Arete of Cyrene (fl. 4th c. BCE)

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Arete of Cyrene (fl. 4th c. bce)

Greek philosopher of the 4th century bce who followed her father Aristippus as the head of the Cyrenaic school, which came to hold that virtue and pleasure were one. Flourished in the 4th century bce; daughter of Aristippus; married; children: Aristippus.

Arete of Cyrene was a 4th-century bce Greek philosopher of the Cyrenaic school. Her father was Aristippus, a wealthy citizen of the Greek city of Cyrene, which was founded in north Africa (modern Libya) as a colony of Thera in the 7th century bce. Aristippus was attracted to Athens at the end of the 5th century by the fame of Socrates, under whose tutelage he began a career in philosophy. Unlike Socrates, Aristippus accepted large fees from students—a practice for which he was roundly criticized by other disciples of Socrates, although it seems to have been Aristippus' practice to share the fruits of his labors with his beloved philosophical master.

Traveling widely throughout the Greek world, Aristippus was eventually attracted to Syracuse on the island of Sicily, where he reaped substantial wealth from that city's tyrants, so clearly interested in philosophy and the legacy of Socrates. Ultimately, Aristippus returned to his native Cyrene and established a philosophical school blending many of the concerns of Socrates with the work of the Sophists. He and his school flourished. When Arete was born is unknown, but she clearly was raised to a life of philosophical speculation by her father, for when he died she assumed his position as the master of his school. Exactly how long she functioned as such is unknown, but in turn she passed the Cyrenaic school to her son (also named Aristippus), maintaining it as a lucrative family concern at least in its first three generations.

Just as Arete's tenure as the head of the Cyrenaic school is sketchy, so is her personal contribution to its philosophy. However, she would have undoubtedly contributed to the school's most important philosophical tenants. Her father had taken away from Socrates a much different philosophical view of the world than did most of the master's other students. To Aristippus, the wise man was he who pursued instinctual pleasure and the financial wherewithal to satisfy what the heart could desire. Not to do so came to be associated with an unnatural and perverse asceticism, which in its own way was as extreme as the hedonism into which the Cyrenaic school's philosophy could logically fall. The Cyrenaics eschewed metaphysics and science essentially as being fields beyond human ken. They came to argue a kind of absolute relativism: what appeared to the individual became the only, absolute truth. Categories of all kinds were suspected, for, since no being could ever really experience the reality of another, no one could ever "know" beyond a shadow of a doubt that what one person is experiencing has anything in common with what another person is experiencing. Rather, the Cyrenaics determined that all that can be counted on is immediate sensation, the pursuit of which renders pleasure, and the goodness sought from life. Thus a philosophical school spawned by Socrates gave rise to a resurgence of the sophistic notion, "man is the measure of all things."

Whatever inconsistencies and problems the Cyrenaics posed, they prized individual freedom, education, and an ability to be independent of hypocritical convention (especially that which was religious in nature), all strikin characteristic of many ideas current in the late 20th century. Balancing these notions, perhaps, were others that maintained that the world was all right as it is, and that what is needed by everyone seeking happiness is a passive willingness to accept things as they are, along with a willingness to adapt to current conditions, whatever they might be.

suggested reading:

Waithe, M.E., ed. Ancient Women Philosophers. Dordrecht, Boston, 1987.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California