The Cyrenaics were one of the two earliest Socratic schools of philosophy which flourished during the fourth and early third centuries B.C.E., founded by Aristippus of Cyrene and named for his birthplace. Aristippus, an associate of Socrates, believed that the only thing that can be known with certainty is our immediate sense perceptions (pathé), which are either pleasurable, painful or intermediate. Since it is natural to seek pleasure and avoid pain, he took pleasurable sensual experiences as the basic requirement for happiness. No two individuals experience pleasure or pain in the same way or have identical sense perceptions; therefore he contended that all pleasurable experiences have the same value.
Several of Aristippus’ followers modified this doctrine by distinguishing between greater and lesser pleasures, and by creating detailed definitions of different types of sense experience. Theodorus held that true happiness was a permanent state of cheerfulness and tranquility; Anniceris stressed the altruistic pleasures of friendship, society, and patriotism; and Hegesias suggested that the complete suppression of pain, death, is the only end worth pursuing. Aristippus himself insisted that true pleasure belongs only to a person who has achieved self-control and self-mastery. Cyrenaic hedonism was later modified and absorbed into Epicureanism, and Cyrenaic epistemology prefigured the ideas of later Greek skeptics.
The Cyrenaic school was founded during the fourth century B.C.E. by Aristippus, an associate of Socrates who emphasized sensual pleasure as the basic requirement for happiness. It was named for Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus, and was one of the two earliest Socratic schools. Its most important proponents were the grandson of Aristippus, also known as Aristippus, and Theodorus, Anniceris and Hegesias, who became the heads of three Cyrenaic sects. Other members of the school were Arete, wife of Aristippus, Aristinpus the younger (her son), Bio and Euhemerus.
Socrates had held up virtue as the only good, but admitted that virtue contributed to human happiness, making happiness at least a subsidiary end of moral action. Aristippus seized on this and made happiness the ultimate end of human life, denying that virtue had any intrinsic value apart from the extent to which it contributed to happiness. Cyrenaic ethics and epistemology were based on human physiology and psychology.
Aristuppus held that the only thing we can know with certainty is the immediate experience of our senses. We can know nothing about the nature of the objects that cause these sensations, but only the ways in which those objects affect us (aaen). Therefore all knowledge consists of immediate sense-experience, and logic and physical science are useless in determining the nature of reality. Furthermore, knowledge is completely subjective; and unique to each individual, since no one can know what sensations another individual was experiencing.
The Cyrenaics described sensations (pathé)as “motions of the soul” or of the flesh, and divided them into three categories; painful (“rough” or violent), gentle (tranquil), and pleasurable (smooth, or gentle). Since human beings, like the animal world, naturally sought pleasurable experiences over painful ones, it followed that the greatest good was pleasure, or happiness, and the greatest evil was pain. Aristippus developed an early and pure form of hedonism, with sensation, or feeling, as the only possible criterion of knowledge and of conduct. All sensual perceptions were short-lived and had no value beyond the actual time during which they occurred.
Since all physical sensation is momentary and homogeneous, it follows that past and future pleasures have no real existence for us, and also that among present pleasures there is no distinction of kind, but only of intensity. Therefore the Cyrenaics rejected Socrates’ proposition that pleasures of the intellect were higher or more desirable than immediate physical gratification, and said that immediate bodily pleasures, being more simple and more intense, were naturally to be preferred.
Aristippus held that, since each person can know only his own sensations and each person experiences pleasure and pain differently, sense experiences can in no way constitute absolute objective knowledge; therefore, all pleasures are equally valuable. His followers modified this doctrine by distinguishing between greater and lesser pleasures, and by creating detailed definitions of different types of sense experience. They developed neologisms to describe the perception of qualities, such as “I am whitened,” and “I am affected whitely.”
Some Cyrenaics considered that individual bodily pleasure was the ultimate moral end, and that happiness, conceived of as the collection of all the pleasures that a particular person experiences during their lifetime, was sought for the sake of its component pleasures. Other sects developed different concepts of happiness. Theodorus held that the temporary experience of certain pleasures might be a delusion, and that true happiness was a permanent state of cheerfulness and tranquility. Anniceris stressed the altruistic pleasures of friendship, society, and patriotism. Hegesias (called the “Death-Persuader”) denied the possibility of real pleasure, suggesting that a happy life is pure illusion and that the complete suppression of pain, death, is the only end worth pursuing.
Aristippus was compelled to admit that some actions which give immediate pleasure entail more than their equivalent of pain, and that this fact is the origin of conventional distinctions between right and wrong. In this sense, he maintained that traditional law and custom should be taken into consideration and respected. Cyrenaics combined a psychological distrust of popular judgments of right and wrong, and a firm conviction that all such distinctions are based solely on law and convention, with the principle that a wise man, in order to logically pursue pleasure, must abstain from that which is usually recognized as wrong or unjust. This idea was evidently of primary importance to the later Cyrenaics. Aristippus, both in theory and in practice, insisted that true pleasure belongs only to a person who has achieved self-control and self-mastery. A truly happy man exercises prudence to save himself from falling prey to mere passion.
Cyrenaic hedonism later became modified and absorbed into Epicureanism, which emphasized the value of mental pleasures, and taught that immediate gratification should be deferred in order to achieve long-term benefits. However, Cyrenaic pessimism remained a theme both in ancient literature, such as the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, and the "Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam," and in the modern works of in Lord Byron and Heinrich Heine.
Some Cyrenaic arguments were further developed by later Greek skeptics. Certain features of Cyrenaic epistemology, such has the distinction between the certainty of immediate sensual perceptions and the uncertainty of knowledge about the external world, are reflected in the philosophy of modern thinkers such as Rene Descartes and David Hume. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and Volney gave prominence to the idea that traditional laws and customs arise from the practical experience of our predecessors and should therefore be taken into consideration.
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