Plato: Adams' "Defense" No. 33

Liberty Letters, John Adams, 1786

A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, Letter 33

Ancient Republics and Opinions of Philosophers: PLATO

My dear Sir,

PLATO has given us the most accurate detail of the natural vicissitudes of manners and principles, the usual progress of the passions in society, and revolutions of governments into one another.

In the fourth book of his Republic, he describes his perfect commonwealth, where kings are philosophers, and philosophers kings: where the whole city might be in the happiest condition, and not any one tribe remarkably happy beyond the rest: in one word, where the laws govern, and justice is established: where the guardians of the laws are such in reality, and preserve the constitution, instead of destroying it, and promote the happiness of the whole city, not their own particularly: where the state is one, not many: where there are no parties of the poor and the rich at war with each other: where, if any descendant of the guardians be vicious, he is dismissed to the other classes, and if any descendant of the others be worthy, he is raised to the rank of the guardians: where education, the grand point to be attended to, produces good geniuses, and good geniuses, partaking of such education, produce still better than the former: where the children, receiving from their infancy an education agreeable to the laws of the constitution, grow up to be worthy men, and observant of the laws: where the system, both of laws and education, are contrived to produce the virtues of fortitude, temperance, wisdom, and justice, in the whole city, and in all the individual citizens: where, if among the rulers, or guardians of the laws, there be one surpassing the rest, it may be called a monarchy, or kingly government, if there be several, an aristocracy.

Although there is but one principle of virtue, those of vice are infinite; of which there are four which deserve to be mentioned. There are as many species of soul as there are of republics: five of each. That which is above described is one.

In the eighth book of his Republic he describes the other four, and the revolutions from one to another. The first he calls the Cretan, or Spartan, or the ambitious republic; the second, oligarchy; the third, democracy; and the fourth, tyranny, the last disease of a city.

As republics are generated by the manners of the people, to which, as into a current, all other things are drawn, of necessity there must be as many species of men, as of republics. We have already, in the fourth book, gone over that which we have pronounced to be good and just. We are now to go over the contentious and ambitious man, who is formed according to the Spartan republic; and then, him resembling an oligarchy; then the democratic; and then the tyrannic man, that we may contemplate the most unjust man, and set him in opposition to the most just, that our inquiry may be completed! The ambitious republic is first to be considered: it is indeed difficult for a city in this manner constituted, i. e. like Sparta, to be changed; but as every thing which is generated is liable to corruption, even such a constitution as this will not remain for ever, but be dissolved. (I shall pass over all the astrological and mystical whimsies which we meet with so often in Plato, interspersed among the most sublime wisdom and profound knowledge, and insert only what is intelligible.) The amount of what he says in this place about numbers and music, is, that mistakes will insensibly be made in the choice of persons for guardians of the laws; and by these guardians, in the rewards and promotion of merit. They will not always expertly distinguish the several species of geniuses, the golden, the silver, the brazen, and the iron. Whilst iron shall be mixed with silver, and brass with gold, dissimilitude, and discord arise, and generate war, and enmity, and sedition. When sedition is risen, two of the species of geniuses, the iron and brazen, will be carried away after gain, and the acquisition of lands and houses, gold and silver. But the golden and silver geniuses, as they are not in want, but naturally rich, will lead the soul towards virtue and the original constitution. Thus divided, drawing contrary ways, and living in a violent manner, will not this republic be in the middle, between aristocracy and oligarchy imitating, in some things, the former republic, and in others oligarchy? They will honor their rulers, their military will abstain from agriculture and mechanic arts; they will have common meals, gymnastic exercises, and contests of war, as in the former republic; but they will be afraid to bring wise men into the magistracy, because they have no longer any such as are truly simple and inflexible, but such as are of a mixed kind, more forward and rough, more fitted by their natural genius for war than peace, esteeming tricks and stratagems; such as these shall desire wealth, and hoard up gold and silver, as those who live in oligarchies. While they spare their own, they will love to squander the substance of others upon their pleasures: They will fly from the law, as children from a father, who have been educated not by persuasion but by force. Such a republic, mixed of good and ill, will be most remarkable for the prevalence of the contentious and ambitious spirit.

What now shall the man be, correspondent to this republic? He will be arrogant and rough towards inferiors; mild towards equals, but extremely submissive to governors; fond of dignity and the magistracy, but thinking that political management, and military performances, not eloquence, nor any such thing, should entitle him to them: while young he may despise money, but the older he grows the more he will value it, because he is of the covetous temper, and not sincerely affected to virtue and reason. Such an ambitious youth resembles such a city, and is formed somehow in this manner: — His father, a worthy man, in an ill-regulated city, shuns honors, and magistracies, and lawsuits, and all public business, that, as he can do no good, he may have no trouble. The son hears his mother venting her indignation, and complaining that she is neglected among other women, because her husband is not in the magistracy, nor attentive to the making of money; that he is unmanly and remiss, and such other things as wives are apt to cant over concerning such husbands. The domestics too privately say the same things to the sons, stimulating them to be more of men than their father, and more attentive to their money. When they go abroad they hear the same things, and see that those who mind their own affairs are called simple, and such as mind not their affairs are commended. The young man comparing the conduct, speeches, and pursuits of his father with those of other men, the one watering the rational part of his soul, and the others the concupiscible and irascible, he delivers up the government within himself to a middle power, that which is irascible and fond of contention, and so he becomes a haughty and ambitious man. — We have now the second republic, and the second man.

This second republic will be succeeded by oligarchy, founded on men’s valuations, in which the rich bear rule, and the poor have no share in the government. The change from the ambitious republic to oligarchy is made by that treasury which every one has filled with gold: for first of all they and their wives find out methods of expense, and to this purpose strain and disobey the laws, one observing and rivaling another, the generality become of this kind; and proceeding to greater desires of making money, the more honorable they account this to be, the more will virtue be thought dishonorable. Virtue is so different from wealth, that they always weigh against each other. Whilst wealth and the wealthy are held in honor in the city, both virtue and the good must be more dishonored, and what is honored is pursued, and what is dishonored is neglected. Instead then of ambitious men, they will become lovers of gain. The rich they praise and admire, and bring into the magistracy, but the poor man they despise. They then make laws, marking out the boundary of the constitution, and regulating the quantity of oligarchic power, according to the quantity of wealth; more to the more wealthy, and less to the less: so that he who hath not the valuation settled by law is to have no share in the government. What think you of this constitution? If we should appoint pilots according to their valuation, but never entrust a ship with a poor man, though better skilled in his art, we should make very bad navigation. — Again, such a city is not one, but of necessity two; one, consisting of the poor, and the other of the rich, dwelling in one place, and always plotting against one another. They are, moreover, incapable to wage war, because of the necessity they are under, either of employing the armed multitude, and of dreading them more than the enemy, or to appear in battle, truly oligarchic, and at the same time be unwilling to advance money for the public service, through a natural disposition of covetousness.

In such a government almost all are poor, except the governors; and where there are poor, there are somewhere concealed thieves, and purse-cutters, and sacrilegious persons, and workers of all other evils: these the magistracy with diligence and force restrains: these are drones in a city with dangerous stings.

This is oligarchy. Now let us consider the man who resembles it. The change from the ambitious to the oligarchic man is chiefly in this manner: — The ambitious man, has a son, who emulates his father, and follows his steps; afterwards he dashes on the city, as on a rock, wasting his substance in the office of a general, or some other principal magistracy; then falling into courts of justice, destroyed by sycophants, stripped of his dignities, disgraced, and losing all his substance. When he has thus suffered, and lost his substance, in a terror he pushes headlong from the throne of his soul that ambitious disposition; and, being humbled by his poverty, turns to the making of money, lives sparingly and meanly, and applying to work, scrapes together substance. He then seats in that throne the avaricious disposition, and makes it a mighty king within himself, decked out with Persian crowns, bracelets, and scepters. Having placed the virtuous and ambitious disposition low on the ground, he reasons on nothing but how lesser substance shall be made greater, admires and honors nothing but riches and rich people. This is the change from an ambitious youth to a covetous one, and this is the oligarchic man.

Democracy is next to be considered, in what manner it arises, and what kind of man it produces when arisen. The change from oligarchy to democracy is produced through the insatiable desire of becoming as rich as possible. As those who are governors in it govern on account of their possessing great riches, they will be unwilling to restrain by law such of the youth as are dissolute, from having the liberty of squandering and wasting their substance; that so, by purchasing the substance of such persons, and lending them on usury, they may still become richer, and be held in greater honor. While they neglect education, and suffer the youth to grow licentious, they sometimes lay under a necessity of becoming poor, such as are of no ungenerous disposition: these sit in the city, some of them in debt, others in contempt, hating and conspiring against those who possess their substance, and with others very desirous of a change. But the money-catchers, still brooding over it, and drawing to themselves exorbitant usury, fill the city with drones and poor. They neglect every thing but making of money, and make no more account of virtue than the poor do. When these governors and their subjects meet on the road, at public shows, in military marches, as fellow soldiers or sailors, or in common dangers, the poor are by no means contemned by the rich. A robust fellow, poor and sunburnt, beside a rich man, bred up in the shade, swollen with flesh, and panting for breath, and in agony in battle, thinks it is through his own and his fellows fault that such men grow rich, and says, Our rich men are good for nothing. The city soon grows into sedition between the oligarchic and democratic parties; and the poor prevailing over the rich, kill some and banish others, and share the places in the republic, and the magistracies, equally among the remainder, and for the most part the magistracies are disposed in it by lot. In what manner do these live, and what sort of republic is this? A democracy. The city is full of all freedom of action and speech, and liberty to do in it what any one inclines: every one will regulate his own method of life in whatever way he pleases. In such a republic will arise men of all kinds. This is the finest of all republics, variegated like a robe with all kinds of flowers, and diversified with all sorts of manners. The multitude, it is likely, judge this republic the best, like children and women gazing at variegated things. In truth it contains all kinds of republics, and it appears necessary for any one, who wants to constitute a city, as we do at present, to come to a democratic city, as to a general fair of republics, and choose the form that he fancies: he will not be in want of models. Is not this a sweet and divine manner of life for the present? To be under no necessity to govern, although you were able to govern; nor to be subject, unless you incline; nor to be engaged in war when others are; nor to live in peace when others do so, unless you be desirous of peace; and though there be a law restraining you from governing or administering justice, to govern nevertheless, and administer justice if you incline? Have you not observed, in such a republic, men condemned to death or banishment continuing still, or returning like heroes, and walking up and down openly, as if no one observed them? Is not this indulgence of the city very generous, in magnificently despising all care of education and discipline, and in not regarding from what sort of pursuits one comes to act in public affairs, but honoring him, if he only say he is well affected towards the multitude? These things, and such as these; are to be found in a democracy; and it would be a pleasant sort of republic, anarchical and variegated, distributing a certain equality to all alike, without distinction.

Let us consider now the character of a democratical man, and how he arises out of that parsimonious one who, under the oligarchy, was trained up by his father in his manners. Such a one by force governs his own pleasures, which are expensive, and tend not to making money, and are called unnecessary. Eating, so far as conduces to preserve life, health, and a good habit of body, is a pleasure of the necessary kind: but the desire of these things beyond these purposes, is capable of being curbed in youth; and, being hurtful to the body and to the soul, with reference to her attaining wisdom and temperance, may be called unnecessary: in the same manner we shall say of venereal desires, and others. We just now denominated a drone the man who was full of such desires and pleasures; but the oligarchic man, him who was under the necessary ones. The democratic appears to arise from the oligarchic man in this manner: — When a young man, bred up without proper instruction, and in a parsimonious manner, comes to taste the honey of the drones, and associates with those vehement: and terrible creatures, who are able to procure pleasures every way diversified, from every quarter; thence imagine there is the beginning of a change in him, from the oligarchic to the democratic. And as the city was changed by the assistance of an alliance from without, with one party of it, with which it was of kin, shall not the youth be changed in the same manner, by the assistance of one species of desires from without, to another within him, which resembles it, and is akin to it? By all means. If any assistance be given to the oligarchic party within him, by his father, or the others of his family, admonishing and upbraiding him, then truly arises sedition and opposition, and a fight within him, with himself. Sometimes the democratic party yields to the oligarchic; some of the desires are destroyed, others retire, on the rise of a certain modesty in the foul of the youth, and he is again rendered somewhat decent. Again, when some desires retire, there are others akin to them, which grow up, and through inattention to the father’s instructions, become both many and powerful, draw towards intimacies among themselves, and generate a multitude, seize the citadel or the soul of the youth, finding it evacuated of noble learning and pursuits, and of true reasoning, which are the best watchmen and guardians in the understandings of men beloved of the gods; and then false and boasting reasonings and opinions, rushing up in their stead, possess the same place in such a one. These false and boasting reasonings, denominating modesty to be stupidity; temperance, unmanliness; moderation, rusticity; decent expense, illiberality; thrust them all out disgracefully, and expel them their territories, and lead in in triumph insolence and anarchy, and luxury and impudence, with encomiums and applauses, shining with a great retinue, and crowned with crowns. Insolence they denominate education; anarchy, liberty; luxury, magnificence; and impudence, manhood. In this manner, a youth bred up with the necessary desires changes into the licentiousness and remissness of the unnecessary and unprofitable pleasures; his life is not regulated by any order, but deeming it pleasant, free, and happy, he puts all laws whatever on a level; like the city, he is fine and variegated, and many men and women too would desire to imitate his life, as he hath in him a great many patterns of republics and of manners.

It remains, that we go over the most excellent republic, which is tyranny, and the most excellent man, who is the tyrant. The change is from democracy to tyranny, as from oligarchy to democracy. An insatiable desire of riches, and a neglect of other things, through attention to making money, destroys oligarchy; and an insatiable thirst of liberty destroys democracy. When a city is under a democracy, and is thirsting after liberty, and happens to have bad cup-bearers, and grows drunk with. an unmixed draught of it, beyond what is necessary, it punishes even the governors, if they will not be entirely tame, and afford a deal of liberty, accusing them as corrupted, and leaning towards oligarchy. Such as are obedient to magistrates are abused, as willing slaves, and good for nothing. Magistrates who resemble subjects, and subjects who resemble magistrates, are commended and honored, both in public and private; in such a city they of necessity soon go to the highest pitch of liberty, and this inbred anarchy descends into private families. The father resembles the child, and is afraid of his sons. The sons accustom themselves to resemble the father, and neither revere nor stand in awe of their parents. Strangers are equaled with citizens. The teacher fears and flatters the scholars, and the scholars despise their teachers and tutors. The youth resemble the more advanced in years, and rival them in words and deeds. The old men, sitting down with the young, are full of merriment and pleasantry, mimicking the youth, that they may not appear to be morose and despotic. The slaves are no less free than those who purchase them; and wives have a perfect equality and liberty with their husbands, and husbands with their wives. — The sum of all these things, collected together, make the souls of the citizens so delicate, that if any one bring near to them any thing of slavery, they are filled with indignation, and cannot endure it; and at length they regard not the laws, written or unwritten, that no one whatever, by any manner of means, may become their master. This is that government so beautiful and youthful, whence tyranny springs. But any thing in excess, in animal or vegetable bodies, in seasons or in republics, is wont to occasion a mighty change to the reverse; and excessive liberty seems to change into nothing but excessive slavery, both with a private person and a city. Thus licentiousness destroys the democracy. Out of no other republic is tyranny constituted but out of democracy; and out of the most excessive liberty, the greatest and most savage slavery. The race of idle and profuse men, one part of which was more brave, and were leaders, the other more cowardly, and followers, we compared to drones, some with stings, others with none. These two springing up in a republic, raise disturbance, as phlegm and bile in a natural body. Let us divide a democratic city into three, as it really is; for one such species as the above grows through licentiousness in it, no less than in the oligarchic, but is much more fierce: in oligarchy, because it is not in places of honor, but is debarred from the magistracies, it is unexercised, and does not become strong; but in a democracy this is the presiding party, excepting a few; and now it says and does the most outrageous things. Some other party is now always separated from the multitude; and while the whole are somehow in pursuit of gain, such as are the most temperate become the wealthiest, and have the greatest quantity of honey; hence the greatest quantity of honey, and what comes with the greatest ease, is pressed out of these by the drones. Such wealthy people are the pasture of the drones. The people who mind their own affairs, and meddle not with any others, who have not much property, but yet are the most numerous, and the most prevalent in democracy, whenever it is fully assembled, would be a third species: bur it will not often fully assemble, if it does not get some share of the money. It does, however, always get a share, for their leaders rob those who have substance, and give it to the people, that they may have the most themselves. These, then, who are thus despoiled, are obliged to defend themselves, saying and doing all they can among the people. Others, then, give them occasion to form designs against the people, and so they become oligarchic, even although they should have no inclination to introduce a change of government: thence they go to accusations, law-suits, and contests, one with another, the leaders slandering, and the drones stinging.

The people are wont always to set some one in a conspicuous manner over themselves, to cherish him, and greatly to increase his power. Whenever a tyrant rises, it is from this root, and from nothing else, that he blossoms. What then is the beginning of a change, from a president into a tyrant? — The wolf in the temple of Arcadia, dedicated to Lycæan Jupiter, had this inscription, “That whoever tasted human entrails, mixed with other sacrifices, necessarily became a wolf.” In the same manner, he who, being president of the people, and receiving an extremely submissive multitude, abstaineth not from kindred blood, but unjustly accusing them, and bringing them into courts of justice, stains himself with bloodshed, and banishes and slays, and proposes the abolition of debts, and division of lands; — must not such a one either be destroyed by his enemies, or exercise tyranny, and, from being a man, become a wolf? He now becomes seditious towards those who have substance, and when he fails he goes against his enemies with open force, and becomes an accomplished tyrant; and if they be unable to expel him, or put him to death by an accusation before the city, they conspire to cut him off privately, by a violent death. On this account, all those who mount up to tyranny invent the celebrated tyrannical demand of the people, certain guards for their persons, that the assistance of the people may be secured to them. The people, afraid of his safety, but secure as to their own, grant them. Then those who have substance, and the crime of hating the people, fly; and if any one of them is caught, he is put to death. This president of a city, thus not behaving like a truly great man, tumbles down many others, and sits in his chair a consummate tyrant, instead of a president of the city. Consider now the happiness of the man and the city in which such a mortal arises: in the first days, he smiles, and salutes every one he meets, says he is no tyrant, promises many things, both in private and in public, frees from debts, distributes lands, both to the people in general and those about him, affects to be mild and of the patriot spirit towards all. But when he has reconciled to himself some of his foreign enemies, and tranquility is restored, he raises wars, that the people may want a leader, and that, being rendered poor by the payment of taxes, they may be under a necessity of becoming intent on a daily sustenance, and less ready to conspire against him. If he suspects any of them, who are of free spirits, will not allow him to govern, in order to have some pretext for destroying them, he exposes them to the enemy. On these accounts, a tyrant is always under a necessity of raising war. While he is doing these things, he must become more hateful to his citizens: some of those who have been promoted along with him, and are in power, speak out freely, both to him and among themselves, finding fault with the transactions. It behooves the tyrant then to cut off all those who are of a more manly spirit, if he means to govern, till he leave no one, friend or foe, worth any thing; he must carefully observe who is courageous, magnanimous, wise, rich, and of necessity he must be an enemy to all these, and lay snares, until he cleanse the city of them. Thus he must live with wicked people, and be hated by them too, or not live at all; the more he is hated, the more guards he will want. But the worthy men being destroyed, the worst must be his guards. What a blessed possession! But this army of the tyrant, so beautiful, so numerous, and multiform, must be maintained. If there be any sacred things in the city, these they will spend, and the people obliged to pay the lighter taxes. When these fail, he and his drunken companions and associates, male and female, shall be maintained out of the paternal inheritance; and the people who have made the tyrant shall nourish him. If the people be enraged, and say that they did not make him to be slaves to his slaves, but that they might be set at liberty from the rich in the city, who are now called good and worthy men, and order him and his companions to be gone out of the city, as a father drives out of his house his son, with his tumultuary, drunken companions; then indeed the people shall know what a beast they are themselves, and what a beast they have generated, hugged, and bred up. While they are the weaker, they attempt to drive out the stronger. The tyrant will strip them of their armor. The people, defending themselves against the smoke of slavery, have fallen into the fire of despotism; instead of that excessive and unreasonable liberty, embracing the most rigorous and wretched slavery of bondmen. — Thus, to speak modestly, we have sufficiently shewn how tyranny arises out of democracy, and what it is after it is risen



THE tyrannical man himself remains yet to be considered, in what manner he arises out of the democratic, and what kind of man he is, and whether he is wretched or happy; of those pleasures and desires which are not necessary, some are repugnant to law; these indeed appear to spring up in every one, but being chastised by the laws, and the better desires, along with reason, they either forsake some men altogether, or are less in number, and feeble; in others they are in greater number, and more powerful. These lawless desires are such as are excited in sleep, when the rational part of the soul which governs it is asleep, and the part which is brutal and savage, being filled with meats and drunkenness, frisks about, and pushing away sleep, wants to go and accomplish its practices; in such a one it dares to do every thing, as being loosed and disengaged from all modesty and discretion; for it scruples not the embraces, as it imagines, of gods, men, or beasts; nor to kill any one; in one word, is wanting in no folly nor impudence. There is in every one a certain species of desires, which is terrible, savage, and irregular, even in some who seem to us to be entirely moderate.

Recollect now what kind of man we said the democratic one was; educated from his infancy under a parsimonious father, who valued the avaricious desires alone; but being afterwards conversant with those who are more refined, running into their manner, and all sort of insolence, from a detestation of his father’s parsimony; however, having a better natural temper than those who corrupt him, and being drawn opposite ways, he settles into a manner in the middle of both, and participating moderately, as he imagines, of each of them, he leads a life neither illiberal nor licentious, becoming a democratic man from an aristocratic. His son is educated in his manners, but the same things happening to him as to his father, he is drawn into all kinds of licentiousness, which is termed, however, by those who draw him off, the most complete liberty. His father, the domestics, and others, are aiding to those desires which are in the middle: but when the tyrant-makers have no hopes of retaining the youth in their power any other way, they contrive to excite in him a certain love, which presides over the indolent desires, and such as minister readily to their pleasures; and when other desires make a noise about him, full of their odors and perfumes, and crowns and wines, and the pleasures of the most dissolute kind, then truly he is surrounded with madness as a lifeguard, and that president of the soul rages with frenzy, till he kills all modesty, is cleansed of temperance, and filled with additional madness. This is the formation of a tyrannical man. After this there are feastings among them, and revelings, banqueting, and mistresses, and all such things as may be expected where the tyrants love, drunkenness, and madness, govern all in the soul. After this there is borrowing and pillaging of substance, and searching for every thing which they are able, by rage and frenzy, deceit and violence, to carry off; pilfering and beguiling parents. When the substance of father and mother fails, he will break into houses, rob in the streets, rifle temples. Those desires which heretofore were only loose from their slavery in sleep, when he was yet under the laws and his father, when under democratic government, now when he is tyrannized over by his passions, shall be equally as loose when he is awake, and from no horrid slaughter or deed shall he abstain; but the tyrant within him, living without any restraint of law and government, shall lead him on to every mad attempt. Such as these establish as tyrant, the man who among them hath himself most of the tyrant, and in greatest strength within his own soul. If the city relucts, he shall bring in other young people, and chastise his formerly beloved mother and father country, as the Cretans say. But liberty and true friendship the tyrannic disposition never tasted. Let us finish then our worst man. He will be awake such as we described him asleep, and he who appears the most wicked, shall really be the most wretched; as many men as many minds; as city is to city, as to virtue and happiness, so will man be to man; kingly government is the best, and tyranny is the worst. No city is more wretched than that which is under tyranny, nor any more happy than that under regal power. Both the city and the tyrant shall be slavish, poor, timorous; and you will find more lamentations and groans, weepings and torments, than in any other city. We should not merely conjecture about matters of such importance, but most thoroughly inquire into them, by reasoning of this kind, for the inquiry is concerning the most important matter, a good life and a bad.

Such private men as are rich, and possess many slaves, have this resemblance at least of tyrants, that they rule over many: if they live securely, and are not afraid of their domestics, it is because the whole city gives assistance to each particular man: but if a god should lift a man, his wife and children, with fitly slaves, out of the city, and let them down in a desert, in what kind of fear would he be about himself, his wife and children, lest they should be destroyed by the domestics!

Such, and much worse, is the tyrant in his tyrannical city; — envious, faithless, cowardly, unjust, unfriendly, unholy, and a sink and breeder of all wickedness.

Now tell me which is the first and which the last, as to happiness, the regal, the ambitious, the oligarchic, the democratic, and the tyrannic man and city. The best and justest is the happiest.

Thus, Sir, you have some of Plato’s sentiments of morals and politics, how much they are to Mr. Turgot’s purpose, we may shew in another letter; mean time I am, &c.

Table of Contents: A Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, by John Adams

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