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MAN’S DISPROPORTION. - Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal 
The Thoughts of Blaise Pascal, translated from the text of M. Auguste Molinier by C. Kegan Paul (London: George Bell and Sons, 1901).
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THIS is where our intuitive knowledge leads us. If it be not true, there is no truth in man; and if it be, he finds therein a great reason for humiliation, because he must abase himself in one way or another. And since he cannot exist without such knowledge, I wish that before entering on deeper researches into nature he would consider her seriously and at leisure, that he would examine himself also, and knowing what proportion there is . . . Let man then contemplate the whole realm of nature in her full and exalted majesty, and turn his eyes from the low objects which hem him round; let him observe that brilliant light set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe, let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun, and let him see with amazement that even this vast circle is itself but a fine point in regard to that described by the stars revolving in the firmament. If our view be arrested there, let imagination pass beyond, and it will sooner exhaust the power of thinking than nature that of giving scope for thought. The whole visible world is but an imperceptible speck in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may swell our conceptions beyond all imaginable space, yet bring forth only atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is every where, the circumference no where. It is, in short, the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God, that imagination loses itself in that thought.
Then, returning to himself, let man consider his own being compared with all that is; let him regard himself as wandering in this remote province of nature; and from the little dungeon in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to set a true value on the earth, on its kingdoms, its cities, and on himself.
What is a man in the infinite? But to show him another prodigy no less astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let him take a mite which in its minute body presents him with parts incomparably more minute; limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops; let him, again dividing these last, exhaust his power of thought; let the last point at which he arrives be that of which we speak, and he will perhaps think that here is the extremest diminutive in nature. Then I will open before him therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the enclosure of this diminished atom. Let him therein see an infinity of universes of which each has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and at the last the mites, in which he will come upon all that was in the first, and still find in these others the same without end and without cessation; let him lose himself in wonders as astonishing in their minuteness as the others in their immensity; for who will not be amazed at seeing that our body, which before was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, a whole, in regard to the nothingness to which we cannot attain.
Whoso takes this survey of himself will be terrified at the thought that he is upheld in the material being, given him by nature, between these two abysses of the infinite and nothing, he will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that as his curiosity changes into wonder, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to search into them with presumption.
For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in regard to the infinite, a whole in regard to nothing, a mean between nothing and the whole; infinitely removed from understanding either extreme. The end of things and their beginnings are invincibly hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy, he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing whence he was taken, and the infinite in which he is engulfed.
What shall he do then, but discern somewhat of the middle of things in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end? All things arise from nothing, and tend towards the infinite. Who can follow their marvellous course? The author of these wonders can understand them, and none but he.
Of these two infinites in nature, the infinitely great and the infinitely little, man can more easily conceive the great.
Because they have not considered these infinities, men have rashly plunged into the research of nature, as though they bore some proportion to her.
It is strange that they have wished to understand the origin of all that is, and thence to attain to the knowledge of the whole, with a presumption as infinite as their object. For there is no doubt that such a design cannot be formed without presumption or without a capacity as infinite as nature.
If we are well informed, we understand that nature having graven her own image and that of her author on all things, they are almost all partakers of her double infinity. Thus we see that all the sciences are infinite in the extent of their researches, for none can doubt that geometry, for instance, has an infinite infinity of problems to propose. They are also infinite in the number and in the nicety of their premisses, for it is evident that those which are finally proposed are not self-supporting, but are based on others, which again having others as their support have no finality.
But we make some apparently final to the reason, just as in regard to material things we call that an indivisible point beyond which our senses can no longer perceive any thing, though by its nature this also is infinitely divisible.
Of these two scientific infinities, that of greatness is the most obvious to the senses, and therefore a few persons have made pretensions to universal knowledge. “I will discourse of the all, ” said Democritus.
But beyond the fact that it is a small thing to speak of it simply, without proving and knowing, it is nevertheless impossible to do so, the infinite multitude of things being so hidden, that all we can express by word or thought is but an invisible trace of them. Hence it is plain how foolish, vain, and ignorant is that title of some books: De omni scibili.
But the infinitely little is far less evident. Philosophers have much more frequently asserted they have attained it, yet in that very point they have all stumbled. This has given occasion to such common titles as The Origin of Creation,The Principles of Philosophy, and the like, as presumptuous in fact, though not in appearance as that dazzling one, De omni scibili.
We naturally think that we can more easily reach the centre of things than embrace their circumference. The visible bulk of the world visibly exceeds us, but as we exceed little things, we think ourselves more capable of possessing them. Yet we need no less capacity to attain the nothing than the whole. Infinite capacity is needed for both, and it seems to me that whoever shall have understood the ultimate principles of existence might also attain to the knowledge of the infinite. The one depends on the other, and one leads to the other. Extremes meet and reunite by virtue of their distance, to find each other in God, and in God alone.
Let us then know our limits; we are something, but we are not all. What existence we have conceals from us the knowledge of first principles which spring from the nothing, while the pettiness of that existence hides from us the sight of the infinite.
In the order of intelligible things our intelligence holds the same position as our body holds in the vast extent of nature.
Restricted in every way, this middle state between two extremes is common to all our weaknesses.
Our senses can perceive no extreme. Too much noise deafens us, excess of light blinds us, too great distance or nearness equally interfere with our vision, prolixity or brevity equally obscure a discourse, too much truth overwhelms us. I know even those who cannot understand that if four be taken from nothing nothing remains. First principles are too plain for us, superfluous pleasure troubles us. Too many concords are unpleasing in music, and too many benefits annoy, we wish to have wherewithal to overpay our debt. Beneficia eo usque læta suntdum videntur exsolvi posse; ubi multum antevenere pro gratia odium redditur.
We feel neither extreme heat nor extreme cold. Qualities in excess are inimical to us and not apparent to the senses, we do not feel but are passive under them. The weakness of youth and age equally hinder the mind, as also too much and too little teaching. . .
In a word, all extremes are for us as though they were not; and we are not, in regard to them: they escape us, or we them.
This is our true state; this is what renders us incapable both of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail on a vast expanse, ever uncertain, ever drifting, hurried from one to the other goal. If we think to attach ourselves firmly to any point, it totters and fails us; if we follow, it eludes our grasp, and flies us, vanishing for ever. Nothing stays for us. This is our natural condition, yet always the most contrary to our inclination; we burn with desire to find a steadfast place and an ultimate fixed basis whereon we may build a tower to reach the infinite. But our whole foundation breaks up, and earth opens to the abysses.
We may not then look for certainty or stability. Our reason is always deceived by changing shows, nothing can fix the finite between the two infinites, which at once enclose and fly from it.
If this be once well understood I think that we shall rest, each in the state wherein nature has placed him. This element which falls to us as our lot being always distant from either extreme, it matters not that a man should have a trifle more knowledge of the universe. If he has it, he but begins a little higher. He is always infinitely distant from the end, and the duration of our life is infinitely removed from eternity, even if it last ten years longer.
In regard to these infinites all finites are equal, and I see not why we should fix our imagination on one more than on another. The only comparison which we can make of ourselves to the finite troubles us.
Were man to begin with the study of himself, he would see how incapable he is of proceeding further. How can a part know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to know at least the parts with which he has proportionate relation. But the parts of the world are so linked and related, that I think it impossible to know one without another, or without the whole.
Man, for instance, is related to all that he knows. He needs place wherein to abide, time through which to exist, motion in order to live; he needs constituent elements, warmth and food to nourish him, air to breathe. He sees light, he feels bodies, he contracts an alliance with all that is.
To know man then it is necessary to understand how it comes that he needs air to breathe, and to know the air we must understand how it has relation to the life of man, etc.
Flame cannot exist without air, therefore to know one, we must know the other.
All that exists then is both cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible bond, which unites things most distant and most different. I hold it impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole, or to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail.
I hold it impossible to know one alone without all the others, that is to say impossible purely and absolutely.
The eternity of things in themselves or in God must also confound our brief duration. The fixed and constant immobility of Nature in comparison with the continual changes which take place in us must have the same effect.
And what completes our inability to know things is that they are in their essence simple, whereas we are composed of two opposite natures differing in kind, soul and body. For it is impossible that our reasoning part should be other than spiritual; and should any allege that we are simply material, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, since it is an inconceivable paradox to affirm that matter can know itself, and it is not possible for us to know how it should know itself.
So, were we simply material, we could know nothing whatever, and if we are composed of spirit and matter we cannot perfectly know what is simple, whether it be spiritual or material. For how should we know matter distinctly, since our being, which acts on this knowledge, is partly spiritual, and how should we know spiritual substances clearly since we have a body which weights us, and drags us down to earth.
Moreover what completes our inability is the simplicity of things compared with our double and complex nature. To dispute this point were an invincible absurdity, for it is as absurd as impious to deny that man is composed of two parts, differing in their nature, soul and body. This renders us unable to know all things; for if this complexity be denied, and it be asserted that we are entirely material, it is plain that matter is incapable of knowing matter. Nothing is more impossible than this.
Let us conceive then that this mixture of spirit and clay throws us out of proportion. . .
Hence it comes that almost all philosophers have confounded different ideas, and speak of material things in spiritual phrase, and of spiritual things in material phrase. For they say boldly that bodies have a tendency to fall, that they seek after their centre, that they fly from destruction, that they fear a void, that they have inclinations, sympathies, antipathies; and all of these are spiritual qualities. Again, in speaking of spirits, they conceive of them as in a given spot, or as moving from place to place; qualities which belong to matter alone.
Instead of receiving the ideas of these things simply, we colour them with our own qualities, and stamp with our complex being all the simple things which we contemplate.
Who would not think, when we declare that all that is consists of mind and matter, that we really understood this combination? Yet it is the one thing we least understand. Man is to himself the most marvellous object in Nature, for he cannot conceive what matter is, still less what is mind, and less than all how a material body should be united to a mind. This is the crown of all his difficulties, yet it is his very being: Modus quo corporibus adhæret spirituscomprehendi ab homine non potest et hoc tamen homo est.
These are some of the causes which render man so totally unable to know nature. For nature has a twofold infinity, he is finite and limited. Nature is permanent, and continues in one stay; he is fleeting and mortal. All things fail and change each instant, he sees them only as they pass, they have their beginning and end, he conceives neither the one nor the other. They are simple, he is composed of two different natures. And to complete the proof of our weakness, I will finish by this reflection on our natural condition. In a word, to complete the proof of our weakness, I will end with these two considerations. . .
The nature of man may be considered in two ways, one according to its end, and then it is great and incomparable; the other according to popular opinion, as we judge of the nature of a horse or a dog, by popular opinion which discerns in it the power of speed, et animum arcendi; and then man is abject and vile. These are the two ways which make us judge of it so differently and which cause such disputes among philosophers.
For one denies the supposition of the other; one says, He was not born for such an end, for all his actions are repugnant to it; the other says, He cannot gain his end when he commits base deeds.
Two things instruct man about his whole nature, instinct and experience.
Inconstancy.—We think we are playing on ordinary organs when we play upon man: Men are organs indeed, but fantastic, changeable, and various, with pipes not arranged in due succession. Those who understand only how to play upon ordinary organs make no harmonies on these. We should know where are the . . .
Nature.—Nature has placed us so truly in the centre, that if we alter one side of the balance we alter also the other. This makes me believe that there is a mechanism in our brain, so adjusted, that who touches one touches also the contrary spring.
Lustravit lampade terras. —The weather and my moods have little in common. I have my foggy and my fine days within me, whether my affairs go well or ill has little to do with the matter. I sometimes strive against my luck, the glory of subduing it makes me subdue it gaily, whereas I am sometimes wearied in the midst of my good luck.
It is difficult to submit anything to the judgment of a second person without prejudicing him by the way in which we submit it. If we say, “I think it beautiful, I think it obscure,” or the like, we either draw the imagination to that opinion, or irritate it to form the contrary. It is better to say nothing, so that the other may judge according to what really is, that is to say, as it then is, and according as the other circumstances which are not of our making have placed it. We at least shall have added nothing of our own, except that silence produces an effect, according to the turn and the interpretation which the other is inclined to give it, or as he may conjecture it, from gestures or countenance, or from the tone of voice, if he be a physiognomist; so difficult is it not to oust the judgment from its natural seat, or rather so rarely is it firm and stable!
The spirit of this sovereign judge of the world is not so independent but that it is liable to be troubled by the first disturbance about him. The noise of a cannon is not needed to break his train of thought, it need only be the creaking of a weathercock or a pulley. Do not be astonished if at this moment he argues incoherently, a fly is buzzing about his ears, and that is enough to render him incapable of sound judgment. Would you have him arrive at truth, drive away that creature which holds his reason in check, and troubles that powerful intellect which gives laws to towns and kingdoms. Here is a droll kind of god! O ridicolosissimo eroe!
The power of flies, which win battles, hinder our soul from action, devour our body.
When we are too young our judgment is at fault, so also when we are too old.
If we take not thought enough, or too much, on any matter, we are obstinate and infatuated.
He that considers his work so soon as it leaves his hands, is prejudiced in its favour, he that delays his survey too long, cannot regain the spirit of it.
So with pictures seen from too near or too far; there is but one precise point from which to look at them, all others are too near or too far, too high or too low. Perspective determines that precise point in the art of painting. But who shall determine it in truth or morals?
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the small space which I fill, or even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified, and wonder that I am here rather than there, for there is no reason why here rather than there, or now rather than then. Who has set me here? By whose order and design have this place and time been destined for me?—Memoria hospitis unius diei prætereuntis.
It is not well to be too much at liberty. It is not well to have all we want
How many kingdoms know nothing of us!
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.
Nothing more astonishes me than to see that men are not astonished at their own weakness. They act seriously, and every one follows his own mode of life, not because it is, as a fact, good to follow, being the custom, but as if each man knew certainly where are reason and justice. They find themselves constantly deceived, and by an amusing humility always imagine that the fault is in themselves, and not in the art which all profess to understand. But it is well there are so many of this kind of people in the world, who are not sceptics for the glory of scepticism, to show that man is thoroughly capable of the most extravagant opinions, because he is capable of believing that his weakness is not natural and inevitable, but that, on the contrary, his wisdom comes by nature.
Nothing fortifies scepticism more than that there are some who are not sceptics. If all were so, they would be wrong.
Two infinites, a mean. If we read too quickly or too slowly, we understand nothing.
Too much and too little wine. Give a man none, he cannot find truth, give him too much, the same.
Chance gives thoughts, and chance takes them away; there is no art for keeping or gaining them.
A thought has escaped me. I would write it down. I write instead, that it has escaped me.
In writing down my thought it now and then escapes me, but this reminds me of my weakness, which I constantly forget. This teaches me as much as my forgotten thought, for my whole study is to know my nothingness.
Are men so strong, as to be insensible to all which affects them? Let us try them in the loss of goods or honour. Ah! the charm is worked.
To fear death out of danger, and not in danger, for we must be men.
Sudden death is the only thing to fear, therefore confessors live in the houses of the great.
We know ourselves so little, that many think themselves near death when they are perfectly well, and many think themselves well when they are near death, since they do not feel the fever at hand, or the abscess about to form.
Why is my knowledge so restricted, or my height, or my life to a hundred years rather than to a thousand? What was nature’s reason for giving me such length of days, and for choosing this number rather than another, in that infinity where there is no reason to choose one more than another, since none is preferable to another?
The nature of man is not always to go forward, it has its advances and retreats.
Fever has its hot and cold fits, and the cold proves as well as the hot how great is the force of the fever.
The inventions of men from age to age follow the same plan. It is the same with the goodness and the wickedness of the world in general.
Plerumque gratæprincipibus vices.
The strength of a man’s virtue must not be measured by his occasional efforts, but by his ordinary life.
Those great spiritual efforts to which the soul sometimes attains are things on which it takes no permanent hold. It leaps to them, not as to a throne, for ever, but only for an instant.
I do not admire the excess of a virtue as of valour, unless I see at the same time the excess of the opposite virtue, as in Epaminondas, who had exceeding valour and exceeding humanity, for otherwise we do not rise, but fall. Grandeur is not shown by being at one extremity, but in touching both at once, and filling the whole space between. But perhaps this is only a sudden motion of the soul from one to the other extreme, and in fact it is always at one point only, as when a firebrand is whirled. Be it so, but at least this marks the agility if not the magnitude of the soul.
We do not remain virtuous by our own power, but by the counterpoise of two opposite vices, we remain standing as between two contrary winds; take away one of these vices, we fall into the other.
When we would pursue the virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves, which insinuate themselves insensibly there, in their insensible course towards the infinitely great, so that we lose ourselves in vices, and no longer see virtues.
It is not shameful to man to yield to pain, and it is shameful to yield to pleasure. This is not because pain comes from without us, while we seek pleasure, for we may seek pain, and yield to it willingly without this kind of baseness. How comes it then that reason finds it glorious in us to yield under the assaults of pain, and shameful to yield under the assaults of pleasure? It is because pain does not tempt and attract us. We ourselves choose it voluntarily, and will that it have dominion over us. We are thus masters of the situation, and so far man yields to himself, but in pleasure man yields to pleasure. Now only mastery and empire bring glory, and only slavery causes shame.
All things may prove fatal to us, even those made to serve us, as in nature walls may kill us and stairs may kill us, if we walk not aright.
The slightest movement affects all nature, the whole sea changes because of a rock. Thus in grace, the most trifling action has effect on everything by its consequences; therefore everything is important.
Provided we know each man’s ruling passion we are sure of pleasing him; yet each man has his fancies, contrary to his real good, even in the very idea he forms of good; a strange fact which puts all out of tune.
When our passions lead us to any act we forget our duty. If we like a book we read it, when we should be doing something else. But as a reminder we ought to propose to ourselves to do something distasteful; we then excuse ourselves that we have something else to do, and thus remember our duty.
Sneezing absorbs all the faculties of the soul, as do certain bodily functions, but we do not draw therefrom the same conclusions against the greatness of man, because it is against his will. And if we make ourselves sneeze we do so against our will. It is not in view of the act itself, but for another end, and so it is not a mark of the weakness of man, and of his slavery to that act.
Scaramouch, who thinks of one thing only.
The doctor, who speaks for a quarter of an hour after he has said all he has to say, so full is he of the desire of talking.
The parrot’s beak, which he dries though it is clean already.
The sense of falseness in present pleasures, and our ignorance of the vanity of absent pleasures, are the causes of inconstancy.
He no longer loves the person he loved ten years ago. I can well believe it. She is no longer the same, nor is he. He was young, and so was she; she is quite different. He would perhaps love her still were she what she then was.
Reasons, seen from afar, appear to restrict our view, but not when we reach them; we begin to see beyond.
. . . We look at things not only from other sides, but with other eyes, and care not to find them alike.
Diversity is ample, as all tones of the voice, all modes of walking, coughing, blowing the nose, sneezing. We distinguish different kinds of vine by their fruit, and name them the Condrieu, the Desargues, and this stock. But is this all? Has a vine ever produced two bunches exactly alike, and has a bunch ever two grapes alike? etc.
I never can judge of the same thing exactly in the same way. I cannot judge of my work while engaged on it. I must do as the painters, stand at a distance, but not too far. How far, then? Guess.
Diversity.—Theology is a science; but at the same time how many sciences! Man is a whole, but if we dissect him, will man be the head, the heart, the stomach, the veins, each vein, each portion of a vein, the blood, each humour of the blood?
A town, a champaign, is from afar a town and a champaign; but as we approach there are houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, emmets, limbs of emmets, in infinite series. All this is comprised under the word champaign.
We like to see the error, the passion of Cleobuline, because she is not aware of it. She would be displeasing if she were not deceived.
What a confusion of judgment is that, by which every one puts himself above all the rest of the world, and loves his own advantage and the duration of his happiness or his life above those of all others.
[P. 19.]Man’s disproportion. Pascal’s own title.
[P. 19, l. 24.]the centre of which is every where, the circumference no where. Voltaire attributed this famous saying to the pseudo-Timæus of Locris, an abridgement of Plato’s Timæus, but in neither work is the whole sentence to be found. The saying, however, is not originally Pascal’s. It is probably borrowed from Mlle. de Gournay’s preface to her edition of Montaigne, Paris, 1635, and was taken by her from Rabelais, bk. iii. ch. 13, where it is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. M. Havet, who gives these, and many more details, finally traces it, on the authority of Vincent de Beauvais, 1200-1264, to Empedocles.
[P. 21, l. 39.]I will discourse of the all. This saying of Democritus is taken by Pascal from Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii.
[P. 22, l. 6.]De omni scibili. The title given to nine hundred propositions, put forth at Rome by Pico della Mirandola, then aged twenty-three, in 1486.
[P. 22, l. 12.]The Principles of Philosophy. Descartes wrote a work with this title, Principia Philosophiæ.
[P. 22. l. 6.]Beneficia eo usque læta sunt. Tacitus, Ann. lib. iv. c. xviii. Taken by Pascal from Montaigne, Essais, l. iii. ch. viii.
[P. 24. l. 34.]And what completes our inability. Compare for the whole of the passage on matter and spirit, Descartes, Discours de la Méthode.
[P. 26, l. 2.]Modus quo corporibus adhæret spiritus. S. Aug. De Civitate Dei, xxi. 10. Taken by Pascal from Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xii.
[P. 27, l. 4.]Lustravit lampade terras. The full couplet is,
[P. 27. l. 31.]a fly is buzzing. Borrowed from Montaigne, Essais. l. iii. ch. xiii.
[P. 28, l. 1.]flies which win battles. Montaigne relates that the Portuguese besieging the town of Tamly were obliged to raise the siege on account of the clouds of flies. Essais, l. ii. ch. xii.
[P. 28, l. 23.]Memoria hospitis unius diei prætereuntis. Lib. Sap. v. 14.
[P. 30, l. 14.]Plerumque gratæ, altered from Hor. Carm. iii. 29, v. 13. plerumque gratæ divitibus vices.
[P. 30, l. 23.]Epaminondas. The example is taken from Montaigne, Essais, l. ii. ch. xxxvi.
[P. 32, l. 1.]Sneezing absorbs all the faculties. A paraphrase of a passage in Montaigne, Essais, l. iii. ch. v.
[P. 32, l. 8.]Scaramouch. One of the traditional parts in Italian Comedy, at that time played by the well-known actor Tiberio Fiorelli, whom Pascal had probably seen.
[P. 32, l. 9.]The doctor, also a common character in Italian farces. Molière has borrowed from the Italian stage his doctor, so often a pedant and a fool, of whom le docteur Pancrace, in Le Mariage Forcé, is perhaps the most notable example, though that comedy was produced after the death of Pascal.
[P. 32, l. 28.]the Condrieu, the Desargues. Gérard Desargues was a mathematician at Condrieu on the Rhone, who had been Pascal’s teacher. Among the Muscat grapes grown at Condrieu, Pascal distinguishes a special variety of Desargues, and among these a particular vine.
[P. 33, l. 10.]the Passion of Cleobuline. In Artamène, ou le Grand Cyrus, the celebrated romance of Mademoiselle de Scudery, Cleobuline, princess, afterwards queen of Corinth, is one of the principal characters. She is represented as in love with Myrinthe, one of her subjects, but “she loved him without thinking of love; and remained so long in her error, that when she became aware of it, her affection was no longer in a condition to be overcome.”