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Armando Martins Janeira

Some historians think that the idea that History justifies the belief in human progress is a delusion.

Yet nobody denies progress in human society. In the history of earth, since man invented his tools, created a system of writing, emerged from the tribe into the organization of the city, of a nation, into the concept of an international society, a very long way has been advanced in a comparatively short time, one hundred thousand years of human life, of which about five thousand only are known civilized.

All reality, in its animal, vegetal and mineral realms, follows a process of evolution. This process embraces all things, the universe is a self-transforming whole, animated by a vital solidarity in which the smallest and the largest parcels complete each other in such a way that if one was destroyed the harmony of the whole would be broken. Man is an element of this universal harmony, the most important one because the only one capable, by the force of his mind, of improving and increasing such harmony.

In this context, man is an element, and an active one, of the process of evolution, as far as he intervenes in the improvement of his environment. This nobody denies. But is he, besides, or beyond, this natural process of evolution, improving himself through historical progress?

The Greeks, like many ancient peoples, believed in a past golden age which they hoped to see restored one day. This idea precludes the belief in any historical progress, the forecast for the future is a pessimistic one.

In the Middle Ages, it is in the Arabic world that we find the most remarkable theory of history, in the works of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a native of Tunis who lived in several cities of North Africa and in Arabic Spain.

Arnold Toynbee writes about him that “he has conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” (1) Ibn Khaldun was the first to state that social phenomena obey to constant laws, and that social events follow regular, well-defined patterns and sequences; that these laws can be discovered only by gathering a large number of facts from records of past and observation of the present; that the same kind of social laws operates in societies with the same kind of structure, however much of these societies may be separated by space and time; that societies are not static and social forms, but change and evolve. (2)

“What we mean, writes Khaldun, is that the conditions of the world, and of the nations, with their customs and modes of occupation, do not persist in one unchanging state or stable pattern, but are transformed with the passage of time and more from one condition to another.”

The philosophy of history of Ibn Khaldun is remarkable for his time, nobody bears comparison with him in the Middle Ages; some consider him the greatest theorist of history before Vico. (3)

It is in the Renaissance with a new confidence in action and intellectual power, that man begins really to believe in himself and to hope for a great progressive future.

The eighteenth century formulated the idea of progress. The French encyclopedists and the Scottish philosophers and historians have marked it with the optimism of their confidence in reason. The theory of progress belongs to the philosophy of history, a discipline which was directly born from the industrial revolution in England and from the French Revolution. The nineteenth century widened the philosophical and material bases for justifying the belief in historical progress and considered it developing according to laws as firm as the laws known in the natural sciences. Comte and Stuart Mill believed that progress was an absolute trend, related to the laws of human nature, that the law of progress could be inferred from a tendency in man to perfect his nature.

In our century, the advance of science and technology has dissipated the idealistic tinge of this belief; we see, on one side an optimist belief in progress based on the latest historical and scientific data, on the other a scepticism raised by the contradictions between the advance of science and moral tenets.

In a general way, it can be said that the periods of material advancement are also those in which confidence on historical progress increases. This comes to say that confidence in progress is an agent of history, is a dynamic impulse towards the improvement of human condition.

But the increasing control over and independence of the environment does not mean, in the opinion of several historians and sociologists, a consequent progress of man.

In one school, Marxism, there is a belief in historical progress, inevitable and ascending in a kind of spiral. Progress, here, is determined by the successive changes in the powers of production. The development of the powers of production is the force which impels the movement of history. Those powers are conditioned by the action of men, and at the same time act themselves on relations among men, by changing the social organization. The historical development of the powers of production shows successive phases, and to each phase corresponds a particular economic system; each economic system determines a particular form of social organization in which prevails the class that possesses the powers of production. The social and economic struggles among the classes for the possession of those powers determine the historical progress. The domination of certain class over the other is carried on by means of the States; the State is “an executive committee for administering the affairs of the governing class as a whole.” The last State will be the proletarian State, which will finally be abolished in a future when there will be no more economic classes and the means of production will belong to the whole community. The law of causality is therefore applied in the social field by a dialectical process, moving from thesis and antithesis toward synthesis, in terms not of ideas but of material, objective forces.

As we see by this brief summary, there is no particular emphasis on the inner improvement of man, but the belief in a classless society implies the belief in human perfectibility which Marx had inherited from the optimism of the eighteenth century.

What the communist State of the future will be, Marx does not define; he does not go beyond utopian and vague suggestions of a social condition in which the productive forces will increase “with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flowing more abundantly”; he does not say how this ideal society will be held together, nor whether the dialectic ceases at this stage. (4) Marx has been called “the father of modern sociology” and his sociological analysis became, in the words of a conservative, “the best known and most familiar”; even his critics show respect for his philosophy of history, specially in the fundamental importance it attributes to the economic factor in historical development.

Conservative, modern historians like H. A. L. Fisher, while recognizing the fact of progress, do not see it obeying a law. “Men wiser and more learned than I”, writes Fisher, “have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only an emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen. This is not a doctrine of cynicism and despair. The fact of progress is written plain and large on the page of history; but progress is not a law of nature”. (5) 

R. G. Collingwood rejects bluntly the existence of historical progress, there is change, but no progress. There is a constant improvement of material conditions, a ceaseless transformations of environment, but not of man himself.

Arnold Toynbee sees progress as a “series of acts of the drama of challenge-and-response, in which each act results in a successful response to the challenge with which this act has opened, while each of these successful responses results in the presentation of a new challenge which produces a further act. On this view the rhythm of progress or growth is a repeated overbalance that gives the challenged party a continuing momentum; and this momentum carries him along from one act of challenge - and - response to another.” This series of acts, which may never end, does not lead to any advancement. There are bouts of progress in certain fields, accompanied by regression in other fields. “The word ‘progress’ in the absolute is meaningless”. “When Trinkaus declares that history is progress or nothing”, writes Toynbee, “my answer is that it is neither”. “It is a Kaleidoscopic panorama in which patterns and colours change with each change in the viewer´s focus of interest”. (6)

As the lesson of history, for Toynbee, ends in theology, also his concept of progress ends in a mystical assertion: a spiritual kind of progress “that would give significance to history and would, so to speak, justify God’s love for this world and His incarnation in it - would be a cumulative increase in the means of Grace at the disposal of each soul in this world”. (7) Here, history ascends into the prestigious mists of theology.

Raymond Aron contends that a philosophy of progress has no common measure with objective appreciations like those concerning liberty, individual rights etc. Because it lies on the principle that societies, as a whole, and human existence tend towards a regular and continuous improvement, and that this improvement must continue indefinitely. Aron, against this optimist thesis, gives the example of the coexistence today of communist society which considers itself an absolute value, and the liberal society which aims at enlarging the sphere of individual autonomy; there is no common measure between the two, he says, and the succession from one to the other couldn’t be appreciated except by reference to a norm which had to be above historical diversities. This norm is always necessarily the projection of what a certain society would wish to be and among the great diversities of our epoch no society can pretend to be certain of its superiority.

Karl Jaspers sees progress in knowledge and technological ability - in a time of growing acquisitions confined to the impersonal, universally valid knowledge and ability of consciousness in general, which passes through the history of all individual cultures. World history may be conceived as a development in an ascending line, with retrogressions and standstills, but on the whole with perceptual augmentation of the possession to which all men and peoples make their contribution, and which becomes possession of all men. “Historically we see the stages of this advance, and in the present we stay at the highest point. This is only a line in the whole, however, humanity itself, the ethos of man, his goodness and wisdom, make no progress. Art and poetry are indeed comprehensible to all, but not typical of all; they are bound to peoples and their epochs, each one at a unique and unsurpassable height”. We see in history how the people who had reached the highest levels perished, succumbing to those inferior to them, how cultures were destroyed by barbarians; the physical annihilation of the highest types of men by the oppressive realities of the mass is a fundamental phenomenon of history. Not withstanding, we can see the recurrence of the great, even if it remains silent for centuries and longer. “In the long run”, Jaspers concludes, “there is a reason to believe in substantial progress. But precisely these contingencies, these destructions are, at any rate in the foreground, the overwhelming happening of history”. (8)

These are just a few examples of what modern Western historians and philosophers think about progress. Many others could be quoted, from the British H. Butterfield who thinks simply that progress is “itself a work of Providence”, to Spengler who considers the idea of progress in history an illusion. Between those who leave to religion the final solution of the great problems that they feel impotent to understand till the end with the lights of knowledge, and those who find in Marxism the answer for every perplexity, there is large place for those who never cease to enquire and to meditate, confident that their reason and the pains of their anxiety will someday extort from the sphinx of history a tangible truth.

If we turn to the East we find that the reflections on the meaning of History are rare and vague. Events are passively accepted. In China, cosmology explained all phenomena, all changes in society, all historical events, through the movements of the two cosmic principles yin and yang and as the results of the combination of these two principles with the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). Thus reality is in a process of constant transformation. The balance between yin and yang, the interaction of activity and tranquillity, accounts for much of the harmony of Chinese life and thought.

Confucius thought that History proceeds in cycles, a period of order following a period of chaos and so on. Mencius believed that every five hundred years a King or sage arises to put the world in order. This cyclical interpretation of History has persisted in Chinese thought under different forms. Wang Fu Chih (1612-1692), a rather independent and bold thinker, declares his belief in progress. He repels the Confucian concept of harmony of things and society. Since concrete things at present are different from what they were in the past, the past cannot be a pattern nor be repeated. K’ang Yu-Wei (1858-1927), a modern confucianist, has set forth a theory of historical progress based on the existence of three stages: in all countries he sees a progress from the Age of Disorder to the Age of Rising Peace and from this one to the Age of Great Peace. “In the Age of Great Peace there are no emperors, kings, rulers, elders, official titles or ranks. Only wisdom and humanity are promoted and encouraged.” “New institutions appear everyday. Public benefits increase everyday. The human minds get stronger everyday. And knowledge becomes clearer everyday. People in the whole world together reach the realm of humanity, longevity, perfect happiness, and infinite goodness and wisdom”. “All people are equal. There are no servants or slaves, rulers or commanders, heads of religion of peoples.” ... “People think of nothing because happiness will reach its limit. They only think of immortality on earth”. This theory of the Three Ages is set forth in K’ang Yu-Wei’s commentary to the Book of Rites, in which Confucius taught that history progresses from the Age of Chaos to that of Sweet Peace and finally to that of the Great Unity. (9) K’ang Yu-Wei has combined here the Chinese traditional ideas and images with vague Western ideas of progress gathered during his long travelling in America and Europe as a political refugee.

The greatest of Japanese modern philosophers, Kitaro Nishida, considers historical progress the unfolding of various types of civilization, each being an immediate expression of the Absolute “historical individual exists only through the medium of historical species and is basically absolute nothingness”.

The Indian conception of History is also a cyclical one. In Mahabharata and in the Purana the cycle comprehends four ages, beginning with the Golden Age and ending with Kali Age, the present one, dominated by suffering. This cycle recommences eternally. In the traditional Indian, as in all Oriental thought, History has not a constructive value, man does not try to find in the past an interpretation of his present state nor a line of prevision for the future.

But all these considerations do not answer directly the fundamental question - has the course of life advanced towards good or towards evil? Has man’s happiness increased or not?

There are historians like R. G. Collingwood who contend that the question is meaningless, the concept of good and evil change from an epoch to another and thus they cannot be compared; and the sum of happiness has neither increased nor decreased, nor remained constant, because happiness consists of feelings of pleasure and pain and of desires which cannot be handled by methods of book-keeping, it changes according to the epoch, being impossible for the man of an epoch to judge if the conditions of another epoch allowed happiness or not. Goodness, like beauty and happiness, Collingwood asserts, is not a product of civilization. “A man’s moral worth depends not on his circumstances, but on the way in which he confronts them. It was a good act to abolish slavery, but the men who are born into a free world are not automatically made good men by that fact. All it can do for them is to confront them with moral problems of a new kind. (10) In another book, Collingwood denies also that there is progress in art; there is development in art, but no progress, because an artist can learn technique from his predecessors, but he cannot learn the solution of the fresh problems which arise not out of a previous work of art but “out of the artist´s unreflective experience.” (11)

This point of progress in art has the advantage of circumscribing the problem within clear and precise lines. We can answer straight away what counts here above all is the creative power, the genius of the artist. Time and history do not provide those gifts which can only spring from nature. The appearance of geniuses in certain epochs has been a passionate subject for some sociologists. We cannot affirm that if Rembrandt was born today he would be a better painter; but we can certainly affirm that modern conditions of education favour more the florescence of great artists whose natural gifts were lost, sunk into ignorance and destitution. And we can also affirm that the greatest musicians of classic Greece would probably be greater if they lived after Beethoven.

This example shows that the questions - did man improve himself - must be answered in realistic terms, by considering fundamental elements without which man’s personality, according to general understanding and common sense, would be crushed and prevented from reaching creative maturity.

The first is health. The progress of medicine has brought the improvement of the health of body and mind. We are nearer today the goal of a mens sana in corpore sano than in the days of Rome. We are no more frightened of the terrible epidemics which decimated Europe in the Middle Ages. Infantile mortality has greatly decreased, the perspective for the duration of man’s life is longer. The annual death-rate among the inhabitants of London was reduced from one in twenty, in 1750, to one in eighty today.

The second main improvement is liberty. The concepts of liberty in capitalist and communist countries are different, but it is true that in both today the situation is different from the time when in Central Europe and in Russia the peasant was bound to the soil and sold with it. From the point of view of the unfolding of man’s capacities, it cannot be denied that there is an immense progress between a society based on slavery and on free work. It may be said that there are still countries today in which there is slavery and we are not far in years from political regimes which in Europe adopted slavery. Still, we are far from a social consciousness according to which men of honour and great intelligence, like Plato, approved slave labour; it is true that the slave trade, even in Europe and America lasted until very near our days. The black trade was operated by people respected and honoured at their time; the great business firms of the sad trade in London were directed by the highest British aristocracy, including the brother of King of England, the Duke of York. The black traffic has brought from Africa into the Americas 13 million people, a forced immigration, across the Atlantic, in the most inhuman conditions, which is the greatest in history.

So long as slave labour was abundant, no social incentive which led to systematic study of non-human sources of power did arise. (12) Only the economic expansion which brought to the industrial revolution has put a term to slavery in the West. It is not cheap labour but highly qualified and paid one that has given impulse to progress. Still today, the most backward countries are those that attribute a cheap value to human life.

The superiority of contemporary man over the past generations, here, is that he is conscious of the injustice of morals that allow to deprive other men of their human quality and dignity. I read in today’s newspaper that in central India three untouchables were shot dead for growing their moustaches upwards, instead of downwards, and one was killed in Mysore for walking along a street wearing sandals. When all Indians will reach a stage of social consciousness and rational views capable of brushing away old prejudices and caste distinctions, Indian man will have made a considerable progress in relation to today.

Whatever the political conditions of liberty of ordinary man today may be in any given country, there is no doubt that, with the exception of some transitory situations, they are better than in the past, when considered in the long run of historical advancement. And the fundamental change does not consist in the suppression of slavery itself, but in the existence of a strong social conscience that condemns it. And this is moral progress.

The other important factor for human progress is education. It can be said that any great social and intellectual reform in a national culture is corresponded to a widening of the education of the people: in Athens, as well as in Rome, in Europe at the time of the Renaissance, in Elizabethan England, in France of Louis XIV, everywhere in Europe during the nineteenth century.

The citizens of Athens crowded to see the tragedies of Eschyle, Sophocles and Euripides, and in Florence the artisans and poor people could recite the verses of Dante. The great artists were at the same time the sowers who spread the culture on the responsive and fertile soil of the masses and the mediums who gave voice and shape to the vague aspirations and unformulated thoughts of their contemporaries.

The progress of education in our time has been extraordinary when compared to the past. It is impressive to see that Russia has suppressed literacy in one generation. In the advanced countries the problem of illiteracy is overtaken, it is no more a question of teaching how to read and write, but of raising the intellectual and technical level of the population as a whole. Economic progress imposes an increasing number of workers with a high education. In the United States the number of qualified workers, in 1910, was of 18.8% of the total of manual workers; this percentage went up to 24% in 1954, while the proportion of semi-qualified workers went up from 23,6 to 37% in the same period. (13)

Thus material progress thrusts modern man towards higher standards of education. The competition between the worker and increasingly perfected machines obliges him to learn more and more.

Education helps the natural gifts of man to flourish, matures his personality, his reason and understanding, increases the harmony of his emotions, the discernment of his judgement and of his behaviour. To the question What is History for? , Collingwood answers - for human “self-knowledge”; that is to know what is to be a man, his nature, the kind of man he is in relation to others.

Thus a higher education, at the disposal of everybody, is an improvement to those who attain it.

This large expansion of education has brought with it new factors of human progress: the consciousness the common man acquired of his place in society, of his rights and of his duties toward other men; a clearer idea of the place of man on earth and consequently a feeling of international solidarity; an increasing body of thought on which all men are entitled to draw for the purpose of improving their knowledge, nurturing their belief, inspiring their behaviour.

The achievements of the United Nations in the field of helping refugees, feeding hungry populations, helping children, spreading education and technical knowledge around the world, in spite of many shortcomings, is a remarkable work which became only possible after the ideas of international solidarity were widely accepted. Even the idea of aid granted by the rich nations to the undeveloped ones, in spite of their political bindings and national prejudices which accompany it, is an important progress, specially if we remember that still a few decades ago the rich countries were dumping in the sea or burning millions of tons of wheat while millions of people were dying of starvation.

A growing universalism is an achievement of our epoch - to it is due the awareness of poverty in undeveloped countries and a humanitarian feeling of coming to help them.

These are conquests on which ever increasing achievements will be laid. Even if on account of some international crises those conquests had to be dropped, the fact that they were once ventured would be an inestimable example for the future.

Progress has enlarged to the point of embracing the species itself, man can live in better conditions concerning rational food, health security, longer life, improvement and control of his surrounding world. The range of man’s experience is wider and wider. These has been a growth of rationality, more judgements are more impartially and detached and held to apply to a more extensive range of persons.

Is man happier today? Happiness is a personal feeling, it depends in a great part from rational disposition. It depends also, of course, from conditions surrounding us, psychological and of other kind. Many men, more than in the past, can dispose of the material things necessary for satisfying their needs and desires. It might be argued that the socio-psychological conditions are not favourable to an optimist way of living. But here we are in the field of the purely subjective and we can add that the psychological atmosphere changes in every epoch, in every generation. L. T. Hobhouse has pointed out four discoveries of capital importance in the ethical field: the establishment of impartial rule, the foundation of common-sense morality; the establishment of the principle of universalism, the foundation of religious idealism; the social personality which governs the first stage of philosophic ethics; the idea of freedom as the basis alike of personal development and social-cooperation. (14) All these encourage us to believe that there is human progress in history. The rhythm of this progress has been increased in consequence of the phenomenon of acceleration of history.

The present day repudiation of faith in progress is, in fact, not a judgement that has matured in the serene temples of thought, wrote Benedetto Croce, but an aggrieved and angry reaction of men’s feelings on observing the decline or weakening of an agreeable belief into which our society has been led, the belief that the world we lived in was firmly established, and whatever contests might arise there would never be a return to the inferior conditions of the past, that nothing substantial or fundamental could be lost, nor humanity depart from the civilized feelings and practices which now had become second nature. (15) The barbarous events of the first and second world war, the appalling cruelty of Nazism, brought to a current of thought tending to the denial or moral progress.

This argument of war is not so impressive if we ponder that the Thirty Years War has reduced the population of central Europe, in the early seventeenth century, from eighteen million to four and the population of Germany by half. Only the Taiping rebellion has caused more deaths than the whole World War. The economic life of the Middle East never recovered from the destruction, pillage and massacre of Genghis Khan, in the early thirteen century, and the destructions of the Thirty Years War were so vast that Germany needed a hundred years to recover the destruction and disorganization. After the Second World War, though, in spite of the terribly increased power of destruction, it took only a few years to Western Europe to reach a level of living higher than before; the countries which lost the war became more prosperous, with the help of their previous enemies, than most of the victors. (16)

In any case, wars are regressions. And there are, of course, regressions in history. The contingent, the spontaneous, the new, have their place in history. Hitlerism was a moment of recession into barbarism. But the fact that the same people who aided the rise of Hitlerism have, a few years later, established democracy with a higher degree of social security and liberty, shows that Nazism was not in the character or historical tendencies of a generation, but a transitory stage of crisis in the line of the historical progress. The road of progress does not follow a straight line, or at least does not look so when we observe it through the detailed events and contingencies which are no more than small stones in an infinite path.

The degrees, the phases of these successive transformations must obey to laws of historical development. We know how Spengler and Toynbee have tried to find a line of growth in different civilizations and how the heritage of decayed and dead civilizations has passed into new ones.

The two main accusations against the concept of historical progress are: 1) that it suffers from too much intellectualism, 2) and that the improvement of environment does not correspond to an improvement of man himself. To this I will answer that all the views against historical progress suffer from too rigid uniformity and excessive intellectualism themselves: a simple look at history is enough to see that progress is not continuous, but it does not authorize to conclude that there is no progress. If someone would judge historical progress under the yoke of Stalin, under the assumption that Stalin’s social order was the definite summit of the process of historical progress, he would fall into very sad conclusions.

We cannot appreciate progress by reference to a certain year of the calendar, nor from the entanglements and perplexities of our day; to assess history we need distance, historical perspective. Life of man it too short to enable him to take conclusions embracing all the history of his race by his limited span of experience. The meaning of individual life can only be perceived when we ponder that man carries history within himself, lives in history. Because history is the present, and past and future are only reflections of the present, without the consideration of which no consciousness of history is possible. “All history which is not contemporary is suspicious” wrote Pascal. As for the second argument, it is not reasonable to admit that man improves his environment without suffering the effects of this change, that is, without improving himself. All the new things he creates are a product of his creative power, consequently if he became able to make better things that means that something in himself had been bettered before such act of creation was performed.

If we reflect on the unfortunate state of undeveloped countries in Africa and Asia, plagued by all the evils of ill-health, ignorance and poverty, and even of those European and American countries not so favoured by political foresight and progress, we will be well convinced that there is an inseparable link between man and the outside world he transforms. If we consider the disparity in levels between poor and rich countries, the line of progress appears unmistakably. As some African and Asian writers have noted, it is absurd for Western intellectuals to expound their own scepticism concerning progress to the people of underdeveloped countries. It is not possible to draw an absolute separation between man and his environment, man lives with things, with animals, and is penetrated by the atmosphere surrounding him, which exerts a determining influence on his way of being, on his thought, on his soul.

Civilization, writes Debendranath Tagore, must be judged and prized not by the amount of power it has developed, but by how much it has evolved and given expression to, by its laws and institutions, by the love of humanity (17).

The efforts made towards giving to all men more education, health, comfort, social assistance, liberty, are the proof that more men today are more preoccupied with the fate of their fellow-men than ever in history. It also proves that, in spite of its painful contradictions, today´s civilization contains values of a wider humanism.

The concept of historical progress is not an optimistic conclusion; it is a certainly drawn from observing the long panorama of man’s historical experience, from meditating on his painful falls and on the glorious efforts to surpass himself, on the rise and fall of cities, of nations, of whole civilizations. This is evidence that progress is not a continuous ascent that now and then it shows shipwrecks of the best works of man, awesome drawbacks, astonishing failures. If this alternation corresponds to a lack of reason or to a wrong direction of man’s will, we do not know yet. Failure, as well as success, has been inseparable from man’s action. Discontinuity and regression are also seen even in science and technique, which are the realm of human activity in which progress is obvious, verifiable and recognized by everybody.

The recesses in historical progress only show that progress lies on a constant effort of man towards higher stages of humanity. The impressive force visible in the biographies of all the great men of action is a proof that the will of man can carry history ahead.

Fortunately life is variety and diversity, but under this diversity there is an unifying principle. It is through this unity that we can understand reality. In the same way, we can only find unity and meaning in history through the idea of historical progress.

Without the belief in human progress history itself would be a static and passive narrative of a long defeat of man, an aimless investigation ending up in nihilism and despair.

The ultimate advantage of progress in history is the fact that, if man believes in its existence, this belief is itself a source of force and dynamic impulse, both to the individual and to the community.

4 - History and progress of Man: List
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