The Three Poisons: Delusion

Delusion is not as easy to characterize as greed or aversion. It manifests in less obvious ways, often hiding behind a mask of complacency. In the early 16th century, the humanist writer Erasmus wrote a book entitled Praise of Folly, illustrating the endless ways humans deceive themselves, usually with ruinous results. It is an encyclopedia of delusion, which could just as easily be called folly.

Folly in Erasmus’ book is the universal accompaniment to every human enterprise. People embark on careers, marriages, friendships, parenthood, and even recreation without the slightest idea how any of it will turn out, yet they think they know what they are doing. It is this act of self-serving prognostication that is the essence of folly. There is a saying that “Life goes on while we are making other plans.” Folly is those other plans. Folly, or delusion, is the motivation behind our tendency to live so much in an ideal future where we will have everything we want, causing us to devalue the present; or to fear disaster and waste our lives chasing a false sense of security. Delusion is also behind the tendency to devalue ourselves by believing we are other than what we are. We believe we are intelligent, beautiful, and accomplished, or else we think we are stupid, ugly, and good for nothing. Either appraisal is a devaluation and delusion, because it places a label on what can never be defined.

Just as desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin, delusion is the coin’s rim. We believe that if we could just have what we want, or get rid of what we don’t want, all will be well. If we could find the right person and marry him, we would live happily ever after; if that annoying coworker would just go away, we would finally experience lasting job satisfaction. Delusion is related to ignorance, with the refinement that it is willful ignorance. You can picture the delusional personality type with her fingers in her ears, forever chanting “lalala I can’t hear you!”

My best example of a delusional type is Ronald Reagan with his clarion call, “it’s morning in America!” (his admirers would doubtless suggest a different political figure). People who want to believe a leader in spite of the fact that his policies will not promote peace, prosperity, or goodwill are suffering from delusion. Likewise, people who try to use fact-based arguments in a setting fraught with emotion are deluded. Delusion permeates American political culture, more so even than the greed of consumerism or the hatred of racism (although in the current state of polarization between liberals and conservatives, hatred may overtake it). Erasmus’ Praise of Folly shows no respect to rulers of his time, castigating them as warmongering and hedonistic, with little to no interest in benefiting their subjects. If he were able to see 21st-century America, he would say that nothing has changed in five hundred years.

Humans are poor resources of wisdom or self-control, yet even so, all the poisons have some positive benefits for humanity. Desire can spur us to pursue wholesome actions, while aversion can motivate us to correct injustice (or even to do something as necessary as avoid spoiled meat). And without delusion, Folly tells us, no one would have the courage to undertake anything worthwhile. The path to enlightenment begins where we are, with a desire for a better life, an aversion to suffering, and a deluded notion of where that path will take us. It may seem like a poor foundation, but it’s all we have.

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