Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.35

Kurt Lampe, The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life.   Princeton; Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2015.  Pp. xvii, 277.  ISBN 9780691161136.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Eugene Afonasin, Novosibirsk State University (


Philosophers, according to Seneca (Epist. Mor. 89.9-12), divided philosophy into three parts: moral, natural, and that related to human understanding. Some supplemented it with political philosophy; only the Cyrenaics reduced all philosophy to its moral aspects, subdividing them into five parts: on what is choiceworthy and worthy of avoidance, on experiences, on actions, on causes, and on arguments. All these revolve around the actual experiences of pleasure and pain (Diogenes Laertius 2.66):

Aristippus was able to harmonize himself with his place, time, and role and perform harmoniously in any circumstance . . . for he enjoyed the pleasure of whatever was present, and didn’t strive for the enjoyment of what wasn’t present.

In his Birth of Hedonism Kurt Lampe, after due historical and biographic remarks (pp. 12-25), turns first to the Cyrenaic theory of ‘experiences’ (Ch. 3: Knowledge and Pleasure, pp. 26-55), then to their ideas of virtue (Ch. 4: Virtue and Living Pleasantly, pp. 56-91), happiness (Ch. 5: Eudaimonism and Anti-eudaimonism, pp. 92-100), and social interactions (Ch. 6: Personal and Political Relations, pp. 101-19). These chapters treat the ideas of Aristippus and his followers more or less cumulatively, but when possible traces their historical development. Next come chapters dedicated to individual Cyrenaic philosophers (Ch. 7: Hegesias’ Pessimism, pp. 120-46; Ch. 8; Theodorus’ Innovations, pp. 147-67) and, finally, a chapter on the revival of these ancient ideas in the nineteenth century (Ch. 9: The ‘New Cyrenaicism’ of Walter Pater, pp. 168-92). Two studies of the ancient sources are found as appendices at the end of the book.

Approaching in Ch. 3 the fundamentals of the Cyrenaic theory of the pathē (lit. ‘affects’, translated as ‘experiences’; the choice of the term is explained at p. 230 n. 34), Lampe first briefly discusses the question of Socratic influence on Aristippus and then embarks on a detailed study of the ‘infallible and incorrigible experiences’ of what is satisfying (eudokētēn) and what is repellent (apokroustikon), since they alone determine what is choiceworthy (hairetē) and provide the best basis for correct actions, according to the Cyrenaic philosophers (cf. esp. p. 41). The subject is developed in the subsequent chapters. A pertinent short study by Charles Kahn, “Socrates and Hedonism”, is unfortunately overlooked by Lampe.1

The informed philosophical life is, according to Aristippus, worth living, and its untimely termination will be a great loss to humanity (Diogenes Laertius 2.71, Aulus Gellius 19.1.1). Philosophers and common people are evaluated according to different criteria as if situated at different ‘ontological’ levels, and the rhetoric employed by Aristippus is reminiscent of a heroic epos.2 But it is the seemingly contradictory ‘presentism’ of the Cyrenaics (the idea that the wise man cares only about what is present) that deserves special attention. Carefully ‘unpacking’ the principal evidence (from Athenaeus and Aelian) at pp. 65-6, Lampe is able to demonstrate that Aelian’s reading probably contains some original terms (epikamnein, to phthanon, etc.) and therefore is closer to the original.

I have nothing to say about the rest of the chapter, or about Chapter 5 on eudaimonia, except to say that they contain quite a reliable analysis of the relevant evidence and discuss diverse scholarly opinions on the subject. One thing that Lampe argues against widespread opinion (T. Irwin, T. O’Keefe, F. Feldman, J. Warren) is that the Cyrenaics did care about their long-term welfare (p. 93).

Turning to individual figures, Lampe notes that, when interpreting the later development of the school of Cyrene, some scholars go beyond available evidence. Admittedly, Hegesias is a rare representative of philosophical pessimism in Greek antiquity, but he is not, contrary to Matson, an unambiguous “gloomy death-persuader” and an advocate of suicide.3 Quite on the contrary: “not only does Hegesias not claim that death is always choiceworthy, he explicitly states that living is advantageous for fool and indifferent for the sage” (p. 128 with Cicero, Tusc. 1.83-4 and DL 2.94-5). The ideal of indifference for Hegesias corresponds to the ideal of magnanimity in heroic ethics: “This purity of vision and freedom from cognitive or emotional dissonance, though both ancients and moderns might find it inhuman, can on the other hand be seen as a form of heroic transcendence of ordinary limitations” (p. 146).4

Theodorus’ innovations to “mainstream” Cyrenaic philosophy are significant. Replacing pleasure and pain with joy and distress as the “ends” (telē) of the philosophical way of life, he promotes justice and practical wisdom to the status of good things. “Pain and pleasure,” elevated by the previous Cyrenaics to the highest position in the range of values, now become mere intermediates, indifferent, neither bad nor good. Like the heroes of Greek poetry, in his philosophical struggle the sage “neither participates in normal relationships nor subscribes to any conventions of behavior” (p. 167). If a sage decides to rob a temple or commit adultery “under right circumstances”, he does this on a case-by-case basis and his decision is always well grounded. Scholars tend to diminish the “philosophical heroism” of Theodorus (Zeller, von Fritz and Winiarczyk),5 or make him a Pyrrhonist (Brancacci). But for Lampe the last Cyrenaic is a more interesting figure: his polemical provocations (“nothing is shameful by nature”, “the universe is our fatherland”: Diogenes Laertius 2.99), his atheism, and his bold behavior in front of the king (differently presented by Diogenes Laertius, Cicero and Philo), as well as his influence on such later philosophers as Bion of Boristhenes and Aristo of Chios, secure for him a respectable position in the Cyrenaic tradition. Admittedly he is a critical rather than constructive thinker, but he was able to formulate a meaningful moral psychology: “Foolishness and injustice are both networks of false belief about indifferents, which lead to distress. Practical wisdom and justice are not only networks of correct beliefs, which eliminate distress . . . [they are] also primary sources of joy” (p. 167).

Appendix 1 (p. 198 ff.) treats individually our sources of information about the Cyrenaics: Aristotle, Cicero, Clement of Alexandria, Diogenes Laertius, Epiphanius, Aristocles (ap. Eusebius), Plato and Xenophon, in this order. This appendix (along with a second one dedicated specifically to Diogenes Laertius’ source) is very useful and instructive. What I cannot understand however is why Lampe omits Sextus Empiricus, despite the fact that his evidence on the Cyrenaics is equally important and problematic. It is clear that the information Sextus gives us in a single lengthy passage (Adv. Math. 7.190-200) is ‘translated’ into skeptical language, but at the same time it is obvious that it contains important data on the Cyrenaic theory of the pathē. The passage as it stands requires interpretation, and as such definitely merits mention in any outline of the sources.6

The reviewer is expected to list mistakes, and there are indeed some. On p. 16 one must omit an excessive 'that'; Alexandria is Ptolemy’s capital, not 'capitol' (p. 21); the work by Boys-Stones and Rowe 2013, referred to on p. xiii, is absent from the bibliography (apparently, this is The Circle of Socrates, Hackett Publ.); on p. 3 Guirand is printed instead of Gouirand; footnotes (at the same page) apparently refer to the endnotes: there are no footnotes in the book, and, by the way, this editorial decision causes inconvenience to the reader; a verse from the Iliad, quoted on p. 145 is “do some big things first, that men to come may know of it” (not “. . . if it”).

Generally speaking, this is a clearly written and a very interesting book. Undoubtedly useful for any student of ancient philosophy, it will also be instructive for the general reader interested in the history of ethics. Every serious university and research library should have a copy of it.


1.   L. Judson and V. Karasmanis (edd.), Remembering Socrates (Oxford, 2006), pp. 50-7. See also M. Nomoura, “Hedonism and Anti-hedonism in Plato’s Gorgias”, ΣΚΕΠΣΙΣ 16 (2005), 239-45.
2.   Lampe quotes Iliad 2.200-1 and 246-7 to prove this, and several times returns to the subject in the course of his argument.
3.   W. Matson, ‘Hegesias the Death-Persuader; or, the gloominess of hedonism’, Philosophy 73 (1998), 553-7.
4.   Lampe also translates and comments upon Cologne Papyrus 205, dated to the end of the third century BCE (pp. 136 ff.). In a fragmentary dialogue with an unnamed interlocutor Socrates explains why he did not try to preserve his life during the trial and did not escape from the prison after it, saying that nothing bad will happen after death to the sage, and “the sensible person would not be grieved to leave these not so pleasant things behind, if he were going to die”. Socrates’ interlocutor remarks that this is a good defense indeed, especially for those “who think that pleasure is the best end of life and distress the worst” (p. 137). Lampe’s conjecture that this text could in fact belong to Hegesias or an Hegesiac philosopher appears to be well grounded. At any rate, this text is a useful addition to our evidence about the Cyrenaic school.
5.   The passage is interpreted by K. Döring (Der Socratesschüler Aristipp und die Kyrenaiker, Stuttgart, 1988), L. Brisson (in M. Canto-Sperber, ed., Philosophie greque, Paris, 1997, vol. 1), and other scholars. Sextus’ comparison of the Cyrenaics with the so-called kompsoteroi (Plato, Theaetetus 152b) is especially interesting.
6.   Indeed, if you set the goals of your life independently of external events such as bodily pain or pleasure, the state of happiness will come entirely under your control, but this sort of self-sufficiency would be a mere illusion.

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