N. A. BERDYAEV (BERDIAEV)
Concerning Fanaticism, Orthodoxy and Truth
(1937 - #430)
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
Permission granted for non-commercial distribution