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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Cloaks and Daggers (7/1/11)

I am put off a bit—as well, perhaps, I should be—by the gaminess of a great philosopher like Plato, even if I confess to finding much pleasure in unlocking the secrets and hidden insights buried in—or inferable from—the dialogues. I mention Plato, but I might just as well have mentioned Heraclitus or Lao-tzu, Shakespeare or Bacon, Spinoza or Nietzsche, Montaigne or Joyce. All of them were expert gamesmen in their writing. Should Jung—and perhaps even Hillman—be included in this elite class of artful purveyors of recondite truths and unpopular insights?

Some voice inside me cries out ‘Why not simply say what you mean to say as clearly and plainly as you can?’ All gaminess would come to a screeching halt if such plain-speaking had been adopted from the start. There would be far fewer places to hide today if the greatest truth-finders had also been the plainest of truth-sayers. But of course if Nietzsche (and others who have voiced much the same idea) was onto something when he spoke of the ‘true but deadly’ ideas of the genuine philosophers, we can begin to understand why Plato (and according to Seth Benardete, the great epic poets and tragedians before him) wrote in a less than completely candid manner—and why his principal alter ego, Socrates, is ‘ironic’ much of the time. Philosophy can die out, perhaps, as some have claimed, if it is not properly sheltered from those—always in the majority—who prefer soothing fictions to ‘deadly truths’ and disturbing insights. But we truth-seekers have a moral obligation—imposed by our intellectual consciences and our psychological courage—not to stop at the gamy surface, but to allow the barbs and daggers hidden within these outwardly delightful and playful works to sting and to pierce our sensitized innards. Only thus will we earn the right to meet our spiritual kin—our (usually) long-dead ancestors who are writing specifically to us—their scattered, scant progeny—across the centuries.

Shakespeare in Context (8/21/15)

It is worthwhile to contemplate the verbal-linguistic treasures that Shakespeare had at his disposal when he wrote his plays and sonnets. Aside from the over-rich lexical resources he inherited, his ‘public’ was capable of ‘hearing’ and appreciating complex poetical/syntactical constructions that are, for the most part, lost on modern, educated persons who have grown up in an excessively visual, iconographic culture—and not a liberally-educated, reading-auditing culture. Because of the generally cohesive humanist-Biblical culture of Elizabethan England, readers and playgoers were attuned to stories, historical names, fables, religious and moral doctrines, etc., that are not integral components of our more technical and narrowly specialized educations. It is difficult for us to gauge how this nexus of meaningfully interconnected words, images, Biblical references, historical names and events pulsed and throbbed with diverse, scintillating meanings on a variety of different levels for the Elizabethan audiences. And all of this is embedded in the plays of Shakespeare. Of course, unless and until the contemporary reader is able to reconstruct—and then inhabit—at least a rough semblance of that Elizabethan worldview, his response to these peerless works will be markedly curtailed and weakened. I say this not to deter or discourage modern, narrowly- or sparsely-educated Americans from undertaking a serious study of Shakespeare’s plays and the cultural ‘world’ in which he wrote them—but to encourage the bold to jump in and learn how to swim there.

This sort of challenge is certainly not confined to a serious study of Shakespeare but could just as rightfully apply to learning about Catholic doctrine or Plato’s philosophy, Sufism or Renaissance painting. Once the student gets past a certain depth in his study of particular works, he realizes that the works themselves cannot come fully alive unless he is able to imaginatively recreate the mental or cultural conditions/presuppositions out of which these works emerged—and of which they are, to a greater or lesser extent, symptomatic—like the fauna and flora native to a particular eco-system.

Words as Seeds and Conjurors (5/11/15)

Lest we go too far in our reduction of words and concepts to empty, dried-out husks and sloughed-off skins of the once vital vegetables and animals of living thought and perception, we would do well to remember the creative power of speech. We needn’t take this idea to the super-human level of the ‘divine Logos’ (“In the beginning was the Word”). We might simply muse upon the magical power that poetry and prose exerts over some of us. We need merely recall the transporting effect that passages from Shakespeare, the Bible, the Koran, or Plato have upon our minds, hearts, and imaginations—and all through the conjuring power of words! To be sure, there must first be suitable ground within our souls in which to plant and germinate these seeds. Our psyches must, therefore, be capable of meeting words halfway—of unlocking the ideational and imaginative power packed into their ‘chromosomal’ material. Words, like temples and palaces, octogenarians and very old trees, have long and often interesting histories—and therefore, stories to tell if we are but sufficiently patient and attentive.

And there is a socio-political function of words and verbal commands: it is precisely because—or to the extent that—we obey words and verbal directives—because we place our trust (and sometimes our very fate) in their power to mean what they say—that words indisputably wield real power over tangible reality, over happiness or regret, life and death. There is no getting around this. Words and perceptible, material phenomena (and consequences) are intimately intertwined with each other—so far as humans are concerned. Thus, to fail to acquire competent use of speech is to fail to develop fully into a human being. It is obvious that one who never acquires a language is effectively cut off from those distinctive powers and abilities that are characteristically human. What is less obvious is that one whose command of language is poor or grossly deficient is to that extent hampered and crippled as a cultural entity. Thus, the dilution, homogenization, and radical simplification of ordinary language use inevitably contribute to the barbarization, stultification, and mental homogenization of human consciousness. And who does not see compelling evidence of this distressing trend?

Language and Disposable Light (1/19/13)

My limited meditation work has produced some noteworthy insights into the nature of thinking, regarded here as a psychological function. I am becoming more acutely conscious, for instance, of conceptual thinking as a particular kind of cognitive function—one that I can turn on and turn off. My awareness of the volitional power I have over this instrument or function has been enhanced, of course, by my ‘stepping back’ and observing subtle changes and shifts in psychic activity, as they spontaneously occur.

From one angle I am able to regard the words and concepts (that I employ when I am thinking) as nomina—labels or signifiers that stand for various non-verbal phenomena (internal and external). These psychic contents (objects of sensory perception, affects, bodily sensations, intuitions, memories, etc.) are more basic and more essential than the nomina (the actual words and concepts) that automatically clothe and convey them. In this process of formulating my pre-verbal and pre-conceptual perceptions and inner contents in words and concepts, I am drawing, of course, from the resources of my native language, which is collective, and not personally designed or created by me. To be sure, these resources are rich and ample. If fully exploited and developed by the energetic, judicious employer of the English language, along with the conceptual inheritance readily available for our acquisition, these resources afford even the subtlest and most inventive thinker more than (s)he could ever need in the way of ‘clothing’ (or mental vestments and vessels).[1]

This shared or collective character of the words and concepts (that we imbibe cum lacte as essential elements of our linguistic-cultural inheritance) is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the fact that English speakers are in general agreement concerning the meanings (rough or precise, as the case may be) of these words and concepts makes it possible for all ‘newcomers’ to understand others and to be understood, as soon as they have acquired rudimentary command of the language. On the other hand, since the general level of accuracy, depth, and resonant quality of these terms and concepts is largely—nay, decisively—determined by the cognitive, imaginative, and moral norms of the society as a whole, if these norms are relatively low and crude, these deficiencies will inevitably be reflected in the verbal and conceptual materials in currency at any given time.

There are many today who complain of a widespread corruption and debasement of language and the concepts we presently depend upon for thinking. Such critics contend that our words and concepts are being cheapened by the leveling agencies within the crude, mass culture that is inwardly driven by the will to make things as comfortable, convenient, and pleasant as possible for the greatest number of (rather poorly educated, semi-literate) people. This is certainly not the first time in human history that hedonism, ease, personal safety, and material well-being have been unashamedly held up as norms or goals for a society. But surely something will suffer neglect within a culture that prizes comfort, sensual pleasures, cheap conveniences, mass entertainment, and technological gadgetry over the very different sorts of values and pursuits to which other cultures and eras have consecrated their best energies and deployed their best talents.

If we want to get a rough idea of just how far today’s verbal and conceptual standards have fallen from those of earlier times, we only need to pick up a popular novel from the late 18th or the 19th century—one, say, by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens—and compare the prose to that of a popular novel today, one by John Grisham or Stephen King. Shakespeare, Plato, and the Bible—which were staples for pretty much all educated persons until quite recently—are practically unintelligible to college students today. The unfamiliar syntax, the luxuriant vocabulary, the allusive and multi-layered meanings packed into metaphors and parables that were readily grasped by our cognitively more sophisticated (because more thoroughly literate) forebears are simply beyond the patience and the easy reach of today’s graduate of ‘Tier-One’ universities. Their ‘sophistication,’ such as it is, lies elsewhere.

If the general standards of literacy (along with the degree of precision, depth, and complexity of verbal/conceptual expression maintained by the educated segment of society) have sunk to an all-time low in our own era, it is worth noting that even under the most favorable cultural and educational conditions, there is always someone whining and wailing about the slackness and carelessness of ordinary language as a medium for the best thoughts and sentiments. We know how Socrates made a virtual career out of testing, challenging, and (when allowed to) amending the Athenian know-it-alls’ (mis-) use of such important terms as ‘truth,’ ‘justice,’ ‘goodness,’ ‘beauty,’ and ‘knowledge.’ And Socrates’ lonely campaign to bring greater exactitude, clarity, and richness to philosophical and moral discourse was conducted during one of the high water marks in Western cultural history—another being the Renaissance. At the time that Shakespeare was writing and producing the plays that many of us have so much trouble reading and understanding—while even ‘groundlings’ or uneducated riff-raff enthusiastically filled the Globe Theater after the more hoity-toity audience members were seated—Francis Bacon wrote the following passage:

The Idols of the Market-place are the most troublesome (impediments to the mind) of all; these are idols that have crept into the understanding through the alliance of words and names. For while men believe their reason governs words, in fact, words turn back and reflect their power upon the understanding, and so render philosophy and science sophistical and inactive. For words are usually applied according to common comprehension (italics mine), and divide things along lines most suited to common understanding. When someone of sharper understanding or more diligence in observation wishes to shift those lines, so as to move them closer to Nature, words shout him down. (Novum Organon, sect. 59)

Unsurprisingly, the kinds of knowledge deemed important by the majority of educated persons within a society, or culture, will reflect the principal aims and interests of that society as a whole. The trajectory-setting, educated elite of past societies have been chiefly concerned with—sometimes even pathologically obsessed with—very different aims, values, and ‘ways of life.’ For the Spartans, the early Romans, and the Prussians, military valor and honor were of paramount importance. For the ancient Jews, Medieval Christians, and many modern-day Muslims, religious piety and ‘righteousness before God’ constitute the chief aim of life. For the Renaissance Florentines and Venetians, Victorian Englishmen and most North Americans today, the accumulation of wealth and personal power appear to be of supreme importance.

Unremarkably, the ‘intellectual capital’ of an era tends to be concentrated among those generally respected thinkers who embody and help to advance the prevalent, generally embraced values of the time. In other words, if the intellect may be likened to a searchlight, the lion’s share of a society’s disposable light will be turned in the direction of dominant collective interests and desires. A genuinely balanced deployment of a society’s disposable light would presumably provide the best safeguard against a perilously one-sided state of affairs that thwarts and fails to nourish the attainment of human wholeness among its choicest specimens. But if it is in fact true that the light generally follows rather than leads the collective will (as that will is expressed in its principal preoccupations and aims), then we are faced with something of a conundrum.

Before the modern era, before the extension and expansion of political and legal rights to formerly ‘powerless’ or disenfranchised persons, and before the explosion of human population as consequence of medical and technological developments—societies, entire cultures, were shaped, governed, and perpetuated by a relatively tiny elite of educated persons. Because of this generally aristocratic—and often autocratic—arrangement, serious changes in a few minds at the top could occasionally lead to a major redirection of social or collective energies. Because political and cultural power—all the power—was concentrated in a few hands, a few persons could make a colossal difference, for good or ill, in a way that seems almost inconceivable today. The simple reason for this is that the stable base—the sheer inertia of the multitudes—makes such sudden and radical change well-nigh impracticable. Despite the free access to all sorts of news and information, it is more difficult than ever to bring about significant cultural enrichment on a large scale. This is a complex issue and there are many avenues of approach to it, but perhaps a good place to begin is from the angle of quantitative differences between modern and pre-modern societies. In their different ways, René Guenon and John Lukacs—two rather distinct thinkers—argue that quantity, in the modern era, has thoroughly diluted—if it has not altogether eclipsed—quality.

[1] But, alas, ‘clothes do not always proclaim, or make, the man’—at least not in this case (and not even in France, where those of the best deconstructionist rank and postmodern station are of a most select and generous, chief in that).

On Dialectic and Rhetoric (10/18/15)

I realize how important it is to overcome the mind’s natural tendency to be charmed into obedience or assent by eloquence, by flattery directed towards our wishes and prejudices, and by rhetoric. Rigorous dialectic has something very un-charming and dis-illusioning about it. It cuts through the beautiful flesh of eloquence in order to reveal the musculature and skeletal structure (or lack thereof) hiding below the fetching, distracting, and often misleading surface. As such, dialectical thinking is perhaps intrinsically ruthless, painful, and disturbing. And yet it is essential to the quest for the truth precisely because its task is to flay the thick layers of skin and flab that normally conceal more than they reveal of the truth that lies at a deeper, subtler level of experience. With such gruesome images in mind, it should come as no surprise that Socrates was feared and detested by those in his midst who deeply resented having their piss-poor innards and frothy pretentions unveiled and publicly displayed by that peerless old vivisectionist of souls. Only the toughest and most sincere lovers of truth would have welcomed—or willingly withstood—such a torturous unmasking. Apollodorus—who is presented in the Symposium as semi-misanthropic despiser of himself and of everyone else but Socrates—may have been just such a toughened and dis-illusioned candidate for philosophical self-enquiry, if not an altogether flattering portrait of one.

We might wonder: Was not Plato, in attempting to beautify philosophy, behaving as an even more audacious ironist than Socrates? Does he not, in fact, ‘meta-ironically’ employ Socrates’ irony as a lightning rod to absorb and deflect far more serious charges from himself? Wasn’t Nietzsche justifiably suspicious—if not flatly dismissive—of Plato’s equation of ‘truth, beauty, and goodness’?

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If, from the standpoint of ordinary human expectations, preferences, and desires, the unvarnished truth concerning the fundamental questions of human life is ugly, then doesn’t it follow that beauty and truth can only coincide or converge for the philosopher who has dialectically ascended the ladder of understanding to a vantage point high above the normal (‘interested’ or desire-infused) human perspective? Such a person would necessarily have transcended those run-of-the-mill expectations, preferences, and desires before truth could be purged of the ugliness it necessarily possesses for the resistant non-philosopher. Is it possible that seductive beauty and off-putting ugliness cancel each other out in the neutral but vital contentment of the philosopher whose perspective has transcended this familiar pair of opposites?

If we allow ‘eros’ to stand (or substitute) for philosophy—or even philosophical insight—we see (at 201e in the Symposium) that Diotima clears up the ‘dichotomy’ in Socrates’ mind by asking him, “Do you believe that whatever is not beautiful must necessarily be ugly?” Eros, like philosophy, turns out to be something neither good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly, but something ‘in between.’

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The final chapter of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

 

True words are not beautiful;

Beautiful words are not true.

A good man does not argue;

He who argues is not a good man.

A wise man has no extensive knowledge;

He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.

The Sage does not accumulate for himself.

The more he uses for others, the more he has for himself.

The more he gives to others, the more he possesses of his own.

The way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.

The way of the Sage is to act but not to compete.

Lao Tzu’s words (which, after all these centuries, still startle) echo the observation concerning Plato’s ‘beautification’ of philosophy—and Nietzsche’s astute rejection of Plato’s equation of truth-beauty-goodness. Plato could purge his Republic of the poets, but it took all the disappointments of a long, uncannily circumspect and irreproachably honest life to silence the beautifying poet in himself, as we see in the later dialogues, which are models of logical-lexical rigor. (And, despite himself, Nietzsche doesn’t seem to have had any more luck along these same lines than Plato did…although if he had lived longer, who knows? Perhaps he, too, would have eventually seen through and tamed the Circe of intoxicating eloquence.)

Perhaps beauty—like pleasure—pertains to the inherently preferential individual ego, but—like ugliness and displeasure—are matters of indifference and irrelevance to the truly liberated spirit. In becoming liberated from the ‘ego and its own,’ doesn’t the spirit transcend all those preferences, desires, fears, and concept-convictions that define, bind, and drive individual ego-consciousness?

One Man’s Honest Reaction to the New Testament (7/15)

I have been listening to an audio recording of New Testament books—Paul’s Epistles, mostly, and John’s gospel. I am attempting to give it a fair trial, but many criticisms and moments of wincing uneasiness have arisen. Both manner and matter—or style and content—set off alarms. The language utilized by Paul—which cannot help but reveal a great deal about his deeply troubled personal psychology—is especially disturbing. Nietzsche (who should have known) got it right in his criticisms of these ‘first Christians’: there is an irksome, shaky marriage of spiritual arrogance and abject humility that is at once risible and infuriating, embarrassing and exasperating. With Paul, everything is super-charged with drama and he swings wildly between earthly agony and heavenly bliss. Perhaps we should approach all radical converts with more than a little caution and suspicion. There is often something a bit too ‘heroic’ going on in the background—spiritual gymnastics.

But my chief criticism of the style of this peculiar fellow (after whom I was named) is that whatever appeal it makes to the emotions is—for me—undercut by its lack of intellectual moderation and psychological realism, defects which I, Paul, Jr., have attempted to rectify in my own rather different approach to spiritual matters. He is very much like a man possessed. His rhetoric is so intent upon attracting and commanding emotional assent, it rashly dispenses with any sort of rational explanation. It is tricky-paradoxical, ‘either-or’ rhetoric—calculated more to amaze and stupefy than to enlighten the hearer.

In terms of content, there is an obsessive preoccupation with line-drawing (between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out,’ elect or damned, clean and unclean, etc.), but the lines being drawn are almost invariably between ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ blessed and accursed moral conditions or states—or between believers in Christ’s unique dispensation and those who refrain from taking the plunge. I, too, ‘bring a sword’ in my writings, but the principal lines of distinction I draw are not moral, but psychological. (Morality, while certainly important and necessary, is nevertheless secondary or subordinate to psychological unfoldment—if only because morality depends on the psyche, which is primary.) In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concerns himself with moral phenomena and questions of justice, as well, but his manner of dealing with this complex material is not merely exhortative, but investigative, analytical, exploratory, and explanatory. Reason and observation, speculation and imagination, all play their parts in Aristotle’s treatment of these fundamentally important human questions.

Paul Sr.’s comparatively black and white, button-pushing, emotion-oozing doctrine is not only potentially obfuscatory to any serious student of moral theory, but (perhaps unintentionally—perhaps deliberately) insulting to anyone who desires more than to merely believe.

All this emphasis on the reader’s belief in Christ Jesus (as the only way to ‘salvation,’ whatever the dickens that truly means) and on one’s moral outlook and orientation strikes me as an enormous compensation or corrective against excesses in the opposite direction. Neither ‘side’ seems trustworthy or adequate as a guide to balanced, wholesome life. Paul presents us with a slew of grandiose moral and religious ideals which eventually gain broad currency throughout the West. But these ideals—at least for most of the ‘Christians’ who have accepted them and attempted to live by them, over the centuries—pertain, as I said earlier, almost entirely to the arena of moral action and reaction. They prove to be pitifully deficient, do they not, when it comes to psychological knowledge of ourselves as we actually and honestly (and not ideally) are? An unintentional by-product of this moral idealism has been a collective preoccupation with externals—with morally interpreted events on the grand stage of human history and biography. The morality play’s the thing! Because these unrealistic (and often quite shallowly planted) ideals became normative throughout Christendom, rampant hypocrisy, dishonesty (with oneself and with others), and inner splits also became normal and pervasive. Much became relegated to the shadows.

Because salvation appears to be personal—and because it has everything to do with the believer’s relationship to the divine figure of Jesus—it is very different from the Advaita Vedanta teachings that I find rather more compelling. With these Christians, what is decisive—belief in a specific figure (or divine person) and in a unique, historical-theological narrative (or gospel)—is precisely what the realized Self dispenses with: persons, stories, history (time), tribalism.