In English
Cartoon boy
The 7 classical virtues:
Faith, Hope, Love,
Wisdom, Justice, Moderation, Courage.

Erik Pleijel
The World's Best Medicine Against
the Follies of Polarisation

Debates where everyone just talks past each other – personal attacks, stereotypes and insults – lack of interest in other points of view – stubborn certainty and extreme views.

The follies of polarisation make it difficult to find solutions to the urgent problems plaguing our world. But what if there is a powerful antidote that we have overlooked? Maybe there are old and proven insights that can be helpful? 

The purpose of this text is to show how we can revive something almost forgotten in our time: the seven classical virtues. Faith, hope and love are powerful life forces. Together with the other virtues (wisdom, fair-mindedness, moderation, courage) they make us much better equipped to face the challenges of our time.

Join a journey of discovery!


Reading time ≈ 5–7 minutes.

The dangerous trap that everyone should be aware of

Why do so many people today sympathise with unscrupulous politicians who have no moral compass? Why do they rejoice when these leaders corrupt democracies and destroy vital partnerships? Why do they find ruthlessness and shamelessness so appealing? The reason may be that it creates a sense of power that is seductive and thrilling.

Why is social media so antisocial? Why are the posts so full of mockery, abuse and petty nastiness? The answer is probably quite simple: Being nasty and mean can be a pleasure.

You laugh and make fun of others because it's amusing. Schadenfreude is a source of – joy. Even the feeling of being wronged can become a wicked pleasure. It can provide an excuse to lash out in lustful anger.


Pleasant emotions = good emotions?
This is often the case, but not always. There are bad things that can feel good, for example the pleasure of being mean, the desire to judge, the sweetness of revenge, the intoxication of power.

Padlock Is there anyone among us who is completely free of this and who never deceives himself? It's easy to get caught in a trap: We like toxic emotions because they feel pleasant. And we're reluctant to admit this mistake because it feels embarrassing.

Hatred and contempt are alluring but deeply deceptive emotions. They are "sweet-tasting poisons". They may feel good, but they damage the soul and weaken reason. They inflate the ego and give a false sense of superiority and intelligence. This illusion affects entire societies and drags the world down to ruin.


It's a bit like being stuck in a drug addiction. The key to freedom is some kind of 'detoxification' and 'rehabilitation'. We need to learn to distinguish between good and bad feelings. And to create healthier thought patterns and better habits.

Religion can both help and hinder

One cause of polarisation is bad religion. It brings out the worst in people: fear, narrow-mindedness, selfishness, hatred, prejudice, etc. The paradox is that people claim to believe in a loving God. How does this make sense?

One possible answer is that it is a belief in conditional love. It is about controlling people by imposing conditions: ‘If you have the right belief, you will receive eternal happiness and all sorts of earthly privileges!’. How can one learn to distinguish between good and bad emotions in an environment where emotions are manipulated? This may directly undermine that ability. The risk is that believers feel pleasure in evil things, without realising it. This is how ‘toxic religion’ is created.

Cartoon priest looking at a road sign: “animal training forbidden”.
Reward and punishment can be used to train animals. On the path to human maturity, this is an obstacle that needs to be removed.

Many churches speak of unconditional love. Such faith is not about control but trust. It is not based on reward and punishment, but on freedom and responsibility. The goal is not to become like a "well-trained pet" but to become a true human being.

So how can you get out of the dangerous trap? Here is the Christian approach to the problem: To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Christ. It means learning and growing. Trust gives freedom from fear and performance anxiety. It gives courage for self-examination and self-knowledge. First and foremost, we need to learn not to hate and despise other people. Which is easier said than done! To put it bluntly, it can be likened to a lifelong detoxification programme.

How faith can strengthen reason in a surprising way

Conspiracy theories often become popular and spread like a virus.

They are created by carelessly piecing together a picture of reality.


Putting the pieces of the puzzle together with a hammer.

With stubbornness and poor judgement, you can create any image you like. You begin with the image you want to see – and adapt the pieces accordingly.


Why is it so hard to admit that you can be wrong? 

It's flattering to think you have a sharp mind that can see through everything. Distrusting experts and scientists makes you feel incredibly smart. Listening to other points of view disturbs the comfortable sense of self-worth.

This is mistrust with a superior sneer. Mistrust can go too far and become a need, an urge, a way of life. Then it becomes a destructive force that damages the soul and inflates a false self-confidence.

A trusting faith has a different centre of life (God). This creates a radically different attitude to life. Trusting faith gives you the courage to admit that you can be wrong sometimes. The realisation that you can be wrong is the basis for sound critical thinking and good judgement. Trusting faith can build healthy self-confidence.

Faith – Symbol: Jerusalem; Reason – Symbol: Athens.
A trusting faith gives courage to admit mistakes. Faith and reason can therefore work together.

Explore the world with an open mind!

The feeling of absolute certainty is often no more than that: a feeling. It is rarely the product of a keen intellect.

Not only that. Stubborn certainty is often reinforced by ignorance. The less you understand, the more confident you become in your beliefs. It is often those who know the least who are most likely to play the know-it-all.

The way out of this trap is to get broader perspectives in different ways. A good and interesting way to do this is through classical education. The Germans call this Bildung; this is a broader term that emphasises personal growth. This can mean, for example, getting to know other eras by studying history. The collective experience of humanity is a vast treasure trove of knowledge. Another way is to meet people from other cultures and countries.

When horizons are broadened, a new feeling arises: the realisation of how little one knows. This is the basis of true wisdom, Socrates said.

Sloth with a book, climbing on a branch, resting on a branch: Read slowly with reflection.

Social media make us restless and unfocused. Bildung requires the ability to read slowly and to reflect.

Join the alliance against the dark side!

We need more antidotes to polarisation. Yoda in Star Wars said:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

It is, of course, important to be able to feel fear and anger. It could be a matter of survival. Anger can be an important driving force in some situations. But there is a risk.  

Fear can create delusions.
Anger can create tunnel vision.
Hatred can create blindness.
Many people today live in a state of almost chronic anger. They do not realise that they are corrupting their intellect. This could easily become a spiritual prison.
Life forces of Christianity: Faith, Hope, Love. Greek cardinal virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Moderation, Courage.
Jerusalem and Athens – an alliance for liberation from the 'dark side'.

Courage means not allowing fear to rule over reason. It is about keeping a cool head in order to see more clearly.

Justice (or fair-mindedness) is about resisting the temptations of power. "Those who have power can do whatever they want" – this is a thrilling fantasy that feeds all sorts of twisted ideas, both among leaders and ordinary people.

Hope (in the Christian sense) is an inner force that is "not of this world". It is independent of the ups and downs of life. It is a source of strength even when the future looks bleak.

Needed today: Practical wisdom and the ability to integrate

Solving the problems of our time requires practical wisdom, common sense and good judgement. The polarised debate undermines this. This is because many people are drawn to extremes and hold unbalanced views.

Practical wisdom, according to Aristotle, is related to moderation. We often need to find the golden mean and not go too far in either direction. In decision-making situations, it is important not to overreact or underreact. 


Sometimes we need to take a clear stand on an issue. But very often we have to find the right balance between two opposing poles. For example:

  • Idealism and realism.

  • Unity and diversity.

  • Order and freedom.
  • Collectivism and individualism.

Many are completely locked into one position or another. Practical wisdom has therefore become a scarce commodity in our time.

Something that can strengthen practical wisdom is – faith! A trusting faith gives you the courage to admit that you can think wrong. This makes it easier to free oneself from intellectual blockages.

The public debate is often characterised by political correctness and political incorrectness.

  • Politically correct means being respectful but not sincere. It easily leads to hypocrisy.

  • Politically incorrect means saying what you think without showing respect. It easily leads to bullying.

Those who have inner freedom are not locked into one or the other. It is possible to have two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time. You can be both truthful and considerate.

Integration means bringing together different aspects of ourselves into a coherent whole. It is also about being able to understand different and opposite perspectives of the world.

Cartoon boy looking at two road signs:, Polarisation. Integration

Our world needs more people who choose the path to integration.

Wise men and women throughout the ages have understood this: In order to contribute to a better society, there must first be an inner integration of the soul. This was the philosophy of Plato, for example. It is ancient wisdom and it is just as relevant today.

Toxic emotions divide the soul and polarise society.
Classical virtues integrate the soul and unite society.

* * *

Polarisation is preventing us from solving the pressing problems that plague our world. Imagine if we could get more people interested in the path to integration!

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Two more things:

Book cover
Order here!Click here to order from Amazon
Kindle ebook
A Classic Cure for the Follies of Polar­isation – 8-step guide (book). Find out more about the classical virtues and the path to integration and practical wisdom!
The book begins with the dark background: My own experience of the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It ends with a chapter on faith and science.

Book cover
Order here!Click here to order from Amazon
Kindle ebook
In the book Adventures and Reflections I share my stories of working in different parts of the world. Here are extracts from newspapers that have written about the book:
In fast-moving, sometimes dramatic texts , he takes us to genocidal Rwanda, civil war Sri Lanka and an absurdly closed North Korea. ... But he is not an ordinary technology nerd, rather a humanist, philosopher and theologian. Who thrives on human diversity, listens, learns, reflects and tries to empathise with the history and identity of other individuals and cultures. ... [Swedish prime minister], give this book to your minister for international development! Column in Bohusl newspaper (6 Oct 2014), by Stefan Edman.
Based on his life experience, he reflects on aid, philosophy and Christian faith on a Lutheran basis. It is a wise man who writes and his wisdom is often easily transferable to everyday life in Sweden. Review in KT, the Swedish church newspaper (34-2014), by Mikael Mogren (Bishop).
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Faith as freedom and adventure


Texts by Erik Pleijel, published on this website, are licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Cartoon boy: VectorStock; Sloth: FriendlyStock; Cartoon priest: Copyright Brad Fitzpatrick; Other illustrations: CC0 Erik Pleijel.

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