A Game of Cards

Norman Cousins - Beverly Hills, California
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, December 11, 2009
Norman Cousins

In the face of nuclear war and ultimate annihilation, writer and editor Norman Cousins wonders about the destiny of man. In his essay from the 1950s, Cousins believes we have the resources to overcome our fears and welcome a new golden age of history.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: fear, good & evil

Ever since I was old enough to read books on philosophy, I have been intrigued by the discussions on the nature of man. The philosophers have been debating for years about whether man is primarily good or primarily evil, whether he is primarily altruistic or selfish, cooperative or combative, gregarious or self-centered, whether he enjoys free will or whether everything is predetermined.

As far back as the Socratic dialogues in Plato, and even before that, man has been baffled about himself. He knows he is capable of great and noble deeds, but then he is oppressed by the evidence of great wrongdoing.

And so he wonders. I don’t presume to be able to resolve the contradictions. In fact, I don’t think we have to. It seems to me that the debate over good and evil in man, over free will and determinism, and over all the other contradictions—it seems to me that this debate is a futile one. For man is a creature of dualism. He is both good and evil, both altruistic and selfish. He enjoys free will to the extent that he can make decisions in life, but he can’t change his chemistry or his relatives or his physical endowments—all of which were determined for him at birth. And rather than speculate over which side of him is dominant, he might do well to consider what the contradictions and circumstances are that tend to bring out the good or evil, that enable him to be a nobler and responsible member of the human race. And so far as free will and determinism are concerned, something I heard in India on a recent visit might be worth passing along. Free will and determinism, I was told, are like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you represents determinism. The way you play your hand represents free will.

Now where does all this leave us? It seems to me that we ought to attempt to bring about and safeguard those conditions that tend to develop the best in man. We know, for example, that the existence of fear and man’s inability to cope with fear bring about the worst in him. We know that what is true of man on a small scale can be true of society on a large scale. And today the conditions of fear in the world are, I’m afraid, affecting men everywhere. More than 2,300 years ago, the Greek world, which had attained tremendous heights of creative intelligence and achievement, disintegrated under the pressure of fear. Today, too, if we read the signs correctly, there is fear everywhere. There is fear that the human race has exhausted its margin for error and that we are sliding into another great conflict that will cancel out thousands of years of human progress. And people are fearful because they don’t want to lose the things that are more important than peace itself—moral, democratic, and spiritual values.

The problem confronting us today is far more serious than the destiny of any political system or even of any nation. The problem is the destiny of man: first, whether we can make this planet safe for man; second, whether we can make it fit for man.

This I believe—that man today has all the resources to shatter his fears and go on to the greatest golden age in history, an age which will provide the conditions for human growth and for the development of the good that resides within man, whether in his individual or his collective being. And he has only to mobilize his rational intelligence and his conscience to put these resources to work.

Norman Cousins was editor of The Saturday Review for 35 years. A noted author, he detailed his fight against two life-threatening diseases in "Anatomy of An Illness" and "The Healing Heart." In addition to his literary career, he was an ardent critic of the nuclear arms race and the Vietnam War.