hist-210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000
Lecture 5 - St. Augustine’s Confessions [September 14, 2011]
Chapter 1: Why we read The Confessions[00:00:00]
Professor Paul Freedman: Alright, so you may be asking yourself, "Why are we reading the Confessions?" I think I gave a preliminary answer before, but since it seems to be perhaps more appropriate for religious studies or philosophy, let me remind you why we're struggling through this.
First, the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire--that is to say, the social and intellectual setting of the rise of Christianity in the late fourth, early fifth centuries.
The second is to understand some of the Christian moral and doctrinal problems and their implications. Once again, we're not exactly interested in these for reasons of theology or morality, but we need to get into the minds of people at the time in order to understand what bothered them, what controversies they were involved in, and how those controversies indeed divided the Roman Empire and the successors to the Roman Empire.
Some of those problems--well, under that second heading of Christian moral and doctrinal problems, let me just mention three, which by no means exhausts them, but are three that we can sort of, if not identify with, I think see their importance. One, the problem of evil.Second, the relation between body and soul.And three, the Christian understanding of sin and redemption. Now, it turns out these are all aspects of the same problem, and they are dealt with in Augustine's works most thoroughly, more thoroughly than any other thinker of the ancient world.
The third reason we're looking at this is the interaction between Christianity and classical culture and religion. Roman life and politics, Augustine's career and his giving up his career, what that means, other ideas within the Roman Empire, such as Manicheaism, Platonism.
And then finally, this is a document of philosophical and psychological investigation. And while that is not our primary purpose here, you should not get out of a liberal arts college program without reading this and pondering it a little. This can be summarized in terms of the importance of the humanities, even, or of philosophical investigation, as opposed to mere investigation of natural phenomena, in words that Augustine uses in Book X, which we have not read. After Book IX, Book X is a turning. It discusses time and the meaning of time. Books XI, XII, and XIII are a commentary on Genesis. Worth reading, if you like, and interesting to think about how they do or do not mesh with the more confessional parts of the Confession.
But in Book X, he says, "Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses, but they pay no attention to themselves." They are busy looking at external phenomena and not examining their own heart. And if the Confessionsis anything, it is certainly an examination of the author's heart.
But it's not an examination of his heart in a purely emotional sense, in the way we're familiar with in so-called confessional literature. I had a tough upbringing. This happened to me. That happened to me. I struggled with addiction. I beat my kids. Now I'm a great person. Whatever. This is an intellectual investigation as well as an emotional investigation.
And indeed, Augustine doesn't see these as separate, or to the degree that he does, it's in a more complicated way than just saying intellectual versus non-intellectual. He is an intellectual, obviously. And he awakened to being an intellectual, an experience that many of you may have had. Remember, he reads this dialogue by Cicero, now lost, called the Hortensius. And this convinces him that the life of the mind is the most important thing to pursue.
And I wouldn't say that we all have had this experience, but maybe you--what was the point at which you discovered that you weren't like other people, that they lived more for immediate sensations, or pleasure, or what Augustine would call debauchery, and you wanted to read or think about stuff or do lab experiments?
I think the essence of Yale, if I understand it correctly, is I don't have to choose between fun and the intellectual life. So it's not actually perhaps relevant to your lives now, but particularly if you went to a public high school, grew up in a non-intellectual environment. Those of you whose parents are professors and went to some school where everybody was reading Latin at the age of six, I'm not talking to you. But I'm talking to the vast majority who woke up one day and realized, either with pride or with dismay, "I'm different from other people." Ideas have meaning to me. I'm going to suffer in life for that, though there're going to be some rewards. And I leave you to discern what the rewards are and to mull over what the suffering has been or maybe will continue to be. I hope not, and I suspect you'll have an easier time of it.
But this book is about a search for truth and a search that takes a number of wrong turns, at least from Augustine's opinion looking back on the situation when he wrote this in the 390s. It's a confession of sin. It's also, as I said before, a confession of praise for the God whose love directed him back to the right path. It is personal, but exemplary. It is about spiritual yearning, but it is also about intellectual yearning for truth. It's a book about the education of a young man and the adventures of this young man and what he learns from them.
Chapter 2: A Brief Biography of Augustine [00:07:34]
Now, in the first place, he is both an intellectual and a passionate person. He is someone who is unusually frank about his desires. But notice that he's not just opposed to desire. He is not someone who believes that desire, love are to be simply repressed or ignored. Love is a psychological need. And he has a very discerning and interesting passage in describing his teenage years and his lusts when he frequented the brothels of Carthage. In Book III, at the beginning, he says, "I was in love with the idea of love." So he was not only in love, but he was in love with the idea of being an emotional being, of love that is both sexual and spiritual, in which these two things are not well marked off from each other.
He is also a believer in friendship. And it's funny, because in our own culture, I think friendship has changed. When I started teaching, people had trouble dealing with the affection that he has for his friends, like Alypius and Nebridius, or the mysterious unnamed friend who dies after being baptized. Augustine is always surrounded by friends. Even in the most intimate moments, when he's undergoing this conversion, there're all sorts of people right around him. And as I said before, this seemed to be--the explanation was, well, he must've been homosexual, or he must have these desires, or maybe it's part of Roman culture of friendship.
But in recent decades or years, where we have a culture of friendship, where your friends are extremely important--admittedly, if you have 900 of them, it's a little bit, perhaps, weakened--but I think we can understand some of this better than might have been the case a little while ago. This friend who dies after being baptized, here is an example of another form of seriousness. They go out and have fun together. The friend becomes ill. The friend is suddenly very serious. The friend gets baptized, because to be baptized, as with Constantine, means that you are committing yourself to a much more stringent and moral life than before.
And then he dies. And this certainly disturbs Augustine. What is life all about? Any of you who've had the experience of contemporaries of yours who have died will understand this, I think.
Augustine's also ambitious. He is a successful person. Even though he's from a modest family--his father, a pagan or non-Christian, middle class official of North Africa, his mother, a Christian--He's clearly marked for success because of his unusual gifts, his unusual gifts being intellectual, ability to write, ability to argue. He's marked out as extremely smart. And at that time, success for such a person, the course of success was through government service-- this is the era post-Diocletian, post-Constantine--and related particularly to a combination of rhetoric and law.
This is not all that different from societies familiar to us. That is to say, the training in law gives one access to a number of different kinds of political offices. But rhetoric is perhaps a little stranger to us. Rhetoric in this context means the art of persuasion. So it's very closely related to law and legal pleading. It is the art of writing well, of writing elegantly, and it is very, very highly valued in the Roman Empire.
His mother, Monica, is extremely pious. In fact, the first section, class rather that I taught--no, I guess I was a section leader--when I was a graduate student, the first section I had, my students were arguing with me about Augustine's patronizing attitude towards his mother. And I said, well, no, he's not patronizing. He's smarter than his mother. His mother's just an ordinary person. After all, Augustine becomes a saint, and his mother doesn't. Some guy from Santa Monica Catholic School said, who do you think Santa Monica is? This is Augustine's mother.
So anyway, I've learned. Augustine's mother is a saint. She is a more steadfast kind of person than Augustine. She's not someone who stays up all night wrestling with the problem of evil. Nevertheless, she does not want him to be baptized. She wants him to be successful. Like most mothers, she wants her child to be a good person. But even more than that, she wants her child to be a success. And that means delaying baptism, because if he's going to be a success, he's going to have to be involved in the world of high government, and that may mean--well, that definitely means involvement in sinfulness, involvement in the shedding of blood, involvement in legal wrangling and stuff like that.
And so he is encouraged to lead a normal life, "normal" meaning, at least in his own retrospective view, sinful life. This is what Augustine is giving up in his conversion. He is giving up a career. He is giving up a social expectation of success or social definition of success. He is giving up the pleasures attendant on that career, which range from parties to honors to sexual conquests and the whole life of a well-established member of the Roman elite.
Chapter 3: The Problem of Evil [00:14:33]
What is bothering Augustine? What bothers him is, in part, the problem of evil, which we've alluded to already. Why does a good and omnipotent god allow evil to flourish? A related problem is that compared to the works of the Greek writers and philosophers, the Bible seems awfully crude to him, rhetorically, in terms of style, and conceptually, in terms of its ideas.
The Old Testament god--and we're probably at various levels of familiarity with the Old Testament--but the Old Testament god is temperamental, I think it's fair to say. Here's a guy who decides to destroy--a guy--a deity who decides to destroy the world by flood, destroys the cities of the plain, kills one of the people bearing the tabernacle back to Jerusalem because he stumbles. What kind of god is this?
This bothers Augustine. And his anthropomorphism bothers Augustine. In the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Bible, a god speaks with people. Adam hears him walking in the garden. How can that be? How can this human-seeming god be the real God? So these two anxieties put Augustine in the camp of the Manicheans.
Remember, the Manicheans believe that the solution to the problem of evil is that God is not omnipotent. God is trying, but there's another evil god who is opposing Him. And that evil god is the god of the flesh and the god of the Old Testament, Jehovah, the creator god, the god of matter and flesh. We are souls imprisoned in flesh. Our true home is the spiritual, and we have to renounce everything that has to do with the flesh in order to go there.
So Manicheanism would seem to be extremely ascetic. You should have absolutely nothing to do with the world. But as is always the case with the statement, "everything that's material is evil, but we are material," Manicheanism also offers or affords you an opportunity to be completely involved in the world, totally involved in the world, because there's nothing you can do about it. All you can do is say, the flesh is evil, I'm in the flesh, I'm just going to have to deal with it until I am liberated into the spirit.
So Manicheanism is not necessarily world-renouncing, but they do identify the source of evil with the body. The body is wicked. The immaterial soul is good. This is not Christianity, as Augustine discovers or elaborates. Even though we may think of Christianity as exalting the soul over the body, nevertheless, it also exalts the body. Christian doctrine is that the bodies of human beings will be resurrected, not just the souls. There will be bodies after the Last Judgment in heaven and in hell.
God created the world, and it was good. What then explains the presence of evil? Augustine at this stage turns to Platonism for an understanding of the nature of evil. Evil is not a thing in itself. It is rather the absence of good. Now, if anyone has ever said that to you, you will have found that unconvincing, at least in its first iteration. Because we're not just talking about the absence of good, as in, this bowl of chili is not very good. It's not very flavorful. It's OK, but it's lacking in something. But that's not evil. Evil is not like, not particularly good. Evil is much more vivid, gratuitous, cruel, all-encompassing.
The Platonists don't deny that. What they mean by saying it's the privation of good is that it is nothingness. Evil is, in fact, the absence of being and meaning. The reason it produces such spectacular effects as war, oppression, crime, is that people turn away from the good, or they turn away from what is truly good to prefer lower goods. They turn away from the things of the spirit to the things of the flesh. They prefer their own lusts and desires, their own ambitions and greed, to the common good or to the immaterial and spiritual good. And it's this turning away from the Sun, this turning away from good, that seems to be a human problem. Human beings, generally speaking, don't understand what they're on Earth for, according to the Platonists.
Many of you are familiar with the metaphor of the cave from The Republic. This is the classic depiction of this wrong preference. The people in the cave are chained facing the back wall of the cave, and they see images of what's passing in front of the cave reflected on the wall. As time goes on, they come to believe that those images are reality. They forget that they're chained. They forget that they can't see the real things. They forget the Sun.
If you were to liberate them and turn them around and show them the light, first of all, they couldn't bear it, because they're used to the world of shadow. Secondly, they'd kill you, because you are destroying their assumptions and their world. They would at least persecute you. They're not interested in the truth. They're interested in getting by.
So for the Platonists, evil is the result of this error in perception, assuming that it's a great thing to get rich. Or assuming that it's a great thing to beat people up because you're stronger than they are. Or it's a great thing to conquer and subjugate. Or all of these things, some of which are evil but are really the preference of things that you should not be pursuing or that you should be pursuing for reasons inspired by spiritual truth.
How do you get rid of this? In the Platonists' imagination, by education. That's the whole point of Plato's dialogues. That's why they are dialogues, many of them, with a question and answer. They're very didactic. They're like being in a class. Socrates quizzes people, and then he shows the solution. And they say, "Oh, wow, Socrates, now I understand. Now I'm going to be a Platonist, and I'm going to build a perfect society." End of story.
The important thing to understand about Platonism is that it is not dualist in the way that Manicheanism is or the way that we instinctively think about evil. Evil is not opposed to good. It's hierarchically inferior to good. The Platonists' universe is like a ladder with many rungs going up from mud, bugs, rocks to the immaterial One, and with many, many steps, as I said, many rungs or steps or levels in between.
Human beings are in the middle. And also, human beings--unlike animals, mud, slugs, but also unlike angels and demiurges and deities--human beings can move up and down the ladder. That's what free will is. That's what being human is. You can read Hortensius, read the Confessions, fall in love with the liberal arts, and ascend to some very high realm of the spirit. Or you can choose the downward path to debauchery and mere pleasure. It's a question of how free you are, but we do have the opportunity to move up and down this ladder, unlike the animals and all other created forces that are fixed.
Now, the question is what makes us move up and down this? Or what'll motivate us to move up? And here we come to some key differences between Platonism and Christianity with regard to evil. Platonism tends to ascribe evil to ignorance. Christianity tends to ascribe evil to sin. The difference between sin and ignorance is that sin is deliberate. You know you shouldn't do this, and you do it anyway. You're not overcome by desire.
Chapter 4: Pears and Augustine’s Conception of Sin [00:25:00]
So to anticipate one of the paper topics--but I don't think I'm going to be giving away the answer--what is it about the pear-stealing incident that makes it so important? Anybody want to venture a preliminary response to this?
Student: Well, it's the fact that he doesn't need the pears. He just does it because he feels like sinning.
Professor Paul Freedman: So the pears--he doesn't need the pears. It is just a desire. I mean, he doesn't say to himself, I want to sin. I haven't sinned in two days. He doesn't need the pears. What do they do with the pears when they get them?
Student: They chuck them.
Professor Paul Freedman: Yeah, they throw them out. They throw them to the pigs. So they're not hungry. It's not like, I was overcome by desire, and that led me into some sinful behavior. They weren't overcome by desire at all. How would you describe their pre-pear-stealing state? At least, what would you guess was their pre-pear-stealing frame of mind? There's one word that'll describe it, but if you want to, use a few more. Some guys go and they steal some pears from an orchard. They fool around with them. They throw them to the pigs.
Professor Paul Freedman: Bored. Bored. Now, here's something we can identify with. They're bored. They need to amuse themselves. They cannot amuse themselves by saying, "I'm a good person," or, "I'm going to contemplate the One," or, "I'm going to do some homework." It doesn't end. Young people are thought to be easily bored, but the boredom of old people, it's a different kind of bored. But there it is. It's persistent. That's not the only reason people sin, but it is a gratuitous reason. And that's what's interesting about the pears. It's gratuitous. It's not from need. The Platonists don't have a good response to why this happens, because it's not a question of education.
Now, Augustine does not invent Christian ideas of sin. If you said to Augustine, "Come on, why are you so worried about the pears?" He's not worried about the pears as such. It's just a little emblem or a little example of a different kind of problem--that is to say, knowing how to behave doesn't change us. Feeling how to behave--to put it in Freudian terms, it's not the ego that decides. It's the id. It's the instinct, not the intellect.
And that's what his conversion means. His conversion is not: "Suddenly, I was convinced that Christianity was true." He already knows that Christianity is true, but he knows it intellectually. The conversion is a conversion to an emotional apprehension of it. So however intellectual he may seem to you, however formed in the tradition of Greco-Roman classicism he was, however much the Hortensius awakened him to the life of the mind, he is ultimately a theologian and philosopher of the irrational, of the supra-rational.
And indeed, Christianity in its history has an oscillation between intellectualization and the rediscovery of sin and God's grace. If you think of movements like the Reformation of Martin Luther, John Calvin, et cetera, in the sixteenth century, it takes issue with the notion that we can do works that give us merit in the sight of God, and that the Church tells us we have accumulated merits, and therefore we'll go to heaven.
The Reformation teaches that we are face to face with God and that our so-called good deeds don't amount to anything. We are all sinful. If God operated according to justice, we would all go to hell. It's faith and grace that save people, hence the Reformation. But it's also the Great Awakening of Britain and America in the eighteenth century, the development of Methodism, the Fundamentalist movement, all of these tend to reject attempts to approach God contractually, attempts to approach God in terms of a deal.
So if human beings are sinful and if education is not going to get them out of sin, what will? Now, the Augustine of the Confessions is different than the Augustine of 20 years later when he wrote The City of God. And we're not studying The City of God, but this book, written in response to the sack of Rome in 410, develops some ideas that are found in the Confessions about the nature of sin and how we get out of it. The nature of sin is the pears. How we get out of it is at least in part the conversion. We got the pears sufficiently for the time being?
The conversion is started--well, it started long before the event. But what precipitates it as a drama is this conversation with Ponticianus in Book VIII, Part VIII, who has traveled and describes the monks of Egypt. Now, we'll be talking lots and lots about monks, but the monks of Egypt are the first example of Christian monks, men who flee the world into the desert and there live on weeds, saline water, locusts, other insects, basically nothing. And they have visions, and they are sought out by ordinary people.
It's key to understand that to be a hermit in this society does not necessarily mean that you have nothing to do with people. People start to want to find you, because you must have special power. Back in Alexandria, their baby is sick. "Maybe you, oh hermit, living on locusts and out in the desert, have some spiritual power to help my baby."
This is shamanism. It happens in all sorts of religions. You can't just be a shaman, a medicine man, a wise man, and hold down a regular old job. Or you can, but it helps. And that's the conceit of a lot of TV ideas, secret heroes. They're the real estate agents, but they're battling the forces of darkness. But generally, most of the time, you've got to be special, and you've got to look special. And you've got to be a reject. You can't have a spouse, kids, a mortgage, a garden, a swing set. You've got to be a seer. You've got to have your vision focused on the other world.
Ponticianus tells Augustine about these men, and his response is not only to be impressed by them, but to be humiliated by them. First of all, here are these guys who are intoxicated with God, while I'm still thinking about my career. But--and this is the ancient world speaking--they are uneducated, these monks of Egypt. They didn't study The Republic, the Hortensius, the Timaeus, the rhetoric of Quintilian, the Satires of Juvenal.
They don't know anything about this. They're uneducated people. Many of them are illiterate. And yet they are closer to God. They have an apprehension of the divine that causes them to renounce the world, whereas we--Augustine says of him and his circle--we "lie here groveling in this world of flesh and blood, while they storm the gates of heaven." And this is the moment of his conversion.
Now, after his conversion, Augustine's plan was to lead a life of contemplation with his friends. They would retreat from the world, meaning they would give up their careers, but it would be a little bit like one of your friend's parents have a lot of money and have this wonderful cabin somewhere in the Rockies or the Sawtooth Mountains. And you're going to figure out some kind of way of--you'll be on the Internet and everything, but you're going to have this kind of beautiful, contemplative life.
But the beautiful part is that it's not going to be uncomfortable. It's not the desert of Egypt. It's remote--you're not going to be bothered--but there are beautiful mountains, trouts in the stream. It's idyllic. And you and your friends are going to talk about reality and the spirit and philosophy and--I don't know how idyllic this sounds to you, but it's certainly an understandable idea of a way of life.
It is the ancient idea of what's called “leisure with dignity”. And indeed, that's what being a professor was supposed to be when I signed up for it. Otium cum dignitate, leisure with dignity. "Leisure" meaning not wasting time leisure, but not responding to clients, or not responding to urgent scheduling phone calls, deals. You've got to show up to your classes, but that's not really onerous. At least, that was the idea.
And I won't go into the frustrations of being a professor or the dissatisfactions. But the classical idea is otium cum dignitate, "dignity" meaning not being naked in the desert, not having to eat locusts and figure out how to-- "OK, I had curried locusts last night. Tonight, I think I'll have locust casserole." No, no, no. Something nicer than that.
But in fact, he did not follow through on this. He did not lead a life of cultivated classical dignity with his friends. He went back to North Africa. He became a bishop. His years were consumed by disputes over doctrine or with heretical--as he deemed them--tendencies, like Donatism, most notably. And he died defending his city of Hippo, Hippo Regius, in modern Tunisia, from the Vandals, one of those barbarian invaders who will occupy us next week.
He then was very much involved in the world. To be a bishop in the Roman Empire was by no means an office of dignified leisure. It was right in there in the political trenches. It's a position of honor, to be sure, but his understanding of the Christian's duty in the world was that you cannot lead a life of perfection. You cannot lead a life of sin-free contemplation. We all are sinners. He becomes more and more the theologian, philosopher who combats perfectionism.
Chapter 5: Perfectability, Sin, and Grace [00:38:23]
Perfectionism is a doctrine that human beings can be made radically better--perfect, even. There are debates throughout societies about the degree of human perfectibility. This is indeed supposedly and to some extent I think really at the heart of debates between what is called liberalism in the United States and conservatism. Liberals believe in human perfectibility. If you educate people, if you help them, if you encourage them, if you provide government subsidies, you will build a better society. The response upon the part of conservatives to that is, people are the way they are because that's the way they want to be, or they made wrong choices. But all the help from some public authority isn't going to help, isn't going to really make a difference.
Are people perfectible? People who believe in education tend to believe that they are. On the other hand, very well-educated people have been bad. Hitler loved classical music. So did Stalin. Just because you are a connoisseur of art doesn't make you a good person.
Augustine is a radical imperfectionist, more so in The City of God than in the Confessions, which is teetering on the brink. The pears is a kind of imperfectionist moment. He glimpses the power of sin. By the time of The City of God, by the time that the end of the Roman Empire is at least glimpsed as a possibility and the rise of the barbarians, Augustine has become someone who does not believe that human beings can, in any way, earn salvation. Human beings are irrevocably sinful.
Once again, if God judged people according to their merits, they would all be damned. Since the Christian belief is that some people are saved, they are saved by a mysterious process called "grace." Grace, by its very meaning, is undeserved. You don't show up at the door of Heaven with a ticket of admission earned by your deeds on Earth. What opens the doors to you is a generous, arbitrary decision. Well, "generous" may mean, I had good intentions. I didn't kill anybody. But "arbitrary" may mean that we can't figure out who's going to Heaven and who's going to Hell. It may even mean that since God knew before we were born, God predestined us for Heaven or Hell.
This is a harsh doctrine. It gets periodically rediscovered and then dropped. It's at the heart of the belief of the people who settled Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is the heart of Calvinism and of Puritanism, the belief in the elect. The question is, are these elect visible or invisible? The elect are people who are going to go to heaven. Are they visible? Can we say, this guy is so good, he's going to heaven? This woman is so loving, nurturing, self-effacing, whatever, she's going to go to heaven? That's the notion of a visible elect. An invisible elect is, "We don't know, we have no idea."
And this is a crucial difference. Because if you believe in the visible elect, even if you say they're not guaranteed, but anybody outside of this circle is for sure going to hell, then you have Puritan New England. You have a small community of people pursuing perfection. Or you have the Amish. Or you have any small pious community that believes that outside of it is more or less given over to sin and more or less doomed. Inside of it, maybe it's not guaranteed, but your chances are much, much better.
But if you believe that we don't have a visible elect, that we have no idea, then everybody ought to be in the Church. Everybody ought to have access to the sacraments that provide initiation into the Church. You ought to start converting pagans, even savage pagans. You ought to be out there roping in as many people into the church, including people who don't want to be. Because you just never know. Maybe their kids will be.
Augustine is behind ideas of things like forced conversion. As long as they're baptized, there's a chance of them being saved. And baptized as infants, preferably, because baptism does not any longer mean, in Augustine's world, perfection. It means the beginning. It means entering the process.
So the three things that he is teaching that are implicit in the Confessions and that he is important for in terms of his intellectual impact are his opposition to perfectionism, his exaltation of grace, and the notion of sin as indelible, not solvable.
Where this becomes of key historical importance is in the Church. The Church is a body that can either be sectarian and small, as with the Amish or Puritan New England, or it can be huge and universal, as with the medieval Catholic Church. Augustine stands behind the medieval Catholic Church, which is a political body, a body of doctrine, a structure ruled by princes, and a structure that has a missionary impact on the rest of the world.
Now, the papers. You have the paper topics. If you didn't get them, come up and see me after. You can choose any one of them, or you can choose something else. But if you choose something else, please talk to your teaching fellow or to me. And talk to us anyway about these papers. We'll give you plenty of opportunity to bounce ideas off us.
Now, next week, we talk about the fall of the Roman Empire. But this is implicit in what we've talked about today, because the bottom line is the Roman Empire is going to fall in the West, and the Church is not going to. And so we'll look at how that works next week. Thanks.
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