The Constituents of Fanaticism

Fanaticism is a term almost always used pejoratively. The connotations are of excessive devotion, commitment, extremism, and uncritical enthusiasm. Often enough, fanaticism is paired with religion, as in, “he’s a religious fanatic,” and here one sees the presuppositions of liberal rationalism concerning the nature of religion in the phrase. But is there more of substance to fanaticism as a concept? Something more than simply a shallow term of conventional dismissal or disapproval? In this new book, Fanaticism: A Political Philosophical History, (U. Penn. Press) Professor Zachary Goldsmith argues that there is, focusing on elements that include the pursuit of abstraction and novelty; violence to achieve messianic political ends; and the special appeal fanaticism has held for the intellectual class. Professor Goldsmith seems to contrast liberal political commitments with fanatical ones, and it will be interesting to see just what he means by this.

As the post-WWII liberal democratic consensus comes under increasing assault around the globe, Zachary R. Goldsmith investigates a timely topic: the reemergence of fanaticism. His book demonstrates how the concept of fanaticism, so often flippantly invoked with little forethought, actually has a long history stretching back to ancient times. Tracing this history through the Reformation and the Enlightenment to our present moment of political extremism run amok, Goldsmith offers a novel account of fanaticism, detailing its transformation from a primarily religious to a political concept around the time of the French Revolution. He draws on the work of Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, and Fyodor Dostoevsky—all keen observers of fanaticism, and especially its political variant—in order to explore this crucial moment in the development of political fanaticism.

Examining conceptualizations of fanaticism from different geographical, political, temporal, and contextual backgrounds, Goldsmith reveals how the concept has changed over time and resists easy definition. Nevertheless, his analysis of the writings of key figures from the tradition of political thought regarding fanaticism yields a complex and nuanced understanding of the concept that allows us to productively identify and observe its most salient characteristics: irrationality, messianism, the embrace of abstraction, the desire for novelty, the pursuit of perfection, a lack of limits in politics, the embrace of violence, certainty, passion, and its perennial attraction to intellectuals. Goldsmith’s political-philosophical history of fanaticism offers us an argument and warning against fanaticism itself, demonstrating that fanaticism is antidemocratic, illiberal, antipolitical, and never necessary.

Universities Past and Future

In preparing for teaching a new course about freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry (about which more soon), I was reflecting on the nature and aims of the university–historically one of the central sites for the freedom of inquiry. Of course, this is a perennial topic and it is striking to see different conceptions and ideas of the university across time–stretching from the ancient model of learning (which one can read in the work of Plato and Aristotle, especially); to the medieval and renaissance Christian intellectual strongholds of Bologna, Paris, and others; to the 19th century modern period beginning with the German model and Cardinal Newman’s still-insightful “Idea of a University”; all the way to the 20th century model whose characteristic expositor remains John Dewey. And today, the university is under new pressures to change and become something else–something quite different from what it was even relatively recently.

It was in this spirit that I noticed and look forward to reading Professor William C. Kirby’s new book, Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from German to American to China (Harvard UP). Professor Kirby, an expert on China, focuses his attention on the 19th and 20th centuries and on the future, which he sees as especially powerful in Chinese universities as American universities recede in importance.

The modern university was born in Germany. In the twentieth century, the United States leapfrogged Germany to become the global leader in higher education. Will China challenge its position in the twenty-first?

Today American institutions dominate nearly every major ranking of global universities. Yet in historical terms, America’s preeminence is relatively new, and there is no reason to assume that U.S. schools will continue to lead the world a century from now. Indeed, America’s supremacy in higher education is under great stress, particularly at its public universities. At the same time Chinese universities are on the ascent. Thirty years ago, Chinese institutions were reopening after the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution; today they are some of the most innovative educational centers in the world. Will China threaten American primacy?

Empires of Ideas looks to the past two hundred years for answers, chronicling two revolutions in higher education: the birth of the research university and its integration with the liberal education model. William C. Kirby examines the successes of leading universities—The University of Berlin and the Free University of Berlin in Germany; Harvard, Duke, and the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States—to determine how they rose to prominence and what threats they currently face. Kirby draws illuminating comparisons to the trajectories of three Chinese contenders: Tsinghua University, Nanjing University, and the University of Hong Kong, which aim to be world-class institutions that can compete with the best the United States and Europe have to offer.

But Chinese institutions also face obstacles. Kirby analyzes the challenges that Chinese academic leaders must confront: reinvesting in undergraduate teaching, developing new models of funding, and navigating a political system that may undermine a true commitment to free inquiry and academic excellence.

On the Intellectual and Moral Virtues

Dean John Garvey, longtime President of Catholic University of America as well as a noted First Amendment scholar, is retiring this year from his position at CUA. He has this new book, The Virtues (Catholic University of America Press), collecting essays and speeches over the years that reflect on the practical and intellectual virtues. Something particularly interesting is Garvey’s Aristotelian emphasis on habit, and the importance of habituation to the virtues.

An ancient question asks what role moral formation ought to play in education. It leads to such questions as, do intellectual and moral formation belong together? Is it possible to form the mind and neglect the heart? Is it wise? These perennial questions take on new significance today, when education — especially, higher education — has become a defining feature in the lives of young people.

Throughout his more than 40 years in academia, John Garvey has reflected on the relationship between intellectual and moral formation, especially in Catholic higher education. For 12 years as the President of The Catholic University of America, he made the cultivation of moral virtue a central theme on campus, highlighting its significance across all aspects of University culture, from University policy to campus architecture.

During his two decades of presiding at commencement exercises, first as Dean of Boston College Law School and then as President of The Catholic University of America, Garvey made a single virtue the centerpiece of his remarks each year. The Virtues is the fruit of those addresses. More reflective than analytical, its purpose is to invite conversation about what it means to live well.

Following Catholic tradition, The Virtues places the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love at the center of the moral life, and the cardinal virtues — justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence — with them. Alongside these major virtues, Garvey considers a collection of “little virtues,” habits that assist and accompany us in small but important ways on the path to goodness.

Though he treats each virtue individually, a common thread unites his reflections. “The intellectual life depends on the moral life,” Garvey writes. “Without virtue we cannot sustain the practices necessary for advanced learning. In fact, without virtue, it’s hard to see what the purpose of the university is. Learning begins with love (for the truth). If we don’t have that, it’s hard to know why we would bother with education at all.” The Virtues invites its readers, especially students, to appreciate that the cultivation of virtue is indispensable to success, academic or otherwise, and more importantly, essential to their ultimate aim, a life well lived.

Modernity’s Religious Inheritance

From the eminent philosopher, Michael Rosen, comes this fascinating looking intellectual history of religion’s profound and enduring influence on modernity–focusing especially on the 18th and 19th centuries, post-Kantian German Idealism, and the idea of “historical immortality.” The book is The Shadow of God: Kant, Hegel, and the Passage from Heaven to History (Harvard UP 2022).

Once in the West, our lives were bounded by religion. Then we were guided out of the darkness of faith, we are often told, by the cold light of science and reason. To be modern was to reject the religious for the secular and rational. In a bold retelling of philosophical history, Michael Rosen explains the limits of this story, showing that many modern and apparently secular ways of seeing the world were in fact profoundly shaped by religion.

The key thinkers, Rosen argues, were the German Idealists, as they sought to reconcile reason and religion. It was central to Kant’s philosophy that, if God is both just and assigns us to heaven or hell for eternity, we must know what is required of us and be able to choose freely. In trying to live moral lives, Kant argued, we are engaged in a collective enterprise as members of a “Church invisible” working together to achieve justice in history. As later Idealists moved away from Kant’s ideas about personal immortality, this idea of “historical immortality” took center stage. Through social projects that outlive us we maintain a kind of presence after death. Conceptions of historical immortality moved not just into the universalistic ideologies of liberalism and revolutionary socialism but into nationalist and racist doctrines that opposed them. But how, after global wars and genocide, can we retain faith in any conception of shared moral progress and, if not, what is to become of the idea of historical immortality? That is our present predicament.

A seamless blend of philosophy and intellectual history, The Shadow of God is a profound exploration of secular modernity’s theistic inheritance.

Religious Freedom at the Founding

Here’s a new book right in the heartland of our projects at the Center by longtime Center friend and contributor Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, Religious Liberty and the American Founding: Natural Rights and the Original Meaning of the First Amendment Religion Clauses (Chicago Press forthcoming). I had the pleasure of reading a good chunk of this manuscript, and it is excellent on both the historical and theoretical sides of things. The work is deeply informed by Phillip’s prior work on the idea of natural rights at the founding and of their proper scope. It is probably fair to say that the scope of natural rights on Phillip’s account, at least for some of the significant rights we discuss today, is generally (not always) significantly narrower than what we tend to believe today. Tough and chewy, but small and digestible, might be a possible description (the blurb below says “minimalist”). That view of natural rights certainly has a powerful impact on the claims in this worthwhile book.

The Founders understood religious liberty to be an inalienable natural right. Vincent Phillip Muñoz explains what this means for church-state constitutional law, uncovering what we can and cannot determine about the original meanings of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses and constructing a natural rights jurisprudence of religious liberty.  

Drawing on early state constitutions, declarations of religious freedom, Founding-era debates, and the First Amendment’s drafting record, Muñoz demonstrates that adherence to the Founders’ political philosophy would lead neither to consistently conservative nor consistently liberal results. Rather, adopting the Founders’ understanding would lead to a minimalist church-state jurisprudence that, in most cases, would return authority from the judiciary to the American people. Thorough and convincing, Religious Liberty and the American Founding is key reading for those seeking to understand the Founders’ political philosophy of religious freedom and the First Amendment Religion Clauses.

Free Speech Today as a “Problem” for “Democracy”

Here’s an interesting collection of essays, Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of Our Democracy (OUP forthcoming), edited by Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger and University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey R. Stone. It frames debates about free speech today, particularly on social media, as reflecting a “problem” for American democracy–the problem of “bad speech”–in need of urgent reform and new solutions. Contributors include Hillary Clinton, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Mark Warner, together with a host of legal academics who are highly critical of the contemporary, speech-protective American legal regime. It’s a fascinating collection and choice of contributors purely as a matter of academic sociology, reflecting the prevailing skepticism among many experts about American First Amendment protections as well as what is felt to be an outsized cultural commitment to free speech that damages the more fundamental commitments thought by many scholars to be truly constitutive of the American polity. The title of one essay, in particular, was striking in the table of contents: Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s chapter (co-authored with his son, it appears), “The Golden Era of Free Speech.” For many skeptics, a highly speech-protective regime was once very attractive and even necessary to dismantle the then-existing cultural superstructure, but is far less so today. I discussed the matter of free speech as posing a civic problem in this piece a few years ago–“the problem of how to allocate a resource in civically responsible ways, so as to limit freedom’s hurtful potential and to make citizens worthy of the freedoms they are granted. Only a somewhat virtuous society can sustain a regime of political liberty without collapsing, as a society, altogether.” It was a problem that was largely forgotten in the 20th century, but it has now been remembered.

One of the most fiercely debated issues of this era is what to do about “bad” speech-hate speech, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and incitement of violence-on the internet, and in particular speech on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of our Democracy, Lee C. Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone have gathered an eminent cast of contributors–including Hillary Clinton, Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Warner, Newt Minow, Tim Wu, Cass Sunstein, Jack Balkin, Emily Bazelon, and others–to explore the various dimensions of this problem in the American context. They stress how difficult it is to develop remedies given that some of these forms of “bad” speech are ordinarily protected by the First Amendment. Bollinger and Stone argue that it is important to remember that the last time we encountered major new communications technology-television and radio-we established a federal agency to provide oversight and to issue regulations to protect and promote “the public interest.” Featuring a variety of perspectives from some of America’s leading experts on this hotly contested issue, this volume offers new insights for the future of free speech in the social media era.

“The New Disestablishments”

A new draft paper, building on some work I’ve done on the nature of “establishment” today, its relationship to free exercise and exemption from general law, and particularly the idea of establishment as “regime” in classical political theory. One of the more controversial claims in the paper is that inquiries about “religion” as a legal category are no longer worthwhile from a scholarly perspective (though they continue of course to be highly necessary from a practical, lawyerly perspective), except as a way to conceive the shifting dynamics of power within the regime. Here’s the abstract:

“The individual has complete autonomy of choice respecting matters of sex, gender, and procreation. The findings of science as established by the knowledge class, together with the preferences of that class in this domain, should be imposed on everyone. These views reflect two central creeds of the new establishment. They, or statements like them, are the basis for policies across the nation touching many walks of life, from business to education, media, advertising, health care and medicine, and more.

Whether these propositions and others like them constitute a “religious” establishment is irrelevant. To be sure, there are arguments that it is religious. But the hypertrophy of the concept of religion in American law has made the legal category “religion” so malleable as to render it useless as an analytical tool. And, at any rate, religious belief responds to the world in which it is situated. When that world tells dissenting citizens that their beliefs are irrational, anti-scientific, and benighted—and, indeed, that their objections to new establishment creeds are discreditable because they are religious—dissenters may be forgiven for taking the world at its word. If these dissenting views are religious, it is the new establishment that has made them so and, in consequence, entangled itself in religious controversy.

Free exercise exemption has been thought a way to resist the new establishment. Yet the dynamics of resistance are ambiguous. Individual exemption—unless connected to a larger strategy—can validate and strengthen the new establishment, entrenching the supplicant position of the exempted. Many advocates of exemption do not object to this state of affairs. They insist that they have no interest in disrupting the new establishment. They are committed to it, too. Yet partisans of the new establishment are not wrong to sense possible danger from expanding rights of free exercise. These rights, if synthesized and organized, could become broader pockets and sub-communities of disestablishment. There is a continuum between free exercise and disestablishment. Dissenting positions on the family, education, religion, sex and gender, and others might be stitched together from the disaggregated set of free exercise exemption micro-victories to constitute challenges to the new establishment. To do that, however, would demand concerted action involving some mechanism other than exemption, and it is not plain that advocates of religious exemption are interested in that project. But the project may be coming whether they like it or not. Unlike the new establishmentarians, some free exercise advocates have not adequately appreciated (or do not wish to see) that the real fight is not about an individual exemption here or there, but about the future shape of the American establishment.”

After Science and Religion

The relationship between science and religion is complex, often since at least the Enlightenment at least represented as one of conflict or tension, but also by some (perhaps in response) as one of fundamental synthesis or unity. Certainly, the tension has been in evidence relatively recently in some of the most prominent law and religion contests of our own day.

A new volume edited by Professors Peter Harrison and John Milbank collects a variety of interesting looking essays on the subject: After Science and Religion: Fresh Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology (CUP 2022).

“The popular field of ‘science and religion’ is a lively and well-established area. It is however a domain which has long been characterised by certain traits. In the first place, it tends towards an adversarial dialectic in which the separate disciplines, now conjoined, are forever locked in a kind of mortal combat. Secondly, ‘science and religion’ has a tendency towards disentanglement, where ‘science’ does one sort of thing and ‘religion’ another. And thirdly, the duo are frequently pushed towards some sort of attempted synthesis, wherein their aims either coincide or else are brought more closely together. In attempting something fresh, and different, this volume tries to move beyond tried and tested tropes. Bringing philosophy and theology to the fore in a way rarely attempted before, the book shows how fruitful new conversations between science and religion can at last move beyond the increasingly tired options of either conflict or dialogue.”

Defer to the Experts? Think for Yourself?

Think for yourself! Follow the Science! How do we know when to trust expertise and when to be skeptical? What measure of confidence should we place in institutional and disciplinary knowledge in an age of institutional and disciplinary breakdown? What is knowledge, fundamentally, and what is its value?

Here is an interesting historical and philosophical treatment of these difficult questions: Don’t Think for Yourself: Authority and Belief in Medieval Philosophy (Notre Dame Press) by Professor Peter Adamson, forthcoming this fall. It focuses on the relationship of authority and knowledge in the medieval world, arriving at something of an intermediate position on the merits.

“How do we judge whether we should be willing to follow the views of experts or whether we ought to try to come to our own, independent views? This book seeks the answer in medieval philosophical thought.

In this engaging study into the history of philosophy and epistemology, Peter Adamson provides an answer to a question as relevant today as it was in the medieval period: how and when should we turn to the authoritative expertise of other people in forming our own beliefs? He challenges us to reconsider our approach to this question through a constructive recovery of the intellectual and cultural traditions of the Islamic world, the Byzantine Empire, and Latin Christendom.

Adamson begins by foregrounding the distinction in Islamic philosophy between taqlīd, or the uncritical acceptance of authority, and ijtihad, or judgment based on independent effort, the latter of which was particularly prized in Islamic law, theology, and philosophy during the medieval period. He then demonstrates how the Islamic tradition paves the way for the development of what he calls a “justified taqlīd,” according to which one develops the skills necessary to critically and selectively follow an authority based on their reliability. The book proceeds to reconfigure our understanding of the relation between authority and independent thought in the medieval world by illuminating how women found spaces to assert their own intellectual authority, how medieval writers evaluated the authoritative status of Plato and Aristotle, and how independent reasoning was deployed to defend one Abrahamic faith against the other. This clear and eloquently written book will interest scholars in and enthusiasts of medieval philosophy, Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, and the history of thought.”

“Christianity and Constitutionalism” (Aroney & Leigh, eds.)

We are delighted to announce that the Forum will bring back the tradition of occasional posts on interesting looking new books in law and religion and related areas.

And here is a fascinating new volume to kick us off: Christianity and Constitutionalism, edited by constitutional scholars Nicholas Aroney and Ian Leigh (OUP 2022). The book contains contributions (by an impressive group) on historical influences; political concepts including sovereignty, rule of law, democracy, conscience, and many others; and theologically informed ideas relevant to constitutionalism (e.g. natural law and subsidiarity).