The Logic of Fanaticism

By George Santayana

[The New Republic; November 28, 1914]

Among the sweeping judgments, boasts, insults, recriminations, and falsehoods that dishonor the present war, two are often heard which, though flatly contradictory in form and in animus, yet curiously enough designate the same substantive fact. One of these assertions is that the Germans are barbarians, the other that they possess and defend the highest Kultur. Why should anyone call the Germans barbarians when they evidently share to the full in the arts and traditions of Christendom? Because, incidentally, their policy and methods are ruthless, appealing deliberately and even from a sense of duty to any and every means which is expected to further their national purposes; and again on the deeper ground that they are singly determined to carry out an a priori impulse or Absolute Will, which their philosophers have found to be agitating the whole universe and more particularly their own bosoms; a will to which they attribute infinite authority and value, so that it must be heroically executed, in disdain of liberty, security, and delight, both within and without their own borders.

And why do the Germans claim the highest Kultur, and claim it with the deepest conviction, backed by the most elaborate historical and philosophical arguments? Almost for the same reason for which they are called barbarians by their enemies. Have they not renounced individualism in the interests of organization, recast their institutions and subdued their souls for the better service of the State? Have they not scoured the sciences and tormented the arts, so as to strengthen and express their national energies? Evidently their alleged barbarism is but the inevitable operation of their boasted Kultur; and the bias of the two opposite designations cannot alter the formidable fact to which both equally apply.

The sword of Islam and the zeal of the Inquisition were similarly denounced and similarly justified. Those who think they have hold on an absolute good must necessarily be ruthless. That the end justifies the means passes for an immoral maxim; but taken in one sense it is the very principle of order and rational sacrifice. A supreme social good is hardly to be secured without foregoing many sweets and inflicting many stripes on one's own back and even more on one's neighbor's. It is true that a rigid control of life in the service of ends freely chosen would not curtail freedom, but rather set freedom in motion where only chance and alternating impulses prevailed before.

Yet the maturer and disillusioned portion of mankind are hardly wrong in smelling a danger whenever an absolute and supreme end is proposed and pursued to the serious inconvenience of everybody. They know how likely it is that such a dazzling celestial light should be but heat-lightning. The pursuit of any single end, ravishing and incomparable as it may seem to the enthusiast, strains and impoverishes human nature, and sometimes, by detaching it too much from common and humble feelings, actually debauches it. Indeed, the inhumanity of fanaticism does not lie chiefly in the conscientious crimes which it dictates here and there; it lies rather in the miserable imaginary end itself, for the sake of which those crimes are committed. A "truth," a "salvation," a Kultur, which wars and persecutions hope to diffuse is presumably spurious. Men presently will cry out to be saved from that salvation and enlightened out of that truth; they will gasp to escape from the heavy regimen of that Kultur, so as to see this green world for themselves, and live and learn after their own fashion. If the end does not justify the means. It is because this end Is too often worthless, or at least no more valuable than what it bids us renounce for its sake. Nothing win repay a man for becoming inhuman. The aim of life is some way of living, as flexible and gentle as human nature; so that ambition may stoop to kindness, and philosophy to candor and to humor. Neither prosperity nor empire nor heaven can be worth winning at the price of a virulent temper, bloody hands, an anguished spirit, and a vain hatred of the rest of the world.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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