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Caroline Warman

14. Alexandre Deleyre (1726-1797), ‘Fanaticism’, from the Encyclopédie, 17561

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  • 1 Alexandre Deleyre, ‘Fanatisme’, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et de (...)

1Alexandre Deleyre, contributor to the Encyclopédie, is the author of its influential entry on ‘Fanaticism’. Extracts from this article were found among Voltaire’s papers after his death. It may be helpful to know that in this context ‘superstition’ means blind belief.

2FANATICISM. Fanaticism is zeal of the most blind and fervent sort. It is caused by superstition, and makes people commit ridiculous, unjust and cruel acts, not only without shame or remorse but also with a kind of delight and even a feeling of solace. Fanaticism, therefore, is simply superstition in action. See Superstition.

3Imagine an immense rotunda, a pantheon with a thousand altars; then picture beneath the dome a devotee of every sect past and present, at the feet of the divinity whom he honours in his own way, with all the strange rituals that have sprung from the human imagination. To the right, a contemplative lies on his back on a mat, waiting for the celestial light to penetrate his soul; to the left, a prostrate energumen bangs his forehead against the ground to bring forth its abundance; over here, an acrobat dances on the tomb of the person he prays to; there, a penitent, who is as mute and motionless as the statue before which he abases himself; one man displays what modesty might prefer him to keep concealed, for God is not ashamed of his own image; another veils himself completely, even his face, as if the Creator were disgusted by his own creation; one worshipper turns his back to the south, to shield himself from the devil’s winds; another extends his arms to the East, where God reveals his radiant face; sobbing girls whip their young innocent flesh to calm the demon that is lust, but risk arousing it; others, adopting a rather different posture, invite their deity to come closer: a young man seeks to mollify the instrument of his virility by attaching iron rings to it that weigh as much as it can bear […]

4Look at them all leaving the temple, full of the god that burns within them, spreading fear and delusion across the face of the earth. They carve up the world between them, and soon it is engulfed in flames.

5How horrifying it is to realise that once the idea that killing people is the best way to placate the heavens was adopted, it then spread worldwide to almost every religion, whilst the list of reasons to sacrifice others grew ever longer, until no one could escape the knife. […] Just think about all the thousands fanaticism has enslaved, be it in Asia, where being uncircumcised was a mark of disgrace, or in Africa, where to be Christian was a crime, or in America, where baptism was excuse enough to suffocate humanity. Count the thousands who have perished, either on the scaffold over the centuries of persecution, or at the hands of their fellow citizens during civil war, or by their own hand, in excessive self-laceration. The Earth is becoming a place of exile, peril and tears.

Read the entry for ‘Fanaticism’ on the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (text):​cgi-bin/​philologic/​

Read the entry for ‘Fanaticism’ on the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (facsimile):​cgi-bin/​extras/​​ENC_6-393.jpeg


1 Alexandre Deleyre, ‘Fanatisme’, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 1751-1772.


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