A.G. Sertillanges sees the intellectual life as essentially a vocation, and in the most spiritual sense of the word. It is, as he says, “a sacred call”…
“More than ever before thought is waiting for men, and men for thought. The world is in danger for lack of life-giving maxims. We are in a train rushing ahead at top speed, no signals visible. The planet is going it knows not where, its law has failed it: who will give it back its sun?” —A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
“Many of wish in later years that, when we were younger, someone would have told us about certain things, often certain books that, as we look back on them, would have greatly helped us know the truth of things. Some of these books are directed to what is true, to reality, to what is, but a certain number are rather directed to the question of ‘how do I go about knowing?'” —Father James Schall, from the Foreword of A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
Many of us live much, perhaps most, of our intellectual life on blogs. I don’t condemn this, of course, for the irony and hypocrisy of such a condemnation would be off the charts. Yet, the kind of intellectual habits that we are forming and the quality of intellectual fare of which we are partaking—the overall character of the intellectual life we are living—in and by long-term, virtual inhabitation in blog culture is something we vitally (literally) need to consider, even if such consideration takes place right smack in blog country.
So, talking about a book on a blog isn’t the worst thing one could do, for we might be talking about a blog-about-a-blog on a blog, or some such ridiculous cyber-iteration. Indeed, talking about a book that was written before computers existed, let alone the Internet, by an old-school, French, Dominican Thomist, with the title The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods is, all-things-considered, about the best thing one could be talking about on a blog. Such talk is bound to shed rare light on our contemporary situation as virtual intellectuals. Let me begin this four-part series of reflections on Sertillanges’ magnificent book with some words of his that provide a profound critique of and warning against our blog culture with regard to soulcraft:
We want to develop breadth of mind, to practice comparative study, to keep the horizon before us; these things cannot be done without much reading. But much and little are opposites only in the same domain…[M]uch is necessary in the absolute sense, because the work to be done is vast; but little, relatively to the deluge of writing that…floods our libraries and our minds nowadays…. What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort…. The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set it in uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers…. The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes…. [N]ever read when you can reflect; read only, except in moments of recreation, what concerns the purpose you are pursuing; and read little, so as not to eat up your interior silence.
There could hardly be a more sobering critique of blog addiction than this, written before there was even any information about the information age. Yet, Sertillanges was not a Luddite (he instructs us how to take notes on note cards and categorize then in cabinets, not because of any peculiar primitivism, but because the filing cabinet was the latest technology at hand), and if he were alive today, he would certainly make good use of the incredible mind-expanding and cave-escaping potential of the Internet. Of course, of all people, Sertillanges would be keenly aware of its special soul-suffocating and cave-constricting dangers.
But all this is to say that The Intellectual Life is a book as relevant today as it was almost a century ago when it was written. The intellectual life has not evolved, mutated, or corrupted in its essence, for it is the life of the human soul made in the image of likeness of God, and thus can change as little as God can change. Perhaps it is a book even more relevant today, as intellectual life in the post-modern, post-Christian, post-industrial, post-Empire, post-rational—and post-intellectual?—age—becomes even more virtual, artificially sustained, and counterfeit. Alasdair MacIntyre writes:
What they set themselves to achieve…was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness…. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.
The “they” to whom MacIntyre refers here are St. Benedict and his followers in the sixth century, who did all they could to preserve the precious Christian and classical civilization, the literature, history, philosophy, and spirituality that had formed the basis of civilized society up to then. “We,” however, are charged with preserving the existence and character of, not just the artifacts of intellect, but intellect itself, which seems in real danger of being supplanted and replaced with some sort of communal electric brain a la The Matrix or C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength of which individual human persons are to be its willing, mindless circuits. The barbarians are not just among us but have been ruling us for some time, as MacIntyre has pointed out, and if we want our culture once again to be ruled by Intellect, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, then we ourselves must be so ruled, and so we must read Sertillanges.
Do you want to have a humble share in perpetuating wisdom among men, in gathering up the inheritance of the ages, in formulating the rules for the present time, in discovering facts and causes, in turning men’s wandering eyes towards first causes and their hearts towards supreme ends, in reviving if necessary some dying flame, in organizing the propaganda of truth and goodness? That is the lot reserved to you (11-12).
Sertillanges is an antidote to our anti-intellectual culture and a lens by which to discern its myriad pseudo-intellectual surrogates and expose its dangerous distractions. In the remainder of this review essay, we shall examine its major themes and comment on selected passages. This is especially not a book that can be adequately summarized, for it is essentially a set of aphorisms, though systematically and adeptly combined into a flowing whole, so I shall quote often and generously, and I will leave off commentary on the last few chapters in the hopes that the reader will tolle lege.
As the above quote reveals, Sertillanges sees the intellectual life as essentially a vocation, and in the most spiritual sense of the word. It is, as he says, “a sacred call.” Thus, it is not for everyone, in the same way that a vocation to the religious life is not for all Christians. It is, of course, an obligation for every human being to develop his intellectual life, since the intellect is at the heart of our being, and our job in life is, if nothing else, the care of the soul. Yet the special calling to the intellectual life is distinct from the universal call to soul-craft, just as the call to the religious is distinct from the universal call to holiness. Moreover, it is, like the religious life, only for an elite few:
It implies a serious resolution. The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometime superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves (4).
For Sertillanges, the intellectual vocation is a calling to discover, articulate, and transmit truth. How far this is from the understanding and practice of the intellectual life in contemporary academia, in which one’s soul becomes grist for the collective academic mill, the function of which is to recuperate a perpetually dying, artificial, stillborn “intellectual life” of truth-indifferent and jargon-ridden journals, ruthless career-worship, status-quo opportunism, and inner-circle gossip-mongering. Try to live a genuinely intellectual life in the midst of that!
But there is hope, for Sertillanges notes more than once that the intellectual’s best and most essential friend is solitude, though isolation is to be avoided: “The man with too much solitude, grows timid, abstracted, a little odd: he stumbles along amid realities like a sailor who has just come off his ship; he has lost the sense of the human lot; he seems to look on you as if you were a ‘proposition’ to be inserted in a syllogism, or an example to be put down in a notebook” (59). The intellectual’s worst and most dangerous associate is the world, especially a world like contemporary academia!
When the world does not like you, it takes its revenge on you; if it happens to like you, it takes its revenge still by corrupting you. Your only recourse is to work far from the world, as indifferent to its judgments as you are ready to serve it…. Do not busy yourself with the sayings and doings of the world, that is with such that have no moral and intellectual bearing; avoid useless comings and goings which waste hours and fill the mind with wandering thoughts. These are the conditions of that sacred thing, quiet recollection (xxiii, 47).
Of course, most of us have no choice but to dwell in the vengeful, worldly, and wordy halls of academia, where much thought is “wandering,” and where bureaucratic “useless comings and goings” are endless. What Sertillanges counsels is not a flight from the world but, simply, balance. For example, the intellectual desperately needs the support of a robust and authentic community of fellow intellectuals, but sometimes it is enough, he says, just to know there are others laboring at the same task, whether or not there is face-to-face or close proximity to such a community. Perhaps blog communities fulfill this purpose in our community-starved day!
With regard to solitude, specifically, the amount of concentrated intellectual work that is required in the intellectual vocation, Sertillanges’ prescription is quite surprising:
Have you two hours a day? Can you undertake to guard them jealously, to use them ardently, and then, being of those who have authority in the Kingdom of God, can you drink the chalice of which these pages would wish you to make you savor the exquisite and bitter taste? If so, have confidence. Nay, rest in quiet certainty (11).
Two hours a day, when one thinks of it, is not an inconsiderable amount, especially when we consider the difficulty of engaging in even a few minutes of genuine, contemplative intellectual activity in a culture “distracted from distraction by distraction” to use T.S. Eliot’s incredibly apt phrase. For Sertillanges, the fundamental virtue required of the intellectual is attention, and two hours a day of it is plenty. Here he is in accord with Simone Weil in her fantastic essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”: “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”
Like Weil, Sertillanges sees the pursuit of knowledge as the pursuit of God, a form of prayer, and just as attention is the sine qua non of the contemplation of God, so is it the indispensable virtue for the attainment of knowledge and the discovery of truth. How to develop one’s faculty of attention? Live a moral life! Sertillanges makes this absolutely clear. Inordinate and uncontrolled passions destroy the intellectual life more than anything else. What to give our attention to precisely? This question is a bit more complex; Sertillanges’ direction on the organization of the intellectual’s life and work shall be the topic for the next installment, and it is a quite rigorous systematic plan he gives us! But for all that, Sertillanges’ is a balanced approach—both mystical and down-to-earth. Before we get down to earth, let us follow Sertillanges into the heavens:
Every truth is a reflection; behind the reflection and giving it value, is the Light. Every being is a witness; every fact is a divine secret; beyond them is the object of the revelation, the hero witnessed to. Everything true stands out against the Infinite as against its background; is related to it; belongs to it. A particular truth may indeed occupy the stage, but there are boundless immensities beyond. One might say a particular truth is only a symbol, a symbol that is real, a sacrament of the absolute (31).
Having in the first three chapters provided the raison d’etre of the intellectual life, its precise essence, a vocation, its efficient causes, the moral and intellectual virtues, and its telos, the discovery, contemplation and transmission of truth, in the remaining six chapters Sertillanges uncovers for us the “matter,” as it were, of the vita intellectus, that is, its proper conditions. When, what, and how to study? In what spirit? How, and how much, to sow the seeds of reading and memory to reap a fruitful harvest of creative production? How to strike the right balance between life qua intellectual and life qua human being?
St. Paul tells us to pray constantly, meaning that prayer is to be engaged in not only during those hours set-aside daily for liturgical and vocal and mental prayers, but at every moment. Prayer is spiritual breathing, the heartbeat of the soul. For Sertillanges, the intellectual life must be similarly continuous and perpetual. How? “What do we need, in order to utilize this permanent life in the service of truth? Discipline only. The dynamos must be connected to the turbines; the turbines must be turned by the steam; the desire to know must, regularly and not intermittently, set the conscious or unconscious activity of the brain in motion” (71). And the intellectual life must not only be unlimited temporally, but also spatially, with a ubiquity analogously equal to its all-the-time operative dynamism. This is a tall order.
Perhaps the best section of The Intellectual Life is Sertillanges masterful treatment of that most thorny issue for the scholar: How to achieve expertise in one area of study without thereby sacrificing ignorance of others—how to attain both breadth and depth? It would seem futile nowadays (and ever since, say, the Middle Ages) to aspire to anything other than a mastery of a very narrow field—and even then, can we attain complete mastery anymore?—the sheer amount of accumulated knowledge seems virtually infinite. On the other hand, to attain an educated gentlemen’s acquaintance with all fields of knowledge would seem to be the dilettante’s errand. Is it possible now to become educated in the Aristotelian sense?
Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgement as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, (On the Parts of Animals 639a1-6).
Can we be “critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge”—now?
Sertillanges has done the best job of anyone of solving this dilemma in his chapter “The Field of Work.” And here, in condensation, is his solution:
We may assert without any paradox that every branch of science pursued home would lead to the other sciences, science to poetry, poetry and science to ethics, and then to politics and even to religion on its human side. Everything is in everything, and partitions are only possible by abstraction…. When one knows something thoroughly, provided one has some inkling of the rest, this rest in its full extent gains by the probing of its depths. All abysses resemble one another, and all foundations have communicating passages (102, 120).
Sertillanges is telling us that specialized knowledge is not only helpful for the scholar, but absolutely necessary; but at the same time, we are not to think that specialization necessarily excludes generalization or vice versa. The key is somehow to balance depth with breadth, for only when these are properly balanced can the intellectual obtain either of them.
But it’s more than a balance, for Sertillanges: Breadth is depth, and depth is breadth. This doctrine is Sertillanges’ most brilliant and hard to grasp, and so most difficult effectively to summarize. Let me quote his distinct advocacies of both breadth and depth, and then try to convey how they are to be brought together, indeed, identified. On breadth:
If you want to have a mind that is open, clear, really strong, mistrust your specialty in the beginning. Lay your foundations according to the height that you aim to reach; broaden the opening of the excavation according to the depth it has to reach…. A specialist, if he is not a man, is a mere quill-driver; his egregious ignorance makes him like a lost wanderer among men; he is unadapted, abnormal, a fool. The intellectual Catholic will not copy such a model (103).
Okay, so we lay the liberal-arts foundations down in college, most effectively (in my opinion) by an integrated curriculum a la Thomas Aquinas College, University of Dallas, Wyoming Catholic College, etc., and then we begin to specialize in graduate school, after our foundations have been widely laid and our excavation widely dug, after which we specialize further, digging deeper in what’s left of our professional life into our initial masterpiece with specialized research.
Not quite, says Sertillanges, for the widening process is never-ending as well, lest we become a fool:
To follow up to a certain point the explorations of every seeker is for you an obligation which results at last in a tenfold capacity for your own research. When you come back to your special study after having thus made a special survey of different fields, widened your outlook, and acquired the sense of deep underlying connections, you will be quite a different man from the prisoner of one single narrow discipline (104).
And, now, the obligation of specialization:
Science is knowledge through causes, and causes go down deep like roots. We must always sacrifice extent to penetration…. When the whole field of study has been surveyed and its connections and unity estimated in the light of fundamental principles, it is urgently necessary, if one does not want merely to mark time, to turn to some task which is precise, defined in its limits, proportioned to one’s strength; and then to throw oneself into it with one’s heart (119).
How to integrate, balance, synthesize, and even identify these two apparently antithetical pursuits? “Ite ad Thomam!”
The Summae of old were the Bibles of knowledge: we have now no Summae, and no one among us is capable of writing one. Everything is in chaos. But at least, if a collective Summa is premature, every man who thinks and really desires to know can try to establish his personal Summa, that is, to introduce order into his knowledge by an appeal to the principles of order; in a word, by philosophizing, and by crowning his philosophy with a concise but profound theology (109).
For Sertillanges, philosophy and theology are not just for philosophers and theologians. For they are the queen and divine sciences respectively, and where either is absent or neglected or misapprehended in the intellectual life, the other sciences that are present, cultivated, and apprehended will suffer. “Now that philosophy has failed in its duty, the sciences fall to a lower level and scatter their effort; now that theology is unknown, philosophy is sterile, comes to no conclusion, has no standard of criticism, no bearings for its study of history; …it does not teach” (108). Theological wisdom, which is to say, what can be intellectually gleaned from the immeasurable depths of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the authoritative teachings of the Church, is the sine qua non of the intellectual life.
Does that mean that only Christians can live authentic intellectual lives? Yes. Sertillanges, in making Christian, particularly Catholic, theology a necessary foundation of and end-point for all intellectual inquiry and contemplation, was well ahead of his time; this is, after all, the main thesis of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Of course, it must be stated Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman made an analogous claim, almost a hundred years before Sertillanges, with regard to theology’s essential integrating role for any genuine liberal-arts university curriculum in The Idea of a University.
Now, theology is a big subject, so Sertillanges boils it down for us. Read St. Thomas Aquinas, particularly, his Summa Theologiae—and in Latin. Why? In addition to Leo XII’s official resurrection of and authorization of Thomistic studies for seminarians and clergy of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, Sertillanges provides several independent reasons for being a Thomist. The first is the Angelic Doctor’s unsurpassable provision of a “body of directing ideas forming a whole and capable like the magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge” (114). He goes on:
The intellectual position of Thomism is so well chosen, so removed from all the extremes where abysses of error yawn, so central as regards the heights, that one is logically led up to it from every point of knowledge, and from it one radiates, along continuous paths, in every direction of thought and experience (116).
In the last section of the chapter “Field of Work,” Sertillanges explains further his puzzling notion that the intellectual must be both a specialist and a generalist, possessing both universal knowledge of overarching principles as well as detailed knowledge of things on the ground. Lest we despair of ever effecting such a seemingly impossible balancing act, he admits that something does indeed have to give—what is to be sought above all is depth, even at the expense of breadth. Any extension and scope we achieve in our knowledge must always be for the sake of intention and formation—and definitely not for encyclopedic virtuosity, which he calls “an enemy of knowledge.”
Sertillanges discussion of the question of “when to go deep,” when to choose one particular discipline over another—even if that be the meta-discipline of philosophy—when to select a “major,” as it were, in one’s intellectual life absolutely stunning in its lucidness; his treatment of why we must at some point choose something to study to the exclusion of others is at once illuminating and consoling. We aspirant intellectuals have all experienced a kind of vertigo when confronted with the virtual infinity of great books there are to read; for, about every one of them we are compelled to say, “That is the book I must read right now!” And when we do choose to study one book or a selection of books relating to one particular discipline, we know that we are thereby excluding from our consciousness others just as worthy and enlightening. How to reconcile oneself to this seemingly tragic situation?
The answer, for Sertillanges, is twofold: the mysterious connection of one to all in the depths of knowledge, and the mystical communion of scholars. About the first, “When one knows something thoroughly, provided one has some inkling of the rest, this rest in its full extent gains by the probing of its depths. All abysses resemble one another, and all foundations have communicating passages” (120). About the second, “Everyone in life has his work; he must apply himself to courageously and leave to others what Providence has reserved for others” (120).
Sertillanges’ wisdom about this subject is so profound that I can’t bear, and an unable to, summarize it. So, here are his words:
Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to the things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of homage to the truth…. We are not much, but we are a part of the whole and we have the honor of being a part. What we do not do, we do all the same; God does it, our brethren do it, and we are with them in the unity of love (121).
I shall end this discussion of The Intellectual Life with a treatment of some of Sertillanges’ prescriptions for fruitful intellectual work, including what one should read, both in general and particular, to fulfill one’s vocation of producing work that glorifies God and sanctifies men. What I shall not discuss here are Sertillanges’ thoughts, found in the last few chapters, about the right relationship between the work of the intellectual qua intellectual, and the life of the intellectual qua person, the assimilation and integration of life experience to the life of the mind, the virtues that need to be developed, cultivated, and exercised in the process of writing, especially courage, perseverance, patience, and relaxation; and the paramount importance of self-knowledge, the sober awareness of what is and is not to be attempted in the light of one’s particular intellectual, God-given vocation. Sertillanges must simply be read on these topics, and it is my hope that these reflections have helped to prepare and inspire the reader to read The Intellectual Life.
The first axiom of the intellectual with regard to preparation for work, is to “read little.” This sounds quite counter-intuitive, especially for the aspirant philosopher who, it would seem, needs to know a lot about a lot to avoid both dilettantism and narrowness. Yet, there is a greater danger: “What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort” (146). One of the telltale symptoms and “daughters” of the vice of sloth is, as St. Thomas teaches, hyperactivity, a frenetic busyness that displays an apparent diligence of effort and dedication to the good, but is in fact a neurotic rejection of fruitful labor and a studied avoidance of any deep, receptive, life-changing encounter with truth. It is an escape from being, including the being of one’s ever-more-uncomfortable self: “The mind is dulled, not fed by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted …becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention” (147). I can think of no more powerful occasion for this intellectual sin of gluttony than blog surfing, where the increasing quantity and movement of words and images becomes a vitiated substitute for quality and depth of ideas.
Sertillanges knows that the intellectual, especially in our frenetic, news-overloaded global village, cannot completely avoid downloading contemporary events and opinions; he is incapable of repairing by a simple act of will to the Platonic world of ideal and eternal forms. Furthermore, we need the matter of worldly goings-on to ground and feed our incipient universal ideas. His advice: “A serious worker should be content…with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or grave event is brought to his notice” (149). How best to apply this advice in webland—RSS feeds?— is something we need carefully to consider.
In terms of what to read in one’s discipline and for general education, Sertillanges tells us to read only those books “in which leading ideas are expressed at first hand.” This cuts things down nicely. He also provides us with a four-fold, hierarchically organized categorization of reading materials: fundamental, accidental, stimulating, and recreational. Fundamental reading is for formation, not information; we seek a guide to which to be docile, not an interlocutor with which to be dialectical. “Three of four authors for one’s specialty.” Accidental reading is for gaining information and examining ideas directly related to the task at hand, and this requires an attitude of freedom and detachment, of analytical utility, a more pragmatic cast of mind. Stimulating reading is for inspiration, edification, and healing—one needs one’s favorite authors to quicken the soul when it flags, to provide momentary sabbaticals before and after which we can press on with our work. Finally, recreational reading is for nothing more than a distraction, when the mind needs a good rest, with the particular genres and authors most effectively depending solely upon idiosyncrasy—novels are restful to some and antagonizing to others. I personally like Netflix instant stream on my Wii. (Sertillanges, you’ll just have to be tolerant).
The top of the hierarchy among these readings are works by “men of genius.” A common question posed to me by devoutly Christian students of the Great Books is why exactly they should be reading, and paying to read, the writings of heretics, apostates, pagans, and atheists. Why not just St. Thomas, the Bible, the Church Fathers, and Catholic novelists and essayists? Sertillanges provides a splendid answer:
Their errors are not vulgar errors, but excesses; in their very mistakes they are not without depth and keenness of vision; following them cautiously, one is sure to go a long way and one can avoid their blunders. ‘To them that love God, all things work together unto good,’ says the Apostle; for those who have a firm grasp of truth, everything can be useful. Having formed our mind under good teachers, keeping the framework of our thought well adjusted and firmly jointed, we may hope to grow through contact with the errors of genius…; the deepening required by the very act of resistance strengthens us: we shall be better formed, more effectually safeguarded, for having incurred these sublime risks without succumbing to them. (163)
Sertillanges is precisely the “good teacher” we need now to form our minds and teach us to keep the framework of our thought well adjusted and firmly joined. Error is ubiquitous, more so than ever in this history of human existence, and “existence-in-untruth,” to use Voegelin’s phrase, is the default position for the ordinary denizen of our techno-totalitarian, anti-intellect regime. He needs our help, and so do we. The Intellectual Life is our battle plan, Sertillanges is our general, and our comatose culture is both battlefield and hospital. We are the soldiers and medics.
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