Can a Fanatic be cured?

By Jacques Vigne, 1986


One would have thought that inquisitions, holy wars and fanaticism would have been erased by the end of this XXth century. That has not happened at all. We remain barbarians. This phenomenon of fanaticism , i.e., a mental fixation which seeks to impose a certain so-called reality on others, deserve to be better understood from the viewpoint of psychopathology; this will be our attempt here. Let us take for instance this significant Sufi story: 'One day, the father of a family noticed that his son was seeing double, probably by birth. He started explaining to him: 'You're seeing double, my son.' 'Oh, no, Papa, replied the son, if I did, instead of seeing two moons in the sky, I would have seen four of them'...

The kind of irrefutable logic contained in this story well illustrates the difficulty of curing a fanatic. False deductions, appearing reasonable, are as much a part of paranoia, which psychiatrist study, as that of fanaticism that historians study. One finds a number of examples of this delirium of persecution in all varieties of revolutionaries. For instance, there is this declaration of Collot d'Herbois, a defender of Reason and liberty during the French Revolution: 'The rights of man are meant for friends of the Revolution, not for counter-revolutionaries'.(2) With some slogans of this kind, he undertook with the help of Fouché the destruction of Lyon, the second town of France.

Can one treat a fanatic? The first synonym that comes to mind with the word 'fanatic' is 'intractable'. I recently asked a yogi whom I met: 'Do you have some remedy for curing fanatics?' 'If you have one, give it to me, I am very interested to know how to do this'. The fanaticism identifies himself or herself completely with the cause he defends. If he is left without that cause, he feels totally lost, which is where the problem comes in. In the path of Knowledge (as represented by Vedanta or Buddhism), being disentangled from identifications is emphasized upon, hence this may act as a preventive cure for fanaticism, if the meditation is practiced correctly and in harmony with a righteous life.

What is fanaticism? It was in the West, during the Century of Lights (XVIIIth century) that this phenomenon was really identified and isolated. Voltaire defined it thus in the Encyclopedia:'Celestial epilepsy, and medicine only should cure these patients...The whole species is divided among two classes, the first who only prays and die, the second who wants to rule and slaughter (Haynal, p.50). The events which shortly followed Voltaire's demise unfortunately demonstrated that fanaticism was not only the lot of religious movement, but was a deviation that could take place in any movement, no matter what its importance or name. Since the time of the Jacobins and their passion for the Goddess of Reason, Voltaire's 'celestial epilepsy' became the enormous megalomania of the Fascists, the frenzied paranoia of the Khmers rouges and the extensively obsessive neurosis of the Ayatollahs. These psychopathological factors are present in fanaticism but they are closely mingled to historical circumstances. For example Fouché, who was not a proclaimed offender at first, run amok during the Fench Revolution and then managed to save his head by adopting a more moderate stance under the Directoire and the Empire.

Certain Nazis, which were ordinary middle-class people before 1933, became war criminals and wherever they managed to escape the trials and liquidations of 1945, again returned to their ordinary middle-class lives. Himmler was a good interpreter of Bach, and his accomplice Heydrich used to cry when listening to Mozart. Is there something wrong in Mozart's compositions that could make Heydrich cry, or is it rather something in the mental make-up of the fanatic whose psychology is much more complex, more compartmentalized than one can imagine? A social definition of a fanatic would be that of an individual who, in order that his ideas prevail, is ready to destroy others, transgressing the biblical commandment:'Thou shalt not kill'. The psychological definition of a fanatic is more difficult to draw up, it is composed of different elements.

 The personality of the fanatic

The psychotic elements

These are the elements which, by definition, gravely alter the relationship with the real. The most obvious mechanism of fanaticism is the projection of the paranoia which says: 'I am right, everyone is wrong, I am good, the others are bad, etc...' The mind most often functions on 'No', it sets itself in opposition. Fanaticism is the exacerbation of these 'no's, 'no' to sentiments, 'no' to reality which may lead from a neurotic suppression of the inner world to a psychotic disavowal of the outer world. The manichean dissociation between the good and the bad is the best sign of this 'no'. As an example, there is this declaration by Robespierre:'Whoever is not for the people is against the people, and should be exterminated.' (Haynal, p.140)

This 'no' spreads in a quasi cancerous manner to all activities be they internal or external, to the point that it leads logically to the negation, to the destruction of the fanatic himself. Driven into a corner and having failed in his attempt to commit suicide, Robespierre was finally guillotined, and his sacrifice served to establish a new order which was more stable than the Terror. The ambivalence characteristic of those with schizophrenic tendencies is clearly manifest among fanatics. Susa Atkins, follower of the Manson 'family', who cold-bloodedly assassinated seven people, declared before the judges:'In order to do this, one must love others deeply'...In the eighties, the nine hundred disciples of the Guyanan sect commited suicide by taking - and giving to their families orange juice mixed with cyanide.

The crusader going to war against the Albigenses declared:"It is with great joy that our pilgrims set fire to hundred of heretics'. (Haynal, p.308). Ravachol, the 'patron saint' of the anarchists in the beginning of this century, proposed to poison vegetables and to offer them to the priests'. In fact, when he wanted to set fire to rats and release them in barns (Haynal, p.279), he was exposing a type of delirium common among psychotics. Among the inmates of mental asylum, one finds the kind of hallucinations that unfortunately were carried out by fanatics thrown up by a historical crisis to the head of a given society, with ideas of millenarianism, apocalypse, regeneration and mad, erotomaniac love for this inaccessible idol which is the tyrant.

Another, more subtle point of view is that fanaticism is a defence against psychosis, a sort of escape before psychosis sets in: in fact the subjects, quite often young people, who are in the primary stages of schizophrenia, feel physically disorganized and cut-up, as if their bodies were escaping from them. Now, it is clear that the social body as presented by the mass media, with their rapid sequences of flashes of information and publicity, is rather disorganized, discontinuous and cut-up. In front of this discontinuity, the fanatical slogan and leader with its semblance of permanence, continuity and unity seems like a life-buoy to a subject who is drowning in an ocean of dispersion. Unity is a fundamental need of psychism, fanaticism is an illusory way to get it. Max Picard, a pastor who reflected after World-War II on Nazism and their slogans propagated continuously through the radio, remarked :'Everything is uprooted internally and externally, nothing lasts except the continuous noise of the radio. This continuity exists, at least. It forms a durable link between things, and man relieves the burden of his rootlessness on it. (3)


The neurotic elements

What comes first is the obsessive disposition of a fanatic's personality. The fanatic is someone apparently very claen. His fear of contamination is evident when he orders purge after purge:'The breath of counter-revolutionaries is poisoning the atmosphere. Yes, we dare to confess, we make a lot of impure blood flow, but it is out of humanity, out of duty.' (Collot d'Herbois during the French Revolution). This trait could be explained but something which is said by spiritual psychology in India: everything is accomplished according to dharma, the righteous law. How then fanaticism is possible? Because the fanatic believes when is is acting that he is completely right, even if he has regrets afterwards. One can compare this fear of impurity with this declaration of Khomeini at the time of the Islamic revolution:'The entire body of a non-muslim is impure, including his hair, his skin, his nails and all the secretions of his body'.(Haynal, p.155)

What is most frightening in a fanatic is perhaps precisely the fact that he is not frighten by anything and feels above reproach. Robespierre was nicknamed 'The Incorruptible', the majority of the inquistors were men of impeccable integrity. Ill-undderstood asceticism is anger against oneself. This is not surprising that anger against the others is often associated in the shape of fanaticism. Those who believe they are the most pure are often the most merciless, because they isolate themselves both from others and from their own feelings. In the Bible, most of the main figures are presented with some fault or other, like David for instance, as if their relative impurity was there to remind them not to use their power in a fanatical way.

This lead us to the links between fanaticism and sexuality. Collective violence, the identification to an all-powerful father-figure like a dictator often makes up for deficient virility. As far as the leaders themselves are concerned, a quasi absolute social power seems to be associated with a deficient or perverted sexual potency. The readers interested in this aspect can refer to Erich Fromm's detaild study of Hitler's personality (1, p.380) In order to sustain his deficient power, the fanatic is lead to identify himself with the dictator, who is somewhere in his subconscious mind associated to God. The dictator is like the shadow - in the Jungian sense of the term- of the Divinity presented as Almighty but in a loving sense, while the dictator is allowed to be full of hate.

Even the energy derived from sexual abstinence can be diverted from the lofty ideals of monks for instance and degenerate into pure violence. The Mongol hordes which laid siege to Baghdad in the XIIth century fasted and abstained from sexual relationships for three days before attacking and slaying a considerable number of people, an art in which they were specialist. On the other hand, the contrary may be true as well: the incapacity to renounce sexual power leads to the inability to detach from power in general, hence conflict and violence. Psychoanalysis clearly showed the link between sexuality and agressivity, and the Indian spiritual texts come back regularly to the pair kama-krodha, sexual desire and anger, as being 'two doors of hell'. Without getting into dual interpretations, one can wonder what kind of love or relationships with women could have Saint-Just, Robespierrre friend during the French Revolution when he coldly declared:'Between the people and the enemies of the people there can exist only one relationship, that of the sword'. The people in itself become a kind of primitive god thirsty for blood, and who can not be questioned by anyone.

The last point we should consider is about the depressive aspect of the fanatic. This may often be that a fanatic, rather than being simply depressed, hides his sadness behind an agressive projection on others. What he has to say is basically always the same:'Either you follow my orders of destruction or I do no longer exist.' I have been able to verify that with patient suffering from paranoia, if I did not take part in their game and refused to believe the persecutions of which they felt the victims, then they just collapsed saying - as depressive people would do:'If my struggle is in vain, then my life has no meaning anymore and there is nothing left for me but death.' At least, they were then able to realize that their state of mind was depending more on themselves than on the others, this was in itself a kind of progress.


Elements for the treatment of a fanatic.

As always in medicine and psychology, prevention should be the best treatment. It is often believed that an experience of God may make someone fanatic. But I feel that the contrary is true: the absence of real experience of God with the accompanying joy and expansion makes the fanatic jealous of others. He pretends to have some inner guidance, but knows that inside he is rather miserable, hence duplicity and eventually agressiveness to hide these less glorious feelings.

A good cure of fanticism could just be being happy; this kind of disease will never afflict someone who is really happy. Nietsche is known to have emphasized this notion:'All those who are dissatisfied with themselves are always ready to take revenge: the rest of us become their victims'. (2, p.81)

There may be two kind of treatments for the tensions which are the source of fanaticism:

The first is the 'allopathic' treatment through the manifest expression of emotions, either through emotional therapy or through traditional methods (like through the medium of art or devotion).

The second is the 'homeopathic' treatment, through which internal consciousness takes hold of the root of the problem and of the cause of these emotions by way of meditation or of introspective psychotherapy. An advantage that meditaton has over therapy is that it can be practiced for a longer period of time regularly and free of cost. The meditator does not depend of the physical presence of a therapist, although the link with a spiritual master is strongly recommended. Time is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for a posititive inner evolution.

There is then the question of mental hygiene: one should avoid to be 'desensitized' from violence by excessive consumption of pictures, images and facts than medias like to dish out everyday to an audience which is rather masochistic. I do not want myself to write on violence all my life, to become a specialist of violence; I do not believe that one can become a good musician by simple becoming a specialist of false notes; likewise., the remedy for violence is not more or more specialists of violence, but rather more and more practitioner of peace.

Accepting diversity is not easy. In Greek, the word for enemy is ekhtros, literally the one from outside... In spite of that, realities, and especially human realities can hardly be 'standardized'. Seeking unity without unitarism and uniformity will prevent one from falling prey to the kind of jingoism that the triumphant English imperialistic movemement during the end of the XIXth century indulged in:'The world is divided into two parts: that which England possess, and the one which it is bound to possess. (2, p.182)

Learning not to worship books, even sacred books which teach us a great deal, is also a good discipline. Let us quote Vivekananda on this point to conclude this article: 'I may be a partial judge, but in my opinion books have done more harm than good. They are responsible for a lot of harmful doctrines. The credos come from all these books, and it is these alone which are responsible for the persecutions and the fanticism...My thoughts on this point are very clear; sometimes I think that I am right when I agree with all the ancient teachers, but sometimes I think that they are right when they agree with me. I believe in independent thought.' (4)



1) Frommm Erich 'La passion de détruire' collection Réponses; Robert Laffont; 1976

2) Haynal, Molnar and de Puymège Le Fanatisme Stock 1980

3) Picard Max L'homme du néant Editions de la Baconnière, Neuchâtel; Switzerland, 1946

4) Vivekananda Les Yogas pratiques Albin Michel, 1970