All men by nature desire to know.

Aristotle, Metaphysics

If it was Egyptian religion and Macedonian tactics that placed Ptolemy on the throne of Egypt, it would be Greek thought that kept him there. The state he envisaged ruling was unlike anything else in the ancient world—a country of the mind built in an alien land from the rubble of Alexander’s empire.

Ptolemy simply didn’t share Alexander’s ambition to rule the world, as he had seen how hopeless the idea really was. What he did share with his old friend was glimpses of a way in which at least a single country might be governed. Ptolemy and Alexander had been close as children and young men; indeed, the rumor in the Egyptian court was that the two men were half brothers following a liaison between Ptolemy’s mother, Arsinoe, and Philip II (after which she was quickly married off to the minor nobleman Lagus). The story was almost certainly false, but it served the new pharaoh well to be thought of as related to the founder of the new city and as a man in whose veins the blood of the god Alexander flowed. But what Ptolemy had learned of government in the Macedonian court had not come from watching Alexander’s father, whose autocratic rule would end with his assassination, or from observing the increasingly tyrannical government of Alexander’s final years. Instead, it came from the man whom Philip had employed to educate his son and who had by default educated Ptolemy as well. He was Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of the ancient world, and it was to memories of his tutelage that Ptolemy turned when he thought about bringing his new kingdom to life.

Aristotle had always been there in the background, in the calmer, more considered parts of Alexander’s and Ptolemy’s minds, and through this his influence spread far beyond his own writings and into his pupils’ actions. He’d informed Alexander’s whole way of thinking, promoting a love of investigation and discovery which not only drove the conqueror across vast physical territories but encouraged his journeys into all areas of knowledge. Alexander was a great devourer of books, often running out of material on campaigns and frantically sending for more. He read histories, scientific treatises, the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus—everything from his precious “casket copy” of the Iliad (as corrected by Aristotle) to the dithyrambic odes of Telestes and Philoxenus. He also liked to put his knowledge to use, as Plutarch describes:

Doubtless also it was to Aristotle that he owed the inclination he had, not to the theory only, but likewise to the practice of the art of medicine. For when any of his friends were sick, he would often prescribe them their course of diet, and medicines proper to their disease, as we may find in his epistles.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander, in Parallel Lives, 8

So great was Aristotle’s influence on him that, if we are to believe Plutarch, he was often heard to say that he loved and cherished his tutor no less than if he had been his own father, “giving this reason for it, that as he had received life from the one, so the other had taught him to live well” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, in Parallel Lives, 8).

It was an interesting distinction—two fathers, one for a physical life and one for the life of the mind—but it was a conception that would finally bear fruit not in Alexander’s empire but in Ptolemy’s Alexandria. Ptolemy had his physical kingdom, his throne, his army, his defenses, and in those he was the inheritor of at least a part of Alexander’s world. Now he would combine that physical inheritance with an intellectual one and create something unique. In this Aristotle might claim to be the true father of Alexandria, closer than the rumored links between Ptolemy and Alexander, and more a father to his pupil’s city than to the man himself.

Aristotle, the man on whose thoughts Alexandria’s intellectual foundations—and hence the intellectual foundations of the whole Western world—were built, was himself a member of a great dynasty, connected not by blood or marriage but purely by thought and reason. He was the heir to a revolution in philosophy, building on the work of his old master, Plato, who in turn had built his philosophy on the foundations of his tutor—Socrates, whom the eighteenth-century classicist John Lemprière characterized as “the most celebrated philosopher of all antiquity” (Lemprière,Classical Dictionary Writ Large, p. 588).

Philosophers, literally “lovers of wisdom,” had guided and shaped the Greek intellectual world from at least the time of Pythagoras in the sixth century BC, but with the coming of Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (429- 347 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC) came a subtle shift in approach. Whereas many of the early philosophical questions were concerned with the nature of reality, of the world and universe, and the role of the divine in the greater scheme of things, the new notion initiated by Socrates was more concerned with the philosopher’s own role in the world, in how to live correctly and set an example for others. Ethics and morality began to extend the fundamental concerns of philosophy, and so philosophy became not simply speculation but a practical tool of government and a cornerstone of civilization.

As a young man Socrates had distinguished himself as a soldier, fighting in three major battles and being decorated for saving the life of a wounded friend. These expeditions with the military were, however, the only occasions on which this unusually sedentary philosopher ever left Athens. After the campaigns he led a highly ascetic life, going barefoot and without a coat in the winter. He had no interest in money or material goods and claimed that he was not paid for his teaching, though as he had no other means of financial support this seems unlikely.

Socrates was a controversial figure with new and sometimes startling things to say, so he made enemies as well as attracted friends and followers. His methodology was to initiate a series of questions to an individual or a group to reveal the extent of their knowledge (or ignorance), seeking to expose contradictions in their beliefs. This was all well and good when addressing pupils or followers, but when this method was applied to people who thought of themselves as important, perhaps even great, Socrates’ proven ability to show that they in fact knew nothing easily caused offense. Writing in his Lives of the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius explains:

And very often, while arguing and discussing points that arose, he was treated with great violence and beaten, and pulled about, and laughed at and ridiculed by the multitude. But he bore all this with great equanimity. So that once, when he had been kicked and buffeted about, and someone expressed his surprise, he said, “Suppose an ass had kicked me, would you have had me bring an action against him?”

Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions
of Eminent Philosophers (Socrates)

Not that Socrates initiated these dialogues out of spite or arrogance. He always maintained that his own philosophical strength was rooted in the fact that he at least knew that he himself knew nothing. He was merely frustrated that others thought they really did know and understand the world and each other.

While his reputation grew—the oracle at Delphi declaring that there was none wiser in the land—so too his concerns with ethics and the right ways to live inevitably drew him and philosophy into the political arena, where, during a period of considerable political instability, he could hardly avoid being seen as taking sides. In the 390s BC his enemies finally brought charges against him, alleging that he had corrupted the Athenian youth, made innovations in the religion of the Greeks, and ridiculed their gods. As was the practice in Athens, where there were no professional judges, Socrates was summoned to answer the charges before a full jury of 501 citizens elected by ballot. The jury expected Socrates to put up an eloquent, self-effacing defense and finally sue for forgiveness, but this went entirely against the grain of his moral philosophy. Instead, he challenged the whole foundation of the trial and the supposed justice upon which it was based. He complained that these were trumped-up charges supported by false witnesses, which was almost certainly true, and his eloquence almost won the jury over. In the end he was found guilty by only three votes.

The next step in this “people’s trial” was rather unusual. Instead of handing down a set sentence for the crime, the jury was required to ask Socrates how he himself considered he should be punished. But Socrates was still not prepared to humble himself before his accusers, and, perhaps buoyed by the close vote in the trial itself, he suggested that because he had so helped to develop the intellectual caliber of the people, he should be granted free meals for life and pay a very modest fine. The jurors were not in a joking mood, however, and the mocking of their judicial process turned them savagely against him. The motion to put him to death immediately was passed by 441 to 60.

He was duly sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, though his execution was delayed for thirty days by a local religious festival. Pressed by his followers to change his mind, he is said to have exclaimed, “Would you then have me die guilty?” He died aged seventy in 399 BC.

In holding firm to his beliefs to the point of death, Socrates had a phenomenal impact on the Greek mind and Greek civilization. The philosophy of Pythagoras had not concerned itself with how a society should operate. But after Socrates philosophers would interest themselves in the state and politics. Their subject had taken on a moral dimension and become something worth dying for.

Lemprière summarizes his achievements with admirable clarity:

The philosophy of Socrates forms an interesting epoch in the history of the human mind. The son of Sophroniscus derided the more abstruse inquiries and metaphysical researches of his predecessors, and by first introducing moral philosophy, he induced mankind to consider themselves, their passions, their opinions, their duties, actions and faculties. From this it is said that the founder of the Socratic school drew philosophy down from heaven upon the earth.

Lemprière, Classical Dictionary Writ Large, pp. 588-90

There is one other aspect of Socrates’ death well worth noting. This is simply that it happened at all. That a philosopher should be put to death for holding views and expressing them orally (he did not set his views down in writing) merely because they were different from currently accepted norms attests to how seriously this new philosophy was being taken. Indeed, the shift in emphasis from metaphysical to moral philosophy which Socrates pioneered had the effect of making philosophy’s subject area even more politically loaded than it had been, to the point where Socrates’ immediate successors became actively engaged in working out the ideal form that not just individuals but entire societies should take.

Ten years or so before his death, it is said, Socrates had a dream one night. A young bird fell exhausted into his lap, and then in front of him it grew at great speed into a fully fledged swan and flew away. The next day Plato appeared at Socrates’ school and asked to enroll as a pupil. He stayed with Socrates right through until his death, though he says he was not present when his master swallowed the poison.

After his master’s death Plato decided to travel, visiting Sicily several times and venturing as far as Egypt, in search of the basic tenets of Pythagorean philosophy, which he knew had their origins there. Once he had satisfied himself that he understood their essence, he returned to Athens and went about establishing his own school. The remains of that school can still be found today in what is now a suburb of Athens but was then a sacred grove of olive trees on the outskirts of the city. Here low stone foundations still mark the site of one of the city’s gymnasiums, along with a cluster of earlier buildings, one of which is claimed as the original home of the legendary hero who gave his name to this place—Academus. This was where Plato founded the Academy; the word itself has since become synonymous with learning and centers of education around the world. It was here that he undertook to teach young Greek men how to rule. The school attracted pupils from across the Mediterranean world, and its work extended far beyond the confines of politics. From its foundation, perhaps as early as 385 BC, it would last, intermittently, until AD 529, when its final closure by the emperor Justinian is said by many to mark the very end of antiquity.

Unlike Socrates, whose parents were artisans, Plato was from a noble and literate family, and once he had settled in Athens he began to write prodigiously. His philosophy was based on the physics of Heraclitus, who held that everything was in a state of continual flux and that change was the ultimate reality; his metaphysics he took from the Egyptian Pythagorean school, and his ethics and morals from his master, Socrates.

Socrates had not chosen to put any of his philosophy in writing himself, so Plato saw his first task as setting down his master’s dialogues. As no comparative records exist, it’s impossible to tell whether these early works are straightforward transcriptions of Socrates in action (they are written in that form, with Socrates the inquisitor unraveling the beliefs and knowledge of his subjects), or Plato is already using the Socratic dialogues to put his own thoughts in the mouth of his dead master.

It is clear, however, that as Plato’s writings progress, still couched in the form of Socratic dialogues, the voice we are hearing is more and more that of Plato himself. Because these works take the form of questions and answers, it is to some extent left to the reader to determine exactly what his philosophy consists of, but there are some basic notions which underlie his vision, and these would inform the physical and cultural life of Alexandria in years to come.

At the most profound level Plato perceived everything in the universe as having two manifestations. On the one hand there is the physical world which we recognize all around us. This is composed of ordinary matter, which the Greeks believed was made up of the four essential elements—earth, fire, water, air—constantly transforming themselves from one state into the next. This world is unstable and in a constant state of flux, essentially imperfect, giving rise to the endless disorders and deceptions which create the errors and miseries of human life.

But behind this perceived sensory world lies a quite different world of ideal “forms” or “ideas.” In the fullest expositions of Plato’s theories these forms are perfect, unchangeable, pure, and immortal. The human soul is composed of such divine stuff, though it is surrounded by the unstable elements of the sensuous world. It is the task of the philosopher to recapture his divine origins by moving away from the material world, curbing and governing his physical passions, and embracing the inner world of form and the mind.

For Plato this was much more than a simple philosophical construct; it was a way of life, both for the individual and for the state. The perfect state was one where the rules he was deducing were put into perfect practice, making philosophy not the preserve of ethereal academics, but an essential and practical tool of government. Plato believed he could divide up the types of government just as he could divide earth, fire, water, and air, or the polluted “material” from the pure “form.” According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato divided the political world into five species: democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, and tyranny. He goes on to explain:

Now, the democratic form of constitution exists in those cities in which the multitude has the chief power, and elects magistrates and passes laws at its own pleasure. But an aristocracy is that form in which neither the rich nor the poor, nor the most illustrious men of the city rule, but the most nobly born have the chief sway. An oligarchy is that constitution in which the magistracies are distributed according to some sort of rating: for the rich are fewer in number than the poor. The monarchical constitution is either dependent on law or on family. . . . But a tyranny is that kind of government in which the people are either cajoled or constrained into being governed by a single individual.

Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions
of Eminent Philosophers (Plato)

This was the sort of philosophy that must have been impressed on the young Alexander and Ptolemy at the Macedonian court—practical information for the future rulers of the world. In the monarchical setting of his father’s palace, Alexander likely mused on the relative values of democracy and monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. Athens had embraced democracy but often had fallen to foreign rulers. Carthage was a land of oligarchs set soon to clash with a Roman republic ruled by an aristocracy. But how would he rule the world? Did he dream of becoming monarch of the world? Would he rule through an aristocracy? Would he allow democracy to thrive in Greece? Whatever his decision, in the end, in trying to hold together one vast empire he chose the last and Plato’s least favored route—tyranny.

For Ptolemy, the decision had been different. Born into an aristocracy ruled by a monarchy he could join only through mythmaking, he would choose the route of monarchy, reinventing his family as the legitimate successors to the most ancient court on earth. His empire was to be a family affair, not fought over by his generals, but bound to the age-old traditions of the Egyptian royal house.

But Plato had more to say on government. He went on to describe justice as being of three species—justice toward God, men, and the dead—but it was in one last division that he really struck a chord with Ptolemy, giving him the chance when building his new kingdom to put into practice the philosophical ideas he had learned as a child at the court of Philip. This was in Plato’s conception of the three types of knowledge: “In the same way, there are also three species of knowledge. There is one kind which is practical, a second which is productive, a third which is theoretical” (Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers [Plato] ).

It was this thought that electrified Ptolemy—bringing together the productive, the practical, and the theoretical in one state. Plato went on to define his three species. House building and shipbuilding were productive knowledge in that one could see the work produced by them. Playing a flute or harp, by contrast, was practical knowledge, for although there was no visible result produced by playing the instrument, something was clearly being done. The same was true of political science. Geometry and astronomy, by contrast, concerned themselves with abstractions and hence were purely theoretical.

It was by combining the three that Ptolemy hoped to create a new model city in Alexandria and a new country beyond. It would feed and be fed by productive knowledge—the ships in the Great Harbor and the markets beyond. It would be governed by practical knowledge in the application of the very best and most efficient forms of government and administration. And set at its heart would be the world’s greatest center for Plato’s third species—theoretical knowledge—which seeks out the truths of the universe and reaches out for the perfect forms of God and soul that lie behind the chaos of the everyday world. This would be a community that had mastered its sensual passions and, in knowing the miseries which arise from unjust conduct, could aspire to excellence and perfection through the exercise of rational and morally sound judgment.

In 1929 the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, when considering Plato’s contribution to Western philosophy, could not avoid the opinion that “the safest general characterisation of the European (modern) philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality).

It happens very rarely in the history of any branch of knowledge that three of the greatest masters of a subject follow each other in direct descent, each one in many ways outshining his master and predecessor. Just as Plato first recorded, formalized, expanded, and developed the Socratic philosophy, so would Aristotle take the ideas of his master, Plato, and forge from them systems of thought which have affected the entire development of Western civilization. It was also through Aristotle that the ideas of the perfect state were brought to the attention of young Ptolemy, and through Aristotle’s own unique way of gathering knowledge that Alexandria’s preeminent institutions—her museum and library—came into existence.

Aristotle came to Athens to study under Plato when he was about eighteen years old, but he came with certain predispositions. His father had been court physician to King Amyntas II of Macedonia, father of Philip, grandfather of Alexander the Great. Although his father died when Aristotle was only ten, medicine was the traditional occupation of certain families, passed down from father to son. It is therefore very likely that the young Aristotle had already received medical training from his father at home, and that training would have emphasized the importance of investigation and objective observation of the patient and the physical world.

So his family background connected him directly to the Macedonian royal family, trained him as an empirical observer, and also, incidentally, left him with an intense dislike of courts and princes. Unlike Plato, who was an accomplished athlete, the young Aristotle was small in stature, thin-legged, with small eyes and a lisp, which may well have left him prey to the scorn of the noble athletes of the Macedonian court, for whom outward disfigurement was a sign of inner decay.

Aristotle remained at Plato’s Academy in Athens until the death of his master, and most people assumed that he would inherit the position as head of the Academy, but the post was eventually given to a nephew of Plato’s. However, Aristotle had certainly not been idle during his fifteen years at the Academy. On the contrary, his insatiable appetite for knowledge had led him to study literally every subject that existed at that time.

Plato himself had felt that he needed to restrain the young man rather than encourage him in his researches. But though there was never any serious rift between the two, and Aristotle always remained highly respectful of his master, intellectual differences had begun to emerge. Plato remained convinced that only the refinement of the soul would give access to the underlying, ideal forms of the universe and existence, the world around being merely an imperfect copy of the forms. He was therefore in essence an idealist, a rationalist.

But Aristotle came increasingly to place value on the knowledge he gained through his senses, making him an empiricist, trusting what he could see and test, ignoring or dismissing speculation. Here, then, lay the path which would lead directly to the “scientific” method, though it would not gain that label until nearly two thousand years later.

After Plato’s death Aristotle accepted an invitation from a former fellow student at the Academy to travel to Assos near Troy, which his colleague ruled, and he stayed there until his patron was overthrown and killed. He then traveled on to Lesbos, where he carried out biological research of such outstanding quality that it was not superseded until the eighteenth century AD. Even Charles Darwin was an unqualified admirer of Aristotle’s biology. Writing up his findings in On the Generation of Animals, Aristotle lays bare the fundamentals of all scientific inquiry, stating boldly that facts can be established only by observation and that theories are valid only insofar as they are supported by observed facts.

And this was the approach he applied as he systematically surveyed the whole of human knowledge as it was in the Mediterranean world in his time. Not content with pioneering the observational method in biology and inventing the study of formal logic, Aristotle both studied and wrote definitively about physics, chemistry, zoology, botany, anatomy, embryology, astronomy, geography, geology, and meteorology. He also explored almost every known aspect of psychology, government, politics and political theory, ethics and moral philosophy, economics, aesthetics, metaphysics, history, literary theory, rhetoric, and religion. And in so doing he created a model of the philosopher as a man of knowledge and wisdom in all fields, which acted as a beacon for generations of scholars, researchers, and philosophers who would later throng the halls, lecture theaters, and libraries of the museum in Alexandria.

These then were the three generations of exceptional scholarship, the pedigree of thought that came to bear on the practical rule of the world in 342 BC, when Philip II of Macedon summoned Aristotle to become his fourteen-year-old son Alexander’s personal tutor. Aristotle performed this role until Alexander assumed the throne on Philip’s death in 336, and remained as personal adviser to the young king until Alexander set off in 333 on his Asian campaigns. During these critical years Aristotle prepared Alexander to be a military leader, using as models great Greek heroes like Ajax and Achilles as they appear in Homer’s Iliad, paragons of classical valor.

Alexander’s subsequent career shows that his old tutor had prepared him well, but in his hurry to dominate the whole world the conqueror and his teacher began to drift apart. Perhaps to the most powerful man on earth, the strict admonitions of this old-school master no longer seemed relevant or dignified. Equally Aristotle can only have felt unease with the stories coming back from Asia of his old pupil’s growing autocracy and superstitious paranoia. The imprisonment and subsequent death of Aristotle’s nephew Callisthenes at Alexander’s order cannot have helped. Callisthenes, sent with Alexander to record the greatest military campaign of all time, had proved to be an outspoken critic of some of Alexander’s decisions, particularly his adoption of Persian customs, which alienated his Macedonian troops and commanders. In response Alexander accused him of treachery and threw him into prison, where he died, either from torture or disease. When that news got back to Aristotle it must have given rise to foreboding as well as grief. He had always maintained to his young pupil that a ruler over vast swaths of the earth must be as superior to ordinary men as we humans are superior to beasts. In Alexander he could now see a man who believed every day that he was closer to this godlike state, but whose actions betrayed a cruelty and arrogance that in reality took him further from it. Plutarch notes that Alexander, having in his youth treated Aristotle as a second father, once out on his campaigns “suspected him somewhat, yet he did him no hurt, neither was he so friendly to him as he had been; whereby men perceived that he did not bear him the good will that he was wont to do” (Plutarch, Life of Alexander, in Parallel Lives, 8).

It is perhaps this that led to the tales that Aristotle determined to put a stop to his protégé’s rise, his unseen hand controlling events in Babylon during Alexander’s last days, bringing him to his death.

But if Aristotle and Alexander grew apart in later years with regard to their views on kingship and rule, Aristotle’s methods were still close to the young king’s heart, and Pliny and others suggest that he remained imbued with a love of practical observation, of the finding and collecting of examples of everything. It was something that Aristotle dreamed of and that Alexander, master of the world, could bring to pass, and it would have a vital role in the creation of Alexandria. Pliny tells us that Alexander gave Aristotle control of all the hunters, fishermen, and fowlers in his empire, and made him overseer of all the royal forests, lakes, ponds, and cattle ranges, as recognition of his tutor’s masterly knowledge of all things natural. It’s also reported that Alexander sent many books and treasures back to Aristotle from the libraries of Babylon, Persia, and India.

Even after Aristotle left the service of the Macedonian state, Alexander continued to feed him with the information and objects that he so desired. Indeed, Alexander had sent out orders to the fishermen, hunters, and farmers of his lands to send all the strange devices they possessed or interesting objects they found to Aristotle for his study and for use in his lectures. At the same time, and for many years previously, Aristotle, who had inherited wealth from his father, had become an avid collector of books. He collected them on any subject and in any language; it didn’t matter what they were about, it just mattered that he had a copy—a copy of everything. It was a passion he had held ever since he entered the Academy—Plato’s nickname for Aristotle was “the Reader.”

These two collections—of objects and books—were, though it seems strange today, something entirely new. Aristotle was the founder of modern empirical science, the first man to attempt to study and systematize the things he observed around him, and the result bore fruit in the philosopher’s own school, which he founded in Athens on the banks of the Ilissus River. Here, in the sanctuary to the Lycian Apollo, he established a school and research institute that was to become the prototype of all subsequent educational institutions: the Lyceum. Today there is little left of the Lyceum to see, just an archaeological site between the Museum of Modern Art and the British embassy, but in Aristotle’s time the sanctuary was surrounded by covered walkways where he strolled as he taught, giving rise to the name “Peripatetic” for his school of philosophy. Here for twelve years he would lecture his students on metaphysics and logic in the mornings (esoteria), while in the afternoons he would present public lectures on ethics, politics, and rhetoric (exoteria). Here also resided his great collection of objects, which inspired his thoughts and demonstrated his theories. This was the first museum in Western history, a resource for scholars to study and demonstrate as they walked through the stoas—the great halls where the philosophers taught, hence “Stoics”—and gardens of the Lyceum.

Likewise his collection of books, brought from all over the known world, was the first attempt to gather all written knowledge in one place, the first true, if private, library. These were the seeds of the modern world, first planted in the Lyceum, but which would grow to maturity not long after Aristotle’s death, in the soil of Alexandria.

The death of Alexander in Babylon also ushered in the last sad year in Aristotle’s life. After Alexander’s death a wave of hostility against Macedonians swept through Athens, and he was accused of impiety—the same charge that had been brought against Socrates. Placed in an impossible position, with the stark fate of Socrates before him, Aristotle chose to leave Athens and his beloved Lyceum, saying he would rather abandon the city than give the Athenians another chance to sin against philosophy. Aristotle retired to his house at Chalcis in Euboea, where he died within the year from a stomach complaint.

But if relations between Aristotle and Alexander had been strained and the strange intertwining of their fates had brought an end to both men, both their legacies were being kept alive across the Mediterranean by that other pupil of both—Ptolemy. What level of correspondence existed between Aristotle and Ptolemy is unknown, although Aristotle’s writings against Cleomenes perhaps suggest that the old master was still guiding his pupil’s hand. But regardless of how actively Aristotle was involved in Ptolemy’s plans, it was in Ptolemy’s Egypt that the ideas of philosophy’s great triumvirate—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—would be tested in the real world. If there was ever to be a land of philosopher-kings, it would be here and now.

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