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From the Winter, 1993 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>A Pagan’s Proposal by Jeffry Davis

A Pagan’s Proposal

Moral Education for a Decadent Society

by Jeffry Davis

Back in the fifth century B.C., in the Sicilian town of Syracuse, a longtime despot by the name of Thrasybulus fell from power. With his ousting, a democratic form of government emerged that gave newly enfranchised citizens the opportunity to recover lands which had been confiscated during the tyrant’s reign. One of the citizens, Corax, developed a systematic approach to help victims plead their cases in court. In essence, Corax told the people, “Follow my advice: You’ll get your land!” His formula—employing inferential reasoning with arguments of probability—worked. Justice triumphed through the careful use of words. Many citizens who trusted Corax were indemnified by rhetoric.

In a speech given prior to the 1988 United States presidential election, Republican nominee George Bush boldly declared before the American public, “Read my lips: No new taxes!” The words tickled many voters’ ears and brought relief. His plan—a mixture of emotional bravado and pandering—worked. Millions believed and went to the polls to punch their tickets on his behalf. Bush became the forty-first president of the United States. But midway through his four-year term, he raised taxes, and he also raised the ire of the people who put him into power. Some members of the press called it a premeditated act of chicanery. Many citizens who trusted Bush felt bamboozled by rhetoric.

As these two historical anecdotes suggest, the meaning of the term rhetoric has dramatically changed in 2,500 years. As its genesis, rhetoric held an integral place in democratic government. In ancient Greece, men had two distinct roles: to be war makers and speech makers. The renowned historian of rhetoric, George Kennedy, notes that “As the city states developed and there was less room for the hero at arms, the speaker of words became the commoner type of influential man.”1 With civilization came law, and with law came the need for the interpretation of legal matters. This was the role of the true classical rhetor, to master the language of civil life, to support noble causes for the common good, and to eloquently argue worthy cases in the law courts. In fourth-century Athens, the great rhetor Isocrates wrote, “Because there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other, and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities, and made laws, and invented arts.”2 Isocrates taught his students that the study of rhetoric should not be pursued strictly for personal or economic gain, the motivation of many of the sophists of his day. Rather, the guiding principles for the study of rhetoric must be virtue, wisdom, and duty.

Persuasion with words, instead of weapons, ensured humane, civil interaction between individuals, so long as those who persuaded were moral men. Unfortunately, by the first century B.C., moral men were becoming harder and harder to find in the Roman republic. No one knew this better than Cicero. A conservative who spoke powerfully in the Roman Senate, Cicero made several enemies because of his convictions. In his De Oratore, a work on rhetorical education, he expresses many of his beliefs concerning the making of a good orator. Cicero argues that the orator must be a man of broad culture—humanitas—well acquainted with knowledge in every field: “No man has ever become a great orator unless he has combined a training in rhetoric with all other branches of knowledge.”3 Cicero asserts that studying an abundance of matter will provide the orator with an abundance of words. The scholar Aubrey Gwynn makes a salient point concerning Cicero’s focus in the De Oratore: “To be man in all that is most human, and to be human in one’s relations with all other men; that is Cicero’s ethical and social ideal, and his education theory is based on the same principle.”4 For a country to remain humane, Cicero believed that the teaching of rhetoric—the knowledge of how to use words well—ensured healthy pluralism. This is one reason why Cicero wrote De Oratore, and why he continued to speak out against those who despised true rhetoric, those who desired undisputed authority, those who wanted a dictatorship without critics. Ultimately Cicero spoke up too many times. When Antony became the target of his words, Cicero’s life came to an end, and with it, the vibrant rhetoric that flourished during the republican era of Rome.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus entered Roman history at the treacherous and bloody time when rhetoric was reduced to the inconsequential speech of flattery and proclamation. With the Roman Senate serving as nothing more than an ornamental vestige of the early Republic, imperial rule in Rome ensured totalitarianism, and the culture of the old Republic rapidly began to crumble from the onslaught of new forms of decadence. Born at the approximate moment in time when Jesus Christ was condemned to death on the cross by the procurator Pontius Pilate, Quintilian lived to see ten emperors rise and fall, most by violent means. Each of these Roman rulers exerted a distinct influence that shaped the geopolitical contour of the empire; a cursory reading of Roman history shows this. But what proves more significant, and perhaps more telling in relation to Quintilian and his beliefs, is the way in which these rulers lived and influenced the morality of the Roman people of the first century. A brief examination of a few of these Roman emperors, in particular the four who ruled from Quintilian’s youth through his middle age, reveals the decadent landscape which Quintilian countered through his teaching, writing and rhetoric.5

In A.D. 37, when Quintilian was a small boy, Caligula forcibly took the throne of the Roman Empire by ordering servants to throw heavy rugs over his aged and ailing predecessor, Tiberius Caesar, who then suffocated to death. Intoxicated with power, Caligula engineered several despicable fiats: on a whim he ordered his longtime friend Macro, the prefect of the praetorian guard, to commit suicide with his wife; out of spite he imprisoned his sisters on distant islands; with amusement he abducted brides from Roman noblemen during their wedding ceremonies; for sport he entertained crowds by putting defenseless old men into the arena with half-starved wild beasts; in anger he forced the most respected senators to trot alongside his chariot in the midday sun, like slaves; and on occasion he paraded about in women’s clothes to shock fellow Romans. Caligula’s motto—“Let them hate me, as long as they fear me!”—worked in keeping most citizens in abeyance, but his chief military officer eventually allowed hatred to overcome fear. In a planned conspiracy the officer stabbed the mad emperor, murdered his wife, and dashed out the brains of their young daughter against a wall.

After Caligula’s death, Claudius succeeded as emperor, quite to his own surprise. Upon hearing of the conspiracy against Caligula, he hid himself behind a curtain in the imperial residence, fearing his own demise. But a passing soldier noticed two feet sticking out from under the curtains and dragged the cowering man out, only to hail him as the new leader; Claudius had unwittingly won the confidence of the military. Considered an oaf by many, Claudius tolerated great insolence toward himself in the court, where he was often ridiculed. Being absent-minded, the emperor sometimes forgot when he had ordered the execution of certain citizens; on occasion he would invite executed men to his house, and then wonder where they were when they did not show up. Though not astute in judicial matters, Claudius had a keen eye for women. After divorcing his first two wives and executing his third, he entered into an incestuous relationship with his brother’s daughter, Agrippina, and eventually compelled the Senate to formally decree that marriage between niece and uncle was permissible for the good of the state. A few years after their marriage, Agrippina murdered Claudius by feeding him poisonous mushrooms. She did this in order to secure the throne for her son by a previous marriage—Nero.

Educated by the renowned teacher Seneca, Nero was an advocate of the arts, and at first seemed humane. When he took control of the empire at age seventeen, he let it be known that he had no enemies. Starting out with good intentions, he wanted to do away with the corruption that had preceded him. And in fact, according to Trajan, the first five years of Nero’s reign were the best of the imperial age of Rome. But quickly Nero began to change; suspicions of conspiracy twisted his mind and made him paranoid, defensive and bloodthirsty. After the great fire of Rome, which burned two-thirds of the city, gossip began to spread that Nero himself ordered the fire, possibly to improve the architectural beauty of the city through renovation. To put an end to the gossip, Nero put the blame of the deed onto the common criminals of the day—the Christians. The following account comes from the Annals of Tacitus:

First those who confessed to being Christians were arrested. Then, on information obtained from them, hundreds were convicted, more for their anti-social beliefs than for fireraising. In their deaths they were made a mockery. They were covered in the skins of wild animals, torn to death by dogs, crucified or set on fire—so that when darkness fell they burned like torches in the night. Nero opened up his own gardens for this spectacle and gave a show in the arena, where he mixed with the crowd, or stood dressed as a charioteer on a chariot. As a result, although they were guilty of being Christians and deserved death, people began to feel sorry for them. For they realized that they were being massacred not for the public good but to satisfy one man’s mania.

Such unspeakable treatment was not only reserved for the Christians; in time, Nero poisoned his own mother and ordered his wife’s execution by asphyxiation in a steam bath. Amazingly, Nero intended to poison the whole Senate and murder his military leaders too, but he never got the opportunity. His enemies acted first, deciding that the emperor should be beaten to death with rods. Upon hearing this sentence, Nero hastily ordered his servants to dig a grave according to his body measurements, and shortly after, he stabbed himself in the throat.

After Nero’s suicide, Galba became possessor of supreme power in A.D. 69. Crotchety and full of gout, this 73-year-old emperor exhibited several unpopular attributes: bullheadedness, impatience, and stinginess. Though not nearly as corrupt as the emperors before him, Galba nevertheless could not hide his avarice. Whereas Nero spent the money of the state without restraint, often to entertain the public, Galba pinched every coin he could, and carped when meals to his guests seemed too lavish. This strict old man made few friends among the Roman citizens; most longed for the good old days young Nero had established, of pleasure, indulgence, and excess. No doubt this was one of the reasons for Galba’s murder: he failed to meet the expectations of the bygone era. According to one version of his death, assassins surrounded him at night in a public square, and though Galba tried to pay them off, the amount he offered could not meet their satisfaction, so they cut off his head and propped it on a spear.

Ivar Lissner sums up this period which corresponds to the first half of Quintilian’s life with the following words: “Rome had by now fallen prey to most of the vices that inevitably come with an advanced civilization. Greed and perversion, adultery and pederasty, sadism, treachery and injustice all made their presence felt among the seven hills which ruled the world. Caligula, Claudius, Nero and Galba had prepared the morass into which the new emperor, Otho, was to wade still deeper. Between A.D. 30 and 69 Rome’s moral barometer showed its lowest reading.”6

Through these imperial vignettes, the moral climate—or more aptly put, the immoral climate—of the first century Roman culture becomes clear. With the death of Cicero came the death of deliberative (political) rhetoric, the lifeblood of democracy. Soon decadence enveloped the empire. Yet, out of this bleak background the strikingly brilliant rhetoric of Quintilian emerges.

In A.D. 69, when Emperor Galba succeeded Nero, he brought Quintilian with him to Rome from the north of Hispania (what is today called Spain). Quintilian was familiar with Rome from his teenage years when he studied rhetoric under the famous teacher, Domitius Afer. Now Quintilian assumed a role similar to his mentor as a pleader in the courts, a job somewhat like what a lawyer might do today. Quintilian organized cases, delivered speeches on behalf of plaintiffs or defendants, and examined and cross-examined witnesses. In one of his famous cases he defended his client Naevius Arpinianus, who was accused of murdering his wife by throwing her out of a window. In possibly his most renowned case, he represented the Jewish Queen Berenice, the sister of King Agrippa II, who was present at the trial of the Apostle Paul; Quintilian notes, strangely, that Berenice had the luxury of being the judge of her own trial, which Quintilian no doubt had little trouble in winning. He gained a reputation as a pleader, and part of his success in the courts came from his effective forensic methodology: by recreating each particular case carefully within his own mind, he would work himself into an imaginative state of consciousness that gave him the ability to describe the various aspects of each case with vivid and compelling detail.

By A.D. 72 Quintilian had gained an even greater reputation as a teacher of rhetoric. Ironically, though the empire ceased to allow rhetorical debate to function in society, an undercurrent of private educators fostered the formal study of rhetoric. Quintilian was one of those educators. With a high demand for strong teachers who could educate the children of wealthy Romans in the ways of speaking and writing well, Quintilian opened what the historian Jerome recorded as the “first public school of Rome.” Shortly thereafter, Vespasian, the first emperor to try and bring reprobate Rome to its senses, subsidized the school, and eventually appointed Quintilian to the first chair of Latin rhetoric funded by the empire. With a salary of 100,000 sesterces, the equivalent of almost a quarter of a million dollars, Quintilian wanted for little as a teacher.7

Quintilian’s curriculum, outlined in his famous Institutio Oratoria, provided the first systematic approach to the education of a boy from childhood through adulthood, an education grounded in moral principles and character development. Quintilian boldly states in the preface of his book, “We are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless he is above all a good man.”8 For Quintilian, the citizen-orator par excellence equals vir bonus decendi peritus—the good man speaking well. He believes that true eloquence flows forth from a man with true virtue. This is why the study of morality must be foundational to a student’s rhetorical education. “This blending of moral purpose and artistic skill is emphasized throughout the whole book. For this reason, the Institutio Oratoria is perhaps the most ambitious single treatise on education which the ancient world produced. Each section of the book is built around the ideal of the perfect citizen-orator.”9

Practically speaking, what did Quintilian’s curriculum look like, and how was it implemented? The Institutio Oratoria tells us.

Far ahead of his time, Quintilian perceived the crucial developmental stages of early childhood; therefore he believed that education must begin at the cradle. “Let a father, then, as soon as his son is born, conceive first of all the best possible hopes of him,” says Quintilian.10  Critical of parents who indiscriminately hand their infants over to nurses or slaves because they might not be good role models in speech or conduct, Quintilian argues that parents should carefully construct an environment that will nurture, not impede, the moral growth of the child. “We are by nature most tenacious of what we have imbibed in our infant years,” writes Quintilian, “. . . those very habits, which are of a more objectionable nature, adhere with the greater tenacity; for good ones are easily changed for the worse, but when will you change bad ones into good?”11 Consequently, active parenting proves to be the best solution from Quintilian’s point of view. Both the father and mother should be as learned as possible, speaking well in the presence of their children so that they imitate proper pronunciation, in both Greek and Latin. From birth to age seven, learning should be amusing, not burdensome, so as not to kill the young spirit, and a desire for genuine discovery should be instilled within the child through regular questioning and praising.

The prospective orator should leave the home at age seven and attend school daily. Here Quintilian makes no apology, even to those who argue that the socializing factor of schools upon children tends toward immorality. Morals are not jeopardized in the schools, so much as in the home. He gives a biting verbal lashing to those parents who give voice to the need for virtue in their child’s education, but who remain willfully blind to their own vices in the home:

“Would that we ourselves did not corrupt the moral as of our children! We enervate their very infancy with luxuries . . . we form the palate of children before we form their pronunciation. They grow up in sedan chairs; if they touch the ground, they hang by the hand of attendants supporting them on each side. We are delighted if they utter anything immodest . . . . They see our mistresses, our male objects of affection; every dining room rings with impure songs; things shameful to be told are objects of sight. From such practices springs habit, and afterward nature. The unfortunate children learn these vices before they know that they are vices; and hence, rendered effeminate and luxurious, they do not imbibe immorality from school, but carry it themselves into schools.”12

For Quintilian, the benefits of school-socialization—healthy competition, intellectual challenge from classmates, and enthusiastic teaching—cannot compare to the disadvantages of individual tutoring in the home. It should be noted, also, that Quintilian’s elementary school contrasted sharply with the common form of Roman elementary school; Quintilian’s school, while well structured, deplored the shaming or punishment of children, whereas the Roman ludas frequently employed these measures. “That boys should suffer corporal punishment,” writes Quintilian, “I by no means approve . . . no man should be allowed too much authority over an age so weak and so unable to resist ill-treatment.”13

In Quintilian’s school from age seven to fourteen, then, the child would learn to read and write the languages which he already could speak. First by touching carved ivory letters of the alphabet, the child would find delight in handling and playing with the characters of words. Soon the child would trace these letters on wax boards, and begin to write. Eventually, the pupil would make connections between combined letters and syllables. Concerning reading, Quintilian exclaims, “It is incredible how much retardation to reading is caused by haste . . . children attempt more than they can manage; and then, after making mistakes, they become distrustful even of what they know. Let reading, therefore, be at first sure, then continuous, and for a long time slow.”14 In the activity of writing, the child should copy sentences which have moral content. “The remembrance of such admonitions will attend him to old age, and will be of use for the formation of his character,” writes Quintilian.15 The memorization of select passages of poetry, too, should be included in the daily regime, for an orator must carefully develop the faculty of memory.

By fourteen, the young orator is now ready to develop his reasoning intellect further in the school of the grammaticus—the teacher of grammar. It should be noted that grammar in the ancient sense included not only rules of language, as we define grammar in the modern sense, but also literary study. Latin and Greek texts are to be analyzed for such things as genre, historical allusion, mythology, and other formal concerns. Furthermore, the grammaticus should require the boy to read fables and rewrite them in a way that would develop the boy’s artistic abilities. The boy should also begin voice lessons in preparation for the school of rhetoric, where speaking is central to the curriculum. And finally, the study of music, geometry, astronomy, and gymnastics must be included, for as Cicero decreed, “The orator must be accomplished in every kind of discourse.”

When the young man graduates to the rhetorical school, his elementary training is not forgotten but expanded upon. Again, Quintilian emphasizes that an adolescent’s success depends upon the thoroughness of his prior schooling. The study of the liberal arts continues, only with greater depth. The student now must provide plot summaries of tragedies and comedies, he must analyze significant narratives on legend and history, and he must craft his own words into meaningful discourse. Soon the student delivers panegyrics (speeches praising important people), working his way up to declamations (speaking exercises on fictional themes). Two types of declamation deserve the student’s careful examination and practice; controversia, a fictitious court case, and suasoria, an imaginary political problem. These two forms of declamation are as close as the student might come to the actual work of a citizen-orator.

Of the two, the controversia was more popular because, as the name implies, it tended to be more controversial in nature. Here is an example of a controversia:

A young man is captured by pirates and writes to his father for the ransom. No ransom is sent. The daughter of the pirate-captain makes him swear that he will marry her if he is released. She elopes with him, and they return to the young man’s home where they are married. A rich heiress crosses their path. The father bids the young man to forsake his wife and marry the heiress. He refuses and is disinherited.

The young rhetorician would now have to write a speech taking up either the father or the son’s position. However, it is doubtful that Quintilian would have liked this particular controversia; according to his tastes, each declamation should be as close to real life as possible, for this was what the citizen-orator was being trained for—life.

Equal in importance to the students’ program of study, and in fact more important, is the teacher—an experienced rhetor who is to guide the young pupils toward rhetorical maturity. “Above all, therefore, and especially for boys, a dry master is to be avoided, not less than a dry soil, void of all moisture for plants that are still tender. Under the influence of such a tutor, they at once become dwarfish, looking as it were toward the ground, and daring to aspire to nothing but everyday talk.”16 Enthusiasm, fortitude, bravery, sincerity, common sense, integrity, eloquence, honor, knowledge, experience, and above all, virtue—these are the qualities the master must possess. For he must be the consummate rhetorician, the supreme good man. Then, surely, he will naturally inculcate what he himself embodies. If the teacher is not a good man, how will his pupils ever become good men? For Quintilian, a man may strive to learn and manipulate all of the five classical components of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—which  he himself carefully outlines in the Institutio Oratoria, yet he cannot concoct goodness—the key component that cannot be learned. Goodness, an innate quality, can only be developed by other good men. “If it were certain that schools, though advantageous to studies, were pernicious to morals, a virtuous course of life would seem to me preferable to one even of the most distinguished eloquence. But in my opinion, the two are combined and inseparable.”17  Quintilian believed that true eloquence only flowed forth from good men.

In the final analysis it must be recognized that Quintilian’s sense of goodness, stemming from a mix of Stoicism and Roman conservativism, is not distinctly Christian. Still, his moral worldview is certainly not counter to the faith. In fact, historical record testifies that Quintilian had a small but significant influence upon the early Church, vis-à-vis two early saints: St. Augustine and St. Jerome.

In his Confessions, Augustine gives an account of his life prior to his conversion, including his study of rhetoric in Carthage:

I wanted to distinguish myself as an orator for a damnable and conceited purpose, namely delight in human vanity. Following the usual curriculum I had already come across a book by a certain Cicero, whose language (but not his heart) almost everyone admires. That book of his contains an exhortation to study philosophy and is entitled Hortensius. The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayer, Lord, to be towards you yourself.18

While Augustine does not specifically mention Quintilian’s name in the Confessions, undoubtedly “the usual curriculum” included his writings, which historically became a companion to Cicero’s volumes. F. H. Colson sees Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, a rhetorical introduction to the Bible, as having Quintilian’s influence, especially concerning Augustine’s  doctrine that rhetoric merely reflects phenomena and does not create them.19 The connection between the pagan and the Christian rhetorician proves striking. Like Quintilian, Augustine counters the ancient belief that the mastery of rhetoric’s formal rules produces eloquence. For Augustine, the Holy Spirit was the most vital component of the orator, and eloquence came from the man who knew the wisdom of God’s Word. So then, Augustine takes Quintilian’s rhetorical dictum—the good man speaks well—and converts it: the spirit-filled man speaks well.

Augustine’s contemporary, St. Jerome, was also a trained rhetorician. It was Jerome who had the frightening dream in which Christ came to him saying, “Jerome, I fear you are a Ciceronean and not a Christian.” Like Augustine, Jerome had a high regard for pagan literature; Quintilian held a revered place on Jerome’s bookshelf. In a letter to a young Christian girl named Laeta, Jerome makes several suggestions for proper training in the faith, and general education. Though Jerome does not cite Quintilian, the text clearly reflects the moral pagan’s educational views. From Jerome’s recommended readings, to his encouragement of the use of ivory letters for alphabet learning, to his stress on the importance of a teacher’s praise of his students: all of these suggestions are lifted right out of the Institutio Oratoria. Yet Jerome, like Augustine, modifies Quintilian’s views in certain areas to accommodate a more Christian educational orientation. With Quintilian, the first sentences a boy writes should be copied from the moral examples found in Homer and Virgil, but for Jerome, they should come from the Gospels; and where Quintilian claims that a student should learn both Latin and Greek, Jerome stipulates that the Greek should be learned from the New Testament. Today we might call Jerome’s letter Laeta a form of plagiarism, however, Jerome simply appropriated the moral educational practices he believed to be compatible and complementary to Christianity. “The whole letter, in spite of much that seems to us monkish, has a great deal of human charm and beauty, and must have exercised considerable influence on Christian education.”20

Though it remains unclear exactly to what extent Quintilian’s educational views directly shaped other Christian saints of the early Church, his indirect influence upon Roman schools is indisputable. As we know, the Roman schools outlasted the Roman empire. And while there were some zealous Christians like Tertullian and Cyprian who wanted to renounce learning in favor of a simple faith, the fifth-century church decided instead to purse the values of the educational system already in place, an educational system that persists today, though sadly less moral in many ways than the school run by Quintilian at the end of the first century. We may well benefit from considering Quintilian again at the end of the twentieth century. In this age of confused adolescents confused parents, and confused teachers, Quintilian offers us some ancient wisdom. After reading his work, we, like Martial, might be moved to exclaim, “O Quintilian, supreme guide of unsettled youth!”21


1. Kennedy, George A. Quintilian (New York: Twayne, 1969), p. 12.

2. Isocrates, Antidosis (London: Loeb Classical Library, 1982), Vol. II, p. 327.

3. Cicero, De Oratore, Book I, xv.

4. Gwynn, Aubrey, Roman Education from Cicero to Quintilian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), p. 120.

5. For an interesting, very readable account of the political figures of the empire, from which the following information is drawn, see Ivar Lissnar, The Caesars: Might and Madness (New York: Putnam, 1958), p. 146.

6. Ibid, p. 146.

7. All quotations of Quintilian come from a revised edition of the Reverend John Selby Watson, by James J. Murphy, Quintilian on the Teaching of Speaking and Writing (Carbondale: SIU Press, 1987), p. xi.

8. Ibid, p. 6.

9. Ibid, p xviii.

10. Ibid, p. 11.

11. Ibid, p. 12.

12. Ibid, p. 20.

13. Ibid, p. 27.

14. Ibid, p. 17.

15. Ibid, p. 18.

16. Ibid, p. 100.

17. Ibid, p 19.

18. Augustine, Confessions, Henry Chadwick Trans. (Oxford: UP, 1991), p. 38-39.

19. For the best survey of Quintilian’s influence on others, see F. H. Colson, M. Fabii Quintiliani institutionis oratoriae liber I, (Cambridge: UP, 1924), Introduction ix-lxxxix.

20. Ibid.

21. James J. Murphy, Quintilian on the Teaching of Speaking and Writing (Carbondale: SIU Press, 1987), p. xvi.

This article is adapted from a talk given in 1992 for the Fellowship of St. James.

Jeffry Davis is an instructor in English at Wheaton College (Illinois) and is currently working on his Ph.D. in rhetoric, language and literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“A Pagan’s Proposal” first appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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