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Study & Love: Aristotle's Fall - Lecture


Aristotle, "the teacher of Europe in logic, metaphysics, and ethics," can be seen in a fourteenth-century tapestry with his fingers tucked beneath a young woman's chin. The character of the gesture is uncertain. It may be a tickle or a fondle; it might even be a pinch. Tapestry threads are telltale only to a limited degree. This much is clear: Aristotle is seated in a room, reaching his left hand through a window to touch his female visitor. Beside him is a lectern which supports four open books. From this it may be inferred that the philosopher is in his study. But he has turned away from his tomes in favor of a feminine presence. Moreover, he extends himself to manipulate her tenderness. What are we to think of the relationships depicted? What bearing have they on the history of ideas and imagery of education?

I. A thirteenth-century tale

There is no mystery regarding the source from which the tapestry image derives. One of the best loved medieval tales, the so-called "Lai d'Aristote," is at the base of it. Henri d'Andeli, a thirteenth-century Norman poet, amused and scandalized French readers of his narrative.

Lai d'Aristote. Summarily, the story of the Lai is this: Aristotle, tutor and counselor to Alexander the Great, sought to separate the youthful monarch from his paramour--now usually known as Phyllis--who was absorbing all his time and energy, and causing him to neglect his political duties. Reluctantly, Alexander agreed to the separation, but soon revealed the fact to Phyllis. She thereupon contrived a scheme to nullify Aristotle's influence, aiming to regain her lover's attentions. The plan was simple. Early in the morning, when good scholars should be laboring at their books, Phyllis slipped into the garden next to Aristotle's study and, not far from his open window, she softly sang and danced. Her hair was loose, her feet were bare, her belt was off her gown. Aristotle heard her song, and then he turned to look at her: "that made him close his books and cry: 'Oh God !'," it being clear that the deity invoked was Eros. When Phyllis came close enough to the window, Aristotle reached out and seized her firmly. He told her of his ardent wish; she promised to fulfill it, if he would first satisfy a trifling whim of hers. He must pretend to be a horse, get on all fours, wear a saddle, and let her ride around the garden on his back. The besotted Aristotle did exactly what was asked, yielding up an image that approached the essence of burlesque. "In this was grammar betrayed and logic much dumb-founded," remarked the commentator in Le Livre de Leesce (c. 1373).

Riding on the Master's back, Phyllis loudly sang a song of triumph: "Master Silly carries me. / 'Love leads on, and so he goes, / by Love's authority'." The song was a signal for Alexander to look into the garden from his window. "Master, can this be?" he called, going on to question Aristotle's flagrantly quadruped behavior. The old sage answered that there was a lesson to be learned from his example. If a wise philosopher, aged and grey as he, is unable to resist the power of Love, then Alexander, yet youthful and hot blooded, must be immeasureably more cautious in exposing himself to such danger. Amused by the sophistical defense, Alexander forgives Aristotle's ridiculous indiscretion and then, presumably, reunites himself with Phyllis. The philosopher would trouble them no more, having lost his credibility.

Bishop de Vitry's version. Andeli's tale of Aristotle was retold across the centuries throughout western Europe. One of the earliest reworkings, written by Bishop Jacques de Vitry, appeared shortly after the Lai. It was in the form of an exemplum intended for use in sermons. De Vitry's "Exemplum of Aristotle" is short, not much over three hundred words, lacking in artistic merit, and of a darker morality than the Lai. The good Bishop, later Cardinal, phrased Aristotle's defense not in terms of his having been a victim of Amor and Nature, but rather on grounds of "the deceit and malice of a woman," who is Alexander's wife in the "Exemplum."

II. Iconic choices

Whether by the Lai itself or by its legatees, countless image makers were inspired to visualize the main events in the narrative: Aristotle lecturing Alexander; Phyllis tempting Aristotle from his study; Aristotle ridden (i.e., Aristote chevauché, Aristoteles cavalcato, etc.), sometimes with Alexander looking on.

Lecture, temptation, chevauché. The chevauché scene was extraordinarily popular. Often it was used alone, epitomizing the story in the image of its climax. If a second episode were illustrated, preference went to Aristotle's admonishment of Alexander. Panels on ivory caskets represent the two scenes side by side. The temptation from the study was understandably a tertiary choice. It appears on the Malterer tapestry in the Augustiner Museum (Freiburg i/Br.), for example, but not on a companion piece in that collection, and not on kindred tapestries in Regensburg or Basel. It illuminates a margin in at least one medieval manuscript, and in another it is combined with the scenes of lecture and chevauché.

The temptation from the study in the Malterer tapestry exhibits one feature inconsistent with the order of the Lai. The schoolmaster's virga or birches held by Aristotle as he sits cross-legged in his study, reaching out for Phyllis, is asynchronymous with the unfolding of the narrative; nor does it correspond in any clear prosaic sense with the supposed relationship of Aristotle and Alexander when the latter no longer was a lad. The tapestry designer may have intended a pictorial conflation of events, i.e., Aristotle teaching, Aristotle tempted. Or perhaps the virga was included as an ironic reminder of Aristotle's moral authority over Alexander, which Phyllis was about to terminate: He who has the whip hand now, soon will be the whipt. (Visual image makers usually bridled Aristotle and gave Phyllis a striker of some kind to animate her mount.) But it must be admitted that symbolic meanings of the virga may not have entered the mind of the tapestry designer, who may have been seduced by the special aptitude of threads to represent the branching lineality of the birches. More in keeping with the iconography of medieval study space are the several open volumes on the lectern. In contrast, medieval classroom scenes and tutorials normally show pedagogues either with no book or with no more than one.

Mounting up, "Aristote chevauché". When and where does Phyllis climb on Aristotle's back, i.e., the image known as "Aristote chevauché"? The Lai is not specific on the point. Aristotle urged Phyllis to come and appease his desire ("mon desirrier m'apaiez"), but he does not say where. In his study? Study space, of course, was not Phyllis' natural environment. Ordinarily, it would have been outside her purview all together. Only when her position at court was threatened by Aristotle did she approach his sanctum, and then it was for purposes of conquest. She had no intrinsic interest in the citadel of learning. She wanted only to surmount its occupant; not, however, as he was driven to hope, but in a way to humiliate him openly and, by that subordination, to win back her lover. Phyllis insisted on having her ride first; it had to be in the garden to achieve her purpose. There, forcing Aristotle to stoop, she conquered scholarship and study space as well, but with no need to occupy the territory she had taken.

A garden is the usual setting for Aristotle chevauché. With the deed done close to nature, the oblique reference to man's first temptation in Eden would not likely have escaped a Christian audience. Even so, one designer was moved to make the connection explicit in sculptural reliefs on a pilaster which once was part of a chapel in the convent of the Grands-Augustins (Paris). Phyllis is astride Aristotle in the medallion at the bottom of the pilaster; above them stand Adam and Eve au naturel. More discrete is the Regensberg tapestry allusion to the theme, wherein a well dressed woman proffers apples to her male companion. The latter stands in a child's walker, indicating that he has been reduced to the foolishness of childhood.

Bishop De Vitry's version of the story, and the series to which it gave rise, consigned the ride to Aristotle's study. A sketch by Leonardo di Vinci illustrates the scene. But it was an unknown artist of the Baroque who visualized the conflict down to bare essentials. Abandoned on a desk are the rectangular volumes that bespeak the orderly ideal of rational cognition. They are now far beyond the grasp of an Aristotle sunken to the floor. He bears the weight of Phyllis, whose unclad form denies rectangularity in terms all non-Euclidian. Her ample shapeliness proclaims the opulence of sense, not airy intellect.

III. Women in study space

When Phyllis begins her ride in Aristotle's study, the image is a desecration of his educational space. The implications of the scene are as derogatory for woman as they are humiliating for the scholar. In the circumstances, her role has been reduced to flesh, an intrusion that has no proper place in the domain of the study. A view of woman as "the flesh" was shared widely among writers for the clergy, but this was not the only view. Countering the image of Eve's daughters were visions of the Virgin Mary and virginal saints akin to her.

Medieval women and study. Prior to the Renaissance, women rarely were depicted in study space. This is not to say there were no women scholars; it is certainly not to say that no women studied. Nuns in certain convents were liable to chastisements, if they failed in their reading duties. Herrad, Abbess of Landsberg, must have lived years of her life in study to complete the encyclopedic Hortus Deliciarum. Marie de France must have had a retreating place to permit uninterrupted thought and reference when she wrote her lais and fables. Yet it is exceptional to find images of women at their intellectual labors in study carrels or chambers during the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. We glimpse them only now and then, as in an illuminated manuscript of the mid-twelfth century by Abbess Hildegarde of Bingen, wherein we see the author receiving spiritual light and preparing to inscribe on a wax tablet what heaven has revealed. But is it study space she occupies? No book, no other object of study, is anywhere in sight. The moment chosen for the image is one of inspiration, not study. Also not to be confused with students, savants, and writers in their studies are the fair numbers of medieval female personifications of the liberal arts. They may be shown teaching; they do not need to study.

The Imagery well established. It is not clear precisely when the iconography of education first comes to include portrayals of female figures in study space. By the fifteenth century, the issue is no longer in doubt. In an illuminated book of hours (c.1410), the erudite St. Catherine of Alexandria sits quietly at her studies; eight volumes or more are immediately accessible. Amalthea's lectern cannot hold all her books; two have been consigned to the floor. Portraits of the learned writer Christine de Pisan (c. 1364-c. 1431) in her study appear in illuminated copies of her works. There are portrayals, too, of the Virgin as a learned lady interrupted at her studies by an intrusive Annunciation.

IV. Alexander's sexual education

Phyllis in the study utterly contradicts Aristotle's admonition in the Secret of Secrets, which was one of the most popular texts on morals of the Middle Ages. The concoction of an unknown author, the work was long attributed to Aristotle himself. Digests of it were prepared as study aids for university students. If one had been asked to name the text from which Aristotle lectured Alexander, as seen on fourteenth-century ivory panels, the Secreta Secretorum would have been the likeliest of titles.

A Threat to reason and study. Not for the king, much less for the sagacious scholar, is there any fully positive place for woman in the Secrets. Judging by its strictures, her only natural habitat seems to be the bedroom, a locale that Alexander should avoid, except "if necessyte were that thou must have company of a woman." And then precautions must be carefully observed, for one is in dangerous space "whan thy persone is betwene the armes of a woman." Alexander should rather spend his time studying when not engaged by the administrative and ceremonial duties of his office. Music, not the indulgence of carnal appetite, is to be his solace.

From the perspective of the Secrets, Phyllis as the mistress of Aristotle's study is a moral incongruity. This is not because of her personal character, but because of basic assumptions in the text concerning sexuality and male/female relations. Given the assumption that sexual intercourse demotes man from his highest calling, and the implication that sexual congress is the main or only cause for heterosexual relations, Phyllis' tangible flesh in the study threatens to subvert this shelter of pristine reason and virtue. The opposition of flesh to reason is evident in lines of advice from the Secrets, which follow Aristotle's prayer that Alexander be enabled to refrain from "carnall and beestly desyres":

Alexander...leue thy beestly desyres of thy flesshly appetyte...The flesshely desyres draweth thy hert to beestly corrupcyon of the soul...& dryeth the body...Souerayne Emperour enclyne not to lechery of women / for it is a swynysshe lyfe. And no glory shall be to the[e] yf thou govern the[e] after the lyvynge of bestes without reason...lechery is destruccyon of the body / the abregement/ & corrupcyon of all vertues...

What would be true in this regard for Alexander must also be true for Aristotle. Hence, from the life of the intellect, represented by the study, Phyllis (woman) has succeeded in degrading Aristotle to the level of animal impulses. It is to such ideas that Alexander ironically refers when he challenges Aristotle: "The other day you told me not to visit her, no matter what, / now here you are brought so in thrall, no sense remains in you at all; / you keep the law of beasts, instead" ("vos tenez a loi de beste").

V. Study visualized in the moral order

The superiority of study and intellectual virtue to the sensual life is illustrated in a graph. Although it dates from the sixteenth century, it delineates relationships familiar to the medieval mind.

Bovillus' Book of Intellect (1509). The graph exhibits the orders of nature and man in a moral hierarchy. The highest level of natural existence, that of intelligent life, is occupied by two male figures. On the left stands the warrior. Grasping the shaft of his upright weapon, he is the man of action, the archetype of the vita activa. To the right is the contemplative man. He sits before a lectern, which suggests interior architectural space; he has one hand on a book, a small pen poised in the other. (Even Freudians will admit that a pen is sometimes just a pen.) The warrior faces the natural order, looking toward a prancing horse and the outdoor world of trees and eroded cliffs. The studious man faces the moral order, which descends from him by steps to the sensualist (on a level with the horse), the glutton (vegetative life), ending with an inert, huddled body in a state of sloth (accidia), that paralysis of spirit analogous to the merely lumpish existence of a rock.

The horse, the lusty steed, may symbolize the warrior's most characteristic vice. It is not gluttony. "In his diet," Plutarch says of Alexander, "he was most temperate." Sexual appetite was "the only passion which he, the most temperate of men, was overcome by." But even in this, Alexander was able to restrain himself until he could obtain his ends "in a lawful and honourable way." In contrast, there was Achilles, that least temperate of warriors, who, in one of the first of his many outrages, raped Deidama, daughter of his host. It is the castle of love, not the pantry, that knights attack on ivory caskets which include Aristotle/Alexander panels. Inciting the knights to exert themselves is Eros on a parapet, shooting off his arrows, while women waiting atop the wall throw down their roses at the vigorous besiegers.

The chevalier, the horse-man, the athletic warrior of lance and sword, corresponds to imagery of sexual prowess. If he departs from virtue, convention assigns to him abuse of wine and women. The transgressions of the scholar-cleric indicated on the graph, are more closely associated with the sins of the table and, perhaps, a melancholic form of accidia. Reflecting now on the Aristotle/Phyllis mismatch, another ludicrous incongruity becomes apparent. Aristotle, no stallion he, was attempting to perform the wrong sin. What is predictable vice for the flexing sinews of virility is ridiculous folly for an old man of the cloth, the grey-haired lover of the yellowed parchment. Aristotle and Phyllis are absurdly asymmetrical.

Equally incongruous from the outlook of the Lai was Aristotle's effort to make a study-bound, ascetic clerk of young king Alexander. For Alexander's destiny was not to maintain residence in the house of intellect; it was to ride Bucephalous to the limits of the world, eventually to conquer it and govern all he found. It took a different type of man to rule the realm of books. While it is true that an adulatory tradition had made a learned prince of Alexander, the satirical purpose of the Lai called for turn abouts on standard expectations. Thus Henri d'Andeli, master of inversions, plays reversals on the horse motif: whereas the legendary Alexander had once transmuted a vicious, monstrous beast into the disciplined Bucephalous, Phyllis undertook the opposite on the Philosopher, reducing him to snorts and horsey urges.

VI. Insulation from distraction and temptation

Aristotle's study space was in some ways substandard in provisions for security. It failed the crucial function of shielding the scholar from incursions on his concentration. While study space requirements, like other needs, are conditioned by imagery and symbolism as much as they are delimited by physical prerequisites, institutional regulations, and even political circumstance, protecting concentration from all external assailants is a wish shared across the centuries.

Study versus pleasure garden. From a monkish scholar's point of view, Aristotle's study was architecturally vulnerable to attacks from the world, the flesh, the devil. Study space is semi-sacred, metaphorically if not doctrinally. To be secure, it should be cloistered. Special precautions would have been advisable for the scholar living in the ambience of mundane princely power. Foresight here was clearly lacking. First, Aristotle's study was located by a flower garden. That would be a danger in itself. Sweet fragrances, gay colors, both assault the senses, distracting due attention from the rare and subtile flora of the mind. The garden is a sensuous trap. Second, the garden space by Aristotle's study was evidently not restricted to males, or else supervision was lax. Phyllis was able to gain access and to show herself quite openly. Third, Aristotle's study had a low window ("la fenestre, qui ert basse") facing onto the garden, admitting all its titillations. This increased the scholar's level of risk intolerably. Hence, when Phyllis arrived in her gossamer chemise and nothing else, gathering flowers, weaving them into chapelets, and singing to make Aristotle think of love ("faire li sovint d'amors"), he was insufficiently immured to protect against such devastating weaponry.

Saintly models offered guidance for the proper choice of study space. Consider the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke and John; they knew better than to write where flower gardens bloomed. Similarly, medieval scholars like the learned doctors of the early church, especially St. Augustine and St. Jerome, were seen to choose their places very carefully. No study site was safer than a monastery cell.

From 1300 onward, a study space in a monastery library would have been considered ideal, until Reformation policies came to deny that possibility in many places.61 But study space, wherever it could be found, was to be a sanctum safe from environments beset by the impurities of life. Heinsius, the sixteenth-century Dutch scholar, worked all year long in the Leyden University Library, where he was Keeper of the books: "I no sooner (saith he) come into the Library, but I bolt the door to me, excluding lust, ambition, avarice, and all such vices..." Solitude, the bolting of the door against intrusions, is a common feature of the sense of study space. "The study," wrote Comenius beneath an illustration of a lesson on the subject, "is a place where a student, apart from men, sitteth alone..." Openings on the world would be a problematic necessity for the study. Study space must be quiet. "Beshrew me if I think anything more requisite than silence for a man who secludes himself in order to study," declared the Roman Seneca, proving that even a mature Stoicism had limits of toleration for annoyances. Medieval clerics seemed particularly concerned about the visual environment and its distractions, which implied a special concern with windows. For necessary illumination, high windows or a clerestory should serve the study. If one had to work where windows were at eye level, either they should be kept closed, or one should turn away from them. No window view should be allowed to occupy attention. Sixteenth-century eyes that wandered from the page might best be disciplined by concentration on a fleshless skull. This sight should be a salutary aid to memento mori. The presence of an hour glass could also help enhance a sense of the brevity of life.

VII. A deep antithesis

The opposition of study and sensual love had been a standing theme in western civilization long before the church fathers came to center stage. Its origins trace deep into a written heritage. Hesiod's Theogony attributes to Eros "a power that is the enemy of reason." Expressions of the theme have taken many forms.

Eros against study. The Greco-Roman poet, Marcus Argentarius (1st century A. D.), expressed the conflict light heartedly in a verse now titled "Love and the Scholar":
Lately thumbing the pages of Works and Days, I saw my Pyrrhe coming. Goodbye book! "Why in the world should I cobweb my days," I cried, "With the works of Old Man Hesiod?"
The Argentarian deserter of his book was, of course, no Aristotle; "thumbing pages" suggests something less than scholarly zeal.

A grosser treatment of the conflict, intriguing in its allusion to Aristotle, was provided by Alciphron, a Greek-speaking Syrian of the second century A.D. He casts his ripe material in epistolary form. Thais, a prostitute, writes to the young lover who has recently abandoned her in favor of a new infatuation with academic pursuits:

Ever since you took it into your head to study philosophy you have put on airs and have raised your eyebrows above your temples. Then, in a pompous fashion and with a book in your hands, you stalk along to the Academy and walk past my house as if you had never so much as set eyes on it before. You've gone mad, Euthydemus; don't you know what sort of person that sophist is, the man with the solemn countenance who delivers those wonderful lectures to you? But how about me? How long do you think it is that he's been pestering me for an appointment? And he's crazy over Megara's maid Herpyllis.

It should be noted that Herpyllis was the name of Aristotle's concubine. She was the mother of his son, Nicomachus, named after Aristotle's father. (It is not clear, however, that the name of the father or son accounts for the title of the Nicomachean Ethics.) Thais maintains that she has heretofore denied her bed to the philosopher, preferring Euthydemus' love to his teacher's ready money. Now she has second thoughts: "Since he is apparently turning you away from your intimacy with me, I'll let him come; and, if you like," here blending irony with triple slander, "I'll show you that your woman-hating schoolmaster is not content with the usual pleasures of a night." In sum, Alciphron's Aristotle is a hypocrite and a lecher, and--to top it off--a pervert.

Thais concludes by identifying herself as an educator of youth in the Epicurean tradition, which opposed the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Epicurus, it may be recalled, had formed a school called the Garden; courtesans were welcomed to membership. Thais asks: "Do you think a sophist is any better than a courtesan?" She thinks not, and maintains that "We teach young men just as well as they do." She urges Euthydemus to abandon his foolishness and return to her:

come to your sweetheart as you are when you have come back ... from the Lyceum wiping off the sweat, that we may carouse a bit and give each other a demonstration of that noble end, pleasure ... The deity gives us no long time to live; do not wake up to find you've wasted yours on riddles and on nonsense.

Thais and Phyllis share much in common across a full millennium, although they are the products of vastly different imaginations and ethnicities. The authors locate their two young women in different social strata, one at the pinnacle of courtly life, the other near the lower end of the body politic. Yet it is Aristotle, the personification of academic values and intellect, that divides them both from their lovers.

A more detailed, if less lurid, account of the antithetical relations between Love and Study, is told by Peter Abelard (d. 1142), one of the foremost scholars of the twelfth century. In the Historia Calamitatum, he describes the bliss and misery of his love affair with Heloise:

Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love...Our speech was more of love than the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each others bosoms; love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In measure as this passionate rapture absorbed me more and more, I devoted less time to philosophy and to the work of the school. Indeed it became loathsome to go to school or to linger there...My lecturing became utterly careless and lukewarm...As for the sorrow, the groans, the lamentations of my students when they perceived the preoccupation, nay, rather the chaos, of my mind, it is hard even to imagine them.

That Heloise was equally distracted from her private study is a point that Abelard does not elaborate. Her predicament has been sensitively described by a modern student of the medieval soul: "...Heloise would never again be sure that she was not becoming an accomplice to Abelard's moral fall for the purpose of satisfying her personal interest...She felt she had sinned against Abelard, not against God. The real tragedy of the action lies in the profound sincerity with which they both played the comedy of sanctity." In the end, both Heloise and Abelard retired to their chaste studies. Conclusion with a coda

Conclusion with a coda

A poet's license. The medieval travesties of Aristotle that began with Andeli's Lai gave rise to an enduring motif in European imagery. In all the media of the visual arts, the wise man can be seen on hands and knees, ridden like a beast. His rider is usually, but not always, some tantalizing incarnation of erotic love. Departures from the norm occur when the image maker was more more interested in the theme of hen-pecked husband or when Socrates/Xantippe was confused with Aristotle chevauché.

For the reader of the Lai, Andeli's rhetorical success in bringing Aristotle down to earthy lust and foolishness depended on establishing the Master's character as worthy of a fall. And so we are presented with an austere Aristotle, one who would unfeelingly impose an ascetic regimen on others; a sour, aged martinet intent on destroying the sweet raptures of young lovers. This warden of the spirit would confine princely youth itself, that fleeting age of life, to a prison house of study. Whatever satisfaction may ensue from seeing such a one discomfited need not be lessened by doubt concerning factual authenticity. The story, like its illustrations, would have validity or lack of it subservient to canons of the arts of composition, not to confirmation from verifiable facts about Aristotle's life.

The true character of the historical Aristotle will likely always be elusive. There would be some justice in Andeli's delineation, if Aristotle were the author of the Secret of Secrets. But he was not. Ancient biographies of the philosopher, apart from the works of a few obvious detractors, tend to be encomiastic when not merely honorific. A search for signs of character in Aristotle's own works, or those thought to be by him, reveal a generous, understanding man, although his estimate of women's capabilities was evidently more conventional than the extraordinary vision outlined in Plato's utopian Republic.

Ideal study space for the historical Aristotle would have varied, depending on the kind of inquiry he was pursuing. The medieval image of study space, excepting perhaps astronomy, was defined by architectural interiors (e.g., a carrel in a cloister, a cell, an isolated chamber), a lectern, and a few or several volumes. Such accommodations would probably have sufficed for Aristotle or any other inquirer when thought was centered on fields such as logic and meta-physics. In contrast, Aristotle's zoological and biological inquiries would have required field work and something akin to a laboratory where specimens might be stored.

The psychic quality of study space for Aristotle was more an affirmation of meaningfulness than the fulfillment of a duty. Rather than an escape from the world, rather than an activity motivated by the threat that death would soon cut short one's existence, the driving force was much more aptly named "philosophy." The term "philos" includes an active sense of loving or having a fondness for something, even when its object is wisdom. Aristotle's devotion to study, to inquiry, was no self-denying abstinence from satisfaction; it was the most satisfying of all life's opportunities. He was prepared to accept the probability that this ideal would not be equally attractive to all, but he did propose that society would be better governed if those in charge were of a character that loved to study problems and alternatives, to comprehend the true relationship of things before grasping at conclusions.

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