Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave

A paradise for a sect.

John Keats[1]

[Guess what? Here’s part 4 of our blog on Erich Fromm. This time around Phil’s going to discuss fanatics, and their role in pathological thinking. He says this should be easier to do than the last two segments, but I’m not so sure. Let’s see what he’s got. I’ll ask questions if he glosses over too many points.]

Thanks, Fred. I wasn’t really sure how to start this until I realized just how spongy the word fanatic really is. Not too long ago that label was reserved for religious disputes, and more particularly to describe the excited utterances of one’s opponent. If he jittered about, spoke at a fast and furious pace, and looked to be possessed by a devil or a foreign god, he spoke like a fanatic.[2] Later the definition was refined somewhat to include religious maniacs, visionaries and other “unreasoning enthusiasts.”[3] Demon possession more or less dropped out as a requirement.

But the English language moves on. The 19th Century saw the development of baseball, and with it team sports in general. With sports came the rebirth of fan,[4] the short form of fanatic. According to one authority, fan was revived to signify a “keen and constant spectator of a sport ….” Today, with the development of modern media and entertainment, fans include “admirers of many kinds of entertainment and the people who provide it. [5]” Movies, television, sci-fi, Japanese anime[6], heavy metal music, etc. are all considered fan-worthy.

So, now we have two competing definitions of fanatic, the one dealing with religion, heresy, and schism, and the other with entertainment. Religious fanatics look to God, eternal verities, morality, an afterlife, and generally have no sense of humor. Modern fans, on the other hand, focus on people like themselves. They look to the here and now, argue about the rules of whatever game they follow, and admire the compensation and retirement packages of their favorite entertainers.  These are serious matters, but nevertheless the modern fan can crack a feeble joke from time to time. For example, there’s the old saw that “[t]he natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.[7]

[So what kind of fan, or fanatic, was Erich Fromm talking about? Was he a sports enthusiast?]

I don’t know about his personal hobbies, but he wasn’t writing about entertainment. Fromm published May Man Prevail? in 1961[8], relatively early in the Cold War. We and the Soviet Union had been developing spectacular [and frightening] new weapons of mass destruction – the real ones, H-Bombs, city busters – and their delivery systems, and there was no apparent end to the progress we might make. The future was dark and people, or at least some of our politicians and opinion-makers, weren’t thinking rationally. Some of them were talking like fanatics.

[That doesn’t sound good. How does a fanatic think?]

Pathologically, but that can be hard to determine. If a person is totally illogical, or rigidly holds ideas that are clearly wrong, like “the earth is flat,” then most likely he or she is a fanatic. But fanatics can be correct on occasion, or at least espouse commonly accepted views. What do we do about them? And what about people who genuinely propose something new?

Research scientists, for example, must have confidence in new theories to advance them. Otherwise the scientist won’t find funding, etc., to proceed with tests. Well, what happens if the theories don’t survive? A good scientist should accept the results and move on. The fanatic, on the other hand, may “double down” on a losing position.  This has led some to say that“[f]anaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”[9]

But Fromm didn’t fully agree with that, either. He said “it is easier to recognize the fanatic by some qualities in his personality rather than by the contents of his convictions. [10]

[I’m not surprised. After all, he was a psychoanalyst by training. Was he more specific?]

Yes. He said that to a trained analyst “[t]he most important – and usually an observable – personal quality in the fanatic is a kind of ‘cold fire,’ a passion which at the same time has no warmth.[11]” Such a person, he said, “may be described as … highly narcissistic [and] disengaged from the world outside. He does not really feel anything since authentic feeling is always the result of the interrelation between oneself and the world.”[12]

I should point out that originally narcissism was considered to be a type of sexual perversion.[13] Today, however, the term is used more broadly, in part to indicate one who lacks empathy, or is unable to identify with the feelings and needs of others.[14]

Fromm says when a fanatic talks to you he’s usually just talking about himself. And when he talks about theory, economic or otherwise, he’s talking about an idol which he’s accepted or constructed for himself; i.e., “an absolute, to which he surrenders completely [and] of which he also makes himself a part. He then acts, thinks and feels in the name of his idol, or rather, he has the illusion of “feeling,” of inner excitement, while he has no authentic feeling.[15]

[That’s all well and good, and that last bit sounds impressive; but it seems Fromm may have a problem distinguishing between the thinker and his thoughts. Let me ask you a question. Suppose my neighbor, a certifiable fanatic, came to me and said a dam up the river from my house would fail soon, and I should move before the flood comes. Suppose he was right; the dam cracked and the neighborhood disappeared. What should I have done to avoid that?]

In your hypothetical, if you walked upriver after that warning, you might have seen cracks in the dam. Cracks in turn would have told you that your neighbor, no matter how strange, knew something important. So, the first rule is, if you want to survive today, you have to look past the source and to the evidence. Of course these are my views, but I think Fromm would agree.

The real problem is when the evidence is muddy or unclear. Then you have to consider the source, mostly because you don’t have anything else to rely on. I suppose John Keats understood fanatics, especially the ones who aren’t interested in sports, as well as anybody. The serious ones are interested in “weaving a paradise” for the initiated, or themselves, not necessarily for you; so watch your step! They’re not reliable.

[All right, we’ve beaten up this subject pretty well, so next time we’ll move on to Fromm’s last category of pathological thinking. What’s it called?]

Automaton thinking.


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __) at John Keats, p. 443, n. 5.

[2] See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford University Press, 1971).Henceforth, we’ll cite this version as OED (1971) at __. See OED (1971) at fanatic (adj.), Vol. 1, p. 959:  “1. Of an action or speech: Such as might result from possession by a deity or demon; frantic, furious. Of a person: Frenzied, mad. … 2. Of persons, their actions, attributes, etc.:  Characterized, influenced or prompted by excessive and mistaken enthusiasm.”

[3] See OED (1971) at fanatic, Vol. 1, p. 959. “Fanatic: 1. A mad person; in later use, a religious maniac … 2. A fanatic person; a visionary; an unreasoning enthusiast …”

[4] See OED (1971) at fan, Vol. 1, p. 959.

[5] See Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2d Edition) (Oxford, 1965) at fan(atic),  p. 188

[6] Also known as, an otaku.

[7] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __) at Nick Hornby, p. 403, n. 17. To this American, the joke is truly feeble. Hornby was talking about soccer, I think.

[8] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) (cited hereafter as MMP? at __).

[9] See ODQ at George Santayana, p. 666, n. 7. In the hypothetical, the aim is to prove or disprove the theory, not to convince people that it’s true.

[10] See MMP? at 24.

[11] See MMP? at 24.

[12] See MMP? at 24.

[13] I’m relying on Sigmund Freud for that historical note. We have a reasonably good collection of Freud’s writings here at the Zoo. See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (3 Volumes) (Franklin Library, 1981) (hereafter, Freud at _). See Freud at Vol. 1, On Narcissism, An Introduction, p. 257: “The word narcissism is taken from the clinical terminology and was chosen … in 1899 to denote the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way as otherwise the body of a sexual object is treated; that is to say, he experiences sexual pleasure in gazing at, caressing and fondling his body, till complete gratification ensues ….”

[14] See Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV-TR (hereafter, Diagnostic Criteria at __) at Narcissistic Personality Disorder, 301.81. Note that we’re not citing to the new DSM V, largely because we don’t have a copy. Eric Fromm, in 1961, didn’t have one, either.

[15] See MMP? at 25.