Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435–c. 356 BCE)

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(C. 435C. 356 BCE)

Aristippus of Cyrene, founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, was born in the Greek North African port city of Cyrene (now Shahhat, Libya). Attracted to Athens by the fame of Socrates, he became a member of the Socratic circle and probably associated with Protagoras and Gorgias as well.

Like Socrates, Aristippus concentrated on ethics, conceived as endeavoring to determine the good life for the individual, and rejected the study of nature as both uncertain and useless for furthering the good. He gave a simple answer to the question of the goal of life: It is pleasure and nothing else. The wise man will arrange his life so that, as far as possible, one pleasure follows another and pains are kept to a minimum. He will not forgo a present pleasure for the sake of one to come, for the future is uncertain. But he will be master of his pleasures, as Socrates was, unperturbed when they must be done without.

Pleasures are individual episodes of internal feeling, not mere absence of pain but positive bodily sensations as experienced in eating, drinking, and sex. All pleasures, considered as pleasures, are equal, he declared, though they may differ in intensity, which is why those of the body take precedence over those of the mind. They are still pleasures even if produced by activities conventionally regarded as shameful. Virtues and friendships are goods only insofar as they are productive of pleasures. He found proof that pleasure is the goal of life in the (alleged) fact that all animals, as well as uninstructed human beings, pursue it by nature.

Aristippus taught his philosophy in the marketplace (unlike Plato, who taught in his gated Academy) and charged substantial fees. Like a modern psychiatrist, he regarded his services as therapy: liberation from superstitions and irrational conventions; and the fees, illustrating (so he claimed) the proper use of money, were part of the treatment. He also showed his pupils how to get along with anybody in any situation.

Many stories illustrate how Aristippus lived by his own principles, such as they were. Notorious for his involvement with the famous and expensive prostitute Lais, he insisted, "I have her, she doesn't have me." (As Cicero remarked, this sounds better in Greek.) And, he averred, having sex with one who has sex with many is no different from voyaging on a ship that carries other passengers. He perfumed himself. Sojourning in Syracuse at the court of Dionysius, he dressed in women's clothing for a party at the tyrant's behest. (Plato, there at the same time, refused.) When a client protested the high price he asked for educating his son, saying that for the same amount of money he could buy a slave, Aristippus told him to go ahead and buy the slave: Then he would have two slaves, the one he bought and his own son.

Traveling widely, Aristippus was pleased to be "everywhere a stranger," freeloading the advantages of city life without incurring the burdens of citizenship. Freedom, he held, consists not only in not being ruled but also in not ruling, for the ruler is the slave of those he rules.

See also Cyrenaics; Socrates.


Döring, Klaus. Der Sokratesschüler Aristipp und die Kyrenaiker. Mainz, Germany: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur; Stuttgart, Germany: F. Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1988.

Mannebach, Erich, ed. Aristippi et Cyrenaicorum fragmenta. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1961.

Wallace Matson (2005)