Are we Devils or Fools?

I have a theory that there are two types of people in the world: those who assume that other people are devils, and those who assume that other people are fools.

The Devil and the Fool are two powerful archetypes that are engrained in our cultural consciousness. Both characters appear regularly and prominently in our movies and television shows, our books and our plays. They have been around so long that they are even depicted among the primary characters of the Major Arcana in the Tarot deck.

In fact, take a look to see how these characters are shown in a standard Tarot deck. It’s very interesting.

The fool and the devilThe Fool is shown walking along, head in the clouds, blissfully unaware that he is about to walk off of a cliff. He is purposeful, he is poised, and he thinks he knows where he is going. But because he takes in nothing from his surroundings, he is actually on the brink of disaster. The dog is there, trying to warn him that he is on the wrong course, but the Fool will not follow any guide but the clouds and the sun in the sky. He thinks he already has everything that matters, bundled up and tied to the end of his stick. Why would he bother looking at the world around him, or listening to the warnings of others, when everything he needs is already tied up on his shoulder?

The Devil is shown sitting on his thrown, immobile, with his servants in chains at his feet. He is the ultimate embodiment of evil for the sake of evil: he will do harm just for the sake of doing harm, his goal is to make others completely bend to his will. He is lazy and unmoving: he sees no reason to walk around when he can force other people to come to him. He holds fire, the symbol of ultimate destruction, in his hand and he is not afraid to use it if it will help him to get his way. He seats himself poised above the earth, and demands to be worshiped. Anyone who does not worship him is met with hatred, and the Devil will not stop until such people submit or are stamped out.

Both the Devil and the Fool are destructive, but for completely different reasons. The thing is, even though their motivations and personalities are so different, in the real world it is often very difficult to tell the difference between a Devil and a Fool.



When someone does something destructive, what is your first instinct? Is it to label the person as a Devil: someone who is simply mean and malicious and does not care what he destroys? Or is it to label the person as a Fool: someone who is simply clueless and ignorant and does not know what he destroys?

The Fool doesn’t know he is hurting you, and the Devil doesn’t care.  When someone hurts you, what is your first thought? Do you usually assume the person is mean, or ignorant? Do you assume the person is a Devil or a Fool?

In personal relationships, the end result can often be the same. You can fall off a cliff because you were walking next to a fool, or you can end up in chains because you were too close to a devil. Either way, you end badly. Sometimes you have to ask yourself: if I am being hurt, does it even matter if the person hurting me is a Devil or a Fool?



Now look at society writ large.  I think that conservative political policies tend to be rooted in the assumption that people are Devils, while liberal political policies tend to be rooted in the assumption that people are Fools.

The liberal wants laws that assume that a person’s intentions are ultimately good. Human beings are all on a quest, walking along with their bags over their shoulders, and they simply need a little help along the way. A liberal thinks the government should not be so focused on preventing evil things from happening, because a liberal at his core thinks that bad things usually come from ignorance or pain, not malice. The liberal doesn’t believe in Devils, you see: he is focused on the Fools. If only we can teach people to watch where they are going, then they will not fall off the cliff.  If only we can get those poor Fools to recognize how to make better choices. That is where government can help, thinks the liberal. The government can help to teach Fools to change their path away from the cliff.

The conservative, on the other hand, wants laws that assume that a person’s intentions are ultimately evil. Human beings are creatures of evil temptations and evil desires, and if left to their own devices they will be mean and lazy. A conservative thinks the government should not be focused on helping people to make choices, because a conservative at his core thinks that people’s instinctive choices are often evil and wrong. The conservative doesn’t believe in Fools, you see: he is focused on the Devils. If only we can protect ourselves from all of the people out there who want to enslave us, we will be ok. If only we can stop people from acting on their immoral and evil temptations and desires, then we will be ok. That is where government can help, thinks the conservative. The government can help stop the Devils from enslaving and sodomizing each other.

So which archetype do you think best describes the majority of the human population? Which role for government do you think is most important? Which problem is the biggest problem that needs to be solved?

Is the human race, as a whole, a race of Devils or a race of Fools?

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  1. Niles Chandler says:

    A little bit of fine-tuning here (does that phrase still mean anything in an era when analog TVs are kaput?):

    1) “…a liberal at his core thinks that bad things usually come from ignorance or pain, not malice. The liberal doesn’t believe in Devils, you see: he is focused on the Fools.”

    Oh, we think they come from malice, too– like Bernie Madoff, the Koch Bros, etc.! But we don’t think their malice necessarily comes from some “unexplainable evil”– “unexplainable” as in, “Don’t explain it– I don’t want to know!” (And there isn’t any supernatural being called “The Devil” that causes it– I mean, come on, we are ADULTS now, aren’t we?)

    The idea is to identify some down-to-earth situations or attitudes where such malice may have originated, thus leading to strategies for combating it in the future. Understanding a person’s motivations for their horrible acts does not mean “understanding” in the sense of SYMPATHY (though a lot of conservatives like to pretend that it does). It means you have to know your enemy in order to defeat him.

    2) “…a conservative at his core thinks that people’s instinctive choices are often evil and wrong.”

    But he completely forgets that idea when the people in question are corporate executives…

    3) Oh, by the way, that Robert Anton Wilson quote ROCKS!

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I agree with everything you’ve said here… the only thing I’d clarify is that when I said “liberals don’t believe in devils”, it is specifically because I’m thinking of the “devils” as the “evil without reason.”

      A devil does evil just for the sake of doing evil, because it is evil. I think liberals, as YOU also pointed out, try to trace back and find the origins of “evil behavior”. Like you pointed out, “The idea is to identify some down-to-earth situations or attitudes where such malice may have originated.”

      This doesn’t mean “forgiving” or “understanding” the bad behavior… but at least in the way that I was trying to use the term, it does mean that you’re not viewing the person as the “Devil” archetype: nameless, explanation-less, core evil. In some sense, you are still viewing the person as a fool who has been twisted, either by his environment or whatever else.

      That’s what I was trying to convey — although, of course your points are well-taken! I’m trying to draw a dichotomy (in part for dramatic effect, of course.. ha, ha!) when there is, naturally, a lot of subtlety and gradation between the groups.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. El Warbo Grande says:

    I beg to differ with this theory. Being a conservative from a heavily conservative state, I find that most conservatives look at liberals generally as a combination of devils and fools. Perhaps vice-versa as well, but I don’t know enough liberals well enough to verify that.

  3. Josiah Jennings says:

    A poetic, but useless theory, I think, but allow me to play into it for a bit:

    Independent of my opinions on the role of government, or whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I think we are all fools in that our own model of reality is represented by the clouds and we are stuck with our head in them. Our perspective of reality—represented by the ground—may be sometimes less or more clouded than others (which we never truly know), but remains clouded nonetheless, if only theoretically from our limited perspective in relation to the universe itself. Suffice it to say the fool is consistent with my determinist impression of the universe, as it seems to abide by certain rules (at least on most levels), and the Devil is not, as it seems to imply that at any point we have control over the universal forces that have determined how we see reality.

    “The illusion of Sin and Guilt, the madness of our species, is the act of cursing the world under the misapprehension that one is cursing only one part of it. To curse the fig tree, as in the funniest and most misunderstood parable of Jesus, is to curse the soil in which it grew, the seed, the rains, the sun; the whole world, eventually—because no part is truly separate from the whole. The fallacy is that one can judge the part in isolation from the whole is ‘the Lie that all men believe.” — Sigismundo Celine (Robert Anton Wilson), The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles

    • Greg Stevens says:

      The Devil represents the one who is simply evil for the sake of being evil, who is forceful and subjugates others to his will. You do not have to believe in sin per se to believe that there are those who are malicious in the world for no good reason.

      When I say the Liberal doesn’t believe in Devils, what I mean is that I think the root of the liberal philosophy honestly does doubt whether such people exist. I think the archetypal (or stereotypical) liberal wants to look at any person who APPEARS to have malice without cause and say, “If only I understood his motives and his view of himself, I would see that he somehow thinks he is justified, or is simply acting out of ignorance… he can’t ACTUALLY know that he is being as terrible as he is coming across!”

      So I think the Devil vs Fool difference is more about ignorance and INTENT, than anything else.

      P.S. yes it’s a useless theory but….. Look! Pretty pictures! Ooooh!

  4. John says:

    As a libertarian, I think the bigger issue is whether you think the government is made of men or a race of super-men. If men are devils or fools or both or neither, and governments are still made of nothing but men, then governments must either be fools leading fools, devils restraining devils, both leading both, or neither leading neither. Thus, in no possible case can government be our salvation — it’s just us, with drones and with an attitude.

    As a libertarian, I think the whole problem with liberals and conservatives is that they believe the government is led by super-men–either more wise or more moral than mere mortals. It’s just two different flavors of the same poison.

    • Niles Chandler says:

      In reply to “John” (2/20/13): Two points.

      1) Perhaps the biggest problem I have with libertarianism is that a lot of its spokespeople display an amazingly naive belief about “the marketplace”: that if we just leave it alone and get rid of regulations (by getting rid of government), “free enterprise” will be eternally self-correcting and all will be hunky-dory. It’s like saying, “In theory, ‘free markets’ OUGHT TO be self-correcting, wouldn’t you think?, so of course they WILL be, in actual practice.” (And yet, “big-government liberals” are the ones accused of living in ivory towers of unreality!) Try reading through your post again but inserting the term “system of corporate capitalism” instead of “government” each time. And yes, corporations may not have drones yet, but they sure will.

      2) “Thus, in no possible case can government be our salvation — it’s just us, with drones and with an attitude.” Seems kinda self-contradictory to me. We the people are the only ones who can be our (political/economic) salvation. So if government is “just us”, then doesn’t that mean…

      Right now I hear someone saying, “Ah, but the free-enterprise system is ‘just us’, too– so why shouldn’t IT be our salvation?” Here’s why: Government, made up of mere fallible mortals, may not always work for everyone’s benefit, but (by law) it is supposed to TRY. Corporations are (by law) supposed to be much more narrowly focused on providing maximum “return” for their shareholders– and if, in practice, that process doesn’t provide nearly enough benefit for the rest of us… well, then, hey, whatever.

      • John says:

        I agree with most of your first point–faith in free markets and faith in government is often similarly unjustified. But your second point sees a contradiction where none exists. I’m not claiming that “We the people” are our salvation. That would indeed be a contradiction. What I’m claiming is that IF human nature has some defect that makes us all into fools or devils, then we’re just flat-out screwed. There are no non-humans to bail us out, not even in Washington.

  5. Bobby says:

    A unique take on the difference between liberals and conservatives! Being a liberal I would suggest that more people are fools. I think most people aspire to be the fool because he is so carefree unlike the often harsh reality many of us face on a daily basis. It’s kind of like the lottery, only a more long term hope for a better life.

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