The Dangers of Enthusiasm & The Loss of Civility

Published in 5783 and January 2007

Picture of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

All content is provided courtesy of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which has been established with a mission to promote the timeless and universal wisdom of Rabbi Sacks zt”l as a Teacher of Torah, a Moral Voice, and a Leader of Leaders.

"Why has it happened? Because we have lost a shared moral code. Because we no longer respect authority. Because national identities have eroded. Because we have sacrificed shared responsibilities in favor of individual or group rights. Because the media loves conflict. Because anger gets attention, and rage gets respect. When did we lose the culture of civility? When did anger become a political weapon? When did the era of gentleness die, to be replaced with our current age of rage? One thing is certain: this is a dangerous development, and we must pull back from the brink."

If a person has been scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving, not retorting even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain, conducting his business affairs with integrity …  And doing more than his duty in all things, while avoiding extremes and exaggerations – such a person has sanctified God. 
(Maimonides, Hilchot Yesodei ha-Torah, 5:11)

Excavating the history of words can sometimes be as revealing as excavating the ruins of an ancient city. Take the English word “enthusiasm”. Today we see this as something positive. One dictionary defines it as “a feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and an eagerness to be involved in it.” People with enthusiasm have passion, zest and excitement, and this can be contagious. It is one of the gifts of a great teacher or leader. People follow people of passion. If you want to influence others, cultivate enthusiasm.

But the word did not always have a favorable connotation. Originally, it referred to someone possessed by a spirit or demon. In the seventeenth century England, it came to refer to extreme and revolutionary Protestant sects, and more generally to the Puritans who fought the English Civil War. It became a synonym for religious extremism, zealotry and fanaticism. It was looked on as irrational, volatile and dangerous.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher, wrote a fascinating essay on the subject. He begins by noting that “the corruption of the best things produces the worst”, and that is especially true of religion. There are, he says, two ways in which religion can go wrong: through superstition, and through enthusiasm. These are quite different phenomena.

Superstition is driven by ignorance and fear. We can sometimes have irrational anxieties and terrors, and we deal with them by resorting to equally irrational remedies. Enthusiasm is the opposite. It is the result of over-confidence. The enthusiast, in a state of high religious rapture, comes to believe that he is being inspired by God himself, and is thus empowered to disregard reason and restraint.

Enthusiasm “thinks itself sufficiently qualified to approach the Divinity, without any human mediator.” The person in its grip is so full of what he takes to be holy rapture that he feels able to override the rules by which priestly conduct is normally governed. “The fanatic consecrates himself and bestows on his own person a sacred character, much superior to what forms and ceremonious institutions can confer on any other.” Rules and regulations, thinks the enthusiast, are for ordinary people, not for us. We, inspired by God, know better. That, said Hume, can be very dangerous indeed.

Enthusiasts were people who, full of religious passion, believed that God was inspiring them to do deeds in defiance of law and convention. They were very holy but they were also potentially very dangerous. David Hume in particular saw that enthusiasm in this sense is diametrically opposed to the mindset of priesthood. In his words, “all enthusiasts have been free from the yoke of ecclesiastics, and have expressed great independence of devotion; with a contempt of forms, ceremonies, and traditions.”

Priests understand the power, and thus the potential danger, of the sacred. That is why holy places, times and rituals must be guarded with rules, the way a nuclear power station must be protected by the most careful insulation. Think of the accidents that have occurred when this has failed: Chernobyl, for example, or Fukushima in Japan in 2011. The results can be devastating and lasting.

Enthusiasm, harmless though it might be in some of its manifestations, can quickly become extremism, fanaticism and religiously motivated violence. That is what happened in Europe during the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it is happening in some religions today. As David Hume observed: “Human reason and even morality are rejected [by enthusiasts] as fallacious guides, and the fanatic madman delivers himself over blindly” to what he believes to be Divine inspiration, but what may in fact be overheated self-importance or frenzied rage.

Precisely because it gives rise to such intense passions, the religious life in particular needs the constraints of law and ritual, the entire intricate minuet of worship, so that the fire of faith is contained, giving light and a glimpse of the glory of God. Otherwise it can eventually become a raging inferno, spreading destruction and claiming lives. After many centuries in the West, we have tamed enthusiasm to the point where we can think of it as a positive force. We should never forget, however, that it was not always so. That is why Judaism contains so many laws and so much attention to detail.

Neuroscientists have shown how decision making is inseparable from emotion. There are two systems at work in the human brain, what Daniel Kahneman calls “thinking fast and slow”; the amygdala which generates highly charged emotional reactions, particularly in response to fear. and the prefrontal cortex,  which is rational, deliberative, and capable of thinking through the long term consequences of alternative courses of action. The second system is significantly slower, so it’s always at risk of being overridden under stress or fear or anger. 

That’s how we often act irrationally and how, in extreme cases, ordinary people can commit terrible crimes.  Christianity called this original sin. Jews called it the evil inclination.  So for all our everyday calm, we must never forget the danger that lies, like an unexploded mine, just beneath the surface of the human heart. Verbal violence, the Bible suggests, is a prelude to physical violence. 

“A soft answer turns away wrath,” King Solomon says, “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”  (Proverbs 12:18)
 

We are losing civility. You hear this in the angry exchanges in radio or television interviews. You see it in the vicious slogans on posters at demonstrations. You feel it in the way once-neutral institutions — universities, professional bodies, even charities — have become politicized, engaging in boycotts and tendentious simplifications of complex issues. Time and again we are invited to take sides on matters where once we felt it important to make space for all sides. When everything becomes politicized there is no place left for personal friendship across dividing lines. What used to be called “dining with the opposition” is now the beginning of the end of the gracious society. Those who cannot sustain a civil conversation will eventually find it impossible to sustain a civilization.

Why has it happened? Because we have lost a shared moral code. Because we no longer respect authority. Because national identities have eroded. Because we have sacrificed shared responsibilities in favor of individual or group rights. Because the media loves conflict. Because anger gets attention, and rage gets respect. When did we lose the culture of civility? When did anger become a political weapon? When did the era of gentleness die, to be replaced with our current age of rage? One thing is certain: this is a dangerous development, and we must pull back from the brink.

Often the origin of words tells a story. “Civility” comes from the same root as civilian and civilization. “Polite” has the same origin as politics and polity. “Urbane” derives from the same root as urban. All three come from Classical words meaning a city and its governance. Why so? In antiquity, cities, especially those on the Mediterranean, were where people of different faiths and cultures came together to trade. They had to learn to trust one another. They had to develop an ethic that worked with strangers as well as friends. That is where civility was born. Trade has usually had a bad press. The truth is, however, that business is the most powerful alternative to war. The great trading centers— 16th-century Venice, the Netherlands in the 17th, London in the 18th — tended to be at the cutting edge of tolerance. Often the choice has been, and will continue to be, between the market and the battlefield.

Religion’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is that it creates communities of the like-minded. Members of a faith feel a kinship. They come to each other’s aid. They live the “We” as much as the “I”. Often they see themselves as an extended family. That is the good news. The bad news is that communities distinguish sharply between insiders and outsiders; “Us” and “Them”, the saved and the damned, the children of light and the children of darkness.

This is not a problem if you live among those who believe as you do, which is what tended to happen in rural communities. But cities were arenas of diversity.  That is why they gave rise to an etiquette of civility.  Civility’s virtues — courtesy, restraint, respect for others, understatement — are not universal. They emerge at specific places and times. One of the first modern works on the subject, Adam Ferguson’s The History of Civil Society (1767), was set against a background of urbanization, the division of labor and the growth of the market economy. It came from the same world as his fellow Scotsman Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

Daily Goals:

Civility is an ethic across boundaries. It means respecting strangers. It is a way of saying that though we come from diverse backgrounds, we share a moral universe. Though we are different, we belong to something — the common good — that embraces us both. Without civility there is no society, merely the clamor of individuals and the clash of conflicting ghettos. Because the loudest voice wins. The sooner we recover civility, the better. To regain that moral sense, make an active commitment to resolve the overemphasis on the “I” and the underemphasis on the “we” that is damaging everything and everyone in the cultural climate change we are facing in the world today.

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