In this article we will explore in depth the ideas of idealism and fanaticism. These concepts are important to grasp so that one may understand how so many well-intentioned people accidentally or unintentionally turn towards destruction or violence when trying to achieve a positive goal.
We will explore the misunderstandings that occur in order for this to happen. We will use the topic of cults to better understand these situations and how to avoid them.
Human Nature – Idealism & Fanaticism
Idealism, Pessimism & Fanaticism
“If you want to change the world for the better, then you are an idealist.
If you want to change the world for the better, but you believe it cannot be changed one whit, then you are a pessimist, and your idealism will only haunt you.
If you want to change the world for the better, but you believe that it will grow worse, despite everyone’s efforts, then you are a truly despondent, perhaps misguided idealist.
If you want to change the world for the better, and if you are determined to do so, no matter at what cost to yourself or others, no matter what the risk, and if you believe that those ends justify any means at your disposal, then you are a fanatic.”1
Forms of Idealism
“Let us look at the many forms idealism can take.
Sometimes it is difficult to identify idealists, because they wear such pessimistic clothing that all you can see are the patterns of a sardonic nature, or of irony.
On the other hand, many who speak most glowingly, in the most idealistic fashions, underneath are filled with the darkest aspects of pessimism and despair.
If you are idealists, and if you feel relatively powerless in the world at the same time, and if your idealism is general and grandiose, unrelated to any practical plans for its expression, then you can find yourself in difficulties indeed.”2
Here is a specific example of what I mean:
“One evening a small group was assembled not too long ago. One visitor, a man from another part of the country, began to speak about the state of the nation, largely condemning all of his countrymen and women for their greed and stupidity.
People would do anything at all for money, he said, and as his monologue continued, he expressed his opinion that the species itself would almost inevitably bring about its own destruction.
He cited many instances of nefarious acts committed for money’s sake. A lively discussion resulted, but no countering opinion could enter this man’s mind.
Roger, let us call him, is an idealist at heart, but he believes that the individual has little power in the world, and so he did not pursue his personal idealism in the events of his own life.
“Everyone is a slave to the system.” That is his line of belief.
He took a routine job in a local business and stayed with it for over 20 years, all of the time hating to go to work, or saying that he did, and at the same time refusing to try other areas of activity that were open to him — because he was afraid to try.
He feels he has betrayed himself, and he projects that betrayal outward until betrayal is all that he sees in the socio-political world.
Had he begun the work of actualizing his ideals through his own private life, he would not be in such a situation.
The expression of ideals brings about satisfaction, which then of course promotes the further expression of practical idealism.
Roger speaks the same way in any social group, and therefore to that extent spreads a negative and despairing aura.
I do not want to define his existence by those attitudes alone, however, for when he forgets the great gulf between his idealism and practical life, and speaks about other activities, then he is full of charming energy.
That energy could have sustained him far more than it has, however, had he counted on his natural interests and chosen one of those for his life’s work.
He could have been an excellent teacher. He had offers of other jobs that would have pleased him more, but he is so convinced of his lack of power that he did not dare take advantage of the opportunities.
There are satisfactions in his life [however] that prevent him from narrowing his focus even further.”3
Idealism & “Good vs. Bad”
“Idealism presupposes “the good” as opposed to “the bad,” so how can the pursuit of “the good” often lead to the expression of “the bad?”
For that, we will have to look further.
There is one commandment above all, in practical terms — a Christian commandment that can be used as a yardstick.
It is good because it is something you can understand practically: “Thou shalt not kill.” That is clear enough. Under most conditions you know when you have killed.
That [commandment] is a much better road to follow, for example than: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” for many of you do not love yourselves to begin with, and can scarcely love your neighbor as well.
The idea is that if you love your neighbor you will not treat him poorly, much less kill him -— but the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” says you shall not kill your neighbor no matter how you feel about him.
So let us say in a new commandment: “Thou shalt not kill even in the pursuit of your ideals.”
What does that mean?
In practical terms it would mean that you would not wage war for the sake of peace.
It would mean that you did not kill animals in experiments, taking their lives in order to protect the sacredness of human life.
That would be a prime directive: “Thou shalt not kill even in the pursuit of your ideals” — for man has killed for the sake of his ideals as much as he has ever killed for greed, or lust, or even the pursuit of power on its own merits.
When you are discussing the nature of good and bad, you are on tricky ground indeed, for many — or most — of man’s atrocities to man have been committed in misguided pursuit of “the good.”
Whose good? Is “good” an absolute?
In your arena of events, obviously, one man’s good can be another’s disaster.
Hitler pursued his version of “the good” with undeviating fanatical intent. He believed in the superiority and moral rectitude of the Aryan race.
In his grandiose, idealized version of reality, he saw that race “set in its proper place,” as natural master of mankind.
He believed in heroic characteristics, and became blinded by an idealized superman version of an Aryan strong in mind and body.
To attain that end, Hitler was quite willing to sacrifice the rest of humanity.
“The evil must be plucked out.” That unfortunate chant is behind the beliefs of many cults — scientific and religious — and Hitler’s Aryan kingdom was a curious interlocking of the worst aspects of religion and science alike, in which their cultish tendencies were encouraged and abetted.
The desire and motivation to act is so strong within each person that it will not be denied, and when it is denied then it can be expressed in a perverted form.
Man must not only act, but he must act constructively, and he must feel that he acts for good ends.
Only when the natural impulse (to act constructively) is denied consistently does the idealist turn into a fanatic.
Each person in his or her own way is an idealist.”4
From “Good” to “Bad” – Idealists to Fanatics
“At what expense is “the good” to be achieved — and whose idea of the good is to be the criterion?
Man’s pursuit of the good, to some extent now, fathered the Inquisition and the Salem witch hunts.
Politically, many today believe that Russia (or the Middle East, or North Korea) is “the enemy,” and that therefore any means may be taken to destroy that country (or countries).
Some people within the United States believe fervently that “the establishment” is rotten to the core, and that any means is justified to destroy it.
Some people believe that homosexuals and lesbians are “evil,” that somehow they lack the true qualities of humanness [and therefore need not be treated with normal respect].
These are all value judgments involving your ideas of the good.
Very few people start out trying to be as bad as possible. At least some criminals feel that in stealing they are simply righting society’s wrongs.
I am not saying that is their only motive, but in one way or another they manage to justify their activities by seeing them in their own version of the good and the right.”5
“Fanatics are inverted idealists.
Usually they are vague grandiose dreamers, whose plans almost completely ignore the full dimensions of normal living.
They are unfulfilled idealists who are not content to express idealism in steps, one at a time, or indeed to wait for the practical workings of active expression.
They demand immediate action.
They want to make the world over in their own image.
They cannot bear the expression of tolerance or opposing ideas.
They are the most self-righteous of the self-righteous, and they will sacrifice almost anything — their own lives or the lives of others.
They will justify almost any crime for the pursuit of those ends.
You are a fanatic if you consider possible killing for the pursuit of your ideal.
To repeat: You are a fanatic if you consider possible killing for the pursuit of your ideal [this includes the death sentence as well]. Regardless of the circumstances, this will hold true.
For example, your ideal may be — for ideals differ — the production of endless energy for the uses of mankind, and you may believe so fervently in that ideal — this added convenience to life — that you considered the hypothetical possibility of that convenience being achieved at the risk of losing some lives along the way. That is fanaticism.
It means that you are not willing to take the actual steps in physical reality to achieve the ideal, but that you believe that the end justifies the means: “Certainly some lives may be lost along the way, but overall, mankind will benefit.” That is the usual argument.
The sacredness of life cannot be sacrificed for life’s convenience, or the quality of life itself will suffer.
In the same manner, say, the ideal is to protect human life, and in the pursuit of that ideal you give generations of various animals deadly diseases, and sacrifice their lives.
Your justification may be that people have souls and animals do not, or that the quality of life is less in the animals, but regardless of those arguments this is fanaticism — and the quality of human life itself suffers as a result, for those who sacrifice any kind of life along the way lose some respect for all life, human life included.
The ends do not justify the means.”6
Fanatics & Grandiose Ideals
“You must realize that fanatics always deal with grandiose ideals, while at the same time they believe in man’s sinful nature, and the individual’s lack of power.
They cannot trust the expression of the self, for they are convinced of its duplicity.
Their ideals then seem even more remote.
Fanatics call others to social action.
Since they do not believe that the individual is ever effective, their groups are not assemblies of private individuals come reasonably together, pooling individual resources.
They are instead congregations of people who are afraid to assert their individuality, who hope to find it in the group, or hope to establish a joint individuality — and that is an impossibility.
True individuals can do much through social action, and the species is a social one, but people who are afraid of their individuality will never find it in a group, but only a caricature of their own powerlessness.”7
Fanatics & Powerlessness
“Basically a fanatic believes that he is powerless.
He does not trust his own self-structure, or his ability to act effectively.
Joint action seems the only course, but a joint action in which each individual must actually be forced to act, driven by frenzy, or fear or hatred, incensed and provoked, for otherwise the fanatic fears that no action at all will be taken toward “the ideal.”
Through such methods, and through such group hysteria, the responsibility for separate acts is divorced from the individual, and rests instead upon the group, where it becomes generalized and dispersed.
The cause, whatever it is, can then cover any number of crimes, and no particular individual need bear the blame alone.
Fanatics have tunnel vision, so that any beliefs not fitting their purposes are ignored.
Those that challenge their own purposes, however, become instant targets of scorn and attack.
Generally speaking in your society, power is considered a male attribute.
Cult leaders are more often male than female, and females are more often than not followers, because they have been taught that it is wrong for them to use power, and right for them to follow the powerful.”8
Fanatics & Intolerance
“Fanatics cannot stand tolerance.
They expect obedience.
A democratic society offers the greatest challenges and possibilities of achievement for the individual and the species, for it allows for the free intercourse of ideas.
It demands much more of its people, however, for in a large manner each must pick and choose from amid a variety of life-styles and beliefs his and her own platform for daily life and action.”9
Fanatics and Good & Evil
“Fanatics always use ringing rhetoric, and speak in the highest terms of truth, good and evil, and particularly of retribution.
To some extent capital punishment is the act of a fanatical society: The taking of the murderer’s life does not bring back the victim’s, and it does not prevent other men from [committing] such crimes.
I am aware that the death penalty often seems to be a practical solution — and indeed many murderers want to die, and are caught because of their need for punishment.
Many, now — and I am speaking generally — are in the position they are because they so thoroughly believe what all of you believe to a large extent: that you are flawed creatures, spawned by a meaningless universe, or made by a vengeful God and damaged by original sin.
Fanatics exist because of the great gap between an idealized good and an exaggerated version of its opposite.
The idealized good is projected into the future, while its exaggerated opposite is seen to pervade the present.
The individual is seen as powerless to work alone toward that ideal with any sureness of success.
Because of his belief in his powerlessness [the fanatic] feels that any means to an end is justified.
Behind all this is the belief that spontaneously the ideal will never be achieved, and that, indeed, on his own man is getting worse and worse in every aspect: How can flawed selves ever hope to spontaneously achieve any good?
You will often condone quite reprehensible acts if you think they were committed for the sake of a greater good. [Atomic bombs on Japan, anyone??? Horrific animal experimentation for pharmaceuticals???]
You have a tendency to look for outright evil, to think in terms of “the powers of good and evil,” and I am quite sure that many of my readers are convinced of evil’s force.
Evil does not exist in those terms, and that is why so many seemingly idealistic people can be partners in quite reprehensible actions, while telling themselves that such acts are justified, since they are methods toward a good end.
That is why fanatics feel justified in their actions.
When you indulge in such black-and-white thinking, you treat your ideals shabbily.
Each act that is not in keeping with that ideal begins to unravel the ideal at its very core.
As I have stated [several times], if you feel unworthy, or powerless to act, and if you are idealistic, you may begin to feel that the ideal exists so far in the future that it is necessary to take steps you might not otherwise take to achieve it. And when this happens, the ideal is always eroded.
If you want to be a true practicing idealist, then each step that you take along the way must be worthy of your goal.”10
Fanatics & Self-Righteousness
“No one is as fanatical, and no one can be crueler, than the self-righteous.
It is very easy for such persons “to become [religiously] converted” after negative episodes, lining themselves up once more on the side of good, searching for “the power of fellowship,” turning to church rather than government, hearing in one way or another the voice of God.”11
Are you Dealing with a Fanatic?
“Look at it this way: If someone tells you that pleasure is wrong and tolerance is weakness, and that you must follow this or that dogma blindly in obedience, and if you are told this is the only right road toward the idealized good, then most likely you are dealing with a fanatic.
If you are told to kill for the sake of peace, you are dealing with someone who does not understand peace or justice.
If you are told to give up your free will, you are dealing with a fanatic.”12
As Mark Booth writes, “How to recognize any false prophet? Or any false, purportedly spiritual teaching? True spiritual teaching puts love of others and love of humanity at its heart – intelligent love, freely given. Beware of teaching that doesn’t invite questioning, or tolerate mockery. It is telling you, in effect, that God wants you to be stupid.”
Cults as Groups of Fanatics
“In dealing with the behavior of cults, you are dealing with a closed system of belief, rigid attitudes, intense emotionally-charged states, and also with what amounts to compulsive behavior.
They display paranoiac tendencies.
In cults, there is fanaticism, a closed mental environment, the rousing of hopes toward an ideal that seem unachievable because of the concentration upon all of the barriers that seem to stand in its way.
Most cults have their own specialized language of one kind of another — particular phrases used repetitiously — and this special language further serves to divorce the devotees from the rest of the world.
Loyalty to friends and family are discouraged, and encouraged to leave strong bonds of intimacy behind.
They feel threatened by the world, which is painted by their beliefs so that it presented a picture of unmitigated evil and corruption.
All of this should be fairly well recognized by now.”13
“Some people looked, and are looking, for some authority — any authority — to make their decisions for them, for the world seems increasingly dangerous, and they, because of their beliefs, feel increasingly powerless.
They yearn toward old ways, when the decisions of marriage were made for them, when they could safely follow in their father’s footsteps, when they were unaware of the lure of different places, and forced to remain at home.
They have become caught between science and religion. Their idealism finds no particular outlet. Their dreams seem betrayed.
Those people look to cults of various kinds, where decisions are made for them, where they are relieved of the burden of an individuality that has been robbed of its sense of power by conflicting beliefs.
Cults, however, deal primarily with fear, using it as a stimulus. They further erode the power of the individual, so that he is frightened to leave.
The group has power. The individual has none, except that the power of the group is vested in its leader.
Man is of good intent. When you see evil everywhere in man’s intent — in your own actions and those of others — then you set yourself up against your own existence, and that of your kind.
You focus upon the gulf between your ideals and your experience, until the gulf is all that is real.
You will not see man’s good intent, or you will do so ironically — for in comparison with your ideals, good in the world appears to be so minute as to be a mockery.
To this extent experience becomes closed. Such people are frightened of themselves, and of the nature of their existence. They may be intelligent or stupid, gifted or mundane, but they are frightened of experiencing themselves as themselves, or of acting according to their own wishes.”14
An Example: Jonestown Massacre – Jim Jones Cult
“Those people succumbed to an epidemic of beliefs, to an environment [that was] closed mentally and physically.
The villains consisted of the following ideas: that the world is unsafe, and growing deadly; that the species itself is tainted by a deadly intent; that the individual has no power over his or her reality; that society or social conditions exist as things in themselves, and that their purposes run directly counter to the fulfillment of the individual; and lastly, that the end justifies the means, and that the action of any kind of good is powerless in the world.
The people who died were idealists — perfectionists of exaggerated quality, whose very desire for the good was tainted and distorted by those beliefs just mentioned. For those beliefs must gradually shut out perception of good from experience.
Those who died in Guyana were suicidally inclined. They had no cause to live for, because their idealism became so separated from any particular actualization that they were left only with its ashes.”15
Jim Jones. Credit: Nancy Wong, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66016050
Changing the World for the Better
“There is nothing more stimulating, more worthy of actualization, than the desire to change the world for the better.
That is indeed each person’s mission.
You begin by working in that area of activity that is your own unique one, with your own life and activities. You begin in the corner of an office, or on the assembly line, or in the advertising agency, or in the kitchen. You begin where you are.
When you fulfill your own abilities, when you express your personal idealism through acting it out to the best of your ability in your daily life, then you are changing the world for the better.
If many of the conditions are less than ideal in your society, then you can as an individual begin to change those situations.
You do this by accepting the rightness of your own personhood.
You do this by discarding ideas of unworthiness and powerlessness, no matter what their sources.
You do this by beginning to observe your own impulses, by trusting your own direction.
You start wherever you are, today.
You do not dwell upon the unfortunate conditions in your environment, but you do take steps in your own life to express your ideals in whatever way is given. Those ways are multitudinous.
It is very important that you express your idealism actively; to whatever extent you can, for this increases your sense of worth and power.
Such action serves as a safeguard so that you do not overemphasize the gaps that may exist in yourself or in society, between the reality and the ideal condition.
Many people want to change the world for the better, but that ideal seems so awe-inspiring that they think they can make no headway unless they perform some great acts of daring or heroism, or envision themselves in some political or religious place of power, or promote an uprising or rebellion.
The ideal seems so remote and unreachable that, again, sometimes any means, however reprehensible, eventually can seem justified.
To change the world for the better, you must begin by changing your own life. There is no other way.
You begin by accepting your own worth as a part of the universe, and by granting every other being that same recognition.
You begin by honoring life in all of its forms.
You begin by changing your thoughts toward your contemporaries, your country, your family, your working companions.
If the ideal of loving your neighbor like yourself seems remote, you will at least absolutely refrain from killing your neighbor — and your neighbor is any other person on the face of the planet.
You cannot love your neighbor, in fact, until you love yourself, and if you believe that it is wrong to love yourself, then you are indeed unable to love anyone else.
For a start you will acknowledge your existence in the framework of nature, and to do that you must recognize the vast cooperative processes that connect each species with each other one.
If you truly use your prerogatives as an individual in your country, then you can exert far more power in normal daily living than you do now.
Every time you affirm the rightness of your own existence, you help others.
Your mental states are part of the planet’s psychic atmosphere.
If you want to change your world, you must first change your thoughts, expectations, and beliefs.
Each person alive helps paint the living picture of civilization as it exists at any given time, in your terms.
Be your own best artist. Your thoughts, feelings and expectations are like the living brush strokes with which you paint your corner of life’s landscape.
If you do your best in your own life, then you are indeed helping to improve the quality of all life.”16
The Practicing Idealist
“In a manner of speaking, you must be a practicing idealist if you are to remain a true idealist for long.
You must take small practical steps, often when you would prefer to take giant ones — but you must move in the direction of your ideals through action.
Otherwise you will feel disillusioned, or powerless, or sure, again, that only drastic, highly un-ideal methods will ever bring about the achievement of a given ideal state or situation.
Life at all levels of activity is propelled to seek ideals, whether of a biological or mental nature.
That pursuit automatically gives life its zest and natural sense of excitement and drama.
Developing your own abilities, whatever they may be, exploring and expanding your experience of self-hood, gives life a sense of purpose, meaning, and creative excitement — and also adds to the understanding and development of the society and the species.
It is not enough to meditate, or to imagine in your mind some desired goal being accomplished, if you are afraid to act upon the very impulses to which your meditations and imaginings give rise.
When you do not take any steps toward an ideal position, then your life does lack excitement. You become depressed.
You might become an idealist in reverse, so that you find a certain excitement in contemplating the occurrence of natural disasters, such as earthquakes.
You may begin to concentrate your attention on such activities. You may contemplate the end of the world instead, but in either case you are propelled by a sense of personal frustration, and perhaps by some degree of vengeance, seeing in your mind the destruction of a world that fell so far beneath your idealized expectations.
You must be reckless in pursuit of the ideal — reckless enough to insist that each step you take along the way is worthy of that ideal.
You will understand, if you are a practicing idealist, that you cannot kill in the name of peace, for if you do so your methods will automatically undermine your ideal.
The sacredness of life and spirit are one and the same.
You cannot condemn the body without ultimately condemning the soul.
You cannot condemn the soul without ultimately condemning the body.
I would like each of my readers to be a practicing idealist, and, if you are then you will automatically be tolerant of the beliefs of others.
You will not be unkind in the pursuit of your own ideals.
You will look upon the world with a sane compassion, with some humor, and you will look for man’s basic good intent.
You will find it. It has always been there.
You will discover your own basic good intent, and see that it has always been behind all of your actions — even in those least fitted to the pursuit of your private ideals.
The end does not justify the means.
If you learn that lesson, then your good intent will allow you to act effectively and creatively in your private experience, and in your relationships with others.
Your changed beliefs will affect the mental atmosphere of your nation and of the world.
You must encounter the selves that you are now.
Acknowledge your impulses. Explore their meanings. Rely upon yourselves.
You will find far greater power, achievement, and virtue than you suppose.
If you accept the fact that man is basically a good creature, then you allow free, natural motions of your own psychic nature — and that nature springs from your impulses, and not in opposition to them.
There is no event upon the face of the earth in which each of you has not played some part, however minute, because of the nature of your thoughts, beliefs, and expectations.
There is no public act in which you are not in that same manner involved.
You are intimately connected with all of the historic events of your time.
You can become involved now in a new exploration, one in which man’s civilizations and organizations change their course, reflecting his good intents and his ideals.
You can do this by seeing to it that each step you personally take is “ideally suited” to the ends you hope to achieve.
You will see to it that your methods are ideal.
If you do this, your life will automatically be provided with excitement, natural zest and creativity, and those characteristics will be reflected outward into the social, political, economic, and scientific worlds.
This is a challenge more than worth the effort.
It is a challenge that I hope each reader will accept.
I bid each of you success in that endeavor.”17
- Roberts, Jane, The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events, Amber-Allen Publishing, 1981