I just learned about Sheldon Kopp on this forum, and I love his list of "eternal truths." Of course, I don't yet understand all of them, including this one:

All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.

Kopp doesn't appear to be calling evil "good." Rather, it sounds like he's saying one can take an evil act and transform it into something good. However, it's more likely that he means one can take evil INTENTIONS and transform them into a good act instead of an evil act.

But I'm just guessing. Can anyone explain what it means?


This is explained in his book If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! (1972), where the shortlist of eternal truths first occured.

Before he first uses the sentence, there is the following paragraph:

When we lay claim to the evil in ourselves, we no longer need fear its occurring outside of our control. For example, a patient comes into therapy complaining that he does not get along well with other people; somehow he always says the wrong thing and hurts their feelings. He is really a nice guy, just has this uncontrollable, neurotic problem. What he does not want to know is that his “unconscious hostility” is not his problem, it’s his solution. He is really not a nice guy who wants to be good; he’s a bastard who wants to hurt other people while still thinking of himself as a nice guy. If the therapist can guide him into the pit of his own ugly soul, then there may be hope for him. Once this pilgrim can see how angry and vindictive he is, he can trace his story and bring it to the light, instead of being doomed to relive it without awareness. Nothing about ourselves can be changed until it is first accepted. Jung points out that “the sick man has not to learn how to get rid of his neurosis but how to bear it. For the illness is not a superfluous and senseless burden, it is himself; he himself is that ‘other’ which we were always trying to shut out.”

This suggests that he is talking about the evil - or rather the less desirable or morally condemned traits and behavioral dispositions - we all do have inside us. And instead of carving it out and treating it as if it was the abstract, exterior The Evil (and thus obviously no part of our good-willing selves), we should accept it and work with it, since it is a vital aspect of ourselves anyway. The interpretation seems to fit seems to fit the following paragraph:

If we flee from the evil in ourselves, we do it at our hazard. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation. To live without the creative potential of our own destructiveness is to be a cardboard angel. [bolder mine]

Cardboard angel seems like the perfect term for someone who may appear as perfect, but at the same time is bereft of the vitality of creative power.

Both quotes are from the very end of part II.7.


I think this phrase comes from belief in the idealism of goodness, as for example in Plato and Confucius, at least as concerns human conduct, meaning that in the context of composite beings such as nations, cities, various associations and, significantly, the single person with his own will and action, evil is confusion as to how composite beings function best.

What is best? To be in strong contact with the “Idea of Good”. Now one may take this to be just word-play nonsense and believe, with Thrasymachus in The Republic, that everyone truly desires the pleasures of totally selfish actions, but in practice few achieve them fully, simply because they are not strong enough. So they idealize their weakness into a pursuit of imaginary and false “higher goals”.

But there are counter-arguments:

a) Satisfaction based on selfish possession of material things is, in varying degrees, enmity-provoking. So this kind of satisfaction goes together with an anxiety to keep it alive.

b) There are things, such as knowledge and creativity in art and science, that are attractive and durable and, unlike material things, can be owned and developed by many, simultaneously and without conflict.

c) An evil-doer will realize that his desire may be unlimited, but his practical power is not. (This is crucial, but I’m not sure how it can be proved theoretically. In practice it seems self-evident). This will be a blow for his ego. He will need some assistants. So a composite structure is formed, in which the evil-doer will eventually be in conflict with himself, as he will always need the assistance of those he would like to destroy. In this way, he may gradually realize that there is something in the nature of composite things that is impossible to overcome, and that those “higher goals” are not the false aspirations of the weak, but the true specifications of the best functioning of composite beings: co-operation in learning & beautiful construction. And the more he realizes it, the more his vitality will unify the personality split that urges him to be good in some respect and evil in some other.

  • Aren't you guessing just the OP and the other answer did? I mean, obviously it is about what the author meant, not what one could possibly interpret into the statement. Thus, I'd consider it mandatory to base an answer on something Sheldon Kopp wrote on that 'eternal truth'.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 24 '20 at 22:27
  • @ Philip Klöcking: My impression was that the OP found in Sheldon Kopp a condensed wording of a much discussed problem of philosophy and decided to draw the attention of the forum to it.
    – exp8j
    Jan 24 '20 at 22:56

Evil is a slippery term. In it's conventional use, it draws on a vague psycological archetype of some 'thing' wholely negative, malicious, destructive. Religious justification is often sought for such a simplistic view of evil, because on even very shallow analysis it falls apart.

Dictators invariably believed at least initially they were doing good, or at least neccessary, things, and could be talked out of bad methods in principle. Psycopaths are ill, and can be healed.

Temptation and the fall, went against god's directions, but the fruit of the tree of knowledge can be seen as obviously neccessary, like recieving fire from Prometheus.

When we examine notions and examples of evil, and how and why it exists, we have to see it as behaviour that is pathological and needs healing for the benefit of the acted upon and the evil actor themselves.

A psycotherapist looks at impulses, that generate motivations. These are sources of vitality, when integrated and properly harnessed. Can impulses at core be evil? Possibly, in a sick person. But they arise from our biological needs, our desire for health and wholeness and wellbeing. The therapeutic perspective is that people can be healed, meaning wholesome impulses generated. Our fundamental nature cannot be aimed against itself, that can only have been aquired.

Actual evil actions are capable of being redeemed, like people are capable of being healed. Where does the energy in the motivation come from? In so far as it is evil, it is vitality aimed against itself. Vitality, rooted in our biological being, seeks to regenerate itself, to be reclaimed into positive cycles.

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