Fr. Schall’s Latest Literary Treasures

Father James Schall was, as many readers of this magazine know, a longtime professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University.  For the last half-century, Fr. Schall has published a near-constant stream of books, articles, and reviews ranging over almost every subject, from Peanuts to Plato, sports to the Church Fathers.

Although now retired, Fr. Schall was known, famously, at Georgetown for deeply discussing with his classes the really great books of the Western tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine—at length.  Moreover, he shows that these books are in conversation with one another, while bringing in contemporary authorities such as Pope Benedict XVI, Josef Pieper, Chesterton, and many others.  These books are the same; an essay opening with Aristotle moves along from Etienne Gilson to Chesterton, Samuel Johnson to Aquinas.  But the effect is not a jumble, or a disordered list of high-browed references.  Rather, Fr. Schall’s purpose here, as well as in the classroom, is to show us that our Western tradition is an intelligible (though changing over time) whole, and that through the use of reason we can come to understand, in part, the nature of reality.

Fr. Schall speaks not only as a believer, but as someone who has devoted his career to teaching political philosophy.  What have the books on which he has penned during his career have to do with the ordering of the state?  Quite a lot, actually.  Fr. Schall takes from his wide reading of the pagan authors an important political lesson, and then draws a second lesson specifically from the Catholic tradition.

Schall GraphicFurther, study of the great books shows us that part of that understanding of reality must include an openness to revelation. In an essay included in Political Philosophy and Revelation on Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Schall argues that “Reality included the reality of God and His activity in time.  Faith cares for and about reason.”  This is a crucial point.  As the destructive ideologies of the twentieth century have shown, efforts to put the good of human society in some outside force—the classless society, a racial group—that way lies madness and evil.  The first good of society is the goods of each and every person.  And those ideologies have not all gone, in the words of Ronald Reagan, onto the ash heap of history. Fr. Schall here cites the dangerous themes within environmentalism; man is a steward of nature, not, as some environmentalists believe, some kind of blight on it.  That view, which replaces man as the center of political and social reflection with an abstraction such as “nature” or a divinized “Gaia,” can be no less dangerous.

Instead, a proper understanding of reason must acknowledge that solutions to some of the answers it poses lay outside of reason. That is why the Catholic mind is open to what lay outside of its understanding or observation. The secular mind, contrary to elite opinion, is closed.  “Much modern rationalism, under the guise of method, wants to limit reason to what is now called ‘scientific’ reasoning.”  But this understanding of scientific reason—that only what can be quantified or measured is truly known—truncates and does not expand reason.  If the Catholic mind is an open road, leading to our final destination, the secular mind is a closed box and we are stuck inside.

The secular city, what St. Augustine called the City of Man, killed two of the best people who ever lived Socrates and Christ.  Those societies could not see what was beyond reason.  In the case of Socrates, Athens did not want to hear Socrates ask the fundamental questions of man’s being, and Rome did not want to hear Christ preach of a kingdom not of this world.  This was politics before revelation, which had not yet had fully revealed the Christian message that “the important things are not political, even though politics is worthy.”

Revelation adds a warrant for justice, and makes the world intelligible.  Father Schall finds the beginnings of understanding political meaning in Plato and Aristotle.  For them, the immortality of the soul and a kind of last judgment in the case of Plato had political effects.  In “The ‘Reasonable’ Case for Hell,” included in Reasonable Pleasures, Fr. Schall lays out the effects on the secular city of belief in the immortality of the soul and final judgment.  In short, these teachings allow for justice.

If the human soul is not immortal—that is, if nothing passes beyond this life—it follows that injustice and justice have the same results.  Great crimes of injustice are gotten away with and great examples of courage or generosity are unrewarded.  If either of these results is the case, then the world is made in injustice. It is rationally incoherent.  It was this frightening alternative that Plato fought against, as we also do.

Judgment is therefore not only an element of revelation, but also a political fact.  To ignore it or pretend it has no political consequences will lead—as it has lead—to horror.  Indeed, for Father Schall, one can dispense for a moment with the theological case for hell and final judgment and simply look at the real world in which humans live. Without a notion of final judgment, no justice in this world is possible.

This insight is common to both the Catholic tradition and the pagan philosophic tradition upon which the Church drew to give intellectual structure to its unfolding revelation in time.  But this insight has been lost to most modern people, who tell us on the one hand we have endless “rights” yet on the other hand we are told that we are no more than successful products of a “survival of the fittest,” no more valuable than the primates or dinosaurs we succeeded.  This too is rationally incoherent, and the effects of this incoherence is apparent in everything from how we discuss marriage to how we understand the relationship of rights and duties.

But not only judgment provides a window to the eternal and changes how we understand politics and our human life.  As his students well know, Fr. Schall shows how things like laughter, play and sport, and friendship are also windows on the eternal and cannot be understood without an appreciation for the limits of reason and an opening to the divine.  Play, for example, is not as some would think “wasting time”; when we are so deeply in play that we cannot sense the passage of time is nothing less than a glimpse of the timeless, what for Christians something like what heaven might be like.  And friendship, that great subject for Aristotle, is a desire for permanence, and a desire for the good for the other that cannot be fulfilled without a lastingness for the good for the other, which cannot be fully realized in this world.  In other words, the world is good, and full of good things, but their goodness rests in large part in that they help us see beyond the world.

The tradition Father Schall does so well to explicate in two of these volumes was current in Europe until perhaps the middle of the last century as a living alternative to secular ideology.  Even during the height of Nazism and Communism, giants like Saint Pope John Paul II lived the tradition under oppression.  And that brings us to the final volume, dedicated to the writings of Hilaire Belloc, who himself embodied that tradition and whom Fr. Schall considers one of the finest English stylists of the era, alongside Matthew Arnold and John Henry Cardinal Newman.  This collection—a sort of companion to his earlier, and also indispensible Schall on Chesterton, is divided into 30 short chapters, each dealing generally with one of Belloc’s essays. One essay is devoted to Belloc’s infamous phrase, “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.”  This is not, as once was charged, exclusionary.  Belloc, in the first part of the phrase, is simply stating a fact.  The Church created Europe out of a multiplicity of peoples, as Pope Benedict XVI has recently reiterated.  Even the second part of the phrase must be properly understood.  Europe expressed the Faith as a combination of Hebraic spirituality and Greek rationality and Roman authority.  But the mission of that faith “assumed that reason was common to all men.…  The purpose of the mission was salvific, to explain the ultimate meaning of each person in the world.”  The faith is Europe, in the sense that Europe would not exist without it; but that specific gift of faith demands it be presented to others through the force of reason, since reason properly understood is the common gift to humanity.

Taken together, these three books provide the basis for a Catholic understanding of political life that is countercultural in the best sense, replacing a box with the open road.

(Photo credit: Hilaire Belloc by Emil Otto Hoppe / 1915)

Gerald J. Russello


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

  • ColdStanding

    …that leads to Rome.

  • Valentin

    Excellent article.

  • The Watcher

    Outstanding….we need small groups to read and discuss these items in a genuine atmosphere of inquiry and charity…..this would foster growth, appreciation, prayer and joy.

  • I fear for Orthodoxy – I think it got cancer during WWII and has never recovered. What the Jesuits have done with truth is a travesty. We shouldn’t even be considering non-orthodox sources.

    • John200

      I can see how you believe the numbers have declined. Faithful Catholics are more tightly concentrated (caveat – my knowledge of WWII is based on what my betters tell me).

      On to substance: non-orthodox sources are basically flops, always refutable. As I studied the faith more thoroughly, I found the non-orthodox are always wrong (per Chesterton). That goes for the old time heretics as well as the most famous contemporary CINOs, Pelosi, Cuomo, the parade of dissenting theologians, atheists like Dawkins; the whole bunch.

      That is a big surprise to me. I thought people of this caliber would have better arguments than they have. These days I no longer expect them to produce anything plausible.

      Keep the faith; the RC faith. The answers are there if you take the time to look.

  • hombre111

    “Man is a steward nature.” A relatively new theme. We subdued nature. Mastered it. Conquered it. Our hubris is still expressed by someone saying, “I conquered Mt. Whitney,” as if that white giant would let him live for any more than a few hours on its summit. So, we plundered nature. Raped it. ravaged it. My red state with its superfund projects is a typical example. Don’t drink the water from those wells, the health department warns. And the county where I live is the fly and stench capital of the world. When it comes to a choice between someone making money and providing jobs by polluting the air, a stream, or the ocean, the conservatives are all in favor of short economic gain over enormous environmental loss. If Fr. Schall can’t see the moral problems created by this, he is not much of a genius.

    • Hombre111

      Aspire to humility. If not now, soon.

      • John200

        Ha, ha, ha, I just fell off my chair.

        Keep ’em coming, mini-hombre.

        As for you, hombre The First, let us consider your, “… the conservatives are all in favor of short economic gain over enormous environmental loss. If Fr. Schall can’t see the moral problems created by this, he is not much of a genius.”

        The shot at conservatives is wide of the mark, per your established pattern. The shot at Fr. Schall is hideously mendacious. No “if” about it.

        Humility, hombre The First. That’s the way forward. In charity, I refrain from observing that you are not much of a genius (t’ain’t necessary).

        Keep ’em coming, mini-hombre. This little fellow can be salvaged. Ridicule is a promising tactic in the good work of bringing him up to snuff.

        • Scott S.

          I have to defend hombre here. Chesterton would not have been a friend to our Republicans anymore than he would have endorsed the Democrats.

          Chesterton was quite vocal in his condemnations of capitalism/classical liberal economics and the tendency of profit to eclipse justice.

          • John200

            ?? Look again for the reference to Chesterton.

            • Scott S.



              Google “distributism.” Chesterton and Belloc attempted to come up with a “Third Way” economic system/theory that was neither capitalist nor socialist.

              In this there were in accord with Catholic social teaching and, specifically, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (subtitled “On Capital and Labor”)

              • John200

                Oh, Distributism. How utterly.

                I don’t want to be too dismissive or sarcastic. I know you boys mean well, and you would do better if you could. So I am now practicing restraint.

                But it’s old, oldy, moldy, foldy, … There is a reason why distributism has been left behind. We have done this dance many times.

                • Scott S.

                  “But it’s old, oldy, moldy, foldy, … There is a reason why distributism has been left behind. We have done this dance many times.”

                  CS Lewis called this “chronological snobbery.” So it’s wrong because it’s old? Definitely nothing illogical about that…

                  • John200

                    No, it is wrong because it is wrong. Plenty logical about it. I just don’t need the reprise of the same “dance many times” (my words above).

                    I doubt that anyone else needs it, either. It is in the archives. Right here at CrisisMag. Search for it right here; you are near to the cure; you can’t miss it.

                    Or post an article and we’ll deal with it.

                    • Scott S.

                      “old, oldy, moldy, foldy” was your response. That’s not an argument, just a dismissal.

                      If you have an actual argument against Leo XII’s encyclical and distributism then post it or at the very least an article in response.

                    • John200

                      ’tain’t necessary. I don’t have the itch, and you moved first. So, “If you have an actual argument…, then post it.”

                      I told you where my arguments could easily be found. You demand more, without reading them.

                      After moving first, do you want to fold?

                    • Scott S.

                      “’tain’t necessary. I don’t have the itch, and you moved first. So, ‘If you have an actual argument…, then post it.’ I told you where my arguments could easily be found.”

                      Easily? Well that’s debatable. Am I supposed to search through your 1380 comments to find your arguments or was there a specific article on this site I am supposed to search for?

                      “You demand more, without reading them.”

                      If I am demanding anything then it is this:

                      If you have an actual argument then post it or at the very least an article in response. But if you don’t or haven’t the time, then don’t post anything and certainly try to refrain from dismissive or snarky comments. This is Crisis, not reddit.

                      “After moving first, do you want to fold?”

                      I posted a bunch of articles and you responded with a dismissal and “I have an argument somewhere but you’ll have to go find it yourself.”

                      I can’t concede a contest that you were never in the running for.

                    • John200

                      The archive has a lot more than my comments.

                    • Scott S.

                      Of that I have no doubt.

    • Barry Penobscott

      Living in a red state? Horrors! Perhaps it’s time to fire up the Chevy Volt and get thee to a safe utopian enclave (Manhattan?). You may also wish to restrict future comments to hand-quarried stone tablets to limit the carbon footprint left by electrons. And good luck finding a wind-generated electric supply to recharge that Chevy.

      • hombre111

        As a diocesan priest, I accepted a commitment to this low wage place where people struggle more than they need to. I need to be here to dry the tears and give hope to the hopeless. Actually, the traditional conservative Republicans have done a passable job, although they guaranteed lower and lower wages when they passed a right to work law in the seventies. It is the reigning crop of libertarian, Tea Party conservatives who want to make life even more difficult.

      • Scott S.

        I have lived in Manhattan and I’ll take it over red-state suburban sprawl any day.

        it’s not perfect, but at least the physical place is far more natural a development than much of the way people in fly-over country live. Suburban living is a modern American novelty that destroys any sense of community and is totally unsustainable both economically (the tax base is too small to pay for all the social services and infrastructure), and environmentally (public transportation and walk able communities are more energy efficient and allow for actual human communities to form).

        • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

          I’ve lived in Manhattan… and Paris, and San Francisco… and a few other “enlightened” places, and I will take “fly-over country” any day. If you believe there is a healthier sense of “community” in Manhattan, it’s a pretty good bet you don’t belong to the Catholic community.

          • Scott S.

            Notice, though, that I was talking specifically about the nature of the physical living spaces and did not disparage red-state/fly-over country in general (though I can see why I may have come off that way), just the sprawl part.

            There are plenty of small towns in both blue and red states that I would love to live in. I was addressing suburban sprawl specifically and contrasting it with the physical arrangements of NYC, which, as I admitted, is not perfect.

            My intention was to use the contrast between an ultra-liberal place like NYC and republican red-states to illustrate my disdain for suburban sprawl. Guess I should have used a less polarizing example.

            Also, it would be wise to avoid hasty judgments about other people’s religious convictions, especially with so little to go on.

            Oh, and did you follow the link? The American Conservative isn’t exactly a liberal publication…

    • lifeknight

      Dear Father: I pray for you daily as I sense your frustration with your vocation and life in general.

      • hombre111

        My view of life in general is renewed every Easter. But at the same time, as an intuitive on the Meyers-Briggs scale, and as a One in the Enneagram pattern, I long for a world that comes closer to a vision of the Kingdom. But thanks for your prayers. It is with a great sense of accomplishment that I will be celebrating my fiftieth anniversary as a priest tomorrow. Right now, I am heading for my favorite Mass of the week, when celebrate in the hospital and then have a good breakfast with those who attend Mass.

        • Scott S.

          I’ve seen you talk about vocations before, but it seems much more likely that Vatican II’s implementation was the major cause of the vocation drop. I don’t think allowing married men to join the priesthood would have filled the gap.

          The problem was that men in general weren’t interested in religion. There have been plenty of studies about that, and, as you may have observed, men in Hispanic cultures are even less observant.

          Honesty, though, I don’t blame them much since the Church has done a pretty poor job maintaining a place for men, as opposed to mere males, in the Church.

          • hombre111

            When I served as a missionary in South America, I began to realize that the men in general did not believe that we were celibate. If not the housekeeper, than surely the altar boys. The altar boys would reach a certain age and then quit, because the men were calling them “the priest’s women.”
            Part of the problem with the men was anticlericalism. There was a saying, “es el papel del hombre ser contra el cura.” “It is the duty of the man to be against the priest.” A lot of past history there.

            • Scott S.

              I don’t think allowing married priests is necessarily the solution to the problem of priests breaking their vows of celibacy and the consequent damage to the clergy’s reputation.

              you should take a look at this book:

              Podles argues that Church began to be feminized back in the middles ages and has been slowly making it more and more difficult for men to be both masculine and christian at the same time.

              It seems that conservative/traditional-leaning orders/groups/denominations are faring far better than their liberal counterparts among both Catholics and Protestants.

              Religious Orders:

              (“…it should also be noted that the LCWR represents a greater number of orders (80% versus the 20% represented by the CMSWR) so the CMSWR orders are attracting proportionally larger numbers.”)

              Ross Douthat on general trends:




              • hombre111

                Conservatives fair better than liberals for the following reason.
                I follow the insight of Brian Hall, an Episcopal priest whose psychological theories come from a variety of sources. He concludes that people advance through four “phases of consciousness.”
                1) The world is a frightening mystery over which we have no control. The key issues are security and survival. For most of human history, we have been in this phase.
                2) The world is a problem we can solve. This is done through practical relationships like family, and through institutions. It involves skills to be a functioning part of a larger whole. The larger part of western civilization is in this phase.
                3) The world is a project. Things shift. Values suddenly change. Law becomes a guide, rather than a limit.
                4) The world is a mystery in which we all participate.
                Anyway, Churches that live within phases of consciousness one or two are the ones who thrive. As Churches move toward the world as a project, it begins to lose members. Vatican II was a step into the world as a project, with predictable results. There will always be more conservatives than liberals because everyone starts at phase one. If that part of their life is successful, they move on to phase two. Phase three will be frightening to them, and only a few will go on. I understand that perfectly, and accept it. I only get upset when the Church tries to keep people from moving into phase three.

                • Scott S.

                  Interesting. I’ll have to look into this before forming an educated assessment, but my initial reaction, though, is to find it odd that these things are divided up into distinct stages.

                  There’s plenty of evidence for “the world as participatory mystery” being an attitude of even the most primitive societies, not to mention Christianity. Such things did, of course, coincide with mystery as a source of fear and anxiety.

                  Also, why are families, institutions, and large societies only a response to “the world as problem”? What does that mean?

                  • hombre111

                    I bought one of his books on Amazon not too long ago. “Values Shift,” by Brian P. Hall, Resource Publications. I just went to my library and found the book again. Hall has had a huge impact on the way I see the world. I live mostly in a phase III/IV world, and it is easy for me to see why my goals and values make no sense to the Phase I/II conservatives who write on these posts.

                    • Scott

                      I’ll have to look it up. Any other works by the same author you would recommend to flesh out the above?

                      A thought (this got a bit long, sorry): don’t most religious institutions claim to by the very means by which we fully participate in the mystery of the world, overcome our fears of mystery, properly address our problems, and perfect our projects?

                      Likewise, it seems that non-hermits, which would be most people, find their perfection in community, not outside of it, because survival and stability are what family, community, and institutions provide us. Are not permanent values and institutions, or at least the desire for them, is what allows for stability and flourishing as opposed to chaos.

                      “Churches that live within phases of consciousness one or two are the ones who thrive. As Churches move toward the world as a project, it begins to lose members. Vatican II was a step into the world as a project, with predictable results.”

                      But how is one to know this? The Church claims to be the only way to fully participate in the mystery of the world (entering into the mystical body of Christ through the sacraments, etc).

                      That’s the reason I am Catholic. If I thought that some other source/authority/institution offered the true path to participation in the mystery of the world, then I would leave the Church and cast my lot with another.

                      It also sounds vaguely Buddhist, which isn’t entirely problematic.

                      Any Church which, in its essence, does not offer full participation in said mystery would not be worth my time.

                      This is why I am very skeptical of people who come up with these broad “phases.” They often approach it from “the view from nowhere,” or whatever they think is some “outside” or “objective” perspective. But this is almost always just an offhand dismissal of all the other competing and mutually exclusive truth claims.

                      The Catholic Church and the Thomistic/Aristotelian philosophical tradition all have something to say about the content of these phases, not to mention the whole of reality. Most religions and philosophies do, too.

                      In light of this, it’s very going to be very difficult (and probably unwise) for people who are already members of a religious/philosophical tradition to take the solitary Brian P. Hall as their guide instead of the home team.

                      Hall (or the application of his phases) is either right or wrong. But it sounds like some or all of his claims will be incompatible with the Catholic tradition. Do you side with Hall over the Church? If so, why?

                    • hombre111

                      Thanks for a great post. “Values Shift” outlines the theory. Another book, “Spiritual Connections,” applies the theory to Christian life. His basic premise: “We think people make decisions based on the facts, but they don’t. People make decisions based on their mind set, their paradigm of reality, and the values that underlie them, even if the facts advise otherwise.”

                      He begins with a list of universal values held by human beings, values that transcend culture and gender. The fascination is the way people arrange those values. He studies the correlation between values and world views, and a story of human ethical, emotional, and spiritual development begins to emerge.
                      He says that today, values are shifting because society is in transition. The shift begins in the world around us, but it is then internalized. He uses Vatican II as an example. Against that framework, the great failure of Pope John Paul becomes evident. Leadership was moving from a hierarchical structure to a new sense of collaboration. He lost his nerve and retreated to the old authoritarian model, and became a hero to people who were also frightened by this time of change. Now, under Francis, the new model is emerging again.

                      Hall’s thesis: Values are the key to the transformation of individuals and organizations. He defines values as the ideals that give significance to our lives, that are reflected to the priorities we choose, and that we act on consistently and repeatedly. The priorities we choose to live our lives by are related to our understanding of reality. We call the world around us “the facts,” but actually, what we are seeing is our interpretation of the world around us: 1) Terrifying mystery over which we have not control. The individual finds himself in the center of an alien and oppressive environment. His needs are physical: food, warmth, shelter. He seeks self-preservation and safety., 2) A problem with which I must cope. The ego enters a world of other people, seeks to belong by approval of significant others, and by succeeding. His needs are social: acceptance, approval, achievement. He finds self-worth through education, work, labor. 3) A project in which I participate. The self acts creatively, independently, with a sense of vocation, and with conscience. Looks for personal fulfillment, meaning, creativity, insight. Self-actualization and independence are key values, along with a just social order. 4) A sacred mystery for which we must care. Intimacy and solitude come to the fore. Self acts as “we” with others, thinks globally. Seeks world community, and harmony by communal action. Justice and social order very important. Values are Truth/wisdom, a sense of acting within a larger, interconnected environment.

                      This is not “values clarification.” Hall criticizes values clarification because it offered no objective criteria for those values that a person needs in order to flourish. One thing that becomes clear is the inability of people to really grasp a world view that is two stages above. And so, Phase 1 people will be frightened by Phase 3 people, Phase 2 people will be put off by phase 3 people. So, somebody preoccupied with self-preservation will not understand someone who sees law as a guide, and searches for social justice. Somebody who gets his sense of self-worth by being part of the tribe and by obediently following the law will be alarmed by someone who talks about global harmony and human rights.

          • hombre111

            I am not sure Vatican II played a major role in the vocation drop. It did play a role in priests leaving the ministry. But the seminaries were full until the mid-seventies. When the drop came, it came very fast. By 1979, it was clear the bottom had fallen out of vocations. At that time, I did the math with a university prof and we predicted that, by 2002, there would be 55 priests where there had been 107. We were spot on. Now, there are 43. I have come out of retirement and, in a way, am having the time of my life.
            But as for married men? We will never know. I was part of a prayer group with mostly Protestant ministers, who were fine, prayerful men and women. About half of them discerned their vocations when they were in their thirties and already married. This is not an avenue for Catholic men, whose best chance is the Knights of Columbus. About half of those ministers were also the sons or daughters of ministers.

    • Scott S.

      It’s a new theme for Americans, probably, but stewardship of nature was, basically, always the default stance philosophically, even if it wasn’t always practiced.

      Mastery/dominance as the default stance towards nature began with the likes of Francis Bacon. It’s really a modern invention/practice, not traditional or Catholic at all.

      Oh and I think Fr. Shall, following Chesterton, is quite appalled at the rape of nature that you bring up.

  • John O’Neill

    It is always a pleasure to read Father Schall’s commentaries and essays as he is one of the few erudite and spiritual writers left in the former USA. His animadversions to Chesterton and Belloc are extremely timely in this age. In some ways the English Catholics of the early twentieth century were giant of the Faith; too bad the Americans produced so little in Catholic culture. It is sad to read things by hombre who is one of those modern americans so immersed in the them vs us or red state vs blue state civil war that is going on in the modern American State. Somehow depicting all those who disagree with you as evil and worthy of all sorts of retribution is far from Christian. This way lies unending hatred and evil. If one finds the modern Progressive American State worthy of one’s loyalty too bad; it has to be admitted that after fifty two million abortions abetted by both the democrat and republican arms of the American central government there is no place for any true Catholic to pledge his fealty. The American culture both red state and blue state is in the words of Saint John Paul II a culture of death; we can add to this the endless wars and bombings around the world to get the true picture of the city of man which the USA has become. Nolite confidere in principibus.

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