During the persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman prefect Rusticus was frustrated by the serene equanimity of the Christian convert Justin, a Platonic philosopher. The Romans considered Christianity a supserstitio parva (perverse superstition) and classified its morality as immodica (immoderate) for, among other things, refusing to abort the unborn and "expose" the newly born. Bereft of rational arguments against Christians, Nero blamed them for burning Rome, as some would blame the Jews for the bubonic plague. The demagogic policy, updated by Lenin and made a political craft in our day, was to "never let a crisis go unused."
Every great cause attracts its sociopaths who cloak their pathology in the mantle of righteousness. I tread on hallowed ground when I mention Savonarola, for he may have been a saint and true martyr. The jury is still out on that, but the Botticellis at the bottom of the Arno river are mute testimony that if the greatest treason is "to do the right thing for the wrong reason," one notch lower in the order of moral confusion is to do the wrong thing for the right reason. Pope Alexander VI did not have a calming effect on his own family, so we may sympathize with the strain he put on the sensitivities of a pious friar like Savonarola, but another man, not Pope Alexander but Alexander Pope, said that the worst of madmen is a saint run mad. Erasmus revered the example of Savonarola to strengthen his faith, but the esoteric cult of the Piagnoni also used Savonarola to justify their own angularity.
Those zealots illustrate Alduous Huxley’s dictum that a fanatic is a man who consciously overcompensates for a secret doubt. If we skip a few centuries, I do not know if Carrie Nation secretly feared that she might become an alcoholic like her husband, but the image of the portly six-foot tall woman in black waving a hatchet at saloonkeepers was enough to drive some sober men to drink. She had right reasons but not much reason, and that may have been inherited from her own mother, who was under the impression that she was Queen Victoria.
It is always wrong to do something intrinsically evil, no matter how good the desired end may be. When Jesus admonished St. Peter for cutting off a man’s ear, His pragmatic motive was to accomplish a higher end.
The principle of proportionality is much more demanding of mere mortals when an individual wildly appropriates to himself, outside the sanctions of system and the tranquility of order, the right to kill in cold blood. And when a fanatic destroys life in the name of human dignity, however depraved and macabre the target, the raucous contradiction gives demagogues a chance to exploit the crime.
This is the manner of hypocritical Pharisaism, as opposed to the Pharisees whose righteousness our Lord said should be exceeded by His disciples. The debased Pharisees gave themselves a bad name because they postured as scandalized in order to haul themselves onto a shaky moral platform higher than their opponents. They hectored Jesus with manufactured moral conundrums in order to create a crisis which they could exploit. When they disguised their motives as a civil matter, as those do who shift the case from being pro-life to being pro-choice, they intimidated the judge by saying that if he did not go along with them, he was no friend of Caesar. The judge, well-schooled by the academic Cynics, scorned all of them as fanatics, but in the end he deferred to Caesar, since his cynicism was a fanatical contempt for fanaticism.
I cite the case of a man gone off the edge who committed murder in Kansas in the name of the sacredness of life. Impatient with rational voices, he said: "These men are all talk. What we need is action — action!" He was rightly called a "misguided fanatic," but some deluded people made things worse by actually praising the murderer. On the other hand, opportunists exploited the crisis to discredit all of their opponents.
The Kansas killing to which I refer was the Pottawatomie Massacre. Abraham Lincoln justly applied the term "misguided fanatic" to the perpetrator, and those who praised the maverick killer as "Christ-like" included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The demagogues were Southern slaveholders who seized the chance to tar all abolitionists as fanatics. The "inventor of American terrorism" was John Brown, whose body "lies a-mouldering in the grave." A more prudent abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, transposed the lyrics of the old song into a hymn of the true Christ, who in His own definitive justice is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
The sane diction of authentic confessors of faith, as opposed to traitors against reason, was very like what Justin patiently told Rusticus: "We hope to suffer torment for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so be saved. For this will bring us salvation and confidence as we stand before the more terrible and universal judgment-seat of our Lord and Savior."