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Topic #F47

Aristippus of Cyrene

23 January 2002

Scribe: Laura Giordano


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes


Professor Hutchinson opened Wednesday’s lecture with a few announcements.  First he noted that there are many written works on Aristotle that misspell the title of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, therefore it is often difficult to convince students of its correct spelling. As an example Hutchinson referred to the book Made For Happiness by Jean Vanier.  Vanier was a scholar who did his Ph.D. on Aristotle’s Ethics, and his work is both clear and idealistic.  All we can hope for now is for Vanier to get the spelling correct.


The second announcement was with respect to the Scribes and Scholars project.  Hutchinson noted that as far as he or any of his colleagues were aware, a project like this has never before been attempted.  The purpose of the project is to show how much one can retrodict of an ancient text.


Next Hutchinson moved on to his lecture on Aristippus of Cyrene.  He referred to Aristippus as a coulourful figure who forms a bridge between the Epicureans and Socrates; this bridge however is both tenuous and arguable for many.  Here Hutchinson turned our focus back to the central figure of Socrates, and noted that Aristippus was a man who studied with Socrates yet had ideas and students of his own.  Hutchinson then turned our attention to the discussion between Aristippus and Socrates in Xenophon 2.1 where Aristippus looks like he is getting a ‘boxing around the ears’ by Socrates.


It seems to me that Socrates also encouraged his associates to practice self-discipline with regards to food and drink and sex and sleep and heat and cold and physical exertion by discourses like the one which follows.  When he observed that one of his associates was rather undisciplined in these respects, he said: ‘Tell me, Aristippus, if you had to take charge of two young men and educate them, one to be capable of governing and the other not even to aspire to it, how would you educate each of them?  (p.100 of the Penguin Classics ed.)


This quotation is meant to illustrate Aristippus as a wayward student that Socrates had to whip into shape, yet a closer look at this does not in fact determine this. 


Hutchinson then moved our attention to the end of 2.1. to the story of Heracles, which is seen as a clear call to accept delayed gratification in return for more and greater gratification.  This path is contrasted with the path attributed to the character of ‘Happiness’ (a.k.a. ‘Vice’).  Professor Hutchinson then quoted the introduction of the myth in order to set up the analogy of the two paths.


The same view of moral goodness is also set out by the sophist Prodicus in the story of Heracles, which is one of the most popular displays; it runs like this if I remember.  When Heracles was setting out from childhood towards manhood, at the age when the young become independent and show whether they are going to approach life by the path of goodness or by the path of wickedness, he went to a quiet spot and sat down considering which way he should take.  While he was sitting there he though he saw two women approach him.  Both were tall but one was handsome in appearance with a natural air of distinction, clean-limbed and modest in expression, and soberly dressed in a white robe, while the other was well fed to the point of fleshiness and softness, made up to have a complexion too red and white to be real, and with a carriage more upright than was natural, with a brazen expression, and robbed in a way that revealed as much as possible about her charms.  She kept on examining herself, and watching to see if anyone was looking at her, and glancing at her own shadow. (p.106 of the Penguin Classics ed.)


Hutchinson then went on to deconstruct this image.  He made reference to the term “well fed”  (or “high feeding”) which insinuates being well built and curvaceous.  He then alluded to her vanity through the images of her robe falling off, her use of cosmetics, and the image of her watching her own shadow.  It is interesting to note here the combination of classical feminine features with a clear moral criticism built into it.  Further, Hutchinson noted that this is a powerful image because philosophy is often compared to women.


                  Moreover, this is an “awkward tale” as it is not a tale regarding the path of virtue versus the path of vice, which it may seem to be at first glance.  Instead it is a tale about the rationale behind aspiring to a life of political leadership.  This is an area where Socrates and Aristippus strongly disagree.  It is curious to note that when Xenophon poses the debate between Socrates and Aristippus, he allows Aristippus to produce the better argument, and he does not realize that Socrates is in fact losing the debate.  The original issue regards the rationale of taking on board extra obligations on the part of other people.  Here Hutchinson notes that Aristippus has an excellent sequence of ideas in support of his claim.  Thus, the important issue is: if we are truly Socratic individuals, is it more rational to accept a life of pure pleasure or to invest in and hold out for greater gratification?  Aristippus plainly chooses the path of pure pleasure.


                  Hutchinson then switched discussion to the Roman poet Horace and quoted from Horace’s Epistles, Book 1, Letter 1, which outlines Horace’s ideal life as one where he is able to move between the two approaches.


So now I lay aside my verses and all other toys.  What is right and seemly is my study and pursuit, and to that am I wholly given.  I am putting by and setting in order the stories on which I may some day draw.  Do you ask, perchance, who is my chief, in what home I take shelter?  I am not bound over to swear what any master dictates; wherever the storm drives me, I turn in for comfort.  Now I become all action, and plunge into the tide of civil life, stern champion and follower of true Virtue; now I slip back stealthily into the rules of Aristippus, and would bend the world to myself, not myself to the world. (Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, Loeb Classical Library, translated by H. R. Fairclough: Epistles, Book 1, Letter 1, ll. 10-19)


Aristippus is a man of flexibility, as every form of life is fitting.  Further, Book 1, Letter 17 is an extended discussion of Aristippus and how it is his very flexibility that attracts Horace, as for Horace, a flexible life is a life of the highest standard. 


‘If Aristippus could be content to dine on greens, he would not want to live with princes’

‘If he who censures me knew how to live with princes, he would sniff at greens.’  Of these two sages tell me whose word and deeds you approve; or, since you are the younger, hear why the view of Aristippus is the better.  For this is the way, as the story goes, that he dodged the snapping cynic: ‘I play the buffoon for my own profit, you for the people’s.  My conduct is better and nobler by far.  I do service that I may have a horse to ride and be fed by a prince: you sue for paltry doles; but you become inferior to the giver, though you pose as needing no man.’  To Aristippus every form of life was fitting, every condition and circumstance; he aimed at higher things, but as a rule was content with what he had.  On the other hand, take the man whom endurance clothes with his double rags: I shall marvel if a changed mode of life befit him.  The one will not wait for a purple mantle; he will put on anything and walk through the most crowded streets, and in no inelegant fashion will play either part.  The other will shun a cloak woven at Miletus as worse than a dog or a snake, and will die of cold if you do not give him back his rags.  Give them back and let him live such uncouth life. (Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, Loeb Classical library, translated by H. R. Fairclough: Epistles, Book 1, Letter 1, ll. 13-32)


Aristippus was a man who could play any role and who had high living tastes.  He was a stranger wherever he went, he traveled in the international market, he bought what he wanted and sold what he could – namely his wit and wisdom.  He thought that this was a more rational way to live than the alternative lifestyle of accepting certain chairmanships and thus carrying the burdens of everybody else. 


Then a student raised an interesting point.  He noticed that it was Horace who coined the phrase “carpe diem” which translates as “seize the day”.  Hutchinson further noted that the phrase “carpe diem” was used in the movie Dead Poet Society, which is a film about powerful educators and vulnerable students; this phenomenon is reminiscent of phenomena found in Plato and Aristotle.  Thus Hutchinson noted that this is in fact evidence to show both that North American society still reads and acknowledges the works of Horace and as well that Horace read and was influenced by Aristippus.


Hutchinson then turned our attention back to Aristippus with particular regard to his notion of time.  Aristippus believed that the past and the future were not entirely real and that the only thing that is truly real is the present zone.  Moreover, a famous slogan of Aristippus’ is, “don’t presuffer the future, don’t resuffer the past”.  Thus Aristippus places greater importance on the value of short-term experience than on long-term plans.  The notion of long-term thinking can prove to be problematic in that people are often too willing to sacrifice the present for the sake of the belief that they will benefit from some greater pleasure in the future.  But over-investing in the present can also be problematic.  Thus, the proper investment policy brings rewards at every moment.


Hutchinson concluded his lecture by sharing some stories of the life of Aristippus.  He told a story of when Aristippus was shipwrecked off the coast of Rhodes on his way back to Cyrene and he and his companions had to jump ship and swim to shore in their clothes.  When he reached the shore he made his way into town where he lectured to student and other intellectuals who paid him for his services.  Aristippus was able to collect enough money to both clothe the other Cyrenians and pay for their passage back to Cyrene.  When Aristippus was asked to join them, he refused their invitation but sent them home with a message for the parents of Cyrene: when making a nest egg for your children, make sure it is something that they can swim with when they are swimming to safety.  Moral: the true wealth of your children lies in the practical savvy that you have managed to endow them with.


Hutchinson then told two more stories.  The first was about the father of one of Aristippus’ students who complained of the high cost of Aristippus’ teachings.


When the father objected [to the high price], ‘For that much I can buy a slave!’ he replied, ‘Go ahead, and then you’ll have two.’ (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Sayings of Famous Philosopher, Book II, ch.8, ll.72)


This shows that without proper education, his son will become no better than a slave.  This statement is not unlike many of Aristippus’ statements, as he is full of many witty remarks concerning the importance of education.  The Professor then quoted another anecdote of Aristippus’ to illustrate this point.


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. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Sayings of Famous Philosopher, Book II, ch.8, ll.79)


                  Aristippus is also known for his explicit sexual discourse, and when he was criticized for sleeping with a women during a regular “sex holiday” that he and his companions held, he responded: “I do not give her things so that she does not sleep with other people, I just give her things so she does sleep with me”.  Hutchinson then alluded to the anecdote that reads,


To someone who accused him of living with a prostitute, he said, ‘Really?  Does it make a difference whether the house you rent has been rented before by lots of other people or by nobody?’ ‘No.’  ‘Does it make any 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 women you have sex with has lots of men or none.’ (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Sayings of Famous Philosopher, Book II, ch.8, ll.72)


All in all, there are numerous anecdotes which show both the clarity of Aristippus’ mind as well as the fact that he does not accept conventional ways of living; instead he chooses to follow his own intuitions.  The general message found in Aristippus is one of snagging present pleasures and warding off present evils – a notion that was not accepted by many later ancient philosophers. The “Cyrenaic School” eventually died out before it was taken over by the Epicureans for its brief flourishing in Alexandria. The last known teacher of the “Cyrenaic School” was known as “The Death Persuader” and he believed that the path through life which Aristippus taught was the right one, yet he was pessimistic as to whether Aristippus accounted for a proper balance of pleasure and pain.  Moreover, the ‘death persuader’ argued that death is not a bad thing because there is neither pleasure nor pain, and he was so convincing that people began committing suicide after his lectures.  Thus he was exiled from Alexandria.