Jesus as Jewish missionary

A friend of mine said “…so basically, Jesus converted you to Judaism.”

Yes. My attempts to understand Jesus’s teaching without the overwhelming influence of Paul’s interpretation led me to sharing Jesus’s faith, which precludes idolizing him as a god, a mistake which I am certain Jesus would have found alarming and abhorrent.

It also precludes any notion of Jesus descending from heaven to radically interrupt or to complete or perfect the Jewish tradition. The tradition was always and still is constituted of disruptions, breaks, repentance, atonement, redemption, rebirth — and it takes a highly partial (and in my opinion, grossly distorted) view of Judaism to pick out one episode from this long story and view it as a radically new first chapter of a new story.

That being said, I do feel that I share a degree of faith with some Christians I know. But that is despite their beliefs, and most of all the belief that their beliefs are the crux of their faith.


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Will over feeling

I do not care how I feel, and neither should anyone else.

I feel all kinds of stupid things all the time, and I cannot afford to take them seriously.

What matters — what I take seriously about myself — is what I decide, what I will, what I do.

And what I will is a product of how I think.

How I think is who I am.


How a person thinks is connected with but not the same as what a person thinks.

To know a person’s beliefs is not to know that person’s faith.


We conflate belief and faith because we have never learned how to understand faith. One must have a certain faith to know faith and I suppose that is probably what Christians call “grace”.

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To understand another culture it is necessary for an ethnographic investigator to suspend or temporarily suppress their own reflexive cultural judgments, at least long enough to get a sense of how life looks and feels from within the other culture’s lifeworld. If the investigator carries their own convictions and habitual judgments into the investigation, they will objectify and misunderstand that culture. What does it mean to objectify and misunderstand? To understand the distinction we must contrast it with a form of understanding that avoids objectification, a “subjectifying” understanding.

In subjectifying understanding — what I prefer to call synetic understanding, or synesis — one continues to understand objectively, but this objectivity is developed from a shifted subjectivity. This subjectivity is the true “objective” of the effort.

This absolutely does not mean objective fact is made secondary to feelings and tastes. On the contrary, objective rigor is required to discover the subjective truth upon which the objectivity stands (thus the term under-standing). Success means learning how another subjectivity makes coherent objective and subjective sense of the world. As Geertz eloquently asserted, this does not entail some kind of empathic miracle involving soul transplants or mystical unions. It involves deep learning that permanently changes how we see.

But, then… maybe it is mystical. The kind of change of mind that result from synesis can have very strange effects that resemble religious conversion. In fact, I believe religious conversion is the same phenomenon, one where the shifted understanding is so comprehensive it overwhelms all prior understanding. After experiencing this firsthand myself, and I find it impossible to read about religious conversions and not recognize my own experiences in them. So what if their shift resulted in convictions about the nature of reality that I find non-credible: I think the medium is the message, and the ostensible “good news” is an artifact of the change.

This is why I truly do not care about the theological content of a person’s belief. The meal was the metanoia, the digestion was the faith, the synesis, but the beliefs? Those are the excrement.


One reason I dislike the word empathy is it overstates the importance of feeling with. We think we have an empathized with an angry person if we get angry with them about the things they are angry about. This does not lead to understanding. No synesis results. We just adopt someone else’s beliefs in an effort to share their feelings.

The popular left appears to have no concept of understanding apart from this sentimental counterfeit of understanding. And refusal to participate in it is viewed as hard-hearted uncaring ignorance.


Ethnocentrism can also be temporal. To understand our own culture’s past (in order to learn from it) we must suspend our own time’s value judgments. If we fail to do this, we are exactly like the colonists who judged native populations to be “savages” and due to this failure became savages themselves.

To look at the history of this country from the moral standards of today, and to reverse cherry-pick examples of wickedness in order to condemn it and cast doubt on its present worth and legitimacy is an egregious example of temporal ethnocentrism, not to mention historically inaccurate. To judge the USA we must compare it to what preceded it, because that gives us a much better idea of what life might be like today had it never existed.

Today’s “wokeness” (a misnomer of unparalleled proportions) is an effect of the abundant liberty produced by the very institutions that it condemns. That liberty allows us to see for ourselves and judge for ourselves, however incorrect and illiberal our conclusions may be.


To overcome the male tendency to “objectify” women, one thing is needful: Learn from the one you love, be changed by what you learn, and love anew from who you become as an expression of your love. But learn actively, painfully, objectively. Do not settle for sympathetic agreement.


I will say it again: synesis — subjective understanding — is not the same thing as sympathetic agreement. Sympathetic agreement obstructs understanding.


I’m going to re-re-re-post one of my better aphorisms, spelled out a little more explicitly:

The bartender who patiently listens to your sad story is not interested in who you are. The brawler who picks a fight with you is: he wants to know what you are made of.

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Belief versus faith

The ideas we profess are our beliefs. The ideas we use to produce our thoughts and to guide our actions — these are faith.

The two rarely coincide.


The better a thing is suited to its purpose, and the more skillful we become using it,  the less we notice that thing while we are using it.

For instance, when we write, we are are absorbed in the words we are saying more than we are thinking about grammar, or the letters that make up the words, or the shapes of the letters, or the movement of our hands, or how we are manipulating the pen. Only when we hit a difficulty using one of these layers of tools do we stop and notice and think about what we are doing.

The concepts we use are the same way. They are extensions of our mind to the point where they seem to be mind itself, and we notice only the ideas we make with them. Because of this, we can forget that we can acquire or retire concepts if the thoughts we are making with them, or the actions we perform using them are faulty and lead us into mistakes or confusions.


To philosophize is to intentionally design the conceptual interface between one’s mind and the realities one experiences.


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Principled hypocrisy

One of the most distinctive virtues of Generation X developed out of what was initially identified as its distinctive vice: apathy.

It is a virtuous cynicism, a principled hypocrisy, a refusal to allow social norms to dictate individual sense of value.

To what was (at that time) the most narcissistically sanctimonious generation ever known, the Boomers, Gen Xers seemed to care about nothing at all. This, of course, was an artifact of Gen Xers caring nothing for those specific things that Boomers considered important and worthy of passionate unanimous commitment. Gen Xers actually did care about other things, namely exercising the freedom to care about what one actually feels to be valuable.

When Gen Xers found themselves in milieus that imposed values and beliefs that did not connect with their own values, their strategy was to protect their true inward experience by treating the performative requirements as an external game. As kids, there was more outward expression of cynicism, more eye-rolling and resistance. The game was moronic, and the contempt was allowed to show through. As adults, personal responsibilities increased and became bound up with the welfare of loved ones, public personas became more opaque, and the inner life was confined to and concealed within the private sphere. Gen X is the geode generation.

Of course, to the Boomers and their somehow even more sanctimonious, narcissistic and aggressive offspring, this privacy might seem cowardly, selfish — or, worst of all, inauthentic — but a glance at census data should show the prudence of this strategy. Gen X is a tiny generation, composed of genuine individuals. If Gen X wishes to preserve individuality against two massive ideologically aggressive and cohesive generations profoundly offended by dissent, flight might make more sense than fight. In conditions like these, where people are socially sanctioned for ideological nonconformity attempts at authenticity will come at the expense of one’s own inward sense of truth. In times like ours, individuality goes underground or ceases to exist. If, as a friend of mine has suggested, that disagreement is a form of respect, it follows that agreement can be a form of contempt, and I would argue it might be time to once again allow the contempt shine through. If there was one characteristic of Generation X that could rival apathy, it was irony.


Note from Feb. 15: Of course, it is unprincipled hypocrisy for a professed liberal to praise or condemn entire generations as a group. It is true that individuals coalesce around shared worldviews and function from them as collectivities, and that generational worldviews tend to shape the character of individuals — but it is easy to move from that position to seeing individuals as mere products of their generation and then further into the illiberal habit of seeing people primarily as examples or even agents of some collective “spiritual” being, as mere types.

I am leaving this post up as an example of what I look like when I have an illiberal relapse.

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Theological geometry

My native language is geometry. Until I see the shape of a thought, I don’t truly know it.

This morning, reading Inventing the Individual, I realized Borges might have given me the shape of my theology 25 years ago. When I went back to the source, “Pascal’s Sphere” it was even better than I recalled.

In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The miracle of humanity is that each of us is one unique center of God’s intelligible sphere, one instance of everything, which overlaps all others, sometimes harmoniously, sometime jarringly.

The recollection happened as Seidentop described the 14th Century debate between William of Ockham and the allegedly essentialist followers of Thomas Aquinas as “[turning] on the question of God’s rationality versus God’s freedom.” I realized that I side against Ockham’s opponents, but that I would prefer debate the question in terms of God’s  total monistic rationality versus God’s distributed pluralistic reason. Whatever of God we can understand objectively or subjectively participate in, it is at best from one center in relation to other centers. The circumscribing totality is not for us, and is not only none of our business, it forbidden.

I’m pretty sure I’m just restating Process Theology.

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Liberal symbol

I’ve been marking passages in Inventing the Individual that show the emergence of liberal traits. I’m making a list of these traits in the back of the book, with the goal of distilling a set of liberal family resemblances which, when viewed together as a gestalt, might give me new ways to understand liberalism or reveal new kinds of liberalism that better suit the needs of this moment in history.

But this post is not about that project. It is about the circle-L symbol I have been using in the margin to mark the proto-liberal passages. I like this symbol. It is the anarchy circle-A’s elegant cousin.

In these days of rampant illiberalism on both the right and left, where liberal ideas are more likely to inspire doubts, cynicism and scorn than consent, maybe it is time to equip liberalism with a re-revolutionary symbol. Because liberalism is revolutionary, and on the grand scale of history nothing could be more prosaic than a collectivist relapse, however intense the overturning feels.

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When there is no light and we see only blackness, we think we see nothing.

We look out into the emptiness of space and we see blackness, we think we see nothing.

We see nothing when we look out at the world and cannot see what is outside the periphery of our vision. We see nothing when the scotoma in each of our eyes fills in the hole in our seeing with nothing-missing. That is what nothing looks like, and it resembles blackness only in that it deprives the eye of objects.

I think this is why I have gradually rejected the phenomenological metaphor of horizon. Nothingness is not distant. No vantage point, however high, can reveal it. Only movement, memory and thought makes nothingness known.

Peripatetic philosophy is a redundant phrase.

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Isolation and delusion

Isolation makes existent things seem nonexistent.

Mass delusions make nonexistent things seem to exist.

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Demographelia is the preference for thinking in terms of social categories over encountering the uniqueness of individuals. And of course, since categories are features of our own minds, this signifies an impulse to reduce individuals to oneself — a solipsism strategy.

The world seems to be losing its taste for individuality. If you believe, as I do, that encountering personal individuality penetrating the screen of our own ideas is our most reliable transcendence, this is an alarming development.

I will say it again. The proper terms of transcendence are not a mundane world below and a spirit world beyond. That is how a mind trying to resist the reality of God sees it. No, the true terms are the world as I know it below and the world as I can come to know it beyond. And beyond that is the world as it is which we can never know and which is the source of being and knowing. Our challenge is to be a unique I toward infinite Thou (known to us as “everything”) composed in part of beings who are each themselves a unique I, each of which inhabits another unique everything.

Magical thinking, abuse and exploitation, intuition worship, illiberalism, preference for viewing people as instances of demographic categories (culminating in demographic essentialism) — it all goes together.

There is good reason the Enlightenment was both social and scientific: these are indivisible components of individuality, the two highest commandments which are one. They are complements of the same discipline of knowing-toward. They are antidotes to the containing comprehensions of solipsism.

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Explanation vs. understanding

“Explanation, when regarded as the only goal of inquiry, becomes a substitute for understanding. Imperceptibly it becomes the beginning rather than the end of perception.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Reflections on Inventing the Individual

Here is a list of random thoughts that have occurred to me while reading Inventing the Individual:

  • When you realize how deep the connection was between family and land, and what it meant in the ancient world to lose these fundamental connections, the history of the Jewish people becomes both more familiar and more miraculous.
  • The history of humankind could be told as a story of evolving relationships between immediate and transcendent realities expressed in terms of interpretations given to these relationships.
  • I’ve been drawing my asterisk symbol for close to a decade now. I think I have been wrong about the nature of the subject present at the nexus. The subject rarely singular.
  • Slavery in pre-individual times might have a meaning inaccessible the imagination of an individual.
  • “Now is a small town.” Yes, it is. These days historical cosmopolitanism is damn near nonexistent.
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Repost: anti-science = anti-social

This old post warrants an edited re-post:

A person’s attitude toward science tells us much more about his attitudes toward his fellow human beings than it does with his attitudes toward nature.

Science is a multi-generational collaborative unfinished accomplishment of the most intelligent, inventive, scrupulous and industrious people humankind has ever produced.

To place one’s own gut feelings on truth at the same level as the knowledge produced by science, or to refuse to understand and contend with science’s accounts when they conflict with one’s own sense of reality — this violates two of the highest laws of reason, which might as well be one and the same: 1) respect reality with all your mind, heart and effort, and 2) respect your neighbor’s truth as you respect your own.

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Science is a style of quarreling

From Adam Gopnik’s “The Porcupine: A pilgrimage to Popper”:

In the real world, as Popper knew perfectly well, the response of the scientist who has proposed that all swans are white when a black swan appears is not to say, cheerfully, “Wrong again!” It is to say, “You call that a swan?” The principle of falsification would begin an argument rather than prove a point. But the argument was the point. The argument that the black swan would produce—an argument about what evidence was crucial, and why—was different from all other kinds of argument. Science wasn’t a form of proof. It was a style of quarreling. The reason science gave you sure knowledge you could count on was that it wasn’t sure and you couldn’t count on it. Science wasn’t the name for knowledge that had been proved true; it was the name for guesses that could be proved false.

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Tool users vs service users

I am not one of those people who sees service design as the grand catch-all for multi-touchpoint multi-/omni-channel experiences.

I feel the same way about “service” as I did in the early aughts about the term “user”. These words imply relationships between what is designed and the person whom it is designed. Designing for the wrong relationship means misframing the design problem. “User” implies a tool relationship. Users use things as a means to accomplish something. Of course we can apply the word ‘use’ broadly and see a movie as something an audience uses for entertainment or a concierge as something a visitor uses to get local information, but this breadth is purchased at the cost of consequential subtleties. What we need and expect from a word processor is different from what we expect from a concert or a bank. Discovering exactly what those needs and expectations are and developing satisfactory resolutions of those needs calls for different methods. The mistakes UX have historically made were often tied up with insufficient sensitivity to these distinctions. The same is true of “services”. We can reduce a drill to one component in hole-making service that spans a journey from discovering a need all the way to resolving it, and, yes, much is gained from seeing it this way, but if we are not careful, important distinctions can be lost.

And in fact I do believe certain things are currently being lost by this framing. Software as a service (aka cloud computing) has changed norms around how software is supposed to behave. We are now accustomed to think of web-based software as something that belongs to someone else that we are licensed to make use of. A decade ago, users were more likely to perceive software as tools to own, learn and eventually master. Upgrading was a purchase decision resembling the decision to replace a pen or a hammer with an improved model — not as a periodic change that just happens and requires us to adapt.

This seems mostly OK in many cases, especially where tools serve as front ends to services, for instance banking and accounting, or databases. But for software tools used for making things — word processing, image editing, ideating, music creation, even blogging — changes, especially subtle ones, distract from the tools purpose which is to be an invisible extension of a user’s abilities. It is important that such tools be utterly predictable, controllable and unobtrusive so the user can exercise mastery over the tool to keep complete focus on what is being produced. I am concerned that software designers have lost all awareness of this goal. They are focused on different problems.

Years ago I was struck by the elegance of James Spradley’s research method typology, defining them not by technique, but rather by the role played by the research informant. Surveys are performed with respondents, tests with subjects and ethnography with informants. I think a similar approach could be helpful for classifying design methods. Perhaps we could gain clarity by paying less attention to medium or channel of delivery and more attention to the kind of relationship we are trying to develop through our design between the designed thing and the people for whom it is intended.

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Obtrusive conveniences

A design trend that disturbs me intensely: obtrusive conveniences.

What makes these conveniences obtrusive is that they make it incredibly inconvenient to refuse what they offer and you end up fighting for control over what you are attempting to do.

An example that is driving me away from iOS is text selection. Instead of giving the user direct character-level control over  selection, iOS tries to divine the user’s intention. Are they selecting just a character? or a word? or a text block? It never gets it right, and the effect is one of fighting for control.

Autocorrect also blows it constantly. If you use unusual words it constantly changes them to common ones for you. It is like one of those idiots who insists on finishing your sentences for you constantly despite having no idea that you are saying something they don’t already know. I can’t believe Jony I’ve hasn’t done something about how much effort it takes to type his name against the digital will of the devices he’s made.

And these behaviors are not even bad in a consistent way across apps. Now a new breed of “creative” coder has entered the scene who feels he can improve “the experience” by adding his own innovative flourishes to text editing. Nowevery editor you use has different behaviors around selection, spell checking, formatting, etc. Sadly, the more powerful HTML becomes, and the more empowered designers and developers are, the more inconsistent the overall OS platform user experience becomes. “Learn once, use often” has been replaced with utter chaos of second-rate ingenuity. The very editor I am using now (WordPress) is one of the worst offenders.

And don’t even get me started on autocomplete. When everything is optimal — the device is running smoothly, the internet connection is fast, and the user is typing accurately — autocomplete is great. But things are rarely optimal, so what actually happens is painful delays between keystroke and result, leading to mistyping, leading to attempts to delete and correct, with missed keystrokes and that same desire to escape being helped so ineptly.

Behind it all are philosophical principles which I can feel palpably in these interactions. For one thing, there is no awareness that this product is one element of a much larger experiences. For one thing, there is the experience of using the device, something few developers consider anymore. Then there is the experience of trying to get something done. And of course, there is the experience with organizations over time. Human-centered designers think about these overlapping contexts and design with them in mind, but in recent years companies have come to the opinion that iterative trial and error with ludicrously short development cycles that leave little or no time for testing will get them to a great product faster than being thoughtful or thorough. In all of this I detect a relapse, away from empathic discipline (thinking subjectively in terms of experiences) back into obsessive making of objects (which are still called “experiences” by people who like the idealistic tone of the term and the mouthfeel of X). But what bothers me worse is a sense that these coralling conveniences are ok for most people, who don’t really need control, and who are happy to say and do what is easily expected. In these near-irresistable conveniences I feel a sludgy flow toward a brave new world of lethargic uniformity where everything is dittoing, me-tooing, LOLing, emoticoning from a shrinking repertoire of publically recognized standardized experiences.

If any individuals are still out there, consider this a liberal beacon. Hello? Hello?



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Gadget-porn addiction

Apple used to innovate by asking “Wouldn’t it be great if people could ____?” This was what made them uniquely great.

Now Apple does what every other banal tech company does and asks “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make a thing that could ____?” Or even worse “Wouldn’t it be great if we made a thing that has ____ characteristics/features/specs?”

This is why Apple keeps coming up with the same ideas as everyone else in the industry and why none of what they do matters one bit, however much their gadgets get hyped by gadget enthusiasts.

This hyping is part of our problem: great designs are better to use than to obsess over and to talk about. Most of what is best in great design is hard to talk about and is boring to read about. Great design tends to disappear. But cool features, record-setting specs and thrilling visuals generates buzz and drives short-term sales.


I think our culture’s gadget porn problem might be destructive in ways that parallel our culture’s sexual porn problem.

Just as pornography confuses and misleads youth about healthy relationships between partners, gadget porn confuses consumers about healthy relationships between people and things. In both cases, what is most healthy is quiet and not much to talk about but makes life much better. Addiction to lust drives people into cycles of craving, temporary satiety and empty boredom.

When design isn’t rewarded in the market, companies stop taking it seriously. They don’t invest in making products that are great to use, the make sexy-looking gimmicks that open wallets. Our tools start out as pleasant diversions and end up as perpetually irritating distractions.




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Why I get emotional about design

When I use a product, I feel the milieu that produced it. Products are crystallized philosophies. In a designed object I feel people — the people who produced it and sometimes a precise person for whom an object is intended. This “personal from” and “personal to” is what makes design what it is.

When I get inspired or offended by bad design, precisely the personal from and to is what I am reacting to. In objects I sense all kinds of things about the producer: care, contempt, insight, vanity, poetry, banality, tyranny, playfulness, thoroughness, orderliness, arbitrariness, etc. And I also sometimes detect a consumer’s personality and worldview (for better or worse) — a person the producer had in mind for whom this thing is intended. And all too often I feel an anonymous vacuum where a producer or consumer should be. It is a thing from nobody and it is for anybody.


When I’ve felt betrayed by design it is when an organization did a “personality switch” on me, like an unfaithful friend. I can feel that the organization has come to see the world in a new way where there is no longer space for me to exist. The organization used to make things designed for me, but now they’re designing for someone else, or worse for everyone, which really means nobody.


Since we are once again in gift season, I will repost my “Design as gift” idea yet again, with the usual minor variations.

When one person gives another person a perfect gift, the gift is valuable in three ways:

  1. The gift itself is intrinsically valuable to the recipient. The gift is good because it makes life easier, more pleasant or more meaningful.
  2. The gift contributes to the recipient’s own self-understanding and sense of identity. The gift is a concrete example what the receiver experiences as good. It is a crystallization of the recipient’s ideals that reveals something important about the recipient that sometimes cannot be said.
  3. The perfection of the gift is evidence that the giver cares about and understands who the recipient is as an individual. The successful giving of a perfect gift demonstrates that the giver was moved to reflect on the recipient and has real insight into who they are as an individual, what they value and how they fit into the world.

Great design experiences are similar to gifts. When a design  is successful the user gets something valuable, sees tangible proof they are valued and understood, and experiences an intensification or expansion of their sense of self.


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George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

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Four sides to every conflict

In conflicts, there are four sides to every story: there is my side, there is your side, there is what I think your side is, and there is what you think my side is.

If you want to know a person’s soul, don’t be distracted by how that person represents himself in a conflict. You’ll learn far more about who he is listening to what he has to say about his enemy.

If you hear dark and incredible tales of depravity and deviousness, take extreme care. Being on the side of good, facing such enemies, the righteous man might be forced to do evil things to defend himself and his people. If he has foresight and strong resolve he might even take preemptive action in order to avert an inevitable catastrophe.



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