Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 6: Emotions and Ethics > Chapter 6: Avoid Fanaticism
Let us feel that we are trying to become good men of warm hearts, not good statues of cold marble.
It would appear that ideals that seem too remote for realization and goals that seem too high for achievement are not worth the trouble of setting up. Yet to abandon them altogether would be to lose the sense of right direction. That would be a mistake. It is wiser to keep them as ultimate ideals and goals, drawing from them inspirational and directional value. It is here and for such a purpose that the dreaming idealists themselves have their place, not in the all-or-nothing revolutionary way that they themselves think they do. It is needful to make a compromise between the facts about human nature in its present state and the ideals which it can hope to realize only in some future state. It is not necessary to go all the way with the extremists, whether in art, mysticism, politics, or economics in order to realize that we can learn something from each of them. Let us take what is adaptable in their views, but let us reject what is decidedly extreme.
There are not only sins against moral virtue; there are also sins against balance and proportion.
All extremists, whether in politics or theology, are fond of propounding either false or artificial dilemmas. Either you are a X-ist or a Y-ist, they assert. That you need limit yourself to neither of these things alone does not enter their brains, any more than that you may often treat the competitives and alternatives of those false dilemmas as complementaries. It is not only wrong to take up such an extremist attitude, it is also dangerous to the quest of truth. Manifestly, both attitudes cannot be right at the same time. If we want the truth we must accept neither and search with less fanaticism for it. And we shall then discover that it is not so black or not so white as the extremists and partisans would have us believe. The choice before us is never really limited to two extremes. Philosophy refuses to confine itself so rigidly to them and points out that there is always a third alternative. But unphilosophic minds are too partisan to perceive this. They operate mechanically on the dialectic pattern. It is as natural for the ordinary enquirer to be a partisan, to suppress what is good and proclaim what is bad in an opponent's case, as it is natural for the philosophic student to bring both forward because he is genuinely a truth-seeker. Consequently, most public discussions of any case present a picture of it which varies entirely with the mentality and outlook of the discusser. Even if the philosopher finds it necessary to take one side in any controversy, this never prevents his perceiving, admitting, and accepting what is true in the opposite side. With this understanding of the relativity of all human knowledge and experience, he will understand that a multiplicity of possible standpoints is inevitable. Consequently, he will become more tolerant and less inclined to accept the hard, dogmatic "either this ultimate or that one" attitude. Nevertheless, if philosophy affirms that different views of the same subject may each be right from their respective standpoints, it does not affirm that they are equally right. It recognizes ascending levels of standpoint and consequently the progressive character of the resultant views.
The illumined man will not condemn the unillumined one for not being better than he is, for not having developed a higher standard of thought, of feeling, and of conduct. He does not make the mistake of confusing the two levels of reference, of setting up his own criterion as being suitable for others. This must not be understood to mean, however, that because he gives them his intellectual sympathy, he also excuses them morally, for he does not. A misdeed is still a misdeed even though its relativity may be recognized.
We are not in full agreement with those who attack all success as unspiritual or better living as materialistic. Whoever has realized his early purpose, if he has done so honourably and if the purpose itself is worthy or conducive to society's well-being, is a success. If he receives rewards for his accomplishment, there is nothing unspiritual in accepting them. And whoever appreciates attractive clothes, good quality food, modern aids to efficient comfortable living is--if he develops his self-control alongside this appreciation--taking better care of his physical instrument and making more of his physical environment. He is not necessarily materialistic. The meaning of the word "spiritual" should not be unjustly circumscribed.
We believe that the battlefield of the quest is more within the mind than the flesh. Ascetics who gaze with disdain upon a useful life in the world have hitched their wagon to a cloud, not to a star.
The unsuccessful, the sick, the disappointed, the unfortunate, the pleasure-satiated, the defeated, the neurotic, the bored, and the sad have not found happiness. In their discouragement they turn either to worldly escapes like drink or begin with what seems the next best thing--inner peace. They perceive that peace can be got but only at the price of partially or wholly renouncing bodily passions, earthly desires, human prides, personal possessions, and social power. This sense of frustration drives many of them to religion, some of them to yoga, and a few of them to philosophy. All entrants into these portals are not similarly motivated, for others come through higher urges. It is a good start all the same because it marks an awakening to the need of higher satisfactions. But it is only a start. For the ultimate goal of life cannot be merely the negative denial of life. It must be something more than that, grander than that. The ascetic ideal of liberation from desire is good but not enough. The philosophic ideal of illumination by truth both includes and completes it, bringing the positive qualities of joy, happiness, and contentment in its train.
Even the sincere aspirant can become too anxious about the quest because he is too self-centered. He must learn to let go also. Let him remember the sage. He is satisfied to be anonymous.
If a man becomes cold, pitiless, impenetrable, if he sets himself altogether apart from the life and feelings of other men, if he is dead to the claims of music and the beauties of art, be sure he is an intellectualist or a fanatical ascetic--not a philosopher.
We need not become less human because we seek to make ourselves better men. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful will refine, and not destroy, our human qualities.
We ought never to wish that any harm should come to anyone. If a man is behaving in a dastardly way, even then it would not be right to do so. In that case we should wish that he should awaken to his wrong-doing.
The simple uncluttered life is a sensible idea. But if pushed by fanaticism, exaggeration, and extravagances to its ultimate, logical, and inevitable consequence, it would not only lead to the complete abandonment of all gadgets, appliances, and tools but--by steps--to life in a cave and clothes made of skin.
The desire to achieve unity in various sections of human life, belief, and activity--and in humanity itself--is only a dream. The differences are there, and will, in some altered form, still be there even under the surface of any cheerful pseudo-Utopia of a unified world, or section of the world. There is no profit in denying them, only self-deception. The only real unity can come out of inner expansion, out of a great heart which excludes nothing and no one; but this will still not be uniformity.
What we have to allow is that those who live only to satisfy the ego and its earthly desires are not lost or sidetracked. They need and must gather in such experiences. It is a part of their necessary involvement.
He should guard against those foolish tendencies of so many mystically minded people to hero-worship some man into a god, to over-idealize this man's personal statements as infallible oracles, or to exaggerate some helpful idea he propounds into a universal panacea.
With fanaticism there comes unbending rigidity and, in fact, unwillingness even to look at the evidence--which it finds of no interest.
It is not enough to be eager for the truth; he must also be open to the truth. No bias, prejudice, fear, or dislike should stand in the way.
If excessive pride in his attainments, virtue, knowledge, or devotion is an obstacle which hinders a man's growth, excessive humility is also another. This may surprise those who have read again and again in spiritual manuals of the need to be humble.
Goethe's Journey to the Harz Mountain has a poem by him in it which is very inspired. Brahms wrote the music for it. It was written after visiting a man who saw only the negative side of life and became a hermit. Goethe specially went to see him to point out the positive side of life.
Why demand perfection from others when you find it impossible to attain yourself? Why impose ideal standards on them when they mock your own strivings and aspirations?
When virtue is too self-conscious, it becomes Vanity.
The path from arrogance to madness is a short one. It is safer to keep humble if we want to keep sane.
He should shun the unphilosophic attitude which sees one side as all black and the other as all white, for he should understand that both have a contribution to make. Nothing is to be hated but everything is to be understood. Nobody is his enemy for everybody is his tutor, albeit usually an unconscious one and often only teaching us by his own ugly example what to avoid.
The holier-than-thou attitude which condemns the sins of other men implies its own sinlessness. This is not only to commit the sin of spiritual pride but also to fall into the pit of self-deception.
Do not maintain a position which conscience, common sense, or intuition show you later to be wrong. Have the willingness to withdraw from it.
When mysticism leads to stolid apathy toward world-suffering, when it paralyses all sympathy for fellow creatures, it is time to call a halt.
It is in the nature of unbalanced and unphilosophic mentalities to see everything in extremes only and to confront others with the unnecessary dilemmas which they pose for themselves.
A book that has not taken a laugh at life somewhere in its ramble, becomes a bore. A man who has not found the fun in life at some time, has somehow failed. But at the same time everyone cannot give years and years of intense thought and concentration to trying to solve the most difficult problems of life without becoming stamped with gravity, not only in mind but also in body. If he is well-balanced, however, he will appreciate the lighter side of life and enjoy it without losing his earnestness.
No single factor is usually responsible for a particular evil and no single remedy can cure it. Reformers are usually one-eyed and take our attention away from important contributory causes in order that we may fasten it upon the one which they happen to have picked out. They are doubtlessly well-meaning, but are apt to be dangerously fanatical.
When fears and wishes wholly control a man's thinking, instead of reason and truth, we must guard ourselves against his statements, commands, doctrines, and ideas.
The average American wants economic security because he wants to satisfy a higher standard of material living than exists anywhere else in the world. And the average American is right. Let him not degrade himself materially at the behest of monks and ascetics who wish to impose an ideal on others which was never intended for the world at large.
Philosophical mysticism cannot appreciate, much less accept, the kind of nonattachment which runs to fanatic extremes or which makes too great outward fuss of itself. It cannot find any enthusiasm for Ramakrishna's refusal to handle money because he regarded it with such horror that the auto-suggestion brought a painful burning sensation to the palm of his hand when, accidentally, he did touch it. It cannot admire Chertkov, who was Tolstoy's closest friend and disciple, in his refusal to handle money to the point of necessitating his wife to sign his cheques and his secretary to pay for his purchases. It admits the moral purity and sincerity of both these men but deplores their mental unbalance.
His cheerful enjoyment of life did not pull down the blind between Whitman and his mystical experience of life. Asceticism is certainly a way, but it is not the only way to the goal.
The cynic who despises and distrusts human nature is seeing only a fragment of it, and not the full circle.
It is good in a world where there is so much evil, so many wrong-doers, to be cautious. But carry this quality to excess and you breed timidity or fear, which are evils in themselves.
He should beware lest in his recoil against trying to satisfy the demands of an unworthy sensuality, he falls into the opposite extreme of trying to satisfy the demands of an impossible renunciation.
It is possible to show a faithful devotion to principles without becoming either fierce or fanatical about them.
These extremists tell us that such a reconciliation of the spiritual with the human is impossible, that the two aims are mutually discordant and utterly irreconcilable, that they contradict each other and if attained would destroy each other, and that either the first or the second will eventually and inevitably have to be abandoned. Sometimes it is better to be suspicious of such an oversimplification. It may lead us more quickly to truth, but it may also mislead us. And this is one of the times when such caution is called for.
It is a common phrase in the literature, instructions, and rules of totalitarian movements--especially political movements--to say that not the slightest deviation may be made from the line laid down by the authority.
The ascetic demand that we renounce art, turn our backs on aesthetic feelings, and reject beauty may seem a necessary one. But we have to beware here of falling into the danger which Angelique de Arnauld, Abbess de Port Royal, fell into. She said: "Love of poverty makes one choose what is ugliest, coarsest, and dirtiest." She was the same Mother Superior who refused to allow any form of recreation to her nuns, so that some of them had nervous breakdowns and others went mad.
Those lovers of excessive asceticism who shiver at the sight of beauty, shrink from the thought of refinement, and brush off all suggestions of cleanliness as time-wasting, thereby proclaim the opposites by implication. That is to say, they proclaim dirt, squalor, and ugliness as being spiritual.
This insistence on interfering with other people's lives on behalf of some fanatical belief, this minding every business but one's own is a great troublemaker. It is the cause of the world's division into two fighting camps today.
One of the signs of fanaticism is its conceited assurance; another its lunatic extremist attitude which denounces a moderate position as heretical.
If he overdoes his remorse and stretches out his repentance too far; if his self-examination and self-criticism become unreasonably prolonged and unbearably overconcentrated, the actuating motive will then be not true humility but neurotic pity for himself.
Take the spiritual life seriously, but not too seriously to the extent of becoming a fool or a fanatic when active in the world.
The fanatic mutilates himself, deprives his mind of all the great accumulation of wide experience, original thought, and intuitive feeling which exists in the rest of the human race or in its records.
He who has caught the spirit of philosophy cannot become a narrow-minded fanatic or a conversational bore. He does not shut out the activities of human intelligence and human creativity from his interests, but lets them in.
With fanatic hatred as his spirit and verbal violence as his expression, a man can never make a bad state of affairs better. By thinking such false thoughts, he can only make it worse. When views are so wide of the truth and so violent in expression, he cannot become a leader of people but only their misleader. He is an unfortunate sufferer in a psychopathic state and needs remedial treatment to restore his lost mental balance.
Violently emotional exaggerated statements, reckless hysterical extremist screams should warn us that they come out of some sort of imbalance, that it is time for caution, prudence, reserve.
He can be quietly enthusiastic about his cherished beliefs without indulging in propagandist shrieks.
The discipline of passion, the checking of emotion, and the ruling of the flesh do not demand that we are to turn into inert wooden creatures. We may still keep the zest for life, the enthusiasm for worthwhile things, and the appreciation of art and beauty, but we shall keep these things in their proper place.
It is one thing to set up such a goal in life; it is another to find the way to reach it. For the attempt to live in celibacy--unless wisely managed and informed with knowledge--provokes the animal in us to revolt.
When his involvement in the Quest has become a desperate affair to the point of morbid self-analysis endlessly repeated, it is time to restore his balance.
How many misguided persons have condoned bringing harm to a fellow human or animal creature by quoting a text or a doctrine!
Without discipline the passions and emotions may run wild. With excess of discipline the heart may freeze, the man become fanatic and intolerant.
He must constantly make allowances for the possibility that his own attitudes are not the higher self's.
He will be neither a slavish sycophant of modern sophistication nor an over-enthusiastic votary of ancient folly.
To feel detachment from earthly pleasures is one thing, but to feel distaste for them is another.
He must not so clamp himself in the rigidity of any system as to turn it into a superstition.
When criticism becomes so harsh that it becomes hysteria, the man has lost his balance.
A mind surcharged with hysteria or neuroticism will not be able to appreciate, let alone find, the highest truth.
A man must know his limitations, must know that there are certain desires he can never attain and certain people with whom he can never be at ease. Moreover, he must know other men's limitations too, must realize that he can never make some understand, let alone sympathize with, his mystical outlook and that he can never bring the unevolved herd to give up their materialistic, racial, or personal prejudices.
The simple life need not be a squalid one. The austere life need not be an ascetic one. There is room for aesthetic appreciation in the first and for reasonable comfort in the second. Both must respect the finer instincts and not decry them.
The "renunciate" who gloats over the miseries of life and points continually to its horrors is not necessarily wiser than the hedonist who sings over its joys and points continually to its beauties. Each has exaggerated his facts; each is too preoccupied with a single facet of existence. Wisdom lies in the impartial appraisal and the balanced view.
We need all these virtues, yes, but we also need to practise them on the proper occasions--or they lose their value and do more harm than good.
It is not the ordinary use and ingenious or aesthetic development of material things which corrupts man, but it is the excessive use of, and infatuated attachment to them which does so.
The life of some unbalanced persons seems to be a periodic swing from one side of the pendulum to the other--that is, from extremes of emotional and physical sensuality to extremes of fanatic and wild asceticism. Their existence is filled with contradictions and discrepancies.
The unseen source which suggests or encourages fanatical austerities, extreme self-ordeals, or dramatically exaggerated sacrifices is suspect.
When detachment is overdone it becomes a coldbloodedness. The man then moves and acts like a marionette.
There is a constant preaching of renunciation: abandon possessions, embrace poverty, chill off desires, and turn aside from luxuries. The high evaluation of poverty by holy men--in their preachments--is not seldom contradicted in their practice.
Why should he go out of his way to destroy religious ideas which others put their faith in, if such ideas are not used to support harmful actions?
We must recognize that men are at different stages of response to the commands of Moses, the counsels of Jesus, the admonitions of Gautama, and the teachings of Krishna. Consequently it is vain to hope that they will accept or obey a universal rule of behaviour.
Enthusiasm may degenerate into exaggeration.
Every beginner must remember that his own way to truth is not the only way. However perfectly it suits his need and temperament, it may not suit another man's. Each gains his understanding of it according to the level of his evolution.
Failing to establish himself in the truth, he hides the weakness of his position under the abusiveness of his phraseology, and conceals his lack of rational arguments beneath the plenitude of his personal innuendoes.
If we simply compare the two attitudes, instead of arbitrarily opposing them, we shall find that they usefully counterbalance each other.
Why should we deny our human needs and human nature because we claim our divine needs and seek our divine nature?
All external austerities are helpful in training the will but only some of them have any other value in themselves. And when they become fanatical and extreme and merely external, they become perilous and illusory.
He is not so foolish as to seek to impose the austere ethical standards of the higher philosophy upon those who are still unable to get beyond the level of the lower religion.
The sages were never so unpractical as to offer a rule of life whose logical application could only be that all men should enter monasteries and all women enter convents.
How often in history do we find men and movements whose purpose is admirable but whose execution of it is execrable! A bad means used to attain a good end, turns the end itself into a bad thing.
The man who sits encased in his own virtue, may unwittingly become encased in spiritual pride.
Both conservative followers of tradition and progressive rebels against it may have something to offer which is worth welcoming. Why not admit the truth and scrutinize each offering justly? Why immediately react against or in favour of it, only by looking at the name of its source? It is better for everyone if there is willingness to accommodate the other, to get the entire picture and then only make decisions.
We must fly the kite of idealism, but we must also be able to jerk it back to earth on a minute's notice.
The single-idea enthusiast, the fanatic persecutor, and the disproportioned extremist--these are all out of focus, out of harmony, and out of balance.
The danger of adopting extremist attitudes is that, each being insufficient, its results are imperfect.
The unbalanced fanatic merely makes a new attachment out of his attempted detachment.
The type to which a man belongs, the temperament which he possesses, will direct him to go along a certain way as being easiest for him. This limits his outlook, and leads to intolerance of other ways and imbalance of his own development.
He should not fall into extremes and, in his care for self-protection, fall into an excessive prudence that risks nothing and consequently gains nothing.
Your creed is immaterial in mysticism. You may be a philosophic Buddhist or a doctrinaire Baptist.
Do not in enthusiastically winning new qualities and virtues ignore and neglect the one which must regulate them all--balance.
The beginner who develops a self-conscious measured spirituality is dangerously near to the vice of spiritual pride.
In trying to mold himself on a higher pattern, a new fault may insert itself--the tendency to become self-righteous.
He is in a hard state who is unable to make compromises and untempted to make concessions.
Like the rudder on a boat, or the governor on a spring, the very quality which he lacks is needed by a man to keep him from going astray into extremes, follies, quicksands, and disasters.
When behaviour or ideas are pushed to an incredible extreme, they are held up to ridicule either by mild humorous irony or by strong sarcasm. This brings a needed corrective to their exaggeration.
Any good quality may be pushed to fanatical extremes, whereupon it may become a bad quality.
It is hard to walk with the pessimists and deny the will to live because birth is evil and deny the natural needs because desire is evil. A juster evaluation would find evil forms of living and evil desires, but the great current of Life itself is surely beyond such relativities as good and evil.
A temperate self-discipline is certainly inculcated by philosophy but it does not call for the extreme of rigorous asceticism. A reasoned austerity at certain times and a wise self-denial at other times fortify and purify a man.
Ascetic disciplines take four channels: physical, mental, emotional, and vocal. This last one, the restraint of speech is threefold: first, some of the mantra yoga practices; second, the observance of strict silence for specified periods; and third, the carefulness never to depart from truthfulness.
The purpose of all balanced asceticism, whether physical or metaphysical, emotional or mental, is to pull the consciousness up from a lower outlook to a higher one. But this is only to make it possible for the aspirant to get the loftier outlook. This cannot be done if he confuses asceticism with fanaticism. It is properly a training of the body and thoughts to obey and work with his higher will.
To practise the necessary trainings and disciplines which any improvement of self calls for is to embrace the correct kind of asceticism, not to fall into the unnecessary and unbalanced ways which turn it into fanaticism.
"We practise asceticism," said a Mount Athos monk, "not because we hate the body but because it calms the passions."
Life makes no sense if we have to deny its most powerful manifestations; if we are taught to deny the body and ignore the senses, if we are to reject the natural satisfactions and renounce the aesthetic ones.
To deny Nature in the name of some narrow ascetic doctrine, to judge men and art by its standards, is to introduce ugliness into life, prejudice into affairs, and imbalance into character.
Not in ascetic despisal of the flesh nor in fascinated enslavement to it will peace be found.
Two representative examples of those forms of asceticism which may be listed as unreasonable, extreme, or fanatical, and which are therefore taboo in philosophic practice are wearing hair shirts to cause irritation or itching of the skin, and deliberately inflicting pain by scourging or mutilating the body.
An asceticism which makes a moral distinction between the body and the Spirit is exaggerated or false.
Asceticism is useful as a training of the self but harmful as a shrivelling of it
Asceticism serves a useful purpose, but the balanced man will not cling to it when the purpose has been achieved. He will let it go in order to reach the next step higher, where there is no room for one-sided things.
Among the dangers of asceticism are its aptness to breed an intolerant mind, its proneness to harsh judgement on nonascetic human beings.
An asceticism which rises from within, which is wholly spontaneous, natural, and unforced, which at the same time avoids fanaticism and imbalance, is not objectionable and may even be admirable.
The ascetic who is ashamed to possess a body is as foolish as the one who hates it for the weaknesses he thinks it produces in his feelings.
The ascetic seeks for the impoverishment of life and the worldling seeks for its enrichment. Both are right in their place. But whereas the ascetic would impose his rule of life upon all others as constituting the highest one, the philosopher knows that it is but the mark of the beginner who has to disentangle himself from the dominion of desire and worldliness.
I accept the Chinese Confucian view which asserts that taste or flavour is essential to enjoy food but reject the Chinese Buddhist view which requires spiritual aspirants to deny themselves such enjoyment.
The Notebooks are copyright © 1984-1989, The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation.