May 17, 2007
The Mystic Who Set Europe On Fire
By James Lewis

One of Aldous Huxley's best novels, Grey Eminence, is devoted to Father Joseph, the mystical power-politician who helped set Europe on fire during the Thirty Years' War (1618 to 164 .

Father Joseph believed zealously in bringing Paradise on earth through God's own representative, the Most Holy King Louis XIII of France. God was on the side of the King of France, and war was the means to make Catholic France the supreme power in Europe.

Father Joseph's story is directly relevant to our lives today because he closely resembles Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad, who proudly celebrated "Nuclear Day" recently in Tehran. Both were mystical visionaries, convinced they were divinely called to bring hellfire to God's enemies on earth. Both served as soldiers, zealously promoting violent campaigns against infidel peoples. Both lived personal lives of austerity, combined with an absolute dedication to power. They tortured themselves, the better to torture others.

The vital difference is that Ahmadinejad is quickly obtaining the technical means to act out his fantasies. Father Joseph never had a nuclear button. Tehran will have one soon.

A columnist for Asharq al-Awsat writes:
"The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has come to resemble a young child playing with a dangerous toy. On a daily basis he issues a new statement about this new toy, namely, "the nuclear bomb". One day he is celebrating the use of the centrifugation process, another day he announces the "national nuclear day" for the Islamic Republic of Iran and on another day, he rejects nuclear inspection in protection of "the dignity" of the republic!"
Psychologically, mystical fanatics have prominent paranoid and narcissistic features. They can function very well in normal life as long as you don't talk about their paranoid beliefs. But mention words like "God," "the CIA," or "women," and suddenly they flip into a totally different mode of thinking, isolated from their normal mental functioning.

The psychiatry manual cites
"prominent delusions ... in the context of a relative preservation of cognitive functioning and affect. ... Delusions are typically persecutory or grandiose, or both, but delusions with other themes (e.g., jealousy, religiosity or somatization) may also occur..." (DSM III, p. 287).

Ahmadi-nejad is said to talk to the Twelfth Imam, and claimed to have a sort of mystical-dissociative experience during his General Assembly speech at the UN. When he was confronted with protesting students at a university recently, he claimed that he was not angry at them, but was rather "filled with joy." He is a man who feels fulfilled when he is attacked.

It's not a good idea to try to analyze Ahmadi-nejad without knowing a great deal more about him, and he isn't likely to walk into the local Tehran psychiatric hospital for a proper diagnosis. The point is that people like this occur often in human history. Sometimes, when the social and political conditions are just right, they are thrown up from anonymity and grasp positions of power. In the context of a grandiose power cult like the Khomeini type of Shi'ite Islam, there is a close fit between the group and the personality of the leader: It's Jim Jones time.

That was the case with Father Joseph, as it is with Ahmadi-nejad and other paranoid-grandiose leaders in history. When great social turmoil throws up the most self-confident leaders, these personalities may come to power, leading to a giant political explosion. Peter the Hermit led the First Crusade. Father Joseph worsened the Thirty Years War. Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot became mass murderers, not many decades ago. Paranoid personalities are perfectly suited to the task of total warfare.

Father Joseph was Cardinal Richelieu's personal emissary to the warring sovereigns of Europe during the Thirty Years' War, the longest and most destructive war in Europe before Napoleon and Hitler. Joseph would walk barefoot along the mud roads of the continent, through winter and summer, wearing only his Capuchin monk's habit. Joseph wore a grey hood, and was therefore called the Grey Eminence, a phrase that came to stand for a sinister power behind the throne.

Mystical dedication is quite compatible with bloodshed. Relatively few mystics are bloody-minded, of course. But some have been, historically, as Aldous Huxley pointed out, especially those who were dedicated to bringing Paradise on earth by fire and the sword. Europe has seen multiple episodes of mass murder motivated by the imagined will of God. Even China saw the same phenomenon during the Taiping Rebellion.

And of course Japan was seized by the Divine Emperor cult, which also promoted martyrdom warfare for the greater glory of a fallible ideal.

Totalitarian Communism is just another brand of utopian fanaticism with a strikingly similar psychology --- zealous atheism being perfectly suited for warfare and killing.

What is unique today is not paranoids with a yen for political power. They are a dime a dozen throughout human history. What is uniquely dangerous is the mix of those destructive mental pathologies with nuclear weapons. Until such time as we find fool-proof defenses against nukes, the fate of the world cannot be left in the hands of Ahmadi-nejad and his like.