Cyrenaicism is a school of philosophy begun by Aristippus of Cyrene in the 4th century BCE. The Cyrenaics taught a sceptical epistemology (theory of knowledge) whereby we can only have certain knowledge of our subjective experiences, but nothing in the exterior world (though of course we can make plausible inferences based on appearances). Their epistemology supports their ethics (theory of proper behaviour), for how do we know which experiences are to be sought and avoided? The answer: whether they are pleasant or painful. Hence, the Cyrenaics are ethical hedonists: they hold that the telos, or highest good, is pleasure. Eudaimonia, or happiness, consists in rationally maximising pleasure and minimising pain.

Unlike the highly dogmatic Epicurean school, there is great diversity of thought in the Cyrenaic movement. Later generation Cyrenaics like Anniceris, Theodorus, and Hegesias all make significant changes to Cyrenaic philosophy. For the purpose of this article, however, I’ll focus on the figurehead of Cyrenaicism, the figure whose philosophy shapes the school: Aristippus of Cyrene.

Aristippus of Cyrene:

Aristippus was born circa 435 BCE into a wealthy family in the Greek colony of Cyrene in North Africa, hence the name of the school. Cyrene was a cultural hub, thus Aristippus is likely to have received a first-rate education. For whatever reason, he travelled to Athens as a young man where, it is said, he was so moved by the words of Socrates that he became one of the students who followed him around Athens.

Although Aristippus had great respect for Socrates, he did not blindly go along with all he said. The principal area where Aristippus and Socrates differed was the former’s belief in the supremacy of pleasure in living a good life. From the extant doxography, we get a picture of a man who had a penchant for pleasure, especially luxurious pleasures like fine dining, high society, and elite sex workers. However, it would be a mistake to therefore dismiss him as someone enslaved by his desires and passions.

On the contrary, Aristippus prided himself on his mastery over the pleasures he indulged, ensuring that he never made the mistake of believing a particular source of pleasure to be essential to his happiness, which allowed him to forego it if needed. For example, Aristippus said that he possessed the infamous courtesan Laïs, but that he was not possessed by her, and that “what is best is not abstaining from pleasures, but instead controlling them without being controlled.” This ability to indulge pleasure but also forego it, for example, if it will ultimately bring you greater pain in its wake, brought Aristippus a sense of freedom and self-mastery.

Like later Cyrenaics, Aristippus held that bodily pleasure was greater than mental pleasure. This seems plausible, for who would argue that the memory of fine food rivals the eating of fine food in enjoyment? Nevertheless, Aristippus put great stock by the avoidance of mental suffering. Indeed, part of Aristippus’ teaching on never becoming dependent on a particular source of pleasure, which is to say, seeing them as essential to your happiness, has to do with avoiding the distress you would feel if you lost that pleasure.


Thus, we can see that for Aristippus, there may be no greater moral failing than to have a mind dominated by unruly desires, especially when those desires bring you pain. Such a mind is to be trained by Cyrenaic philosophy, which brings us to the first virtue of Cyrenaicism: philosophical training. Two anecdotes display the importance of education to Aristippus. First: “When someone asked him how much he was asking for the education of his son, [Aristippus] replied, “A thousand drachmas.” The other said, “By Heracles! That’s an exorbitant demand! I could buy a slave for a thousand drachmas!” “Then you’ll have two slaves,” Aristippus replied, “your son and the one you buy.” And second: “When he was asked how those who are educated exceed those who are not, he said, ‘In the same way as tame horses exceed wild ones’”.

In both anecdotes, Aristippus is emphasising that the value of philosophical education lay in its ability to transform a person’s character. In the first anecdote, his students are taken from slavish characters to free ones. In the second, they are taken from savagery to civilisation. In explaining the second anecdote, Kurt Lampe in his The Birth of Hedonism writes: “It is obvious…that breaking and training a horse not only gives it the capacity to perform new tasks, but also transforms its attitudes about many experiences and provides it with a new way of life.”


The next Cyrenaic virtue I’ll discuss is temperance, which Aristippus defines as disdaining excess. The following letter written by Aristippus to his daughter illustrates Cyrenaic temperance. He is advising his daughter on how to react to the local government threatening to seize her properties: “I instruct you to manage this business with the rulers in such a way that my advice benefits you. That advice was not to desire what is excessive. In this way you’ll live out your life in the best fashion, if you’re disdainful of every excess. Those men will never wrong you so much that you’ll be in want, since you still have the two orchards, and they suffice even for a luxurious life. Even if only the property in Berenice were left, it wouldn’t fail to support an excellent lifestyle.”

Aristippus reminds his daughter that although she will lose some land, she will still have some left, and what remains is sufficient for a luxurious lifestyle. Now, for those of us who own no property, this anecdote isn’t enormously relatable. However, Aristippus does insist that “Those men will never wrong you so much that you’ll be in want”, which implies that even if the government seized all her properties, rather than just some, she would still have enough to be happy.

What Aristippus is implying, I think, is that although luxuries add spice to happiness, they are not ultimately essential to it. Another anecdote supports this idea: “Since you share this pleasant lifestyle with those women, let the officials in Cyrene wrong you as much as they want: they won’t wrong you with respect to your natural end”. This reminds me very much of Epicureanism, which is unsurprising since Epicurus was so influenced by the Cyrenaics.

In particular, I’m reminded of the Epicurean distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. Some desires are necessary to the pleasant life, for example, one’s basic bio-psychological needs (food, water, shelter, friends), but others are unnecessary to the pleasant life, i.e. desires for luxuries. For Epicurus as for Aristippus, I suggest, luxuries add variety to the pleasant life, but one could still live pleasantly without them. The difference being, of course, that Epicurus taught voluntary asceticism from luxuries, whereas Aristippus taught controlled indulgence of them.

Thus, we might say that to desire excess is to desire what you cannot have. The importance of disdaining excess lay in the danger of undermining enjoyment in what you have available to you by replacing it with unhappy longing and toiling for what you don’t have, which is hedonistically irrational. Disdaining excess, then, offers an antidote to the unnecessary unhappiness of those who have everything they need to be happy — basic needs and, for most people, a ton of luxuries to boot — but who nevertheless make themselves unhappy by desiring what can’t be had.

(This advice shares many characteristics with modern cognitive behavioural therapy that aims to cure unhelpful patterns of thinking and reacting and to replace them with more realistic and helpful ones.)

The following anecdote makes this point perfectly: “Anyone who remembers Aristippus would be especially amazed by people who haven’t lost anything, have many possessions, but always still need more. He used to say, “If someone eats a lot and drinks a lot and is never satisfied, he goes to the doctor and asks what his illness is, what his condition is, and how he can be freed from it. But if someone has five couches and wants ten, or possesses ten tables and buys as many again, or isn’t satisfied when plenty of estates and money are available, but remains stressed, sleepless, and insatiable with everything, this man doesn’t think he needs someone to care for him and show him why he has this illness.”

To be dissatisfied with what is present by desiring what is not is, to Aristippus, an illness of the mind, and one which requires the vaccine of Cyrenaic philosophy. Thus, we see that there is a negative benefit to practising temperance: it frees you from unnecessary suffering. But there is a positive benefit, too. Disdaining excess actually enables enjoyment, as the following anecdote illustrates:

“Once when they were drinking and Dionysius ordered everyone to put on purple robes and dance, Plato refused. “I couldn’t put on women’s clothing,” he said. But Aristippus took the robes and when he was about to dance he gracefully replied, “even in Bacchic celebrations, if a lady is sound of mind [sōphrōn], she won’t be corrupted.”

Kurt Lampe explains the moral of this anecdote thuswise: “The moral is obviously that whoever has a truly sound mind can indulge in beautiful clothes, dancing, and bodily pleasure without “being corrupted” — in other words, without beginning to feel that those things are necessary.” In other words, it is temperance which allows Cyrenaics to indulge in luxuries without becoming ensnared by them, for they always keep in mind that they are not essential to living pleasantly. This gives the Cyrenaics freedom, self-mastery, and serenity, the goal of all aspiring sages.


What the above shows is that Aristippus cares about what sort of person he is and he invests time in refining his moral character by educating himself and practising virtue. This suggests, as Kurt Lampe has convincingly argued, that the common criticism of him as caring only about the present moment, having no future-concern, and disdaining virtue is not correct. Furthermore, Lampe explains: “These values strongly suggest that Aristippus also cares about his life as a whole…” and hence, again against a common criticism of the Cyrenaics, they do have a conception of eudaimonia, or a life lived well as a whole.

Having said that, Aristippus does teach that one should focus primarily on the present moment, as the following from Aelian attests: “Aristippus seemed to have a very healthy way of putting things when he advised people neither to exert themselves over what is past nor before what is to come. For this sort of thing is a sign of tranquillity and a way of showing a cheerful mind. He told ‹people› to keep their attention on the day, then in turn on that part of the day in which each is thinking or doing something. For he always said that only what is present is ours, neither what has already come nor what is still anticipated. For one has perished, and it’s uncertain if the other will happen.”

There are two admonitions in this extract: first, one should guard against backward-looking regret and forward-looking anxiety; second; one should instead focus their attention on the present. The benefit of doing so is “tranquillity” and “a cheerful mind.” He justifies this practise of presentism by arguing that neither past nor future belong to us, only the present does. Why might he think this? Kurt Lampe explains: “These things (present experiences) have more vivacity, and therefore more reality, than any memory of the previous day’s hardship or any worry about whether he will retain Dionysius’s favour tomorrow.”

In other words, choosing to focus on the past or future over the present is to choose the lesser experience hedonistically, and as aspiring hedonist sages, that is irrational. Aristippus also makes the point in the above anecdote that the future is uncertain, and thus since we have much less control over it than we do the present, it behoves us to focus more on the present.

But this raises the following question, which Lampe puts the thuswise: “If we are supposed to keep our attention on that part of the day in which we are performing some action or thought, and if future events do not possess enough reality to motivate concern or action, and if future events are in any event inaccessible to action because of the complexity of the causal nexus, then why should we bother educating ourselves?”

Most scholars have answered this question by interpreting Aristippus as holding a quite radical position: we should be indifferent to past and future and only value the present. However, it is possible to interpret Aristippus in a less radical manner, as holding that although pleasures only have value in the moments when they are experienced, we still have reason to be concerned with securing future pleasures and avoiding future pains. This is the position Kurt Lampe takes, and he does so by explaining that presentism is less a metaphysical doctrine and more a spiritual exercise which is found throughout Greek philosophy.

French philosopher Pierre Hadot argues: “These philosophies (Greek schools) were therapies, intended to provide a cure for anguish, and to bring freedom and self-mastery, and their goal was to allow people to free themselves from the past and the future, so that they could live within the present…. This is the true “healthiness of the moment” which leads to serenity.”

We see an example of this in the Stoic Seneca: “What good does it do to revisit past suffering and to be miserable now, because you have been miserable?… So two things should pruned away: fear for the future and remembrance of old troubles. The latter no longer concerns me, while the former does not yet do so.”

Thus, like Seneca, Aristippus is advising his students to progressively narrow their focus. As Lampe explains: “direct your attention first to the day. Stop worrying about yesterday’s embarrassing failure or tomorrow’s stressful challenge. Next, pay attention “to that part of the day in which” you are “thinking or doing something.” If you are riding a horse or working through a philosophical argument, do not let your mind stray beyond the duration of these activities. In order to aid you in this act of focusing, reflect that what has passed and what is to come are not as fully “real” as what is happening now. The metaphor of ownership pithily reformulates this lesson: past and future events do not belong to you, they are not “yours.” If you can accept this, you will both diminish your discomfort and make yourself more receptive to enjoyment.”

In the absence of a guidebook from the Cyrenaics as to how to develop such concentration, I practice modern mindfulness, particularly mindfulness meditation, walking meditation, and food meditation. These are empirically backed practices for increasing focus and improving wellbeing, which gives one confidence in Cyrenaic presentism, since it is so similar to mindfulness.


The final virtue I will write about, and which presentism helps with, is adaptability. The following two pieces of doxography illustrate this virtue: “Aristippus was able to adapt himself to every place and time and role and to act adeptly in every situation. That’s why he was more in favour than others with Dionysius, because he always dealt successfully with whatever happened. For he enjoyed the pleasure of things that were present, and didn’t hunt painfully after the enjoyment of things that weren’t present.”

Also: “And since even Odysseus himself sometimes wore a soft, fleecy mantle, but sometimes rags and a beggar’s pouch, and at one time relaxed with Calypso, but at another was treated outrageously by Irus and Melanthius, Aristippus took this as his model for living: he accommodated himself in a healthy way to poverty and pain, but also indulged lavishly in pleasure.”

Aristippus “was able to adapt himself”, “accommodate himself”, and “act adeptly in every circumstance”, including poverty and pain. He is even compared to Odysseus in cunning and intelligence in his ability to manipulate the circumstances he finds himself in. However, for our purposes, it suffices to focus on how temperance and presentism help him to “deal successfully” with whatever happens to him.

In short, it seems that Aristippus can adapt himself to every situation because, first, he believes that just about every situation has some pleasure to offer and, second, because he has trained himself to focus not on what is absent but rather on what is present and available to him. We saw this in his advice to his daughter; she can adapt to her hardship, her father assures her, by focusing on what she has left rather than what she has lost.

Perhaps no anecdote better illustrates how the Cyrenaic virtues of temperance, presentism, and adaptability work together than the following one: “It is related of the Socratic philosopher Aristippus that, being shipwrecked and cast ashore on the coast of the Rhodians, he observed geometrical figures drawn thereon, and cried out to his companions: “Let us be of good cheer, for I seethe traces of man.” With that he made for the city of Rhodes, and went straight to the gymnasium. There he fell to discussing philosophical subjects, and presents were bestowed upon him, so that he could not only fit himself out, but could also provide those who accompanied him with clothing and all other necessaries of life. When his companions wished to return to their country, and asked him what message he wished them to carry home, he bade them say this: that children ought to be provided with property and resources of a kind that could swim with them even out of a shipwreck.”

That Aristippus was able to be “of good cheer” even in the aftermath of shipwreck gives one great hope of finding happiness and “the true “healthiness of the moment” which leads to serenity” for oneself.


If you are interested in being part of a community devoted to learning about Cyrenaic philosophy — either as a historical phenomenon or as a pragmatic way of life for the modern day — please consider joining the New Cyrenaicism group on Facebook


Lampe, Kurt. The Birth of Hedonism. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

I am a philosophy undergrad with a growing interest in the pragmatic, therapeutic philosophies of ancient Greece — especially the Cyrenaic school.