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Topic #F47

Aristippus of Cyrene


23 January 2002
Scribe: Aris Demosthenous


These minutes were spoken on 21 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


                  The professor began Wednesday’s lecture by explaining that he sees Aristippus’ work as a bridge between Socrates and Epicurus.  To put the course in perspective, he mentioned that we will be looping back to Socrates (who is the central figure of the course) when we come to many of the authors that will be reading, and that this was one of those cases.  He then turned to the beginning of book II of Xenophon (pg. 81 of the Loeb Classic edition), where it reads:


In other conversations I thought that he exhorted his companions to practice self-control in the matter of eating and drinking, and sexual indulgence, and sleeping, and endurance of cold and heat and toil.  Aware that one of his companions was rather intemperate in such matters, he said: ‘Tell me, Aristippus, if you were required to take charge of two youths and educate them so that the one would be fit to rule and the other would never think of putting himself forward…


After this passage what follows is immediately seen as Aristippus receiving a ‘boxing’ from Socrates, which leads one to believe that Socrates thought him to be a student worthy of and in need of guidance. 


The professor then turned to the end of 2.1, to the myth of Heracles, where Lady Virtue and Lady Vice are attempting to persuade Heracles to follow their respective roads.  The choice is between immediate self-gratification or fulfillment in and through the course of contemplation.  At this point professor Hutchinson noted that the translation in this passage was a bit lacking.  It reads (at 2.1.21 – 2.1.23 of the Loeb edition):


When Heracles was passing from boyhood to youth’s estate, wherein the young, now becoming their own masters, show whether they will approach life by the path of virtue or the path of vice, he went out into a quiet place, and sat pondering which road to take.  And there appeared two women of great stature making towards him.  The one was fair to see and of high bearing; and her limbs were adorned with purity, her eyes with modesty; sober was her figure, and her robe was white.  The other was plump and soft, with high feeding.  Her face was made up to heighten its natural white and pink, her figure to exaggerate her height.  Open-eyed was she; and dressed so as to disclose all her charms.  Now she eyed herself; anon looked whether any noticed her; and often stole a glance at her own shadow.


A couple of details: where the translation reads “with high feeding” this is a euphemism for ‘well built’ or ‘curvaceous’; and where it reads “stole a glance at her own shadow” this should be construed as meaning that she was vain.  As an aside professor Hutchinson mentioned that Xenophon translated Socrates’ homosexual comments into heterosexual comments.  Philosophy has on many occasions been compared to women, but in this case women are being compared instead to the course of life itself, which results a powerful image. 


We then returned to passage, stating that the middle of the dialogue was not actually about following the path of virtue or vice (ie. philosophy), but it was instead about whether it makes sense to get into politics (community).  Socrates thought it did, and Aristippus thought it didn’t.  Xenophon was here showing the argument between Socrates and Aristippus, without actually realizing that he was making Socrates lose the debate.  In fact, it should be noted that Aristippus does not really lose the argument in this text, but instead is stopped short by a lecture from Socrates.  The theme of the passage was this: is it more rational to invest in present pleasure or in future well being?  To Aristippus the former is attributed and to Socrates the latter.


                  We then turned to Horace’s Epistles, Book 1, Letter 1 (this translation was taken from the book entitled “The Satires and Epistles of Horace” translated by Smith, Palmer, and Bovie: pages 165):


And who is the head of my house? With whose ideas

Am I most at home? I’m not obliged to swear

By the words of any one trainer. Wherever the storm

Drives me in, I take shelter. At times, I’m the Practical Man,

The heroic, Stoical Man, who takes Part in Life,

And Care of Truth, and Charge of inflexible Virtue.

At times, I slip off unseen to the opposite side,

To fit the world to myself, not me to it.


This passage shows us of Aristippus’ flexibility, and his general approach to life: ‘to bend to world to himself, and not himself to the world’.


“If Aristippus knew how to subsist on cabbage soup

And make the most of it, he wouldn’t kowtow to kings.”

Aristippus turned this around, of course, and replied,

“If Diogenes knew how to get the most out of kings,

He wouldn’t have to stoop to soup.” Which made more sense?

Tell me which one’s expression and action you like best –

Or better, since you’re younger, let me tell you why I

Find the sense of Aristippus the stronger. He slipped past the Cynic,

Who snapped at him as he went by, with the following words:

“I play for profit, at least; you play to the mob.

I earn my keep, in order to be fed by a king,

To have a horse to ride; you say you don’t need a thing

Or a single person, yet you beg for food and alms,

And are lower than the man who supports you. My royal road

Is a much higher, less inferior way – and it’s straight!”


Aristippus made the best of it, no matter what

Color or form life assumed. He aimed rather high

But generally proved quite equal to what came along.

And the opposite type, whom sturdy indifference clothes

In a single garment which he wears folded over and under:

How would he carry off a radical change in his life,

I wonder? The former doesn’t wait for a crimson cloak,

But throws something over his shoulders and wades through the crowds

And decently plays either part, as man or philosopher.

The latter recoils from a fine Milesian wool cape,

More that he would from a dog or a snake, and will freeze

If you don’t give him back the tattered gown that says he

Is a doctor of philosophy.


He had a high income and stature accompanied by expensive taste.  He traveled everywhere and was a stranger wherever he went.  This he deemed better than living in one place where one was forced to take care of others as well. 


                  At this point a student mentioned that it was Horace who first coined the term ‘Carpe Diem’: “Seize the Day”.  To this the professor noted that there were indeed traces of Aristippus in Horace’s thought.  He then recalled an older popular movie where the phrase was used, Dead Poets Society, and how the statement easily appeals to the temperament of a teenager.  The professor then explained that to Aristippus the future has not yet happened, the past is exactly that, so the present was all that really mattered, in fact he thought that  the present was the only concept of time that really existed.  The man was simply not willing to distort his present.  He believed that you shouldn’t pre-suffer the future and you shouldn’t re-suffer the past. Then, thinking of raising his child, the professor noted that you are taught at an early age to be mindful of forethought, but university students tend to take it too far. 


He then relayed a story of Aristippus becoming shipwrecked.  After him and his men swam safely to shore, he quickly made enough money to send them all home.  And when asked why he wasn’t coming too, he replied that he was having too much fun to leave.  The message he sent home with his men was “when you get your nest egg ready for your children, make sure it’s the sort of thing that you can swim with to safety”.  Moral: the true wealth of your children consists in their practical savoir-faire. 


When Aristippus was told by a father that it is too expensive to educate his son, Aristippus asked him how much it costs for a slave, and then explained that if you don’t spend the money now you’ll end up with two.  So that, in essence, if not educated, his son will be no better than a slave. 


Then we turned our attention to book 2, chapter 8 entitled Aristippus of the handout entitled “Lives and Sayings of Famous Philosophers” to help further the point of the importance of education to Aristippus.  On page four of the handout he read:


Those who went through the whole curriculum but stopped short of philosophy he compared to the suitors of Penelope; for though they got to enjoy Melantho, Polydora, and the rest of the servants, they were entirely unsuccessful at sleeping with the mistress of the house herself.


And on page two of the same work he quoted:


To someone who accused him of living with a prostitute, he said, “Really?  Does it make any difference whether the house you rent has been rented before by lots of other people or by nobody?” “No.” “Does it make a difference whether the ship you sail in has been sailed in before by thousands of people or by nobody?” “None.” “Then it makes no difference whether the woman you have sex with has had lots of men or none.”


The passage was used to illustrate one of the many examples of stories about sex that were attached to Aristippus.  This is a man who obviously neither accepted nor respected convention.  He thought in the opposite of the norm.  For example, in being criticized for sleeping with a woman of ill-repute he would respond by saying that the gifts he gave her were not to keep her from sleeping with others, but instead to get her to sleep with him.  He instead used pleasure to guide his life.  If you master snagging present pleasures and staying away from present dangers, he would say, at the end you will find that your chest will be full of gold.


                  This school of thought was short lived.  It died quickly and was rekindled briefly by Epicurus, only to come to rest in the last of its teachers who was called ‘Deaths Persuader’.  Though this philosopher believed in pleasure and pain and the Aristippean philosophy, he didn’t believe that pleasure and pain could be as easily navigated as Aristippus thought.  So death was preferred because there was no pleasure and pain in death.  He was so persuasive that too many of those who listened to him speak committed suicide.