A Providential Thomist-Byzantine Synthesis: A Review on Matthew Briel’s “A Greek Thomist” [Part II]

A Providential Thomist-Byzantine Synthesis: A Review on Matthew Briel’s “A Greek Thomist” [Part II]

In last month’s first part of the review series on Matthew Briel’s A Greek Thomist, I analyzed Briel’s survey of the background context to the 15th-century Gennadios Scholarios on providence, focusing on his overview of three influential early Byzantines (Origen, Maximus the Confessor, and John of Damascus) and Thomas Aquinas. One of the general conclusions that we saw him draw from the Byzantine tradition is the strong emphasis they place on human free choice, to the implicit or explicit declination of divine foreknowledge and providence. Hence, God’s providential oversight, especially for Origen and John, extends only to nature, but not to human rational choice: in some cases like Origen, God is said to foreknow only good actions, since rational choices for what is good are consequently a participation in the Good-itself, i.e. God; in other cases, like John Damascus, God is said not to exercise providence over rational choosing in any capacity, esp. in John’s phrase (following the Stoics and other late ancients), concerning the “things up to us” (τὰ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν). By contrast for Aquinas, as Briel argues, God exercises providential ordering over human choices, both good and bad, as well as the general outcomes of nature and the cosmos. The key factor that allows for Aquinas to affirm this and to affirm human freedom is his distinction between primary and secondary causality:1 hence while God foreknows, and orders, human actions as a primary cause, humans still possess real freedom in exercising rational choice (whether good or bad) as secondary causes. So Briel emphasizes.

Now that I have finished the second half of Briel’s book, which focuses on Scholarios in himself, I can say that, yes, one does indeed see Scholarios weaving together Thomist thought within a Byzantine tapestry on the topic of providence. However, I do not yet find myself convinced of a few things in Briel’s argument: for instance that Scholarios is getting his position on individual providence solely from Aquinas (as I read him, at least), and that Scholarios’ position is essentially distinct from Aquinas’—at least this is hard to tell for me. But first, let me summarize Scholarios’ position from Briel’s second half of Greek Thomist.

Briel begins his analysis of Scholarios’ argument on providence in his On Divine Providence and Pre-Determination: A Topic Worth Serious Attention (Περὶ θείας προνοίας καὶ προορισμοῦ: σπουδαῖον), dating to 1458–1459 AD. As Briel argues in the previous Chapter 5, Scholarios’ contentious engagement with Gemistos Plethon set the scene for his later work on providence after Plethon’s death in 1454. As Briel observes, Plethon set out a number of arguments defending a roughly “Platonist” understanding of God, creation, and providence, over against an Aristotelian conception—arguments Scholarios took to be a revival and defense of pagan polytheism.2 In particular, Plethon argues that God and creatures fall under the same genus of being, and that God should be understood not simply as an unmoved mover, as in an Aristotelian construal (as held by Scholarios), but that God should be seen as the producer of other creatures’ being. Presumably the idea in this claim is that “like causes like”, i.e. the cause must pre-contain that which it produces: hence creatures receive their being from God, who is Being-itself.3 This seems to play an important metaphysical role in Plethon’s views of providence and fate in Briel’s account: in his Laws, Plethon claims a strong, Stoic-like account of fate, according to which everything that the gods determine for the future happens necessarily (pp. 69–70). On this telling, it would seem Plethon doesn’t account for human freedom in any way—even in the way even later Stoics would permit within their determinist (or perhaps rather “compatibilist”) system.4

This seems to be one of the main motivators, as Briel portrays it, behind Scholarios’ full-fledged explication of providence in his treatise, even though he doesn’t address Plethon explicitly, let alone coming some years after Plethon’s death. Briel goes through some further historical and metaphysical background in Scholarios’ reading of Aquinas’ (and briefly Scotus’)5 metaphysics and interpretation of Aristotle in Chapter 6, but for now I move on to the basic argument on providence in Scholarios in Chapter 7. In there, we find Scholarios broadly endorsing Aquinas’ understanding of God6 and creatures, and his formulation on providence. In particular, Scholarios embraces Aquinas’ distinction of being between God and creatures, such that “God alone exists in the chief sense” (αὐτὸς μόνος κυρίως ὤν), while God is said to create “the things that are called beings” (ποιεὶ μὲν τὰ ὄντα λεγόμενα).

Following from this, Scholarios also embraces Aquinas’ distinction between primary and secondary causality, where creatures possess their own, distinct form of causality in bringing about an effect alongside God’s causality. Scholarios is stronger in the notion of co-causality, referring to God’s causality as a “coming together”, or lit. “running together” (συντρέχειν). He will also refer to creatures’ causality as “instrumental” (ὀργανική/instrumentalis) in relation to God as the first, chief cause. Borrowing on this, Scholarios re-uses Aquinas’ metaphor of the arrow hitting its mark from Summa Th. I.23.1 (Respondeo), although with a noteworthy difference from Aquinas:

And so the good providence sends the arrow toward the target good-naturedly, and it gently helps to push the arrow along if the arrow is willing also to drive itself, and if from there it is carried off track and does not obey the one who sent it on its way well and is helping to push it on its way and is even making a path for it, then it does not attain its target; instead that arrow lies trampled underfoot. And yet all of this is not a kind of weakness of the foreknowledge regarding it nor ill will toward it. (Œuvres Compl. 1:397,24–34 [Jugie et al.]; trans. Briel)

In Aquinas’ version, the emphasis is placed on the arrow being driven by God alone. Here, Scholarios noticeably changes the emphasis to the arrow “driving itself”—in a way making the metaphor improper, as far as describing the arrow in terms more proper to a living thing. The emphasis of course reflects the overarching theme of earlier Greek patristic figures emphasizing the role of human action, like Maximus the Confessor’s notion of the person “making him/herself worthy” for the grace dwelling in that person—here reflected in Scholarios’ image of the arrow “driving itself”. This leads to Scholarios’ conclusion:

…since, as I said above, human beings cannot be forced to accept the good. So, although man is guided to it, he is not forced to take that good. So a double end has been prepared for man…. And so it is that one person is prepared for the two lands and ways of life according to nature and is assigned to one of the two by the actions of his life that were according to nature. (Œuvres Compl. 1:398,12 ff. [Jugie et al.]; trans. Briel)

The notable emphasis here is Scholarios’ claim that each person has “two ends” prepared for him/her, dependent on that person’s choice: that choice becomes the basis of being “assigned” one of the two ends. In one way then, each person confirms his/her own choice for the two ends—either towards the good, as intended by God, or towards its privation, i.e. evil, the second “end”. In this context, Briel claims that Scholarios fundamentally differs from the Latin theological tradition with his use of the term, προορίζω, “to pre-define” or “pre-determine”, as not meaning force or necessity, in the way implied by praedestinare:

Note how different this is from the Latin-Pauline sense of προορίζω translated praedestinare in the Vulgate at Romans 8:29 and received as such by the Latin scholastic tradition. While Paul may well have meant προορίζω as “predestine” with the valence of “force,” the valence of the Greek word also allows, and perhaps more fundamentally is, “to predetermine.” It is this other hermeneutical option, open to Greek readers but closed off by the Latin translation, praedestinare, that the Greek theological tradition, and Scholarios with it, will pursue. This is the germ of the fundamental difference between Scholarios and Aquinas, and certainly between Scholarios and the rest of the Latin theological tradition. (p. 109)

The sense I take from Briel’s claim here is that “pre-determination” implies boundaries set for man’s end, either to good (i.e. heaven) or bad (i.e. privation of the good, or hell)—in contradistinction to the more necessitarian/determinist bent of praedestinare that would imply more solely one or the other end. This would go in hand with Scholarios’ metaphor of the arrow “driving itself”: man would then be responsible for determinately placing himself in the good or its privation. God would then be responsible for the “bounds” that result, whether the good or its respective privation.

Scholarios illustrates this in the case of John the Baptist and Herod, where neither John nor Herod were necessitated in their respective choices for good or evil, but both chose of their own wills. Simultaneously, God fore-knew and pre-determined the bounds of their respective outcomes:

Now the divine knowledge [co-chooses] the whole of human choice and action just as it does by itself regarding everything whatsoever, and at the same time it is carried toward the last [eschaton]. Wherefore, it is the one and the same in what is permitted and in the same way is necessary, for all things are dependent on [divine foreknowledge] in such a way that it7 is the infinite and common cause of all things. And thus not only does it know all the conduct of both, but also it naturally co-arranges the former in the divine predetermination and the latter in its own work. It helped in arranging the grace that was offered to Herod, but grace is excluded from this man because the light of grace is not able to co-dwell in the darkness, nor ought it to shine on those who would be saved involuntarily rather than voluntarily.

And grace did not make John think that the fearful thing was not fearful or simply to exult in dying, but rather, grace made it that John was given to see that there is something more fearful than he who is able to kill the body but is not able to touch the soul, as the scriptures advise, and for that reason [he was able] to choose death courageously and with warm love of God to hand over the soul for the sake of the teachings of the Beloved. (OC 1:406,18 ff. [Jugie et al.]; trans. Briel, p. 117)

Briel includes this passage in a larger, extended quotation from Scholarios’ analysis of God’s predetermination in the interplay between John and Herod: for instance, considering to what degree John’s decision for the good was prompted by Herod’s who choice for evil (i.e. arresting John for his accusations of sin against Herod), and vice versa. Overall Scholarios emphasizes that God orders the events from each person’s respective outcomes, yet their respective choices are ultimately not the direct, necessitated result of the external circumstances arranged by God—but instead the result of their own respective soul’s deliberation and decision.

In his commentary on the passage, Briel pushes back against those like Martin Jugie—the editor of Scholarios’ texts—who claim that Scholarios holds to a Molinist stance on providence, which would generally claim there is a distinct, separate domain of human libertarian choice (correlating to “nature”) apart from the domain of divine choice of outcomes (correlating to “grace”). Briel argues (I think successfully) that Scholarios’ account does not accept this distinction: God is involved in both the human choice of good (as grace given and accepted, like John’s case) and evil (as grace given and rejected, hence privation, like Herod’s case), hence there is no true separation. Unlike the Augustinian tradition which attempts to dissect at which point there is the human initiative alone in contrast to the divine initiative, for Briel “Scholarios refuses to dissect this mysterious synergy in the way that the Augustinian tradition did” (p. 119).8

Hence, Scholarios follows Aquinas in re-contextualizing John of Damascus’ claim that divine providence is not concerned with “the things up to us” (τὰ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν): it is not so concerned in terms of necessitating “things up to us”, i.e. choice, insofar as voluntary agency is affirmed, but it is involved in providentially determining the bounds of that choice, whether for good or evil. Unlike Aquinas and the previous Augustinian tradition, Scholarios appears to affirm the domain of human agency more strongly, especially in his claim of God’s foreknowledge of “two ends” for humans—even while God knows the future outcome of each choice. In this respect this perhaps goes with Scholarios’ implicit denial of the Augustinian notion of the irresistibility (perhaps Stoic-like necessity?) of elective grace:9 by contrast, Scholarios holds, with the prior Greek tradition, that God orders all by nature to heavenly salvation in the good, yet in permitting voluntary choice, God also pre-ordains the outcome for heaven and hell, with the good and its privation, with human choice. In this sense, God is still the primary cause of the providential ordering of the universe, including all human rational choices.

There are still many questions and further observations worth making that I cannot unfortunately make here. For now I wish to list four things.

First, while granting that Briel’s discussion is mostly a commentary and analysis on Scholarios’ text, it is still somewhat unclear to my mind how Scholarios claims that God pre-determines “two ends” in human choice, and yet determinately knows the outcome of that choice towards one end. Maybe there is a better way to explain this, but Briel’s elaboration on this interplay is unfortunately not so clear. Perhaps the idea is that God establishes the good, via the principles of being (e.g. the logoi immanent in nature/beings, ala Maximus the Confessor—which, Briel observes, Scholarios explicitly cites), according to which one’s choice to live by the logoi—or to turn away from them—is where the pre-determination of “two ends” obtains. In turn, God’s foreknowledge of the final, determined outcome of each human choice towards one or the other end is his ordering of future contingent individuals in determinate positions. So far this would sound very much like Boethius, or in turn Proclus’ construal of providence, according to which God/the gods foreknow all indeterminate things in a determinate way—while their mode of being as pure unity means that they cannot be determined in themselves: we cannot truly understand their “determinacy” of what are future contingents from our vantage point.

This brings me to another point: Briel underplays the ultimate figure in the background behind Aquinas, Scholarios, Maximus the Confessor, and much of the Greek tradition (other than Origen) on providence: Proclus. Nothing is said about Proclus’ formulation on providence, which seems to have clear parallels here, especially in Aquinas’ distinction between primary and secondary causality. It is really Proclus who first develops this latter idea systematically throughout his metaphysics, particularly the distinction between one unparticipated cause and many participated principles, which define within their own, individual domains the universality of their prior, unparticipated cause (see e.g. Proclus’ Elements of Theology Prop’s. 23/24). Hence each individual soul’s voluntary choice, in defining its own domain, is preserved, while the gods, as existing on the level of the One/unity, exercise individual (as well as universal) providence in accounting for the specifications of each soul in its choice.10 In turn, Ps.-Dionysius implicitly carries forward this idea, and it is largely thanks to Ps.-Dionysius (as well as Aquinas’ reading of Avicenna, the Liber de Causis, et al.) that Aquinas formulates his distinction between primary and secondary causality. It goes without saying, much of the same ideas from Proclus into Ps.-Dionysius are present in Maximus the Confessor, thanks to his embrace of Ps.-Dionysius. One hence wonders how much Scholarios’ doctrine of providence is also coming from a more careful reading of Ps.-Dionysius and Maximus, in addition to his readings of Aquinas and other Scholastics. In any case, it is somewhat surprising that Briel does not discuss this common background in depth, especially considering that the Byzantine tradition already possessed the outlines of Aquinas’ framework of primary and secondary causality—thanks ultimately to their common heritage in Proclus.

Further on the subject of Proclus, one of the more deeply unfortunate, misleading claims in Briel’s book is his juxtaposing Proclus, or Neoplatonism more generally, against Aquinas’ framework. Briel asserts that Aquinas’ framework is a “modified Aristotelianism, not Platonism”—implicitly pushing back against scholarship in the last 30–40 years that has turned the tide against the solo-Aristotelianizing focus of Aquinas work in the early- to mid-20th century. In this Briel cites Thomas Hibbs,11 who claims that, “Thomas repudiates the neo-Platonic view of creation as a fracturing of sheer actuality and utter simplicity”, which Briel takes to mean that “Aquinas has posited an understanding of being that exists in two modes: one is absolute and the other is a received being or actuality. Creatures, then, receive being or actuality ‘to which they have no right’” (p. 88). Yet this is a sharply incomplete picture—a bad stereotyping of Neoplatonism, especially Proclus. Proclus’ conception of the One as unparticipated, and the derivation of unity from the One (and henads) to be Being and all beings, is the pre-Christian/creationist correlate: beings possess their existence according to unity (= “relative being”), hence they depend on a principle granting them that unity (= “absolute being”). Aquinas simply replaces Proclus’ “unity” with esse/existence, thanks largely to Avicenna and his understanding of existence and essence, with the first cause as the necessary existent (= “absolute being”), and all beings receiving being (= “relative being”) from it. The only main difference from Proclus is Aquinas’ maintenance that God creates all things by will, thus with a temporal beginning, in contrast to Proclus’ idea that the One produces all things necessarily without will. In general, Briel fails to address multiple scholarly works on Aquinas’ debt to Proclus and Neoplatonist thought for his framework—such as that by Fran O’Rourke,12 Wayne Hankey,13 Richard Taylor,14 and so on. Briel thus ends up repeating a very tired-out caricature of late Neoplatonism by earlier Thomists with an incomplete, if slanted, reading of Aquinas’ sources.

Finally Briel argues in various places (e.g. p. 70, etc.) that Scholarios’ Aristotelianism comes mainly, if solely, through his reading of Aquinas. I do not dispute that the majority of Scholarios’ interpretation of Aristotle comes through Aquinas, however it is simply unclear to me that there is no previous engagement with Aristotle’s metaphysics in earlier Byzantines. Take for instance Nicholas of Methone (late 12th century), who always quotes Aristotle (roughly 15 times or so) in his commentary on Proclus’ Elements of Theology with either silent or explicit approval with Christian doctrine—a number of those times on metaphysical topics, or on the soul. Other authors like George Pachymeres (later 13th/early 14th centuries) “Christianize” Aristotle not just in the Organon, which Briel notes well most all Byzantines use, but also in his Physics and metaphysics in general. Briel—at least I got this impression—seems to treat Scholarios as analogously “Christianizing” Aristotle’s metaphysics, as Aquinas did for Latins, for a Byzantine audience that was simply unaware or uninterested in Aristotle outside the Organon.15 Obviously it’s clear this isn’t true—and it is unfortunate that Briel does not at least mention this kind of background.

Despite these (rather important) concessions, they pale compared to the immense service Matthew Briel has provided with the first-ever account of providence in such an illustrious late Byzantine figure as Gennadios Scholarios, coming at the pinnacle of the brief period of Byzantine scholasticism, at the twilight of the Empire. Briel’s book is especially welcome in light of much of 20th-century Orthodox theology that has maintained a very confused, maligned picture of divine providence in contrast to Church teaching maintained between the 15th to 19th centuries—indeed, owing in large part to the successful integration of Aquinas’ insights in a Byzantine key. Briel’s book is especially worth reading for those interested in seeing the successful harmonization of Latin scholastic thought and the Byzantine tradition in an important topic like divine providence: unstated by Briel, all thanks in great part to the surprising wisdom of the pagan philosopher, Proclus.

  1. Thus one example Aquinas uses: while God is the primary cause of the existence of heat from a fire, the fire itself is the secondary cause of the same heat’s existence—in other words, fire in its nature is responsible for the heat, in a real, distinct way, in contrast to God’s causality as responsible for the existence of both fire and heat. 

  2. See e.g. p. 69 ff., where Plethon’s Laws/Nomoi were set up as “a sort of neo-pagan version of Plato’s work of the same name”. In general Briel seems to accept Scholarios’ charge that Plethon actively tried to re-establish a pagan, polytheist philosophical (and religious?) framework, following the claim of Niketas Siniossoglou from his 2011 book (Radical Platonism in Byzantium, Cambridge Univ. Press) of a current of “subversive paganism” in later Byzantine thought, stretching from John Italos through Plethon. On the other hand, those like George Karamanolis (and contingently myself—while admitting I’ve still much to read of Plethon) push back against this claim of Plethon’s “paganism”, arguing for instance that Plethon “wants to break with that tradition of seeing ancient philosophy through Christian glasses. This does not automatically amount to paganism or to rejection of Christianity, as Scholarios would have us believe. Pletho rather wishes to replace Christianity with the tradition of ancient philosophy as the criterion of judging ancient philosophers”. (On the latter, see G. Karamanolis (Forthcoming), “Pletho and Scholarios on Using and Abusing Plato and Aristotle”, in A. Corrias, E. Del Soldato (eds.), Harmony and Contrast: Platonism and Aristotelianism in the Renaissance, Oxford: Oxford University Press.) 

  3. Curiously, as Briel notes, Plethon subsequently rejects Proclus’ (and nearly all Neoplatonists’) refusal to attribute being to the One as the first cause: cf. p. 79, n. 67. As is apparent, both here and perhaps even in his claim of the univocity of being, Plethon marks a massive departure from the Neoplatonist tradition. Unfortunately Briel doesn’t seem to make much of this in some of his overgeneralized claims of Plethon’s “Neoplatonism”. (Furthermore, it is curious that Briel outlines the strong philosophical pitfalls of Plethon’s advocacy for the univocity of beings, but when mentioning Duns Scotus’ own position on the univocity of being (in p. 96 and 179n47), says nothing about this.) 

  4. On the Stoics’ compatibilism, see the relevant section on Stoics in the new, recent entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Ancient Theories of Freedom and Determinism

  5. Cf. pp. 95–96. 

  6. Albeit with certain, important modifications thanks to his endorsement of St. Gregory Palamas’ distinction in God between the divine essence (οὐσία) and activities/energies (ἐνέργειαι). Briel (pp. 96–97) points to Scholarios’ translation/commentary on another commentary of Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia (ch’s. 94–95), where Scholarios says that the distinction of essence/energies in God is “neither entirely real…nor only notional” (οὔτε πάντῃ πραγματικῶς…οὔτε κατ᾽ ἐπίνοιαν μόνην)—despite following Aquinas’ formulation of the identity of esse and essentia in God (ch. 85). In this, Scholarios implicitly uses a variation of Duns Scotus’ formal distinction for this media via between πραγματικῶς and κατ᾽ ἐπίνοιαν. 

  7. Briel chooses to personify “divine foreknowledge” as “her”, which doesn’t make much sense to me (especially with the potential danger of conflating with the 19th-century Russian idea of Sophia as a distinct divine person). Here I choose to translate as the impersonal. 

  8. It also bears mentioning how much Scholarios differs from Augustine, and hence Aquinas, in this respect. As Briel notes in the conclusion: “[…] it is a renewed Thomism, a distinctively Orthodox Thomism, that Scholarios proposes. Because he does not emphasize, as
    Augustine and therefore Aquinas did, election, Scholarios’s theology of grace differs from that of Aquinas and the later Latin tradition. Instead of election—the choosing of an individual for salvation based not on merits or cooperation with grace but rather based on God’s own inscrutable will—Scholarios proposes, with the Greek theological tradition, a theology of synergy. This theology of cooperation does not do away with the biblical truth of election (Eph. I:5–6) but rather combines it with an awareness that human beings make a real if secondary contribution toward their sanctification. Indeed, all good human acts have their initiative in the human will cooperating with grace. According to Scholarios and the Greek theological tradition, however, a human being is capable of rejecting this grace or refusing to cooperate with it. Scholarios thus sidesteps the entire sixteenth-century de auxiliis controversy that would arise out of a Thomistic framework and that remains unsettled to this day, for it was a presupposition of both the Jesuits and the Dominicans that grace was irresistible” (p. 130). In this respect, it is noteworthy how Scholarios can re-use Aquinas’ primary/secondary causal distinction, without also accepting Aquinas’ subsequent position on the irresistibility of elective grace in this scheme. 

  9. See previous footnote. 

  10. See e.g. Proclus’ Ten Problems Concerning Providence 39,7–10: “For we do not say that providence, which has brought about the capacity of free choice, rules in the universe for the sake of the abolishment of this freedom, but as preserving its coming about” (trans. Opsomer/Steel). Opsomer/Steel observe in a footnote to this: “Cf. in Alc. 143,7-17, again citing the myth of Er (Resp. 10, 617D), for the
    idea that human self-determination is preserved by providence: Lachesis proposes the types of life, the soul makes the choice, and the gods give to the souls what fits the life they have chosen.” 

  11. Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the “Summa Contra Gentiles”, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995, 103. 

  12. See e.g. ‌Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, Leiden: Brill, 1992. 

  13. See e.g. God in Himself: Aquinas’ Doctrine of God as Expounded in the Summa Theologiae, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987; “Aquinas and the Platonists”, in S. Gersh, M. Hoenen (eds.), The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002, 279–324; and (esp.) “God’s Care for Human Individuals: What Neoplatonism gives to a Doctrine of Providence”, ‌Quaestiones Disputatae 2(1/2), 2011. 

  14. At least considering Aquinas’ reading of Proclus through the anonymous Arabic work, the Liber de Causis, see his translation/commentary on Aquinas’ Commentary on the Book of Causes, trans. by V. Guagliardo, C. Hess O.P., and R. Taylor; Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996. 

  15. Cf. e.g. Pantelis Golitsis (2012), “A Byzantine Philosopher’s Devoutness toward God: George Pachymeres’ Poetic Epilogue to His Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics”, in B. Bydén, K. Ierodiakonou (eds.), The Many Faces of Byzantine Philosophy, Athens: The Norwegian Institute at Athens. 

Header image credit: The journey of the noble widow Danielis from the Peloponnese to Constantinople to Emperor Basil I, in the History of John Skylitzes [via Wikimedia Commons].

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


Providence Byzantine Philosophy Byzantine Theology Thomas Aquinas Platonism

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