The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry


At Rugby and then at Cambridge and Oxford, at American preparatory schools and then at Yale and Harvard, education meant gentlemanly formation.

This is why the most famous of all Victorian pronouncements about the gentleman is contained within a book entitled The Idea of a University.

John Henry Newman was of a class of Englishman who in the nineteenth century were ipso facto gentlemen, at least when he was still an Anglican vicar. Along with military officers, certain government officials, and, of course, the propertied aristocracy, clergymen fitted the mold as defined by author Samuel Smiles, whose Self-Help (1859) had in its time a popularity akin to Castiglione's Courtier but has had none of that earlier book's elegant resilience.

Smiles was perhaps a step above Polonius (although his frontispiece epigraph is the "To thine own self be true" quotation), but he was still a very able advocate of a kind of religion of individuality, albeit the Whig, not the Tory, version. (The book was wildly trendy in Japan in the 1870s and remains popular with libertarians today.)

Cardinal Newman possessed as elegant a mind as anyone in the past several centuries, so Smiles's glib tales of humble men rising to achieve greatness in government and industry must have seemed to him a bit shallow, especially considering that the story he lived by was of a king born in a stable who was rejected, executed, but then rose from the dead.

When Smiles wrote that "riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman — in spirit and in daily life. He may be honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping; that is, be a true gentleman. The poor man with a rich spirit is in all ways superior to the rich man with a poor spirit," Newman may have agreed, but with some suspicion. And when Smiles wrote that

gentleness is indeed the best test of gentlemanliness. A consideration for the feelings of others, for his inferiors and dependants as well as his equals, and respect for their self-respect, will pervade the true gentleman's whole conduct. He will rather himself suffer a small injury, than by an uncharitable construction of another's behaviour, incur the risk of committing a great wrong. He will be forbearant of the weaknesses, the failings, and the errors, of those whose advantages in life have not been equal to his own. He will be merciful even to his beast. He will not boast of his wealth, or his strength, or his gifts. He will not be puffed up by success, or unduly depressed by failure. He will not obtrude his views on others, but speak his mind freely when occasion calls for it. He will not confer favours with a patronizing air.
Newman may have been impressed, yet he surely was skeptical.

Newman, as much as anybody, understood the differences between mere courtesy and real chivalry. Men such as Smiles and Chesterfield and Charles Kingsley (whose attack on Newman led to the latter's greatest book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua) put forth a particular view of gentlemanly decorum that for Newman lacked blood. I do not mean that the intense and ascetic Newman believed men needed to live more by the sword than by their wits, only that the gentleman described by these others was to him bloodless, a whited sepulcher. Kingsley is often (incorrectly) given credit for coining the term "muscular Christianity," but in fact it was a term he disliked, and he probably doesn't deserve to be associated with Chesterfield and Smiles. Still, Kingsley certainly was a proponent of sport as a means of promoting manliness, which Newman must have considered just more bluster.

John Henry Newman

Newman was a neo-Aristotelian, and he layered his description of the gentleman in the Eighth Discourse of The Idea of a University with reflections that are at once candid and guarded, much as was Aristotle's description of the kalokagathos, the "great-souled man." Newman says that the ideal university (his thoughts were originally lectures delivered in the early years after he became the first rector of Catholic University in Dublin) is not meant to propagate "any narrow or fantastic type, as for instance, that of an 'English gentleman.'" Rather, higher education is in the liberal arts, knowledge meant to make a man free. Paradoxically, calls the ideal curriculum "gentleman's knowledge."

He lists some of the characteristics of a gentleman: "a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life," and I think it is clear that he considered this catalog admirable. That is — as he said — as far as it goes."

Newman's portrait: is by no means an endorsement of the man of manners, the one "mainly occupied in merely removing obstacles that hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about hi`m." That man is no Stoic, is not a man committed to truth and beauty. He is an ambitious poseur. In his most elegant and Stoic conclusion, Newman insists that the ideal gentleman is "patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny."

And akin to Castiglione — and, again, to Aristotle — Newman's gentleman — now we're talking about the real thing, not the gentleman manquι — has the quality of "understatement," which the Greeks called eironeia, which according to Ronald Begley is the same as Newman's sense of "reserve": "The portrait of the gentleman in the Eighth Discourse is one of several portraits from Newman's pen in which reserve figures prominently. Newman not only sketches a portrait of a reserved figure, but he also presents the sketch with reserve." Newman was not asserting a new version of sprezzatura so much as he is demanding that we understand that what makes the true gentleman special is what we can neither see nor define. It is something concealed and ineffable. It is that the gentleman "discerns the end in every beginning." He possesses the first among the theological virtues: prudence. He's a good fellow, the Cardinal might have said, he's just not a saint.

Victorian America

Charles Dickens once quipped: "I do not know the American gentleman, God forgive me for putting two such words together."

Of course, he was wrong, although in the way certain talkative modern author-celebrities are wrong: they thrive on provocation, Dickens traveled widely in the United States, and he met many of the nation's leading citizens. His comments were no doubt as much a reflection of his own struggles with gentlemanliness as of any ill will towards the Yanks.

From its earliest days, America has been an incubator of moral ambition. The aspiration to be good — to be the best — has run the gamut from the obsessive honor of dueling, Tidewater patricians to the acrimonious moralism of New England preachers. The so-called Puritans referred to themselves as Goodman (men) and Goody (women), and one is struck in reading American literature through at least the 1920s by the number of times the word "Sir" is used and by the number — countless — of times men are called "gentleman," both amiably and bitterly.

America's founding generation had a healthy respect for religion (even if many of the Founders were themselves not devout), and in no country has there been more interest in the distinction between the Christian gentleman — which concept will be examined briefly in chapter six — and the "fine" gentleman.

In his tidy summary of civility as a theme in American writing (The Gentleman in America), E. H. Cady notes: "No one really pretended that every Christian man was automatically a gentleman. But it was held, most strongly at the popular level, that the true gentleman began by being a Christian."

The "fine" gent, on the other hand, was probably a faithless cad, and the litany of adjectives to describe him was seemingly endless: dude, swell, dandy, fop, spark, macaroni, blade, popinjay, coxcomb. This was, as Cady suggests, a fashionable attitude in its way, and yet there were always American gentlemen who refused to subsume customary civility to religious creed. Urbanity was not a strictly European attribute.

And the appellation of "gentleman" was as much desired by Americans as it was by Englishmen. Writing in the May 1898 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, S. M. Crothers observed that

though the average man would not be insulted If you were to say, You are no saint," it would not be safe say, "You are no gentleman" . [A] gentleman, if not the shape that every man actually is, is the shape in which every man desires to appear to others.

It is needless to remark that this aspiration is not always adequately fulfilled.... All this is but to say that the word "gentleman" represents an ideal. Above whatever coarseness and sordidness there may be in actual life there rises the idea of a finer kind of man, with gentler manners and truer speech and braver actions.

The divergence of this true gentleman from the fop is played out in the fluid genres of romance and satire, and American literature bristles with the distinction, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables to Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full.

The debate was also carried on at the very founding of the nation. It is the nineteenth — and not the eighteenth-century gentleman that I wish to conjure here, but it is worth noting that what defined our ideal man in 1900 also had defined him in 1800 and even in 1700. The long and entertaining correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson proves the point.

They were enemies at the dawn of the republic, who became friends in the waning of their years. "Where Jefferson was anxious that the way be cleared for the true natural gentleman," Cady writes, "to rise and provide able leadership for democracy, Adams believed grimly that nothing on earth could stop their rise and only the firmest and canniest of governmental structures could contain both them and republican liberties."

The matter remains unsettled to this day, and forms the basis for disputes between "liberals" and "conservatives"; between those whose preference is for democracy and those who believe in republicanism; between men who think mankind is perfectible and those who are certain he is fallen.

On the question of differentiating the gentleman from the mob, nearly every prominent writer, thinker, politician, and celebrity of the last two centuries has had a say, from Raoph Waldo Emerson to Emily Post, from Robert E. Lee to H.L. Mencken. Ever the delightful cynic, Mencken defined a gentleman as "one who never strikes a woman without provocation." Which, as Cardinal Newman might have quipped, is good as far as it goes.

But Mencken stood at the end of a long line of commentators, and anyway was twenty-one as the nineteenth century came to a close and derisive of every single aspect of American life, sacred and profane. That's his charm. (To be fair to him, Mencken said of himself: "It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.")

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Less charming, but unfortunately more influential, was the sainted Emerson, the Sage of Concord, or as the poet Allen Tate called him — and I think more accurately — "the Lucifer of Concord," a prime contributor to the devaluation of American character, a "light-bearer who could see nothing but light, and was fearfully blind." Few have been so prominent in the movement to make "gentleman" a democratic concept. Like Jefferson, he was enamored of the notion of "nature's gentlemen," but Emerson gave the idea a positively Nietzschean interpretation: "Repose and cheerfulness are the badge of the gentleman, repose in energy."

Now, that seems positively light-hearted until you realize that by "energy" he means force of will. "Power first;" he elaborated in his essay "Manners," "or no leading class. . . . My gentleman gives the law where he is; he will outpray saints in chapel, outgeneral veterans in the field, and outshine all courtesy in the hall." Meet the American Uberrnensch.

The trouble with Emerson is very much the trouble with Chesterfield: aphoristic writers, they are often quoted with appreciation by people who have no grasp of the heart of their philosophies. All Emerson's incessant tongue wagging about individuality really adds up to a ruthless selfishness that willingly tramples any tradition he finds inimical to his own pleasure. Witness the following scribbling in his Journals: "As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits which can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men." He out-Rousseaus Rousseau. He would have the gentleman be Savonarola.

Emerson gave lip service to the democratic character of gentility, and yet — despite his own patrician status — he was convinced that the rich lacked the proper spirit of, as he liked to call it, self-reliance. In a kind of mocking parody of Christ's warning about the difficulty of "rich" men finding heaven, Emerson assumed that the Brahmins of Boston and the Grandees of Charleston were less likely to have gentlemanly virtues than the salt-of-the-earth farmers and working men in post-bellum America. Had he survived to witness the Titanic disaster he might have reconsidered.

On the night of April 14-15 of 1912, it was the middle- and upper-middle-class men who statistics would indicate behaved most like gentlemen: their survival rate on the Titanic was lowest. Proximity to the lifeboats and a practiced aggressiveness — that nonetheless may not have been unethical — account in part for the better survival of first-class men, but the gentlemen in second class almost certainly acted with the most courage, restraint, and self-sacrifice.

In James Cameron's Titanic movie, true grit is shown mostly among the third-class men, but on the real ship this may not have been the case overall. That there were heroic third-class passengers no one will doubt, but it is striking to learn that those men had a survival rate twice that of those in second-class. Mr. Cameron makes bollix of the story by perpetuating the slander that the poor immigrants from steerage were actually locked below decks and were thus prevented — often at gunpoint — from reaching the lifeboats. No such thing transpired, although the progress of passengers from the lower decks was slowed by difficulties of language, by their reluctance to follow the instructions they did understand, by their tendency to bring with them in the evacuation all the possessions they had brought on board, and finally by the sheer distance they had to travel to the ship's upper deck, the only area from which lifeboats may be manned. These obstacles make the survival of equal numbers of male and female passengers from third class all the more remarkable, especially given the striking disparity between the sexes in the other classes.

Nearly three times as many first-class women lived as first-class men. In second class it was nearly five times. So, for equal numbers of third-class men (seventy-five) and women (seventy-six) to have survived may indicate that a different set of "crisis criteria" were at work in this group. (Also conspicuous is the fact that all the children in first and second class — with but one exception — were rescued, but fully two-thirds of third-class children died, although the actual number of surviving third-class children was highest among the three classes.)

All this might indicate a reversal of the popular version of the Titanic saga, the one embodied in Mr. Cameron's cinematic fantasy, which — as Stephen Cox describes it in his superb book, The Titanic Story — is this: "If you have money, then you are very probably deficient in morality; and if you have morality, you are very probably low on cash" That's the received notion all right, but it is hardly the truth.

I have no doubt that at least a part of Titanic's ongoing popularity is nostalgia. Much as was the case with the lore of chivalry and the allure of the Middle Ages, a modern industry has sprung up to satisfy our every nostalgic whim with regard to the Age of Victoria Regina. There is — to my knowledge anyhow — no organization comparable to the Society for Creative Anachronism; no group of Victorian activists attempting to recreate the latter half of the nineteenth century at the start of the twenty-first. But there is an active business providing Victorian-style wedding dresses and other clothing, which are useful at Victorian-style nuptials, which apparently many people choose, no doubt because the collective memory insists marriages back then had more gravity and were more enduring. How many of our great grandparents divorced?

Again the Internet is our Baedeker and catalogue. At, you can get the scoop on how to make 2004 seem like 1904. The wedding dresses offered there and at a number of other retailers are quite lovely, and I especially love the hats recommended for brides and bridesmaids. These days beauty is all about hair. But hats framed a woman's face is such a way that her loveliness was given a special elegance we rarely see anymore.

For very serious, academic information about the span of the queen's long reign — from 1837 until 1901 — students may consult, a project organized by Professor George P. Landow of Brown University. Considering that its many essays come from mostly Ivy League contributors, the content of the Victorian Web, as it is more formally known, is remarkably commonsensical.

But my favorite Victorian site is Victorian Adventures (, of course). Among other things, this outfit runs a summer Victorian Day Camp, one for girls eight to twelve and one for teens. The younger group from a previous camp session is pictured in hoop skirts and bonnets, and the Victorian Adventures staff — they are a "Georgia-based limited liability company" — promise that campers will get a "glimpse into the life of a girl in the mid-1800s, presumably without small-pox scarring or outhouses.

Southern honor

It would be wrong to imagine that America's conception of the gentleman has always had a democratic character. For one thing, the very notion presupposes inequality; for another, the English and French beliefs concerning "gentle" birth as a prerequisite came to North America with the earliest settlers. In churches there were special pews for the elite; at Ivy League schools the sons of gentlemen had their own section in college meetings. Still, from 1600 until the present, America never had anything like Europe's feudal system. Well, that's not quite true. There were the Dutch patrons of pre-revolutionary New York, and, of course, the slave owners of the Old South. And yet men such as Stephen Van Rensselaer and Thomas Jefferson, respectively the most famous patron and slave holder in American history, were noted for their efforts to democratize the nation's life: Van Rensselaer founded the college that still bears his name and still offers education free to deserving students. As to Jefferson, it is sufficient simply to quote the epitaph he wrote for his own tombstone: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia."

Jump ahead now to America at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1885, more or less, a Harvard professor, himself born in the 18-teens or 20s, looked out upon the eager faces in the lecture hall, at young men in jackets and stiff-collared shirts and dark ties, and said, "Probably none of you young men has ever even seen a gentleman." (Emerson had made a similar quip, saying that gentlemen are rare: "I think I remember every one I have ever seen.")

The anecdote is told by Henry Dwight Sedgwick, who was probably a student in that elderly professor's class and was enough struck by the comment to write a book on the subject, In Praise of Gentlemen, published in 1935. "And now even the ideal is gone;" Sedgwick observed gloomily, "like an old fashion in dress, not spoken of but to be laughed at."

There is in Sedgwick's version of the gentleman rather more of Chesterfield and less of Newman or, as we shall see, Robert E. Lee. He spoke of a Guild of Gentleman, not latter-day Templars, mind you, not a cabal of scheming Masons, but a confederation of decent fellows, much as I remember my grandfathers (born in 1888 and 1890) to have been. These were men who possessed "courtesy, self-restraint, a nice regard to the rules of etiquette, a command of speech, an elegance of dress, a familiarity with the habits of the leisure class, a respect for appearances, for outside things, a desire to make the passing moment pleasurable."

I picture men in straw boaters punting on the Charles River of a late summer's afternoon: 1935 may as well have been 1835. The Great War fades from memory, and the bad news has yet to come from Pearl Harbor. It is, you might say, perpetually December 6, 1941 — or September 10, 2001. There is no reason not to swallow ever greater helpings of democratic sludge and call it ambrosia. The world is so safe that the response to moral flabbiness is mere irritability.

Times change. I found myself chuckling the other day when I noticed the bumper sticker on the automobile ahead of mine: "Give War a Chance." Civil War veterans were few when Sedgwick wrote his book. American involvement in WWI had lasted barely two years, and those veterans were in their forties and fifties and happy to recall the horrors of war nostalgically, convinced that it really had been the war to end all wars and that they who once were warriors could forge their swords into fountain pens and watch the parade pass by.

General Robert E. Lee

The world changed so fast; it was transformed even as the old men died: Lee (1870) and Grant (1885), Sherman (1891) and Longstreet (1904). The officer as gentleman survived through the 1914-1918 war, and the Pershings and the MacArthurs were esteemed, but the fundamental association of combat with the chivalric ideal was severed. Worldwide there was a great sigh: Good riddance! The "sword" became an implement of children's stories. Very few duels have been fought in the twentieth century.

Thank God, we may say; and who can argue? And yet with the pax comes a pox: honor has become indefensible. We swallow pride rather than stand up for it.

Obviously the needle indicating the temperature of my moral engine is tipping over into the red space, and it's as much for what's to come as for what I've written so far. What's next is a defense of the Old South, of that chivalric, gentlemanly sensibility that seems doomed by its association with slavery.

There has recently been some cleansing dialogue concerning the infamous "N-word." I agree that no one who is not African-American has any business ever using the word, and some of the best black minds reject using the word under any circumstances. It is a particular kind of ugliness that we can do something about; we can eradicate it by individual refusals ever to use the word. In a similar vein, I understand African-American objections to the endurance of the Confederate stars-and-bars on state flags in the South. For them the Southern Cross is a purely racist symbol.

The trouble is the flags have complicated antecedents, of which the association with slavery is only one. There is a danger that the rejection of an historical symbol can become the rejection of history itself; that the reduction of a complex symbol to a single connotation smears generations of men and women whose lives are of inestimable value. I think especially of Robert E. Lee.

I have not said it yet in this book and I will not say it again, but Lee was a compleat gentleman. (I disdain naming others, because I have no wish to become the Mr. Blackwell of this subject, yearly publishing my list of the Ten Best Gentleman or Ten Worst Cads the way Blackwell rated Hollywood's glamorous and ghastly.) Lee was not simply the South's paradigm of chivalry; he was America's as well. As Bertram Wyatt-Brown has written, Lee exemplified the "three graces of gentility": sociability, learning, and piety. And he was, of coarse, one of our greatest warriors. Like so many men of his era, Lee proffered his own definition of a gentleman:

The forbearing use power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.

The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

We might be tempted to say there are strong echoes here of John Henry Newman, except that Lee made his comments some years before Newman made his.

Here clearly was a man willing to fight for what he believed was right; we remember him as one of America's great warriors, even though Lee's embrace of the Confederate cause was never whole-hearted. As has often been remarked, Lee was offered command of Union forces but took control of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia instead, because he considered himself a Virginian more than he thought of himself as an American. Virginia was to Virginians the center of the universe. According to Rollin Osterweis, "The Southern cult of chivalry developed principally from a fusion of the tradition of the 'Virginia Gentleman' with those medieval notions best exemplified in the writings of [Sir Walter] Scott and with certain ideas drawn from the current fervor for Greece. A number of minor cults combined to make up the whole. These focused on manners, woman, military affairs, the ideal of the Greek democracy, and romantic oratory. The planters believed that their society approximated the social order of the chivalric period." Like Washington and Jefferson before him, Lee cherished these conventions, and like them he also condemned one part of the tradition: dueling.

Of all the aspects of antique chivalry, the brittleness of honor is hardest to fathom. Burke lamented that ten thousand swords were not raised to defend the honor of Marie Antoinette, and we recall how William Marshal, when accused of adultery, called upon his enemies to defend their charges in a trial by combat. For nearly a thousand years men fought duels when the old escutcheon was blotted.

The first duel in America was fought in 1621 and the last — well, perhaps it has yet to be fought. "Judicial Combat" as it was sometimes known — ironically since it was generally illegal — was governed by the twenty-five rules of the Code Duello, established in Ireland just after the American Revolution. So popular did dueling become in the States, though, that in 1838 the governor of South Carolina, John Lyde Wilson, felt compelled to revise and update the code for a specifically American milieu.

The 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, fought along the banks of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, is the most famous in American history, but many other prominent Americans also dueled. Andrew Jackson was nearly killed in one. Charles Dickinson shot at the future president but only wounded him. Jackson swooned and collapsed, but not before he aimed and fired. Dickinson fell dead and a good thing too. He'd previously killed twenty-six of his fellow citizens in duels.

The Code included provisions for apologies after the first shots were fired. If the quarrel was settled with swords, and the man challenged to the duel won but spared the life of the challenger, the dispute was settled ... unless, that is, the challenger wished to revive it: "Rule 23. If the cause of the meeting be of such a nature that no apology or explanation can or will be received, the challenged takes his ground, and calls on the challenger to proceed as he chooses; in such cases, firing at pleasure is the usual practice, but may be varied by agreement." A sense of civilization is in there someplace. At least the Code Duello protected bystanders from barrages of bullets in taverns and on Main Street — until the Old West gunfight became popular, anyway.

But beloved General Lee would have none of it. His sense of honor was exactly the old franchise of the knights, as we see in this excerpt from a letter he wrote to his son:

You must study to be frank with the world. Frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do, on every occasion, and take it for granted that you mean to do right...

Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at the sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not.

If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man's face and another behind his back...

Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more; you should never wish to do less. Never let your mother or me wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.

If that sounds like Polonius, listen more carefully. This is a man speaking his own words from his own heart.

When Lee died, the London Standard wrote: "A country which has given birth to men like him, and those who followed him, may look the chivalry of Europe in the face without shame; for the fatherlands of Sidney and Baryard never produced a nobler soldier, gentleman and Christian."

And G.K. Chesterton called Lee "the last of the heroes". As the old general expired, his last words were "Strike the tent!"



Brad Miner. "The Gentleman." Excerpted from Chapter 5 The Compleat Gentleman (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 2004): 77-92.

This article reprinted with permission from Spence Publishing.


The founding editor of the American Compass Book Club, Brad Miner is a former literary editor of National Review and the author of The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia: 200 of the Most Important Ideas, Individuals, Incitements, and Institutions that Have Shaped the Movement, The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry, and Smear Tactic. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

Copyright © 2004 Spence Publishing

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