Aristippus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Area of Achievement: Philosophy Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Aristippus} Departing from the Sophism to which he was exposed as Socrates’ student, Aristippus founded the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, the hallmark of which was hedonism.

Early Life

Because Aristippus (ar-uh-STIHP-uhs) left no writings for posterity, what is known about him is derived from secondary sources, the most notable of which is Xenophon’s Apomnēmoneumata (c. 381-355; Memorabilia of Socrates, 1712). From these scant and distant sources, it appears that Aristippus was born in North Africa in the city of Cyrene, in what is currently Libya but was then Cyrenaica. His family was reputed to have had considerable influence and to have been sufficiently rich to support the young Aristippus in his travels and studies. Cyrene was at the height of its prosperity and influence during Aristippus’s early life.

From all accounts, Aristippus experienced life with an ebullient enthusiasm. He was affable and had a winning personality and disposition. He was also remarkably intelligent, quick to learn, and eager to share his learning with others. He had a legendary sense of humor and was considered a bon vivant whose chief aim during his early days was to seek pleasure, broadly defined.

The existing sources agree that Aristippus went to Athens and studied under Socrates in the agora and that he also journeyed to Sicily, where he was a part of the court of Dionysius I at Syracuse. Scholars are at odds in suggesting the order in which these two occurrences took place. The Memorabilia suggests that Aristippus went first to Athens and then left to go to Syracuse after Socrates’ death, whereas other sources suggest the opposite sequence.

It is known that Aristippus studied with Socrates, attracted to this pivotal Athenian philosopher by his obvious humanity, his fun-loving qualities, his cordiality, and, most important of all, his indisputable intellectual superiority. Aristippus spent considerable time in Athens during its golden age, its most significant period of intellectual influence.

Because Socrates died in 399 b.c.e., it is known that Aristippus probably spent part of his late twenties and early thirties in Athens. It is also known that he was in Athens in his later life, because he died there thirty-four years after Socrates’ death. Aristippus also went to Syracuse, where he taught rhetoric and was associated with the court of Dionysius, an ill-tempered, often rude tyrant. Once, when Aristippus invoked Dionysius’s wrath, the tyrant spat in his face. Aristippus, demonstrating his ready wit, took this indignity in stride, observing that one who is landing a big fish must expect to be splashed.

After Aristippus had taught for some time in Syracuse, he returned to his native Cyrene to begin a school of philosophy. It seems logical that the correct sequence of events is that he studied first in Athens with Socrates, that he then went to Syracuse, well equipped to teach through his studies in Athens, and that he then returned to Cyrene, where he remained for several years until his ultimate return to Athens, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Life’s Work

In modern philosophical terminology, Aristippus would likely be classified as a relativist. Schooled in Sophism by Socrates, the great master of the Sophist philosophy based on dialogue and structured argument, Aristippus had been exposed continually to the prevailing Socratic theory of innate ideas—to the notion that ideal forms exist, while the objects of the “real” world are mere imitations of the ideal forms (the word “idea” is derived from a Greek word meaning “shape” or “form”). Aristippus early questioned this notion, believing rather that all individuals experience and perceive things around them in unique and individual ways. One cannot, for example, speak of a universal “red.” To begin with, there are many reds; the red of human blood is not the exact red of an apple, of the sun at sunset, or of a red cabbage. Further, what is red to one person might be grey-green to someone who is color-blind but who has been conditioned to the notion that apples, human blood, and some cabbages are red.

Similarly, according to Aristippus, the nominalist concept that words such as “chair,” “wheel,” or “bottle” evoke a universal image is flawed, because all individuals necessarily filter their concepts of words through their own experience and consciousness, each arriving perhaps at a totally different image. In other words, for Aristippus, no physical object (table, chair), quality (blue), or concept (goodness) in the real world...

(The entire section is 1950 words.)