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THE PAULINE GNOSIS.
ST PAUL developed his soteriology as well as his anti-Jewish apologetic in the midst of his missionary labours and for purely practical purposes. In order to win over the Gentiles, Jesus had to be presented to them in a wider, more comprehensive, and intelligible system; and furthermore, this system had to be defended against the attack of the Jews and Jewish Christians. It may even be safely maintained that St Paul scarcely ever speculated in the interests of pure knowledge and abstract truth. All his propositions—even the most abstruse—served the practical purposes of missionary life, and were never put forward without reference to them. But for all that it is a fact that through St Paul speculative thought and knowledge became a power in Christianity. The relation of Jesus to the problem of knowledge was a totally different one. The whole of His teaching is marked by the entire absence of every kind of speculation and an emphasis on the all-importance of action. If He boasts of the knowledge of God He means the understanding of the divine will in 322opposition to the science of the Rabbis, and this is so simple that it is within the reach of every child and unlearned person. The first step in the development of a Christian theology is marked by the appearance of teachers in the Church at Jerusalem. But it was St Paul who first really created the science of the Church. Through him a very high degree of importance comes to be assigned to knowledge and science in Christianity. Great systems, albeit at first of an apologetic nature, are built up. We have lines of argument often of the most complex form. It comes to be an integral portion of the Christian ideal that a Christian should be rich in the word of God and in knowledge of every kind. Thereby the way is paved for an immense change in the nature of Christianity. It takes its first timid and tentative steps on the bridge that leads over to philosophy—i.e. ecclesiastical philosophy, of course. The reason for this change is certainly to be found in great measure in the previous theological training of St Paul, but we cannot forget either the great alteration that has taken place in the historical position. As soon as Christianity is definitely separated from Judaism and faces Judaism and heathenism alike in an independent position, an entirely new task is incumbent upon it, viz. the enlightenment of Jews and Gentiles. In St Paul we are still in that stage where Greek philosophy is almost totally ignored, that is, as a power of culture which might be a possible rival. The science that is developed by him is still essentially Jewish Old Testament science.
What is the meaning of ‘gnosis’ in St Paul’s case? It has three characteristic features. (1) It is something 323higher than ‘pistis,’ faith, which is always presupposed as a necessary first step to knowledge, but is surpassed by it. The clearest statement of this fact is to be found in the opening chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. First the folly of the Cross, the preaching of faith, then the divine wisdom of gnosis, which teaches us to understand folly itself as wisdom. (2) It is the possession of a few and not of all. The “word of wisdom” and the “word of knowledge” are counted by St Paul as especial gifts of the Spirit which are granted to single individuals. “Not all men have knowledge.” True, the ultimate goal is that all Christians should come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, but now for the present the difference between them that have knowledge and the ignorant exists. (3) It proceeds from the Spirit. St Paul sets this forth especially in 1 Cor. ii. Through the Spirit God has revealed wisdom to us. We have received the Spirit which is of God in order therewith to understand what God has granted to us. The last of these three characteristic features is the most important. It sets up a sharp dividing line between human science and knowledge in the sense which St Paul attaches to the word. The origin of the two is entirely distinct. The source of the one is to be sought in the reason; it is a result of human activity; it is therefore weak and faulty. The latter is the result of divine revelation, and is therefore stamped as true from the very first. The very forms of expression of the two sciences—the human and the divine—are different. The one speaks in the words of human wisdom current in the schools, the other in spiritual 324words as of spiritual things. But not only do they differ in the manner of communication; difference of origin implies, furthermore, that the earthly philosophy does not—nay, cannot—understand the spiritual wisdom; for this ‘gnosis’ is unfathomable save by the Spirit; while, on the other hand, he that is spiritually-wise is able to understand everything, although he himself is not understood by anyone.
In these sentences, pregnant with such important consequences, the difference between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical science is for the first time definitely established. They are related as reason to revelation, as the human to the divine. But what is the Spirit of which St Paul speaks? It is simply the Spirit of the Church or the sect, the sum of the impressions, words, feelings, impulses and thoughts which are produced in the Church, and which prevail in it as being both holy and necessary. In a word, it is the Christian consciousness as it grew up from the seed sown by Jesus, and as it was further transmitted in His sect. That which would be counted divine must pass muster before it as the final court of appeal. Whatever in anywise contradicted it would not be counted as revealed truth. But the Christian consciousness itself is placed beyond the bounds of discussion: it is perfectly sure of itself; it is ultimate and supreme. A proud and even justifiable Christian self-esteem developed this theory, but created therein a kind of supernatural coat-of-mail for itself which was at last bound to exercise a chilling and be-numbing reflex action. This theory preserves the peculiarity and sovereignty of the Christian religion—that is its everlasting merit—but it does this 325by passing a fanatical verdict of condemnation upon the whole remaining world of thought and feeling. It would appear that St Paul formed it in controversy with the Jews about the Old Testament, or, rather, that he indirectly borrowed it from the Jews. But even in this controversy the disastrous consequences are revealed which have since been indissolubly attached to this theory.
Now what is the object of the Pauline gnosis?
It is itself again the Spirit—i.e., the revelation of God. Gnosis is the revealed understanding of the divine revelation, the re-discovery, by means of the Spirit, of the Spirit that is hidden from all other men.
All the oracles of the Christian prophets would be included under the conception of revelation, especially the revelation by means of Jesus. There is, in fact, an especial art of interpreting the words of the prophets, which is inspired by the Spirit, the judging or discerning of spirits. But this is not called gnosis by St Paul. Nor, again, is Christ the revealer of God’s word for him, as it is the Cross and Resurrection, and not His sayings, that are the divine acts of salvation in St Paul’s meaning of the word. So, then, there remains finally only one great object for the Pauline gnosis—the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews.
St Paul introduced the Old Testament in all his Churches as the sacred canon, the only divinely inspired book. This was an event of the very greatest importance in the history of Christianity. The Jewish national literature is declared to be divine, and is to become the sacred book of the Greek and Roman converts to Christianity, whilst at the same time it is the sacred book of the Jews, the bitter 326opponents of the new religion. How is this possible? The Pauline gnosis furnishes the answer. Great portions of the Old Testament were, to be sure, accessible to the heathen Christians, and inestimably precious to them as it was. Here was a text-book of monotheism, of morality, of hope, which excelled almost every other. Now, by means of the gnosis, even the national Jewish portions can be read as Christian, and, generally speaking, Christianity can be discovered everywhere in the old book. It becomes the means, partly even before St Paul, of the Christianization of the Old Testament.
The divinely inspired character of the Old Testament in every one of its parts is a firmly established fact. There is no dispute between Jews and Christians as to this point. St Paul accepts the teaching of the Rabbis, that the whole of the Old Testament is a collection of divine oracles, and that every text, even apart from its context, is a word of God. He personifies Scripture, speaking of it as of a divine being: “the scripture foresaw,” “the scripture hath shut up all things.” He does not indeed speak of the Spirit that inspired the Old Testament, perhaps because he considered the Spirit to be a gift of the last days. On the other hand, he appears in certain passages to have arrived at the conclusion that Christ is the inspirer and revealer in the Old Testament. Here he abandons his Jewish standpoint altogether, and his action is attended with important consequences. If Christ spoke in the Old Testament, then it is certainly a Christian book.
But the inspired book demands an inspired exegesis. For this purpose the Jews had the order of the 327Rabbis, who were especially endowed by God with gifts of the Spirit, in order to interpret the Scriptures. Here is the source of the Pauline theory of knowledge. He denies the spiritual endowment of the Rabbis, and proclaims himself and the Christian teachers to be inspired. It is evident that one of the two parties must be in the wrong: the former prove from the Old Testament that Jesus was a criminal, the other that He is the Messiah. The Christians must be in the right, because, generally speaking, the Spirit is poured out amongst them in richest measure. For the endowment with the gnosis is only one amongst many gifts of the Spirit. The Christian interpretation therefore of the Old Testament is the only one that has any authority. Yes, the Old Testament must be interpreted according to the spirit of the Christians. The Jews—even the Rabbis—understand nothing about it. The veil of Moses is upon their hearts when they read it. They are ‘natural,’ not ‘spiritual.’ Satan hath blinded their minds.
It is therefore proved that the canon of the Old Testament is to be interpreted by the canon of the Christian conscience. And so the task set to the interpreters of Scripture is endless. By reason of its divine origin, every word in the Bible is written for all eternity. In each a divine meaning is contained, often more than one. Being intended for all time, each word has likewise an application for the age of the interpreter. Here, in this present age, it has to accomplish its direct purpose. Thus, e.g., the chastisements of the patriarchs in the wilderness were written for our warning, upon whom the ends of the ages are come. In fact, everything that was written aforetime 328was written for our learning. St Paul’s exegetical methods are naturally simply those of the Jews as Philo and the Rabbis employed them. This applies to the proof by prophecy, the use of types and allegory, and the practical application. The only new feature is the use of the Christian consciousness, the Spirit, as the canon of all exegesis. But the very circumstance that Jews and Christians alike used the same methods, combined with the fact that St Paul stands under the influence of the tradition of the Rabbis for his matter, as well as for his style, contradicts the apostle’s artificial separation between the Spirit and human knowledge.
The exegesis of the passage concerning the oxen whose mouth is not to be muzzled is the best example of the Pauline gnosis made to serve the practical needs of the missionary. The canon of exegesis, which the Rabbis likewise accepted, runs: Nothing unworthy is to be ascribed to God. The Christian spirit forthwith discovers that the passage can be applied suitably to the missionaries. But for the most part the apostle’s gnosis serves the purposes of his anti-Jewish apologetic. It was only necessity that caused the Christians to invent the proof from prophecy properly so-called. As the patriotic prophecies of a Messiah applied to Jesus in a very small number of instances, the Christian gnosis had now to discover in the Old Testament new proofs for the Messiahship of Jesus. Few excelled St Paul in the art of finding such passages. He did not hesitate to undertake the proof that all the promises of God were ‘yea’ in Jesus—i.e., had been fulfilled in Him. How great a skill in exegesis that 329presupposes! It is a trifle indeed for such an interpreter to prove from the use of the singular instead of the plural in the passage, “To thee (Abraham) and thy seed” that the words are intended to apply to Christ. We have already pointed out how the annulling of the law, justification by faith, and the rejection of Israel, were proved out of the Old Testament. At bottom, the whole of this apologetic gnosis is of course a mere theological fabrication whereby we are transplanted into an artificial kind of world. If anywhere it would be in Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah that a real starting-point for the Gospel would have been found. But it was just the great prophecy of the earliest age that was entirely unknown to the Rabbis. However, St Paul as well as the other Christian teachers had one valid excuse. They acted under the compulsion of necessity and from genuine conviction. And the lucky find which St Paul made, while conducting this enquiry, is, after all, the mark of a man of genius:—the law is a later addition: the great age of the religion of Israel preceded the origin of the law. In like manner he successfully brings to light again many passages in the Old Testament of a universalist tendency which had been hidden away by the Rabbis.
Of greater importance, however, than either of these results was the fact that, thanks to this Old Testament gnosis, the Christian and the Jewish Church were continually placed side by side. The history of Israel is interpreted in a Christian spirit. Even the Christian Sacraments, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, are discovered in the pillar of 330cloud, in the Red Sea, in the water from the rock, in the manna. And on the other hand, the Christian Church is conceived of in a Jewish fashion as the Israel of God unto whom are all the promises. The effect of the gnosis in thus strengthening the Jewish idea of the Church came to be of the greatest importance. In this case it was the attributes that were transferred from the old Israel to the new; later it was the forms and institutions.
The apologetic exposition of the Old Testament for the purpose of confuting the Jews by no means, however, exhausted the Pauline gnosis. It produced, besides, bold speculations of its own, which only clearly come to light in the letters of the captivity, but date from a much earlier time: the chief subjects were the angel world and Christ.
In the 110th Psalm mention is made of the enemies whom God will subject to the Messianic King, the reference being to the neighbouring peoples, the Moabites and others. Paul applies the passage to the dominions, principalities, and powers of the spirit world. In Isa. xlv. 23 we read that every knee shall bow unto God—the heathen of course being meant; but Paul adds—of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth. In Dan. vii. 22 it is prophesied that judgment will be given to the saints, i.e., Israel, and we naturally infer that it is the great empires upon earth that will be judged: but Paul concludes that therefore the saints (or Christians) shall judge the angels. We may gather from these passages that St Paul generally applied Old Testament words which referred to states upon earth to the angel hierarchies. It is merely an application of this 331principle to the political circumstances of his own time when he considers not the Romans but the princes of this world, i.e., the demons, to be the murderers of Christ. By means of this equation, “the heathen kingdoms = angels,” a huge fabric of angelology could be constructed out of the Old Testament. Assyria and Babylon and Egypt were intended to mean all the thrones, dominions, principalities and powers, the world-rulers of this darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness; and the perpetual wars of Israel with its neighbours were but the type of the invisible battles fought in the spirit world. Anticipations of this conception are to be met with in later Judaism also, when angel princes appear as the leaders of the neighbouring peoples. But the systematic transformation of earthly politics into heavenly is St Paul’s work.
The gnostic speculations as to Christ were of much greater importance. Jesus is the ‘Lord’ (= Kyrios). The subject of the whole of the Old Testament is the Lord (= name of God). Consequently St Paul can set down the equation Jesus = the Lord in the Old Testament. Proofs for this abound. Expressions like “the understanding of the Lord,” “the Table of the Lord,” “the Glory of the Lord,” “the name of the Lord,” “to tempt the Lord,” “to return to the Lord,” are all applied to Jesus. Jesus, e.g., was the God of revelation in the wilderness; there He baptized (the water from the rock), and celebrated the Eucharist (the manna). True, the letter to the Philippians says that it was only after the resurrection that the name above all other names was given Him (i.e., the sacred tetragrammaton equivalent to the Greek Kyrios, Lord), but other passages contradict this statement, 332and nothing therefore can be concluded from it. And besides the word Lord, the name of God is but one of the designations of Jesus in the Old Testament. He is also the image of God after which God created man, and as such mediator at the creation. All things were created through Him, and He is the head of every man.
Now when once this gnostic Christology reached such giddy heights as these, then the most extravagant speculations of the later letters can no longer strike us as strange. When once Jesus has become the God of Revelation of the Old Testament, and the mediator in the creation, then He is also the head and the centre of the world of angels. And if His propitiatory death has power for all men without distinction, why should not the rebellious angels like wise experience His power? In all this reasoning there is no missing link between the possible and the impossible. The ‘humanity’ of Christ has been laid aside a long time ago by the earlier speculations. Can we be astonished if the fulness of the Godhead now dwells in Him bodily? If there is anything that surprises us, the reason is that we do not know the Old Testament passages which St Paul uses as the basis for his gnosis in the letter to the Colossians. The occasion for his treating of this subject was the rise of false teachers at Colossae who appealed to the authority of angels. To meet this heresy St Paul considers it advisable to remind his readers that all angels derive their being from Christ alone, and through Him alone they continue to exist.
The Pauline gnosis claimed to be a revealed exegesis of the Old Testament. But this Christology 333cannot possibly have been obtained by exegesis of the Old Testament, seeing that it had been wrongly inserted into every text. Whence, then, did St Paul derive it? It cannot originate from the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah, since Christ always appears in this as a definite eschatological quantity. Philo’s doctrine of the Logos is too remote to come under consideration. But there were angelological speculations amongst the Jews, doctrines of divine intermediate beings regarded as instruments in the creation and government of the people of God. The archangel Michael was assigned a prominent position above all others in the history of salvation; he was almost a subordinate god, to whom God had committed the care of His people in His own stead. Besides this, the distinction between the two divine names, Jahve and Adonai, had struck, not only Philo, but the Palestinian Rabbis, and had led them to set up distinctions in the divine being. St Paul may well have heard of such speculations; they facilitated the discovery of Christ in the whole compass of the Old Testament for him, as all that he needed to do was to identify Christ with the highest of these intermediate beings.
This adaptation of previous isolated speculations cannot, however, be considered to be an explanation of the Pauline Christology. Its real origin is to be sought elsewhere. St Paul’s object was to make Christ the centre of his cosmology. However strange its outer form may appear to us, the whole of this gnosis is after all the first great Christian interpretation of the universe. It is not without reason that it is just in the Epistle to the Colossians that the 334words occur, “Christ is all and in all.” No sphere of the world, neither of the natural nor of the spiritual, is henceforth to be accounted profane and under its own government. Christ is the Sun of all worlds. What remains if this theory be set on one side? Angelological speculations, myths, etc., and side by side with these, the person of Jesus as of equal value with the others. The practical consequence was that at Colossae they sought for communion with God of a supra-Christian character. But now the apostle declares Christ to be the head of all things, and there is therefore no other means of mediation, save through Him alone. Thereby, too, a step forward has been taken in comparison with the doctrine of salvation. The significance of Christ was limited in that doctrine to His helping us out of this present evil world. Here in the gnosis He is the mediator of the whole world. A positive relation to the cosmos has taken the place of one that was negative. Hence follows the practical conclusion, which we find already in the hortatory portion of the Epistle to the Colossians, with its Christian regulations of marriage, of education, of the relations of master and servant, and the command that whatever is done must be done in the name of the Lord. Thereby Christ is secularized and the world is Christianized. It is only the Pauline gnosis that completely explains to us the firm stand thus taken with Jesus on the vantage ground of this world—of His world.
But what a circuitous route he travels. How simple and untheological is the gospel faith in Providence by the side of this. Compare the reasons 335given for the “be not anxious” in St Matt. vi. with the first chapter of the Epistle to the Colossians. The Pauline gnosis here starts from a very living feeling of that which is Christian and at the same time from an entirely dead conception of God. Even in its origin the dogma of the divinity of Christ is a proof of the weakness of the faith in God. Jesus would not j have answered the false teachers at Colossae: “The angels, whose intercourse you are seeking, only exist through Me and have even been reconciled to God by Me.” He would simply have said: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him alone shalt thou serve.”
But St Paul knows another gnosis of a completely different nature besides this of which we have been speaking. It is theocentric, and it belongs to the close of his system. It is a bold undertaking to penetrate with the Spirit into the deep things of God and to explain the whole of the world and history from the standpoint of God as the realization of divine purposes. The starting-point of this gnosis is his own experience, his own certainty of salvation. As the Christian regards the whole of his former life in spite of all its sin and all its evil fortune as the divinely appointed path for his own redemption, so he may with equal right look upon the whole course of the world’s history, of which his own life forms an infinitesimal portion, as the necessary way of the Lord unto salvation. Only then the goal is so infinitely greater. The simplest formula of this philosophy of history is: All things are from God, through God, and to God. God is the first cause of the whole world and of all history. He has created them. Now even 336though the world should fall away from God and sink down step by step into even deeper sin and corruption, then that is but an apparent infraction of the divine plan and government.
“Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.”
God Himself willed the Fall and sin. He has given over to sin and disobedience all alike, that to all alike He may at last show mercy. Yes, the law was only given to man in order to make the offence greater. But the greater the sin the wider God’s mercy. No statement is too bold for St Paul to make, for the thought never occurs to him that sin could thereby lose the character of guilt on the part of man. Sin is guilt in any case, but then God is God even over sin. And then the world is gradually led back to obedience to God by the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God. Now that is the manifestation of God’s grace which is so inexpressibly great, so much greater than sin. Step by step the process of redemption proceeds. Christ, the Church, the Gentiles, Israel, the angel world, are one after another embraced by the love of God and return to Him from whom they took their origin. In the end God will be all in all. All things have reverted—not to physical absorption in God, but to worship and subjection to the honour of God the Father. The fall and sin had one great and important consequence. The story of the parable was lived in real life—the story of the children who only learned to love their home when they were in a strange country.337
The end of this gnosis in a man like St Paul could only be a prayer of glad thanksgiving. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God; how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past tracing out. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counsellor? Or who hath first given to Him and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of Him, and through Him, and unto Him, are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” The passage is especially beautiful because of the modesty of this gnostic, who in spite of his great presentiments ever reminds himself that God is too high for him. However far he may penetrate, there remains in God an element of mystery. But for all that, his prevailing mood is one of thanksgiving and of joy. From his own stand point, in the bright light of certain conviction, he can confidently scan the dark riddles and unsolved problems of existence. He knows that all is light for God and will one day be light for him. And he knows the love of God as the end and goal of all that happens in the world. That is Christian gnosis which interprets the world from the experience of faith or of Jesus. In fact, whether he formulates it with Christ or with God as the centre, the whole of his knowledge is one of the great effects which his experience on the road to Damascus produced in him.
We have arrived at the end of St Paul’s theology. It has been shown that its roots are to be found in the experience of the vision of Christ and in his apologetic as missionary. In the building of the 338edifice Jewish material has been used to a very large extent, nor has the Greek been entirely rejected. But the final result is something entirely new and independent compared with all that has gone before. It is an original Christian creation. St Paul’s great achievement is that from these two starting-points, Jesus and His Church, everything has been thought out entirely anew, so that scarcely in one single point does the earlier knowledge remain the same, or in the same connection. If the Jesus of the Christians is the Redeemer, then (1) All men must be miserable, lost sinners for whom there is no other atonement but in Christ’s death, and no salvation but that through the Spirit of Christ in the Church, with the hope of the glory that is to come, the earnest of which we have in Christ’s Resurrection—such are the postulates of the doctrine of salvation; and (2) the law can be no road to salvation—it has been annulled by Christ, whilst faith and the Spirit are a complete substitute for the law in the Church of Christ. Such are the demands of the anti-Jewish apologetic; and (3) the whole of the Old Testament must be a Christian book, and the whole world must be interpreted from the standpoint of Jesus. Such is the postulate of the Christian gnosis. Even the preaching of monotheism receives a Christian content, for the one God is the God and Father of Jesus Christ. It is only the doctrine of the final salvation of the whole of Israel that stands outside of this Christocentric system.
Now it is of course true that the Jesus of St Paul is no longer merely the Jesus of the Church of Jerusalem. The Son of God, the Cross and the 339Resurrection, are here so explained that, as distinguished from the earlier hope in a coming Messiah, the foundation is laid for the later Christological dogma. For the subject of this dogma is not the coming Messiah, but the Son of God who has already come. Moreover, St Paul himself has removed the Son of God very far from humanity, and brought Him very near to God as mediator of the creation and revelation. It is perfectly incredible within how short a time the Jesus of history had to undergo this radical transformation. In spite of this, however, it is just the Jesus of history that St Paul grasped with a deep and clear insight, as the Redeemer who leads us away from the false Jewish idea to the Fatherhood of God and to moral freedom, and who, besides setting the high ideal before us, inspires us at the same time with strength and courage for its realization. It is for this living and loving Jesus that the apostle’s high Christology paves a way into the world.
In the next place, the Church, which dominates the Pauline theology second to Christ alone, is for him still identical with the communities which in spite of all imperfections were real instruments of salvation and channels for the influence of Jesus. Hence the practical value of St Paul’s ecclesiastical apologetic. Nevertheless it was he who likewise created the Christian idea of the Church in its fanatical narrowness, by pronouncing as he did all who were outside the fold, as a sinful mass of corruption doomed to death, and in many passages at any rate, attaching everlasting blessedness to belief in the ecclesiastical creed. Thereby the same man who led Jesus out 340into the free world confined Him within a narrow form which does not harmonize with the freedom and the seriousness of the sayings and parables of Jesus.
But in spite of all this, Christianity only became a great spiritual power in the world through the theology of St Paul. For through him it obtained a cosmology as a foundation, which enabled it to compete with Greek philosophies and Oriental myths. Through him the Jewish idea was annulled and so Christianity was set free to enter the world. Yes, and at the same time its spiritual character is assured for all eternity. Ceremonies have no value as means of salvation. St Paul grasped the world-historic greatness of Jesus, and compared Him with the first man. The Messianic element is forced into the background; with Jesus a new humanity begins. Paul placed the two great ideas of the Fatherhood of God and the freedom of the Spirit in the centre, as the Christian ideal in religion, and has thereby laid down the safest canon of criticism for every form of religion.
Finally he placed love and practical results higher than enthusiasm and theology, and thereby found the eternal in the transitory. As one surveys the whole of what he achieved, one stands in silent amazement at his greatness as a thinker.341
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