Ethics Alarms Sheepishly Presents Rationalization #69: John Lyly’s Rationalization, Or “All’s Fair In Love And War”

Why sheepish? Well, for an authority on rationalizations, it’s pretty embarrassing to have one of the most famous and oldest rationalizations of them all not appear until the 91st entry on a list being compiled for ten years.

Most people would guess that the old saying comes from Shakespeare. Nope: household name John Lyly, a poet, included the idea in his novel “Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit,” published in 1579, about ten years before the Bard wrote his first play. The novel recounts the romantic adventures of a wealthy and attractive young man, and includes the quote “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.”

As often happens, I stumbled on this prominent hole in the list while on another mission. A reader had questioned my criticism of George Bailey and his mother in the Ethics Alarms guide to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which they plot to snatch the lovely Mary (Donna Reed) away from George’s obnoxious  (“Hee haw!!”) old childhood friend and wheeler-dealer, Sam Wainwright. The reader’s argument was that Mary and Sam had made no commitment, and that she was obviously looking for a better match, so she was fair game for George. This sent me back to the movie, which I watched again last night. The key scene is this one: George is talking to his mother party for younger brother Harry and his new bride…

Did you know that Mary Hatch is back from school?


Came back three days ago.

Hmmmm . . .

Nice girl, Mary.

Hmmmm . . .

Kind that will help you find the answers, George.

Hmmm . . .

Oh, stop that grunting.

Hmmm . . .

Can you give me one good reason why you shouldn’t call on Mary?

Sure…Sam Wainwright.


Yes. Sam’s crazy about Mary.

Well, she’s not crazy about him.

Well, how do you know? Did she discuss it with you?


Well then, how do you know?

Well, I’ve got eyes, haven’t I? Why, she lights up like a firefly
whenever you’re around.

Oh . . .

And besides, Sam Wainwright’s away in New York, and you’re here
in Bedford Falls.

And all’s fair in love and war?

MRS. BAILEY (primly)
I don’t know about war.

So George knows that he’s crossing ethical lines by going after his friend’s object of desire, but allows the rationalization to assuage his guilt and mute his better instincts, which is what rationalizations are for.

Now, here’s Rationalization 69:

Rationalization #69: John Lyly’s Rationalization, Or “All’s Fair In Love And War”

This popular and well-traveled rationalization was first put into print by  16th century poet John Lyly, who wrote in his novel “Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit,” published in 1579, “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” The tip-off that this is a rationalization, and was even in 1579, everything wasn’t considered fair even in war once mankind began civilizing beyond caves and clubs. By the time George and his mother had their fateful conversation in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” World War I had convinced the world that even warfare needed some agreed-upon limits. Chemical warfare wasn’t “fair.” Germ warfare wasn’t “fair.” Abusing prisoners or war wasn’t “fair.”

Moreover, Lyly’s statement was more bon mot than a literal statement meant to be taken seriously. The idea was, and is, to point out how ruthless romance can be, and how passion drives lovers to violate their own ethical principles. The statement doesn’t mean that all should be fair in love and war, but that both activities have been known to cause participants to cross lines of decency that should not be crossed.

The existence of the saying, however, is often sufficient for someone, like George, to justify behaving badly. Trying to take a woman away from a friend who is courting her is a basic Golden Rule violation, and something friends don’t do to each other without notice and consent. Thus it is comforting and convenient to have #69 available when hormones rage.

Plenty of old sayings are like that. We know they are not rules and even that they are ridiculous generalizations that are wrong as often as not. Other examples are:

“Nice guys finish last”

“Love conquers all.”

“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”

“Flattery will get you nowhere”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

“The love of money is the root of all evil”

“Opposites attract”

“The good die young”

“Cheaters never prosper.”

“The customer is always right.”

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

“Slow and steady wins the race.”

“Better a live lamb than a dead lion.”

“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“Nothing is impossible to the willing mind.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“There are no coincidences.”

“God never gives you more than you can bear.”

“Money can’t buy happiness.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

All’s well that ends well.”



31 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Sheepishly Presents Rationalization #69: John Lyly’s Rationalization, Or “All’s Fair In Love And War”

  1. A few of those maxims are proverbs, which are not meant to be always true in every possible situation. They are true in a general sense and work very well as guidelines for developing good habits, which is what they’re meant for. “God never gives you more than you can bear” on the other hand is a paraphrase (and misapplication) of 1 Corinthians 10:14, which is specifically (and only) about temptation to do wrong. Its point is that you can’t use “I was tempted really hard so it’s really God’s fault for allowing that” as a rationalization to do wrong.

  2. Oh, no.

    Not only have I inspired an entry, I’ve spawned a new rationalization (and one about love, too. Ironic considering my recent suggestion of a love rationalization overlooking “The Heart Wants What the Heart Wants”).
    I suppose I have no choice but to acquiesce your point about George sneaking around Sam. 🙂

    • No! You must fight!

      It doesn’t matter what Sam wanted or planned, since the girl made her intentions clear when she whispered in his ear: ‘George Bailey, I’ll love you till the day I die’.

      They don’t decide, she decides.

      Ovid (2nd AD century Roman poet) in Ars Amatoria and Amoresdeveloped the connection between Love and War:

      Militat omnis amans (“Every lover makes war”)

      “The phrase [Militat omnis amans] is repeated word for word [in Amores], to underscore that it is a proposition (lines 1–2). There follows a long list of comparisons […] Lovers and soldiers are alike, supposedly, in eight different ways: they’re young men, they keep watch at night, they travel, they go on scouting expeditions, they conduct sieges, they conduct night maneuvers, they evade guards, and they have both successes and failures.

      Wiki: “The Ars Amatoria was included in the syllabuses of mediaeval schools from the second half of the 11th century, and its influence on 12th and 13th centuries’ European literature was so great that the German mediaevalist and palaeographer Ludwig Traube dubbed the entire age ‘aetas Ovidiana’ (‘the Ovidian epoch’).”

      • Gotta agree with Alizia here.

        It’s true that you would not want your friend moving in on a girl you liked. Golden rule violation right there.

        But wouldn’t you also want to know all the available people interested in you so that you could decide for yourself who you liked best? It’s just as much a golden rule violation to have unspoken or secret negotions about which of your group of friends another person has the option of dating.

        If there’s some kind of public commitment, I think the former has more weight, but if not I think the balance goes to not limiting anyone’s options. The girl can still go with your friend if she does like him better.

    • Having been the victim of this bromide, I found it a little comforting and helpful in sort of moving on. But it’s trite and unoriginal and doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny.

  3. “…World War I had convinced the world that even warfare needed some agreed-upon limits.”
    Even earlier, the 1899 Hague Convention outlawed the use of expanding bullets in warfare.

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