Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                          ESSAYS

27.  The Existential Sisyphus 

transition state. existentialism. energy. Ilya Prigogine. Ulf Grenander. physics and ethics. Sartre. Camus. Randall Collins. Pitirim Sorokin. Sisyphus.

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Essay 27.  The Existential Sisyphus


The image of Sisyphus has captured my imagination since my early school years.

In Russia, the history of Ancient World was taught in the fifth grade and mythology was part of it.  Besides, "Sisyphus' labor"  was a common expression in the Russian language and throughout my life I was periodically sentenced to what it meant. It was not as much futility as compulsion that depressed me in such work. My very first month of college experience was Sisyphus' labor in the corn fields of Ukraine, to which all the freshmen were condemned for the lack of hands on the collective farms. We were simply loaded into freight trains and open cargo trucks and unloaded in the midst of the steppe.
used the image of Sisyphus in Essays 23, 25, and 26, not for its philosophical connotation, but to illustrate the concept of transition state in individual and social life.

Sisyphus has to spend energy to accomplish his chore. Energy is a fundamental concept of Everything and not just physics. There is no definition of energy in some more primary terms. Energy in human life is what our brain and muscles have to spend in order to either accomplish something or to fail. They can spend it only if they first consume it.

The distinction between success and failure is alien to physics. Instead, physics offers a key distinction between two kinds of energy: creative work  and destructive heat. More important, it describes the ways to convert the latter into the former, which has been the true essence of the Industrial Revolution, our current civilization, and some of the current global conflicts.

Through the narrow isthmus of information theory, physical ideas penetrate the continent of humanities and spread north to south like the ancient Asian wanderers through the American continent.

Hundreds of millions of people on earth are still living off sheer muscle power. A few lucky nations live off the sale of energy taken from beneath the surface of the earth. Other nations keep themselves happy by converting the mineral energy and matter into countless Things and moving around. The Things in the form of weapons invade the jungles and deserts and disrupt the pre-industrial way of life without offering anything else.

The image of Sisyphus connects the physical and human aspects of energy. It links physics to ethics. This is a long shot: a Seattle to Miami highway on the map of Everything.  I am coming back to it again, hopefully, for the last time.

Transition state applies to a system in process of transition from one relatively stable state to another stable state.


Initial state
Final state
A piece of paper and the oxygen in the air
Ashes and gaseous products of combustion
A pack of cards
Building a house of cards
A house of cards, collapsed.
USA before the Civil War
War and Reconstruction
USA after Reconstruction
USSR in 1987
Collapse of Communism
Former USSR in 1991, no longer existing.
USA on 8:00 AM, September 11, 2001
War on terrorism
Unknown future


Of course, no final state can be literally final. "Final" is a metaphor.

Transition states can be subdivided into shorter intermediate periods of  lower and higher instability.

On September 11, 2001, America entered a historical transition state. There was an approximately two week long period of high agitation and some confusion, which ended in an intermediate quieter state of awareness and preparedness.  The next transition state was expected to be a military campaign and it started on October 7. The ideal final state would be the world with very low probability of  large scale terrorism over state borders.

The true transition state, by definition, cannot last long. It has to undergo relaxation somehow and decrease its energy. In social systems, transition state consumes so much energy that human nature, social structure, and productive forces simply cannot sustain this way of life. All wars end with victory, defeat, or peace treaty and all revolutions end up in  some kind of order, even if pregnant with another crisis.

The energy that is released in a burning piece of paper is a subject of physics.

The somewhat mysterious human energy that is released or transformed in acts of creation, destruction, and reform, is ultimately a form of the same universal energy because it all comes from food, but this does not tell us how to measure the spiritual energy of humans like we measure the electricity and gas consumption by corresponding meters.

I have no ready research on the subject of creative human energy, but some crude ways to measure it have been since long universally accepted . Thus, the number of scientific publications and the number of references to them in other publications are components of a measure of width and depth of scientific productivity. The number of publications alone does not characterize creativity.

Randall Collins, in his already mentioned (in Essay 24, On Myself ,) outstanding book  The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change  (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998), measures the eminence of a philosopher by the number of references to him in books on history of philosophy. He also introduces the emotional energy as one of the two major properties of a philosopher in competition with other philosophers for "attention space."  The other property is cultural capital that can be, probably, metaphorized as matter.

This kind of quantitative method (somebody called it "an orgy of tabulation")  in sociology can be traced back to Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), the American sociologist of Russian descent who in his multivolume Social and Cultural Dynamics (1937-1941) measured the intensity of historical process—its energy, as I would say—by the mere number of  acts of revolt, turmoil, and revolution. Sorokin's outstanding idea was to give a certain weight factor to the amplitude of the turmoil, so that a lot of small events would weigh as much as a few big ones.

In textbooks of sociology I found notes of surprise (for example, in George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, NY: A.Knopf, 1983) that Sorokin had been ignored by contemporary sociologists. Now it looks natural in the light of the competition for attention space and span. While natural sciences are collective enterprises where theoretical conflict is short-living and can be resolved by experiment and observation, social sciences are still in the transition to a collective and cooperative mode of operation by methodological consensus.

Even with such a hyper-ego-charged field as philosophy, where a newcomer first shatters all the existing temples and then proceeds to build his own edifice from the repainted bricks, the prospect of a unified approach seems more than fantasy. Randall Collins believes that a kind of meta-mathematics can be its ultimate distant shape.

Now, back to Sisyphus from whom a chain of links leads to philosophy and existentialism in particular.

Albert Camus' essay on Sisyphus, poetically vague, full of paradoxes, and with ample space for multiple interpretations, is considered an existentialist text. It is about suffering, time, and triumph.

Existentialist philosophy is a diverse and incongruent international collection of works themselves swathed into thick layers of interpretation.

Any philosophy (and usually a piece of scientific work) starts with declaring a problem.  Existentialism does so by rejecting the ancient idea, first introduced by Aristotle, that all humans are essentially equal. It discriminates between common man and an intellectual. The problem is the inherent, not just transient, anxiety, discomfort, anguish, and suffering of modern intellectual. The anguish, like modern laxative, comes in several flavors.

I would refer for existentialism itself to a web site (there are many others) and to a small and old book that states some existentialist tenets with incomparable clarity hardly found in the primary sources themselves:  Robert G. Olson, An Introduction to Existentialism, New York: Dover Publications, 1962.

This book does something the sources do not: it places existentialism as a configuration in the history of philosophy and shows what bricks of the wrecked old temples were used as they were, and which were repainted white to black, or, following Randall Collins' idea, taken with the minus sign, i.e., as negation.

I do not feel any affinity to existentialism and I am not much familiar with the original works, except Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. I have only a superficial, mostly from anthologies, knowledge of Kierkegaard and Sartre. All four possessed an intense imagination, creating a stream of metaphors and brilliant fragments. They all, especially, Kierkegaard, are illustrations of what temperature of a mental process is.

Sometimes, there is such a tumult in my head that it feels as though the roof had been lifted off my cranium, and then it seems as though the hobgoblins had lifted up a mountain and were holding a ball and festivities there—God preserve me!
(Soren Kierkegaard, Journals, February 9, 1838)

Prone, outstretched, trembling, Like him, half dead and cold, whose feet one warm'th-- And shaken, ah! by unfamiliar fevers, Shivering with sharpened, icy-cold frost-arrows, By thee pursued, my fancy! Ineffable!  Recondite!  Sore-frightening! Thou huntsman 'hind the cloud-banks! Now lightning-struck by thee, Thou mocking eye that me in darkness watcheth: Thus do I lie, Bend myself, twist myself, convulsed With all eternal torture, And smitten By thee, cruellest huntsman, Thou unfamiliarGOD...  (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, LXV).  

Sartre seems to me more calculating. Eloquent in polemics, he pattered on substance in his hyphenated, in the manner of German philosophy, jargon.

Love is a fundamental relation of the for-itself to the world and to itself (selfness) through a particular woman; the woman represents only a conducting body which is placed in the circuit. (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness).

The long range concepts, however, were open to different interpretations.

My private view is that Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who is regarded the unsuspecting founder of the movement, was part of the general movement of European psyche from the comfort of belonging to a privileged group such as social class (with ample leisure time) , position (teaching), education (university) , and creed (mainstream Christianity), in other words, from stable-state group mentality,  toward individualism, in which Renaissance and Montaigne in particular were true starters. His inflamed imagination was jumping over the landscape of individualism in all directions back and forth, never staying in a valley of a system, and it was the landscape itself that he left to be rediscovered later. Like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, he was a walking transition state, but unlike them, his transition was reversible: all valleys were equally green.  What Sartre did was an attempt to create a system. If the truth is subjective, no system is possible. With perfect logic, postmodernism swept away the very idea of truth.

When the society loses the rigid hierarchy and group structure that used to stretch the safety net under the upper windows and balconies, the intellectual suddenly feels naked, vulnerable, and burning in the hell of competition. No collective idea can offer comfort. A profitable sale can.

Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) and Nietzsche (1844-1900), two most intense, obsessed with religion, and psychotic writers of the well-mannered nineteenth century were in the vanguard of the next wave, unknowingly. No translation can render the pathology of Dostoyevsky in original, and Nietzsche in Zarathustra speaks for himself. Both were mentally unwell, diabolically creative, and feverishly intense. Both posthumously attracted scores of worshippers.

Preoccupied with the transient and problematic individual life, they came to opposite conclusions: Nietzsche appealed to the superman in man, while Dostoyevsky's ideals were selfless love, humility, self-restriction, and compassion. With hindsight, we can consider them prophets of the nightmares of next century. A lover, family man, and intellectual is given a gun and sent to kill and be killed.

Fascism appropriated Nietzsche, but very few can see that the Dostoyevsky's ideal of humility and self-sacrifice was partly incorporated into Stalinism and subsequent Communist ethics. As it was typical for that period, access to his books under Stalin was restricted, he was declared reactionary, and was not studied at school. Both writers were posthumously recruited into the existentialist camp together with Kierkegaard who published his books at his own expense, mostly, under pseudonyms and was translated from Danish only in 1941.

NOTE : Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) connected the names of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and  used the term "existential philosophy."  Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), not a writer but a pure and complex philosopher, denied his link to the movement, but was hooked up anyway.  I have an impression that philosophy of the twentieth century was in the same relation to their predecessors as abstract art to classical one.

I believe that existentialism, as we know it, was single-handedly created and promoted by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Philosophy went on sale.

NOTE: Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies is full of sparkling and irreverent observations and outbursts. Existentialism takes slapping on both cheeks from him . He brands existentialism as  “...the highbrow end of the writer’s market.” “literary-academic hybrid” (p.764-756). He notes that  "Sartre was the first philosopher in history to be heavily publicized by popular mass-media."   To analyze  postmodernism for him was beyond dignity.

Still, the knot of controversies in Sartre is intriguing.

Sartre and his generation  lived under the shadows of Marx, Hitler and Stalin. The third wave, and, especially, Sartre, was driven by the humiliating personal experience of the world wars, as well as by infatuation and subsequent disappointment in Marxism.  Personal lives of practically all existentialist writers were deeply troubled for different reasons and they had a brush with one historical rhinoceros or another.

What they all discovered, I believe, was a deep inequality of people before the fate, otherwise called God. The fate was unjust. The fate was deaf to all religious and philosophical principles, intelligence, sophistication, education, and self-perception of the victim. The fate spat on Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel. The fate was lawless.
The "discovery" had been previously made by countless number of common and privileged people throughout history. The memoirs of the glorious Pope Innocent III (1160?-1216) begin with the words: "What is man if not ashes and dirt?" The fate in the person of God was given the credit of the doubt and accepted.

Atheistic existentialism created a new faith centered around individual who was lost among other countless individuals. The existential creed was neither monotheism nor polytheism. It was multitheism or autotheism: each individual was his own god, with all due reverence to God, and had to make his own fate—something known since long, natural, and subject of pride in America. A God's blessing was simply a start whistle for the fight. Paradoxically, the suffering individual had to listen...  not to himself, as the logic would require, but to Sartre and Co. who incredibly complexified simple dilemmas of everyday life and repackaged the old and simple personal philosophy of the common man.

Why then was Sartre so involved with Marxism?  I believe that the political doctrine offered to individualists a new group platform with the promise: the happy ones, the bourgeois, will be punished. This is how Marxism recruited intelligentsia in Russia and abroad.

Kierkegaard sounds like Marx when he lashes out at happy bourgeois:

Morality is to them the highest, far more important than intelligence; but they have never felt enthusiasm for greatness, for talent even though in its abnormal form. Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homethickness for something unknown and faraway, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all...(Soren Kierkegaard,  The Journals,  July 14, 1837)

It (capitalism) has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistic calculation
 Marx, Engels,  The Communist Manifesto, Part 1.

Somebody who cannot be happy, cannot stand the sight of happiness around. A cynical believer in simple reason, I see a straight line between the terrible poverty in which Marx and his family lived in London and his idea of expropriating the bourgeoisie ("In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend." Manifesto, Part 2).

So much for existentialism. I am ashamed of my own cynicism.

As Tanweer Akram noted, existentialism was confusing but intoxicating.

Regardless the answers, the questions existentialism raised were legitimate. It was about the detailed philosophical mechanism of human life, not about grand abstractions.

To my own surprise, I found some parallels between existentialism and the concept of transition state.

My link to Albert Camus' Sisyphus is the metaphor of a hill, energy, and work. Camus was interested in the moment when Sisyphus was descending the hill, for a short while free of his burden. In the natural, not mythical, transition process, it is the least interesting part because it is spontaneous and does not require effort. It is like the behavior of the basketball when it  has already gone through the hoop: it does not matter.

The existential view of life is a chain of decisions that man has to make. The doomed Sisyphus of the myth cannot make any decision: all decisions have been made for him. Whatever he thinks and feels does not matter: the ball has gone through the hoop. Camus' essay is a piece of art that has as much to do with life as Picasso's nudes with his models.

And yet there is a deep truth in the existentialist metaphor: choice as transition from deterministic being to unpredictable and pregnant with novelty becoming.

The question is how the future is made. Can we influence it? Should we just rely on God in heaven or God of Spinoza under our feet? How should we accept suffering? How can we avoid it?  Those are some of the questions philosophy tried to answer by searching with the mental flashlight over immutable and internal ideas, God, spirit, laws of nature, and even the transient and fleeting surface of things.

Unlike philosophy, physics has a limited yet universal vocabulary of thermodynamics for the entire diversity of the world.  For physics, life and society are open systems far from equilibrium. It is the relation between consumption and dissipation of energy (production of order)  that characterizes their dynamics.

If in my metaphorical illustrations I use energy instead of production of order, it is with the sole purpose of simplifying of the picture. The accurate, although not complete, physical picture can be found in popular form in the numerous books by  Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Laureate in physics whose autobiography  clearly shows him as a Renaissance man deeply immersed in arts and humanities.

The title of one of his books, From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences, ( San Francisco: W. H. Freeman & Co.,1980), restates the central problem of existentialist philosophy, although he, as far as I know, did not join any philosophical ranks. He wrote in an  interview :

I have attempted to build a physics that  incorporates time at the elementary level. In other words, I want to give a new formulation to the idea of  laws of nature: Rather than speaking about these laws as deterministic, I want to express them in a  way that involves both probability and "irreversibility" - chance and time. The same cause does not always yield the same effect, either on the macro or on the elementary level.

On a different occasion (1983) :

The new description of time puts in a new perspective the question of the ethical value of science. This question could have no meaning in a world viewed as an automaton. It acquires a meaning in a vision in which time is a construction in which we all participate.

These two quotations, plucked from the Web, in no way can substitute for Prigogine's popular books, as none of my Essays can substitute for printed sources, but they give a taste of both the author's ambition and his existentialist stimulus. Prigogine was interested in the major problems posed by modern philosophy: being and becoming, equilibrium and irreversibility, novelty and boredom, choice and chance—the landscape mapped by Sartre along the travel journals of Kierkegaard.

My personal vision of existence of complex systems comes from Ilya Prigogine and  Ulf Grenander. I apply it equally to an individual and society. Both can be torn apart, fell in love, swing between sadism (of nationalism) and masochism (of multiculturalism), suffer defeat and intoxication of victory, build, destroy, trade, waste, reform, grow, fell ill, and die.

I have to repeat once again two illustrations from my previous essays.

In the mythical Underworld, the doomed Sisyphus has no choice. He cannot change his future. His circular present consists of repeating the same cycle of rolling the rock uphill and following it down.

This picture symbolizes for me the deterministic world where the future is entirely predictable and the laws of  Nature are known. Contrary to Camus, he is the common man, a robot. He gets up every morning to do his quote and goes to bed with his stone as the pillow. 


In the real world, humans and nations have hope, aspiration, and their own design of the future. An optimistic Sisyphus of the upper world imagines his future as a green valley on the other side of the hill. He spends energy to overcome the obstacle of gravity and reaches the top. He has a good chance to run after the stone toward the cheerful trees where he can finally rest.

As the physical vision of the world tells us, the factor of probability interferes with human will at this point. There is only a chance, with probability from 0 to 1, but usually much less extreme, that the stone will tumble down the other side. This is what happens in the inanimate nature.

My last long picture shows the Sisyphus of the simplified existential vision of life.


The existential Sisyphus has his vision of the other side which can be quite unrealistic, as I tried to show with the color of the trees. Sisyphus is a realist and he knows that there is a largely unknown landscape behind the hill but he believes that he will be able to repeat his deed, if not at the first attempt, and reach the next valley. New vistas will open ahead, and the same general scenario will be repeated, but not in detail, and these are the limits of human power over the future. Nobody knows which hill will be last. The novelty is the reward for the toil. Contrary to Einstein, God casts dice.

The picture can be interpreted, trans-metaphorized, for example, as the personal philosophy of Don Juan, for whom a woman is just a short stay in a valley and the meaning of life is in the very process of climbing the hill and the novelty of the new vistas. For Don Juan, however, all the distant hills are green and there is no gray color in the palette of the fate.

The picture equally applies to the philosophy of  writer, politician, and scientist, with different kinds of accomplishment (not excluding that of Don Juan). The movie Quills, however disgusting, carries the idea perfectly.

I see no borderline, however, between an intellectual and a common man. Paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, the intellectual is a common man who does not know that he is common. I see no reason to abolish the old idea of Aristotle and castigate the common man, as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (and Francis Fukuyama after him) did. The difference is simply in the abilities, imagination, goals, and the roughness of the terrain. The difference is in detail. The intellectual is as much a sublimation of the common man as compulsive travel is sublimation of watching the TV travel channel.

Two things lacked from the initial general picture of  Prigogine's universe, and I believe he completed it in his latest books.

First, it is the phenomenon of competition. Crowds of people are rolling their stones up the same hill and they  help or hinder each other. Besides, the valley can house only a limited number of inhabitants, so that the landscape is in a continuous flux, as if it were made of soft rubber.

The idea of competition comes from Darwin. It was elegantly translated into a physical form by Manfred Eigen , a Nobel Laureate (1967) in Chemistry, and, not accidentally, a musician. It became one of cornerstones of the modern science of complexity, the major problem with which is that it is has become very complex.

NOTE:  The complexity of the science of complexity can both add to and subtract from the status of science of complexity as mathematoid philosophy of the future, for which science of complexity has no claims. It is a developing and exciting area of mathematics inseparable from computing.

Social competition, in the form it takes in democracy, did not always exist. Even a superficial look at  history shows that the precarious competitive landscape is a relatively new phenomenon. In authoritarian societies the absolute majority of people knew their place. I mean here not the competition between a handful of kings or their vassals, but the competition of  a large, actually, indefinite numbers of participants, so that I do not dispute Collins' vision (see his "law of small numbers").

Second, it is the concrete difference between people, landscapes, their stones, and their visions of the valley. This—structural—type of vision is completely absent from physics and even from the science of complexity. It is common for chemistry, biology, anthropology, and history. It is also common for everyday life where we never encounter a man or a woman but only somebody with a face, name, gender, voice, and smile, or at least a social security number.

The task of developing the general principles of a theory of differences between individual objects was accomplished by Ulf Grenander in Pattern Theory.  Other much less general and, apparently, independent undertakings in the same key belong to Christopher Alexander (Essay 23) and Randall Collins, not to mention the entire science of chemistry. The key word here is pattern.

Since I am interested here only in a map of knowledge and not in the knowledge itself, I have to stop here, on the threshold of an immense, exciting, and frustrating area where I was wandering  for twenty years as tourist without map.

Existentialism did not develop any consistent and non-trivial ethics. Reading Olson, and, especially, Collins,  I asked myself: what is my personal philosophy? Here is a draft.

1. Accept possibility of defeat.
2.  Forgive yourself.
3.  Hate nobody.
4.  Love very few.

5. Believe in simple reasons.
6. Do not go with the crowd. 
7. Roll your stone uphill
8. Your philosophy fits only yourself

            If only I could follow my own philosophy...  But then I would be a robot.


1.  Quotation from an  Interview with  New Perspectives Quarterly  (Spring, 1992).

 NPQ: You don't see a danger in the utopian perspective? Much of modernism was spent forging one  utopia or another, which led more often than not to some fairly horrific consequences.

PRIGOGINE: I am more afraid of a lack of utopias. I am afraid of the drying out of incentive. For  example, if you think about politics for a moment, life becomes very uninteresting if incentives for  conduct are limited strictly to economic exchanges. However, when we bring in the idea of nature, and  visions of the natural world we would like to live in, or the idea of other civilizations, and the  relationships we would like to have with them, "politics" takes on a whole new meaning.

2. The masochistic elitism of existentialism seems to have been avenged by the plebeian sadism of postmodernism.

3. Randall Collins occupies my mind even more than Sisyphus. I simply must give a sample of his style, which is also an example of physical vision of elite humanitarian world:

Visualize a small number of particles—three to six—moving through a tunnel of time; each draws energy from its past momentum, renewed and accelerated by repulsion from the other particles. This tunnel is the attention space of the intellectual world; indeed the tunnel is created by the movement of the particles and the tensions that connect them. The tunnel’s walls are not fixed; it extends forward in time only so long as the negative interplay of the particles keeps up a sufficient level of energy. As arguments intensify, the tunnel becomes brighter, more luminous in social space; and as positions rigidify, going their own way without reference to one another, the attention space fades.

Surrounding the tunnel are the ordinary concerns of the lay society. Persons on the outside notice the intellectual tunnel only as much as the glow of its debates makes it visible from a distance. Intellectual stratification is represented by distance from the core of the tunnel. The walls of the tunnel are no more than a moving glow generated from within. The trajectories of the particles and the borders between light and shadow are seen most sharply at the center, by viewers situated on the main energy lines. The farther one is from the central zone, the harder it is to see where the walls are, this membrane of relevance for the controversialists inside it. In the half-light of semi-focused regions, it is easy to mistake residues of old arguments for the central issues that will generate the forward thrust of the attention space. Provincials, latecomers, and autodidacts flail in the wake of past disputes but do not catch up with the bright center of energy. (Pages 791-792).

Sorry, I have to cut it. This is what I call a great metaphor! I think that Collins' general vision is applicable to any kind of intellectual, artistic, and, to a large extent, even scientific production, but, unfortunately, not to the fact that so much, if not most, of art, literature, and science is made by "provincials, latecomers, and autodidacts." Stendhal once noted that one can see well-dressed people in Paris but real characters can be found only in province. Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein were controversialists.

 4. While existentialism considered individual life as object, any thermodynamical approach could be applied only to large ensembles, such as society. Something like  thermodynamics of small systems (in the sense of Essay 24), as far as I know, is a wasteland. Nevertheless, pattern theory and social psychology suggest that this could be possible by using probability as measure of energy and energy as measure of probability, correspondingly.

           5.  P.S. (2016) See the conclusion of Essay 60.
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