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Dane Gordon on a forgotten philosopher who practiced what he preached.
Aristippus is remembered in the history of Western philosophy as the founder of hedonism, that is, as the first person to propose the theory that pleasure is the good of life. But he is not remembered very much, mainly as the shadowy forerunner of later Epicureanism. None of his many works, which might have given us the information we need about his teaching, has survived, and what we do know appears to be rudimentary.
But Aristippus was an interesting and complex personality, and his brand of hedonism had a strength and directness which were overlooked in the somewhat apologetic revision proposed by Epicurus. What can we do to bring him back to life, to turn the shadowy figure into a real philosopher? One way is to look at the numerous references to Aristippus in the ancient writers. These extend from his contemporaries, many of whom were friends and followers of Socrates, to St Augustine who lived during the last days of Rome, approximately eight hundred years later. So let’s do that, for there we will find a great deal of information.
Xenophon, a contemporary of Aristippus, records a conversation in his Memorabilia in which Socrates takes Aristippus to task for his self-indulgent life. He really enjoyed wine, women and song, and was glad for everyone to know it. How can we take a so-called philosophy seriously which provides an argument for what surely needs no argument – having a good time? In fact, as Aristippus was exceedingly intelligent, one might almost suppose his philosophy was a put-on to upset the sober minded. There’s a provocativeness about his manner reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. We can never be quite sure whether what he did or said was serious – surely the biggest sin in philosophy next to being irrational. His life and his teaching therefore don’t fit the image of Greek intellectualism (Cicero describes him slightingly as a person of “most luxurious and sensual habits”).1 The latter-day student of philosophy is likely to spend only a brief time with Aristippus and his raw hedonism and move on to what pleasure really means, as explained carefully, even a bit self-righteously, by Epicurus, and very much later by John Stuart Mill.
Yet if we look at the account of his life in Diogenes Laertius and at various ancient writers beyond those we have considered,2 we get a picture of someone who was not merely a selfindulgent sensualist.
A possible reason for why he was so often misunderstood, and why he behaved and spoke as he did: he did not take himself seriously. David Hume may be an example of that in the modern era, Socrates may be the only other philosopher than Aristippus in ancient times. That may have been why Socrates liked him. Aristippus didn’t mind what people thought. He made independent choices and had quick common sense answers to those who criticized. For example, Socrates objected to Aristippus’ taking money for his teaching. Aristippus responded, perhaps with a laugh, that he didn’t take money from people for himself, but to teach them how to spend it. Once Socrates asked him, “Where did you get so much?” and Aristippus replied “Where you got so little.”3 When his mistress said he had made her pregnant he told her “You don’t know that any more than you’d know, if you walked through a thorn bush, which thorn had scratched you.”4
He loved to puncture people’s pretensions. One day he was at the baths with Diogenes the Cynic, whom Cicero described as “notorious for the most frantic excesses of moroseness and selfdenial.” 5 This was the man whom Alexander the Great visited and invited him, “Ask of me what you want,” and received the curt reply, “Stand out of my light.” Aristippus left the baths first and took Diogenes’ old cloak, leaving behind his expensive purple one. A purple robe was regarded as elegant by Athenian society. When Diogenes discovered what had happened he went running after Aristippus demanding his old cloak back. Aristippus chided him for being so concerned about his reputation, that he would rather go cold than be seen wearing purple. A similar example of Aristippus’ wry humour: A person jeered at him because Dionysius, the ruler of Syracuse, had given Plato a book but had given Aristippus money. “The fact is,” he said, “Plato wanted a book and I wanted money.”
People were continually trying to take a morally superior attitude toward Aristippus – in modern parlance, to put him down. Typical of this was someone who attempted to imply that using perfume, as Aristippus did, was unworthy of a man. He replied simply “No animal is the worse for having a pleasant scent, so neither is a man.”6 I think Socrates enjoyed all this. What he didn’t hear himself he certainly heard about. Athens was a small town. Socrates had described himself as a gadfly for the serious business of stirring up the body politic. Aristippus was like a bumble bee who for no specially serious purpose bothers everyone at the garden party and gets them to spill the teacups and swat the cakes instead of him.
Behind this lightness or flippancy are glimpses of a more serious intent. When someone asked him how Socrates died he answered, “As I should wish to die myself.”7 Surely not a quip. Aristippus cared a great deal for Socrates, admired him as a person and tried to emulate his teaching.
For all his alleged luxurious and self-indulgent living he was a busy writer. At the time when Charles Chaplin was being hounded by the press and courts for his alleged immoralities, charges which were later shown to be false, he remarked that if indeed he had lived like that he would never have had the time to make his films. Aristippus might have made a similar comment. None of his works has survived, but we have an incomplete list of titles in Diogenes Laertius.8 He wrote twenty-five dialogues, but not on the serious topics which Plato chose. One was to Lais, who seems to have been his favourite mistress, another to Lais about her Looking Glass, and he wrote an essay to Lais. He seems really to have been fond of her. I’m reminded of Robert Herrick, the sixteenth century poet and clergyman, who seems to have been less interested in his calling than in his women friends. In one of his poems to his Julia, he expresses his delight in “the liquefaction of her clothes.” Aristippus wrote a dialogue to those who reproached him for spending too much money on his eating, and another on those who reproached him for possessing old wine and young mistresses. I’ve wondered whether or not these were deliberate parodies of Plato’s Dialogues which perhaps Plato enjoyed; he would certainly have known about them. Maybe he wasn’t too pleased. Isaac Watts would not have appreciated Lewis Carroll’s parody of his poetry in Alice in Wonderland. Oscar Wilde was somewhat amused by W.S. Gilbert’s parody of him in Patience. The two of them remained friendly. All of this does suggest a philosophic, literary excitement which animated the circle of acquaintances that included Plato and Aristippus. As well as dialogues he wrote essays, letters and books – one on Education, one on Virtue, six books of ‘Dissertations’ and a History of Africa which he sent Dionysius. Near the end of his life he returned to Cyrene with his daughter Arete, whom he instructed in his teaching, and his grandson, also Aristippus, who had the name of Metrodidaktos, or mother taught, because he was instructed by his mother. They and a number of followers carried on the tradition of the Cyrenaic school founded by Aristippus.
Common sense psychology told Aristippus that pleasure is what everyone wants and pain is what they want to avoid, pleasure and pain being the two primary emotions. And again, common sense told him that the basic pleasures are physical. Our happiness depends upon food, drink, sleep, health, physical contact with other people, and the physical means to obtain them, most generally money. Even Aristotle, in his discussion of the moral virtues, admitted it is difficult to be happy if one is poor, ugly or sick.9 As a matter of common sense it is not the meal you remember having had last week which makes you happy but the meal you are eating now. And to those who suffered from the great plague in Athens the remembrance of their former health did little to alleviate their present misery. So happiness is present pleasure, taken for what it is, not measured against the past or the future or any other standard.
According to Aristippus pleasures do not differ; no one pleasure is more pleasurable than another. This prompts a question. If pleasure is something to be achieved through an activity, as Aristippus teaches, pleasure is not independent; it is dependent upon various kinds of activity, in which case wouldn’t the nature of the activity affect the nature of the pleasure so that the pleasure resulting from one activity would be different from the pleasure resulting from another? This could imply that some pleasures are not only better pleasures but more worthy, and it would follow that pleasures do differ from one another.
Aristippus would not agree. In his answer he would most likely bring out another position he held, namely, ethical relativism. Nothing to him was intrinsically just, honourable or disgraceful “but that things were considered so because of law and fashion”10 and Cicero writes, for Aristippus “actions were all morally indifferent – law and custom are the only authorities which make an action good or bad.”11 So ‘better’ or ‘worse’ was not really a description of the pleasure but of people’s perception of it. Secondly he would deny that the character of the activity would influence the nature of the pleasure. “Pleasure is a good even if it arises from unbecoming causes.” Even when an action is absurd the pleasure which comes from it is “desirable, and a good”12 providing a theoretical explanation maybe for some of Aristippus’ more outrageous behaviour. For example, when Simus, Dionysius’ steward, a great drinker, was showing Aristippus a magnificent house paved with marble floors, Aristippus, we are told “hawked up a quantity of saliva and spit in his face.” Simus was indignant. Aristippus replied simply “I could not find a more suitable place to spit.”13
Aristippus’ ethic was relativistic; it was also egoistic. We should live our life, choose our friends, cultivate the virtues not for their own sake but for what use we can make of them. Here might seem to be an inconsistency because a strictly egoistic ethic cannot be relative; it always has the same reference, namely the self, wherever the self is. But there is another inconsistency. (Though when we refer to inconsistencies we must remember we don’t have Aristippus’ own teaching, only what others have chosen to write about him.) Diogenes Laertius writes that for the Cyrenaics, “a good man is a wise man” and “every wise man does not always live pleasantly.”14 If this represents Aristippus’ thinking he had some concept of goodness for its own sake independent of pleasure. Lacking other data we fall back again upon anecdote, for while this may be inconsistent with his teaching it is not inconsistent with the way he lived. Cicero describes how Aristippus helped Aeschines, an unsuccessful philosopher. Diogenes Laertius reports that the same man picked a quarrel with Aristippus but Aristippus went to him to make it up. Aeschines was pleased. Aristippus reminded him, “I am older than you but I took the first step.” Aeschines replied, “You may well be… you are far better than I; for I began the quarrel but you begin the friendship.”15 This is slender evidence, yet it suggests that while Aristippus taught, theoretically, that “nothing was naturally or intrinsically just or honourable or disgraceful, but things were considered so because of law and fashion”16 he nevertheless acted from a sense of moral obligation in his own life.
We find a similar disjunction between the harshness of parts of Epicurus’ teaching and the generous character of his life.
I would like to dwell on Epicurus because a consideration of part of his teaching vis-à-vis Aristippus will bring out what I consider to be distinctive characteristics of the teaching of Aristippus. Epicurus seems almost nervously anxious lest his hedonism be confused with the other kind, that is, with Aristippus’ kind of hedonism. In his letter to Menoeceus he writes that pleasure is the alpha and omega of a blessed life, and that pleasure is our first and kindred good, but adds,“When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality,” in other words, the pleasures for which Aristippus was infamous. “By pleasure” Epicurus continues, “we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table” (those things which Aristippus loved) “which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance…”, and, Epicurus continues, we cannot lead a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honour and justice, or a life of prudence, honour and justice which is not also a life of pleasure.17 He buttresses his argument to show that intellectual pleasures are better than sensual by claiming, a little smugly, anyone acquainted with both kinds of pleasure would surely choose the intellectual. Aristippus’ theory is therefore superseded as rudimentary, crass, though still important as the raw undeveloped beginning of Hedonism.
But this is a great misunderstanding which Aristippus, if he has any continuing identity in the Platonic world of ideas must find rather amusing. He was always inclined to laugh at his critics rather than fight them, for what one has in Epicurus, and also in Mill, is not Hedonism at all. It is something else.
The role of pleasure in Epicurus and Mill is similar to that assigned to it by Plato in his dialogue Philebus, an essential component of the end or goal of life, but not itself the end. By itself it is a deficient quality requiring to be complemented by wisdom and knowledge. The true goal of life is measure, that is, the standard by which pleasure is judged, a point made in both Philebus and Protagoras. The goal is not pleasure as such, but the pleasure of meeting certain standards. What standards? For Mill, intellectuality, creativity. For Epicurus, prudence, honour, justice, wisdom. Those are the ends for which a person should strive, the real goals of life, and one of the consequences will be a certain degree of pleasure. But pleasure is not the end, and both Mill and Epicurus give themselves away in their clever and much quoted comments: Mill – “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” and Epicurus – “the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool.” When the chips are down it is better to be dissatisfied, which is not pleasant, or to suffer misfortune, which is not pleasant, than to forego the honourable, wise, prudent, etc. quality of life. To argue that suffering misfortune or being dissatisfied is really pleasant, I would say is playing with words. It would seem then that the name ‘hedonism’ for such doctrines as Epicurus’ and Mill’s is a misnomer. Although both propose noble objectives for life, they are not the pursuit of pleasure.
This is why Aristippus may be not only the first hedonist, the founder of hedonism, but the only hedonist. No one went beyond him. No one it seemed had the nerve. Plato argues in Philebus that pure pleasure is not possible without memory, wisdom and knowledge.18 Aristippus not only challenged that theoretically, but also for him particular pleasures were important, not the memory of them or anticipation of future pleasures. That was how he lived. Pleasure for him was pleasure now. He didn’t need knowledge to recognise a pleasure. It was a basic human emotion which all human beings can recognise from infancy. And there was no need for measure or standard to qualify the pleasure, as Plato argued was necessary. Pleasure for Aristippus was pleasure, from whatever source it came, of whatever kind. And he took up the challenge, long before Mill presented it, the challenge, or the claim that those who experienced both would choose the more intellectual pleasure, and he proved him wrong. He had experienced both. He didn’t choose the more intellectual. He chose the more sensual.
Was this as bad as his critics affirmed? Was Aristippus an interesting person but in actual fact a scandalous voluptuary masquerading as a philosopher? Plenty of examples of unrestrained behaviour could be found during the Hellenistic era. The cult of the god Dionysus “the youthful, beautiful, effeminate god of wine” provided the most extreme examples. Euripides’ play The Bacchae shows the dark and dreadful side of lack of restraint in that religious cult. From the philosophers’ perspective this was the antithesis of how life should be lived, and their teachings provided a direct alternative. Epicurus, for example, made a point of that.19 One can suppose therefore that Aristippus’ more serious philosophic colleagues, in particular, Plato, would have found his teaching objectionable no matter how attractive his personality. Guthrie suggests cautiously that Plato’s dialogue Philebus was a response to a pupil of Socrates whom, he believed, had gone “wildly wrong”20 and so could be understood as an attack on Aristippus.
However, the undisciplined behaviour of the devotees of Dionysus was quite different from the manner of life which Aristippus lived and advocated. An often repeated story tells how, when Aristippus was criticised for living with his mistress Lais he replied “I have Lais, she does not have me.”21 Although from his writing, and we have only the titles, the inference is he was genuinely fond of her, and so perhaps not as independent as he claimed. In another incident Dionysius asked him to choose whom he pleased of three beautiful courtesans.22 He took all three, saying that even Paris had nothing but trouble by choosing one beauty in preference to the others. Then when he was out of sight of the king he dismissed the three of them. Diogenes sees this as another example of his fickleness but it is exactly related to his whole attitude toward pleasure, namely to enjoy pleasures without being dominated by them as the master of a ship is in control of a ship and the master of a house is in control of a house. So for “all his purple and his scents he could claim he had as much self control as Diogenes.”23 Perhaps this is what Plato meant by his ambiguous comment to Aristippus “You are the only man to whom it is given to wear both a whole cloak and rags.”24
Aristippus was good natured, intelligent, witty, not given to extremes, not overly introspective, but thoughtful enough to recognise that people can spoil the enjoyment of what they have by pining for the past and worrying about the future. They are never where they are, and so they don’t quite ever live. Aristippus believed we should enjoy what we can when we can, and not be afraid of the basic pleasures. Human beings are flesh and blood. This was the core of Aristippus’ hedonism. Yet, as we have seen, it was not self indulgent, and not without discipline. He taught and lived by simple ethical criteria, too simple for Epicurus and Mill. They wanted pleasure to be high minded and so, as I have suggested, it turned out that what they really wanted was not pleasure. But Aristippus wanted pleasure; he was a true hedonist. He got a lot of it and he shared it. If we were to reflect on this we might conclude it was not at all a bad way to live.
© Prof. Dane R. Gordon 1997
1. Cicero The Ancient Greek Philosophers ‘Aristippus’ Trans. by C.D. Yonge, London. Henry & Bohn, no date, p.XVII
2. For example, Plutarch makes several complimentary references to Aristippus in his Moralia. See the Everyman edition. Phileman Holland’s 16th century translation. Introduction by E.H. Blackency, 1911, reprinted 1936, pp.127, 165, 278, 357
3. Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers Aristippus Literally Translated by C.D. Yonge, London Henry & Bohn 1853 p.87
5. Cicero Lives p.XXV
6. Diogenes Laertius p.85
8. Diogenes Laertius pp.88-89
9. Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics Bk.1 Ch.8 1099b34
10. Diogenes Laertius p.91
11. Cicero Lives p.XVII
12. Diogenes Laertius p.90
13. Diogenes Laertius p.85
14. Diogenes Laertius pp.91 and 90
15. Diogenes Laertius p.88. Plutarch gives a slightly different version of this incident in the essay ‘Of Meekness’ in his Moralia, work cited p.127. The implication still is that Aeschines had provoked Aristippus.
16. Diogenes Laertius p.91
17. Epicurus Letter to Menoeceus printed in Greek and Roman Philosophy after Aristotle, edited by Jason Saunders, New York, London, The Free Press, 1966 pp.51-52
18. The argument is summarised in the concluding passages of Philebus.
19. See for example the opening passages of Lucretius On the Nature of Things
20. W.K.C. Guthrie A History of Greek Philosophy Volume III: The Fifth Century Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 1969, p.498
21. Diogenes Laertius p.85
22. Diogenes Laertius p.82
23. W.K.C. Guthrie p.495
24. Diogenes Laertius p.82
Giannantoni, C.I. Cerenaici: raccolta delle fonte antiche. Traduzione e studio introduttivo, Florence, 1958.
Crote, C. Plato and Other Companions of Socrates, 3 vols., 3rd edition, 1875, vol.III, pp.530-560.
Mannebach E., ed. Aristippi et Cyrenaicorum Fragmenta, Leiden, 1961.
This article is an abbreviated version of a paper given at the annual meeting of the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy in Binghampton, New York.
Dane Gordon is Chair of the Philosophy Department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York