1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cyrenaics

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CYRENAICS, a Greek school of philosophy, so called from Cyrene, the birthplace of the founder, Aristippus (q.v.). It was one of the two earliest Socratic schools, and emphasized one side only of the Socratic teaching (cf. Cynics). Socrates, although he held that virtue was the only human good, admitted to a certain extent the importance of its utilitarian side, making happiness at least a subsidiary end of moral action (see Ethics). Aristippus and his followers seized upon this, and made it the prime factor in existence, denying to virtue any intrinsic value. Logic and physical science they held to be useless, for all knowledge is immediate sensation (see Protagoras). These sensations are motions (κινήσεις) which (1) are purely subjective, and (2) are painful, indifferent or pleasant, according as they are violent, tranquil or gentle. Further they are entirely individual, and can in no way be described as constituting absolute objective knowledge. Feeling, therefore, is the only possible criterion alike of knowledge and of conduct. “Our modes of being affected (πάθη) alone are knowable.” Thus Cyrenaicism goes beyond the critical scepticism of the Sophists and deduces a single, universal aim for all men, namely pleasure. Furthermore, all feeling is momentary and homogeneous. It follows (1) that past and future pleasure have no real existence for us, and (2) that among present pleasures there is no distinction of kind, but only of intensity. Socrates had spoken of the higher pleasures of the intellect; the Cyrenaics denied the validity of this distinction and said that bodily pleasures as being more simple and more intense are to be preferred. Momentary pleasure (μονόχρονος ἡδόνη), preferably of a carnal kind, is the only good for man. Yet Aristippus was compelled to admit that some actions which give immediate pleasure entail more than their equivalent of pain. This fact was to him the basis of the conventional distinction of right and wrong, and in this sense he held that regard should be paid to law and custom. It is of the utmost importance that this development of Cyrenaic hedonism should be fully realized. To overlook the Cyrenaic recognition of social obligation and the hedonistic value of altruistic emotion is a very common expedient of those who are opposed to all hedonistic theories of life. Like many of the leading modern utilitarians, they combined with their psychological distrust of popular judgments of right and wrong, and their firm conviction that all such distinctions are based solely on law and convention, the equally unwavering principle that the wise man who would pursue pleasure logically must abstain from that which is usually denominated “wrong” or “unjust.” This idea, which occupies a prominent position in systems like those of Bentham, Volney, and even Paley, was evidently of prime importance at all events to the later Cyrenaics.

Developing from this is a new point of practical importance to the hedonism of the Cyrenaics. Aristippus, both in theory and in practice, insisted that true pleasure belongs only to him who is self-controlled and master of himself. The truly happy man must have φρόνησις (prudence), which alone can save him from falling a prey to mere passion. Thus, in the end, Aristippus, the founder of the purest hedonism in the history of thought, comes very near not only to the Cynics, but to the more cultured hedonism of Epicurus and modern thinkers. Theodorus, held even more strongly that passing pleasure may be a delusion, and that permanent tranquillity is a truer end of conduct. Hegesias denied the possibility of real pleasure and advocated suicide as ensuring at least the absence of pain. Anniceris, in whose thought the school reached its highest perfection, declared that true pleasure consists sometimes in self-sacrifice and that sympathy in enjoyment is a real source of happiness. Other members of the school were Arete, wife of Aristippus, Aristippus the younger (her son), Bio and Euhemerus.

The Cyrenaic ideal was, of course, utterly alien to Christianity, and, in general, subsequent thinkers found it an ideal of hopeless pessimism. Yet in modern times it has found expression in many ethical and literary works, and it is common also in other ancient non-Hellenic literature. There are quatrains in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and pessimistic verses in Ecclesiastes which might have been uttered by Aristippus. (“Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing than to eat and to drink and to be merry; for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life which God giveth him under the sun”). So in Byron and Heine, and, in a sense, in Walter Pater (Marius the Epicurean), there is the same tendency to seek relief from the intellectual cul-de-sac in frankly aesthetic satisfaction. Thus Cyrenaicism did not entirely vanish with its absorption in Epicureanism.

See Hedonism, Epicurus; histories of philosophy by Zeller, Windelband, Ueberweg; H. Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics and Outlines of the History of Ethics; J. Watson, Hedonistic Theories (1895); James Seth, Ethical Principles, c. i. (A), (1898); A. Wendt, De philosophia Cyrenaica (1841); H. von Stein, De philosophia Cyrenaica (1855); T. Gomperz, Greek Thinkers (Eng. trans., vol. ii. bk. iv., ad fin., 1905); Beare, Greek Theories of Elementary Cognition; G. van Lyng, Om den Kyrenaiske skole (Christiania, 1868); and general ethical text-books.