Images of Cyrenaic Philosophy

September 30, 2010by

The Hellenistic school of Cyrenaic philosophy, derived from the teaching of Aristippus of Cyrene, maintains two basic truths:

  1. Epistemologically, the only thing we can know for certain is our present feelings of pleasure and pain.
  2. Ethically, pleasure, understood as immediate gratification of bodily desires, is to be sought as the supreme good.

One of the best contemporary pictures of this philosophy at work comes from the Seinfeld episode “The Blood,” in which George tries to combine a “trifecta” of his most pressing bodily desires. I’ll let the clip and the follow up conversation speak for themselves.

Based on Cyrenaic principles, it was a valiant effort on George’s part. Where he failed was in finding an effective way to put the principles into practice.

For this we need to look to another great contemporary media image of Cyrenaic philosophy: Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, whose opening line in the movie reflects nearly exactly Aristippus’ proposed way of putting the pleasure principle more fully into practice. In the words of Aristippus, the goal is

to endeavour to adapt circumstances to myself, not myself to circumstances.

Or, as Frank Costello puts it in the opening line of The Departed,

I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.

Watch the opening scene @YouTube.

This is where Aristippus appears to have been immensely successful. As one of his contemporaries remarked, “every complexion of life, every station and circumstance sat gracefully upon him.”

You can read more about Aristippus in Diogenes Laërtius’ “Life of Aristippus”