Arete of Cyrene

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Arete of Cyrene

Arete of Cyrene (c. 400 BC–c. 340 BC) lived in North Africa around the year 400 B.C. She was an educated woman and philosopher. Many women studied philosophy during this period, but Arete was one of the only ancient women to have an actual career in philosophy. She spent 33 years of her life teaching natural and moral philosophy at the academies and various schools of Attica. She also wrote over 40 books. Her pupils numbered somewhere near 110 philosophers by the time of her death.

Raised In a World of Power

Arete was born the daughter of Aristippus, who was the head of the Cyrenaic school in Cyrene. Cyrene was located in what is now part of northeastern Libya, situated in the fertile and Jabbal el-Akhdar (Green Mountain) area, where water was plentiful, and therefore crops were abundant. At the time that Arete lived it was part of the great Greek Empire. There were five Greek cities in the area, and Cyrene was the oldest and most important of them all. Arete's city was named after the Greek myth. Cyrene was a nymph, the daughter of Hypsesus, who was king of the Lapiths, and Chlidanope, a Naiad. Apparently, Apollo found Cyrene wrestling alone with a lion and fell in love with her; he carried her off to Mt. Pelion in that part of Libya (Thessaly) where in later times he founded a city and named it after her and made her its queen. In actuality, the city of Cyrene was founded in approximately 631 BC by a group of people from the island of Thera, located in the Aegean Sea. Their leader was Battus, and he became the first king, founding the dynasty of the Battiads, whose members ruled until around 440 B.C. Under the Battiad dynasty's rule, the city flourished economically and expanded, establishing the cities of Apollonia (Marsa Susah), Barce (al-Marj) and Euhesperides, or Berenice (Banghazi). Cyrene eventually became one of the vast intellectual centers of the classical world, and included some of the best of all academic pursuits, including a medical school and such scholars as the geographer Eratosthenes, the philosopher Aristippus, founder of the Cyrenaics, and, of course, his daughter Arete.

The world that Arete lived in was much different than the world of the early twenty-first century. The Cyrene's principal export was the medicinal herb silphium, which was shown on most of their coins, and was a great contributor to their economy until it was harvested to its extinction. Silphium was found everywhere and Arete herself must have been familiar with it and probably used it for whatever ailed her. Silphium is a plant that remains extinct today. Although there are other forms of it, and other plants named the same, the plant that Arete would have known has been wiped from the planet. The plant was extremely valuable in ancient times because of its many uses. It was used as a food source, seasoning for food, and most notably as a medication. They made perfumes from the flowers, and used the stalks for the food. It was the juice and root which were used to make the various medicines. The medicines derived from the silphium were many, and they were used for a wide scope of problems, including helping with coughing, sore throats, fever, indigestion, fluid retention, seizures, as well as general aches and pains. Even the sap of the plant was supposed to remove warts and other undesirable growths. More miraculously, silphium was believed to cure such widespread issues as leprosy, baldness, poison, and was commonly used to cleanse afterbirth from the womb. Popular potions were also made from silphium to prevent birth, things that were used widely at the time. The birth control was taken as a tea made from the leaves, or as a very small globule of the sap mixed with some wine. The ancient Greeks thought the plant was a gift from Apollo, which fit nicely in with the myth of Cyrene. It was such a great source of wealth for the Cyrenes because silphium was impossible to cultivate or transplant, it was because of this that the plant eventually became extinct in the first century AD.

Followed Father's Cyrenaic School of Philosophy

Since Arete was born into a city of power, wealth, and erudite academia, she came by her career honestly. Being educated was natural for someone in her position, and her father certainly pushed her to gain as much education as she could. Aristippus, Arete's father, was a friend and student of Socrates himself. He was one of the men who wandered around Athens with Socrates as that great philosopher asked the people questions to point out their ignorance. The two were so close that Aristippus was present at Socrates' death. After his training, Aristippus returned to Cyrene and founded the Cyrenaic school of philosophy. This school would have a profound impact on Arete's life and future career.

Cyrenaics, as they were called, believed that ethics—moral values about what is right and wrong—was the principal part of philosophy. Cyrenaics were deeply interested in anything that was good for the family, as well as the larger society as a whole. The only measure they had for morality was pleasure, as it was pleasure that they believed to be the point and goal of life. They proposed that people should never defer a pleasure at hand in hopes of a future one, but should grab, enjoy, and appreciate the pleasures that came to them. Arete grew up alongside her father who was rather scandalous in his pursuit of his philosophical ideals. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Web Site, "[Aristippus] was willing to break the social conventions of his day and engage in behavior that was considered undignified or shocking for the sake of obtaining pleasurable experiences…. For instance, when Aristippus was upbraided for sleeping with a courtesan, he asked whether there was any difference between taking a house in which many people have lived in before or none, or between sailing on a ship in which many people have sailed and none. When it was answered that there is no important difference, he replied that it likewise makes no difference whether the woman you sleep with has been with many people or none." He was also one of the few philosophers who accepted money for philosophical instruction, which is something that Arete continued as she became an instructor.

Hedonism As a Philosophy

The Cyrenaic School in which Arete was raised was one of the first schools to have a basis in hedonism, although their idea of hedonism was not based on an acquisition of possessions or in selfishly pursuing pleasure at the cost of all else. They saw the balance between pleasure and pain as necessary, as there could obviously never be pleasure without pain, and pain with a knowledge of pleasure. They saw pleasure and pain as opposites in several ways, not just that one was good and the other bad. Mainly they saw the difference between the two as a temperamental one: pleasure was seen as a mild and peaceful movement while pain was a fierce one. And although pleasure was seen as life's goal, the Cyrenaics believed that people must not become preoccupied with it, or else they would lose it. In a rather Buddhist way, then, the Cyrenaics believed in separating the soul from a desire to gain pleasure as the best means to one day obtaining it. The greatest good was aloofness from desire, and an appreciation for pleasure when it appeared.

Made Name For Herself in Philosophical World

Arete studied under her father and became famous throughout the ancient world in her own right. Women were not allowed to attend public forums at the time that Arete lived, but the Plato school still welcomed women into its ranks and she attended as many private meetings as possible, and was very active in all philosophical dealings, helping to spread the ideals of the Cyrenaic School as widely as she could. She became so prominent in the philosophical world that she took over the Cyrene school after her father died. She was especially suitable for the position because her father had raised her to be prudent and practical and to detest excess of any kind, and she was a stringent follower of the ethics she had been taught. She was a good exempla of the principles of the Cyrenaic school, and therefore was an appropriate follower to lead the school. She was also raised to be an egalitarian. According to the Mount Saint Mary College website, she has been quoted as having said, "I dream of a world where there are neither masters nor slave." She sought to spread equality of sex, race, and man throughout the ancient world, and lived that way, promoting her ideas to 100s of pupils, until her death.

Arete of Cyrene is known to have published many documents, but most of them have been lost over time. It is known, however, that she was considered to be a star among the women philosophers of her age. One reason for this knowledge is that upon her death her tomb was inscribed with an epitaph that stated that she was the splendor of Greece and that she possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the soul of Socrates, and the tongue of Homer. That was quite a lot of praise for the philosopher.


"Arete," Ancient Greece, (January 6, 2006).

"Arete of Cyrene," Ancient Women Philosophers, (January 6, 2006).

"Arete of Cyrene," Fact Bites, (January 6, 2006).

"Arete of Cyrene," Women Philosophers of Ancient Times, (January 6, 2006).

"Women Scientists of Antiquity," Wesleyan University, (January 6, 2006).