Category: Persons

Aristippus

Aristippus of Cyrene (435-355 BC) was one of the so-called minor Socratics, and a close associate of Socrates. His work focused mainly on ethics, and he argued in favor of pleasure as a basic constituent of the good life. He is known as the founder of Cyrenaic hedonism, a school of philosophical thought subsequently developed extensively by his grandson, Aristippus the Younger.

Life and work

Aristippus of Cyrene left his native city in north-eastern present-day Libya and moved to Athens, reportedly with the express aim of becoming a companion of Socrates. Indeed, he was a member of Socrates’ inner circle, as indirectly attested by Plato’s (Phaedo 59b) making mention of his absence from the group of disciples who gathered to accompany Socrates during his last hours (regardless of what Plato’s intentions may have been in making this reference to Aristippus, the only one in the Platonic corpus). In later sources, Aristippus is depicted as an inveterate hedonist and founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy. In his Memorabilia, Xenophon portrays him as an advocate of a life devoted to pleasure. He was known for his predilection for luxury, and, following Socrates’ death, he is said to have adopted the Sophist practice of teaching philosophy for a fee.

It is unclear what specific theory of pleasure can be attributed with certainty to Aristippus, as is also the question of the precise points of contact between his views and the philosophy of Socrates; more so, as it is not even verified whether Aristippus really was the founder of the Cyrenaic school (perhaps after returning to Cyrene in his old age). It is more likely that the school’s founder was, in fact, Aristippus the younger, grandson of Aristippus the Elder and son of his daughter Arete. The younger Aristippus was also known as «mother-taught», because it was alleged that Aristippus the Elder trained his daughter in philosophy and that she, in turn, subsequently taught her son. Nevertheless, it is not clear which of these alleged apprenticeships should be considered foundational, not to mention the vagueness attending the notion of a «philosophical school». Later sources exacerbate the confusion by attributing anecdotal information and philosophical doctrines to the «Cyrenaics» in general, thus conflating Aristippus with his namesake grandson.

Unlike other philosophers of the same period, no works or even fragments of Aristippus have survived, and this fosters ambiguity, uncertainty and speculation. Diogenes Laertius cites a catalog of book titles, as well as various testimonies on Aristippus’ life and work. However, most of these alleged testimonies are highly misleading, because their aim is apparently to discredit and condemn hedonism. It is not unlikely that Aristippus, similarly to other Socratics, composed dialogues with Socrates as their protagonist («Socratikoi logoi»);he may also have written works of a «socratic» character, albeit not in dialogue form. Apart from ethics, he also wrote on history and the theory of knowledge. It is reported that he traveled widely, and that he was hosted at the court of Dionysius I or II in Syracuse (his sojourn there supposedly partly overlapping with Plato's stay). Aristotle describes him in the Metaphysics B 996a as a «sophist», commenting on Aristippus’ criticism of those mathematicians who do not distinguish the good from the bad (possibly a remark aimed at indirectly targeting Plato).

Key features of the philosophy of Aristippus

Aristippus was primarily interested in ethics, and he was considered a proponent of an unrestrained hedonism, at the very antipodes of the supposed rigid antihedonism of Antisthenes. Aristippus’ positive valuation of pleasure is indeed corroborated by various sources, but this still leaves open the question of what specific kind of hedonism he advocated. Delineating his philosophical position requires extreme caution, given that extant sources are (1) either misleading and/or derogatory, in the service of an anti-hedonist polemic, or (2) tend to indiscriminately conflate the positions of the elder and the younger Aristippus (who represents the ‘mature’ Cyrenaic viewpoint).

There are two main interpretative approaches to the philosophy of Aristippus. The first view regards Aristippus as a hedonist with a theory of pleasure almost identical to the subsequent Cyrenaic one. On an alternative view, even though his views on pleasure are seen to anticipate their later Cyrenaic incarnation, Aristippusis still regarded as an «eudaemonist», whose acceptance of pleasure remained conditional.

The hedonist version of Aristippus (according to the first of these viewpoints), seems to identify the occurent pleasures of the flesh as the final telos, the only intrinsic good that we seek. Pleasures and pains are described as motions of the flesh, smooth and violent respectively, of which we become conscious. Pleasure arises from the smooth motion of flesh. By its very nature as «motion», pleasure has a momentary character, and only lasts as long as it is experienced. Pleasure is the universal and exclusive object of desire; this position is hardly compatible with the Socratic conception of the good and of the relation between virtue and happiness. According to the second viewpoint, Aristippus was an eudaemonist who conceived of pleasure as a major constituent of happiness (eudaemonia). Happiness is not incompatible with the enjoyment of a multitude of pleasures; however, the happy life is not reducible to a sequence of unconnected episodes of individual physical pleasures. Happiness is conceived as the ideal of a whole life of the greatest possible ease and pleasure (Xenophon, Memorabilia II, 1.9).

Achieving this kind of life presupposes the capacity to adapt to circumstances and shifts of fortune; such a capacity is linked with the virtue of wisdom, the human ability to recognize and acknowledge existing conditions and to delimit and prioritize desires accordingly. Pleasures should be pursued only as long as they don’t jeopardize individual self-control. Such a notion is directly linked with the Socratic heritage. Self-control as the precondition of happiness would also account for Aristippus’ alleged prioritizing of personal freedom and self-definition, even to the extent of waiving one’s citizenship and abstaining from the life of the polis («I don’t enclose myself into any political community, but I am instead everywhere a stranger», Xenophon, Memorabilia II, 1.13).

In any event it is certain that, as opposed to other Socratic philosophers, Aristippus endorsed a positive stance toward pleasure, and especially towards physical pleasures. Yet, one should be wary of the tendency of later sources to equate bodily pleasures with brute animal pleasures, thus painting a crude picture of hedonism and summarily discrediting it. To the extent that an ex post facto reconstruction of Aristippus’ thinking is possible on the basis of a systematic analysis of those sources we have at our disposal, such a reconstruction would seem to indicate that many of the physical pleasures discussed by Aristippus correspond to more complex situations and sophisticated tastes than his critics in antiquity were willing to allow.

Author: Lampros Spiliopoulos
  • Giannantoni, G. ed. Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae 4 vols. Nάπολη, 1990.
  • McKirahan, R., Tsouna, V. "Socratic Origins of the Cynics and Cyrenaics." Vander Waerdt, P.A. ed. The Socratic Movement. 1994.
  • Tsouna, V. The epistemology of the Cyrenaic school. Cambridge, 1998.
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