Jun 1, 1982

The Elite’s Reaction against ‘Enthusiasm’

“The elites feared enthusiasm as a challenge to their social and cultural status.”

Michael Heyd
Hebrew University

“The Reaction to Enthusiasm in the Seventeenth Century: Towards an Integrative Approach.” The Journal of Modern History 53 (June 1981): 258–280.

Historians have devoted increasing attention to the “secularization” or “disenchantment” in religious attitudes occurring in European society during the second half of the 17th and the early 18th centuries. The reaction against religious “enthusiasm” in this period should be seen as an integral part of this broader cultural shift among the elites of Europe. “Enthusiasm” was used as a derogatory term by social, cultural, and political elites to attack individuals or groups who claimed to have direct divine inspiration, whether European millenarists, the radical sects and early Quakers in England in the Interregnum period, or the French Cévennes Prophets who came to England after the Revocation. This reaction against enthusiasm was multifaceted, affecting writing style, views on medicine, madness and melancholy, scientific paradigms, and religious attitudes, and casts light on the social and political motives behind the European elite’s increasing reluctance to resort to supernatural explanations of events. The hostile reaction of the political, intellectual, scientific, and ecclesiastical establishment to the “enthusiasts” helped to shift the ideological foundations of 17th-century socio-cultural order.

Church historians, such as Ronald Knox in Enthusiasm, stress how the very nature of enthusiasm with its individualistic claims to private judgment questioned authority and hierarchical institutions. The “heretical Marxist” Leszek Kolakowski in Chrétiens sans église emphasizes the existentialist-individualist theme of a dialectical relationship between the enthusiasts (representing the party of Grace and Individual Faith) and the orthodox reaction (representing the party of Law and Organization). Enthusiasm is part of a continuing conflict between an establishment and its more individualistic non-conformist opponents.

Enthusiasm transcends religious or theological questions and involves other issues—social, political, and cultural—peculiar to the period. For example the anti-enthusiastic reaction cultivated a “sober,” rationalistic literary style and discredited appeals to the imagination, passions, and high-flown rhetoric. Heyd traces the medical, literary, theological, cultural, scientific, and political filiations of the debate over enthusiasm back to Plato and Aristotle, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, until the cultural polemics of the early modern period.

Of particular importance is the social and cultural debate over enthusiasm within the ideological context of the English Revolution. J.R. Jacob has shown, in Robert Boyle and the English Revolution, how Boyle “was on the one hand attracted to, and influenced by the piety and millenarian vision of the hermetic tradition, but on the other opposed to the interpretation that the radical sects had given to it. Boyle stressed patient work, reason, and experimental philosophy as antidotes to the sectarian claims for direct inspiration, claims which he regarded as subverting the social and moral order. He similarly presented his corpuscular philosophy as an alternative to the Aristotelian and Platonic conception of autonomous and vitalist natural forces, conceptions which were used by mortalists and pantheists like Overton and Winstanley in the 1640s and 1650s, and by the Rosicrucian enthusiasts… in the 1660s.”

Likewise, Margaret C. Jacob, in The Newtonians and the English Revolution shows how the Newtonian ideology was influenced by a dialectical confrontation with and reaction against the enthusiasts. A generation earlier we see the ties between the Latitudinarian revolt against enthusiasm in the 1650s and the emergence of the new scientific ideology of the Royal Society in the 1660s.

In sum, a systematic and interdisciplinary study of the social carriers of the smear term “enthusiasm” and its variegated connotations and denotations reveals much about the social history of the reaction to enthusiasm. The elites feared enthusiasm as a challenge to their social and cultural status. These elites wished to promote the norm of the “sober, reasonable, and self-controlled person” as a way to maintain the social order and their authority. The enthusiasts, as radical and inspired critics of the existing social and intellectual order, were representatives of “anti-structure.”