this area transpires much that is positive, but there are no sort of social ideas, there is at present no creating of social theories, and they all belong to the XIX Century. Marxism, Proudhonism, Syndicalism, even Racism, — all issue from the thought of the XIX Century. The chief advantage of our century is in this, that it is more oriented towards realities, it unmasks the reality. But, having unmasked the old idols, the new century then creates new idols.
For the fanatic there does not exist a manifold world. This is a man, obsessed by one thing. He has a merciless and malevolent attitude towards all and everything except for this one thing. Psychologically, fanaticism is connected with the idea of either salvation or perishing. This idea in particular takes fanatic hold upon the soul. There is one thing, which saves, and all the rest causes to perish. It is therefore necessary to devote oneself completely to this one thing, and mercilessly to eradicate everything else, the whole manifold world, which threatens the perishing. With the perishing perdition, connected with the manifold multiplicity of the world, there is connected also the emotion of fear, which always lies at the root of fanaticism.
The inquisitors of old were perfectly convinced, that the cruel things done by them, the beatings, the burnings on the bon-fires and other things, — they were convinced that this was a manifestation of their love for mankind. They contended against perdition for the sake of salvation, they guarded souls from the allure of the heresies, which threatened with perdition. Better be it to subject one to the brief sufferings in the earthly life, than the perishing of many in eternity. Torquemada was a non-avaricious and unselfish man, he wanted nothing for himself, he devoted himself entirely to his idea, his faith; in torturing people, he made his service to God, he did everything exclusively for the glory of God, and in him there was even a soft spot, he felt malice and hostility towards no one, and he was of his kind a “fine” man. I am convinced, that such a “fine” man, convinced in his faith and unselfish, was also Dzerzhinsky, who indeed in his youth was a passionately believing Catholic and indeed wanted to be a monk. This is an interesting psychological problem.
A believing, an unselfish, an intellectual man can become a fanatic, and commit the greatest of cruelties. To devote oneself without reservations to God or to an idea, substituting for God, whilst ignoring man, is to transform a man into a means and a weapon for the glory of God or for the realisation of the idea, and it means to become a fanatic — wild-eyed and even a monster. The Gospel in particular revealed to people, that it is impossible to build one’s relationship to God without a relationship to man. If the Pharisees put the Sabbath higher than man and were denounced by Christ for this, then also every man, who puts an abstract idea as higher than man, in effect confesses a religion of the Sabbath, which was repudiated by Christ. It is all the same regarding this, whether this be an idea of churchly orthodoxy, or of the state and nationalism, or the idea of revolution and socialism.
A man, mindful to the searching out and detection of heresies, intent upon the excommunicating and pursuing of heretics, is a man long since accused and judged by Christ, though he be not concerned over this. The pathological hatred for heresy is in the nature of an obsession by an “idea”, which is set higher than man. But all the orthodox doctrines of the world are nothing in comparison with that one least amongst mankind and his fate. Man is the Image and Likeness of God. Every system however of ideas is the product begotten of human thought or thoughtlessness. Man is not to be saved nor perish, by cleaving to some sort of system of ideas. The sole authentic heresy is an heresy of life.
The unmaskers and persecutors of heresy therein at the same time become heretics of life, heretics in relation to the living man, to mercy and to love. All the inquisitors were heretics of life, they were traitors to the life-vital dogma about man. Cyril of Alexandria in this regard was moreso an heretic of life, than the heretics denounced by him. Behind the unmasking of heretics there is always concealed a sinful lust for domination, a will to might.
The pathological obsession with ideas of salvation and perdition, which medically should be attended to, can also be transferred to the social sphere. And therein this panicky idea begets revolutionary fanaticism and creates political institutions of inquisition. Intolerance and inquisitions justify themselves by the threat of social ruin. And thus, the Moscow Trials of the Communists are very reminiscent of witchcraft trials. In both the one and the other, the accused confesses to having criminal dealings with the devil. The human psyche changes little. And essentially, fanaticism always bears a social character. Man cannot be a fanatic, when he is set before God, he renders himself a fanatic, only when he is set before other people.
The fanatic always has need of an enemy, he always needs someone to execute. Dogmatic formulae that are “orthodox” are formed not in relation to God, but in relation to other people, they are formed because heretical opinions have arisen. Fanaticism always signifies social compulsion. Or one can take into account the forms of Self-Immolation, as for example, in the extreme currents of the Russian schismatics, but in this instance it likewise signifies social coercion under the reverse standard. Fanaticism of an extreme “orthodoxy” in religion bears a sectarian character. The feeling of satisfaction from belonging to a circle of the chosen is a sectarian feeling. Fanaticism quite fires up the will and readies it for the struggle, for inflicting torture and for bearing torture. Even with the most meek and mild of fanatics, conscious of the love for mankind within himself, and concerned for the salvation of his soul and society, there is an element of sadism. Fanaticism is always connected with the manifestation of torture. Ideologically, fanaticism is always a frenzy of “orthodoxy”.
The categories of “orthodoxy”, opposed to heresy, apply at present to types of thought, having nothing in common with religion, — for example, to Marxism; but it is of a religious origin. Though it be of religious origin, all the same it is first of all a social manifestation and it signifies the domination of the collective over the person. “Orthodoxy” is a mental organisation of the collective and it signifies an exteriorisation of consciousness and conscience. “Orthodoxy” defines itself in opposition to an heresy. The heretic is a man, thinking not in accord with the mental organisation of the collective. People, preeminently esteeming themselves “orthodox” whilst denouncing heretics, i.e. those that think differently, love to declare that they are defending truth, and they set truth up higher than freedom. This is a very great mistake and self-deception by the “orthodox” mind-set.
The pathos of an “orthodoxy”, fed by fanaticism, has nothing in common with the pathos of truth, being as it were actually contrary to it. Such an “orthodoxy” forms itself around themes of salvation and perdition, and such orthodox are themselves frightened and they frighten others. Truth however does not know fear. The guardians of “orthodoxy” are the ones that most of all distort the truth and are afraid of it. The guardians of various religious orthodoxies have distorted history. The guardians of a Marxist of Racist “orthodoxy” likewise distort history. These people always create vicious legends about a power hostile to them. Truth gets substituted for by what is useful, by the interests of the organisational order.
The man, fanatical over some sort of idea, like a person who would save himself alone, cannot be said to seek the truth. The search for truth presupposes freedom. Truth is not external to freedom, truth is bestown only by freedom. Outside of freedom there is only that which is useful, but not truth, there is only the interests of power. The fanatic of some sort of orthodoxy seeks for power, and not for truth. Truth is not a ready given nor is it received passively by man, it is an endless task. Truth does not fall down from above upon man, like some sort of thing. And it is impossible to understand the revelation of truth in a naive-realistic sense. Truth is likewise both the pathway and life, it is the spiritual life of man. Spiritual life however is freedom and is not external to freedom.
The fanatics of an “orthodoxy”, in essence, do not know truth, since they do not know freedom, they do not know spiritual life. Fanatics of a religious orthodoxy think, that they are humble people, since they are obedient to churchly truth, and they accuse others of pride. But this is a dreadful mistake and self-delusion. Granted, in the Church there is enclosed the fullness of truth. But wherefore does such a religiously orthodox person fancy, that he in particular is master of this truth of the Church, that he in particular knows it? Wherefore in particular is he bestown this gift of the ultimate distinction of churchly truth from heresy, where in particular is this chosenness rendered him? This is pride and self-conceit, and no people are more proud and self-conceited, than the guardians of a religious orthodoxy. They identify themselves with churchly truth. There does indeed exist an orthodox churchly truth. But herein perhaps, thou as an orthodox fanatic, knowest it not, thou knowest but fragments of it by virtue of narrow-mindedness, ossification of heart, attachment to form and legalism, the absence of giftedness and grace.
A man, permitting himself to come into the grip of fanaticism, never presupposes such possible about himself. He, certainly, is prepared to acknowledge himself a sinner, but can never acknowledge himself as having fallen into error, into self-deception, into self-smugness. Which is why he considers it possible, amidst his own sinfulness, to torment and pursue others. The fanatic is conscious of himself as a believer. But perhaps, his faith may actually possess no sort of relationship to truth. Truth is first of all an egress from oneself, but the fanatic is unable to go out from himself. He goes out from himself only in malice against others, but this is not an egress to others nor to an other.
The fanatic — is an egocentric. The faith of the fanatic, his unrestrained and unselfish devotion to an idea helps him not in the least to overcome the egocentrism. The asceticism of the fanatic (and fanatics often are ascetics) does not at all conquer the absorption with himself, nor at all does it turn him to the realities. The fanatic of whatever the orthodoxy identifies his idea, identifies its truth with himself. And he is this idea, this truth. Orthodoxy — this he is. And ultimately this is always rendered the sole criterion of orthodoxy.
The fanatic of an orthodoxy can be an extreme adherent of the principle of authority. But he always imperceptibly identifies the authority with himself and is never subject to any sort of authority in disagreement with him. The inclination towards authority in our epoch bears in particular suchlike a character. The authoritatively disposed youth recognises no sort of authority over himself, and he is conscious of himself as the bearer of authority. The ultra-Orthodox youth, who disdains freedom and denounces heresies, esteems himself the bearer of Orthodoxy. This is an example of just how far the idea of authority is contradictory and inconsistent. Authority in practice never vexes its fanatical adherents, it vexes others, their opponents, and does violence to them. In essence, no one subjects themselves to authority, if they consider it not to be in accord with their understanding of truth. The faith-confession of some sort of extreme orthodoxy, of some sort of totalitarian system, always signifies the desire to belong to a circle of the elect, the bearers of a true teaching. This means the flattering of people with pride and self-conceit. In comparison with this, the love of freedom signifies modesty.
It is very pleasant and flattering to esteem oneself as the solely knowing, of what such is the true Orthodoxy or the true Marxism-Leninism (the psychology is the same). Robespierre unrestrainedly loved the republican virtue, he was the most virtuous man in revolutionary France and even moreover the only virtuous one. He identified himself with the republican virtue, with the idea of revolution. This was a supreme type of the egocentric. Herein this was a lunacy built upon virtue, this was an identification of himself with it, and in him it was very hideous. The depraved Danton was a thousand times better and more human.
The egocentrism of the fanatic of whatever the sort of idea, of whatever the sort of teaching, expresses itself in this, that he does not see the human person, he is inattentive to the human personal path, that he is unable to establish any sort of relationship to the world of persons, to the living, concrete human world. The fanatic knows only the idea, but he does not know the man, he does not know the man even then, when he struggles for the idea of man. But he does not accept the world of the ideas of others rather than his own, he is incapable of entering into the exchange of ideas. He usually understands nothing and is incapable of accepting anything; this egocentrism namely deprives him of the capacity to understand. He altogether is unwilling to induce the truthfulness of something, he is altogether uninterested in truth. The interest for truth would lead one out of the vicious circle of egocentrism. But egocentrism is not altogether the same thing, as egoism.
The egoist in a vital sense of the word is quite able to egress outside himself, to turn his attention to other people, to be interested in a world of foreign ideas. But the fanatic-egocentric, unselfish, ascetic, unrestrainedly devoted to whatever the idea, — is altogether unable to emerge, the idea centres him upon itself. For our troubled epoch not only are the flare-ups of fanaticism characteristic, but so too is the stylisation of fanaticism. Modern people are not altogether so fanatical and they are altogether not so attached to any orthodox teaching, as otherwise it might seem. They want to appear to be fanatics, they mimic at fanaticism, they pronounce the words of fanatics, they wreak the violent cruelties of fanatics. Yet all too clearly, this but veils over an inward empty void. The imitation and affected stylisation of fanaticism is but one of the ways of filling the empty void. This signifies likewise a creative impotence, an incapacity for thought. Pretensions to knowledge of an orthodox truth result in a condition of ignorance. The love for thought, for cognitive knowing, is likewise a love for criticism, for the developement of dialogue, a love for thoughts foreign to one, and not only one’s own.
They set forth tolerance in contrast to fanatical intolerance. But tolerance is a complex phenomenon. Tolerance can be the result of an apathetic indifference to truth, a non-distinguishing of good and evil. This is the lukewarm, liberal sort of tolerance, and it lacks the wherewithal to oppose fanaticism. There is possible a passionate love for freedom and for truth, a fiery adherence to an idea, but — it is all amidst a tremendous attention to man, to the human path, to the human search for truth. Freedom can be perceived, as an inseparable part of truth itself. And a man ought not to tolerate everything. Towards the modern intolerance, towards fanaticism, towards the modern mania for orthodoxy one mustneeds not at all relate tolerantly, on the contrary, one mustneeds relate non-tolerantly. And to the enemies of freedom one mustneeds not at all bestow limitless freedom. In a certain sense we need a dictator of real freedom. Modern dictators however in all their forms rely upon a formation of soul, which discloses likewise an impairment of soul. A course in spiritual healing is needed.
© 2000 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1937 – 430 – en)
O PHANATIZME, ORTODOKSII I ISTINE. In journal Russkie zapiski, 1937, No. 1, p. 180-191.