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Christianity As Mystical Fact

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Christianity As Mystical Fact

THE SIGNIFICANCE of the Mysteries in the spiritual life of Greece can be seen in Plato's conception of the world. There is only one means of understanding him fully: he must be placed in the light which shines forth from the Mysteries. The later pupils of Plato, the Neoplatonists, attribute to him a secret teaching, to which he admitted only those who were worthy, and then strictly under the “seal of silence.” His teaching was considered secret in the same sense as the Mystery wisdom. Even if Plato himself is not the author of the seventh Platonic Epistle, as some people assert, this makes no difference for our purpose; it need not concern us whether Plato or someone else expresses the attitude of mind contained in this letter. This attitude of mind was inherent in his conception of the world. It says in this Epistle: “But this much I can certainly declare concerning all these writers, or prospective writers who claim to know the subjects which I seriously study, whether as hearers of mine or of other teachers, or from their own discoveries; it is impossible, in my judgment at least, that these men understand anything about this subject. There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith, for it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.” (see Note 30) — These words could only indicate a powerlessness in the use of words due to personal weakness, if one could not find in them the sense contained in the Mysteries. What Plato never wrote and never intended to write about must be something that defies expression in writing. It must be a feeling, a sensation, an experience that cannot be conveyed in a moment, but is attained through “continued application ... and communion.” The intimate training Plato was able to give to the elect is indicated here. For them fire flashed forth from his words; for the others, only thoughts. — It is of great consequence how one approaches Plato's Dialogues. They mean more or less according to one's frame of mind. To Plato's pupils more than the mere literal sense of his expositions was conveyed. Where he taught, the participants experienced the atmosphere of the Mysteries. The words had overtones which vibrated with them. But these overtones needed the atmosphere of the Mysteries. Otherwise they died away unheard.

In the center of the world of Plato's Dialogues stands the personality of Socrates. We need not touch on the historical aspect here. What matters is the character of Socrates as represented by Plato. Socrates is a person sanctified through death for the cause of truth. He died as only an initiate can die, one to whom death is but a moment of life like other moments. He meets death as any other occurrence of earthly existence. His behavior was such that not even in his friends were the feelings usual to such an occasion aroused. Phaedo says in the Dialogue on the Immortality of the Soul: “For my part, I had strange emotions when I was there. For I was not filled with pity as I might naturally be when present at the death of a friend; since he seemed to me to be happy, both in his bearing and his words, he was meeting death so fearlessly and nobly. And so I thought that even in going to the abode of the dead he was not going without the protection of the gods, and that when he arrived there it would be well with him, if it ever was well with anyone. And for this reason I was not at all filled with pity, as might seem natural when I was present at a scene of mourning; nor on the other hand did I feel pleasure, as was our custom when we were occupied with philosophy — although our talk was of philosophy — but a very strange feeling came over me, an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and of pain together, when I thought that Socrates was presently to die.” (see Note 31) And the dying Socrates instructs his pupils about immortality. His personality, knowing by experience the valuelessness of life, here acts as proof of a quality very different from all logic and intellectual reasoning. It is not as though a man were conversing — for this man is at the point of crossing the threshold of death — but as though the eternal truth itself which had made its abode in a transitory personality, were speaking. Where the temporal dissolves into nothingness we seem to find the air in which the eternal can resound.

We hear no proofs of immortality in the logical sense. The whole dialogue is directed toward leading the friends to the point where they can behold the eternal. Then they will need no proofs. Is one to prove that the rose is red to someone who sees it? Is one to prove that the spirit is eternal to someone whose eyes have been opened so that he can see this spirit? — Socrates indicates living experiences. First of all it is a meeting with wisdom itself. What is the aim of the person who pursues wisdom? He wishes to free himself from all that his senses offer him in everyday observation. He wishes to seek the spirit in the material world. Is not this a fact which can be compared to dying? “Other people” — this is Socrates' opinion — “are likely not to be aware that those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be reluctant when that came for which they had been eagerly practicing all along.” (see Note 32) To reinforce this, Socrates asks one of his friends, “Do you think a philosopher would be likely to care much about the so-called pleasures, such as eating or drinking? ... Or about the pleasures of sexual desire? ... Do you believe such a man would think much of the other cares of the body — I mean such as the possession of fine clothes and shoes and the other personal adornments? Do you think he would care about them or despise them, except so far as it is necessary to have them? ... Altogether, then, you think that such a man would not devote himself to the body, but would, so far as he was able, turn away from the body and concern himself with the soul? ... To begin with, then, it is clear that in such matters the philosopher, more than other men, separates the soul from association with the body” (see Note 33) After this Socrates is entitled to say: Striving for wisdom is comparable to dying, in that man turns from physical things. But where does he turn? He turns to the spiritual. However, can he expect the same of the spirit as of his senses? Socrates explains himself on this: “Now, how about the acquisition of intelligent insight? Is the body a hindrance or not, if it is made to share in the search for wisdom? What I mean is this: Have the sight and hearing of men any truth in them, or is it true, as the poets are always telling us, that we neither hear nor see accurately? ... Then, when does the soul attain to truth? For when it tries to consider anything in company with the body, it is evidently deceived by it.” All that we perceive with (see Note 34) the physical senses comes into existence and dies away. And this coming into existence and dying away is the cause of our being deceived. But if we examine objects more thoroughly with intelligent insight, then we partake of the eternal in them. But the physical senses do not convey to us the eternal in its true form. They deceive us when we rely implicitly upon them. They cease to deceive us if we confront them with logical insight, making everything conveyed by the senses subject to examination by this insight. But if logical insight is to judge the statements of the senses, must not something live within this insight which transcends the perceptions of the senses? Hence what is true and false in objects is judged by something in us which opposes the material body, and therefore is not subject to its laws. Above all, this something must not be subjected to the laws of growth and decay, for it bears truth within itself. Truth cannot have a yesterday and a tomorrow; it cannot be this on one occasion and that on another, as material things are. Hence truth in itself must be eternal. As the philosopher turns away from the transitory material world, and turns to truth, he approaches an eternal element, dwelling within him. If we immerse ourselves wholly in the spirit, then we live entirely in truth. The material world around us is no longer present in its material form only. “Would not that man,” asks Socrates, “do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? ... Well, then, this that we call death, is it not a release and separation from the body? But, as we hold, the true philosophers and they alone are always most eager to release the soul, and just this — the release and separation of the soul from the body — is their study ... Then, as I said in the beginning, it would be absurd if a man who had been all his life fitting himself to live as nearly in a state of death as he could, should then be disturbed when death came to him ... In fact, then, the true philosophers practice dying, and death is less terrible to them than to any other men.” (see Note 35) Socrates also bases all higher morality on the liberation of the soul from the body. One who obeys only the demands of his body is not moral. Who has courage? asks Socrates. He has courage who not only disregards his body but follows the demands of his spirit when this endangers his body. And who is self-restrained? He who is “not excited by the passions and in being superior to them acts in a seemly way. Is self-restraint therefore not a characteristic of those alone who despise the body and pass their lives in philosophy?” (see Note 36) And thus it is with all virtues, according to Socrates.

Socrates proceeds to characterize intelligent insight itself. What does cognition really mean? Doubtless we attain cognition through forming judgments. Very well, I form a judgment about something; for instance, I say to myself, This thing that stands before me is a tree. How do I arrive at such a statement? I shall be able to do so only if I already know what a tree is. I must remember my idea of a tree. A tree is a material thing. If I remember a tree, I remember a material object. I say that a thing is a tree if it reminds me of other things I have perceived before, and which I know to be trees. Memory enables me to reach cognition. Through memory I can compare the various material things with each other. But in this my cognition is not exhausted. If I see two similar things I form the judgment, These things are similar. But in reality two things are never completely similar. Wherever I find similarity it is only relative. Therefore I think of similarity without finding it in material realty. The thought of similarity helps me toward judgment, as memory helps me toward judgment and cognition. Just as I remember trees when I see a tree, so I remember the thought of similarity when I see two similar things. Therefore thoughts arise within me like memories which are not gained from material reality. All cognition not derived from this reality is based on such thoughts. The whole of mathematics consists only of such thoughts. It would be a poor geometrician who could relate mathematically only what he sees with his eyes and grasps with his hands. It follows that we have thoughts which do not stem from transitory nature, but which arise from the spirit. And precisely these thoughts bear the stamp of eternal truth upon them. What mathematics teaches will be eternally true, even if the whole universe were to collapse tomorrow, and a totally new one arise. The present mathematical truths might not be applicable to the conditions prevailing in a new universe, nevertheless they would remain true in themselves. Only when the soul is alone with itself can it bring forth such eternal truths out of itself. The soul therefore is related to truth, to the eternal, and not to the transitory, the seemingly real. For this reason Socrates says, “When the soul reflects alone by itself, it departs into the realm of the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these, it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and it has rest from its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging with the changeless, since it is in communion therewith. And this state of the soul is called wisdom ... Then see, if this is not the conclusion from all that we have said, that the soul is most like the divine and immortal and intellectual and uniform and indissoluble and ever unchanging, and the body, on the contrary, most like the human and mortal and multiform and unintellectual and dissoluble and ever-changing ...Then if it is in such a condition, the soul goes away into what is like itself, into the invisible, divine, immortal and wise, and when it arrives there it is happy, freed from error, folly, fear, fierce loves and all the other human ills and, as the initiated say, lives in truth through all after-time with the gods.” (see Note 37) Here we cannot undertake to show all the paths along which Socrates guides his friends to the eternal. All these paths breathe the same spirit. All are intended to show that man finds one thing when he follows the paths of transitory sense perception, and another when his spirit is alone with itself. Socrates points to the archetypal nature of the spirit for those who listen to him. If they find it they can see with spiritual eyes that it is eternal. The dying Socrates does not prove immortality: he simply demonstrates the essence of the soul. It then becomes evident that growth and decay, birth and death have nothing to do with this soul. The essence of the soul lies in truth, but truth itself cannot grow and decay. The soul has as much to do with growth as the crooked has to do with the straight. Death, however, belongs to this process of “growth.” Therefore the soul has nothing to do with death. Must we not say that the immortal assumes mortality as little as the straight assumes crookedness. Continuing from this, Socrates says, “If the immortal is also imperishable, it is impossible for the soul to perish when death comes to meet it. For, as our argument has shown, it will not admit death and will not be dead, just as the number three, we said, will never be even.” (see Note 38)

Let us trace the whole development of this dialogue, in which Socrates leads his listeners to the point where they are able to see the eternal in the human personality. The listeners absorb his thoughts; they search within themselves for something in their own inner experiences through which they can say “yes” to his ideas. They put forward the objections that spring to their minds. What has happened to the listeners when the dialogue has reached its end? They have found something in themselves which they did not possess before. They have not merely absorbed an abstract truth; they have gone through a process of development. Something has come to life within them which was not alive in them before. Is not this comparable to an initiation? Does not this throw light on the reason why Plato expressed his philosophy in the form of dialogue? These dialogues are intended to be nothing but a literary form of the proceedings in the Mystery places. What Plato himself says at various points convinces us of this. As a teacher of philosophy, Plato wanted, insofar as possible through this medium, to be what the initiator was in the Mysteries. Well does Plato know himself to be at one with the methods of the Mysteries! He considers his method to be the right one only if it leads to the place to which the mystic should be led! He expresses this in the Timaeus: “All men who possess even a small share of good sense call upon God always at the outset of every undertaking, be it small or great: we therefore who are purposing to deliver a discourse concerning the Universe, how far it is created or is uncreated, must needs invoke gods and goddesses (if so be that we are not utterly demented), praying that all we say may be approved by them in the first place, and secondly by ourselves.” (see Note 39) And to those who seek along such a path, Plato promises “that the Godhead, as Savior, makes it possible that such a distant and difficult investigation — one so prone to error — can be accomplished through an enlightened philosophy.” (see Note 40)

The Timaeus in particular reveals to us the relationship of Plato's world conception with the Mysteries. At the very beginning of this dialogue, reference is made to an “initiation.” Solon is “initiated” into the creation of worlds by an Egyptian priest, and also into the manner in which myths that have been handed down, express eternal truths in picture form. “There have been and there will be many and divers destructions of mankind,” (thus the Egyptian priest instructs Solon) “of which the greatest are by fire and water, and lesser ones by countless other means. For in truth the story that is told in your country as well as in ours, how once upon a time Phaethon, son of Helios, yoked his father's chariot, and, because he was unable to drive it along the course taken by his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth and himself perished by a thunderbolt -that story, as it is told, has the fashion of a legend, but the truth of it lies in the occurrence of a shifting of the bodies in the heavens which move round the earth, and a destruction of the things on the earth by fierce fire, which recurs at long intervals.” (see Note 41) — This point in the Timaeus clearly refers to the relationship between the initiate and the myths of the people. He perceives the truths hidden in their pictures.

The drama of the world's creation is presented in the Timaeus. Whoever wishes to retrace the paths leading to this creation comes to the point of divining the archetypal force from which everything has sprung. “Now to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible.” (see Note 42) The mystic knew what was meant by this “thing impossible.” It indicates the drama of God. God is not present for him in the materially comprehensible world. There He is present as nature. He lies spell-bound in nature. According to the ancient mystics, only he can approach Him who awakens the divine within himself. Therefore He cannot so easily be made comprehensible to everyone. He does not appear in person, even to those who approach Him. This is what the Timaeus says. The Father has created the world out of the cosmic body and the cosmic soul. In perfect proportions He has united harmoniously the elements which came into being when He offered His own, separate existence by diffusing Himself. Thus the body of the world came into existence. On this body of the world, the soul of the world is stretched in the form of a cross. (see Note 43) This soul is the divine element in the world. It has met with death on the cross in order that the world may exist. Plato is able to call nature the tomb of the divine element. (see Note 44) This is not a tomb containing something dead, but something eternal, for which death only gives the opportunity to express the omnipotence of life. Man sees this nature in the right light when he approaches it in order to deliver the crucified soul of the world. It must be raised from death, the spell must be lifted from it. Where can it come to life again? Only in the soul of the man who is initiated. In this way wisdom finds its right relationship to the cosmos. The resurrection, the deliverance of the Godhead: this is cognition. The evolution of the world from the least to the most perfect is traced in the Timaeus. An ascending process is represented. The beings develop. God reveals Himself in this development. The process of creation is a resurrection of God from the tomb. Man makes his appearance in this stream of evolution. Plato shows that with man something special has arrived. True, the whole world is divine. And man is no more divine than the other beings. But in the other beings God is concealed, and in man He is manifest. The end of the Timaeus reads: “And now at length we may say that our discourse concerning the Universe has reached its termination. For this our Cosmos has received the living creatures both mortal and immortal and been thereby fulfilled; it being itself a visible Living Creature embracing the visible creatures, a perceptible God made in the image of the Intelligible, most great and good and fair and perfect in its creation — even this one and only begotten world.” (see Note 45)

But this one and only begotten world would be incomplete if it did not have among its images the image of the Creator Himself. Only out of the soul of man can this image be born. It is not the Father Himself who can be born of man, but the Son, the offspring of God living in the soul, who is like unto the Father.

Philo of whom it was said that he was Plato reborn, called the wisdom born of man, the “Son of God;” (see Note 46) this wisdom lives in the soul and contains the intelligence that exists in the world. This world-intelligence, the Logos, appears as the book in which “has been inscribed and engraved the formation of the world.” (see Note 47) Further it appears as the Son of God, who “followed the ways of his Father, and shaped the different kinds, looking to the archetypal patterns which that Father supplied.” (see Note 48) In the manner of Plato, Philo speaks of this Logos as the Christ: “For since God is the first and sole King of the universe, the road leading to Him, being a king's road, is rightly called royal. This road you must take to be philosophy ... the philosophy which the ancient circle of ascetics pursued in hard-fought contest, eschewing the soft enchantments of pleasure, engaged with a fine severity in the study of what is good and fair. This royal road then, which we have just said to be true and genuine philosophy, is called in the Law, the utterance and word of God.” (see Note 49)

Philo experiences this as an initiation when he sets forth on the path to meet the Logos who is, for him, the Son of God. “I feel no shame in recording my own experience, a thing I know from its having happened to me a thousand times. On some occasions, after making up my mind to follow the usual course of writing on philosophical tenets, and knowing definitely the substance of what I was to set down, I have found my understanding incapable of giving birth to a single idea, and have given up without accomplishing anything, reviling my understanding for its self-conceit, and filled with amazement at the might of Him Who is, to Whom is due the opening and closing of the womb of the soul. On other occasions, I have approached my work empty and suddenly become full, the ideas falling in a shower from above and being sown invisibly, so that under the influence of the divine possession I have been filled with corybantic frenzy and been unconscious of anything, place, persons present, myself, words spoken, lines written. For I obtained language, ideas, an enjoyment of light, keenest vision, pellucid distinctness of objects, such as might be received through the inner eye as the result of clearest cognition.” (see Note 50) — This is the description of a path to cognition which is so arranged that whoever takes this path is conscious that he becomes one with the divine when the Logos comes to life within him. This is clearly expressed in the words: “When the mind is mastered by the love of the divine, when it strains its powers to reach the inmost shrine, when it puts forth every effort and ardor on its forward march, under the divine impelling force it forgets all else, forgets itself and fixes its thoughts and memories on Him alone Whose attendant and servant it is, to Whom it dedicates incense, the incense of consecrated virtues.” (see Note 51) — For Philo there are only two paths. Either man can pursue the material world which is offered by perception and intellect, but then he is limited to his own personality, he withdraws from the cosmos; or he can become conscious of the all-embracing cosmic powers, experiencing the eternal within his personality. “One who runs away from God takes refuge in himself. There are two minds, that of the universe, which is God, and the individual mind. One who flees from his own mind flees for refuge to the Mind of all things. For one who abandons his own mind acknowledges all that makes the human mind its standard to be naught, and he refers all things to God. On the other hand, one who runs away from God declares Him to be the cause of nothing, and himself to be the cause of all things that come into being.” (see Note 52)

Plato's world-conception aims to be a form of cognition which in its whole nature is religion. It brings cognition into relationship with the highest man can reach through his feelings. Plato allows cognition to be valid only when it completely satisfies man's feelings. Then it is not pictorial knowledge; it is the content of life. It is a higher man in man. The personality is but an image of this higher man. In man himself the superior, the archetypal man is born. And with this another secret of the Mysteries is expressed in Plato's philosophy. The Church Father Hippolytus points to this secret: “This is the great and ineffable mystery of the Samothracians (the guardians of a particular Mystery-cult) which it is permissible only for the initiated to know. For the Samothracians expressly hand down, in the Mysteries that are celebrated among them, that Adam is the archetypal man.” (see Note 53)

Plato's “dialogue on love,” the Symposium, also describes an “initiation.” Here love appears as the herald of wisdom. If wisdom, the Eternal Word (Logos), is the Son of the Eternal Creator of the world, then love has a maternal relationship with this Logos. Before it is possible for even a spark of the light of wisdom to light up in the human soul, there must be an unconscious longing, which draws the soul toward the divine. Man must be drawn unconsciously toward that which, when raised into consciousness, subsequently brings him supreme joy. What Heraclitus designates as the daemon (See Note in Chapter 3) in man is united with the idea of love. — In the Symposium men of the most varied status, possessing the most varied views on life, speak of love; the man in the street, the politician, the scientist, the poet of comedy, Aristophanes and the serious poet, Agathon. Each has his conception of love according to how he experiences life. How they express themselves reveals the stage at which their “daemon” stands (See Note in Chapter 3). Through love one being is drawn to another. The manifold variety of things into which the divine unity is diffused strives through love toward oneness and harmony. Love therefore has a divine quality. Hence each man is capable of understanding it only insofar as he has partaken of this divine quality. After these men, representing varying stages of maturity, have declared their views on love, Socrates takes up the discussion. He considers love from the viewpoint of a thinker capable of cognition. For him love is not a god. But it is something leading man to God. Eros, love, is no god for him. God is perfect, and therefore possesses beauty and goodness. But Eros is only the longing for beauty and goodness. Therefore he stands between man and God. He is a “daemon,” a mediator between the earthly and the divine. — It is significant that Socrates does not pretend to give his thoughts when he speaks about love. He says he is only recounting a revelation about it, which a woman gave him. He has conceived an idea of love's nature through mantic art. (See Author's Comments) The priestess Diotima awakened in Socrates the daemonic force which was to lead him to the divine. She “initiated” him. — This passage in the Symposium is most revealing. We must ask, Who is this “wise woman” who awakens the daemon in Socrates? We should not think of mere poetic fantasy here. No actual wise woman could have awakened the daemon in the soul if the force for this awakening were not within the soul itself. We must seek this “wise woman” in the soul of Socrates himself. There must, however, be a basis which allows what brings the daemon to birth in the soul to appear as a being in external reality. This force cannot work in the same way as the forces we can observe in the soul as belonging to it and at home with it. We see that it is the force of the soul before it has received wisdom, which Socrates represents as the “wise woman.” It is the maternal principle which gives birth to the Son of God, Wisdom, the Logos. The unconscious force of the soul is presented as a feminine element, which allows the divine to enter consciousness. The soul which as yet lacks wisdom is the mother of what leads to the divine. This leads us to an important idea of mysticism. The soul is recognized as the mother of the divine. With the inevitability of a natural force it unconsciously leads man toward the divine. — This point throws light on the conception held in the Mysteries regarding Greek mythology. The world of the gods is born in the soul. Man regards as his gods what he himself creates in the form of pictures (see Note in Chapter 2). But he must progress to another idea. He must transform into pictures of the gods the divine force present in himself which is active before the creation of these pictures of the gods. The mother of the divine appears behind the divine, and this is none other than the original force in the human soul. Man places goddesses beside his gods. Let us look at the myth of Dionysus in the light of the above. Dionysus is the son of Zeus and a mortal mother, Semele. Zeus tears the premature infant from the mother as she lies slain by lightning, keeping him in his own thigh until he is mature. Hera, the mother of the gods, stirs up the Titans against Dionysus. They dismember the boy. But Pallas Athene rescues the still beating heart and brings it to Zeus. Thereupon Zeus begets the son for the second time. In this myth we have an exact description of a process which takes place in the depths of the human soul. Whoever wishes to speak in the sense of the Egyptian priest who instructs Solon about the nature of a myth could speak as follows: What you tell us, that Dionysus, the son of a god and a mortal mother, is dismembered and is born again, may sound like a fable, but what is true about it is the birth of the divine and its destiny in the human soul. The divine unites with the temporal-earthly soul of man. As soon as this divine element, Dionysus, comes to life, the soul experiences a great longing for its true spiritual status. The consciousness which once again appears in the image of a female divinity, Hera, is jealous of the birth out of a better consciousness. It stirs up the lower nature of man — the Titans. The child of god, still immature, is dismembered. It is present in man as a dismembered material-intellectual science. But if in man sufficient higher wisdom (Zeus) is at work, it cherishes and cares for the immature child, which then is born again as the second son of god (Dionysus). Thus out of science, out of the dismembered divine force in man, is born the harmonizing wisdom, which is the Logos, the son of God and of a mortal mother, who is the transitory soul of man striving unconsciously for the divine. We are far from the spiritual reality represented in all this as long as we see in it only a mere process of the soul and take it as a picture of this process. In this spiritual reality the soul does not merely experience something within itself; it is completely disconnected from itself and participates in a cosmic process which in truth takes place outside itself and not within it.

Platonic wisdom and Greek mythology unite; so, equally, do Mystery wisdom and mythology. The gods that they created were the objects of the religion of the people; the history of their coming into existence was the secret of the Mysteries. No wonder that it was accounted dangerous to “betray” the Mysteries. This meant “betraying” the origin of the gods of the people. And the right understanding of this origin is wholesome; misunderstanding is destructive.

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