Aristippus was far more radical than the more famous Epicurus.
Ancient philosophy, for all its theoretical underpinnings, was above all an art of living, which aimed, through self-transformation, at controlling the passions, relieving suffering, and attaining wisdom. Philosophy was to the soul, or mind, as medicine is to the body, and the professional philosopher was, first and foremost, a healer of the soul. In the words of the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Unless the soul is cured, which cannot be done without philosophy, there will be no end to our miseries.” According to the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, “We must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason.”
This notion of philosophy as therapy, or an art of living, can be traced back to Socrates. After his heroic death by hemlock in 399 BCE, his nearest students ran off each with a different aspect of his teaching. While Plato and the Platonic Academy which he founded inherited his theoretical side, Antisthenes embraced his ethical or practical side, advocating an ascetic life of virtue and laying the foundations for the Cynic school. A third follower, Aristippus, had a very different take on their master’s ethics and established the Cyrenaic school, which taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, especially momentary pleasures and above all physical ones—a position far more radical than that eventually espoused by Epicurus.
The Life of Aristippus
Aristippus of Cyrene (435-356 BCE), who died before Epicurus was even born, emphasized present and physical pleasures over long-term pleasure or tranquillity. For Aristippus and his followers the Cyrenaics, pleasure meant not merely the absence of pain but positively making the most out of every moment.
Aristippus had been a follower of Socrates, and once had the temerity to tell him that he lived in Athens so as not to be embroiled in the politics of his native city—the kind of remark that turned other students of Socrates, notably Plato and Xenophon, against him. Aristippus was the first of the Socratics to take money for teaching. When he demanded five hundred drachmas out of a man for tutoring his son, the man protested, “For that much money, I could buy a slave!” “Go ahead” he replied, “then you’ll have two.”
Many saucy stories are told of Aristippus. One day, Diogenes the Cynic was washing the dirt from his vegetables, and, seeing him pass by, called out, “Had you learnt to make these your diet, you would have no need to pay court to kings.” “And you, Diogenes” he shot back, “had you learnt to associate with men, you would have no need to wash these vegetables.”
When someone chided him for his extravagance in catering, he retorted, “Wouldn’t you have bought this if you could have got it for three obols? Very well then, it is no longer I who am a lover of pleasure, but you who are a lover of money.”
When someone remarked that philosophers always seem to be at rich men’s doors, he replied, “Physicians are always calling on those who are sick, but no one on that account would prefer being sick to being a physician.”
When Dionysus I, the tyrant of Syracuse, asked him why he had come to his court, he said, “When I needed wisdom, I went to Socrates; but now that I am in need of money, I come to you.”
One time, Dionysus spat in his face. When someone reproached him for putting up with this, he said, “If fishermen are prepared to be drenched in seawater in order to catch a gudgeon, should I not be prepared to be sprayed with spittle in order to take a blenny?”
When Dionysus gave him his choice of three courtesans, he carried off all three, explaining, “Paris paid dearly for preferring one out of three.”
He was for a long time intimate with the courtesan Lais of Corinth, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in all of Greece.
The Cyrenaic School of Philosophy
But appearances, especially when it comes to the hedonists, can be deceptive. Aristippus was far from amoral. He simply believed that we ought to make the most out of every situation. Upon being criticised for his love of pleasure, he replied, “It is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without ever being worsted.” One time, as he entered the house of a courtesan, one of the lads with him blushed. Seeing this, he said, “It is not going in that is shameful, but being unable to come out.”
Vitruvius, in his treatise on architecture, relates the story of Aristippus’ shipwreck. Upon being cast ashore on Rhodes, he repaired to the city and made straight for the gymnasium, where he spoke so eloquently that the Rhodians provided for all his needs and all his companions’ needs. When his companions wished to return to their country and asked what message they might bear from him, he bade them say this: that children ought to be provided with property and resources of a kind that can swim with them even out of a shipwreck.
Despite having two sons, Aristippus designated his daughter Arete as his successor at the head of the Cyrenaic school, and it was Arete’s son, Aristippus the Younger, who formalized the principles of Cyrenaicism.
A number of later Cyrenaics departed from this canon; for instance, Theodorus the Atheist (c. 340-c. 250 BCE) emphasized mental over physical pleasures and defined the good as prudence and justice. Hegesias of Cyrene (fl. 290 BCE), who might have been influenced by Buddhist missionaries sent forth by Ashoka the Great, argued that, since happiness is impossible to achieve, the goal of living ought instead to be the avoidance of pain and trouble. According to Cicero, he wrote a book called Death by Starvation that persuaded so many people that death is preferable to life that Ptolemy II Philadelphus banned him from teaching in Alexandria.
Cyrenaicism died out within a century to be replaced by Epicureanism.
Read my related article on Epicurus, The Arithmetics of Pleasure.
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.