Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.02

Voula Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. xx, 180.  ISBN 0-521-62207-7.  £35.00/$54.95.  

Reviewed by Robert Todd, University of British Columbia (
Word count: 1835 words

The best introductory accounts currently available of Aristippus, the Cyrenaic school's late fifth/early fourth-century founder, and of Cyrenaicism generally, are those provided by the author of the present monograph in two recently published encyclopedias.1 But her enterprise in The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School (= ECS) is far more adventurous. While readers of those encyclopedia articles could be forgiven for thinking that the Cyrenaics were philosophical eccentrics, readers of ECS are invited to assess this school's theory of knowledge in the contexts of relevant ideas from ancient, early modern, and contemporary philosophy. For Cyrenaic epistemology, we learn, involved a "revolutionary" (xi, 60) idea, unparalleled in antiquity and a "forerunner" of modern subjectivism: the idea that πάθη ("undergoings" produced on a subject by its contact with an object) are subjective, i.e., involve an infallible awareness of the "affection" (to use a commoner equivalent for πάθος) exclusive to the subject. Yet this revolution was accomplished without introducing two crucial components of modern (primarily Cartesian) notions of subjectivism: the mind-body distinction (22-24; 93-95), and systematic doubt about the existence of the "external" world (see below). By rationalizing this position ECS aims to show that the Cyrenaics, minor school though they may be, are philosophically neither irrelevant nor uninteresting (xiv-xv). Tsouna's powerful combination of philological rigor and philosophical sophistication, though often relentlessly deployed in closely argued analysis, and in perhaps inevitably repetitive discussions, will win her considerable sympathy and respect, particularly since this is the most extensive scholarly treatment ever accorded this subject. At times, though, her honesty about the Cyrenaics' limitations almost throws the value of her enterprise into question.

ECS, as befits its source in a Gallic dissertation, is divided into three parts, prefaced by an introductory account of the ethical basis for Cyrenaic epistemology (ch. 1). (Some readers will wonder why, especially given the tantalizingly brief but fascinating digression on ethics at 134-135, the author confined her study to the epistemology, even though that is a neglected topic.) Part I ("Subjectivism", chs. 2-5) deals with the nature of the πάθη, their description, and their apprehension, and also with some ancient criticisms by Aristocles of Messene (first/second century A.D.). Part II ("Scepticism", chs. 6-8) deals with the Cyrenaics' attitude to the "external world", and assesses them in relation to other crucial issues in modern scepticism. Part III ("Subjectivism, Empiricism, Relativism", chs. 9-11) contrasts Cyrenaic epistemology with three related ancient positions: the Epicurean doctrine "that all perceptions are true", Protagorean relativism, and Socratic intellectualism. Finally, an appendix provides translations of the principal sources and testimonia. There are useful indices of loci and names, but a much less useful Subject Index, clearly the work of a "professional" indexer who enjoys sending users round the houses for information.

This is a review for a classical journal, and so classical scholars who lack extensive philosophical training but have some interest in Greek philosophy should be warned that this book makes almost no concessions to their kind. (For basic historical background, for example, we are referred to the author's hardly accessible Parisian doctoral thesis; see 5 n. 8. I also count seven other references to this unpublished source.) Still, such readers might try a circuitous route through ESC leading from the synoptic Preface (ix-xvi) and ch. 1 to the historical material in Part III, and then on to Parts II and I in that order. My review will try and vindicate this advice by taking an unavoidably eclectic journey along that same path.

The Cyrenaics have traditionally been seen as intermediary parasites, offering an attenuated version of Socratic thought, and a form of proto-Epicurean hedonism. Tsouna fine-tunes some aspects of these intuitions in Part III. While the chapter on Epicurean epistemology (ch. 9) is largely an exercise in Plutarchan source criticism, those on Protagorean relativism (ch. 10) and on Socrates (ch. 11) are of wider interest. Ch. 10 declines to identify the Cyrenaics with the "subtler philosophers" of Plato's Theaetetus 156aff., or to associate them with Protagorean relativism, correctly in both cases, I believe. The Cyrenaics, after all (see 136), operate with two concepts of truth: the subjective one that involves self-awareness, and the objective one that they regard as unattainable ("the external world"). But Protagoras (including the Protagoreanism of the Theaetetus) offers a single relativistic concept of truth that reflects a changing reality of objects that are "private and momentary". The discussion of the Socratic nature of Cyrenaicism in ch. 11 is inevitably rather speculative. The Cyrenaics certainly thought that they were Socratic, but the evidence makes it difficult to rationalize this status. In particular, we have no secure idea how the Cyrenaics read the Platonic corpus, or how much of it they read.

Turning to the philosophical core of ECS, Part II ("Scepticism"; chs. 6-8) discusses the Cyrenaics' position on the cause of the πάθη, and then explores it in relation to the problem of knowledge (or ignorance) of other minds, and to the question of the status of language. In all three areas that position was not just restraint, but abstinence (apokhê rather than epokhê): i.e., there was no systematic doubt about the existence of objects external to the mind, or about the existence of other minds, or regarding the intersubjectivity of language. Despite Tsouna's reluctance to say so (she comes closest at 87), the Cyrenaics, when judged in this way, look conceptually incomplete, and philosophically uninteresting. Thus to follow Tsouna's treatment of the first of these issues, they had "no philosophical motive to raise doubts about" the existence of a reality external to the perceiver (75), since the thesis that we have knowledge only of our πάθη excluded doubt about the existence of external objects; any such radical doubts were "much less plausible" (87-88) (sc. than affirming knowledge of πάθη), and, had they been entertained, "would alienate a considerable part of [the Cyrenaics'] audience without any apparent gain at all" (88). This sounds like special pleading, yet only because the Cyrenaics have been set up as non-participants in what to us is a philosophically engaging debate. On the other hand, their actual position has its own peculiar attraction and interest, and is well worth appreciating on its own merits.

That exercise is fortunately undertaken in ECS, in three chapters (2-4), on the "nature", "vocabulary" and "apprehension" of the πάθη, and one (5) on Aristocles' criticisms. This is the most valuable part of the book, and I have space here only to celebrate it. It is a genuine exercise in the history of philosophy, offering excellent source criticism, and producing an analysis that leaves us with a clear feel for the peculiarity of Cyrenaic subjectivism. The following passage from ch. 5 accomplishes this as well as anything in ECS: "The point of the claim that only πάθη are apprehensible is not that we cannot have cognitive certainty about things in the world, but that we cannot have cognitive access to them. Hence we cannot perform practical choices on rational grounds, but we must reorganize our everyday experience on the basis of our πάθη: we live in an internal world and we manage as best we can." This final Kafkaesque sentence2 also surely defines a gulf between Cyrenaicism and Socratic intellectualism far wider than Tsouna concedes later at 141-142 (although at 141 detailed discussion of the relation between epistemology and ethics in this area is irritatingly postponed).

Elsewhere in Part I, the flavor of Cyrenaic subjectivism (and those marvelous defining locutions like "being disposed whitely") is effectively captured by a constructive comparison (at 45-53) with the modern adverbial analysis of sense-perception, associated particularly with Roderick Chisholm. Also, the dissection of kinds of πάθη in ch. 1 is particularly valuable for its ground-breaking analysis of intermediate πάθη, and for the well-argued claim that the πάθη are ontologically derivative from the state of the perceiver. It would have been agreeable to have read this rich and convincing reconstruction along with a systematic presentation of all the evidence for the Cyrenaics in English translation. There is currently no such compendium, and the author of the present study might well consider providing one.

Finally, I append two points of detail, and then delve briefly into the modern Cyrenaic Nachleben. (1) 32 n. 2 (at the foot of 33): Stoic terminology in later antiquity, Tsouna remarks, was "part of a philosophical κοινή which authors used to cite and compare different philosophers' answers to a given problem". I agree heartily, for reasons given at "Lexicographical Notes on Alexander of Aphrodisias' Philosophical Terminology," Glotta 52 (1974) 207-215 at 215. (2) 62 n. 1. Tsouna translates the phrase ἔνιοι τῶν ἐκ τῆς Κυρήνης, used by Eusebius in a report of Aristocles of Messene's views, as "some philosophers from Cyrene" rather than "some of the members of the Cyrenaic school" to avoid having the latter construe imply that there was doctrinal heterodoxy within the school. But there is a curious idiom abroad in later Greek whereby a philosophical group can be referred to in its totality by a sub-set. Thus Cleomedes (Caelestia II.1.1) attacks "Epicurus and the majority (οἱ πολλοί) of his school" for believing that the sun is as large as it appears, yet later in the same polemic (II.1.414-415 and 418-419) refers to the whole school without qualification. Also, Sextus Empiricus, AM 11.96 refers to τινες ἀπὸ τῆς Ἐπικούρου αἱρέσεως, although he too refers elsewhere (PH 3.194) to the whole school apropos of the same topic.3 Again, at Caelestia I.5.17-18 Cleomedes identifies the Platonists as (οἱ πλείους τῶν ἀπὸ τοῦ Σωκρατικοῦ διδασκαλείου ("the majority of those in the Socratic school") with reference to their belief that the earth was spherical, yet surely without implying that there was any heterodoxy on this point. In all these cases the Greek might be translated literally, and the idiom explained in a note, or else the idiom could simply be eliminated in translation. The latter procedure is often followed in the case of a better known idiom, whereby phrases such as οἱ περὶ or οἱ ἀμφὶ X (a proper name) must be translated not as "X's followers" but as "X" himself; for a discussion of some examples see P.T. Stevens, CQ 30 (1936) 214-215. There is a directly analogous illogicality in the idiom under discussion here. (3) Cyrenaic subjectivism may have been rather neglected by mainstream modern scholarship, but it had a modest nineteenth-century revival at the delicate hands of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. Tsouna's study indirectly identifies interpretive errors that both committed. Thus in ch. 8 of Marius the Epicurean (1885) Pater, in the course of a fairly detailed recreation of Cyrenaic philosophy, incorrectly (given Tsouna ch. 10) linked the school with the theory of sense-perception founded on the Heracleitean flux presented in Plato's Theaetetus. (He was undoubtedly influenced by Lewis Campbell's edition of the dialogue.) Also, both he and Wilde took the defining Cyrenaic phrase μονόχρονος ἡδονή to mean the pleasure of the moment, whereas Tsouna (15) is surely right to advocate the translation "unitemporal", which identifies the intensity of the experience without necessarily implying any fleeting duration.4


1.   See her "Aristippus" and "Cyrenaic Philosophy" in D.J. Zeyl, ed., Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy, Westport Conn. 1997, 54-55 and 162-165, and "Aristippus the Elder" and "Cyrenaics" in E. Craig (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London and New York 1998, 1:379-380 and 2:759-763.
2.   See, for example, M. Brod (ed.), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1914-1923 (New York 1965) 197, from 21 October 1921: "All is imaginary -- family, friends, the street, all imaginary ... the truth that lies closest, however, is only this, that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell." This might be taken as the downside of Cyrenaic subjectivism, though it is a nightmare to which ancient eudaemonism (see Tsouna 134-145), unlike modern Angst, would have been immune.
3.   R. Bett, Sextus Empiricus Against the Ethicists (Adversus Mathematicos XI) (Oxford 1997) 17 translates this phrase as "some members of the Epicurean school", but argues in his commentary (121) that it refers to a genuine sub-set who argued against the Sceptics in the way that Sextus records. I doubt that this explanation is needed; Sextus would hardly have been interested in some vaguely defined Epicurean splinter-group.
4.   On the topic of this paragraph see R. Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford 1980) 158. Lewis Campbell, The Theaetetus of Plato (Oxford 1861) 51 thought that Aristippus was "probably included" among the "more subtle" philosophers at Theaetetus 156a, and so to Tsouna 125 n. 2 add Campbell to those scholars who misguidedly tried to identify this group in precise historical terms. For Pater's acquaintance with Campbell's edition see B.A. Inman, Walter Pater's Reading: A Bibliography of His Library Borrowings and Literary References, 1858-1873 (New York and London 1981) 41-43 and 65.

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