On Plato’s Republic, 4

Index to this series

Our fourth scheduled reading in the Republic is Book III, Stephanus pages 386–417. Socrates continues to direct the construction of the fantastic city. Plato’s brothers, faithful as dogs, agree to two infamous proposals:

  1. The deportation from the city of any poet “who is able by wisdom to become every sort of thing and to imitate all things” (δυνάμενον ὑπὸ σοφίας παντοδαπὸν γίγνεσθαι καὶ μιμεῖσθαι πάντα χρήματα, 398a).

  2. The teaching of the Noble Lie, that the citizens were formed under ground and distinguished, according to class, with admixture of

    • gold for the rulers,
    • silver for the auxiliaries,
    • iron and bronze for the “farmers and other craftsmen” (414b–5c).

Later in this post, I shall try to analyze the reading into sections; but a serial summary of these seems tedious, and I shall focus on a few remarkable points, such as the ones above.

Two dogs with my copy of
Allan Bloom (translator), The Republic of Plato, 2016 edition,
on the beach at
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 8, 2021

I shall be quoting

  • Homer, whom Socrates loves to hate;
  • Adam Kirsch, from the 2016 introduction to Allan Bloom’s Republic translation, on the danger of summarizing Plato;
  • Pascal on the will of God as the rule for justice;
  • Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales such as the Three Little Pigs, and perhaps our City in Speech, as opposed to fables;
  • Somerset Maugham on the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper;
  • Plato, in the Symposium, on the identity of comedy and tragedy, and Socrates as a seductive flute-player;
  • Anne Applebaum on “The New Puritans”: the same as the old ones, called Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates?

In taking up the previous reading, I noted how the Noble Lie was explicitly a lie, and for Agnes Callard this meant Plato did not think we were unequal by nature. This is a good attempt to save Plato from ignominy. For one special and one general reason, I cannot say that it succeeds.

  • The Noble Lie has a second part, that the three classes of citizens do not always breed true. In particular, a golden-souled baby can be found in any class. I think Callard agrees with this, although it too is part of what is called a lie.

  • All I can say about what Plato thinks is that he thinks it worthwhile to write dialogues. He does not speak in his own voice. Perhaps you can infer what his thought is; however, if you have a technique for this, I don’t know how you will verify it, unless by applying it successfully to lost Platonic dialogues that may be discovered in the future.

In our reading, Socrates speaks in Homer’s voice, usually to complain about it. Socrates does praise Homer, in 389e, by noting how, in Book IV of the Iliad, Homer has Diomedes, son of Tydeus, tell Sthenelus not to talk back to his superior. Agamemnon has tried to provoke Diomedes by recalling the prowess of Tydeus. Sthenelus bristles and boasts that he and his pal are better than their fathers. Diomedes tells him to be obedient to his ruler. Socrates approves.

Achilles is not obedient to Agamemnon in the Iliad, and it continues to bother me that Socrates does not address this. Quite possibly Plato intends for me to be bothered. Socrates does talk about Achilles, as when demanding that the poet shall not treat him in an unflattering way.

At 392c, Socrates concludes the censorship of the content of poetry, then passes to the form. In Shorey’s translation,

So this concludes the topic of tales. That of diction, I take it, is to be considered next. So shall have completely examined both the matter and the manner of speech.

Not particularly with “tales” and “diction,” but with “matter” and “manner,” perhaps Shorey is trying to reflect some of the parallelism in the Greek:

  • Τὰ μὲν δὴ λόγων πέρι ἐχέτω τέλος,
  • τὸ δὲ λέξεως, ὡς έγᾦμαι, μετὰ τοῦτο σκεπτέον,

καὶ ἡμῖν

  • ἅ τε λεκτέον καὶ
  • ὡς λεκτέον

παντελῶς έσκέψεται.

The important distinction in form, diction, or manner of speech is between direct and indirect speech. Epic poetry is a mix of these, as in this passage from the beginning of Book I of the Iliad. I give Butler’s prose translation, lined up with Socrates’s own prose version in indirect speech, in Jowett’s translation:

Homer Socrates

Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the sceptre of Apollo wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.

The priest came …

“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”

… and prayed the gods on behalf of the Greeks that they might capture Troy and return safely home, but begged that they would give him back his daughter, and take the ransom which he brought, and respect the God.

On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered;

Thus he spoke, and the other Greeks revered the priest and assented.

but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

But Agamemnon was wroth, and bade him depart and not come again, lest the staff and chaplets of the God should be of no avail to him – the daughter of Chryses should not be released, he said – she should grow old with him in Argos. And then he told him to go away and not to provoke him, if he intended to get home unscathed.

The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protectest Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands, or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”

And the old man went away in fear and silence, and, when he had left the camp, he called upon Apollo by his many names, reminding him of everything which he had done pleasing to him, whether in building his temples, or in offering sacrifice, and praying that his good deeds might be returned to him, and that the Achaeans might expiate his tears by the arrows of the god.

The opposite extreme is found in tragedy and comedy, which is all direct speech. Socrates does not render the Iliad in this form. We may wonder what the epic loses in Socrates’s indirect version. Not reflected in the translations above is that the poetry loses its meter; Socrates says he is not poetic (οὐ γάρ εἰμι ποιητικός, 393b). Shorey has a note here, saying that somebody quotes Socrates’s prose paraphrase “as a perfect example of the best form of exercise for learning a language.” I note for now the thought, attributed to Allan Bloom in the Introduction by Adam Kirsch to the 2016 edition of Bloom’s translation:

You can’t paraphrase or summarize Plato without doing serious damage to his meaning. That is because he was composing a literary work, whose form is crucial to its content.

I have found myself questioning the value of this literary work, which presents us with a dialogue whose participants agree that, in their ideal city (at 409e–10a),

  • judges will detect the incorrigibly criminal citizens and put them to death;
  • doctors will detect the chronically ill citizens and allow them to die.

Glaucon here is as submissive as Abraham, when told to sacrifice his son. What kind of horrible philosophy or religion would hold up such figures as models?

Perhaps one does not choose one’s religion, at least, but God does. This begs the question of how one knows what God wants in the first place. I raised the question last spring when reading Pascal, who says in Sellier 769, Lafuma 948, Brunschvicg 668,

Changeons la règle que nous avons prise jusqu’ici pour juger de ce qui est bon. Nous en avions pour règle notre volonté ; prenons maintenant la volonté de Dieu : tout ce qu’il veut nous est bon et juste, tout ce qu’il ne veut pas mauvais et injuste.

Let us change the rule which we have hitherto chosen for judging what is good. We had for this our own will as our rule. Let us now take the will of God; all that he wills is good and just for us, all that he does not will is bad and unjust.

Here I have adjusted Trotter’s translation, particularly by rendering juste/injuste as “just/unjust,” rather than “right/bad.” Pascal does not explicitly take the sacrifice of Abraham into his thoughts, but perhaps he should:

  • Some Muslim theologians have denied that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham had a dream telling him to do this, but he should have stopped to consider where the dream came from.
  • Alternatively, as one Jewish teacher of mine seems to have argued, God did tell Abraham to make the sacrifice, but only in order to test him. Abraham failed the test. God forgave him.

Socrates is testing Plato’s brothers.

What Socrates tells to Glaucon and Adeimantus is a fairy tale. It differs from a fable of Aesop by having no explicit moral. Here is how Bruno Bettelheim puts it:

The fairy tale, in contrast, leaves all decisions up to us, including whether we wish to make any at all. It is up to us whether we wish to make any application to our life from a fairy tale, or simply enjoy the fantastic events it tells about. Our enjoyment is what induces us to respond in our own good time to the hidden meanings, as they may relate to our life experience and present state of personal development.

That is from The Uses of Enchantment, which I took up previously. I learn from Wikipedia that Bettelheim may have lied about his credentials, stolen his ideas, and beaten children who were under his care. This may provoke the kind of book-banning that Socrates advocates. I still think Bettelheim’s thoughts are good.

I read Bettelheim’s book on a friend’s recommendation, soon after college. I go back to it now, in search of the good in Plato. The passage above is from the section on the Three Little Pigs, who are to be distinguished from Aesop’s Ant and Grasshopper.

The Ant and the Grasshopper” is also one of the shorter of the short stories of Somerset Maugham, who starts it out by recalling his childhood in France:

When I was a very small boy I was made to learn by heart certain of the fables of La Fontaine, and the moral of each was carefully explained to me. Among those I learnt was The Ant and The Grasshopper, which is devised to bring home to the young the useful lesson that in an imperfect world industry is rewarded and giddiness punished. In this admirable fable (I apologise for telling something which everyone is politely, but inexactly, supposed to know) the ant spends a laborious summer gathering its winter store, while the grasshopper sits on a blade of grass singing to the sun. Winter comes and the ant is comfortably provided for, but the grasshopper has an empty larder: he goes to the ant and begs for a little food. Then the ant gives him her classic answer:

“What were you doing in the summer time?”

“Saving your presence, I sang, I sang all day, all night.”

“You sang. Why, then go and dance.”

I do not ascribe it to perversity on my part, but rather to the inconsequence of childhood, which is deficient in moral sense, that I could never quite reconcile myself to the lesson. My sympathies were with the grasshopper and for some time I never saw an ant without putting my foot on it.

Bettelheim seems to have Maugham’s response to the fable in mind when he says,

Since according to the primitive (and a child’s) sense of justice only those who have done something really bad get destroyed, the fable seems to teach that it is wrong to enjoy life when it is good, as in summer. Even worse, the ant in this fable is a nasty animal, without any compassion for the suffering of the grasshopper – and this is the figure the child is asked to take for his example.

The nasty ant of Maugham’s own story is a model male citizen called George Ramsay, who

had never taken more than a fortnight’s holiday in the year for a quarter of a century. He was in his office every morning at nine-thirty and never left it till six. He was honest, industrious and worthy. He had a good wife, to whom he had never been unfaithful even in thought, and four daughters to whom he was the best of fathers. He made a point of saving a third of his income and his plan was to retire at fifty-five to a little house in the country where he proposed to cultivate his garden and play golf. His life was blameless.

Wanting to keep his life blameless, George can be blackmailed by his brother, who threatens to demean the family by taking up menial labor, unless George pays him. Tom Ramsay is the comic version of the man admired by Thrasymachus: the tyrant who can get away with anything. George’s brother has nothing of the just man’s obligation to pay back what he owes. He can charm his friends into going on lending to him.

George thinks old age will put Tom in the gutter. It doesn’t happen.

George grew red in the face.

“A few weeks ago he became engaged to a woman old enough to be his mother. And now she’s died and left him everything she had. Half a million pounds, a yacht, a house in London and a house in the country.”

Nice work if you can get it. Thrasymachus dreams of getting it. Glaucon and Adeimantus do too, while saying they want to be like George.

Being like George is thinking you know best. Plato’s brothers think Socrates knows best, when he sets them up as dictators of an imaginary fascist state. Maybe Socrates will go home and laugh about their foolishness. After Tom’s windfall, Maugham laughs in George’s face:

George Ramsay beat his clenched fist on the table.

“It’s not fair, I tell you, it’s not fair. Damn it, it’s not fair.”

I could not help it. I burst into a shout of laughter as I looked at George’s wrathful face, I rolled in my chair, I very nearly fell on the floor. George never forgave me. But Tom often asks me to excellent dinners in his charming house in Mayfair, and if he occasionally borrows a trifle from me, that is merely from force of habit. It is never more than a sovereign.

Socrates reports telling Adeimantus (394d–5a, Bloom translation),

“wherever the argument, like wind, tends, thither we must go … does this follow from what went before – that each [guardian] would do a fine job in one activity, not in many, and if he should try to put his hand to many, he would surely fail of attaining fame in all?”

“Of course that’s what would happen.”

“Doesn’t the same argument hold for imitation – the same man isn’t able to imitate many things as well as one?”

“No, he isn’t.”

“Then, he’ll hardly pursue any of the noteworthy activities while at the same time imitating many things and being a skilled imitator. For even in two kinds of imitation that seem close to one another, like writing comedy and tragedy, the same men aren’t capable of producing good imitations in both at the same time. Weren’t you just calling these two imitations?”

“I was, and what you say is true. The same men aren’t capable of doing both.”

“Nor are they able to be rhapsodes and actors at the same time.”


Nor are the same same actors, you know, even able to do both comic and tragic poets.

What does Adeimantus know about being an actor? If nobody can do a good job in more than one activity, what is Adeimantus’s best activity – micromanagement?

As for Socrates, in the Symposium he said “that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.” The Symposium has a couple of similarities with the Republic:

  • Each dialogue is really a monologue,

    • the Republic by Socrates, recalling a conversation begun the previous day,
    • the Symposium by Apollodorus, recalling the report of Aristodemus on a drinking party of years before.
  • Each of the reported conversations lasts all night (not explicitly so in the Republic, but it is long enough).

The difference worth pointing out now is that, in the Republic, comedy and tragedy are strictly distinguished; in the Symposium, they are practically identified, here in Jowett’s translation from Project Gutenberg:

Agathon arose in order that he might take his place on the couch by Socrates, when suddenly a band of revellers entered, and spoiled the order of the banquet. Some one who was going out having left the door open, they had found their way in, and made themselves at home; great confusion ensued, and every one was compelled to drink large quantities of wine. Aristodemus said that Eryximachus, Phaedrus, and others went away – he himself fell asleep, and as the nights were long took a good rest: he was awakened towards daybreak by a crowing of cocks, and when he awoke, the others were either asleep, or had gone away; there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon, who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round, and Socrates was discoursing to them. Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also. To this they were constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument. And first of all Aristophanes dropped off, then, when the day was already dawning, Agathon. Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him. At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual. In the evening he retired to rest at his own home.

Before the unnamed band of revellers burst in, Alcibiades did so, and likened Socrates to Marsyas the flautist, who challenged Apollo at music, lost, and was flayed alive for it:

And now, my boys, I shall praise Socrates in a figure which will appear to him to be a caricature, and yet I speak, not to make fun of him, but only for the truth’s sake. I say, that he is exactly like the busts of Silenus, which are set up in the statuaries’ shops, holding pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle, and have images of gods inside them. I say also that he is like Marsyas the satyr. You yourself will not deny, Socrates, that your face is like that of a satyr. Aye, and there is a resemblance in other points too. For example, you are a bully, as I can prove by witnesses, if you will not confess. And are you not a flute-player? That you are, and a performer far more wonderful than Marsyas. He indeed with instruments used to charm the souls of men by the power of his breath, and the players of his music do so still: for the melodies of Olympus are derived from Marsyas who taught them, and these, whether they are played by a great master or by a miserable flute-girl, have a power which no others have; they alone possess the soul and reveal the wants of those who have need of gods and mysteries, because they are divine. But you produce the same effect with your words only, and do not require the flute: that is the difference between you and him.

That’s the Symposium. Now, in the Republic, all musical modes are banned except two. Retained are (399a–b; Jowett)

  • the Dorian mode, for being “warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing …”
  • the Phrygian mode, “to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition …”

Socrates is talking with Glaucon here and proceeds to ban most instruments, including the flute, though not the pipe, at least for the country folk (399c–e; Jowett):

Then, I said, if these and these only are to be used in our songs and melodies, we shall not want multiplicity of notes or a panharmonic scale?

I suppose not.

Then we shall not maintain the artificers of lyres with three corners and complex scales, or the makers of any other many-stringed curiously-harmonised instruments?

Certainly not.

But what do you say to flute-makers and flute-players? Would you admit them into our State when you reflect that in this composite use of harmony the flute is worse than all the stringed instruments put together; even the panharmonic music is only an imitation of the flute?

Clearly not.

There remain then only the lyre and the harp for use in the city, and the shepherds may have a pipe in the country.

That is surely the conclusion to be drawn from the argument.

The preferring of Apollo and his instruments to Marsyas and his instruments is not at all strange, I said.

Not at all, he replied.

And so, by the dog of Egypt, we have been unconsciously purging the State, which not long ago we termed luxurious.

And we have done wisely, he replied.

Then let us now finish the purgation, I said. Next in order to harmonies, rhythms will naturally follow, and they should be subject to the same rules …

Let us recall how the dialogue began. Glaucon and Adeimantus said that they believed justice was always better than injustice, but they did not know how to prove it. They asked Socrates to prove it. He proposed to discern justice more easily in the city than in the individual. The current reading completes the distinction of the citizenry into the three classes detailed in the Noble Lie; but later we are going to be told how these classes correspond respectively to three parts of the individual soul.

The child does not need to be told that the Three Little Pigs are really one pig, or rather one growing human being. Here is Bettelheim again:

Since the three little pigs represent stages in the development of man, the disappearance of the first two little pigs is not traumatic; the child understands subconsciously that we have to shed earlier forms of existence if we wish to move on to higher ones. In talking to young children about “The Three Little Pigs,” one encounters only rejoicing about the deserved punishment of the wolf and the clever victory of the oldest pig – not grief over the fate of the two little ones. Even a young child seems to understand that all three are really one and the same in different stages – which is suggested by their answering the wolf in exactly the same words: “No, no, not by the hair of my chinni-chin-chin!”

Adeimantus and Glaucon should ask whether they have reached the higher stage of existence represented by the City in Speech.

In the last reading, Glaucon objected that the City was lacking in luxuries. It was a City of Pigs. Thus did Glaucon side with Thrasymachus, who believes in looking out for Number One. Now Socrates reveals the paradox: if you want luxury, you will need to live in a city so well disciplined that its leading citizens do not want luxuries.


Our reading is demarcated by one change in Socrates’s interlocutor.

  1. First Socrates addresses Adeimantus.

    1. He completes the the account begun in Book II of the censorship of the content of poetry. Homer is praised for Diomedes’s admonishing of Sthenelus.

    2. At 392c, Socrates continues with the supervision of form. He gives his rendition of the Iliad in prosaic indirect speech, and he banishes the poets.

  2. Glaucon objects at 398c that “everybody” does not include him.

    1. He does that after Socrates suggests that, from what has already been said, everybody can infer the appropriate restrictions on the music to which poetry might be set. Glaucon and Socrates proceed to restrict the allowed modes and instruments.

    2. At 403c, they pass to the training of the body. People without good bodies will be left to die.

    3. At 412b, Glaucon and Socrates distinguish the rulers from the other guardians, and we get the Noble Lie.

    4. At 415d, the military camp to house the guardians is chosen. There shall be no private property.

Our reading (Stephanus 386–417) is part of a stretch of three chapters in Badiou’s translation:

  1. The Disciplines of the Mind: Literature and Music (376c–403c).
  2. The Disciplies of the Body: Nutrition, Medicine, and Physical Education (403c–412c).
  3. Objective Justice (412c–534d).

The Selection of Rulers

Glaucon agrees with Socrates that the rulers must be older and better than the ruled. Does Glaucon expect to be a ruler or to be ruled; and if the latter, how can he judge who is to rule him?

Socrates puts the conditions for leadership a bit more precisely as follows (412d–3c):

“Then we must pick out from the other guardians such men as to our observation appear most inclined through the entire course of their lives to be zealous to do what they think for the interest of the state, and who would be least likely to consent to do the opposite.”

“That would be a suitable choice,” he said.

“Well then, as I was just saying, we must look for those who are the best guardians of the indwelling conviction that what they have to do is what they at any time believe to be best for the state …”

At the beginning of Book II, Glaucon made a big deal of the difference between seeming and being. He wanted to be shown the value of being just, even if you seemed unjust. Now he agrees that rulers need only do what seems to be in the interest of their city. The city itself is then like the tyrant of Thrasymachus. Is there not the possibility of error, as in Book I? Cannot the rulers make a mistake? If so, how will it be corrected?

The Content of Poetry

Socrates urges the teaching, through poetry, that we should

  • not fear death;
  • not wail over the dead, or anything else;
  • not laugh either;
  • be disciplined regarding drink, sex, and eating;
  • not love gifts and money;
  • not see Achilles or any other child of a god as doing anything unseemly.

As for what humans do, we should not be seen as deriving happiness from injustice; however, if we had known what this meant, we should not have been having this conversation in the first place. So says Socrates, perhaps hinting that there’s something funny about the whole dialogue. Adeimantus does not take the hint.

According to Socrates, we should not have Thetis in the Iliad bemoaning the fate of her son Achilles. What would Socrates say of Jesus Christ in the Garden, bemoaning his own fate?

Socrates wants to ban the speech of Phoenix, in Book IX of the Iliad, that Adeimantus referred to in Book II of the Republic. This is where Phoenix tells Achilles to accept Agamemnon’s apology, just as the gods accept our prayers, at least when these are accompanied with sacrifices, as Agamemnon’s apology comes with gifts. Neither Socrates nor Adeimantus recalls that the speech of Phoenix was already mentioned; neither does Shorey or Bloom in his notes.

According to Socrates, there should be no praise

  • of Phoenix, for urging Achilles to aid the Achaeans in return for Agamemnon’s gifts;
  • of Achilles, for ultimately accepting those gifts;
  • of Achilles again, for accepting Priam’s gifts in return for Hector’s body.

For the sake of justice, Achilles does initially reject Phoenix’s recommendation. It seems important that Socrates does not point this out.

More precisely, what Achilles rejects is the insincerity of Agamemnon’s apology. A lot of people are said to do this today, and it would seem to be a problem, at least in the judgment of Anne Applebaum in “The New Puritans” (The Atlantic, August 31, 2021). The article comes with the abstract, or tagline,

Social codes are changing, in many ways for the better. But for those whose behavior doesn’t adapt fast enough to the new norms, judgment can be swift – and merciless.

Regarding apologies for that behavior, Applebaum says,

More often than not, apologies will be parsed, examined for “sincerity” – and then rejected … Because apologies have become ritualized, they invariably seem insincere. Websites now offer “sample templates” for people who need to apologize; some universities offer advice on how to apologize to students and employees, and even include lists of good words to use (mistake, misunderstand, misinterpret).

I should think the best advice on apologizing would be to avoid the word “if,” as in “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

In the Platonic monologue called Apology, Socrates makes a non-apology for his social transgressions, and he is put to death for it. Applebaum quotes a source who alludes to this:

… a profound generational shift has transpired. “I think people’s tolerance for discomfort – people’s tolerance for dissonance, for not hearing exactly what they want to hear – has now gone down to zero,” one person told me. “Discomfort used to be a term of praise about pedagogy – I mean, the greatest discomforter of all was Socrates.”

Now that discomforter is leading Adeimantus and Glaucon in the founding of an intolerant state.

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  1. By On Plato’s Republic, 1 « Polytropy on September 12, 2021 at 8:59 am

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