A group of ancient Greek hedonists of the third and fourth centuries b.c., so named because Cyrene was the native city of the chief personalities. Reliable testimony from antiquity is scant; the main sources are Xenophon, Aristotle, Plutarch, Eusebius, and especially Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, and Sextus Empiricus. The Cyrenaics represented a tendency (αἵρεσις) rather than a school (σχολή).
Aristippus the Elder. The originator of the movement was Aristippus the Elder whose central notion was that pleasure is the summum bonum (see hedonism). Born in Cyrene c. 435 b.c., he arrived in Athens c. 416 and became a close follower of socrates. Plato reports that he was absent from Athens in 399 at Socrates's death (Phaedo 59C). He seems to have taught the single Socratic doctrine that happiness is the end of the ethical life. Although Aristotle calls him a Sophist (Meta. 996a 33), he was not a disciple of Protagoras or other Sophists. Antiquity credits him with a long list of works, none of which are extant.
Aristippus the Younger. The son of Aristippus the Elder's daughter Arete, by whom he was instructed in hedonism, Aristippus the Younger was known on this account as Μητροδίδακτος (Mother-taught). The younger Aristippus developed and expanded the leading principles of the Cyrenaic movement, though many of his elaborations were attributed to the older man. It is likely that he was influenced by Pyrrho in his skeptical conception of knowledge (see pyrrhonism).
Doctrines. Cyrenaic teaching is in effect an uncomplicated hedonism integrated with a thoroughgoing skeptical phenomenalism. Philosophy was conceived as a way of life rather than a scientific enterprise; consequently, philosophy of nature and logic were purposely neglected. The Cyrenaics used only a modicum of theory in order to rationalize their position.
Knowledge. The basic assumption is that the individual knows only his own sensations, which somehow arise from things in themselves that are not known [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, tr. R. G. Bury (Loeb Classical Library 1957) 1:191]. When one has the sensation of sweet or white, he does not know whether the object is sweet or white. His feelings are infallible, however, and thus whatever he perceives is true for him. No two perceivers have the same sensations, so that there is no knowledge common to different knowers. While it is true that men use words in common, the terms do not have a common referent. From this view, true communication would seem to be impossible. Sextus Empiricus carefully distinguished this theory of knowledge from that of the skeptics, while admitting a strong similarity between them [Outlines of Pyrrhonism, tr. R. G. Bury (Loeb Classical Library ; 1955) 1:215].
Ethics. Cyrenaic morality is an ethic only in the sense that it deals with conceptions of good and evil; it lacks a recognition of obligation and duty. The basic principle is that the end (τέλος) of life and action is pleasure (ἡδονή), i.e., the pleasure of the present moment (μονοχρόνος ἡδονή) and not the sum of those of a lifetime (ε[symbol omitted]δαιμονία). Accordingly actions are judged as good or evil, or indifferent, insofar as they afford pleasure or cause pain, or bring neither pleasure nor pain. Bodily pleasures are more intense than those of the mind. However, the wise man will always exercise prudence (φρόνησις) in assessing the consequences of actions in order to experience the most desirable effects. One must remain master of himself while seeking the maximum of pleasure. He should possess the pleasures and not they him [see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, tr. R. D. Hicks (New York 1925) 2:75, 87–88].
Further Developments. Ancient sources discuss other personalities of the third century b.c. indifferently as Cyrenaics, even though they introduced distinctive innovations and had their own disciples. Theodore the Atheist placed true pleasure in contentment rather than in present gratification. A wise man would perform religiously and socially unacceptable actions if the circumstances made them advisable. He stressed the independence of man and denied the existence of the gods. Hegesias considered individual acts of pleasure indifferent, and the τέλος to be a negative one, namely, the absence of pain (ἀπονία). If suicide were a means to this end, he recommended it; thus he was named Πεισι Θάνατος (Death-persuader) by the doxographers. Anniceris restored the primitive Cyrenaic conceptions situating pleasure in momentary feelings, but he also advocated a social consciousness for the wise man. Antiquity has indiscriminately fused his doctrines with those of the two Aristippuses.
Influence. The Cyrenaics had a short-lived influence in ancient Greece. By the end of the third century b.c. they were supplanted by the more powerful Epicurean hedonists who subsumed, where possible, the Cyrenaic views under their own. epicurus himself seems to have been influenced by them, and there were probably some controversies between Anniceris and the Epicureans.
See Also: epicureanism; skepticism; greek philosophy.
Bibliography: f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Maryland 1946–) v.1. j. owens, A History of Ancient Western Philosophy (New York 1959). g. giannantoni, I Cirenaici (Florence 1958). aristippus, Aristippi et Cyrenaicorum fragmenta, ed. e. mannebach (Leiden 1961).
[l. a. barth]