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Education and the human soul.


EDUCATION AS A CULTURAL ACTIVITY is organized in pursuit of what people believe to be good, since the good is "that at which all things aim." (1) As a social enterprise, education requires a generally shared conception of the good sought through it, for without this it is difficult to decide such matters as curriculum, method, teacher training, and the like. But a socially shared understanding of good is more difficult to achieve and to maintain than an individual apprehension of good because it requires widespread agreement on substantive questions concerning human nature and the kinds of life that are proper to it. The liberal commitment to procedural good is an attempt to finesse this difficulty, but it fails because it is in fact an attempt to advance a particular notion of substantive good under a putatively more agreeable label. The view that a society can embrace a large and even contradictory universe of personal conceptions of the good and still be coherent and civilized rests upon a substantive assumption concerning the human person that is by no means obvious: there is no good for man arising from shared human nature, and so that which is called good is a matter of personal, private election. This view has led to an embrace of autonomy understood as the right to idiosyncratic and even shifting ideas of the good and of meaning in human life. Thus the procedural approach to the good is mandated by a particular, substantive notion of human being. Indeed, it is instructive to see that this nihilistic position on the good has issued in the identification of a good-autonomy-that rests upon substantive convictions about human being and its good while claiming for itself a substantive "thinness" sufficient to attract a large following. This thinly masked reality attests to the fact that a substantive conception of the good for the human person is necessary if a society is to organize in pursuit of such inherently moral ends as public order, the administration of justice, the rendering of medical care, and education. If education is to be done well, it must be informed by a sense of human nature and its good. When education is done well it helps equip the human soul for pursuit of its good. In short, education is concerned with the properly developed human soul, and this concern reveals education to be first of all a moral and a spiritual enterprise depending for its well-being upon a philosophy of the human person.

In practice, public educators seem to be about the business of preparing young people for productive economic lives. Training young people to be productive and self-sufficient is a necessary task, so one should expect that some portion of educational time be given to it. But contemporary education is defined by a nearly total devotion to vocational training and an equal disregard for the moral life. I do not mean to say that educators aren't interested in "values," since it is clear that they are. But values as discussed by educators operate within the ideology of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism at its most benign is agnostic concerning philosophical or moral truth because these tell against the notion that all cultures are equally well grounded, and thus values are little more than the sentiments and manners thought necessary for getting on in a global economy. The "moral life" as I am using the phrase is life in pursuit of the chief good of the human person. This is a good given in our nature and is thus the same for everyone. The reduction of education to an adjunct function of the economy is a logical extension of a materialist view of the human person that knows the person only as a reasoning and acquisitive animal. The loss of a philosophical understanding of the human person as a created spirit having a transcendent perfection withers the "reach" of education beyond the satisfaction of temporal needs and desires, and this is why education spends itself in the service of work and pleasure.

This article is an attempt to describe education as an effort to equip the soul to pursue its true good. Within this focus, notice should be taken of the damage done to education when it is supervised by a government formally committed to the segregation of religion from public life. If human beings are indeed created in the image and likeness of God, then the state's official embrace of secularism commits it to a faulty anthropology. This problem is more than a passing curiosity since if the pursuit of the human good is determined by our creation in the divine image, then to insist upon a naturalistic understanding of the human person as a guide for education commits us from the start to misapprehending ourselves and the good at which our nature is aimed. The cramped anthropologies permitted by the state and the view of education they endorse seem generally to be shared by public-school teachers, but where they are not, formal adherence is prescribed by the state through its extra-constitutional doctrine of church-state separation. This doctrine in practice effects a generalized duty not to discuss any teaching that might be deemed religious unless it is presented as part of a topography of religious thought to be found among human societies. This uncritical grouping of philosophies leaves students with the sense that the most basic of questions are in fact trivial, serving as guides to the more exotic products of the human imagination. If, as I contend, philosophy lies at the heart of civilized social order, its official treatment as an intellectual curio bodes ill for the cultural cohesion of future generations. The requirement of church-state separation as the Supreme Court lately has invented it assumes that the first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended to chase religion from public life and from public education. (2) The doctrine ensures that an understanding of the human person that rises above a materialist horizon cannot express itself in educational practice.

Human Nature: The Foundation of Education

The dominant conception of the human person held among professional educators and the governments that employ them is a naturalistic, neo-Darwinist view that sees him as a creature in flux, on the evolutionary road to who-knows-where. (3) In such a condition it makes no sense to speak of a human nature that testifies to its highest end-to its eudaimonia or its beatitudo-an end that identifies the goals of education. Indeed, we can reliably identify no purpose for the being that is human beyond that which we each individually fashion for ourselves. We have as an example of this view the celebrated "mystery passage" of the Supreme Court's defense of abortion on demand, Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Robert P. Casey. Explaining why the Constitution bars states from protecting nascent human life, justice Sandra O'Connor finds at the heart of liberty "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." (4) If a state were to make abortion on demand illegal, it would do so in defense of a particular theory of human life and of its dignity. The law would then force everyone to act in conformity to a theory of man that presumably only a few people actually believed. This would offend the right to define for oneself that rational cipher shrouded in the "mystery of human life" and to govern one's actions accordingly. (5) In order for this claim about liberty to be true it must first be true that we have no reliable experiences of ourselves and our world that tell us about that world as it really is. If such experiences are possible, then we are able to distinguish among more-or-less correct and incorrect perceptions of existence, the universe, and the mystery of human life. The right to define one's own concept of these things, as justice O'Connor has it, assumes that each of us is trapped in an intractable solipsism in which the world is unintelligible except in the idiosyncratic ways in which the isolated individual makes sense of it to himself. Liberty can stretch its protective branches over this right to construct one's own reality only when we are publicly agnostic about the meanings of existence, the universe, and human life. Applied to education, this view means there can be no knowledge of human nature that is at all relevant to the way we educate young people, for such knowledge, resting as it does on mere fancy, would intrude impermissibly on the right to private, personally authoritative interpretations of reality thought to be grounded in reason and in law.

In his commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Thomas Aquinas provides a useful description of reason's various operations and how these relate to the order we find in ourselves and in the world around us.' Thomas writes that there is a fourfold organization of reason to order: what reason observes but does not establish (like the order of things in nature); an order reason itself establishes (specifically, the order of concepts in our minds and the arrangement of words to represent them); an order reason establishes through consideration of the uses of the will (that is, reflection on how best to act) ; and an order reason establishes through planning (as when human beings build things). The different ways in which reason relates to order imply a differentiation of philosophical sciences. Natural philosophy studies the order of the natural world. Rational philosophy-logic-considers the order of the parts of verbal expression to each other, and in argument, of the relations of principles or propositions to each other and to their conclusions. Moral philosophy, which includes politics, looks to the proper order of ourselves and our voluntary actions. Mechanical arts are concerned with the order that reason establishes through planning the external things that human beings produce.

These ways in which reason relates to order are not discrete, isolated from one another. Moral philosophy, for example, assumes acquaintance with natural philosophy, the created natural order in which we live and act. Moreover, critical reflection on ourselves and our conduct is not possible without careful attention to logic and rhetoric, since these discipline our minds and bring order to thought. Moral philosophy considers what is the best kind of life for us, but this reflection is nourished by deeper streams. Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy find the intellect operating both speculatively and practically. Practical reason functions according to an understanding of the good and the true formulated through the speculative intellect. The yield of speculative effort in the study of being, and more concretely of human being and its nature, sets the frame of ethics.

The point of the moral life for Aristotle, unlike Thomas, is not attainment of blessedness in the life to come. The moral and intellectual virtues as Aristotle defines them do not answer to a divine image purposefully inscribed in the human person. Virtues are qualities prescribed by nature that make any member of a particular class of beings good according to the natural excellence of the class. In human beings wisdom and prudence and the other virtues define the perfection in each person of the nature possessed by our species. To perfect or to actualize the capacities of our nature is to be fulfilled, and this is what Aristotle finds all beings naturally aimed at achieving. For Thomas also, the moral and intellectual virtues define the fulfillment of human nature, but this fulfillment is sought in order that we might enjoy the most blessed state of communion with God. We strive toward moral goodness because God commands it, but God commands it because the struggle for moral improvement is part of the spiritual life that leads us back to a primordial happiness for which we were first created. For Aristotle, virtue is an end in itself; we labor to become virtuous because the life of virtue according to reason is the best kind of life for a human being. For Thomas the natural virtues like courage, prudence, and justice can be acquired through education and effort, but these lie barren in the quest for final happiness without the important class of infused theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which are attained also through effort but come to us finally as gifts of divine grace. The theological virtues complete the natural virtues, and together they complete human intellectual and spiritual nature and prepare us for the ultimate, and transcendent, human fulfillment in communion with God. While Thomas does not accept Aristotle's moral philosophy whole and complete as a merely penultimate though orthodox account of human good, he nevertheless recognizes the depth of understanding about the moral life Aristotle had achieved.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Aristotle understood that the world is intelligible, and that with sufficient effort we can know the world as it is. In consequence of this it is possible to understand much of human nature. The intellectual soul is capable of spiritual as well as rational experience, and this capacity for spiritual experience means that the human soul is able to transcend physical nature. This power would be impotent, indeed incoherent, if there were no transcendent order accessible by means of it. The existence in the human soul of a faculty aimed at transcendent order is formidable evidence that such an order exists. The transcendent order is more perfect than the natural order because it is incorruptible, and so the presence in the human person of a transcendent aspect strongly suggests that the person's chief good lies there. If this is true, then Thomas has given a more complete account than Aristotle has given of human nature and its good, and this because Thomas understood, as Aristotle could not have, that the meaning of the human person and the person's chief good are theological questions. Thus Thomas has given a fuller description of the object of education.

Important to this argument is the fact that theological effort bears fruit for society only over the course of generations. Wisdom thus accumulated constitutes cultural tradition. Maintaining the wisdom of a living tradition requires that one generation lovingly and carefully communicate it to the next. The task of enculturating the young is done by the family and by religion, but formal education is a critical element in this process. Indeed, formal education embodies the disciplined, systematic study of things and so is able not simply to prepare young people for getting on in the world, as needful as that is, but to understand why and to what ends. Not only should education serve these goals, but when done diligently it brings to each generation a common and commonly articulated understanding of the person, his or her good, and the society in which the good is sought. This common understanding produces and preserves the kinds of institutions that make a society culturally coherent and well ordered. Coherence and order in turn preserve the conditions in which human beings are freed from the demands of survival with sufficient time to pursue their chief good. Education should not usurp the role of the family or of religion, but rather should be an aid to family and religion in this important work. Like family and religion, education is obliged to resist intellectual forces that are antithetical to its work. Of paramount importance is the responsibility of education to preserve, indeed to disseminate, the conception of the person and his or her chief good that makes the cultural enterprise of education the vital activity that it is by its very nature. But contemporary educators have embraced a tragically diminished and therefore false theory of the person that cannot account for his or her chief good because it knows nothing of his divine origin and destiny, and consequently is unable to see any good worthy of pursuit beyond economic efficiency.

Love: Key to Knowledge of the Human Good

In his treatise Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, St. Augustine asks the question, "How, then, according to reason, ought man to live?" He answers the question saying that we all desire to live happily. But, St. Augustine continues,
 the title happy cannot, in my opinion, belong either to him
 who has not what he loves, whatever it may be, or to him who
 has what he loves if it is hurtful, or to him who does not love
 what he has, although it is good in perfection. For one who
 seeks what he cannot obtain suffers torture, and one who has
 got what is not desirable is cheated, and one who does not
 seek for what is worth seeking for is diseased.... I find, then,
 a fourth case, where the happy life exists-when that which
 is man's chief good is both loved and possessed. (7)

To find the meaning of happiness for man it is necessary to identify his chief good. This, St. Augustine writes, cannot be something inferior to man since its pursuit and possession would make him inferior. It could be something similar to man, but only if there is nothing superior to him that would obviously lay claim to the office of chief good. Identifying that which is superior to man is the path St. Augustine chooses because it is plain to him that "in seeking happiness man should endeavor to reach that which is more excellent than the being who makes the endeavor." (8) In order to find what is the chief good of man, St. Augustine tells us that it is important to know what a human being is. But for the purpose of this short argument a final definition of human nature is not required. After asking but not answering several questions about the relation of the soul to the body and whether man is either of these or both at the same time, Augustine writes,
 Now, if we ask what is the chief good of the body, reason
 obliges us to admit that it is that by means of which the body
 comes to be in its best state. But of all the things which
 invigorate the body, there is nothing better or greater than the
 soul. The chief good of the body, then, is not bodily pleasure,
 not absence of pain, not strength, not beauty, not swiftness,
 or whatever else is usually reckoned among the goods of the
 body, but simply the soul. For all the things mentioned the
 soul supplies the body by its presence, and, what is above
 them all, life. Hence I conclude that the soul is not the chief
 good of man, whether we give the name of man to the soul
 and body together, or to the soul alone. For as, according to
 reason, the chief good of the body is that which is better than
 the body, and from which the body receives vigor and life,
 so whether the soul itself is man, or the soul and the body
 both, we must discover whether there is anything which goes
 before the soul itself, in following which the soul comes to
 perfection of good of which it is capable in its own kind. If
 such a thing can be found, all uncertainty must be at an end,
 and we must pronounce this to be really and truly the chief
 good of man. (9)

The question, then, is not whether man is soul, or body, or both together, but what makes the soul perfect. If the soul is superior to the body, then owing to their intimate relationship, the soul must rule over the body for the relative perfection of both. This the soul does by means of virtue, which is its own perfection. This observation leads St. Augustine to the platonic question whether virtue can exist by itself or can exist only in the soul. The origin and "location" of virtue is an important question since in order to attain virtue the soul must pursue it. In order to do that, one must know where to look. Now if virtue cannot exist apart from the soul, then the soul in pursuing virtue must follow after itself, for that is where it will find the object of its desire. This is not an answer suitable to reason for St. Augustine because the soul is foolish before it acquires virtue. Thus in following after its virtueless self the soul would thwart its own purpose; it could never reach the goal of virtue by chasing after a thing that doesn't have it. One could argue that the person seeking virtue could follow a sage, a teacher who already has virtue, and in this way St. Augustine's objection is overcome. One soul follows another soul endowed with virtue and in so doing achieves virtue. The virtues are thus found only in the soul. The problem with this reply is evident when one asks where virtuous souls come from in the first place. Before the first sage, how did souls become virtuous? This question, I think, leaves St. Augustine's inquiry open. Where, then, is one to find virtue if it resides the soul? Here St. Augustine turns back on his own argument by observing that virtue is rightly understood to be the habit and disposition of the wise soul. So virtue does not reside naturally in the soul but cannot exist apart from it, since virtue is a quality of the soul. If there is no virtue "out there" at which the soul can aim, and it does not exist naturally within the human soul, needing only a bit of spit and polish to make it shine, how can one become virtuous? The only way out of this problem is to hold, as St. Augustine does, that virtue is attained by pursuing something else, the acquisition of which brings virtue to the soul.

We have arrived now at the thing St. Augustine has been seeking to identify: the highest object of love, possession of which brings happiness. For man, this object of love is "a good than which there is nothing better." Since man is the noblest thing in creation, and the soul of man is his noblest part, it might be that the perfection of the human soul-virtue-is the greatest good and the highest object of love. But St. Augustine has labored to show that the virtues of the soul do not exist apart from the soul and are not resident there by nature. Therefore, in order to achieve virtue one must seek to acquire something else that, once possessed, will bring perfection to the soul. This something else is either a wise man or God, for these are the only candidates for a good that is at least similar to, if not more excellent than, man. But a wise man is a man, and a man is not higher than a man. St. Augustine has already said that the search for happiness should aim at "that which is more excellent than the being who makes the endeavor." Moreover, one man cannot possess another, especially an other who is one's moral guide and teacher. The wise man can die, or leave us in some other way, and this we are powerless to control. In that case one would lose the object of his love, and this calamity would bring happiness to grief as St. Augustine pointed out at the beginning of the discussion: one cannot be happy who does not possess what he loves. The highest object of our love, the thing that alone can bring happiness to man, must therefore be God. He is the object of our desire and not virtue because God is more excellent even than the excellence of the soul. If communion with God alone can bring us to happiness, the excellence of the soul, which is an important part of happiness, is in fact a consequence of that communion and therefore subordinate to it. For St. Augustine, virtue and finally happiness cannot be achieved apart from the possession of God.

It is an important result of this argument of St. Augustine that if the chief good of man is God and if virtue in the soul comes from communion with God, then if love is a virtue of the soul, it is unattainable apart from God. (10) God is thus the ground of human dignity and happiness, and love is a consequence of our encounter with that ground. It should be noted that love is discussed here in two senses. In the first sense, love is the desire we each should have for that which is our chief good. In the second sense, love is the virtue of the soul that orders our relationships to God, self, and others in ways proper to each relationship. The first love impels us toward God who is our chief good. The second, a consequence of drawing spiritually near to God, is the virtue that governs (though not alone) our earthly conduct. The love of God, which one knows in faith, produces hope for the future, even as we contemplate the corruption of our bodies in death. The love we know in the companionship of God kindles a nascent faith and hope that inspires love for and compassion with our fellow human persons. This compassion is bolstered in our weakness by the admonition of Jesus to pray that the Father "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." The connection of hope for our future to our treatment of other human beings encourages acts of charity and forbearance.

Love is the greatest of the theological virtues for under its influence all the other virtues are perfected, and the dignity of the human person is displayed as fully as it can be in this life. When the source and nature of that dignity are understood, so is the respect, the latitude or liberty, due each person in pursuit of his or her chief good. So too is understood the tragic weakness of human persons in living up to the potential of his or her nature. These insights provide the firm round of compassion and social tolerance, and indicate the necessary limits of each. This is so because the human person is an embodied spirit whose life comes from God and is acted out in the society of other human beings. Our orientation to one another is established by the created nature we possess in common-a nature that is made in the image and likeness of God. Because we are created in the image of the One who can be known only as He shows Himself to us, the fullest understanding of our nature is found in contemplation that is illuminated by the light of revelation. Contemplation of divinely revealed truth is the human activity that alone can lay the foundation of a culture truly ordered to human good. (11)


What has been defended thus far is the claim that education divorced from the spiritual springs of the human soul frustrates the soul's maturation into wisdom. This maturation is the aim of the soul's climb from the first instruction in goodness by our parents through the personal acceptance of responsibility to moral law and beyond, to the Author of the law Himself. The immediacy of the urge toward maturation is found in the fact that each of us is alone-radically alone in the true meaning of radix; we are alone at the root of our being. This perception is primordial to the human soul. At the beginning of Genesis we find God saying, "It is not good for man to be alone." And so God creates another creature like man, but yet not like him, to be his companion. Interestingly, the companion does not, and cannot, overcome the man's radical aloneness. What's more, she too is alone. No one can truly know the soul of another, for there is an innerness where each of us dwells that can have no companion but God. Thus St. Augustine, filled with the knowledge of himself as a being of more than flesh, is moved to declare, "My heart has ears ready to listen to you, Lord. Open them wide and whisper in my heart, I am here to save you. I shall hear your voice and make haste to clasp you to myself. Do not hide your face away from me, for I would gladly meet my death to see it, since not to see it would be death indeed."(12) But the soul is free, at least as between one person and another, and so the search for rest cannot be abbreviated by imposing upon someone the most personal and ethereal of relationships. This Companion, more than any other, must be freely chosen. This choosing is part of the struggle to overcome aloneness-which is one with the pursuit of our chief good. At the center of this struggle is the need to understand the truth concerning the one thing that can dispel the isolation of radical aloneness. This truth, like the sun in Plato's great allegory, illumines all other important human questions. The solitude that God sought to overcome by giving to man the intimate companionship of woman was not meant to make them self-sufficient, for each can be quite alone in the company of the other. It presumed a prior intimacy with Him without which no truly human intimacy is possible. The ineffable peace of companionship in the heart scatters the radical inner aloneness, and makes possible the companionship with another that is the overcoming of outer aloneness, the highest social expression of which is marriage-the sine qua non of all other civilized institutions. Next to family and religion, education is the surest hope that the human soul can be equipped for the great effort needed to overcome radical aloneness.

Final happiness is of course something none of us will experience this side of the implacable ditch. Yet we know of it by knowing we desire it, and by attending to human nature, and above all, by revelation. This last element stands in need of a living tradition in which it is mediated from one generation to the next, and while this is the mission primarily of the Church, public schools, which are not extensions of the Church, nevertheless should not act to frustrate that mission by calling the young to a different and lower path. A system of education that does this is a danger to the souls given to it, and an agent of cultural decline. The way forward from here is not clear, especially at the level of policy, because so many of the problems bedeviling education stem from entrenched ideology. What is clear, or should be clear, is that education in the West is on a darkening course where science and technology surge while the care of the soul languishes. Recovering the first and highest purpose of education describes the broad arc along which this noble task is lifted from its present condition. A careful discussion of the practical steps needed to cross that arc will show just how broad it is.


(1.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094-a 3.

(2.) In Permoh v. First Municipality (1845), the Supreme Court held that the religion clause of the First Amendment did not apply to the states. In Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Hamilton v. Regents of the University of California (1934) the Court suggested that the religion clause applied to states through the Fourteenth Amendment, but the justices did not declare this to be the case until Cantwell v. Connecticut in 1940. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Hugo Black read Jefferson's metaphorical "wall of separation between church and State" into the First Amendment, and concluded that this wall forbade any tax money to be used for any religious purpose. Jefferson's metaphor was urged upon the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut on January 1, 1802. Terry Eastland has pointed out that in 1803 president Jefferson concluded a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that included taxpayer money to build them a Roman Catholic church and to support the priest (Religious Liberty and the Supreme Court: The Cases That Define the Debate Over Church and State I Washington, DC: Ethics and public policy Center, 1993], 65, n. 10). Whatever Jefferson meant by the wall metaphor, he didn't mean what justice Black meant. Moreover, the wall of separation language is not in the First Amendment and the language that is there "Congress shall make no law ..." does not easily support Justice Black's construction of it. Instead, this reading of the First Amendment's religion clause is the product of judicial predilection, and is an extraconstitutional notion of historically recent invention.

(3.) For an incisive critique of contemporary Darwinism by a sympathetic thinker see David Stove, Against the Idols of the Age (New Brunswick: Transaction publishers, 2001).

(4.) Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania v. Robert P Casey et al., Soy U. S. 833, 8S2.

(5.) The socially catastrophic consequences of this interpretation of liberty were missed by Ronald Dworkin and colleagues in their celebrated amicus brief to the Supreme Court when that tribunal was considering the constitutionality of state laws forbidding physician-assisted suicide. (See Dworkin et al., The Philosophers' Brief, in The New York Review of Books 4-4-, no. 5, March 27, 1997.) At the heart of their argument is the claim that justice O'Connor's "mystery passage" quoted above justifies not only abortion but also suicide and therefore a physician's help in committing it. This is because laws against suicide, like laws against abortion, rest upon a particular conception of the meaning and value of human life, which the Constitution, according to the Court's newly fashioned understanding of liberty, forbids as a basis for legislation. But if this is true, then laws punishing rape and murder also must be unconstitutional because they likewise rest upon a forbidden notion of the meaning and value of human life. Even if we say that these laws are permissible because they protect the lives and liberties of individuals as they go through their days under the aegis of whatever conceptions of value drive them, we run afoul of justice O' Connor's interpretation of liberty since this justification of rape and murder laws still rests upon a forbidden assumption of the value of human life.

(6.) St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, I, 1.

(7.) St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Catholic Church, III, 4.

(8.) Ibid., III, 5.

(9.) Ibid., V, 7.

(10.) This is not to deny that certain natural virtues are attainable apart from overt pursuit of communion with God.

(11.) See Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952).

(12.) St. Augustine, Confessions, I, 4.
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Author:Danielson, Patrick
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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