Badiou, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey

Index to this series

The discussion having been postponed for our fifth reading in the Republic, I give here some remarks that started out as part of my commentary on Book IV. The remarks concern

  • the translations of the Republic that I have been reading, mainly those of
    • Alain Badiou (b. 1937), translated in turn from the French by Susan Spitzer;
    • Allan Bloom (1930–92);
    • Paul Shorey (1857–1934);
  • the “Interpretive Essay” that accompanies Bloom’s translation;
  • a 1969 review of Bloom’s translation and essay by Gilbert Ryle (1900–76), who embarrasses the profession of philosophy (if it be a profession).

I quote also Christopher Hitchens, Daryl H. Rice, Agnes Callard, Martha Nussbaum, and Henry David Thoreau.

Palm trimmed
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 13, 2021

Here’s a table of contents:


In the preface of his own translation, Bloom says Shorey’s is one of the two best English translations. The other is A. D. Lindsay’s, but I know nothing about him or it.

Being part of the Loeb Classical Library, Shorey’s translation is

  • convenient for

    • including the Greek, so that one can see that Shorey makes “the principle of doing one’s own business” (433b) from τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν (Bloom has “the practice of minding one’s own business”);
    • using footnotes rather than endnotes;
  • inconvenient for having

    • two volumes;
    • small thin pages, so that leafing through to find the passage you want is hard.

Palm bearded
Profesörler Sitesi, Altınova, Balıkesir, Turkey
September 12, 2021


His translation is amusing, but I continue to ponder whether Badiou is making

  • a bad attempt at narrative or
  • a parody of bad attempts.

Let’s look at the analysis of the soul at Stephanus 441a–e, first in Bloom’s version. Socrates is reporting his conversation with Glaucon.

“Necessarily,” he said, “there is the third.”

“Yes,” I said, “if it should come to light as something other than the calculating part, just as it has come to light as different from the desiring part.”

“But it’s not hard,” he said, “for it to come to light as such. For, even in little children, one could see that they are full of spirit straight from birth, while, as for calculating, some seem to me never to get a share of it, and the many do so quite late.”

“Yes, by Zeus,” I said, “what you have said is fine. Moreover, in beasts one could see that what you say is so. And to them can be added the testimony of Homer that we cited in that other place somewhere earlier,<”>

He smote his breast and reproached
his heart with word …

<“>Here, you see, Homer clearly presents that which has calculated about better and worse and rebukes that which is irrationally spirited as though it were a different part.”

“What you say is entirely correct,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “we’ve had a hard swim through that and pretty much agreed that the same classes that are in the city are in the soul of each one severally and that their number is equal.”

Here now is what Badiou does to that, in Spitzer’s English translation on pages 141–2:

–I opt for the three-term structure, said Glaucon enthusiastically.

–But we still have to prove, said Socrates prudently, that Affect is distinct from Thought, the way we thought it was from Desire.

–I have a proof, Glaucon triumphantly announced. Little children. They scream with rage, they explode, they run all over the place, they turn red with fury, they have one hell of an affect, while thought is still totally stunted in them.

–Good point! exclaimed Socrates. You could also think about animals. The most ferocious ones, those whose affect is very highly developed, like bulls, roosters, or even wolves, aren’t the cleverest – those would be monkeys, parrots, or foxes.

–I protest, cried Amantha, I solemnly protest this dogmatic old way of regarding children as animals. That’s vulgar Platonism, gentlemen; it’s all a bunch of garbage.

–Well, said a conciliatory Socrates, just to please you I’m going to quote Homer:

Beating his chest, the stalwart lionheart
Odysseus spoke to his angry heart
With words of the finest, subtlest art.

In this passage …

–… The Odyssey, Book 20, adapted to fit your context, commented Amanda.

Socrates kept his cool, although he was deeply annoyed by Amantha’s total recall of poetry.

–In this passage, then, old Homer clearly tells us that there are two distinct agencies and that one rises up against the other: the one that subtly distinguishes between better and worse and the one that’s nothing but blind rage. This time we have Thought versus Affect.

–Congratulations! concluded Amantha. You really had me going there, once again. Congratulations.

–It wasn’t easy! said Socrates, winded. I had to work like a dog! But we’re more or less agreed: there are as many agencies in individuals, considered one by one as Subjects, as there are functions in a country, and there’s a sort of similarity between these agencies and functions.

It’s nice that Socrates now has some concrete examples to use, but Badiou missed the memo warning would-be fiction-writers against too many stage directions. As Christopher Hitchens wrote about Bob Hope (and I quoted in “Narnia”),

It’s always a bad sign when a Times reporter has to signal the fact that he’s dealing with wit. Some of them do this by resorting to the stale words “he quipped,” or “he shot back,” lest we miss the “barb” altogether.

Perhaps then, as with his reference to vulgar Platonism, Badious is aping a Times reporter for comic effect.


Philosophy is a game for Ryle, who delights in engaging in trash-talk. If I don’t misunderstand his allusion, the game for him is darts, something to be played at the pub:

In fact plenty of Sayre’s interpretations will elicit grateful, because sharply focused, disagreements. He is overloyal to Cornford; and Cornford’s amateurish philosophical exegeses are sometimes rendered more brittle by the technical stiffenings that Sayre contributes to them … those of us who are tepid about armchair taxonomy, will, for Plato’s sake, wish to shoot down the idea that he either did frequent or thought that he should frequent this philosophical blind-alley. Our target is now well marked for Bulls’ Eyes, Inners, and Outers.

He is speaking there of Plato’s Analytic Method by Kenneth M. Sayre, the third book that Ryle reviews, or avoids reviewing, in “If Plato Only Knew” (The New York Review of Books, November 6, 1969). Bloom seems correct in his response of April 9, 1970:

In themselves Ryle’s opinions are beneath consideration, but they do deserve diagnosis as a symptom of a sickness which is corrupting our understanding of old writers and depriving a generation of their liberating influence.

Ryle has classified Bloom among

the large tribe of unphilosophical interpreters who have been fascinated by the Platonic dialogue as literature, drama, biography, sermon, prophecy or jeremiad, or else as vignette of Athenian social and cultural life, but have been incompetent to appraise their arguments.

Sayre is in the smaller tribe,

whose prime interest is in Plato’s arguments. His dialogues are, for them, not just vivid conversation pieces or improving homilies; they are disputations in which things are or purport to be proved. These interpreters try to do justice to Plato’s reasonings by Aristotelianizing them. They dessicate the Socratic debates into premises and conclusions.

One might think Ryle disliked the second tribe too. Aristotelianizing and desiccating would not seem to be praiseworthy. For Ryle, it seems, they are; for he concludes his review by saying,

Sayre does Plato the justice of examining his work.

He has explained Sayre’s examining as follows.

He aims to interpret Plato by anatomizing the dialogues’ arguments, with the help of procedures and especially locutions of modern formal logicians. Of these, here and there, he makes too much of a parade. Sayre is not under the illusion that his exposition of an argument is correct merely because it is couched in up-to-date codes, shorthands, and idioms, but he rightly thinks that an interpretation becomes effectively checkable for correctness or incorrectness as it acquires edges of its own. If a stencil is the wrong one, its misfits glare.

I suppose an interpretation of somebody else’s argument could be correct or incorrect in two ways:

  • as a representation of the original argument,
  • as an argument in itself.

Ryle must mean the former here, because of the stencil metaphor. He thinks Sayre is finding the stencils in heaven that Plato used to trace out the arguments that he wrote down in dialogue form.

The stencil metaphor makes some sense for mathematics, where we read to learn not what a particular mathematician is thinking, but the theorem that he or she is thinking about. We conceive of the theorem as having an independent, eternal existence, and indeed, later parts of the Republic will give us the opportunity to think about this conception.

Even in mathematics though, the notion that a theorem has independent existence may inhibit our understanding of another person’s work, particularly if that work comes to us from centuries ago. We go wrong with Euclid’s account of proportions of numbers (in Book VII of the Elements) when we use the modern conception of a ratio as a number itself.

The second book that Ryle reviews is Plato: The Dialogues, Second and Third Periods, by Paul Friedländer, translated by Hans Meyerhoff. As with Sayre, I know nothing about Friedländer but what Ryle says, which includes that

he is, unfortunately, at his worst where a dialogue has a philosophical point and proceeds by philosophical argumentation. Friedländer does not, like Bloom, shirk these hazards; he conscientiously wades in, but is straightaway pathetically out of his depth.

Ryle proceeds to display six examples where he thinks Friedländer is at fault. Ryle gives some suggestion of what’s wrong, but then says “Oh dear!” – six times. You are supposed to agree with him, lest you be judged out of your depth. This is the unfortunate tribalism of academia, to which Bloom responds with righteous resentment:

Ryle, in his unphilosophic, nay, dogmatic, self-satisfaction, supposes he does Plato a favor by torturing Plato into thinking like Ryle.

In keeping with his assurance that his concerns are the only ones proper to the man who desires to know, Ryle diagnoses as sub-philosophic the political concerns with which he takes me to be preoccupied. But it is not I who invented Socrates, the founder of political philosophy, whose revolution in philosophy consisted in turning away from the divine to the human things. When one thinks about it for a moment, one becomes aware of just how outrageous it is for an interpreter of the Republic to be ridiculed for talking about politics. The explicit theme of the Republic is justice, and it teaches that philosophy is the culmination of the passion for justice. This is surely incomprehensible to Ryle, but that is his problem, not Plato’s or mine.

I am going to criticize Bloom, but not, I hope, as Ryle does.

In “Anthropology of Mathematics,” I had a look at an article whose lede is,

The passing of this eclectic and questioning man in his prime allowed the narrower and more imperious Gilbert Ryle to dominate British philosophy. Had Collingwood lived, could the deep and damaging schism with continental thought have been avoided?

The article is “How the untimely death of R G Collingwood changed the course of philosophy forever,” by Ray Monk (Prospect, September 5, 2019). Collingwood’s death changed philosophy for the worse, by the evidence of Ryle’s own words, though Collingwood too could try to persuade by intimidation.


The Bloom translation includes an “Interpretive Essay,” which is almost half the length of the translation proper:

  • the translation is on pages 3–303,
  • the interpretation is on pages 307–436.

According to Ryle,

This Essay is not a bit satisfactory. It has the outward appearance of a running précis of the Republic, but it constantly slides, without signals, into speculative elucidations, into objections, and into expressions of Bloom’s own sentiments, including some understandably anti-utopian ones. He ought to warn the student that it is not in Plato’s but in Bloom’s mind that “Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we call utopianism …”

I have a book called A Guide to Plato’s Republic (1998), which I must have bought on discount at Ilhan Ilhan bookshop in Ankara. Author Daryl H. Rice does warn students:

As an interpretive guide, this brief volume is not substitute for the Republic itself. It is not even a comprehensive commentary … you do yourself a grave disservice if you do not read the original text.

Perhaps students who need such a warning do not belong at university, or else the philosophy department is offering the wrong kind of course. I think Agnes Callard is referring to that kind of course when she says in “The Real College Scandal” (The Point, August 15, 2021), which I used for the third Republic reading,

I was teaching a class on Aristotle’s scientific system … I did not know the material I was teaching very well. Aristotle’s natural philosophy is not my specialization, and I intentionally chose readings I was least comfortable with. Minutes before I walked into the classroom each Tuesday or Thursday afternoon, I had been buried in commentaries and confusion. There was so much I did not understand about Aristotle’s arguments against atomism! But time was up, and I had to get in there and say something. If you were in that class, you probably thought what I said sounded pretty good, pretty coherent. Actually, it was. But that wasn’t all me. I was looking at the students’ faces, noticing how they paid attention when I was making sense, noticing when they didn’t follow. Their interest drew me out. I listened to their questions and reframed the argument on the spot; sometimes an objection was so devastating I had to reorganize a whole lecture on the fly. Sometimes, when I just plain didn’t know the answer, I asked the question back at the class.

Why was Callard the only person who had to get in there and say something? Why was not every student insisting on the right, and accepting the responsibility, to say something and be questioned on it?

I understand lecturing on mathematics, natural science, and history. However, I do not understand why every philosophy course is not as at St John’s College, where participants agree to read something, then gather to talk about it around a big table.

Not everybody in Israel wants to live on a kibbutz, and not everybody at university wants to do more in the classroom than sit and be taught. There is an idea that philosophy is done by “a lonely thinker of profound thoughts,” whom we can only listen to. In “Inheriting Socrates” (The Point, January 3, 2010), taken up at the beginning of my post on the third reading in Pascal, Martha Nussbaum prefers the example of Socrates, who

has a passion for argument. He doesn’t like long speeches, and he doesn’t make them. He also doesn’t like authority. He takes nothing on trust, not from the poets, not from the politicians, not from any other source of cultural prestige and power. He questions everything, and he accepts only what survives reason’s demand for consistency, for clear definitions and for cogent explanations. This also means that Socrates and his interlocutor are equals: the fact that he is a philosopher gives him no special claim, no authority.

More precisely, this is Socrates, “as he is portrayed in the early Platonic dialogues … and as he describes his own way of life in the Platonic Apology.” Those early dialogues do not include the Republic, where Glaucon and Adeimantus do give Socrates the authority to explain justice to them.

One then should remember that Socrates is indeed explaining it to them. Bloom finds this so important, he indicates at the top of each page of his translation who is speaking. You can usually tell which words are by Socrates, but not so easily whether the other words are of Adeimantus or Glaucon.

Bloom interprets the Republic in the following sections so far in our reading.

  • Book I

    • 327a–8b (the festival at Piraeus and the road to Athens)
    • 328b–31d (the conversation with Cephalus)
    • 331d–6a (the conversation with Polemarchus)
    • 336b–54b (the conversation with Thrasymachus)
  • Book II

    • 357a–67e (Glaucon and Adeimantus on the praises of injustice and justice)
    • [367e–9b] (Socrates undertakes to investigate justice in a city)
    • 369b–72e (the healthy city of Adeimantus)
    • 372e–6c (the fevered city of Glaucon, with guardians like dogs)
    • 376c–83c (the education of the guardians)
  • Book III

    • 386a–92c (the content of poetry)
    • 392c–403c (the form of music)
    • 403c–412b (gymnastic and medicine)
    • 412b–6d (the rulers and the Noble Lie)
  • Book IV

    • 419c–427c (the completion of the city)
    • 427c–45e (the search for justice)

I have read the interpretation, only through Book III. It is good on how the words of Socrates are crafted to meet the needs of his particular interlocuters. Bloom is brilliant on Book I in particular. After that, the ideas grow strange. Bloom may know Plato better than I do, but I’m not sure about Homer and ancient science – not to mention mathematics, even as understood by Plato.

The whole discussion of the Republic begins with Socrates’s questioning of the understanding of an elder. I am going to question Bloom, who actually addressed my class at our commencement of life after St John’s College. When I disagree with him, I may be disagreeing with Plato.

On Twitter recently, examples were shared of comments that trigger the medievalist (“You know how medieval people never had baths?”), the archeologist (“I love Ancient Aliens!”), and the photojournalist (“You must have a really good camera!”). Bloom triggers me as a mathematician, by saying, in paraphrasing the refinement by Thrasymachus of what a ruler is (on his page 330, concerning the last part of Book I),

A ruler who errs about his advantage is not as such a ruler any more than a mathematician who errs in calculation is as such a mathematician.

Like that of Euclid and Apollonius, my work as a mathematician is not calculation. However, what Bloom goes on to say (page 331) is really nice:

After Thrasymachus posits the precise definition of the ruler, a definition which assumes that ruling is an art and that art is a great good, it is a simple matter for Socrates to refute – or rather to silence – him … Thrasymachus’ [sic] definition leads to the furthest extreme from his intention. If one wanted to have a city of men who cared only for the public rather than the private, one would only have to find a way of constituting one peopled by artisans in the precise sense – which is just the solution of the Republic. To the extent to which a man is devoted to his calling, he forgets his own advantage.

Bloom finds meaning in details where I have not detected it. When Socrates gives examples of when it is not just to give something back,

  • with Cephalus, this thing is weapons;
  • with Polemarchus, gold.

For Bloom, the distinction is important, because, unlike the gold, the weapons could be used to harm the person who handed them over, and this is the only thing that worries Cephalus. I think the weapons could be used in a coup, which would harm many people, including the rebel himself, since the coup would probably fail. Gold could be used for a the same purpose.

I don’t know whether Bloom worried about violence in his personal life. Myself, I last read the Republic in 2016, after rebel soldiers had bombed the parliament building in Ankara. As I happen to be reading also from Thoreau’s Collected Essays and Poems (The Library of America, 2001), I want to quote the following, although it is about how “We have only to elevate our view a little, to see the whole forest as a garden.” This is in “Autumnal Tints,” where Thoreau goes on to say,

Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly … We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads, – and then we can hardly see anything else.

I wonder what is in Bloom’s head about science and truth when, on his page 338, concerning the first part of Book II, he says of Glaucon and Adeimantus,

They have often heard the arguments of rhetoricians and sophists, all of which, according to Glaucon, propound the thesis of Thrasymachus. This teaching is the application to politics of what has come to be known as pre-Socratic philosophy. The results of the study of nature led the earlier philosophers to believe that there is no cosmic support for justice, that the gods, if they exist at all, have no care for men. Justice is, then, merely human convention and hence a matter of indifference to those who wish to live according to nature. This does not necessarily lead to the consequence that one must desire to become a tyrant, for it is possible to care for things which cannot be procured by political life, for example, philosophy. But, in general, most men do care for the political life or things which can best be procured by it. Sophists and rhetoricians extract the political significance from the philosophers’ knowledge of nature. They teach that the proper study of politics is not the laws or justice, for they are phantasms, but rhetoric, the means of getting one’s way. At best, then, the study of nature apparently leads to indifference to the city and its laws; at worst it leads to tyranny. This was the suspicion of the Athenian demos, and it may very well be the case. Devotion to justice or the opposite is not simply a question of decency or corruption but one of the truth of things. And if what Thrasymachus teaches is the truth, the city in self-defense must suppress that truth.

It may be recalled that Socrates was accused of being a proponent of this pre-Socratic philosophy so inimical to the city’s interest and a teacher of rhetoric. The Republic defends Socrates against this accusation: here he is shown to be the protector of justice against a rhetorician. Of course, he does not simply defend the justice of the ancestral laws of the city; his is a philosophic response to a philosophic challenge, and therefore it, too, is subversive of the ancestral. This response cannot merely be an exhortation to the practice of justice; it must also attempt to find a natural support for justice. The study of justice therefore leads to the study of nature; the character of justice depends on the character of nature as a whole. Hence the Republic, beginning with justice, must be a comprehensive book. In being forced to defend justice, Socrates is forced to enter forbidden realms and to expound novel conceits. Innocence once lost cannot be regained; the substitute is philosophizing in the fullest sense.

This makes sense as an overview of what the Republic is all about. It may be a fair summary of what Socrates and his opponents and predecessors think they were doing.

Myself, I think natural science can answer no questions from political science, because

  • the former presumes that nature never fails, while
  • the latter understands that a polity may fail by its own standard, which could be Liberté, égalité, fraternité, or Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh (now Yurtta bariş, dünyada barış, i.e. “Peace at home, peace in the world”), or “Liberty and justice for all.”

Natural science can tell us nothing, either about the value of such standards in the first place, or about how well they are being met.

In the first quoted paragraph, Bloom says, “the study of nature apparently leads to indifference to the city and its laws.” If that is apparently so, I think the reality is the reverse, that our indifference to politics leads us to study nature instead.

Hostility to politics may lead us to try to dismiss it by means of natural science. Since the authorities in Turkey are now asking of all foreign faculty here their h-index, I propose the invention of this number as an example of hostility to politics in the broad sense.

The Republic is called in Greek Πολιτεία, which has the English form Polity. Our polities are so big now, we want to use short-cuts in judging people. We may use nationality, age, sex, or race, although these have no inherent connection with what we are looking for in people. The h-index is no different in principle, although it is based on the personal judgments of researchers. One’s h-index is the greatest number h of one’s papers, each of which has at least h citations. This takes no account of why those papers were cited; it could be for error, or even because an editor demanded it.

To say that justice is “merely human convention” is to overlook the profound fact that we humans can establish conventions. There is nothing like them in nature; and yet humans do in fact come together to form agreements.

In looking at 369b–72e, whose topic I describe as the healthy city of Adeimantus – what his brother calls a city of sows –, Bloom says of Glaucon,

his desire to rule is the expression of an independently noble impulse which, if fully developed, would find its satisfaction only in contemplation and would wish to overcome the body’s desires in order to enjoy its own peculiar pleasure undisturbed.

I really wonder what is meant by contemplation here. Presently Bloom says,

This first city is obviously impossible. It depends on an unfounded belief in nature’s providential generosity, in a “hidden hand” which harmonizes private and public interest, a belief to which Adeimantus would like to subscribe. This city is also undesirable, as will soon become clear.

I think what is “obviously impossible” is the next city, which is supposed to roll on like a wheel when founded on the right principles. Meanwhile, some us try to live in the first city. Thoreau is such a person, although he admits,

Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient. Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee, that, if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery.

That is from “Life Without Principle.”

I should like to see the Iliad considered on its own terms. It is so considered, neither by Socrates, nor by Bloom. The basic story is the righteous response of Achilles to the injustice of Agamemnon, but our two commentators overlook this, as far as I can tell. Plato’s leaving it out of the Republic so far may have a point; whether it does or not, I should like a modern commentator to address it. Bloom does not, though when he takes up the first part of Book III, he observes that the Homeric passages about Hades, and many others, are usually about Achilles for a reason (page 354):

Socrates brings Achilles to the foreground in order to analyze his character and ultimately to do away with him as the model for the young. The figure of Achilles, more than any teaching or law, compels the souls of Greeks and all men who pursue glory. He is the hero of heroes, admired and imitated by all. And this is what Socrates wishes to combat; he teaches that if Achilles is the model, men will not pursue philosophy, that what he stands for is inimical to the founding of the best city and the practice of the best way of life. Socrates is engaging in a contest with Homer for the title of teacher of the Greeks – or of mankind. One of his principal goals is to put himself in the place of Achilles as the authentic representation of the best human type.

It seems more likely that Plato wants to put Socrates in place of Achilles; but maybe this is what Bloom means, taking Socrates as the character created by Plato in his dialogues. Whether the ambition described by Bloom belongs to Plato or Socrates himself, it would seem to be a betrayal of the contemplative life, which can only be chosen freely. In any case, I think the Socrates of the Republic does not analyze the character of Achilles; if he did, he would look carefully at why Achilles both withdraws from battle and rejects the embassy from Agamemnon that asks him to rejoin.

Passing to the next section of Book III, Bloom says (page 359),

If poetry is to be salutary for the warriors, it is not, according to Socrates, sufficient to change its content, but its form must also be changed. He forces the poetically inclined Adeimantus to give up the greatest charm of poetry – imitation … The poet hides himself behind his work, and the audience forgets, for the moment, that the world into which they enter is not the real one. The spectators have the sense of the reality of men and events which are more interesting and more beautiful than any they know in their own lives. This is what makes poetry so peculiarly attractive.

It may be a danger that people use poetry for escapism; but this is not why we have poetry. If Bloom knows this, I think he ought to say so, even if Socrates does not.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By On Plato’s Republic, 1 « Polytropy on September 19, 2021 at 10:04 am

    […] September 18th […]

  2. By Politics « Polytropy on September 24, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    […] « Badiou, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey […]

  3. By Nature « Polytropy on October 8, 2021 at 10:29 am

    […] natural support for justice,” as Allan Bloom says he must? It is strictly impossible, I say in “Bloom, Badiou, Ryle, Shorey.” Inevitably there is more that can be said, and I shall try to get some of it said […]

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