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Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life

by April 17, 2018

Early philosophy in ancient Greece sought to explain the nature of the universe. For instance, there was Thales of Miletus, who held the rather bold belief that the entire universe is made of water in one form or the other. This dramatic delve into the study of metaphysics was very popular with early philosophers and was inevitably built upon and reproduced in various forms.
Ancient SamosBy the time Epicurus was born in 341 BCE on the Aegean island of Samos, popular philosophy was shifting emphasis from metaphysics (determining the nature of the universe) to personal ethics. It was a change that was prompted by Socrates some hundred years beforehand. Socrates, through his teachings and lectures, forced individuals to examine basic human values and ethics.
And because of this, people began asking themselves some very profound and fundamental questions. What does it mean to be moral? What is the true nature of human ethics? How should one live their life?
Epicurus sought to answer these questions. His teachings would gain attention for their dramatic departure from commonly held religious beliefs. He was determined to help others comprehend the true purpose of life and come closer to understanding the nature of death.
EMPIRICAL WISDOM AND THE TRUE NATURE OF THE GODS
Epicurus was taught philosophy as a boy by a disciple of Plato on the island of Samos. As a man, he diligently studied the teachings of the atomist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. Epicurus would eventually adopt the view that the entire universe is composed only of atoms and empty space, which is a line of thought that we are more accustomed to.
Epicurus BustEpicurus believed that the universe was logical and behaved with predictable tendencies. Because of this, he was a strong proponent of finding true knowledge through observable, objectively verifiable phenomenon. In this regard his thinking was very similar to the modern scientific method. His beliefs ran counter to the commonly held idea that knowledge can be found through mythology and religion.
This stance was not one that was accepted by much of ancient Greece. It would appear that Epicurus was denying the existence of the gods in favor for a reliance on scientific thought. And indeed, Epicurus is said to have stated, “It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to attain by himself”.
Needless to say, this made him rather unpopular.
Keeping in line with his belief that the gods did not determine the course of one’s life, he was also a strong proponent of the idea of free will. To Epicurus, each human was the captain of his or her own ship. You may choose to be virtuous or you may choose to be evil. It is your decision.
But if we are the author of our own stories, then that might seem to put a lot of pressure on an individual. If I am the sole force determining the course of my life, then how should I best lead my life?! Epicurus had an answer for this as well.
HOW TO LEAD YOUR LIFE
What is the goal of life? To Epicurus the goal of living was to find happiness through friendship, living humbly and avoiding pain and anxiety. He believed very strongly that by living peacefully and avoiding fear and pain, we could live fully. To Epicurus, living a virtuous life and a peaceful life were one in the same. This is seen when he states…
Epicurus qupte“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely, honorably, and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasantly.”
A common, and incorrect, assumption of Epicurus was that he promoted finding happiness through material wealth and superficial excess.
Epicurus preached quite the opposite. He believed that the rich man was not the man who has the most, but rather the man who needs the least. He advised us, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”
According to Epicurus, we should all seek a life of knowledge and temperance, surrounded by friends and free from fear and pain. And to Epicurus, there was one obstacle that plagued the hearts of men; it was this one thing that kept us from living a happy and fulfilled life.
DEATH IS NOTHING TO US
Epicurus believed that finding a life of peaceful contentment devoid of pain or fear should be the goal of every life. Epicurus believed that the one thing that was holding people back from truly accomplishing this feat was the fear of death.
The inhabitants of ancient Greece lived in constant fear of the wrath of the Gods. They viewed their mortal life as a temporary condition. Their sins and wrongdoings would be judged harshly by temperamental, vengeful gods. The expectation of pain and torment for eternity at the hands of Thanatos, the terrifying personification of death, was commonplace in ancient Greece.
Epicurus believed that the main obstacle to a fulfilled life was the irrational fear of incurring the wrath of the gods and suffering for eternity in the lair of Hades. We are so preoccupied with fearing death that we refuse to acknowledge life.
Epicurus sought to remedy this. And he did so by explaining the nature of death.
To Epicurus, the entire world was constructed entirely of atoms and empty space. Epicurus reasoned that the human soul could not be constructed of empty space. The consciousness (the soul) interacted very closely, very dynamically with the body. This would mean that the soul was made of atoms, presumably dispersed throughout the body. However these atoms would be fragile. Epicurus taught that at the time of our death, the soul would evaporate entirely.
Death marks the end of consciousness and sensation. This would mean that we would be unable to feel any emotional or physical pain. If we are no longer capable of feeling fear or pain when we decease, then it is foolish to be preoccupied with the notion of death. Epicurus believed that this fear was an obstacle to true happiness in this lifetime. If we could accept death, not ignore it or mystify it, but truly accept it as the end of being, then we could find happiness in this life.

As Epicurus said himself,
Epicurus quote death“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus was viewed as dismissive of religion and therefore disliked by much of Greece. He did however gain a small but very loyal following. He founded a school of philosophy in Athens named “The Garden”, after a garden he enjoyed as a child on the island of Samos.
A stone’s throw from Plato’s Academy, The Garden was one of the first philosophical establishments that welcomed both women and slaves.
Epicureanism, the name for the teachings of Epicurus, would be revisited by contemporary ethical philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The teachings of Epicurus can be heard resounding from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Epicurus lived his life free from a fear of death. He tried to teach others to pursue similar goals. He was a man who knew that he was the master of his own life, the sole captain of his ship. He inspired others to pursue scientific knowledge and to live freely.
True to his teachings, Epicurus described the last day of his life in 270 BCE as ‘a truly happy day.’
 
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“Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life” was written by Van Bryan

Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All

by October 16, 2017

It has been said that he was a man who knew everything. In fact, he was considered the last man who did know everything. Was he born with a supernatural Rainman-like memory? Did the Gods imbue him with the divine gift of wisdom? Maybe, but probably not.
Bust of AristotleIn all likelihood, he did know everything of his own time because, frankly, most of what was known, was written by him anyway. You could not have found a more prolific, in depth and innovative thinker than Aristotle. He inscribed over 200 works (though only 31 remain), founded numerous fields of study and observation, as well as a prominent school to propel those new areas of interest.
Really, no one short column can do anything even in the remote vicinity of justice to the man’s life, contributions and influence. That doesn’t mean we won’t try, however.
For instance, if we wished to briefly review the major mental tasked achieved by Aristotle, we would be stuck with a drab list; a copy and paste of accomplishments.
It’s, unfortunately, a mistake we can’t avoid. Our suggestion would be to not actually read the whole thing (unless in a Rodgers and Hammerstein-like tune), but rather see it for the mountain that it is and skip to the next paragraph.
So, without further adieu:

In physical science, Aristotle studied: anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology.
In philosophy, he wrote on: aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology, rhetoric and theology.
He also studied: education, foreign customs, literature and poetry.

This is the moment when everyone asks, with burning jealousy in their eyes, how did he have the time in one short life? Where did he get the inexhaustible energy or the German-like discipline? We don’t know, of course. A brief overview of the ebbs and flows of his life might shed some light… we can only hope.
From the very beginning Aristotle was not like the other Athenian philosophers, for he wasn’t even Athenian. This small detail, one in which he had no choice, resulted in innumerable favorable and unfortunate occurrences in his life. It meant he was often a ‘foreigner’ because he was born in Northern Greece (more precisely, in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 BC, about 34 miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki). Essentially… Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great.
Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to Alexander’s grandfather, King Amyntas of Macedon. This would have been young Aristotle’s first influence in the realm of scientific thinking. It also contributed to his vast understanding of the anatomy. In addition, it was his initial connection to the Macedonian court.
Once Aristotle’s papa passed away, his new guardian shipped him off to Athens so he could get a real education. There in the big city, he studied under Plato himself in his renowned Academy. No one would doubt that this period was extremely influential for Aristotle. After 20 odd years, in 348/47 BC, he quit the Acropolis, though no one knows for sure why he left town. One theory is that the philosopher’s ego was hurt when Plato died. He did not pass the baton to Aristotle, but named another successor instead. The other order of events is that Aristotle feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and in fact, left before Plato gave up the ghost.
Either way, Aristotle then traveled with a fellow thinker, Xenocrates, to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. There he jotted around, had inspired thoughts about octopus, married Hermias’ daughter and had a baby. His excursions around Lebos were instrumental in his observations on marine life, with a description of the cephalopods’ phallus that was about two thousand years ahead of its time. Indeed it was widely disbelieved until its rediscovery in the 19th century.
Aristotle Teaching AlexanderWhen his father-in-law died, Aristotle was called back to his homeland in order to teach the king’s son. The one and only Alexander the Great, albeit at a rowdy 13 years of age. Aristotle didn’t drop everything, however, and come running to his highness. He agreed to the position only if his hometown was restored after the king had razed it. Not only that, but the city had to be repopulated, which meant its former ex-citizens were freed from slavery or pardoned from exile.
Much myth making has been done over Alexander and Aristotle’s relationship during those three years of study. The latter encouraged expansion in the east, unabashedly advising despotism to subdue barbarians. Maybe, though, the former also influenced his older mentor? Was it a reminder of age, energy and the role in history, perhaps? We, of course, have no idea.
All we do know, is that Aristotle returned to Athens, but this time to set up his own academy, the Lyceum. There he wrote the vast majority of his works, taught the next generation, and remarried after his wife’s death. It was during this 12 year stretch that his most important treatises were created, including Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.
Then Alexander died and Athens and Greece changed forever. Aristotle’s profound thoughts and benefits for the scholars could not save him from the flare up of anti-Macedonian sentiments. It took the form of ‘impiety’ accusations. Rather than face a sham trial, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where his mother had an estate, explaining, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” This was a shout-out to his former teacher’s teacher, Socrates. Eventually Aristotle died of natural causes in 322 BC.
His legacy, however, lived on. His works were actually lost to the west for many centuries, preserved in Arabia and only rediscovered in Europe during the middle Ages. In that time period, Aristotle’s’ writings carried an authority second only to the bible. Many of his works were not improved upon until the nineteenth century.
But most importantly Aristotle proposed a new way of thinking; a method for arriving at a conclusion. We are talking about his contributions to logic. This is how he knew everything. He didn’t know anything! What he comprehended was how to look at the world rationally and learn something.
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“Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All” was written by Anya Leonard

The Probing Philosopher Kings

by July 6, 2017

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

One might wonder why Socrates never wrote anything down. Such a brilliant philosopher… wouldn’t he want to impart his wisdom to future generations? Surely he would aspire to inspire others who weren’t necessarily within ear shot? But no. He didn’t author a single word. He wanted people to think for themselves, rather than just mimic his ideas. For Socrates it was all about the method. It was about being able to arrive at one’s own ideas independently.

Plato, however, did write, and he recorded both his and Socrates’ thoughts. He didn’t forget his teacher’s lesson though, and so often composed dialogues that demonstrate the critical process of thinking and questioning, rather than present a definitive, conclusive answer. In this way, Plato encourages us to keep thinking.
As a child, Plato probably would not have envisioned the life he was going to lead. His family’s lot, steeped in aristocracy and influence, was of the political class. His father Ariston supposedly could trace his ancestry to the King of Athens and the King of Messenia. Not to be outshone by her husband, Plato’s mother, Perictione, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Solon, a famous lawyer and lyric poet. In addition, her brother and uncle we part of the thirty tyrants that ruled over Athens after the deafening defeat at the hands of Sparta. Plato was very proud of his distinguished family tree, and often glowingly referred to them in his dialogues.
Considering his family’s affluence and prestige, it is not surprising that Plato received the best education, instructed by the most distinguished teachers at the time. His most influential mentor, of course, was Socrates himself. He met him when he was but a youth. Socrates was considered an ugly man who did not possess much wealth or prominence. He might have been seen as a strange intellectual bedfellow for the well-to-do Plato. However, the old man had a remarkable power of discourse and an ability to bring down the most grandiose of gentlemen.
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Socrates was Plato’s mentor and became his protagonist. His execution in 399 would have certainly affected the budding boy and shake his confidence in a political system that allowed such a tragedy. The fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war also would have been a momentous episode in Plato’s life. As well as the ensuing dictatorship which failed miserably due to the inevitable corruption of the 30 chosen oligarchs. It’s no wonder then the quick thinking Plato abandoned the family trade and choose philosopher over politics. It was Socrates, the probing philosopher, who changed Plato’s course to the world of debate, dialogues and discovery.

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

His career, once selected, was very successful. He wrote, traveled, set up an academy dedicated to thinking and questioning. He even tried to shape a dictator in Syracuse to become one of the Philosopher kings. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. And then, as all mortal men do, he died, at the ripe old age of 80. Recognised at the brilliant man he was, forever imparting not only wisdom, but a way of trying to understand the world.

We’ll never know exactly where Socrates ended and Plato began. What ideas, ultimately, belonged to the teacher or to the student? All we can know and be grateful for, is that Plato had the audacity to write them down, so that even now we can continue to question.
Check in in next week for a look at Plato’s Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/apology-by-plato/

The Warring Writer: Aeschylus Tragedy

by April 20, 2017

Portrait of AeschylusLet’s say you are considered the “father of tragedy”. Even in your own lifetime, everyone knows you have revolutionized drama and changed the theatre game. Do you think it would be mentioned on your tomb? Surely a throw away reference at least?
But no, not for Aeschylus. The man who wrote between 70 and 90 plays, won 28 competitions and completely altered the face of the stage, says nothing about it in his eulogy. His tomb engraving, which he wrote himself, only talks about his military accomplishments.
Now, why would a man who has gone down in history as a playwright, only describe himself as a soldier? Actually it makes a lot of sense when you consider his life.
Aeschylus was born of a well-to-do family in 525 B.C. He was reared in the town of Eleusis, about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens. But he didn’t start off as a writer at all.
The legend goes like this: the young fellow was working in a vineyard helping ‘guard’ the grapes when he fell asleep. The god Dionynus, patron saint of both wine and drama, visited him in a dream. The bacchus divinity told him to leave his grape picking days behind him: he should inscribe scripts instead. The very next day the lad took a try at the pen and realized immediately that he had a gift.
His first play, produced when he was 26 years old, did not win him much success. It was not long, however, before he was triumphing at all the competitions and beating the likes of Sophocles and Euripides.
But his life wasn’t all wining, winning and writing. There was also a lot of war. His days in ancient Greece saw the major turning point of the Persian war, and he had front row seats. In fact, in 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought in the famous Battle of Marathon. They were defending Athens against Darius I‘s invading Persian army. Though outnumbered, the Greeks won, gaining confidence and perhaps changing western history as we know it. Unfortunately for our fighting brothers, only one made it out alive.
Theatre of Dionysia

Theatre of Dionysia

Returning to his homeland, Aeschylus took inspiration from the theatre of war to the stage of tragedy. Even his tone is said to have barked like a bugle.  It is during this time at home, that he changed drama as we know it. Previously a play consisted of one actor and the chorus which mostly danced around the orator. Aeschylus was the first to write in an additional actor, therefore creating interaction between the characters. His revolutionary approach to the art finally brought him victory at the City Dionysia in 484BC, the first of many.
Portrait of Xerxes 1

Portrait of Xerxes 1

But Aeschylus did not stay the play writing civilian for long. In 480, he was called back into military service, but this time against Xerxes I‘s invading forces at the Battle of Salamis. He left the field with honor, losing part of a limb in the scuffle. This event was a highlight for him nonetheless, as he was renowned and took the actions as fodder for his play, The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.
Then there was the religious side of Aeschylus. He was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive cult based in his hometown which worshipped Demeter, the goddess of hearth and grain. Like many creepy sects, members were sworn to secrecy, under penalty of death.
This, rather than the blood letting wars, was his downfall. Apparently the playwright, who also acted and directed, revealed a few choice mysteries in his play The Eumenides. He was almost stoned to death on stage, but managed to escape to safety to the alter of Dionysus.
He then stood trial for his impiety and pleaded ignorance. He was finally acquitted, due to his heroic military past. Apparently his youngest brother gave him a helping hand by showing the jury Aeschylus’ stump, the result of the battle of Salamis, where he was voted bravest warrior. (Though this last part was not, in fact, true).
However, his unpopularity continued none the less and in 458 BC, he practiced his right of self banishment. He returned to Sicily, where he still had friends and eventually died in 456 or 455 BC. The rumor is he met his end when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, thinking his baldness was a stone. It is much more likely, however, that he expired due to being the ripe old age of 70.
But before Aeschylus gave up the ghost, he inscribed the following words, reminding everyone of all the things that had made him a hero and purposefully ignoring his then ‘unpopular’ accomplishments:

Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος[20]

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

The Most Moral of them All

by February 21, 2017

Who is the Moral maker? Who writes the tales of what is good or bad? Which wise words, written before Christ, still resonate with our modern times? Surely they were from a Philosopher or a great King? How about a worldly scholar or a famed adventurer? No, the most prevalent of Ancient Greek ethics originated from a slave.
You know the stories. A boy calling wolf. A lion with a thorn. A fast and cocky hare competing with a crawling, but dedicated tortoise. “Slow and steady wins the race” is the distilled lesson taught to impressionable school children. However, most young students do not learn the amazing history of the one behind those clever tales, if anyone was behind them at all.
These anecdotes, filled with animated animals and shrewd lessons, are attributed to Aesop – or Isope – or Esop(e), depending on which spelling you prefer. This man, if he did exist, not only inspired over 600 parables, but also had an inspiring life himself. So much so, that the Ancients romanticised his biography, making the man into a myth. A dwarfish slave who, with his clever tongue, became a free man and then an emissary for the king, all while telling amazing myths himself.
Portrait of Aesop

Aesop as envisioned by Velázquez

According to Aristotle, one of the earliest Greek authors to write about Aesop, the Fable teller hailed from Thrace around 620 BC, in modern day Bulgaria. However, even this is a point of conjecture. Three other writers from Ancient Greece and Rome say he originated from modern day Turkey, in either Phrygia, Sardis, or Lydia. Some historians even believe that he was from Africa. With a name like Aesop, surely he was ‘Aethiopian’ or Ethiopian! Other experts rebut that, saying it is etymologically incorrect. The inclusion of African animals, such as camels, elephants, and apes, suggest he was from Egypt or Libya… or that these stories were added later on. And then there is the point that Bill Cosby played Aesop in the 1971 TV production Aesop’s Fables.
Whether Aesop was from Ethiopia or Sardis, he apparently was born a slave and a really, really ugly one at that. He was described as having multiple deformities, including a debilitating speech defect. According to Aristotle and Herodotus, he worked in Samos and his first master was a man named Xanthus. His next master, Ladmon, eventually freed him when he argued on behalf of a wealthy Samian.
It has been said that Aesop had a penchant for trouble, including irreverence and tomfoolery, but used his gift of discourse and turn of phrase to escape punishment. He also supported those in power or confronted them, pointing out their hypocrisy and using fables to make his point. But there are also many legends on Aesop, such as dining with the Seven sages of Greece, sitting aside the famous Athenian statesman Solon, which have been discredited, due to a misalignment of historical dates.
And then there was the extremely popular The Aesop Romance, an anonymously authored book written in the 1st or 2nd century AD. It began with a vivid description of Aesop’s appearance, saying he was “of loathsome aspect… potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity.”
In this fantastic version he was born mute in Samos, and then divinely gifted not only with the ability to speak, but to weave wonderful wisdoms. He was able to confound his Philosopher master in front of his students as well as sleep with his wife. However, this version was highly fictional and illustrates how the ancients were fascinated by the legends of Aesop’s life, hundreds of years after his supposed existence.
Plutarch then told the story of his sad and untimely end. The freed and respected ex-slave was sent to Delphi, Greece on a diplomatic mission from King Croesus of Lydia. According to the narrative, Aesop insulted the Delphians, maybe with an unpopular fable. He was then sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of temple theft, and then either thrown or forced to jump from a cliff. After which the Delphians suffered pestilence and famine as retribution, or at least as they saw it.
But maybe none of this actually happened. The fact of the matter is that there are no surviving texts written by Aesop. Ancient greek writers like Herodotus and Aristophanes mention ‘reading’ Aesop, suggesting that there was a book existing at some point, but can we be sure? Maybe Aesop just became the symbol for what is unauthored. The collection of morality that can not be assigned to one man. The Fable of the fable creator.
You can read Aesop’s Fables Here.

The Dramatic Greek: One man’s non-tragic life

by February 5, 2017

Sophocles bust

The good looking fellow himself

Some people have drama follow them wherever they go, while others just write about it. Sophocles, the prolific ancient greek playwright, was definitely the latter.  He enjoyed an ideal existence, all while changing the face of Tragedy and penning some fairly morbid ideas for future psycho-analysts, like Sigmund Freud.
 
Hailing from just outside Athens, Sophocles’ life was a far cry from the tragic situations that characterized his plays. He was born into a wealthy family, provided with an excellent education and received high positions and enviable accolades throughout his life.  As fortune would have it, he was around to witness the magnificent Greek triumph in the Persian War and was afterwards promoted to a high executive official, commanding the armed forces.  And, if all that wasn’t enough, he was also considered beautiful and graceful!
 
Nor did he die an untimely death. In fact, Sophocles did not ‘give up the ghost’ until the ripe age of 91, in the year 405 B.C. Apparently everyone knew what a lucky bloke he was, as is evident by this eulogy, found in The Muses:  “Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.”
So what does this man know about Drama and Tragedy? How could such a fellow pen 123 plays, win 24 major competitions, and conceive of such anguished characters like Oedipus and Antigone without the help of a manic-depressive mother or an alcoholic father?
That we can not answer. All we do know is that he started off imitating the celebrated Aeschylus. Eventually, however, the student overtook the master, dominating the religious festivals and eclipsing Aeschylus’ in fame and fortune. We also can be certain that Sophocles’ works, at least those that have remained (a measly 7 of the original 100+) have, throughout history, influenced a plethora of great minds. Aristotle himself used Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) as an example of the highest achievement in tragedy. Not quite praise from Ceasar, but close!
But let us allow the man’s work to speak for itself. We begin by reading one of the most famous, poignant and powerful greek tragedies of all time. Classical Wisdom Weekly Readers are invited to discover “Oedipus Rex” for Free HERE: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/oedipus-the-king/ ‎