A (probably vain) Attempt to Restore a Nearly Forgotten Word to Popular Usage: Caitiff (1/6/16)

Anyone who’s spent a little time reading Shakespeare has surely come across this word—‘caitiff’—which basically translates as ‘coward.’ But ‘caitiff’ conveys even more contempt by the user than is normally conveyed by the word ‘coward,’ just as ‘knave’ conveys more contemptibility than its modern equivalents, ‘scoundrel’ and ‘loser.’ The caitiff is naturally disposed towards lying—first, to himself and, then, to everyone else. Why is this? For one thing, timidity sets strict limits to what is acceptable, endurable, or tolerable so far as what life throws at him—and life, lest we forget, is no ‘respecter of persons.’ Instead of honestly acknowledging that it is his fearfulness—and not the malicious will of life or of other persons—that paints him into a narrow mental corner of his own making, the caitiff simply blames ‘fortune’ and demonizes others while illegitimately rationalizing and justifying his own reality-distorting stratagems and opinions. If the caitiff, however, is sufficiently courageous to admit (again, first and foremost, to himself) that he is disposed to cowardice—and that he seeks chiefly to protect and insulate himself from life’s ‘slings and arrows’—then a certain measure of honesty can develop.

But alas, the honesty of clever caitiffs tends, like Hobbes’, to derive from a reductive, jaundiced—basically fearful—response to existence and to other human beings. This is the ‘nothing but’ breed of timid posers and pontificators who are always saying “this (or that) noble (or dignified) person (action, or ideal) is nothing but a base, self-serving (and/or deluded) so and so.” In making this sweeping, ‘categorically debunking’ move, the clever caitiff implicitly justifies his guarded, cynical, or pessimistic stance towards…well, just about everyone and everything. We all know the type. These are the ‘lily-livered,’ ‘yellow-bellied’ scaredy-cats whose formerly tender and precious sensitivity has been deeply wounded by the shrapnel regularly delivered by that superficially polite but profoundly hypocritical war zone otherwise known as ‘everyday life.’

Such caitiffs—regardless of how clever they may be—have souls that are simply too cramped and shallow for the deeper sort of suffering—which, as it turns out, is the only sort of suffering capable of bringing about a substantial moral-spiritual transformation of the personality, and of purging it of any lingering frivolity and residual frippery. More than a few jabbering, twittering, and supercilious ‘modern’ atheists belong to this carping camp of critical caitiffs. Such vain and voluble mediocrities are able to proliferate—and even preponderate—in a semi-barbaric and soulless ‘information age’ where they have few natural predators and plenty of protectors against the harsher, stinkier, and more honest realities of life from which they instinctively recoil. But as soon as such favorable and shielding conditions change for the worse—and, eventually, they always do—these imposters and pretenders are the first to be devoured and done away with by the first big wave of ‘corrective,’ order-restoring reality. And, of course, in being thus laid low, their worst fears and suspicions are thoroughly confirmed. But again, because genuine, redemptively transformative suffering can find no place to ‘conduct its business’ in the tiny, cramped soul of the caitiff, such blows and hardships only make him more bitter, resentful, and convinced that life is a cheat.

Caitiffs instinctively avoid genuine solitude, even when they retreat from society. This is not simply because they are deathly afraid of being deprived of the assistance and company of others—but because they desperately need to have persons close at hand who are even more cowardly and spineless than they are, in order to produce the optical illusion that they have an actual ‘pair’ growing down there between their legs. Thus, they seek the society of others not out of love, which actually requires and entails courage and generosity, but from self-interest and a need to feel superior to those who are even more fearful, needy, impotent, and helpless.

Those persons, on the other hand, who are naturally courageous—how do they instinctively respond to the veritable army of self-serving, lying, knavish, pea-souled caitiffs in their midst? Well, of course they cannot help but regard them with politely muted contempt or with the sort of forgivable indulgence that a compassionate, mature parent sometimes shows towards a silly, immature nincompoop of a child. The contempt that is felt is the natural response of real strength or virtue to what amounts to a cluster of interrelated vices and failings—all of which have their roots in a cowardly flight from reality and sobering truths. The indulgence—which, mind you, has its limits—stems from the sober acknowledgement that such born caitiffs and self-deceivers cannot be other than they are—and must simply be tolerated, just as other natural pests, nuisances, banes, and ‘skin irritations’ must be borne with patient forbearance. But to trust—and invest one’s hope—in a caitiff? The courageous person knows all too well what folly that would be!

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