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The Cyrenaics were a school of philosophy founded by Aristippus of Cyrene in the first quarter of the fourth century BCE. Although he had two sons, Aristippus designated his daughter Arete as his intellectual heiress. She in turn bestowed the succession on her son Aristippus, called "the Mother-taught." Apparently it was mainly he, a contemporary of Aristotle, who developed the more technical aspects of Cyrenaic doctrines. Cyrenaics were always included in lists of philosophical schools drawn up by the historians even though they had no fixed headquarters (unlike the Academy, the Lyceum, the Garden, etc.). There were several subschools referred to by the names of individuals, as Hegesiacs, Annicerians, and so on. They seem to have carried on the tradition of the Sophists of Socrates' time, being loosely associated itinerant teachers offering, for fees, instruction in general culture and on particular philosophical doctrines. Their pupils were supposed to learn from them how to live the good life, specifically, how to get along with anybody in any circumstances, as their founder put it.

The Cyrenaics were hedonists. They regarded it as self-evident that pleasure is the goal of life, for pleasure and avoidance of pain are what all living creatures seek by nature. The sage best knows how to attain a life of as many pleasures, interspersed with as few pains, as feasible and how to bear the pains when they come, as come they must. Unlike the Epicureans, the Cyrenaics regarded pleasure not negatively as mere absence of paindead people are in that conditionbut as positive feeling, notably what is experienced in eating, drinking, and sex.

The younger Aristippus formulated a physiological analysis. There are three kinds of internal bodily motions: rough, smooth, and intermediate, which he compared to a tempestuous sea, a gently undulating sea, and doldrums respectively. Pleasure is the perception, by "internal feeling," of smooth motion; pain, of rough motion. Pleasures thus are particular present-moment happenings in individuals. These motions and their perceptions include satisfactions and dissatisfactions not so obviously internal to the body, such as gratitude and the pleasure one takes in the prosperity of one's country. The Cyrenaics noted that thought, not simply perception, enters into pleasure/pain distinctions. For example, watching a man really dying is painful, but to see an actor "die" on stage may be pleasurable. Nevertheless, plainly corporeal pleasures and pains are, in general, more intense, which is why they are prescribed as rewards and punishments.

Like his teacher Socrates, the elder Aristippus did not concern himself with natural science, which he deemed useless for furthering the good life. His grandson justified this rejection by advancing a skeptical theory of knowledge, of greater present-day interest perhaps than Cyrenaic ethics, for it is the closest ancient forerunner of modern phenomenalism and subjectivism. The only things one knows infallibly and certainly, he held, are one's feelings. These are internal states of the body. Things outside us produce the feelingsthe Cyrenaics never doubted the external worldbut one cannot know what those things are in themselves and how they operate. Something not yellow in itself may produce the sensation of yellow in a person with jaundice, and so on through the usual litany. Strictly, then, when in the presence of snow, one ought to say not "I see something white" but rather "I am being whitened" or, even better, "I am being affected whitely." Statements of these forms are the only ones knowable as absolutely true or false. Furthermore, if someone else in the same situation sayssincerely, let us assumethat he too is being affected whitely, then he speaks the truth, but from this it cannot be inferred that his feeling is identical to one's own. We apply the word "white" conventionally in the context of snow, but we have no way of knowing that the feeling it refers to is identical in everyone. Thus although the Cyrenaics did not explicitly raise the problem of other minds, in maintaining this possibility of an inverted spectrum they came close.

Cyrenaic skepticism helped also to justify Cyrenaic hedonism. Choices, as Socratics insisted, should be based on knowledge, not opinion or conjecture. But the scope of knowledge is limited to feelings, including pleasure and pain. Therefore, it is not only natural but rational to base our choices on pleasure and pain.

The most notable later Cyrenaics were Hegesias, Anniceris, and Theodorus, all active at the turn of the fourth to third century BCE. Hegesias, called "the Death Persuader," was an ancient Schopenhauer. From hedonism, surprisingly but straightforwardly, he deduced an unmitigated pessimism. The only good is pleasure; the only evil is pain. But as things are and must be, pains so predominate over pleasures that a life adding up to a pleasurable net balance is impossible. Therefore, suicide is eminently rational. Hegesias wrote a book, The Man Starving Himself to Death, in which the title character describes in detail the unavoidable ills of life. It was said that he lectured on this theme with such eloquence that some of his auditors killed themselves, whereupon the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter ("the Savior"), forbade him to deliver any more such addresses. Thus Hegesias perhaps had the dubious honor of being the first professor to have had his academic freedom curtailed by the government. He did not kill himself. There is a further similarity to Arthur Schopenhauer in his counsel "We should not hate people, but educate them."

Anniceris altered Cyrenaic hedonism by putting mental pleasures on a par with bodily ones, or even preferring them. Moreover, he softened the Cyrenaic egoism, declaring that the sage might forgo particular pleasures for the sake of friendship (as Epicurus maintained). He was credited with having ransomed Plato when that philosopher was for sale in the slave market of Aegina, though there are chronological and other difficulties with the story.

Theodorus, Anniceris's pupil, took free speech and the flouting of conventional pieties to an extreme even for the Greeks. He said that the sage would not fight for his country, for why should he put his wisdom at risk of extinction for the sake of the stupid masses? (Theodorus, unlike Hegesias, did not say no to life.) Aristippus had said that if all the laws were abrogated, the sage would continue to behave as before. Theodorus turned this proto-Kantian ethic all the way around, declaring that the sage might steal, commit adultery, even pillage temples if the occasion demandedsuch acts being evil not by nature but only supposedly so to restrain the stupid. Extending his teacher's view on precedence among pleasures, for pleasure/pain he substituted joy/sorrow (primarily mental feelings) as the basic ethical contrast. He even went so far as to hold, as the Cynics did, that matters of the body are "indifferent." Threatened with crucifixion after he insulted Lysimachus, king of Macedon and in consequence ruler of Athens at the time, Theodorus contemptuously replied that it did not matter to him whether he rotted in the ground or in the air. (The threat apparently was not carried out.) But in place of Anniceris's amiability he reinstated hard-boiled egoism, claiming that the sage, being self-sufficient, has no need of friends.

With Diagoras of Melos and Euhemerus of Tegea, also a Cyrenaic, Theodorus was one of only three Greek thinkers who unequivocally proclaimed that there are no gods or demons at all, thereby earning the sobriquet "the Atheist." At a party in Athens, Hipparchia, wife of Crates the Cynic and a philosopher in her own right, chopped logic with him, saying, "What would not be wrong when done by Theodorus would not be wrong when done by Hipparchia. Now, it would not be wrong for Theodorus to strike himself. Therefore it would not be wrong for Hipparchia to strike Theodorus." Theodorus made no answer but instead pulled up her dress. (Doing so was not, or not merely, a display of classical male chauvinism, for it would not have been wrong for Hipparchia to pull up her own dress.)

The modifications by Anniceris and Theodorus brought the Cyrenaics so close to Epicurean views that it is not surprising that we hear no more of them as a distinct school after the first half of the third century BCE, when it was displaced by the Epicurean school.

See also Aristippus of Cyrene; Epicurus; Hedonism; Schopenhauer, Arthur.


Giannantoni, Gabriele. I Cirenaici. Florence, Italy: G. C. Sansoni, 1958.

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

Tsouna, Voula. The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Wallace Matson (2005)

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