Fanaticism, “le mot à la mode” in eighteenth-century France. (Part 1)

Par AlexLec, 

The French eighteenth century was a fruitful period for the creation and definition of new ideas and concepts in the French language. However, this passion for definition also highlighted another phenomenon which occurred during the period: France in the eighteenth century was a time when thinkers aimed to re-define their society; and a time when they endeavoured in particular to redefine the place of religion in French society. When the Discours de la méthode was published in 1637, Descartes put forward his interpretation of reason as an instrument for the pursuit of knowledge. His philosophical legacy therefore provided eighteenth-century French thinkers with ‘l’arme la plus efficace contre le dogmatisme religieux’.[1] As a result, many eighteenth-century philosophes like Voltaire or Alexandre Deleyre – a writer for the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers who also published critical works on Montesquieu’s doctrines – concentrated their studies on the actions of the Catholic Church in their contemporary society. The concept of fanatisme soon emerged as a new idea to qualify a recurrent attitude in religious matters. In fact, the concept became extremely fashionable; it was a ‘mot à la mode’[2] which shaped both the eighteenth century and Voltaire’s work. But how did the concept of fanatisme appear in the French language? How and why was it used by eighteenth-century French society and more particularly by Voltaire?

The first occurrences of the word fanatisme in early eighteenth-century texts took the word to mean an error of judgement or a belief in false statements. In the middle of the century, this concept of error was successively clarified by Deleyre and questioned by Rousseau; in the process, fanatisme was revealed to be subjective concept. Voltaire, however, redefined fanatisme in the 1760s by suggesting that it was based not on the concept of error, but on the concept of superstition while discussing at the same time the remaining differences between fanatisme and superstition. Furthermore, Voltaire’s unique definition of fanatisme partly relied upon his observations about unusual historical events during the 1720s and 1730s which he considered to be imbued with fanatisme because they were spectacles of graphic violence – whether it be to others or self-inflicted. Nonetheless, Voltaire’s definition of fanatisme went beyond the sphere of historicity since he also viewed it as a linguistic, literary and pictorial (or visual) concept to be opposed to the notion of tolérance.

Fanatisme as a concept has existed for centuries: in Antiquity, Roman texts described the practices of the priests of Bellone – popularly called fanatici – who pierced their chests with a sword as an offering to their Goddess.[3] However, the word fanatisme was introduced in the French language only centuries later, when Bossuet used it in 1697 for the title of the fifth chapter of his Sommaire de la doctrine du livre.[4] It was clear at the time that fanatisme was derived from the adjective fanatique whose origins dated back to the Latin form fanaticus meaning fanatic. Nonetheless it was not until 1718 that fanatisme became an official entry in French dictionaries, starting with the Dictionnaire de l’académie française which defined the word as: ‘erreurs du fanatique. C’est un vrai fanatisme. On appelle aussi fanatisme un entêtement outré et bizarre. Il se dit aussi d’une secte de fanatiques.’[5] The definition given by the académiciens is rather imprecise and tautological: it cannot be understood without the adjective ‘fanatique’ which, throughout the eighteenth century, held the meaning of ‘fou, extravagant, aliéné d’esprit; qui croit avoir des apparitions, des inspirations. Il ne se dit guère qu’en fait de religion’.[6] Consequently, fanatisme was to be understood in 1718 to mean the errors of judgement – or, put another way, the mistake of believing in false statements – made by stubborn and mentally unbalanced people as a result of their religious beliefs.

However, the académiciens’ use of the word ‘erreur’ is questionable; who is to judge whether or not someone is mistaken in his or her belief? In 1756, Deleyre elaborated the académiciens’ definition of fanatisme in the article ‘fanatisme’ of the Encyclopédie. According to him, the concept could be defined as follows:

FANATISME, s. m. (Philosophie.) c’est un zele aveugle & passionné, qui naît des opinions superstitieuses, & fait commettre des actions ridicules, injustes, & cruelles; non seulement, sans honte & sans remords, mais encore avec une sorte de joie & de consolation.[7]

Deleyre seems to agree with the académiciens that fanatisme is a religious concept: the ‘zele aveugle & passionné’ and the ‘opinions superstitieuses’ echo the académiciens’ ‘en fait de religion’ and ‘secte de fanatiques’. However, Deleyre does not just see fanatisme in relation to religion since he also specifies that the term is used in the field of philosophie. This association between the two concepts is rather revealing since it implies that the adepts of philosophie – or the philosophes – are capable of defining fanatisme, of judging what it is and how it manifests itself; and this is what Deleyre as a philosophe demonstrates in his argument. Therefore, it would then seem that the philosophes, in Deleyre’s view, are able to judge whether or not someone is mistaken in his or her belief.

However, Rousseau’s view on the matter seems to contradict directly Deleyre’s article when he writes in his preface to the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750) that:

Il y aura dans tous les tems des hommes faits pour être subjugués par les opinions de leur siecle, de leur Pays, & de leur Société: tel fait aujourd’hui l’Esprit fort & le Philosophe, qui, par la même raison n’eût été qu’un fanatique du tems de la Ligue.[8]

Rousseau’s argument in the Discours aims to demonstrate that the arts and sciences have negative impacts on society, while arguing at the same time that virtuous simplicity is more generally beneficial to humankind. His statement that the philosophes of the eighteenth-century would have been ‘fanatique[s]’ at the time of the Catholic League then supports his main argument since philosophes claim to be the defenders of art and science. If the philosophes defend corruptive concepts, and if they devote their efforts to spreading their love for these concepts, then it could be said that they have a ‘zele aveugle et passionné’ to quote Deleyre or that they are ‘subjugués par les opinions de leur siecle’ as Rousseau rightly points out: the philosophes would appear to be ‘fanatique[s]’ themselves. It would then seem that fanatisme depends upon subjective ‘opinions’ about what is right and wrong. Rousseau points out that the philosophes are only preoccupied with promoting the arts and sciences because they conform to the ‘opinions de leur siecle, de leur Pays, & de leur Société’. In other words, the philosophes only appear to be the defenders of culture because this was a fashionable trend. If the opinions of the ‘tems de la Ligue’ – that is to say the persecution of Protestants in order to defend the Catholic Church – had been fashionable in eighteenth-century France, then the philosophes would probably have followed the trend, and would have become fanatics. They would themselves have been in ‘erreur’. Therefore, it seems that fanatisme and its definition as an ‘erreur’ is a wholly subjective one: a philosophe is a wise defender of culture specifically in the eighteenth century, but he could have been a fanatic two centuries earlier.

In 1764, Voltaire agreed in part with Rousseau about the subjective nature of fanatisme. He writes in his Dictionnaire philosophique (article ‘superstition’) that: ‘Les musulmans en accusent toutes les sociétés chrétiennes, et en sont accusés. Qui jugera de ce procès? Sera-ce la raison? mais chaque secte prétend avoir la raison de son côté’.[9] Voltaire emphasizes the subjectivity of the situation which is underlined by the locution ‘de son côté’ and the shift from the active to the passive: ‘en accusent’ becomes ‘en sont accusés’. However, the reader is not to take the word ‘en’ to refer to the ‘erreur’ of the académiciens, but rather to ‘superstition’; and this particular linguistic distinction reveals how Voltaire moves away from Rousseau’s statement. It is true that the philosophe can potentially make an ‘erreur’ according to Voltaire. In Le Philosophe ignorant, he admits that: ‘je me suis trouvé possesseur de quatre ou cinq vérités, dégagé d’une centaine d’erreurs, & chargé d’une immense quantité de doutes.’[10] In fact, the hyperbolic number ‘centaines’ suggests that ‘erreurs’ are inevitable. However, even though the philosophe is bound to make an ‘erreur’, s/he is not subject to fanatisme according to Voltaire (‘il n’y a d’autre remède à cette maladie épidémique que l’esprit philosophique’) precisely because an ‘erreur’ involves reasoning whereas fanatisme does not since it is a ‘zele aveugle’. Instead, the defining element of fanatisme is superstition (‘le fanatisme est à la superstition ce que le transport est à la fièvre’);[11] and Voltaire clearly agrees with Deleyre on this point.[12] In the Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire defines superstition through a series of examples such as a priest playing the castanets to reconcile a worshipper with a god: ‘Quelle infâme idée d’imaginer qu’un prêtre d’Isis et de Cybèle, en jouant des cymbales et des castagnettes, vous réconciliera avec la Divinité !’[13] This example reveals how Voltaire considers superstition to be an irrational thought. This can be seen in the exclamation mark and the ironical tone he takes when he says ‘quelle infâme idée’. Furthermore, superstition seems to be irrational precisely because it is a belief in the magical or, put another way, in a ritualistic action as the means of communicating with an invisible force which will bring either positive or negative effects to the natural world. Thus superstition – or the belief in the irrational and the magical – is the basis of fanatisme rather than ‘erreur’, which is contrastingly seen as flawed reasoning by Voltaire.

Although superstition and not ‘erreur’ appears to be the basis of fanatisme in Voltaire’s definition of the word, some philosophes including Voltaire also established a difference between superstition and fanatisme; and this difference lies in the importance of outward expression or action implied by the concept of fanatisme. For Deleyre, ‘le fanatisme n’est donc que la superstition mise en action’. This statement shows that fanatisme was perceived as a direct and visible result of superstition: it is an action while superstition is a belief. This is clearly emphasized by the use of the ‘ne…que’ which underlines the fact that fanatisme is nothing more than a physical translation of the mental notion of superstition. Voltaire seems to agree with Deleyre in his article on ‘fanatisme’: ‘Le fanatisme est à la superstition ce que le transport est à la fièvre, ce que la rage est à la colère.’[14] By using two comparative examples, Voltaire invites his readers to see fanatisme as a visible sign of the abstract concept of superstition: the ‘transport’ is the visible sign of a fever, and ‘rage’ is the outward expression and symptom of inner anger. However, Voltaire seems to focus on the visual nature of fanatisme much more: the word ‘rage’ of the last proposition possesses a second meaning; in eighteenth-century France, it could refer to rabies which was seen as a ‘délire furieux’ whose symptoms include hallucinations, hyper-salivation and delirium.[15] The different meaning of ‘rage’ would then not just characterise the visual aspect of fanatisme but also its graphic and violent nature. Thus, Voltaire suggests that fanatisme is more than just a visible sign of superstition; it is its graphic and violent manifestation.

            However, it is possible to wonder why Voltaire insists upon the graphic aspect of fanatisme. His reasons may be understood in the light of his personal observations upon the behaviour of religious groups. For example, in the Traité sur la tolérance, Voltaire mentions the convulsionnaires of Saint Médard, whom he regards with contempt as fanatics, as a ‘populace convulsionnaire’.[16] The convulsionnaires were a religious sect made up of Jansenist believers who gathered in the cemetery of the Church of St Médard between 1727 and 1732 to exhibit their convulsions. At this particular time, Jansenists were being marginalized because of the publication of Unigenitus. In this papal bull promulgated in 1713, Clement XI condemned 101 propositions made by the Jansenist theologian Pasquier Quesnel. Jansenists were officially excluded from the Catholic Church of France dominated by Jesuits from this date onwards. To defend their beliefs, Jansenists attempted to prove that God was on their side and thus exhibited convulsions all over Paris. Voltaire was well aware of these Jansenist practices as he actually attended the convulsionnaires’ demonstrations at the cemetery: ‘Oui, je les ai vus ces convulsionnaires, je les ai vus tordre leurs membres et écumer. Ils criaient: Il faut du sang.’[17] The convulsions were clearly violent in nature; and the repetition of ‘je les ai vus’ conveys on the page Voltaire’s wild amazement. Furthermore, the convulsions probably reminded Voltaire of the symptoms of rabies: ‘écumer’ sounds similar to hyper-salivation and the screaming suggests that the convulsionnaires were delirious. But even though Voltaire reveals how shocked he was, he also interprets the Jansenists’ actions with a keen sense of irony: ‘les jansénistes’, he writes, ‘pour mieux prouver que jamais Jésus-Christ n’avait pu prendre l’habit de jésuite, remplirent Paris de convulsions, et attirèrent le monde à leur préau’.[18] Jansenists, in their attempts to prove the truth of their beliefs, did not hesitate to act out God’s presence. They were admittedly attempting to make God’s presence more visual; but the violent nature of the convulsions suggests that they literally made a spectacle of themselves to attract as many people as possible. After all, Voltaire describes their practices as being theatrical or spectacular: the verbal locution ‘attirer le monde à leur préau’ recalls the gathering of an audience around the stage, or a crowd gathering around performers in a courtyard (‘préau’); and the use of ‘remplirent’ recalls the locution remplir une salle meaning to sell out a venue or to fill a room (with people). By analogy, Paris then appears to be the stage on which these convulsions were played out. Therefore, the insistence upon the violence and graphic aspect of fanatisme seems to be founded upon Voltaire’s observations about Jansenist convulsions; and these practices revealed how fanatisme was closely linked to the notion of theatricality and the spectacular.

            So Voltaire mocks and shows contempt for fanatics such as the convulsionnaires. However, his viewpoint on the Quakers who also exhibited convulsions appears entirely different in the Lettres philosophiques. In his third letter, Voltaire reports how Quakerism became popular: ‘voici ce qui contribua le plus à étendre la secte. Fox se croyait inspiré. […] Il se mit à trembler, à faire des contorsions et des grimaces’.[19] George Fox, the founding father of Quakerism, tried to win over his audience by contorting his body just like the convulsionnaires: the verb ‘étendre’ recalls the use of the locution attirer le monde; and the noun ‘contorsions’ or even the word quaker qui signifie trembleurs’ – recall the convulsions.[20] Thus, the Quakers’ religious practices can be considered as an English equivalent to the French Jansenist convulsions. Nonetheless, Voltaire presents the Quakers themselves rather differently. When he met Andrew Pitt – a leader of Quakerism – during his exile in England (1726-1729), he thought that there was ‘plus de politesse dans l’air ouvert et humain de son visage, qu’il n’y en a de tirer une jambe derrière l’autre et de porter à la main ce qui est fait pour couvrir la tête.’[21] The noun politesse however should not be considered as the practice of social manners since the Quakers for example do not take their hats off when they greet someone. Instead, Voltaire suggests that Quakers possess inner politeness as opposed to hypocritical outward politeness. They treat everyone as equals even outsiders like Voltaire or people whom they dislike. The contrast between Voltaire’s appreciation for the Quakers and his contempt for the convulsionnaires is clear. Even though they were fanatics, Voltaire saw the Quakers as welcoming and polite people whereas the convulsionnaires were a ‘populace’. Thus, the Lettres reveal how Voltaire’s experience could at times conflict with his definition of fanatisme and how his understanding of fanatisme was undoubtedly multi-dimensional.

            However, Voltaire’s most famous analysis of fanatisme is probably the affaire Calas which was different from the convulsionnaires and the Quakers in a fundamental way: the Calas case was not about self-inflicted violence like convulsions but about violence to others. Jean Calas, a French Protestant and merchant from Toulouse, was convicted in 1761 for the murder of his son, Marc-Antoine, who had wished to convert to Catholicism. The motive behind the murder was considered to be a Protestant form of fanatisme by Calas’s Catholic judges; and the appellate court of Toulouse therefore sentenced Calas to death on the wheel in 1762. As far as Voltaire was concerned however, the fanatics in this case were the judges because they refused to seek alternative explanations (such as suicide) or other potential suspects for the possible murder. In his eyes, they were attempting to show the superiority and power of Catholicism over Protestantism by condemning Calas. In the Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire alludes to the judges of the case whom he explicitly qualifies as fanatics when he writes: ‘Il y a des fanatiques de sang-froid: ce sont les juges qui condamnent à la mort ceux qui n’ont d’autre crime que de ne pas penser comme eux’.[22] Here, Voltaire highlights the graphic and violent nature of the judges’ fanatisme. This is suggested by ‘sang-froid’ which has a double connotation of cold-heartedness and bloodshed reinforced by the noun ‘mort’. In addition, the judges’ violence is contrasted to the harmlessness of Calas’ thoughts (‘n’avoir…que’). Any excuse thus appears to be good enough to condemn someone to death which could mean that the judges are almost entertaining themselves in the trial, and that their decision seems to turn Calas’ execution into a form of spectacle. It then seems that Calas, the poor Protestant merchant, was sentenced to death for having different religious views to those of his judges who wished for some entertainment. Whether or not Calas was actually guilty of murder, the court case clearly suggests that Voltaire in the 1760s considered fanatics as people who persecuted and killed others, whose beliefs were different from theirs, and turned their death into a form of entertainment.

Nonetheless, Voltaire’s definition of fanatisme went beyond the sphere of historicity since he also viewed it as a linguistic, literary and pictorial concept to be opposed to the notion of tolérance. In Le Traité sur la tolérance, Voltaire declares that ‘il faut regarder tous les hommes comme nos frères.’[23] This moral dictum represents the definition of tolérance in the sense that it encourages the reader to accept the differences between him/her and other human beings, and to focus on the similarities s/he shares with them whereas fanatisme does the exact opposite. The linguistic distinction between fanatisme and tolérance then lies in the opposition between the notions of uniformity and difference of thought, between the rejection of differences leading to persecution, and the acceptance of differences leading to peace. However, Voltaire does not just make linguistic distinctions between fanatisme and tolérance since he also draws artistic oppositions between the two concepts. As early as 1728, Voltaire had opposed fanatisme to tolérance in the imagery of La Henriade, an epic poem celebrating the life of Henri IV and relating the siege of Paris in 1589. Just like Rousseau in the example cited earlier, Voltaire considered some of the events of the French religious wars – particularly the murder of Henri III by Jacques Clément – to exemplify fanatisme. Throughout his poem, Voltaire opposes the allegories of fanatisme and tolérance by using the pictorial technique of chiaroscuro. Tolérance is represented by light[24] whereas fanatisme is represented by shadow and obscurity.[25] For example, the allegorical figure of Fanatisme goes to visit Clément and encourages him to kill Henri III. His appearance is rather striking: Fanatisme is dressed in ‘un lugubre appareil’[26] and has ‘flancs noirs’[27] whereas Tolérance and Vérité appear in all the ‘clarté des feux’[28] and ‘brillante[s] d’un éclat’.[29] Voltaire thus defines fanatisme in opposition to tolérance by using literary and pictorial techniques as well as by using linguistic distinctions.


[1] André Lagarde and Laurent Michard, Le XVIIIème Siècle, les grands auteurs français du programme, anthologie et histoire littéraire (Paris: Bordas, 1953), p.15.

[2] André Haynal, Miklos Molnard and Gérard de Puymège, Le Fanatisme, ses racines. Un essai historique et psychanalytique (Paris: Stock, 1980), p.13 [hereafter, LFR].

[3] LFR, p.34.

[4]LFR, p.39.

[5] Dictionnaire de l’académie française, CD-ROM (Marsanne: Redon: 2001), 3rd edition [hereafter DAF].

[6] DAF.

[7] Alexandre Deleyre, Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol.6 (Paris: Briasson-David-LeBreton-Durand, 1756), p.393.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur les sciences et les arts (London: Oxford University Press,1946), p.94

[9] Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, comprenant les 118 articles parus sous ce titre du vivant de Voltaire avec leurs suppléments parus dans les Questions sur l’encyclopédie, vol.2 (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964), p.260 [hereafter DP].

[10] Voltaire, Le Philosophe ignorant (London [?], []: 1766), p.85.

[11] DP, vol.1, p.273.

[12] See Deleyre’s definition of fanatisme in which he claims that the origins of the concept are ‘opinions superstitieuses’.

[13] DP, vol.2, p.257.

[14] DP, vol.1, p.273.

[15] Author unknown, ‘Hydrophobie’, in Encyclopédie, vol.8 (Paris: Briasson-David-Le Breton-Durand), p.376. [hydrophobie was a synonym for rage in eighteenth-century France]

[16] Voltaire, Traité sur la tolérance (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000), p.155 [hereafter TT].

[17] Voltaire, Dictionnaire de la pensée de Voltaire par lui-même (Bruxelles: Complexe, 1994), p.566.

[18] DP, p.148.

[19] Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques (London:Grant & Cutler, 1986), pp.8-9 [hereafter, LP].

[20] LP, p.8.

[21] LP, p.1.

[22] DP, vol.1, p.274. See also Valérie van Crugten-André, ‘Le Traité de la tolérance’ de Voltaire: un champion des lumières contre le fanatisme (Paris: Champion, 1999), p.74.

[23] TT, p.247.

[24] This idea is taken from  LFR, p.45.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Voltaire, La Henriade, (Paris: Didot, 1801), p.94 [hereafter LH].

[27] LH, p.165.

[28] LH, p.178.

[29] Ibid.

Laisser un commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s