The Enjoyment Of Pleasures

The student of philosophy often finds himself navigating perilous waters.  Some of the great writers in the field, ancient and modern, were depressing or abnormal men, who consoled themselves in their solitude by spinning spider-webs of metaphysics or raising elaborate edifices of rhetoric.  Others conduct forays into opaque logic-chopping, and still others take refuge in sanctimonious moralizing.  In all this confusion, it is refreshing finally to find a philosopher who is wise enough to try to be happy.

Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435-356 B.C.) was a pupil of Socrates who found it expedient to leave Athens after the execution of his teacher.  He apparently incurred the wrath of his fellow students Plato and Xenophon for not participating in Socrates’s bedside vigil before his death.  Well-built, handsome, and socially adept, he became popular in the city of Cyrene (located on the coast of North Africa) and eventually founded his own influential school of philosophy there.

His philosophy was frankly sensualist and material.  All that we do, he claimed, is structured around seeking pleasure and avoiding pain; thus, pleasure is the ultimate good, and the goal of philosophy should be to find ways of experiencing pleasure within healthy boundaries.  The wise man should put a greater emphasis on physical and material pleasures than intellectual or moral ones, since tomorrow is uncertain, and we can only be assured of the present.  He who has mastered the art of enjoying pleasures without endangering his health or safety can best be called wise, not the self-denying ascetic crouching in a cave.  Enjoyment of pleasures, though, should never extend so far that one becomes enslaved by their pursuit:  “I possess”, he famously said, “but I am not possessed”.


Although he eventually became wealthy and moved among the aristocratic classes, as he had known poverty previously, and was famous for having borne both conditions with dignity and grace.  He was the first of Socrates’s pupils to charge fees for giving instruction to others, and made no apology for doing so.  He cared little for the opinions of others, frequently laughed at authority and laws, and openly cohabited with a beautiful and well-known courtesan named Lais.

The true wise man was not the narrow-minded bookworm, but that man who had known a variety of sensual pleasures and was able to assert his mastery over them.  Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, tells many anecdotes about his wit and wisdom, of which the following are my favorites (“he” below refers to Aristippus):

When he was spat on by King Dionysius I of Syracuse (in whose court he worked), someone asked him how he could endure such abuse.  He replied, “If fishermen let themselves be drenched with seawater in pursuit of fish, should not I also endure a wetting to spread wisdom?”

Diogenes (a rival) was once washing dirt from his vegetables, saw Aristippus walking by, and scoffed at him, saying, “If you had learned how to make these part of your diet, you would not have paid court to kings.”  To which he replied, “And if you knew how to associate with men, you would not be washing vegetables.”

When he was once asked what he gained from philosophy, he said, “The ability to feel at ease in any society.”

When he was once asked what advantage philosophers have, he replied, “Should all laws be repealed, we will go on living as we do now.”

When King Dionysius once asked him why philosophers go to rich men’s homes, while rich men do not visit philosophers, he replied that “the one know what they need, while the other do not.”

When he was asked how the educated differ from the uneducated, he replied, “Exactly as horses that have been trained differ from untrained horses.”

When he once visited the house of a courtesan with one of his students, the pupil became embarrassed.  Aristippus said, “It is not going in that is dangerous, but being unable to go out.”

When someone remarked that philosophers were always seen at rich men’s homes, he said, “So, too, doctors attend to those who are sick, but no one for that reason would prefer being sick to being a doctor.”

He once said that he did not take money from his friends for his own use, but to teach them upon what objects their money should be spent.

Being asked what was the difference between the wise man and the unwise man, he said, “Dress them both in the plainest, simplest clothing, and send them among strangers.  Watch them, and you will know.”

To one man who boasted that he could drink a great deal without getting drunk, Aristippus replied, “And so can a mule.”

To those who criticized him for keeping house with the courtesan Lais, he replied, “I have Lais, not she me; and it is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without ever being ruined.”

When a courtesan once told him that she was bearing his child, he replied, “You are no more sure of this than if, after running through a thicket of thorn bushes, you were to say that you knew which branch had pricked you.”

Someone once criticized him for taking money from King Dionysius at the same time that Plato had published an excellent book.  “Well”, he said, “I want money, and Plato wants books.”

In our final judgment, there is much good to be found in Aristippus’s philosophy.  His doctrines had the shortcomings of any belief system that made no appeal to man’s need for the supernatural.  Are we really certain that people exclusively structure their lives around the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain?  And does not such a sensual view of the world invite all sorts of abuses by immature or undeveloped minds?  Can such a philosophy provide consolation to us in our grief, tribulations, and struggles?

Man needs myths, gods, and rituals to inspire him; and Aristippus was able only to offer a purely moral code.  In this respect, his vision suffered from the same defects as Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Nevertheless, his influence was considerable.  His school continued on after him, and was gradually incorporated into the surging tide of Epicureanism which was to arrive after his death.


In response to his critics, Aristippus would argue that he never advocated for unrestrained hedonism, but only for the balanced enjoyment of select pleasures.  The goal of life, he believed, was to juggle enjoyment while avoiding ruin.  Like any good promoter, some of his statements seem to have been deliberately intended to rile up his opponents.

Despite obvious faults, his teaching was an honest attempt to bring philosophy down from the rarefied Platonic clouds and back to the hurly-burly of real life. And if practicing what one preaches is the final measure of a man, Aristippus must be counted among the most sincere philosophers of antiquity.  He was beloved by many, scolded by few, and hated by none.

According to one historian, he believed the most inspiring sight in the world was the spectacle of a virtuous man pursuing his goals in the midst of wicked people.  Who among us can find fault with this verdict?

Read More:  24 Pieces Of Wisdom From Lao Tzu

26 thoughts on “The Enjoyment Of Pleasures”

  1. I agree with the pursuit of happiness, but it must not be at the expense of responsibilty to myself, my immediate family and friends, and society at large. Otherwise, in the long run, we all end up unhappy. The solipsistic narcissism of feminists is what has led to much unhappiness in society today. All the moralizing done by men is necessary to prevent social pathology.
    Does anyone here feel totally secure about their future? Or can we all agree that a femcunt-centric society is sending us all down, together, men and women. I mean, I can see that my country and its people are in a much worse position due to such ideals.

  2. So Aristippus was a proto-Epicurean? Because the doctrine of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is pretty much the same.
    The thing is, that philosophy often contradicts itself on its own terms, as the pursuit of pleasure at times necessitates the enduring of pain. Pleasure is also not the highest good, at least if it is immediate. I would argue that the mindless pursuit of immediate pleasure is one of the prime reasons our society is in the ridiculous predicament that it is in.
    Still, the emphasis on balance is clearly valuable, and his tenets seem to in some ways suggest the self-actualized life. And his wit was clearly good.
    Have any of his writings survived?

    1. I think all of his writings have been lost except for fragments preserved as quotations in other writers. The best and complete portrait we have of him is found in Diogenes Laertius, which is a great work and highly recommended. Those little anecdotes above we taken from his profile on Aristippus.

    2. Yes and no. Epicurus’ rather more grown-up school also taught that life was the pursuit of pleasure — but that the maximum amount of pleasure was merely the absence of pain. The Epicureans were moderate ascetics, not the thrill-seeking Cyrenaic Hedonists. I note that the article carefully avoids the word “Hedonist”… Cyrenaics were the original Hedonists. Epicurus taught that there were unnatural pleasures (such as the pursuit of power and wealth or indulgence of lust), natural but unnecessary pleasures (fine food, perhaps sex although I don’t think he’s not clear on the later), and necessary pleasures (simple foods, water, shelter).
      Epicureans got a really bad reputation during the period of Graeco-Roman moralists later. I think a lot of it was either moral philosophers (e.g. Cicero) mistaking them for Hedonists or the fact that Epicureans didn’t generally participate in politics (the pursuit of power, bad) — which was considered really deviant behavior in ancient Athens or the Roman Republic. But makes sense to me; only mentally ill people go into politics. I think quite literally, a huge over-representation of clinical sociopaths.
      Also, on the epistemological front, Epicureans more or less invented our modern philosophy of science. Roughly, there are observable phenomena. To explain it, we postulate the existence of unobservable entities. Then we test them against other observable phenomena. However, I think they lacked a simplicity criteria whereas people tend to think simpler theories are “more true” today.
      Or I could be wrong on all of this since my class in Hellenistic philosophy was almost as long ago as Hellenistic philosophy. And I was always a fan of the intellectual badass Skeptics anyway.
      Also, seriously? “Man needs myths, gods, and rituals to inspire him”. Dumb prole men, maybe. “His doctrines had the shortcomings of any belief system that made no appeal to man’s need for the supernatural” You mean — it makes sense without any mumbo-jumbo baggage?

      1. ‘”Man needs myths, gods, and rituals to inspire him”. Dumb prole men, maybe’
        More like men inhabiting societies with any aspiration to longevity. By the time atheism become a society’s dominant religion, said society is on it’s last legs. That’s how it always has been, and always will be.

        1. Whoops. I didn’t realize I’d dropped into the deep end of the Orthosphere section of neoreactionary thoughtspace. You all scare me.
          I’m not saying you’re wrong, but longevity is surely not the only goal of civilization. I value intellectual progress more. If that means some societies die out, so be it. The Greek city states flamed out pretty fast as independent societies, but their ideas did not. Ancient Egypt lasted stably for millennia but passed on zero intellectual heritage.
          We can’t just read entrails and sacrifice at altars forever. Fundamentalist Islam seems to have a lock on longevity, staunch morals, family values, and strong birth rates, but who’s in a hurry to convert and move to Iran?
          I’ll crawl back to a more secular corner now and ponder which is worse: modern society in its state of collapse or the Orthosphere ideal society.

        2. “Progress” is a rather newspeaky way of describing Intellectual developments leading to extinction, isn’t it? But that’s par for the course for progressivism, I guess.
          A motorcyclist can always make more rapid progress down the road, by simply twisting the throttle harder. And make even rapider progress if he disregards such boring old fashioned stuff as brakes weighing him down. Until he flies off in the first corner, that is.
          Similarly, a society can always accelerate “intellectual progress,” as measured in number of women’s studies research papers published or whatever; by investing all it’s energy in doing just that; and quit futzing with such reactionaria as raising children, obeying immediately restrictive morality and such. But again, there are those pesky corners.
          It’s all about a balance. Doing nothing but competing in who can recite Koranic verses the most times before he dies, is likely going a tad too far in one direction. But so is wanking to some cheesy “God is Dead” banner; just because we now have Twitter, and our totalitarian governments feel more comfortable not having unalterable restrictions on what nonsense they can spout and do, under the banner of being good for “us.”
          Historically, I suspect one could do a lot worse than the West, particularly the US, from 200 to 100 years ago. The most rapid progress in the sciences, and 1st world living standards, ever seen. Plenty of acceptable outlets for ambitious young men to focus more on the material world, instead of just joining the clergy. Yet still; only a minimum of childish teen rebellion against the age old wisdoms that had gotten them there in the first place.
          But of course, empirically, that period sowed the seeds for the dystopian regress we are now deep into. So on that accord, perhaps the Koranites are right to be a smidgen more skeptical wrt how far they wish to venture from the ancient wisdoms.

        3. Ancient Greece for one….
          As well as Rome. And perhaps most famously; the societies referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah.
          That’s a rather Western Centric view. I’m sure there are examples from other regions as well.
          As well as the countless examples that must surely have simply disappeared; sacked by their less shortsighted contemporaries.

        4. I cannot view things so starkly. I am a traditionalist who believes in progress, I must admit a penchant for utopian futures. I am just a die-hard realist about achieving it and where it’s at now. I imagine the ultimate goal of a true, realist progressive is not the grave, but eternity. Even just an understanding of eternity. It is that thing suggested by the best science fiction, the notion that we can learn the ultimate secrets, venture into the farthest reaches, and eventually become like gods ourselves. Being liberal and effeminate and non judgemental out of over-wrought compassion is not a way to achieve this. But the idea that there is no future no matter what we do, is too nihilist for me, and I believe…irrational.

        5. Noone is saying there is no future. But rather that any realistic candidate future has to be evolutionarily sustainable. Dreaming of a world that does not satisfy that criterium, is little different than fantasizing about how wonderful it must feel to overdose on a pleasure stimulating drug; and die.

        6. there is a very interesting story by Stanislav Lem, about a supercomputer built by futuristic humans (douglas adams ripped off the idea) designed to divulge to them deeper secrets via its advanced thinking capacity. When the machine finally buzzes into life with much fanfare and excitement, he ignores them completely for many years, then one day begins to speak. He outlines for them the conundrum: he can indeed guide them into a future advancement in thought beyond what they are currently capable, comparable to his own, but the achievement of that advanced state comes at the sacrifice of their humanity itself, in the very urge which compelled them to want to advance, which was essentially a running retreat from death — so he didn’t really see the point in bothering. Eternity came at the sacrifice of the ‘soul’.
          of course it’s just a story.

      2. Yeah, but that’s the point. There are lots of men who need the mumbo-jumbo baggage.

  3. Have you guys reviewed the world’s oldest book on Game? Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria” (The Art of Love)?
    I haven’t read it myself, but I’m wondering if the advice is any good or if it has held up over the millennia.

    1. Have not read it, but heard much about it. Must have been good, since it helped get Ovid banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus. Either that, or because he had a fling with the emperor’s daughter Julia.

      1. best line from this: “willing or unwilling, they all find it thrilling to be propositioned…” most of it is rather tedious though.
        great article Quintus.

  4. Quote of the week comes from a Pattaya Soi Sex (6) Bargirl, “I am unsure as to the identity of the father of my baby, after all, like when you eat a can of beans you can’t be sure which one made you fart.”
    — Stickman Weekly

  5. I find it hard to find a man given to hedonistic pleasures as a wise man; but he almost pulled it off.
    Wisdom, as hard as it is to gain, can be much more easily lost when cavorting with temptations whilst trying to “avoid ruin.” Wisdom is often the hard road, and Aristippus sought wisdom on the easier road. Both brands of stoics could easily be viewed as different sides of the same intellectual coin. However, one must look at it differently I think, and at first I was unsure if you were looking at it this way or not. Now I think not, and this is not meant as offense, yet I think that one who purely pursues the hedonistic pleasures, however “responsibly,” is still on the road to ruin. Just taking his time to its conclusion.
    The other stoics, still on the road to ruin, just preferred the voices fo their own mind before getting to the end. Aristippus merely enjoyed the company of others on his merry way. I don’t much care for a guy who sells me the hedonistic pleasures, even if it makes total sense. Unless he is content in knowing that that is all that is left to him, until social change makes wisdom it’s standard bearer once again. The other stoics merely cried their way to the grave in most cases by mentoring their patrons offspring (Plato with Alexander if you will). However, they changed the world, regardless of how they did it by recognizing things that would not be properly explained until over two thousand years after their death.
    Say what you want, but real people lead real lives regardless of how they do it. Like the old adage, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” How you live it is a reflection of you!

  6. We might not find fault with it, but it appears Western liberal society considers the pursuit of self-interest to be wicked in the first place, hence the constant railing about how we lack empathy, compassion etc.
    Anyway, good article. The guy sounds a lot like Yang Zhu, a similar Chinese philosopher. …although I would argue that the need for the supernatural is really just another way of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.

    1. And America is far from being the western country that shame self-interest pursuers the most. West-European countries sadly are the top “performers” in that domain…

  7. Wise man, moderation is key when enjoying the fruits of your labor.
    also: “he believed the most inspiring sight in the world was the spectacle of a virtuous man pursuing his goals in the midst of wicked people” welcome to everyday of my life here in So-Cal! thanks for the pat on the back

  8. Book II, Chapter 1 of Xenophon’s “Memorabilia” contains a discourse between Socrates and Aristippus. Xenophon kicks it off by describing the affect of Socrates, “he turned his companions toward training themselves to be continent in their desire for meat and drink, and in regard to lust, sleep, cold, heat, and labor. When he recognized once that one of his companions was too undisciplined in such respects, he said, ‘Tell me, Aristippus…’”
    The highlights are as follows: Socrates gains assent to his proposition that a man who is not trained in continence is unfit to rule since he cannot be trusted to forgo his pleasures for the sake of other duties. There is further agreement that it is better to rule than to be a slave. Aristippus goes on to deny having any desire to rule since continence implies that one must suffer willingly, which is the same suffering as those under compulsion, “except that the one who gladly endures what is painful lacks sense as well.” If Aristippus is not a ruler, then Socrates holds him to be a slave. Aristippus, seeing little difference between the sufferings of the two, claims a third way, the “middle road between these, which I try to travel, neither through rule nor through slavery, but through freedom; and this road especially leads to happiness… I, for my part, in fact don’t confine myself to any regime but am a stranger everywhere.” The individualism of Aristippus is a possible solution to the problem- he chooses estrangement when faced with the suffering involved in rule and servitude -but it lacks foresight since he is apparently barred from making friends, which means that he will be incapable of making alliances of mutual aid and defense. He will be alone in the world.
    The rest of the dialogue is a monologue in which Socrates draws upon the wisdom of the poets and the education of Herakles as evidence that continence, while difficult, is the source of even higher pleasures than immediate indulgence. The higher pleasures of continence and the “kingly art” are as follows: good friends, power over enemies, powerful body and soul leading to a well maintained household and honorable deeds for the fatherland, self-admiration and praise from others for all of these things, anticipation of being cherished and remembered after death.
    The following chapters in Book II are concerned with the desirability, maintenance, and acquisition of friends and family. The dialogue between Socrates and Aristippus should thus be framed in the larger discussion of an individual’s natural alliances (family/homeland) and contrived alliances (friends/foreign lands); it is a warning against extreme individualism. For the citizen, continence can be beneficial with regard to one’s relationship to family, friends, and community, but the perpetual stranger cares little for these relations, thus he is free to indulge in himself and become his own best friend (trusting, relying upon, and benefiting only his own senses). Wherever he may be around other humans- being friendless -he will find himself in more immediate danger than the citizen. The threat of homelessness and exposure, starvation, and rapine are all enhanced without the safeguards of friends, family, and the city’s laws. The question that the stranger poses is whether great freedom and danger are preferable to moderate suffering and security?
    In the end, Aristippus appears to have found a home where he was loved and benefited by many. He is “Aristippus of Cyrene” after all. No longer “the stranger,” I wonder how Aristippus came to rationalize the laying down of roots?

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