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Enthusiasm

ENTHUSIASM

ENTHUSIASM. From the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, "enthusiasm" was used in describing individuals or groups who claimed to have been the special recipients of divine inspiration. Originally having the neutral or positive meaning of "being possessed or inspired by a god" (from the Greek enthousiasmos ), the term assumed negative connotations after the Reformation. Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (14831546) first used the word "Schwärmer" to describe such radical reformers as Thomas Müntzer (c. 14891525), Andreas Karlstadt (c. 14801541), and the Anabaptists, on account of their elevation of religious experience over the literal words of Scripture.

"Enthusiast" was the English equivalent, used to characterize those thought guilty of feigned inspiration, impostures, sectarianism, and extremes of religious passion. Enthusiasm was also associated with sets of physical symptomsconvulsions, ecstatic dancing, prophesying, speaking in foreign tongues, and the "quaking" from which Quakers received their derisory designation. The expression was used of a variety of sects, including the original Anabaptists, Behmenists, Seekers, Familists, Ranters, Camisards, Quietists, and Quakers. However, the deployment of the term in the context of religious controversy meant that it was often applied indiscriminately. Puritans and Methodists could be referred to as enthusiasts. Luther called the pope an enthusiast, and even the rationalist philosopher René Descartes (15961650) attracted the label. Its more restricted technical sense was well expressed by Samuel Johnson (17091784) who defined it as "a vain confidence of Divine favour or communication."

ENTHUSIASM AND RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY

In the West, Christian belief is grounded in a combination of four authorities: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Whereas Catholics typically elevated the authority of tradition and Protestants that of Scripture, enthusiasts argued that private religious experience was paramount. This emphasis on individual inspiration meant that those designated enthusiasts were often regarded as a threat to the established civil and religious order. Private and heartfelt revelations unchecked by the external authority of Scripture, the universal strictures of common reason, or the institutionalized resources of ecclesiastical tradition arguably did present some challenges to social stability. Responsibility for the ill-fated German Peasants' War (15241526) was laid on the shoulders of religious enthusiasts, not entirely without justification, for Müntzer's apocalyptic visions had played a role in the later stages of the revolt. English critics of enthusiasm also came to regard the Great Rebellion (the English Civil War; 16421651) as an event that exemplified the dangers of unchecked religious zeal.

Most responses to the perceived problem of enthusiasm stressed the need for private religious experience to be moderated by reason or constrained by the authorities of tradition or Scripture. Of these, reason was the major beneficiary of the fear of enthusiastic excess. Champions of reason claimed that a reasonable religion suffered from neither the corruptions to which tradition was susceptible nor the difficulties associated with the interpretation of Scripture. For its promoters, moreover, the religion of reason also promoted religious concord, for in its simplest form, it contained only fundamental doctrines on which all, at least in principle, could agree. The seventeenth-century tendency toward rational religion can be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against the putative dangers of enthusiasm.

THEORIES OF ENTHUSIASM

Another response to enthusiasm was the attempt to analyze its natural causes. During the seventeenth century a number of writers set out to investigate the etiology of what was regarded as a religious distemper. In his classic work of psychopathology, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton (15771640) articulated the influential view that enthusiasm was one of two extreme forms of religious melancholy, the other being atheism. Both extremes were caused by various affects in the brain, and both were equally undesirable. Meric Casaubon (15991671), son of the famous classicist Isaac, devoted a complete work to the condition. In his Treatise concerning Enthusiasm (1655) he argued for a distinction between natural and supernatural enthusiasm. The former was caused by an excitation of the soul, spirits, or brain, the latter by divine or diabolical inspiration. Religious errors arose when natural or diabolical inspirations were mistakenly thought to have originated from God. The Cambridge Platonist Henry More (16141687) also focused on the natural causes of enthusiasm in his Enthusiasmus Triumphatus (1662). For More, enthusiasm resulted from a diseased imagination, which in turn had underlying physical causes. While it was essentially a physiological condition, it could be triggered by ascetic and monkish habits. By the same token, in human behaviors and attitudes lay the prospect for the control and cure of enthusiasm through cultivation of the habits of reasonableness, temperance, and humility.

These naturalistic treatments gave enthusiasm a significance that went beyond contemporary confessional polemic. As a generic form of mental pathology, its adverse affects were discovered in other spheres of human endeavor such as science and medicine. Followers of the medical and chemical reforms of Paracelsus (14931541) and Jan Baptiste van Helmont (c. 15791644) were referred to as "philosophical enthusiasts," and theosophists and alchemists were similarly identified. More importantly, the emergence of this category in the early modern period gave a new shape to interpretations of religious history. Schismatic groups such as the early Christian Montanists and Donatists, and the medieval Waldensians and Cathars, were now retrospectively classified as enthusiasts. Enthusiasm was also given a role in the general history of religion. According to Henry More's analysis, enthusiasm accounted for defections from the pure, simple, and rational religion that he and many others believed had been universally practiced in the first age of the world. Enthusiasm, in short, was said to account for the varieties of heresy and heathenism in the world and thus took on the status of a theory of religious pluralism.

Physiological accounts of enthusiasm and the application of the category to religious history are indicative of an important shift in Western understandings of the basis of religious belief. The quest for the natural causes of the diversity of religious beliefs, incipient in the treatments of Burton, Casaubon, and More, heralds the beginning of Enlightenment attempts to provide religious beliefs with natural, rather than supernatural, explanations. To a degree, these treatments also lessened the moral stigma associated with religious heterodoxy. Enthusiasm and its critics played a significant role in the secularization of European thought and culture.

See also Anabaptism ; Cambridge Platonists ; Descartes, René ; Helmont, Jan Baptiste van ; Johnson, Samuel ; Luther, Martin ; More, Henry ; Paracelsus ; Peasants' War, German ; Quakers .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Casaubon, Meric. A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm, as It Is an Effect of Nature: But Is Mistaken by Many for Divine Inspiration, or Diabolical Possession. London, 1655.

More, Henry. Enthusiasmus Triumphatus, or a Brief Discourse of the Nature, Causes, Kinds, and Cure of Enthusiasm. London, 1662.

Secondary Sources

Heyd, Michael. "Be Sober and Reasonable": The Critique of Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries. Leiden, 1995. Argues that reactions against enthusiasm provide important background to the Enlightenment.

Knox, Ronald. Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford, 1950. The classic study of early modern enthusiasm, although Knox's own sympathies are quite apparent.

Tucker, Susie I. Enthusiasm: A Study in Semantic Change. Cambridge, U.K., 1972. Traces changing meanings of "enthusiasm."

Peter Harrison

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"Enthusiasm." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Enthusiasm." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/enthusiasm

enthusiasm

enthusiasm †prophetic or poetic frenzy; vain confidence in divine inspiration, misguided religious emotion XVII; rapturous or passionate eagerness XVIII. — F. enthousiasme or late L. enthūsiasmus — Gr. enthousiasmós, f. enthousiázein be inspired or possessed by the god, f. énthous, éntheos inspired, possessed, f. en IN + theós god.
So enthusiast XVII. — F. or ecclL. enthusiastic XVII. — Gr. Hence enthuse vb. XIX.

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"enthusiasm." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"enthusiasm." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/enthusiasm-1

enthusiasm

en·thu·si·asm / enˈ[unvoicedth]oōzēˌazəm/ • n. intense and eager enjoyment, interest, or approval. ∎  a thing that arouses such feelings: the three enthusiasms of his life were politics, religion, and books.

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Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm. A religious attitude of extreme commitment, frequently leading to acts and utterances which (in the eyes of those outsiders who regard themselves as more sober) seem extraordinary. Holy fools often exhibit those characteristics which evoke the word.

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"Enthusiasm." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Enthusiasm." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/enthusiasm

enthusiasm

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