Aristippus was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Cyrene (the “Athens of Africa”) in 435 BC. He was the founder of Cyrenaic philosophy, a school of philosophy which saw pleasure as the ultimate goal of life. This is known as hedonism. Aristippus believed that it is important to be able to adapt oneself to whatever the circumstance, in order to make the best of things in both times of adversity as well as prosperity. Although a student of Socrates, Aristippus deviated dramatically in both his philosophy as well as how he lived. He believed that one should try to make the most out of things, and that pleasure should be embraced. Because he lived luxuriously and accepted money for his teachings, he was considered a Sophist by Aristotle, and is portrayed negatively in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo for not being present at Socrates’ death.
Upon arriving in Athens, Aristippus became a student of Socrates until his death. Unlike Socrates’ other students, notably Plato and Antisthenes, Aristippus’ teachings and actions were drastically different from those of his teacher. He was the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy (named after his hometown). While Socrates believed that virtue is the goal of life, and considered happiness a positive byproduct, Aristippus saw happiness itself as the goal and believed that happiness was best achieved by satisfying bodily pleasures. Virtue, on the other hand, he believed had no intrinsic worth.
Aristippus tried to get as much pleasure out of life as possible. He was fond of wine, women and good food. He believed that it is better to experience something pleasurable now then to wait, and he considered momentary happiness more valuable than nostalgia for the past. While hedonistic, Cyrenaic philosophy also recognized the value of giving back to society (social obligation) and saw altruistic actions (doing good deeds) as another way of gaining pleasure.
Aristippus believed that by being flexible he could make the most of things. He was looked down upon by other Greek philosophers who saw him as being “enslaved to his passions,” but he believed that his flexibility, and open defiance of social conventions, allowed him to be truly free. He explains, “ What is best is not abstaining from pleasures, but instead controlling them without being controlled.” He slept with courtesans (women of the court known for their promiscuity), which he defended by saying that it is no different than if one was to inhabit a house with many previous residents, or to sail on a ship that many people have sailed on before.
Once, when dining in the court of Dionysus of Syracuse, he was asked to sit in the worst seat at the table. He responded calmly that Dionysus wished therefore “to dignify the seat.” He was known for remaining calm when critiqued or ridiculed by others. In this way, he says his goal was “to adapt circumstances to myself, not myself to circumstances.” Aristippus’s way of life and the Cyrenaic philosophy stand in direct contrast to the Cynics, such as Socrates‘ other student Antisthenes and his successor Diogenes of Sinope, who embraced poverty and pain as virtuous while seeing pleasure as evil. The Cyrenaics would be replaced with the more modern school of philosophy known as Epicureanism.