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Wednesday 11 April 2018

Building Better Worlds (IIA)

What's the point in reading the entire 1800 page collected works of Plato if you're not going to blog about it afterwards ? None, that's what.

This post is one in a continuing series. In the first post, I looked at some of the major ideas Plato explored in the first third of so of his dialogues, especially in terms of Plato's scientific approach to argument. In the second I examined more lessons from Plato from the rest of his shorter dialogues, with an ulterior motive to prepare the reader for analysis of his two largest works, Republic and Laws. I contend that reading either of these without first having read the rest is regrettable - save them for last ! And in part three, I finally examined the infamous Republic, trying to explain why I found reading it in context so different from reading it in isolation.

Now it's time to look at the much less discussed Laws. The Republic, as described, was apparently Plato's first choice for the truly ideal society. As such the work contains many strange and sometimes highly offensive ideas. My conclusion from last time was that although Plato may have genuinely wished for many of its ideas to be implemented, some aspects of it were impossible (in the literal sense) in the real world. It's a Platonic form, a useful concept for exploring justice, and even Plato explicitly recognised that it was hardly practical.

Laws is different. Aware that the Republic as originally conceived was an impossibility, both because it is logically inconsistent and too radical for most people to accept, Laws is Plato's attempt to compromise and produce a more realistic scenario. Reading Laws can often be more of a drag than Republic, full as it is of long, detailed descriptions of how to micromanage a fictitious, hopelessly outdated society. Although some details are interesting, none of the methods proposed to organise society are particularly innovative. And yet, on deeper reflection - especially in the process of writing these posts - I ended up finding Laws to be one of the most thought-provoking dialogues of all.

Laws generally returns to Plato's usual high standards of rigour, sometimes lacking in Republic. While it doesn't propose any clever new method to organise society, it still offers many interesting philosophical insights on other matters - most of them, I have to say, far more sensible than the ones in Republic. But much more interesting than that is that Laws draws together many ideas explored elsewhere in the Platonic corpus, finally, perhaps, settling on conclusions to matters previously left open-ended. What's particularly interesting is that these conclusions are implicit, not explicit. Which is why the text requires careful consideration and analysis : it may be a rough blueprint for an actual society, but the question of why Plato chose these particular methods is, I think, genuinely fascinating and necessary for understanding how any real society works.

Note that Laws wasn't published in Plato's lifetime; the translator suggests Plato felt it needed more work, and parts of the text do feel rough around the edges. Yet sometimes the unfinished nature of the text makes it all the more provocative, as I shall show.

Originally I intended this to be a concluding companion piece to my other posts on Plato, especially Republic. In fact I found Laws to be so fascinating that I decided to split this post from being one ginagorous, unreadable post that no-one would ever read into three less ginagorous, readable posts that no-one will ever read. In this first entry, I'll introduce Laws and the intention behind designing a society run (apparently) on strict legislation. In the second, I'll present a statistical analysis of the laws themselves*, giving a broad-brush picture of the fictitious state that's just about shorter than reading the whole work. In the third and final post, I'll look at what life would actually be like in this strange country, and the philosophical basis behind this supposed utopian vision.

* Go on, find me one other blog giving you statistical analyses of Plato and original CGI content. I double dare you.

Laws : What is it good for ? Absolutely everything / nothing (delete as appropriate)

Truth, justice, and something not quite the same but definitely influenced by the Athenian way.

What's it for ?
The whole point of our legislation was to allow the citizens to live supremely happy lives in the greatest possible mutual friendship. However, they will never be friends if injuries and lawsuits arise among them on a grand scale, but only if they are trivial and rare. 
As discussed in the post on Republic, Plato very briefly summarises ideal societies in Statesman. His first choice is for the rule of a wise and benevolent despot who would always know the right thing to doRepublic is a combination of an examination of this idea with an attempt to define justice, since in Plato's view this beneficent tyranny would lead to the most just society. Laws includes no such definitions and their associated philosophical meanderings - it is much more straightforwardly an attempt to define an ideal society, the means by which disputes between citizens can be minimised and friendship and happiness maximised.

Laws is very much more practical than Republic. Acutely aware that people would not accept the final conclusions of having their entire lives run by committee, Laws is an attempt at the next best thing : not as good as the ideal, but still a fairer society than the one Plato was living in. It (superficially) resembles his second-best society mentioned in Statesman, in which everything is determined by law and the punishment for any disobedience whatsoever is death. I've argued that the Republic was so riddled with contradictions that it can't physically exist in the real world because it's intended as a Platonic form, but no such interpretation is possible for Magnesia (the state proposed in Laws). It is inescapably intended as an actual, working solution, or at least the a rough draft of one.

Whereas Plato went off on holiday in Republic by only considering the end results and not (much) how they could come about, Laws begins with a detailed examination of the founding of the fictional state. He even describes the topography and climate of the region, noting that they are good enough, but could be better (it's too close to the sea, and apparently this makes men deceitful and shifty). This is, from the word go, an attempt not at a literally ideal society but at the best society possible in the world we actually live in. But there's a caveat to this : the fact Plato left the work unpublished has complex consequences, which I'll examine below.

The Ends Are More Interesting Than The Means

What kind of society do we want to live in ? How do we want everyone to behave ? Plato considers this in Republic, but it's far more the driving force behind Laws. The state must always be constructed and altered with this end goal in mind; it should be proactive, not reactionary.
The legislator must repeatedly try to get this sort of thing straight in his own mind by asking ‘What do I want to achieve?' ...* If he does that, perhaps he’ll complete his legislation by his own efforts and leave nothing to be done by others. There’s no other way he could possibly succeed.
* Keep this little gap in mind.

In the Republic, wise rulers were able to continuously and adaptively judge what was right and wrong, fair or unfair, harsh or kind, sensible or foolish. By focusing on who gets to be the king, Plato gives his society a powerful flexibility. But fundamentally he viewed morality as objective, even if it couldn't necessarily be precisely and absolutely defined : just as a good shipbuilder knows how to build a ship, but will adapt his techniques to the materials and methods at his disposal, so a good ruler will do the same with the society he must govern.

In Magnesia that flexibility is not available, so Plato opts instead to himself define the kind of society he thinks is best. The premise is the same - there's an objectively correct way to behave and to live - but the means to achieve it is very different. As a more practical approach than the Republic, Plato does leave some provision for flexibility. His main admission is one of incompleteness rather than fallibility. Although the stated laws all seem intended for actual use, this is more of a "utopia start-up kit" than a complete off-the-shelf package; in that sense it's still very much a philosophical work. But while it may take some time - he reckons ten years (!) - to establish all the fine details, after that the law should become very difficult to alter indeed :
Not a single detail should be altered, if they can help it; but if they ever believe that the force of circumstances has become irresistible, they must consult all the officials, the entire citizen body and all the oracles of the gods. If the verdict is unanimously in favour, then they may amend, but never in any other conditions whatever; the law will be that the opposition must always win the day.
Yet the laws themselves are fundamentally uninteresting to Plato : it's what they accomplish that he's interested in. The extreme inflexibility demanded by the laws is more than matched by their universal purpose, which is to be sought above all else, no matter the cost :
Our aim in life should be goodness and the spiritual virtue appropriate to mankind. No man, whoever he is, should ever be found valuing anything else, if it impedes his progress — not even, in the last resort, the state. Rather than have the state tolerate the yoke of slavery and be ruled by unworthy hands, it may be absolutely necessary to allow it to be destroyed, or abandon it by going into exile. All that sort of hardship we simply have to endure rather than permit a change to the sort of political system which will make men worse.
The Republic would have had philosophical rulers who would, of course, have been able to work out justice for themselves. But since perpetual intervention by philosophers seems impractical, a sort-of philosophical "prime mover" (i.e. Plato himself) was called for. So these two very different societies emerge following the same principle via methods which are not so opposed as they may first appear.

Today, when someone proposes any law that removes even the most minor freedoms, people respond with cries of, "well who gets to decide what's right and wrong then ?". Plato's answer, when you get right down to it, is blindingly simple. He essentially says, entirely sincerely and without any irony whatsoever : "Me. I get to say what's right and wrong, and if anyone else doesn't like it, that's just tough on them because they're idiots."

The Purpose of the Laws

Whereas it's the rulers who know how to act in the Republic, in Magnesia the laws fulfil the same purpose. They provide justice : they educate and organise society, they mould behaviour through correction and reward, they deter injustice and administer punishment. Their nature is deliberately highly multifaceted; they attempt to replace all the judgements a flexible leader would normally be expected to make. They not only control the actions of the populace, but also influence their beliefs and abilities (much more on that in part three).
These unhealthy instincts must be canalized away from what men call supreme pleasure, and towards the supreme good. We must try to keep them in check by the three powerful influences of fear, law, and correct argument.
The educational nature of the laws is rather different to their modern implementation. Today, when parents teach their children what the law says, they're expected to explain the reason for that law. The law itself simply states what punishment will happen for the specified infraction. But in Magnesia, the laws themselves would consist of two parts : a preamble, then the actual law. The preamble was to briefly explain the spirit and intent of the law, rather than leaving this open to misinterpretation later on. More than that, it was intended as an actual persuasive instrument : persuasion should always be employed first, and compulsion only if persuasion failed.
The laws’ method will be partly persuasion and partly (when they have to deal with characters that defy persuasion) compulsion and chastisement; and with the good wishes of the gods they will make our state happy and prosperous.
Compulsion was seen as a sort of necessary evil, and always served a purpose. I can't think of a single instance in the entire Platonic corpus where Plato advocates punishment for the sake of revenge or retribution - the singular point of laws, for Plato, was to make people better, even in the extreme case of execution. Persuasion is always the preferred option - there's no shame whatsoever in learning the error of your ways. But if necessary, punishment could be administered to serve the same educational role :
No penalty imposed by law has an evil purpose, but generally achieves one of two effects: it makes the person who pays the penalty either more virtuous or less wicked.
One sometimes encounters today a curious idea, prevalent among gun fanatics in particular, that laws do not act as a deterrent or serve any educational role, which boils down to the tautologous idea that criminals don't obey laws. This concept utterly neglects any instructive role provided by the existence of the laws, or the idea that crime is at least reduced (not prevented utterly) because of laws, and implies the law has a punitive function purely for the sake of inflicting punishment. Such a concept is to be found nowhere in Plato, likely because it's bollocks.

One of the few disappointments I had when reading Plato is that he, on several occasions, flirts with a discussion of what happens when the law goes wrong, e.g. if a law is unjust. And each time I found myself hoping that his formidable insight and wisdom would elucidate a complex topic, but it never - apparently - really did. Not that the brief discussions are wholly without interest. For instance, Plato acknowledges that laws are not intrinsically perfect :
We maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favour particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath.
The thing here is that while Magnesia doesn't possess the shining, virtuous leaders of the Republic, it instead possesses (in Plato's view) impossibly perfect, just laws. There are strategies in place to maintain these perfect laws - in essence, to control the population so that they would continue to believe in the legal system - which we'll return in part three. The near-divine perfection of the laws (and the accompanying system of government) explains why they're never changed and why people would never rebel against them; this is hardly realistic, but we have to accept this unlikely supposition.

Isn't this just delivering perfect justice by another method, then ?

Perhaps not. Initially, I was all set to write this as an examination focusing heavily on Plato's ideal state - the ways the citizens would act. For the purposes of part two, I extracted the individual laws and in so doing, inevitably, re-read large parts of the work. And that led me to completely revise my ideas as to what Plato was trying to get at. In the final analysis, I find it very hard to justify my initial impression that Magnesia was to be a state based on pure legislature or is even so different to the Republic after all.

First, reading a little between the lines, one may glimpse something quite different and far more interesting than from a superficial examination.  While not being intended as a complete set of laws, with many provisions left in for the actual society and legislators to decide on the amount to set for fines, imprisonment time, community services to be performed, etc., there are also a few (about 5%, in fact) instances where the punishment itself is to be left completely to the discretion of the judge. This is a far cry from the "any disobedience means death" model briefly proposed in Statesman; Plato is aware that real laws cannot be perfect and so cannot be absolute. Human supervision is necessary.

Sometimes this is further hinted at through weasel words : "in general", "should", "if possible", "[unspecified] action should be taken", etc. And admittedly these might just be symptoms of an incomplete philosophical dialogue. But collectively they give a different impression. On occasion Plato is much more direct : "It is not easy to make hard and fast rules... However, my account does describe the cases you’ll find are typical"; "it is not easy to lay down in a law precisely what is consistent with the dignity of a free man and what is not..."; and, more frequently, notes that some matters don't require a regulation - even this extremely legalistic society wasn't to be totally law-driven. As the work goes on, Plato's stance shifts, quite imperceptibly on a first reading, but unavoidable when the relevant passages are stripped of their meandering discussions :
Knowledge is unsurpassed by any law or regulation; reason, if it is genuine and really enjoys its natural freedom, should have universal power : it is not right that it should be under the control of anything else, as though it were some sort of slave. But as it is, such a character is nowhere to be found, except a hint of it here and there. That is why we need to choose the second alternative, law and regulation, which embody general principles, but cannot provide for every individual case.
He goes on to state that it is simply impossible to describe the details of every conceivable crime. More important is to establish the principles on which the law must act and the role of juries and judges*. The whole dialogue is, in essence, an attempt to sketch out the limits of justice and legislation, to provide boundaries which the actual society could not exceed, but would have considerable freedom to examine justice for itself within those limits. It's a tacit acknowledgement that he can't foresee every eventuality, while maintaining that the solution he proposes is good enough to overcome this deficiency. Laws alone can't run society, but they don't need to act entirely as surrogate leaders. Citizens too form a bulwark of the state.

* For a work ostensibly about legislature, there's remarkably little about the law courts themselves.

Consequently Plato notes that the education and training of the citizens is essential (which we'll return to with gusto in part three). So while Magnesia would be far more legalistic than the Republic, it still cannot endure without virtuous, intelligent citizens. The legal code is not entirely a straightforward replacement for perfect judges as it may first appear - it really is an attempt to make a workable solution, to create the conditions whereby good citizens are perpetually cultivated and those of a less noble character are prevented from harming society. The laws mould the people to create the best men and leaders of men that they can; laws do not replace the people, and the resulting virtue of the citizens shouldn't be ignored - it simply shouldn't, unlike in the Republic, be taken for granted either.

The laws of Magnesia wouldn't, then, be as indisputable as one might initially suppose (except that the boundaries specified by Plato were not to be exceeded). But they were hardly impotent either - as we'll see, they were to regulate private lives to a degree far in excess of modern Western societies, and like Republic before it, parts of Laws can seem monstrous. As an actual workable solution for today's society, it's total crap. But while Plato's discussion on the inherent flaws of legal decrees might seem cursory and disappointing, nevertheless he does offer an interesting snippet on the ordering of society and the role of laws in affecting the political system - the flexibility of the legal system in no way lessens its importance or its force :
When offices are filled competitively [on a specious basis], the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power... We [should instead] insist that the highest office in the service of the gods must be allocated to the man who is best at obeying the established laws and wins that sort of victory in the state; the man who wins the second prize must be given second rank in that service, and so on. Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.
Again the society is to be a meritocracy, though not to the extreme degree of the Republic. And the bit about the government being subject to the rule of law is something that far too many people today seem awfully keen to dispose of.

So far it might seem that Plato has only had to make a few compromises to the purely legislative framework of Magnesia - which is perfectly understandable given the nature of trying to compose a real, practical solution - that only requires some refinement and quantitative revisions before actually being deployed : dotting the i's and crossing the T's, so to speak. The apparent, somewhat weak contradictions might be nothing more than the unfinished nature of the text, that he fully intended to correct before publication - and of course Plato actively tried to explore every contrasting side of an issue. This is a charitable but entirely credible interpretation. However, I'm going to suggest a more radical possibility which I've come to prefer.

The law is not the whole answer

Finally I realised that the discussion I'd be searching for was there all along, but contextually difficult to perceive. Alas, the Nocturnal Council does not reveal some great insight, but rather a deep, crippling flaw in the whole work. This council is introduced at various places, having an array of different functions which are described before the council itself is formally discussed. It feels more like a disordered text than a deliberate ploy to subtly announce the council's existence; more trivially, the "Nocturnal" Council meets "from dawn until the Sun is well up in the sky". But what's fascinating is its primary role.
This council, which should consist partly of young men and partly of old, must have a strict rule to meet daily... The discussion at their meetings must always center round their own state, the problems of legislation, and any other important point relevant to such topics that they may discover from external sources [in context, ambassadors returning from foreign excursions]. They must be particularly concerned with those studies which promise, if pursued, to further their researches by throwing light on legislative problems that would otherwise remain difficult and obscure. 
So now instead of laws being only alterable with extreme effort, we have a council that meets daily to discuss legislation... and examines the merits of foreign laws, no less ! Now, as we've seen, Plato is often a mass of contradictions, freely exploring opposing viewpoints. But this is a step too far. Such a stark contradiction suggests to me that Plato was not simply trying to introduce the Council gradually, so as to persuade the reader of its necessity, but because he was wrestling with a paradox he never solved. That's why the work remained unpublished. Later on :
The council was to meet before dawn*, when people are least beset by other business, public or private...  If our guardians are going to be genuine guardians of the laws they must have genuine knowledge of their real nature [i.e. they must be philosophers]; they must be articulate enough to explain the real difference between good actions and bad, and capable of sticking to the distinction in practice [my emphasis - the Council really is intended to alter laws].
* Also, "the Council you said just now had to convene during the night". These very simple contradictions as to when the Council meets strongly point to a text in need of revision; these are surely errors he intended to correct, but they are further evidence, I think, of a deeper problem.

In Republic, Plato attempted to establish good government as a way to produce good laws (and thus virtuous citizens). In Laws, he initially sets out to establish good laws to produce virtuous citizens and thus good government. Yet as the latter work progresses, the monumental challenge, both quantitative and qualitative, becomes overwhelming.

The quantitative challenge is simply the vast number of laws that would be required. Remember that little gap in the very first quote ? Well the omission is that the legislator should not only be asking, "what do I want to achieve ?" but also, "am I achieving it ?". While Plato uses observational evidence continuously in the construction of all the proposed laws, it's only toward the end of the work that Magnesia itself is suggested to have an evidenced-based, experimental approach to legislation.

The qualitative element is more philosophical. Perfection is surely constant and unchanging, yet improvement requires change by definition. And circumstances inevitably alter, meaning that unless there's an infinitely long list of laws to handle every possible situation, the laws themselves must be continuously revised. Thus there is no perfect law, because the perfect legal system is perfectly suited to the ever-changing needs of the moment. Plato tried to aim for a workable solution, but got stuck in a quagmire of impossible ideals.

Now this is not fatal to Magnesia as a coherent idea. In fact it looks a lot more like the modern idea of government, in which the government makes the laws, but is itself subject to the existing laws enforced by the judiciary. It's a complex series of checks and balances, functioning to make change difficult but not at all impossible. The government and law are both masters of each other - sometimes one leads, sometimes the other.

But philosophically, there's a problem. The ideal society must be unchanging, but it must also be flexible. You can have one or the other, but you can't have both - practically as well as philosophically. Plato doesn't seem to have come to grips with this, variously preferring each approach at different turns.

There's at least one way he could have solved the paradox and salvaged the text without requiring major revisions. As we've seen previously, he notes that power both corrupts and attracts the corruptible. Here he states the ability of certain jobs to cause moral degradation and that the laws serve to limit the impact of this :
There are those who do not enjoy such advantages, and need more careful supervision, because they engage in pursuits which are very powerful inducements to vice... it’s a rare bird that’s sober enough to prefer a modest competence to wealth. 
So the way to unravel the paradox might be to propose that morality is constant, but circumstance changes. Thus the flexibility of the laws is not in contradiction with the purpose and moral beliefs of the state. Their very adaptability is what allows morality to be preserved against a changing and unpredictable world. Remember that the aim, above all, is to produce citizens who live virtuously. And the stated goal of Laws is to produce not the ideal state, but the best possible one given the constraints of reality.

The way we can save Magnesia is to interpret it as an attempt to produce the best possible state which will therefore need the best possible laws which are readily adapted in the best possible way to tackle varying conditions. It doesn't need to have impossibly perfect laws or citizens, just good laws to produce good citizens. Laws are neither a mere symptom nor the sole cause of good government : there is instead an unavoidable reciprocal relationship between the two.

Was this what Plato was driving at but failed to properly articulate ? Had he simply not time to alter the text ? Or did he instead not realise the paradox that had crept in ? We'll never know - but it would allow us to save the basic concepts with the minimum of alterations to the text : switching laws to morality in the early parts of the text that demand constancy, and expounding slightly further on the unforeseeable future circumstances that require adaptability to be part of the legislative program. Plato, who strongly advocated that there was a correct and proper way of doing just about everything, would surely have approved of the idea that neither constancy nor adaptability were the goals - the important thing was to choose each response appropriately.

 There's nothing very novel about this idea, and perhaps Plato had simply got hung up on his own strange definition of laws (from the prequel dialogue Minos) being inherently good, conflating morality and legality (such that if it was moral it must automatically be legal, rather than the other way around). If so, it's a remarkable error for a man at intense pains to point out that freedom and wealth are only virtuous when applied correctly - particularly given his awareness that unjust laws are sometimes enforced. If he'd only stuck with the conventional definition of laws being things the state tells you to do, there'd be no need for any of this. The state's role should be to make the best laws, but it's folly to think that fallible humans will always manage this.

Alternatively, Plato may have considered all this but found the human element difficult to account for. The key would be to maintain the best available people in the most appropriate positions, in an environment as conducive as possible to moral virtue as well as skilled decision-making. Start thinking of any of these as having to be perfect, rather than merely the best possible, and you quickly run into trouble. We'll look at Plato's solutions to maintaining these crucial elements in part three.

While Plato then does discuss the problems of whether laws should be absolute or not, the failure point is that he doesn't consider the detail of what do to in the even of a law being discovered to be "bogus" during a trial. At any other time this is not such a problem - it can be changed by the Nocturnal Council.  The problem is what happens if a trial reveals an error in a law - should the judge have room to dismiss the case ? Should the trial be placed on hold until the Council deliberates ? What provision should there be for a defendant to challenge the legitimacy of a law ? Come to that, what to do about previous convictions of a law now overturned ?

And finally, though Magnesia would have separate administrative bodies for different functions (proposing laws, enforcing laws, running public projects), this is not the full modern concept of separating the legislative, judicial and executive functions of government. Members of the various councils overlap. Instead of the modern concept where power is split to prevent excessive power and authoritarian rule, as in Republic ("it would be absurd for a guardian to need a guardian") it's the working conditions and perks available to each profession that are supposed to limit their ambitions. This makes the existence of a legislative council especially dangerous and underdeveloped. Again more on this in part three, but perhaps Plato is right to worry about the variability of the laws : after all, we've hardly developed a perfect system today.


Laws is a complex and beautifully flawed work. It all comes down, I think, to that strange error of confusing laws with morality. Both in spite of and because of this, it contains some interesting insights :
  • Morality is objective and can be objectively assessed. It might not be absolute, in the sense of never changing or applying equally to everyone under all circumstances, but some people are demonstrably better (though imperfect) judges than others. The opinions of the rest are unimportant with regards to what's moral and what's not. Giving these people excessive freedom would only be giving them enough rope to hang themselves : freedom by itself is a vice, and only becomes a virtue when coupled with responsibility.
  • While admitting that it would be better to have citizens capable of producing their own noble laws, initially the dialogue supposes that it's possible - easier, even - to set up all the moral precepts from the beginning.  It ends with the discovery that this is impossible : good people are essential, not a bonus, to producing good laws; the real world is too complex and variable. Neither the law nor the people should ever be the complete master of each other, or the result is monstrous. Instead their relationship must be reciprocal, with each influencing the other to prevent either from dominating. Only in this way can society remain virtuous and harmonious.
  • To this end, education of the citizens is so important that the laws themselves must provide an educational role. More than controlling their actions, they are an effort to alter the beliefs of the citizens, making them an additional guard against a slide into vice. Even the punishments enacted by the laws are there to provide this educational, instructive element. In Gorgias, he notes that neither suffering nor committing an injustice are the worst thing : it's committing an injustice and not being corrected for it. The educational role of the laws is paramount to providing citizens with the responsibility needed to live well.
I'll return to these issues throughout the other posts. But while we've already examined in some detail the basis on which the state was to be run, we haven't yet looked at Magnesia as a place for people to live. Part two will give a broad, statistical overview of this, while part three will take us into the fine details.

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