Cyrene: a Philosophical Atlantis
Two great intellectual currents converged to create the great river of Epicurean philosophy. The first one is the atomist school founded by Leucippus and Democritus, the laughing philosopher, which concerned itself with the need for scientific and empirical certainly about the nature of things. This evolved into Epicurean physics. The second one was the Cyrenaic school of hedonism, which is the first Greek philosophy that posited that pleasure was the aim of life. This evolved into Epicurean ethics.
In the coming weeks I will be exploring the threads that run through the Cyrenaic Schools and that make their way into the Epicurean one based on the highly-recommended book The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, by Kurt Lampe.
Modern hedonist Michel Onfray in his L’invention du plaisir calls the Cyrenaics “a philosophical Atlantis“. He was referring to its famed ancient glory and intellectual achievement, and also to how it was buried–as if by Poseidon’s wrath–under the violent, terrible ocean of Platonic ideas. He also calls Platonism “a neurosis of Western civilization”, against which Cyrenaics built “an anti-Platonic war machine”. The consensus among Epicureans is that we cannot understand Epicurus properly and in his own terms if we do not understand the anti-Platonic nature of his philosophical project. Hence, we have to look to Cyrene, a Greek polis in North Africa in what is today Libya.
Aristippus of Cyrene founded the first philosophical school that proposed hedonism. He believed it to be self-evident that pleasure is the aim that our own nature seeks, and that it also seeks the avoidance of pain. The center of the Cyrenaic school was always in Libya–which is why the school is identified with Cyrene, although many of these thinkers went to Athens and other cities, and their ideas did spread.
Unlike the Epicureans, who valued and believed in the possibility of scientific and empirical certainty, the Cyrenaics were skepticists. They separated the experiences (pathe) from what caused them. Experiences are direct and self-evident and we could know things about them with certainty, whereas we could know less about their causes.
This schism produced a kind of hedonic solipsism. They retreated into their own experiences like turtles into their shell. They knew they were being cut or burnt, but refused to recognize as real the knife that cut them, the iron or fire that burned them. They were so radical in their loyalty to this skepticism that, rather than recognizing the connection between their experiences and external reality, they preferred to speak in terms of “I am being cooled, I am being sweetened, etc.”, therefore ignoring the causes of their experiences.
This may seem immature or impractical to us, and in fact later hedonists (i.e. Epicurus) took hedonism to the next level when they acknowledged both experiences and their sources as real.
There is one key doctrine that both Epicureans and Cyrenaics share. To the Cyrenaics, pleasure is satisfying and ergo choice-worthy for its own sake, and pain is repellent and ergo avoidance-worthy. These truths, they argued, are directly experienced and self-evident, and require no arguments or logic. Epicurus also refused to argue about pleasure and pain, saying that these are faculties within our own nature that receive raw data from nature, and not subject to logical formulas or arguments.
This constituted an ecological and philosophical revolt of the body against its by-product, the soul. The arrogance of the rebellion and tyranny of Logos against matter was over. Reason was replaced by Nature. Plato’s ideas and Aristotelian logic had been replaced by nature’s hedonic tone. Aphrodite had usurped Athena’s philosophical primacy.
Pleasure, sometimes qualified further as “tranquil pleasure”, is therefore the end (telos), in the sense that it is final, comprehensive, and sufficient.
Lampe thinks that Cyrenaics are eudaimonics (believed in happiness as the end, not just pleasure), but most scholars disagree. It’s likely that a variety of views existed within the school regarding the end. One of the key arguments for hedonism (i.e. pleasure as the end) in its inception had to do with how pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Pleasure is an instance, happiness is a collection of pleasures, and as such happiness is therefore an abstraction, a platonized alternative to the real experience of pleasure. This argument is interesting, and still generates debate and various opinions today.
The Founder and the Lineage
The Cyrenaic school is not entirely uniform in its doctrine. Instead it seems to have evolved and changed, so that various strains of Cyrenaic philosophy evolved.
Aristippus was confident. He valued confidence and being comfortable, rather than anxious or fearful. Later hedonists will teach that, in order to secure a life of pleasure, one must have confident expectation and avoid uncertainty, which exacerbates fear. In Vatican Saying 34, we see how friendship is one important source of confident expectation.
Aristippus believed that his philosophy gave sociability and adaptability and made him able to associate confidently with others. This adaptability in space and time is an important Cyrenaic and hedonistic virtue. Aristippus “enjoyed what’s present and didn’t hunt after what’s not“–an attitude that would later be paraphrased by Lucretius–and saw the world in terms of opportunities for enjoyment and risks of pain.
Aristippus also instructed his disciples in a zen-like discipline known as “presentism”, or being in the present, as a therapeutic spiritual exercise. This virtuous practice was linked to the philosopher’s adaptability: he was willing to put less faith in his ability to control what happens in the future than in his ability to adapt to it. This would later influence defiant attitudes towards Fortune in Principal Doctrine 16 and Vatican Saying 47.
The influence of this virtuous adaptability in later Epicureanism shows up in the last two of the four remedies–“pleasure is easy to attain, pain is easy to endure”–and in the fragment that says: “We thank nature for she made the needful things easy to acquire, and the things difficult to acquire she made then unnecessary”. This all sounds like the kind of hedonist ethical training that Aristippus would have instituted.
Aristippus’ daughter was Arete, and his student was Antipater. Arete taught the philosophy to her son, Aristippus the Metrodidact, who formally set pleasure as the goal and defined it as kinetic (or moving, dynamic), as smooth motion. He also said that we exclusively and only have perception of our own pathe states (that is: pleasure and aversion, or the hedonic tone). Many people still confuse the first Aristippus with his grandson, when in truth they each made distinct contributions to the philosophy.
The Metrodidact’s only named pupil was Theodorus the Godless, who wrote a work titled On the Gods and idealized indifference. He lived in Athens he influenced people in high places. This Theodorus the Godless character reminds me of George Carlin, another atheist philosopher and one of whose famous speeches is on the importance of “not giving a shit”.
Antipater, the initial disciple of the first Aristippus, taught Epitimides, who taught Hegesias–who was known for his pessimism and egoism, and Anniceris–Hegesias’ opponent who valued friendship and sometimes was mistakenly called a proto-Epicurean. He also taught Dionysus of Heraclea, who is known to have said that he “trusted his body instead of the stoa”.
From these students of Aristippus’ teachings, three Cyrenaic schools emerged: the Hegesiacs, the Annicerans, and the Theodoreans. We will look at these next.