Take-Aways on the Lunatic Fringe

Peter Maurin, not one for nuances, thought that everyone was crazy



Trying to figure something out? Something really important? More often than not, Aristotle was doing just that. He usually began by noting the insights of the wise on the problem at hand. Noticing that they were often at odds, he next tried to figure out what was promising in each of them: the “take-away,” so to speak. Then he’d do some hard thinking of his own.

Of late I’ve been trying to figure out the lunatic fringe. It’s important to do so because, as every driver knows, there are plenty of maniacal drivers on the road. Not only that, a lot of them also vote. Blimey! Lots of them are probably involved in telemarketing and other worrisome behaviors.

Since I’m writing a blog and not a treatise, I’ll only note the insights of two wise men, my dad and Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker. Their insights seem sharply at odds. Filial piety suggests that I begin with my dad. “In this country,” he often said, “the lunatic fringe is half the population.” Sometimes he’d up the percentage. It was a daunting demographic, and his children were duly cautious.

Peter Maurin, not one for nuances, thought that everyone was crazy. Nonetheless he took heart. His insight, expressed in one of his Easy Essays, is intriguing: “Everyone is crazy, and a leader is someone who refuses to be crazy in anyone else’s crazy way and insists on being crazy in his own crazy way.” Fittingly, the theme of a more recent reunion of Catholic Workers was “Still Crazy after All These Years.”

So, what’s to learn from Dad and what’s to learn from Peter? Aren’t they completely at loggerheads? Not so, and for three reasons. And taken together, these three reasons can encourage us to do some careful thinking of our own.

The first reason they are not polar opposites is that neither of them was stuck in his own head. They looked full on at their fellow human beings. They both stared, unflinchingly, at their fellow denizens of the City of Man. Ostriches they were not.

The second reason they are only partly at loggerheads is that both of them made sharp, though not rash,  judgments. Having confronted “the other,” en masse, they did not hold their tongues. Instead, they stood manfully on their soapboxes.

The third reason we can learn from both is that they both paid attention to words. They knew  that words, like ideas, mean something and have consequences. Dad was a stickler; early on he took me to task for “flowery” writing. And Peter, for a single example, after reading the works of Christopher Dawson, captured their essential interplay with the phrase “cult, culture, and cultivation” in a Green (not Red) Revolution.

Let’s think a bit about, and pay attention to, the words “lunatic” and “crazy.” The lunatic, rightly considered, lives like one who, metaphorically, howls at the moon (luna). The lunatic is distracted and disoriented; the result is distressing. And there are, in fact, plenty of lunatics on the road, at the mall, and in the voting booth. Golly, some of them hold public office.

Now what about the crazy? Just as bad? Careful! There’s a distinction in order. Some of these folks are “crazy like a fox.” Like a fox, they can dart and dodge; they are cunning and crafty. They can run circles around hounds and hunters alike. In the City of Man, if not in the Zodiac, there is a pressing need for a Year of the Fox.

Ready to sign my petition? I like to think that both Dad and Peter would have.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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