Plato’s Idea of Form
Prior to the 1st millennium B.C., religion was practiced under the direction of temple priesthoods, cults, and shamans. The idea behind their institution was that the universe consisted of spirits as well as natural objects. Health and well being on the physical plane depended upon maintaining a proper relationship with the spiritual world. The role of spiritual practitioners was to provide that service for the community through the special knowledge they possessed regarding the wants and needs of spirit. One’s dead ancestors as well the spirits of natural elements needed to be fed regularly by communal rituals and prayers. In return for devotional service, the spirits would maintain the world in a beneficial way. There would be health and prosperity throughout the land. Rituals done consistently and correctly were the key to winning support of the gods.
About the time that alphabetic writing entered human culture, religious worship changed direction. It become less ritualistic and more intellectual. The Hebrew prophet Amos, who lived during the 8th century B.C., expressed the new theme. He wrote, quoting Jehovah: “I hate, I spurn your pilgrim-feasts; I will not delight in your sacred ceremonies. When you present your sacrifices and offerings, I will not accept them ... (Instead) let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream ... Hate evil and love good; enthrone justice in the courts.” The prophet Micah wrote in a similar vein: “Will the Lord accept thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil? ... God has told you what is good; and what is it that the Lord asks of you? Only to act justly, to love loyalty, to walk wisely before your God.”
These prophets were announcing, in other words, that the traditional rituals no longer found favor with God. God demanded instead that his worshipers conform to certain modes of thought and action. To win God’s favor, a person now had to act justly. He had to be a good person.
The spiritual / cultural revolution of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. had a common theme in advancing ethical ideals. For Confucius, this meant maintaining the proper relationships with others in society, acting courteously, and following traditional precepts of virtue and propriety. For Zoroaster, goodness was aligned with agricultural societies (as opposed to nomadic societies), with cleanliness and honesty, with compassion and humility, and with the forces of light led by Ahura-Mazda against the forces of darkness. For Buddha, enlightenment came with the realization that worldly suffering came from desire and the extinction of desire brought salvation from this course. The enlightened person would know truth objectively and be free of clinging desires. For Pythagoras, proper diet, simple living, and cultivating a knowledge of philosophy and mathematics purified the soul so that it might be reborn at a higher level. For Socrates, self-knowledge was the key to a better life. For Plato, it was important to recognize the form of the good.
We will be paying particular attention to Greek philosophies of the second historical epoch. Many of our values today continue to be ones developed then. Philosophers first appeared in Greece along the Ionian seacoast of Asia Minor at the beginning of the 6th century B.C. An early interest was to identify the basic materials of physical existence. Thales of Miletus speculated that the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - were all derived from water because water could appear in several forms. Heraclitus of Ephesus, who lived around 500 B.C., thought that fire might be the prototypic material; it was emblematic of the fact that nature seemed to be constantly in flux. No situation stays the same but each condition moves to its opposite. Pythagoras, a contemporary of Heraclitus who led a community of philosophers in southern Italy, took another approach. Nature, he said, consisted of numbers. Numerical relationships were inherent in spatial objects, music, and every other type of being.
Socrates and Plato
Socrates, a citizen of Athens, lived from 469 to 399 B.C. After practicing his own type of philosophy, he was arraigned on charges of corrupting Athenian youth through impious conversations, found guilty, and executed. Socrates had developed a unique personal technique to help people discover the truth. He did not teach a particular doctrine but led a guided discussion which was aimed at finding the proper definition of words.
The Socratic dialogue known as the Laches, for example, focuses upon the concept of “courage”. Laches was a bluff war veteran who might have been expected to know all about such things. His conversation with Socrates revealed, however, that, although Laches had been personally courageous in battle, he was not able to propose a description or definition of courage which would cover all its instances.
Even so, this sometimes tedious method of inquiry produced definitions that were more accurate than before. Socrates had invented a truth-seeking process called “dialectics” or “pure reason”. The general form became clear after considering a number of specific cases. Socrates considered his role in the process to be that of a midwife who was assisting in the delivery of truth. The problem was that his free-ranging discussions on a variety of subjects - courage, justice, beauty - gave rise to “impious” opinions that offended certain persons. This led to Socrates’ trial and death.
Since Socrates was an honest and courageous man who had distinguished himself in battle on Athens’ behalf, his execution for civic impiety and other offenses against the city shocked his friends. Among them was Plato, a son of one of Athens’ leading families. Plato, who had attended many of Socrates’ discussions, took it upon himself to write down his own recollections of those discussions in dialogue form. His Dialogues, which present Socrates as the main character in a conversational script, express the thoughts and ideas not only of the historical Socrates but of Plato as a philosopher. They are case histories of the Socratic discussions, covering a variety of subjects.
As previously noted, most were concerned with the proper definition of words. Words themselves were the subject of inquiry. Why this should be may be related to the fact that alphabetic writing was still fresh in Greek culture. Its words were yet a curiosity. Unlike spoken words which vanish the moment they are spoken, written words are fixed in a visual form appearing like physical objects. A philosopher might ask: What kind of thing is this?
the nature of words
Words have a sensuous aspect in the heard sounds of the syllables or in the linear patterns of the lettering. Plato was interested in this aspect. In the Cratylus he argued that the sounds selected to represent words had an inherent relationship to their meanings. Stating that “the first givers of names were ... legislators” who practiced an imitative art, Plato suggested that “the proper letters are those which are like the things.” He wrote that “a name is vocal imitation of that which the vocal imitator names ... he who by syllables and letters imitates the nature of things, if he gives all that is appropriate will produce a good image, or in other words a (correct) name.” However, this approach to the nature of words had its limitations.
The more important aspect was a word’s reference. Words referred to objects or patterns in the world. They sometimes referred to a specific object or pattern but, more importantly, to their general class. The word “cow”, for example, may identify either a particular cow or the concept of a cow as the female of a certain species of domesticated animal. This generalized element would be what all cows had in common, missing in all things that were not cows. Such an element would be what Plato called “form”. As form, each word required a definition to become knowledge.
This awareness of words led Plato to propose a new type of being. Like a physicist who discovers that the combustible element in air is oxygen, he as a philosopher discovered that human intelligibility lies in form as elements of thought. More than mere psychic experiences, ideas have a tangible reference in the world. There are actually cows and there is, theoretically, the entire set of cows that ever lived or could live. The logical pattern for a cow exists. But cows also exist in the particular animals that one might see in a pasture. Here cows are physical creatures.
This cow has the same name as the cow which is a category, but it is a different kind of being. The category which represents the idea of the cow cannot itself be seen; nor does it ever change. It is an abstract being. The physical cow, on the other hand, is subject to the worldly processes of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death. It chews its cud. It gives milk. This cow stands before the human observer in plain sight, stretching its neck forward to invite a pat on the head.
Plato took note of the two types of being in this passage from Book VI of the Republic. He and his conversation partner, Glaucon, were discussing the ideas of beauty and goodness. The discussion, starting with a statement by Socrates, included this exchange:
The “single idea or aspect” of goodness, its unifying element, would be something which, as Socrates pointed out, cannot be seen. Ideas are invisible, being elements of thought. On the other hand, the many good things in this world, which are manifestations of the idea of goodness, are able to be seen. Socrates and Plato were concerned with words that represented human ideals, of course, rather than with mundane concepts such as a cow. These ideals had less obvious meanings. The two philosophers believed that, if such words could be defined properly, then humanity would have a clearer understanding of them and could produce them more reliably than if the meaning of words remained unclear.
Therefore, Socrates challenged his conversation partners to think carefully about such things and come to more precise conclusions. They would then have true knowledge of those concepts rather than mere opinions. Concepts approached through pure reason had a greater degree of truth than those known in specific instances, for some patterns may be incompletely observed or imperfectly understood. But a general proof advanced through deductive reasoning, like that presented in geometry, cannot admit of error if the reasoning is done correctly. By such logic, humanity can ascend to higher and more certain forms of knowledge even in such areas as those which are concerned with human ideals.
Common sense believes in the reality of physical objects. Plato, on the other hand, was more interested in forms than in the objects which they represented because form was a more stable and certain type of being. Physical objects belonged to the universe of imperfectly known, changing phenomena which Plato called the world of “becoming”. The common-sense mind would suspect that Platonic forms are a figment of the philosophical imagination or that they are thoughts or psychic experiences. Walter Pater, who translated Plato into English, commented that “by sheer effectiveness of abstract language, he (Plato) gave an illusive air of reality or substance to the mere nonentities of metaphysic hypothesis.” Plato, however, boldly postulated that forms were real.
The cave analogy presented in Book VII of the Republic asked readers to consider how men who had spent a lifetime bound in chains and watching shadows on the wall which were projected from real objects might feel if suddenly released from their chains and allowed to wander outside into the daylight. Might not they, who had previously believed that the shadows seen from inside the cave were real, now know that these shadows were silhouettes of other solid objects which were now directly seen? Likewise, Plato reasoned, it might be that humanity is ignorant of form’s real nature because only a few have been allowed to perceive it directly - through philosophy and pure reason - while most people have been dealing all their lives with the commonplace concerns of this world. Once people perceive a higher truth, then they will know that this is real. They will accept the reality of ideas and see physical being as a kind of shadow projected from them.
Plato conceived a realm of existence where these eternal forms were, not unlike the Christian conception of Heaven. This was a place where the patterns of worldly objects were kept. Plato described in the Timaeus how God had created the physical universe by applying mind to a recalcitrant substance called matter. The relationship between eternal forms and the changing things of the temporal world was explained: “When the father and creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy more like the original ... Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity ... and this image we call time ... Mind, the ruling power, persuaded necessity to bring the greater part of created things to perfection, and thus and after this manner in the beginning, through necessity made subject to reason, this universe was created.”
God, the creator, was also called the “demiurge”, or contributing cause of the world. Because the rational power was unable to overcome the resistant nature of matter altogether, the created works of this world are imperfect. Form is stamped imperfectly into matter. God introduces form into the natural world as an artist creates a work of art. Form, the eternal part, is combined with blank matter, through the media of space and necessity, to create the natural world.
This was the cosmology of Platonism. It provided a sophisticated justification for belief in the reality of forms. Related to this was Plato’s vision of education as a means of improving society through philosophy. Philosophy was the study of forms. Its discipline was like the study of mathematics, although the one was applied to the natural world and the other to the world of human behavior.
Plato believed that studying forms, essences, or abstractions purified the mind. Apprehending these forms, even in a brief moment of recognition, was an experience of higher things which the mind would never forget. (“After they’ve seen Paris, will they be content with life on the farm?”, it was likewise said of the doughboys in World War I.) The philosopher, once accustomed to the sight of eternal form, would never turn back to the ways of the mundane world. In that fact lies the hope of social improvement, for it means that a society ruled by philosophers will escape the petty wrangling and striving for position and power that characterizes ordinary societies. Enamored of goodness, philosophers would want to establish this pattern in society. Their hopes would be set upon improving the whole community rather than themselves individually. Therefore, philosophers should be given the power to rule society.
mathematics and logic
Like the Pythagorean school, Plato’s Academy in Athens taught the importance of “measure and proportion”. Above its main gate hung this inscription: “Let no one enter who is ignorant of mathematics.” Greek mathematics made its greatest contribution in the area of geometry. An entire structure of knowledge which was demonstrably useful had been created, as it were, out of the thin air of pure ideas.
Plato chose geometry to teach his students the proper habits of mind because, he said, “it compels soul to contemplate essence ... Geometry is the knowledge of the eternally existent ... It would tend to draw the soul to truth, and would be productive of a philosophical attitude of mind, directing upward the faculties that now wrongly are turned earthward.” As students of Euclid know, plane geometry starts with a set of axioms and hypotheses which have an empirical reference, but it rapidly ascends to a level of pure deductive reasoning whose purpose is to discover relationships between spatial concepts. Plato proposed that philosophy should take the same approach to gain knowledge of life in other areas.
The method of geometers, as Plato wrote in Book VI of the Republic, was first to “postulate the odd and the even and the various figures and three kinds of angles and other things ... and, treating them as absolute assumptions, do not deign to render any further account of them ... They (geometers) further make use of the visible forms and talk about the, though they are not thinking of them but of those things (ideas) of which they are a likeness, pursuing their inquiry for the sake of the square as such and the diagonal as such, and not for the sake of the image of it which they draw.”
Similarly, Plato observed, regarding “the class that I described as intelligible ... the soul is compelled to employ assumptions in the investigation of it ... It uses as images or likenesses the very objects that are themselves copied and adumbrated by the class below them ... Reason itself lays hold of (this knowledge) by the power of dialectic, treating its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses, underpinnings, footings, and springboards so to speak, to enable it to rise to that which requires no assumption and is the starting point of all, and after attaining to that again taking hold of the first dependencies from it, so to proceed downward to the conclusion, making no use whatever of any object of sense but only of pure ideas moving on through ideas to ideas and ending with ideas.”
The main difficulty with scientific and mathematical knowledge would seem to lie in discovering the general principles which are the basis of its truth. Such an undertaking requires intellectual talents, for the discoverer of principles must achieve a holistic awareness of phenomena scattered about in nature and then formulate a conceptual understanding of those patterns. But after the generalities are discovered and presented, anyone can use them. While genius may be required to handle the functions of scientific research, a person of mechanical aptitude can apply its knowledge with complete satisfaction and thereby achieve the same results as a person of the highest intellect.
Mathematics and science are therefore the great levelers of human intelligence. Their generalized principles, worked out through an uncertain creative process, allow numerous persons with different degrees of intelligence and understanding to work together on a project. This system allows knowledge to accumulate through the ages. Correct knowledge of the general principle guarantees that the specifics will be handled in the right way.
Plato and Aristotle were both interested in techniques by which knowledge of this sort could be put to use. Aristotle invented a system of logic to transfer knowledge between propositions so as to gain information that was previously unknown. Generalities stand at the center of this process: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates too must die. Could anything be simpler?
The techniques of discovering and manipulating knowledge in this way are called inductive and deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning involves the process of examining specific cases of something, exploring and testing their various relationships, and perceiving patterns in them, until a general proposition of truth is known. The Socratic dialogues contain many examples of this process. Typically, the conversations cover a number of situations relating to a proposed definition until they arrive at a conclusion that seems adequate to withstand further criticisms.
Deductive reasoning takes over at this point. Once the general principle is known, specific pieces of information can be deduced from it. The general pattern produces specific knowledge or, in the case of geometric reasoning, other generalities. This method of acquiring specific knowledge through reason can substitute for the process of learning by hard experience.
knowledge driving behavior
With Socrates, Greek philosophy turned from studying nature to studying human behavior. Plato, Aristotle, and their followers extended the processes of inductive and deductive reasoning, which apply comfortably to nature, to the less comfortable human areas. Human beings do not exhibit such regular patterns of activity as natural phenomena. Yet, truth being truth, it was thought that reason could tackle anything. What Plato and Aristotle were attempting to do in their day is similar to what the so-called “social scientists” are attempting in ours. As Greek mathematics had achieved impressive results in producing useful knowledge, so physics, chemistry, and the other natural or “hard” sciences, with their equally impressive results, have opened the way to public acceptance of the social sciences.
In the case of Greek philosophy, this science also opened the way to a consideration of values. The study of human behavior included a study of ethics. The resulting moral philosophies sought knowledge of ideals that would guide humanity to better things. What “is” therefore proceeded to what “ought to be”. Normative prescriptions entered into systems of knowledge. That, in large part, is what made Platonic philosophy such a powerful influence in western culture.
Having discovered in ideas certain beneficial and useful properties, Plato proceeded to imagine a world completely transformed by them. His basic insight was simple: If all that was beneficial, helpful, and positive in life came under the general category of “goodness”, then the easiest way to achieve those positive ends would be, first, to obtain true knowledge of the good in its general form and, second, to apply this knowledge to particular situations. In other words, the idea of the good would be like a mold or a blueprint to produce good things. What was done routinely in the arts and handicrafts could also be done in the more important areas of human endeavor, such as state craft, if only society had the knowledge and will to carry this out.
Philosophy’s highest priority was therefore to perceive and define the form of the good. Having achieved this knowledge, philosophers then had a duty to transmit it back to society where the knowledge might do some good. The concept of goodness was of transcending importance in Plato’s scheme because it included all the lesser categories of right conduct. Its knowledge was like a moral touchstone whose possession would let goodness be brought systematically into the world. To identify the form of the good meant to have a clear and accurate perception of good’s essential nature. Once men recognized what goodness was in itself, they should then have no trouble in distinguishing it from all the other elements in life. And so, good’s pure form would be a pattern from which good things might be endlessly reproduced.
knowledge of the good
Plato was clear on the point that the knowledge of the good would make men want to be good. This was an important leap from objectivity to value-laden knowledge. Plato quotes Socrates in the Republic: “For surely, Adimantus, the man whose mind is truly fixed on eternal realities has no leisure to turn his eyes downward upon the petty affairs of men, and so engaging in strife with them to be filled with envy and hate, but he fixes his gaze upon the things of the eternal and unchanging order, and seeing that they neither wrong nor are wronged by one another, but all abide in harmony as reason bids, he will endeavor to imitate them and, as far as may be, to fashion himself in their likeness and assimilate himself to them.”
Plato seems to be saying that philosophers, kept busy in their studies, would have no time for worldly affairs; or, even if they did, they would recognize the advantage in contemplating eternal harmonies and avoiding strife and would behave accordingly. Elsewhere, Socrates states unequivocally: “The lover of wisdom associating with the divine order will himself become orderly and divine in the measure permitted to men.” And again: “If a man knew all good and evil, and how they are, and have been, and will be produced, would he not be perfect, and wanting in no virtue, whether justice, or temperance, or holiness? ” To know the good is to be good, in other words.
Recognizing the difficulty in achieving good results from a theoretical knowledge of good, Plato developed a strategy for converting society to this ideal. The key to his proposal was educating philosophers, whom the community would subsequently appoint to be its ruler, in the higher principles of truth. The starting point in this transformation was to turn the human mind around to face in the right direction, which meant contemplating ideas instead of worldly objects. Again, Plato resorted to the analogy of the man bound in chains inside a cave. To see the true reality (ideas), a person had to turn his eyes toward it and have enough light to see.
Most people, unaccustomed to ideas, remained in darkness, figuratively speaking. “The true analogy for this indwelling power in the soul,” wrote Plato in Book VII of the Republic, “ is that of an eye that could not be converted to the light from darkness except by turning the whole body. Even so this organ of knowledge (the mind) must be turned around from the world of becoming, together with the entire soul, like the scene-shifting periactus in the theater, until the soul is able to endure the contemplation of essence and the brightest region of being.” Education assumed the role of acquainting the soul with ideas. For, “of this very thing,” he wrote, “there might be an art, an art of the speediest and most effective shifting or conversion of the soul, not an art of producing vision in it, but on the assumption that it possesses vision and does not rightly direct it and does not look where it should, an art of bringing this about.”
For Plato, the important thing in education was not the teaching of useful skills, not even the ability to think, but the process of turning a person’s mind and heart around in the right direction, so that the soul learned to prefer good to evil.
Plato believed that it was indeed possible to teach someone to be virtuous by a process of systematic conversion to the good. For, he observed, “the excellence of thought is ... a thing that never loses its potency, but, according to the direction of its conversion becomes useful and beneficent, or, again, useless and harmful. Have you never observed in those who are popularly spoken of as bad but smart men how keen is the vision of the little soul, how quick it is to discern the things that interest it, a proof that it is not a poor vision which it had, but one forcibly enlisted in the service of evil ... This part of such a soul, if it had been hammered from childhood, and had thus been struck free of the leaden weights, so to speak, of our birth and becoming, which attaching themselves to it by food and similar pleasures and gluttonies turn downward the vision of the soul - if, I say, freed from these, it had suffered a conversion toward the things that are real and true, that same faculty of the same men would have been most keen in its vision of the higher things, just as it is for the things toward which it is now turned.”
Plato proposed to exclude from society’s leadership persons who were “uneducated and inexperienced in truth”, though otherwise intelligent, because they might not be focused on goodness and truth. He also excluded those self-indulgent persons who, exposed to philosophy, had “been permitted to linger ... in the pursuit of culture.” Such persons would be neglecting their duty of public service. Philosophical training was not given for the purpose of acquiring knowledge or credentials needed to pursue a rewarding career in politics; for philosophers represented a kind of privileged class which had to discharge their debt to society by sharing the fruits of philosophical wisdom with others.
“It is the duty of us, the founders, “ Plato wrote, “ to compel the best natures to attain the knowledge which we pronounced the greatest, and to win the vision of the good, to scale that ascent, and when they have reached the heights and taken an adequate view, we must not allow what is now permitted ... that they should linger there ... and refuse to go down again among those bondsmen and share their labors and honors ... For we shall say to them, you have received a better and more complete education than the others, and you are more capable of sharing both ways of life. Down you must go, then, each in his turn, to the habitation of the others and accustom yourselves to the observations of the obscure things there ... For once habituated, you will discern them infinitely better than the dwellers there, and you will know what each of the ‘idols’ is and whereof it is a semblance, because you have seen the reality of the beautiful, the just, and the good. So our city will be governed by us and you with waking minds, and not, as most cities now which are inhabited and ruled darkly as in a dream by men who fight one another for shadows and wrangle for office as if that were a great good, when the truth is that the city in which those who are to rule are least eager to hold office must be best administered and most free from dissension.”
three parts of society and the human psyche
In the ideal city contemplated in the Republic, philosophers would become a class of rulers, called “guardians”, who were specially trained for that position by contemplative studies. They would provide policy direction for the community. Working with the guardians, in the next rank down, would be a class of soldiers or police who would be charged with enforcing policy decisions. They are called “auxiliaries”. The third class, at the bottom of the social pyramid, consisted of farmers and artisans who would provide material sustenance for the community.
Each occupational class had its own kind of virtue. For the guardians, it was wisdom; for the auxiliaries, courage; and for the artisans and farmers, temperance. Plato found “justice” to be a state of harmony among the three classes in which each class stuck to its task and did not try to encroach upon the domain of other classes. In practical terms, this meant that the lower classes would take direction from the guardians and that the auxiliaries, who had powers of enforcement, would side consistently with the guardians rather than with the often intemperate workers. Plato suggested that the guardians invent a myth concerning “gold”, “silver”, and “bronze” people to help persuade the masses that the gods intended that the different classes remain in their respective positions.
Ever fond of analogies, Plato applied the same three-part scheme to the human psyche. To the duality of mind and body, or the rational and appetitive functions, he added a third functional entity associated with the “thumos” or “principle of high spirit”. At first glance this seemed to be related to anger, which was a type of appetite. Plato argued, however, that anger could be harnessed by reason to achieve righteous ends. So really this function stood in the middle position between reason and the physical appetites, or between mind and body, as a decision-making power. Our term for this would be “will”. Will power is not necessarily aligned with either reason or the appetites but could go either way depending upon training and personal character.
“Just as in the city there were three existing kinds that composed its structure, the money-makers, the helpers, the counselors,” Plato wrote, “so also in the soul does there exist a third kind, this principle of high spirit, which is the helper of reason by nature unless it is corrupted by evil nurture.” The just man, like the just city, keeps the three tendencies of soul in harmonious balance which, to Plato’s way of thinking, meant that the middle principle of “high spirit”, anger, or will would side with reason rather than with the appetites whenever conflict arises between them.
One finds consistently in Plato’s philosophy a preference for mind, reason, active intelligence, and philosophy as against body, physical appetites, and manual labor, on whichever level they appear. Ideas and forms are good; concrete physical things are bad. The mind is superior to to the body. In time, this attitude worked its way out into the culture of Christian asceticism in which saints tortured their evil bodies.
One notes also that the middle power, will or “high spirit”, held the decisive position in the struggle between the other two. Platonic philosophy contemplates that, in a virtuous man or community, the will aligns itself with reason or with the intellectual class in maintaining its supremacy against pleasure-seeking passions or the lower commercial and laboring classes. The design conceived by intellect is thus made effective by forcing it upon society or upon an individual person.
This scheme of applying ideas by force upon an inferior faculty or class is inherent in the Platonic scheme as it also was, of course, in the communist state where armed police and soldiers enforced the party’s decisions. An excessively rational scheme seems to lead to force in one way or another.
Note: This is Chapter 2 of the book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, by William McGaughey, which Thistlerose Publications published in 2001.
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