Fanatical Ideas and Reasonable Convictions

A fanatic is a person obsessed with one idea, a monomaniac ruled by one dominant compulsion that governs all his thoughts and actions. He is enslaved by one predominant passion that dictates all his motives and decisions. Ruled by revenge, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is determined to hunt and kill the white whale that inflicted the loss of his leg. Ruled by hatred and driven by wrath, Shylock the money lender demands his pound of flesh when Antonio fails to pay his loan on the due date. Ruled by avarice, King Midas asks the gods for the golden touch to increase his fortune although he is the wealthiest of kings. In this narrow pursuit of one ruling idea, the fanatic ignores the greater world surrounding him and blinds himself to the rest of reality. Like Procrustes, who cut off or stretched the legs of his victims to fit exactly his notorious bed rather than adapt the bed to the size of the legs, the fanatic exaggerates his one idea and lets it become the be-all and end-all.

In a chapter entitled “The Maniac” from Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton explains that the fanatic’s thinking is too “rational” in the sense that he overlooks many other considerations and ignores other evidence that surrounds him. The fanatic’s extreme mental concentration on one thing leads to madness at the expense of openness to larger universal truths that lead to wisdom: “Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists seldom.” To think with rabid intensity on one subject consumes the mind to an unhealthy degree of concentration. It warps a person’s mind, making him pay undue attention to one matter and ignore objects of larger importance. The fanatic makes himself the center of the universe as only his passions count. As Chesterton remarks, “Are there no other stories in the world except yours, and are all men busy with your business?” To be haunted, obsessed, and enslaved by one rigid idea ultimately distorts a person’s humanity. A fanatic lives and dies for one thing only, whether it is revenge, money, work, pleasure, or fame. To think like a monomaniac eventually leads to thinking only with the head and without the conscience or the heart. Ironically, the overworking of the mind on one narrow subject breeds some degree of insanity: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason,” writes Chesterton.

On the other hand, the sane man remains open and receptive to all that is, not bound to one rigid view. The sane man enjoys a carefree spirit free of the deadly seriousness of the madman. The person who lets his mind play, imagine, and wonder enjoys the mental health that a sense of humor and charity produce that escape the madman and fanatic. When Chesterton writes that “It is the happy man who does the useless things,” he means that lightheartedness, spontaneity, and fun protect a man from the gravity of self-importance and morbid seriousness. To say, then, that “The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in” indicates that the sane person acknowledges the wealth of the great universe that comprises all of reality, a rich world that he does not reduce to some closed idea. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens,” writes Chesterton, meaning that the poet is open to the larger vision of the whole of reality in its fullness of being. On the other hand, the madman is akin to “the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head” as if the great mysteries of love, death, suffering, and God shrink to accommodate his all-ruling idea. In the famous words of Hamlet, “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, /Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The fanatic sacrifices the whole for the part, guilty of a myopia that reduces the complexity and variety of a whole universe to a one-sided preoccupation with a single object.

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On the other hand, a person with convictions, in possession of the truth, and in love with wisdom does not behave like a fanatic. The sane person does not isolate one truth or idea from the entire body of knowledge. He arrives at conclusions in various ways that examine all the available evidence, a way of proceeding that the word “convergence” best describes. Many roads from different directions all lead to the same place. It is not one isolated episode or one small idea that shapes the mind. As Cardinal Newman explains, certitude is “the consequence, divinely intended and enjoined upon us, of the accumulated force of certain given reasons.” This force of much evidence that gathers from the combination of many hints of the truth then acquires the weight of great reasonableness, what Newman calls “accumulated probabilities” that culminate in conviction. Unlike the monomaniac’s willful blindness, the sane man’s thought moves from the many to the one, taking into account all that matters to determine the truth. The sane man submits to the truth with humility and docility, whereas the madman stubbornly refuses to let go of his idée fixe.

For example, when a person falls truly in love with the right person in a Jane Austen novel, it does not occur because of one disconnected idea divorced from all other considerations. The happiness of marital love does not rest on one motive or consideration. Neither a couple’s similar economic, educational, or social backgrounds nor mere physical attraction or romantic sensibilities alone climax in love. Falling in love occurs when a woman recognizes in a man a combination of many admirable, attractive qualities that convince the mind, heart, and conscience of the desirability of the beloved. A prudent mind, a moral integrity, a generous heart, a chivalrous gentleman, and a handsome man who truly loves her and proves it beyond a doubt all converge. All these facts cohere and form “accumulated probabilities” that join and lead to certitude and conviction. The man and woman who fall in love have no doubts about their decision. Their conclusions are founded upon experience, evidence, reason, and feeling—what Austen calls “sense and sensibility.” The sane man’s thought, then, possesses the flexibility, expansion, and play of the mind that considers all the facts, effects, and possible consequences that enter into a decision.

Many famous conversion stories like St. Augustine’s in The Confessions and Newman’s in Apologia Pro Vita Sua show the discovery of the truth and the state of conviction following a combination of thoughts and insights from a variety of sources that converge and lead to the same conclusion. In Augustine’s story the eloquence and kindness of St. Ambrose, the influence of true friends who embraced the Catholic faith, the noble inspiring ideals of monastic life, the nonsense of astrology (the stars determining a person’s life), and the unreasonableness of the Manichaean heresy (two gods at war contending for the soul of man) all contributed to the expansion and enlargement of his mind that released him from the heresies that denied free will.

In the case of Blessed Cardinal Newman, his reading of the Church Fathers eventually lead him to conclude, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” The Anglican Church that claimed to be the one true universal church was not indeed universal but British and nationalistic. The spirit of liberalism he encountered at Oxford diluted the universality of religious truth to a multitude of conflicting religious opinions between Low Church and High Church Anglicans. He could not make coherent sense of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, an odd mixture of Protestant and Catholic ideas. The consistency, continuity, and unchanging dogmas and moral teachings of the Catholic Church gave irrefutable testimony to its one, true, Catholic, and apostolic character as the Church Christ founded.

In Chesterton’s phrase, Augustine and Newman “put their heads into heaven” and encountered the breadth and depth of unchanging universal truths. Docile and receptive, they let heaven and earth speak with the grandeur of truth rather than reject the evidence they found incompatible with their previous beliefs. To reach firm conclusions and have strong convictions that one professes and defends is not to be fanatical, rigid, and unbending. The madman stares at one thing only while the sane person sees all that is.

Editor’s note: The image above is a scene from the 1956 film Moby Dick directed by John Huston and staring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. 


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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