Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650 in a conflict-torn Christian Europe
religious and political, where fanaticism threatened at all times as today in the Arab-Muslim world, but also here. An unfortunate coincidence wanted that, this Friday March 23 [assassination of four people in Trèbes (Aude)], a few hours before a new terrorist act in France, I spoke to my students about the Treaty of the Passions of the soul, last book published by Descartes and the culmination of his ethics, more precisely of an admirable though relatively unknown text on fanaticism.
Descartes calls it "bigotry ", and not fanaticism as Voltaire will do a century later in his Philosophical Dictionary; the latter sees in the last resort an imposture, a "rascality ", as if the fanatic doesn 'was not absolutely sincere, but a sort of Tartuffe yet ready for anything: "every fanatic is a scoundrel in conscience, as he is a murderer in good faith for a good cause " (article Fanaticism). However, the Cartesian analysis of "self-satisfaction ", which gives its title to article 190 of the Treaty of Passions, allows us to see differently what "sometimes dictates the greatest crimes that can be committed by men, like betraying cities, killing princes, exterminating entire peoples, only because they do not follow their opinions ". This is the end of the article, whose central object is pride: it is pride which transforms self-satisfaction, "the sweetest of all passions " when 'we are justifiably delighted to have "freshly done some action that we think good ", in criminal zeal. Let's read the essential: "those who, believing themselves to be devout, are only bigots and superstitious, that is to say who, under the shadow that theyoften go to church, say prayers, wear short hair, fast, give alms, think they are completely perfect and imagine that they are so great friends of God that they can do nothing that displeases him and that everything that their passion dictates to them is good zeal, although it sometimes dictates to them the greatest crimes that can be committed by men "...
Striking connection between yesterday's short hair, no doubt an allusion to Cromwell's "Round Heads ", these fanatical Anglicans who then massacred the Irish Catholics, and the long beards of today. There would therefore be at the heart of fanaticism a low self-esteem, excessive and harmful, which claims to be superior to others, said to be unfaithful, because that she thinks she isfavorite of God. From then on all violence becomes possible, even necessary in the eyes of those who place themselves above their fellow men, whom they no longer even recognize as such: the cowardly assassination of defenseless innocents claims to be heroic courage.
How can this philosophical psychology of religious fanaticism help us to confront it? First, to explain it better; certainly not to understand it because it would be to consent, but to grasp the causes, which are multiple and also historical, geopolitical, social, etc. It is therefore not a question of reducing "bigotry " to its psychological roots, but of correlating them with the other factors which produce, today as yesterday, similar effects. Because it is false that explaining is already an excuse, as a Prime Minister unfortunately said after the attacks of 2015: how to fight what we do not know the causes, whether it is a Myladie or moral evil? On the contrary, the explanation of fanaticism as pride must contribute to fighting against it, in consciences before it translates into acts, or to de-radicalize those who overestimate themselves by it. This is precisely the meaning of Generosity, the supreme virtue of Descartes' morality: it "makes a man esteem himself to the highest point that he can legitimately be esteemed " (art. 153), that is to say without wanting to be superior to others, but in the recognition on the contrary of our equal dignity: "those who have this knowledge and feeling of themselves are easily persuaded that each of the other men can also be self-evident "(art. 154). Descartes goes even further, connecting in the following articles pride and baseness. If "the proud try to lower all the other men ", and fanaticism constitutes therefore the worst expression of it, it is paradoxically that they have the low spirit, as if they needed to enhanceer by violence: "it often happens that those who have a low spirit are the most arrogant and superb, in the same way that the most generous are the most modest and the most humble ". Do you not need the greatest generosity to risk your own life against fanaticism, and unfortunately lose it like the gendarme Arnaud Beltrame? Because "generosity can be acquired ", asserts and underlines Descartes: "one can excite passion in oneself and then acquire the virtue of generosity, it seems to me that this consideration deserves to be noticed ". Which means we can all be generous.