Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week: Zealot
Zealot (noun), a person who is uncompromising and often fanatical in pursuit of his religious convictions, political beliefs, or other ideals.
Usage: Arguing with a zealot is futile; it is like trying to read a newspaper in a high wind.
The term zealot is now used only metaphorically, but it is derived from a real group of people who actually existed in recorded history. The Zealots were members of an ancient Jewish sect, founded by Judas of Galilee in first-century Judea, who were fanatically devoted to the idea of a world Jewish theocracy and conducted a fierce resistance against the Romans until AD 70, when the First Roman-Jewish War ended badly for the Zealots.
They habitually fought to the death and were implacable in their beliefs, including being ruthless with any fellow Jews they believed to be collaborating with the hated Roman Empire, executing or severely persecuting any they could find. Zealotry was not just a term for their cause but was even considered a school of Jewish philosophy by the historian Josephus. Simon the Zealot was listed among the apostles selected by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles.
Most Jews did not regard the Zealots very highly: they were largely condemned for their blind fanaticism and congenital aggression, their unwillingness to compromise, and their refusal to agree to peace treaties negotiated by the rabbis to save besieged Jerusalem (they preferred to fight on even knowing that death was certain). The fate of their modern-day descendants is no better; nobody likes a zealot.
The term is always uncomplimentary in its usage, meant to denote an unreasoning fanatic who not only refuses to entertain contrary views but is so convinced of the rightness of his beliefs that he tries to convert you to his way of thinking. In its broadest usage the term can apply these days to anyone who is almost religiously devoted to a belief, an ideal, a cause, a culture, a person, a way of life or even an object.
Most football fans, and all football hooligans, are zealots for their teams. Most good diplomats are not. That master of diplomacy, the 18th-century French statesman Talleyrand, famously admonished his young trainees: “surtout, pas trop de zèle” – “above all, not too much zeal.” After all, too much zeal signifies an unwillingness to listen to the other person’s point of view – and what could be a worse failing in a diplomat?