Pico Della Mirandola - Three Letters written by Pico Della Mirandola

Three Letters written by Pico Della Mirandola

Here followeth three epistles of the said Pico: of which three two be written unto Giovanni Francesco his nephew, the third unto one Andrew Corneus a noble man of Italy.



It appeareth by this epistle that Giovanni Francesco the nephew of Pico had broken his mind unto Pico and had made him of council in some secret godly purpose which he intended to take upon him: but what this purpose should be upon this letter can we not fully perceive. Now after that he thus intended, there fell unto him many impediments & divers occasions which withstood his intent and in manner letted him & pulled him back, wherefore Pico comforteth him in this epistle and exhorteth him to perseverance, by such means as are in the epistle evident and plain enough. Notwithstanding in the beginning of this letter where he saith that the flesh shall (but if we take good heed) make us drunken in the cups of Circe and misshape us into the likeness & figure of brute beasts: those words if thee perceive them not be in this wise understanden. There was sometime a woman called Circe which by enchantment as Virgil maketh mention used with a drink to turn as many men as received it into divers likeness & figures of sundry beasts, some into lions, some into bears, some into swine, some into wolves, which afterward walked ever tame about her house and waited upon her in such use or service as she list to put unto them. In like wise the flesh if it make us drunk in the wine of voluptuous pleasure or make the soul leave the noble use of his reason & incline unto sensuality and affections of the body: then the flesh changeth us from the figure of reasonable men in the likeness of unreasonable beasts, and that diversely: after the convenience & similitude between our sensual affections and the brutish properties of sundry beasts: as the proud hearted man into a lion, the irous into a bear, the lecherous into a goat, the drunken glutton into a swine, the ravenous extortioner into a wolf, the false deceiver into a fox, mocking jester into an ape. From which beastly shape may we never be restored to our own likeness again: unto the time we have cast up again the drink of the bodily affections by which we were into these figures enchanted. When there cometh sometime a monstrous beast to the town we run and are glad to pay some money to have sight thereof, but I fear if men would look upon themselves advisedly: they should see a more monstrous beast nearer home: for they should perceive themselves by the wretched inclination to divers beastly passions changed in their soul not into the shape of one but of many beasts, that is to say of all them whose brutish appetites they follow. Let us then beware as Pico councelleth us it we be not drunken in the cups of Circe, that is to say in the sensual affections of the flesh, lest we deform the image of God in our souls, after whose image we be made, & make our self worse than idolaters, for if he be odious to God which turneth the image of a beast into God: how much is he more odious which turneth the image of God into a beast.



That thou hast had many evil occasions after thy departing which trouble thee & stand against the virtuous purpose that thou hast taken there is no cause my son why thou shouldst either marvel thereof, be sorry therefor, or dread it, but rather how great a wonder were this if only to thee among mortal men the way lay open to heaven without sweat, as though that now at erst the deceitful world & the cursed devil failed, & as though thou were not yet in the flesh: which coveteth against the spirit: and which false flesh (but if we watch & look well to our self) shall make us drunk in the cups of Circe & so deform us into monstrous shapes of brutish & unreasonable beasts. Remember also that of these evil occasions the holy apostle saint James saith thou hast cause to be glad, writing in this wise. Gaudete fratres quum in temptationes varias incideritis. Be glad saith he my brethren when thee fall in divers temptations, and not causeless: for what hope is there of glory if there be none hope of victory: or what place is there for victory where there is no battle: he is called to the crown & triumph which is provoked to the conflict & namely to that conflict: in which no man may be overcome against his will, & in which we need none other strength to vanquish but it we list ourselves to vanquish. Very happy is a Christian man sith that the victory is both put in his own free will: & the reward of the victory shall be far greater than we can either hope or wish. Tell me I pray thee my most dear son if there be aught in this life of all those things: the delight whereof so vexeth and tosseth these earthly minds. Is there I say one of those trifles: in the getting of which a man must not suffer many labours many displeasures & many miseries ere he get it. The merchant thinketh himself well served if after X years sailing, after a m. incommodities, after a m. jeopardies of his life he may at last have a little the more gathered together. Of the court & service of this world there is nothing that I need to write unto thee, the wretchedness whereof the experience itself hath taught thee & daily teacheth. In obtaining the favour of the princes, in purchasing the friendship of the company in ambitious labour for offices & honours what an heap of heaviness there is: how great anguish: how much business & trouble I may rather learn of thee than teach thee, which holding myself content with my books & rest, of a child have learned to live within my degree & as much as I may dwelling with myself nothing out of myself labour for, or long for. Now then these earthly things slippery, uncertain, vile & common also to us and brute beast sweating & panting we shall unneth obtain: and look we then to heavenly things & goodly (which neither eye hath seen nor ear hath heard nor heart hath thought) to be drawn slumbery & sleeping maugre our teeth: as though neither God might reign nor those heavenly citizens live without us. Certainly if this worldly felicity were gotten to us with idleness and ease: then might some man that shrinketh from labour rather choose to serve the world than God. But now if we be so laboured in the way of sin as much as in the way of God and much more (whereof the damned wretches cry out: Lassati sumus in via iniquitatis. We be wearied in the way of wickedness, then must it needs be a point of extreme madness if we had not lever labour there where we go from labour to reward than where we go from labour to pain. I pass over how great peace & felicity it is to the mind when a man hath nothing that grudgeth his conscience nor is not appalled with the secret twitch of any privy crime. This pleasure undoubtedly far excelleth all the pleasures that in this life may be obtained or desired: what thing is there to be desired among the delights of this world: which in the seeking weary us, in the having blindeth us, in the losing paineth us. Doubtest thou my son whether the minds of wicked men be vexed or not with continual thought and torment: it is the word of God which neither may deceive nor be deceived. Cor impii quasi mare fervens quod quiescere non potest. The wicked man's heart is like a stormy sea it may not rest, there is to him nothing sure, nothing peaceable, but all thing fearful, all thing sorrowful, all thing deadly. Shall we then envy these men: shall we follow them: & forgetting our own country heaven, & our own heavenly Father where we were free born: shall we wilfully make ourselves their bondsmen: & with them wretchedly living more wretchedly die: and at the last most wretchedly in everlasting fire be punished. O the dark minds of men. O the blind hearts. Who saith not more clear than light that all these things be (as they say) truer than truth itself, & yet do we not that it we know is to be done. In vain we would pluck our foot out of the clay but we stick still. There shall come to thee my son doubt it not (in these places namely where thou art conversant) innumerable impediments every hour: which might fear thee from the purpose of good and virtuous living & (but if thou beware) shall throw thee down headlong. But among all things the very deadly pestilence is this: to be conversant day and night among them whose life is not only on every side an allective to sin: but over that all set in the expugnation of virtue, under their captain the devil, under the banner of death, under the stipend of hell, fighting against heaven, against our Lord God and against his Christ. But cry thou therefore with the prophet. Dirumpamus vincula eorum & projiciamus a nobis iugum ipsorum. Let us break the bands of them and let us cast off the yoke of them. These be they whom (as the glorious apostle Saint Paul saith) our Lord hath delivered into the passions of rebuke and to a reprovable sense to do those things that are not convenient, full of all iniquity, full of envy, man-slaughter, contention, guile, & malice: backbiters, odious to God, contumelious, proud, stately, finders of evil things, foolish, dissolute, without affection, without covenant, without mercy. Which when they daily see the justice of God, yet understand they not that such as these things commit are worthy death: not only they that do such things: but also they which consent to the doing: wherefore my child go thou never about to please them whom virtue displeaseth: but evermore let these words of the apostle be before thine eyes. Oportet magis Deo placere quam hominibus. We must rather please God than men. And remember these words of Saint Paul also. Si hominibus placerem, servus Christi non essem. If I should please men I were not Christ's servant. Let enter into thine heart an holy pride & have disdain to take them for masters of thy living which have more need to take thee for a master of theirs. It were far more seeming that they should with thee by good living begin to be men than thou shouldst with them by the leaving of thy good purpose shamefully begin to be a beast. There holdeth me sometime by almighty God as it were even a swoon and an insensibility for wonder when I begin in my self: I wot never whether I shall say: to remember or to sorrow, to marvel or to bewail the appetites of men, or if I shall more plainly speak: the very madness not to believe the gospel whose truth the blood of martyrs crieth, the voice of apostles soundeth, miracles proveth, reason confirmeth, the world testifieth, the elements speaketh, devils confesseth. But a far greater madness is it if thou doubt not but that the gospel is true: to live then as though thou doubtest not but that it were false. For if these words of the words of the gospel be true, that it is very hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven why do we daily then gape after the heaping up of riches. And if this be true that we should seek for the glory and praise not that cometh of men, but that cometh of God, why do we then ever hang upon the judgement & opinion of men and no man recketh whether God like him or not. And if we surely believe it once the time shall come in which our Lord shall say, go thee cursed people into everlasting fire, & again, come thee my blessed children possess the kingdom that hath been prepared for you from the forming of the world, why is there nothing than it we less fear than hell, or it we less hope for than the kingdom of God. What shall we say else but that there be many Christian men in name but few in deed. But thou my son enforce thyself to enter by the straight gate that leadeth to heaven & take no heed what thing many men do: but what thing the very law of nature, what thing very reason, what thing our Lord himself showeth thee to be done. For neither thy glory shall be less if thou be happy with few nor thy pain more easy if thou be wretched with many. Thou shalt have .ii. specially effectual remedies against the world & the devil with which two as with .ii. wings thou shalt out of this vale of misery be lifted up in heaven, that is to say, alms deed & prayer. What may we do without the help of God, or how shall he help us if he be not called upon.

But over that: certainly he shall not hear thee when thou callest on him if thou hear not first the poor man when he calleth upon thee, and verily it is according that God should despise thee being a man when thou being a man despisest a man. For it is written: in what measure that ye mete, it shall be mete you again. And in another place of the gospel it is said: blessed be merciful men for they shall get mercy. When I stir thee to prayer I stir thee not to the prayer which standeth in many words, but to that prayer which in the secret chamber of the mind, in the privy closet of the soul with very affect speaketh to God, and in the most lightsome darkness of contemplation not only presenteth the mind to the Father: but also unieth it with him by inspeakable ways which only they know that have essayed. Nor I care not how long or how short thy prayer be, but how effectual, how ardent, and rather interrupted & broken between with sighs than drawn on length with a continual row & number of words. If thou love thine health, if thou desire to be sure from the grennes[29] of the devil, from the storms of this world, from th' await of thine enemies, if thou long to be acceptable to God, if thou covet to be happy at the last: let no day pass thee but thou once at the least wise present thyself to God by prayer, and falling down before him flat to the ground with an humble affect of devout mind, not from the extremity of thy lips but out of the inwardness of thine heart, cry these words of the prophet. Delictia juventutis mee ignorantias meas ne memineris, sed secundum misericordiam tuam memento mei propter bonitatem tuam Domine. The offences of my youth and mine ignorances remember not good Lord, but after thy mercy Lord for thy goodness remember me. When thou shalt in thy prayer ask of God: both the Holy Spirit which prayeth for us & eke thine own necessity shall every hour put in thy mind, & also what thou shalt pray for: thou shall find matter enough in the reading of holy scripture which that thou wouldst now (setting poet's fables & trifles aside) take ever in thine hand I heartily pray thee.[30] Thou mayst do nothing more pleasant to God, nothing more profitable to thyself: than if thine hand cease not day nor night to turn and read the volumes of holy scripture. There lieth privily in them a certain heavenly strength quick and effectual, which with a marvellous power transformeth & changeth the reader's mind into the love of God, if they be clean and lowly entreated. But I have passed now the bounds of a letter, the matter drawing me forth & the great love that I have had to thee, both ever before: & specially sith that hour in which I have had first knowledge of thy most holy purpose. Now to make an end with this one thing I warn thee (of which when we were last together I often talked with thee) that thou never forget these .ii. things, that both the Son of God died for thee & that thou shalt also thyself die shortly, live thou never so long. With these twain as with two spurs, the one of fear the other of love, spur forth thine horse through the short way of this momentary life to the reward of eternal felicity, sith we neither ought nor may prefer ourselves any other end than the endless fruition of the infinite goodness both to soul & body in everlasting peace.

Fare well and fear God.[31]



This Andrew a worshipful man and a special friend of Pico had by his letters given him counsel to leave the study of philosophy, as a thing in which he thought Pico to have spent time enough & which: but if it were applied to the use of some actual business: he judged a thing vain & unprofitable: wherefore he counselled Pico to surcease of study and put himself with some of the great princes of Italy, with whom (as this Andrew said) he should be much more fruitfully occupied than always in the study & learning of philosophy, to whom Pico answered as in this present epistle appeareth. Where he saith these words (By this it should follow that it were either servile or at the least wise not princely to make the study of philosophy other than mercenary) thus he meaneth. Mercenary we call all those things which we do for hire or reward. Then he maketh philosophy mercenary & useth it not as cunning but as merchandise which studieth it not for pleasure of itself: or for the instruction of his mind in mortal virtue: but to apply it to such things where he may get some lucre or worldly advantage.



Ye exhort me by your letters to the civil and active life, saying that in vain: and in manner to my rebuke & shame: have I so long studied in philosophy: but if I would at the last exercise the learning in the entreating of some profitable acts & outward business. Certainly my wellbeloved Andrew I had cast away both cost & labour of my study: if I were so minded that I could find in my heart in this matter to assent unto you & follow your counsel. This is a very deadly and monstrous persuasion which hath entered the minds of men: believing that the studies of philosophy are of estates & princes: either utterly not to be touched: or at least wise with extreme lips to be sipped: and rather to the pomp & ostentation of their wit than to the culture & profit of their minds to be little & easily tasted. The words of Neoptolemus they hold utterly for a sure decree: that philosophy is to be studied either never or not long:[32] but the sayings of wise men they repute for japes & very fables: that sure & steadfast felicity standeth only in the goodness of the mind, & that these outward things of the body or of fortune little or nought pertain unto us. But here thee will say to me thus. I am content thee study, but I would have you outwardly occupied also. And I desire you not so to embrace Martha that thee should utterly forsake Mary. Love them & use them both, as well study as worldly occupation. Truly my wellbeloved friend in this point I gainsay you not, they that so do I find no fault in nor I blame them not, but certainly it is not all one to say we do well if we do so: and to say we do evil but if we do so. This is far out of the way: to think that from contemplation to the active living, that is to say from the better to the worse, is none error to decline: and to think that it were shame to abide still in the better and not decline. Shall a man then be rebuked because that he desireth and ensueth virtue only for itself: because he studieth the mysteries of God: because he ensearcheth the counsel of nature: because he useth continually this pleasant ease & rest: seeking none outward thing, despising all other thing: sith those things are able sufficiently to satisfy the desire of their followers. By this reckoning it is a thing either servile or at the least wise not princely to make the study of wisdom other than mercenary: who may well hear this, who may suffer it. Certainly he never studied for wisdom which so studied therefore that in time to come either he might not or would not study therefore, this man rather exercised the study of merchandise than of wisdom. Ye write unto me that it is time for me now to put myself in household with some of the great princes of Italy but I see well that as yet ye have not known the opinion that philosophers have of themselves, which (as Horace saith) repute themselves kings of kings:[33] they love liberty: they can not bear the proud manners of estates: they can not serve. They dwell with themselves and be content with the tranquillity of their own mind, they suffice themselves & more, they seek nothing out of themselves: the things that are had in honour among the common people: among them be not holden honourable. All that ever the voluptuous desire of men thirsteth for: or ambition sigheth for: they set at nought & despise. Which while it belongeth to all men: yet undoubtedly it pertaineth most properly to them whom fortune hath so liberally favoured that they may live not only well and plenteously but also nobly. These great fortunes lift up a man high and set him out to the show: but oftentimes as a fierce and a skittish horse they cast off their master. Certainly alway they grieve and vex him and rather tear him than bear him. The golden mediocrity, the mean estate is to be desired which shall bear us as it were in hands[34] more easily: which shall obey us & not master us. I therefore abiding firmly in this opinion set more by my little house, my study, the pleasure of my books, the rest and peace of my mind: than by all your kings' palaces, all your common business, all your glory, all the advantage that ye hawk after and all the favour of the court. Nor I look not for this fruit of my study that I may thereby hereafter be tossed in the flood and rumbling of your worldly business: but that I may once bring forth the children that I travail on: it I may give out some books of mine own to the common profit which may somewhat savour if not of cunning yet at the least wise of wit and diligence. And because ye shall not think that my travail & diligence in study is any thing remitted or slacked: I give you knowledge that after great fervent labour with much watch and infatigable travail I have learned both the Hebrew language and the Chaldee, and now have I set hand to overcome the great difficulty of the Araby tongue. These my dear friend be things which to appertain to a noble prince I have ever thought and yet think. Fare thee well. Written at Paris the .xv. day of October the year of grace. M.CCCC.lxxxxii.[35]



After that Giovanni Francesco the nephew of Pico had (as it appeareth in the first epistle of Pico to him) began a change in his living: it seemeth by this letter that the company of the court where he was conversant diversely (as it is their unmannerly manner) descanted thereof to his rebuke as them thought: but as truth was unto their own. Some of them judged it folly, some called it hypocrisy, some scorned him, some slandered him, of all which demeanour (as we may of this epistle conjecture) he wrote unto this earl Pico his uncle, which in this letter comforted & encourageth him, as it is in the course thereof evident.



Happy art thou my son when that our Lord not only giveth thee grace well to live but also that while thou livest well he giveth thee grace to bear evil words of evil people for thy living well. Certainly as great a praise as it is to be commended of them that are commendable, as great a commendation it is to be reproved of them that are reprovable. Notwithstanding my son I call thee not therefore happy because this false reproof is worshipful & glorious unto thee, but for because that our Lord Jesu Christ (which is not only true but also truth itself) affirmeth that our reward shall be plenteous in heaven when men speak evil to us & speak evil against us living for his name.[36] This is an Apostles dignity: to be reputed digne afore God to be defamed of wicked folk for his name. For we read in the gospel of Luke that the apostles went joyful and glad from the council house of the Jews because God had accepted them as worthy to suffer wrong and repress for his sake. Let us therefore joy and be glad if we be worthy so great worship before God that his worship be showed in our rebuke. And if we suffer of the world any thing that is grievous or bitter: let this sweet voice of our Lord be our consolation. Si mundus vos odio habet, scitote quia priorem me vobis odio habuit. If the world (saith our Lord) hate you, know ye that it hated me before you. If the world then hated him by whom the world was made: we most vile & simple men and worthy (if we consider our wretched living well) all shame & reproof: if folk backbite us & say evil of us: shall we so grievously take it that lest they should say evil we should begin to do evil. Let us rather gladly receive these evil words, and if we be not so happy to suffer for virtue & truth as the old saints suffered beatings, bindings, prison, swords, & death: let us think at the least wise we be well served if we have the grace to suffer chiding, detraction, & hatred of wicked men, lest that if all occasion of deserving be taken away there be left us none hope of reward. If men for thy good living praise thee: thy virtue certainly in that it is virtue maketh thee like unto Christ: but in that it is praised it maketh thee unlike him: which for the reward of his virtue received the opprobrious death of the cross for which as the apostle saith God hath exalted him and given him a name that is above all names. More desireful is then to be condemned of the world and exalted of God than to be exalted of the world and condemned of God: the world condemneth to life, God exalteth to glory: the world exalteth to a fall, God condemneth to the fire of hell. Finally if the world fawn upon thee: unneth it may be but that thy virtue (which all lift upward should have God alone to please) shall somewhat unto the blandishing of the world & favour of the people incline. And so though it lose nothing of the integrity of our perfection: yet it loseth of the reward, which reward while it beginneth to be paid in the world where all thing is little, it shall be less in heaven where all thing is great. O happy rebukes which make us sure: that neither the flower of our virtue shall wither with the pestilent blast of vainglory: nor our eternal reward be minished for the vain promotion of a little popular fame. Let us my son love these rebukes, & only of the ignominy and reproof of our Lord's cross let us like faithful servants with an holy ambition be proud. We (saith Saint Paul) preach Christ crucified, which is unto the Jews despite, unto the Gentiles folly, unto us the virtue and wisdom of God. The wisdom of this world is foolishness afore God, & the folly of Christ is that by which he hath overcome the wisdom of the world by which it hath pleased God to make his believing people safe.

If that thou doubt not but that they be mad which backbite thy virtue: which the Christian living that is very wisdom reputeth for madness: consider then how much were thy madness, if thou shouldst for the judgement of mad men swerve from the good institution of thy life, namely sith all error is with amendment to be taken away & not with imitation & following to be increased. Let them therefore neigh, let them bawl, let them bark, go thou boldly forth thy journey as thou hast begun, and of the wickedness & misery consider how much thyself art beholden to God: which hath illumined thee sitting in the shadow of death, and translating thee out of the company of them (which like drunken men without a guide wander hither and thither in obscure darkness) hath associated thee to the children of light. Let that same sweet voice of our Lord alway sound in thine ears. Sine mortuos sepelire mortuos suos, tu me sequere. Let dead men alone with dead men, follow thou me. Dead be they that live not to God, and in the space of this temporal death laboriously purchase themselves eternal death. Of whom if you ask whereto they draw: whereto they refer their studies, their works & their business, & finally what end they have appointed themselves in the adoption whereof they should be happy: either they shall have utterly nothing to answer, or they shall bring forth words repugnant in themselves & contrary each to other like the raving of bedlam people. Nor they wot never themselves what they do, but like them that swim in swift floods they be borne forth with the violence of evil custom as it were with the boisterous course of the stream. And their wickedness blinding them on this side: & the devil pricking them forward on that side: they run forth headlong into all mischief, as blind guides of blind men, till that death set on them unaware, & till that it be said unto them that Christ saith in the gospel, my friend this night the devils shall take thy soul from thee: these goods then that thou hast gathered whose shall they be. Then shall they envy them whom they despised. Then shall they commend them that they mocked. Then shall they covet to ensue them in living when they may not: whom when they might have ensued they pursued. Stop therefore thine ears my most dear son, & whatsoever men say of ye, whatsoever men think on ye, account it for nothing, but regard only the judgement of God, which shall yield every man after his own works when he shall show himself from heaven with the angels of his virtue: in flame of fire doing vengeance upon them that have not known God nor obeyed his gospel, which (as the apostle saith) shall suffer in death eternal pain, from the face of our Lord, & from the glory of his virtue, when he shall come to be gloried of his saints & to be made marvellous in all them that have believed. It is written. Nolite timere qui corpus possunt occidere, sed qui animam potest mittere in gehennam. Fear not them (saith our Lord) that may kill the body: but fear him that may cast the soul into hell. How much less then be they to be feared: that may neither hurt soul nor body: which if they now back-bite thee living virtuously, they shall do the same nevertheless: if (virtue forsaken) thou were overwhelmed with vice: not for that vice displeaseth them but for that the vice of backbiting alway pleaseth them. Flee if thou love thine health, flee as far as thou mayst their company, and returning to thyself oftentimes secretly pray unto the most benign father of heaven, crying with the prophet. Ad Te Domine levavi animam meam: Deus meus in Te confido, non erubescam, etiam si irrideant me inimici mei. Et enim universi qui sperant in Te non confundentur. Confundantur iniqua agentes supervacue. Vias tuas Domine demonstra mihi, et semitas tuas edoce me. Dirige me in veritate tua, et doce me: quia Tu es Deus Salvator meus, et in Te sperabo tota die.[37] That is to say. To Ye Lord I lift up my soul: in Thee I trust, I shall not be ashamed, & though mine enemies mock me. Certainly all they that trust in Thee shall not be ashamed. Let them be ashamed that work wickedness in vain. Thy ways good Lord show me, and thy paths teach me. Direct me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art God my Saviour, in Thee shall I trust all the day. Remember also my son that thy death lieth at hand. Remember that all the time of our life is but a moment & yet less than a moment. Remember how cursed our old enemy is: which offereth us the kingdoms of this world that he might bereave us the kingdom of heaven: how false the fleshly pleasures: which therefore embrace us that they might strangle us: how deceitful these worldly honours: which therefore lift us up: that they might throw us down: how deadly these riches: which the more they feed us, the more they poison us: how short, how uncertain, how shadow-like false imaginary it is that all these things together may bring us: & though they flow to us as we would wish them. Remember again how great things be promised and prepared for them: which despising these present things desire and long for that country whose king is the Godhead, whose law is charity, whose measure is eternity. Occupy thy mind with these meditations and such other that may waken thee when thou sleepest, kindle thee when thou waxest cold, confirm thee when thou waverest, & exhibit the wings of the love of God while thou labourest to heavenward, that when thou comest home to us (which with great desire we look for) we may see not only him that we covet but also such a manner one as we covet. Fare well and love God whom of old thou hast begun to fear. At Ferrara the .ii. day of July the year of our redemption. M.CCCC.lxxxxii.


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