The Dude as Cyrenaic Sage
Dudeism is, depending on who you ask, a philosophy or religion based on the 1998 cult-classic, The Big Lebowski. The film follows the (mis)adventures of the Dude, the namesake of the movement. To Dudeists, the Dude represents the (almost) ideal practitioner of Dudeism — a way of life devoted to freedom and tranquillity, or, in the parlance of the film, takin’ it easy. Dudeists believe Dudeism has existed throughout the sands of time, being expressed differently by various religions, philosophies, and individuals.
Typically, Dudeists have seen the philosophy expressed most clearly in early Daoism. In fact, Oliver Benjamin, who founded the Church of the Latter-Day Dude in 2005, which now boasts over 600,000 adherents (lest anyone dismiss Dudeism as a joke), has promoted Dudeism as essentially a Westernised form of early Daoism.
However, Dudeists have also regarded the Dude as embodying other movements, too, particularly Buddhism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism — and this makes sense, because it seems to me that attainment of the Dude’s level of contentment is either important or central to them. This ability of Dudeism to be applied to multiple philosophies and religions is surely one of its strengths, and one of the reasons it appeals to so many people (other than the fact it actually works in making people content, of course).
But in this article, I’d like to introduce a much lesser-known philosophy which I think fits Dudeism nearly perfectly — Cyrenaicism. The Cyrenaic school of philosophy was founded by Aristippus, c. 435 — c. 356 BCE, whose hometown in North Africa, Cyrene, became the namesake of the movement. Aristippus studied with Socrates, and although many respected him, many others considered him to be out of his element and told him to STFU.
This is because Aristippus was a hedonist, i.e. someone who thought pleasure to be the chief good in life. Hedonism has long been reviled by real reactionaries and other members of the square community, but as a philosophical way of life, hedonism has a rich and sophisticated intellectual history. One of the earliest classical hedonists was Democritus, who said:
“The best thing for a man will be to live his life with as much joy as possible and as little grief” because “joy and sorrow are the distinguishing marks of things beneficial and harmful.”
Classical or enlightened hedonists engage in what’s called hedonic calculus, making sure to prioritise long-term wellbeing over instant gratification. For example candy may be more pleasant than fruit in the moment, but moderation in eating, by improving health, will bring you more pleasure over the long-term. Sometimes you got to let your favourite rug go to avoid getting into a world of pain.
Now, I don’t know about you, but as definitions of the good life go, this sounds to me pretty far out, man! And I think it would sound far out to the Dude, too, whose way of life I believe can be understood in the context of classical hedonism. Maybe the biggest feature of the Dude’s life which suggests he’s a classical hedonist is the fact he’s a slacker!
I don’t mean slacker in the pejorative sense it’s used by the squares, but the noble way of life embraced by many people in various counter-cultural movements, for example the Beats and Hippies, which rejects the dominant mode of being in our consumerist societies, represented satirically by Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski.
While “The Big” Lebowski has completely swallowed modern society’s teaching that the good life consists in achievement and status, sought principally via careerism, the Dude is unemployed and spends his time bowling with friends, bathing, meditating, doing Tai Chi while drinking, and reading philosophy (see if you can spot Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ in his room on your next viewing of the film).
So while squares like “The Big” Lebowski deride slackers as lazy people who do nothing, they are in fact philosophical individuals who’ve asked for themselves what the good life consists in, and just do that instead, man! And in the case of the Dude, he’s chosen a life of enjoyment and simple pleasures over a life of stressful careerism. In short, exactly the hedonist lifestyle that Aristippus pursued, as can be seen here:
“…he enjoyed what things were at hand and pursued pleasure, but he did not by toil chase after the enjoyment of things which he did not have.”
Now that I’ve suggested the Dude can be regarded as embodying classical hedonism, I’m going to move on to suggesting that he can be seen as embodying, in particular, Cyrenaic hedonism.
From the extant writings we have about Aristippus, a picture emerges of a man who indulged luxurious pleasures, like fine dining and elite sex workers, if they were easily available to him, but who could also find pleasure and contentment when faced with exile and poverty. Think of the way the Dude luxuriates in the pleasures of a limo ride, but appears just as content bathing in his humble bungalow.
Aristippus, we’re told, prided himself on mastery over the pleasures he indulged, never making the mistake of regarding any singular source of pleasure to be essential to his happiness. Instead, he was able to take pleasure in (most) circumstances the world bestowed on him.
Thus, like all Greek sages, Aristippus promoted a philosophy that frees you from the strikes and gutters of fate by moderating your desires and being mindful that the pleasures you pursue are ultimately conducive to your long-term wellbeing.
To help people achieve the happiness that he’d found, Aristippus taught three primary hedonistic virtues: temperance, presentism, and adaptability.
Aristippus defined temperance, or moderation, as “disdaining excess”. The following anecdote will help us understand what he means by this:
“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.”
On my interpretation, the practice of disdaining excess consists in refusing to desire that which is beyond what is needed to make you happy in the present. When you desire what you cannot have, you’re choosing to swap a state of enjoyment in whatever source(s) of pleasure are available to you for a state of unhappy longing, which to a hedonist is irrational.
Like Epicurus’s distinction between necessary and unnecessary pleasures, Aristippus’s practice of disdaining excess offers an antidote for the unnecessary unhappiness of those who have everything they need to be happy, but who nevertheless make themselves miserable by longing for what can’t be had.
Or, in the case of consumerist squares like “The Big” Lebowski, toiling miserably for an always increasing number of excessive or unnecessary pleasures when he could instead, like the Dude, find enjoyment in pleasures which are easy to secure, like masturbating manually or tipsy Tai Chi.
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 second Aristippean virtue is presentism which, like modern mindfulness, is the practice of focusing your attention on the activities or occurrences of the moment, as the following 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.”
Here, we can see two benefits to presentism: it enables enjoyment of available pleasures and prevents unwholesome thoughts about past and future. As to the first, by relaxing and allowing your mind to settle into the present moment, you can attend to and savour your chosen pleasure completely. For example, the pleasures of bowling or sipping your daily White Russian will always be greater when your attention isn’t elsewhere. As to the second, living mindfully will prevent you from succumbing to the regrets or outrages of the past, like Walter routinely does, as well as the anxieties of the future.
If you devote yourself to making presentism or mindfulness a daily practice, Aristippus believes you will attain “tranquillity” and a “cheerful mind”. Not always, of course, but most of the time. One reason I prefer Cyrenaicism to Stoicism and Epicureanism is that it’s more realistic. Whereas those two schools claim the sage would remain happy even under extreme torture and misfortune, the Cyrenaics say: “the wise man does not live pleasantly in every detail, but for the most part.” And indeed, we see this in the Dude. He doesn’t always respond to difficulties with equanimity, but he quickly returns to it.
This brings us to the last of the main Cyrenaic virtues, adaptability, which is illustrated in the following anecdote:
“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.”
What are the resources that all little Lebowski’s should be provided with? Well, the teachings of Aristippus, man! By drawing upon the practices of classical hedonism, disdaining excess, and presentism, Aristippus is capable of dealing level-headedly with the slight inconvenience of washing up on an unknown island after a ship-wreck…
Presumably after catching his breath and settling his nerves, Aristippus begins searching for sources of pleasure. Once he finds them — the traces of man — he pursues them cheerfully. He refuses to desire what cannot be, in this case arriving wherever he wanted to go by ship, and instead he focuses his attention on finding people who can help him and his friends. And he’s apparently so mellow by the time he finds such people that he enjoys a philosophical conversation with them!
We see the same level of adaptability in the Dude during the famous limo scene. The Dude is reclining in the backseat with a White Russian, and with an air of complete relaxation — and a milky moustache — he tells the driver:
“I was feeling really shitty earlier in the day, I’d lost a little money, I was down in the dumps…” and then, “Fuck it! I can’t be worrying about that shit. Life goes on!”
To be exact, the little bit of money that the Dude had lost, or thought he’d lost, was a million dollars!
Now, I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in the fact that Aristippus was able to be “of good cheer” even in the aftermath of a ship-wreck and that the Dude was able to abide, man, even after believing he’d lost a life-changing amount of money. If they can do it, well, maybe we can too.
Anyway, I’ve been ramblin’ for far too long. I hope you folks enjoyed learnin’ about a Dude from across the sands of time that far too few people know about. Catch ya further on down the trail.