The Game of Good and Evil


The political and personal morality of the West, especially in the United States, is utterly schizophrenic. It is a monstrous combination of uncompromising idealism and unscrupulous gangsterism, and thus devoid of the humor and humaneness which enables confessed rascals to sit down together and work out reasonable deals. No one can be moral without coming to a working arrangement between the angel in himself and the devil in himself, between his rose above and his manure below….

Does it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Humor is the twinkle in the eye of a just judge, who knows that his is also the felon in the dock. How could he be sitting there in stately judgment, being addressed as “Your Honor” or “Mi Lud,” without those poor bastards being dragged before him day after day? It does not undermine his work and his function to recognize this. He plays the role of judge all the better for realizing that on the next turn of the Wheel of Fortune he may be the accused, and that if all the truth were known, he would be standing there now.

If this is cynicism, it is at least loving cynicism—an attitude and an atmosphere that cools off human conflicts more effectively than any amount of physical or moral violence. For it recognizes that the real goodness of human nature is its peculiar balance of love and selfishness, reason and passion, spirituality and sensuality, mysticism and materialism, in which the positive pole has always a slight edge over the negative. Thus when the two poles, good and bad, forget their interdepedence and try to obliterate each other, man becomes subhuman—the implacable crusader or the cold, sadistic thug.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, 1966

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2 Responses to The Game of Good and Evil

  1. Susan says:

    I struggled with low self-esteem until I was in my mid-40’s and how it all turned around was quite surprising. I began to see the dark side of me and once I saw that, acknowledged it, and accepted it, I found that I truly loved myself in a healthy way. I love all the parts of me, even the parts that don’t seem lovable. I think (I hope?) it enables me to love others the same way. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we, to use Watts’ words, would acknowledge that we are all rascals, and then sit down and work out some deals to make this world a better place?

    I have also been called cynical from time to time, and it was definitely not meant as a compliment. So I especially like the idea of “loving cynicism.” Probably because it justifies my attitudes and behavior? = )

    This passage from Watts brought to mind your early (and my favorite) post on cynicism as it relates to the film “Casablanca.”

    You caused me to think today. Thank you, Kevan.

    • Kevan says:

      Maybe having “loving cynicism” means seeing the seemingly unlovable, and accepting it anyway. It’s the opposite of sentimentality, which pretends that the dark side doesn’t exist. The loving cynic shocks the sentimental, but give me a cynic over a sentimentalist any day. Thanks, Susan!

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