Pathos, Pleasure and the Ethical Life in Aristippus (ii)


Adherents of the view that Aristippus adopts something like a bodily view of pleasure might appeal to Plato’s Protagoras. They might appeal to the Protagoras because the standard interpretation there seems to be that in that particular bit of the dialogue where pleasure is discussed Socrates has in mind something like a coarse empiricist view of pleasure, pleasure as a uniform sensation16; not only is phenomenological uniformity often seen in conjunction with bodily pleasure, but Socrates often mentions examples of physical pleasures there. Thus since Aristippus was almost certainly well acquainted with and influenced by this work17, it is also possible that he had picked up, or found corroboration in, the notion of pleasure there standardly taken to be expressed by Socrates.
A major difficulty with such an appeal would be that it is not at all clear that Socrates in the Protagoras actually adopts the view that is standardly attributed to him. Actually, it is in itself significant that Socrates, in this work, does not really say that   much about what he supposes pleasure to be.18 It is true that he gives examples of pleasant things like food, drink and sex (353c) –examples which appear to conform to the standard view, but we ought to observe that he does so only within the context of his description of the akratic individual on behalf of the many. The labelling and employment of such pleasures here of course makes good protreptic sense, but it says little about Socrates’ conception of pleasure in that dialogue as a whole.
There are however several clues throughout the dialogue which do fill out this conception somewhat. For instance, prior to that segment of the discussion concerning pleasure and the pleasant life (351b), Prodicus is made to distinguish between ‘to be pleased’ and ‘to be cheered’, and to associate bodily pleasures with the former and mental pleasures with the latter. Plato’s point here is not just to communicate mere pedantry on the part of Prodicus. What Plato is also doing, it might be suggested, is signalling to us that the ensuing discussion of pleasure is to be understood in its widest or most comprehensive sense.
Moreover, later, at the near closing of the case for the denial of akrasia, Socrates says some things which ought to strike those who adhere to the standard view as peculiar. First, at 357b, Socrates says “what exactly this art, this knowledge is (of pleasures and pains) we can inquire into later”. We might wonder why, if pleasure was some simple uniform sensation, Socrates would think he has not yet exhausted just what this art of measurement is or consists in. That Socrates would withhold certainty with respect to this suggests he has a somewhat more open-ended conception of pleasure (and pain) than the standard interpretation calls for.
And indeed, something like this seems to be given further validation when Socrates goes on to say to Prodicus “I beg indulgence of Prodicus who distinguishes among words; for whether you call it (the pleasant) ‘pleasant’ or ‘delightful’ or ‘enjoyable’, whatever manner you please to name this sort of thing…” (358a-b, italics  added).

It is hard not to see such terms as connoting a very wide variety of positive psychological states. This surely indicates Socrates’ refusal to allow any narrowing of that wide range of meaning which the words accept. So that Socrates so readily exploits their conflation or synonymy again suggests that when he uses the word ‘pleasure’ or ‘pleasant’ he has something broader in mind than the standard uniform sensation view (in fact, we ought to notice that Socrates has already used ‘enjoy’ as a synonym at 354c-d).
We should also notice that the term hedone itself is used in many places in the Protagoras, and in a way both Socrates and the everyday person would use it, and in these cases the referent has nothing to do with physical or bodily pleasures. For instance, When Socrates and young Hippocrates arrive at the house of Callias, Socrates says of the pupils of Protagoras, that their “…dance simply delighted me (h(/sqhn i)dw/n) when I saw how beautifully they took care never to get in Protagoras’ way.” (315b); at 347b Socrates states: “I leave it up to Protagoras, but if it’s all right with him (h(/dion)…”; and following this he says to him: “I would be glad to settle (h(de/wj a)n e)pi\ te/loj e)/lqiomi) in a joint investigation with you.” (347c) All this is ordinary, everyday Greek usage of the term, and it clearly betrays a broad application.
Thus there are two important distinctions to be made here, both implying open-endedness. In the first case, Socrates is saying (to Prodicus) that terms like ‘enjoyment’, ‘delight’, etc, words which connote a wide range of positive psychological states, can mean the same as, or be used interchangeably with, or subsumed under, the term hedone. In the second case, variations of hedone itself can be seen to be used in a variety of contexts where different sorts of pleasures are being implied.
Furthermore, it may be significant that Socrates includes the ‘defence of one’s city’ as one of the compensating pleasures (for the prior undergoing of such painful things as military training and starvation diets) mentioned at 354b. The pleasure here seems to amount to something like the satisfaction of knowing that one’s efforts and deprivations have contributed to the city’s safety. Again, whatever sort of pleasure this is exactly, it is not done full justice by the standard view. Thus it seems most reasonable to understand the notion of pleasure in the Protagoras as a largely inclusive and  heterogeneous one, compatible with a wide field of experiences or psychological states, like positive sensations, attitudes, perceptions, or feelings.
Finally, one might comment on Socrates’ opening question to Protagoras at the start of their discussion on pleasure:

“Now, if he (the everyday man) completed his life, having lived pleasantly, does he not seem to you to have lived well?” (351b)

On its own, the expression ‘the pleasant life’ is undeniably vague, and it seems this is precisely why Socrates employs it. This is corroborated by the expression he takes it to be synonymous with, ‘to live well’. No doubt in normal Greek parlance ‘to live well’ involves saying that one is leading a comfortable life, having one’s bodily needs met, in a word, that one is getting one’s basic bodily pleasures19; but it also standardly connotes the idea of a life of various sorts of satisfactions and enjoyments, moral ones, aesthetic ones, etc.
In sum then, if Aristippus was exposed to, or influenced by, the Protagoras, it need not be an indication that he turned to, or found corroboration in, a bodily view of pleasure. In fact, given what has just been said, it is probably more likely that what would have resonated in him is a much more inclusive sense of the notion of pleasure.
Another important piece of work during this time to take into consideration with respect to Aristippus and pleasure is Plato’s Philebus. In fact, for various reasons, many scholars have seen this dialogue in close connection with Aristippus.20 Part of what Socrates does there is that he illuminates and enlarges the coarse and vague application of the term ‘pleasure’ as it is used by the younger interlocutors in the early stages of the discussion. At the outset, Protarchus denies that good and bad pleasures are unlike each other in so far as they are pleasures or qua pleasures (13c5). He rejects Socrates’ view that the temperate and intemperate person are undergoing different pleasures (12c8-d4). According to Protarchus, pleasure is the same thing regardless of what occasions it or of what it points to, so that the temperate and intemperate are simply getting the same thing from different sources. This suggests he understands pleasure simply as some kind of   sensation or feeling which is entirely distinct from the activity associated with it, a “kick…a mere aftereffect or epiphenomenon” as D. Frede (1993, xviii) has put it.
Socrates’ disagreement with Protarchus is made clear right from the very beginning of their dialogue when he makes the preliminary claim that an examination of the nature (phusis) of pleasure reveals that it is a ‘complex’ thing and that ‘in fact it comes in many forms’ (12c). The gist of Socrates’ ensuing argument might be put as follows. He argues that ‘pleasure’ is not a name for a single intuited quality of feeling or unitary phenomenon at all, anymore than there is one concretely intuited quality of experience called ‘color’. Both are something like abstract class concepts. One does not directly experience pure pleasure as such (just as one does not experience pure color as such), rather, what one does experience are particular instances or species of pleasure (or instances of color –say, blue or green). The way particular instances of pleasure are to be identified and distinguished from one another is presumably by mentioning something about the causes, activities or qualities of experience with which they are associated.
Whatever precisely Socrates may have in mind here, the general point seems obvious enough. Instances of pleasure are not to be identified purely by some feeling-element over and above the pursuits enjoyed, something usually characteristic of bodily sensations, but rather, by certain non-affective properties such as perhaps their causes, intentional objects (35b), etc. Socrates is thus rejecting the possibility of completely separating pleasure from the activities or pursuits in the way that his interlocutor Protarchus seems to be doing (and which, it might be added, is more typical of modern hedonists like Bentham and Mill).
Now, I am not proposing that Aristippus has in mind an account of pleasure like Socrates does in the Philebus.21 All I am suggesting is that the availability of this dialogue and Aristippus’ likely familiarity with it and other works like the Protagoras,22 at least makes it plausible to think that Aristippus was indeed aware of, and receptive to, the plasticity of the concept of pleasure, its multifarious nature –circumstances which we might reasonably suppose would not speak much in favor of the adoption of a narrow bodily view on his part.

There is not a whole lot in the historically proximate testimony which gives us much indication of how it is Aristippus conceived of the nature of pleasure. It is true that in the Memorabilia Socrates mainly attributes certain kinds of crude bodily pleasures to Aristippus (esp. 2. 1. 1); as Gosling and Taylor point out, Xenophon, in that dialogue, seems to make him “the champion of the sybaritic life” (1982, 40).
However, we should keep two important points in mind. One, as Diogenes reports, Xenophon was no friend of Aristippus (II 65),23 providing us with some reason to think he makes Socrates parody or exaggerate Aristippus’ outlook somewhat. And two, we should notice that it is Socrates who attributes certain kinds of pleasures to Aristippus while Aristippus himself never actually says anything about the sorts of pleasures which concern him. The only pertinent thing he says in this regard is that he wishes for a life of the greatest pleasure (2. 1. 9). There is admittedly little information in this, but we should keep in mind that he does use hedone here, and he does so without pointing to any pleasure-sources. And as we have seen, this term can encompass a wide variety of psychological experiences or states. Such inclusiveness is also hinted at in the fuller expression “a life of the greatest pleasure”, which, it might be noticed, nearly mirrors the  somewhat innocuous Protagoras passage discussed earlier (351b). Thus it is largely left open what exactly Aristippus has in mind here.
There is however one peculiar term indirectly attributed to Aristippus in the Memorabilia perhaps worth mentioning. In Prodicus’ fable, Vice’s speech, whose words are meant to represent the views of Aristippus, contains the use of euphrainesthai of sexual love (2. 1. 24). The use of this term in conjunction with this particular object is somewhat unconventional;24 in this context we would have expected hedesthai, which, though it, as we have seen, carries a wide range of enjoyments, is more often paired with coarse physical pleasures. Euphrainesthai has some etymological connection with mind or intelligence, phronesis. Indeed, as previously noted, the same author (Prodicus) is made by Plato in the Protagoras to make explicit this very distinction.

At 337c, Prodicus takes euphrainesthai and hedesthai to mark a dividing line between the enjoyment of mental activities and physical or bodily activities respectively (and Socrates tells us that many of those present agreed with this). Thus if we view Vice’s use of term in connection with what Prodicus is made to say at Prot. 337c, we may have reason to suspect that for Aristippus the enjoyment of a physical pleasure like sex is in part a mental one. This is speculation which outruns the Memorabilia text however, thus I leave it as it is.
Outside of the historically proximate testimony, there are, I believe, three illuminative characterizations of pleasure attributed to Aristippus. The first two are to be found in the roman author Aelian and the Christian humanist Erasmus, and the other, in the physician and philosopher Galen. Aelian reports that “Aristippus seemed to speak with particular conviction when encouraging people neither to bother themselves in retrospect over that which has passed, nor to toil in prospect of things to come. For this kind of behavior is the mark of happiness and proof of a gracious frame of mind (eu)qumi/a).” (Var. Hist. 14. 6; 208 in Mannebach)25 Erasmus praises Aristippus with   possessing a kind of “joyful freedom”.26 And Galen attributes to Aristippus a conception of pleasure which he refers to as a kind of disposition of mind whereby one becomes indifferent to pain and hard to be enticed or beguiled (a)na/lghtoj kai\ dusgoh/teutoj).27
The principal observation that springs to mind is the fact that all of these descriptions connote certain broad states of mind which are not restricted to bodily pleasures (though this is not to suggest that such pleasures or sensations are excluded or cannot be incorporated by such descriptions). Euthumia is perhaps akin to ‘gladness’ or ‘joy’ and just translates as having one’s appetitive self (thumos) in a good state. This clearly captures something closer to a kind of general frame or disposition of mind than it does a particular pleasant episode or bodily sensation. Indeed, Democritus (who was apparently the first to employ this term in connection with one’s telos) is reported to have claimed that euthumia is not the same as hedone (DL 9. 45). Whatever we are to make of this, clearly there is some sort of distinction that is understood or permitted by these terms.
Moreover, the fact that euthumia is paired in the Aelian passage with happiness is perhaps also suggestive. Eudaimonia has overtones of prosperity and external well-being while euthumia seems to imply more of an internal state and one which is not so dependent on external factors. But bodily pleasures, it might be thought, are usually tied more to external circumstances and contingencies than are states of gladness, joy or certain positive frames or dispositions of mind. Thus that Aristippus allegedly speaks of both eudaimonia and euthumia perhaps indicates that he is making room in his account not only for sensual or bodily pleasures but for mental, attitudinal, dispositional, etc, ones as well. Such inclusion seems to be further suggested by Erasmus’ ‘joyful freedom’ and by the controlled or self-possessed disposition mentioned by Galen –they each appear to  express, and to allow for, states of mind broader in scope than particular episodes of pleasures or sensations.28
Finally, there is one curious bit of repartee which perhaps deserves some discussion. Diogenes reports the following about Aristippus.
Being asked how Socrates died, he answered, “As I would wish to die myself.” (II 76)
If Aristippus has in mind something like Socrates’ manner of death as it is depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, this is a striking claim for a sybaritic hedonist to make. For surely it is difficult to make much sense of this under a bodily sensation view of hedonism. Forget talk of pleasurable sensations, to linger for weeks in a bare prison cell,29 with legs bonded to fetters, only to finally die of hemlock poisoning30 seems to be a case of nothing else but painful sensory experiences. What then might Aristippus mean?31
A look at Socrates’ portrayal on that last day might provide us with a clue. Of utmost significance is just how joyful Socrates appears to be throughout (e.g. 58e) and the good cheer or contentment he shows in the face of his death (e.g. 117c4). It is clear that this joy has little to do with bodily pleasures; not only do the physical circumstances speak against it, as mentioned, but Socrates himself in his so-called ‘defense speech’ of the philosopher explicitly repudiates most physical pleasures (e.g. 64d2-7). Socrates’ joy, it might be suggested, seems to be connected to the strength with which he faces what  cannot be changed, it seems to be born of someone who realizes that his state of mind is entirely within his own power and is the sort of thing that no one can take away from him, whatever else they may take away.32 People can impose physical pain on Socrates, or deprive him of pleasurable sensations, but they cannot prevent him from adopting a certain pro-attitude to things or approaching things in a certain joyful way. If something like this is on the right track, greater sense might be made out of Aristippus’ alleged admiration and approbation of Socrates’ death. And if this is the case, it would seem to provide further indication that Aristippus adheres to a quite open and flexible account of pleasure.
Thus we may, I believe, safely conclude something like the following. Sensations and bodily pleasures are surely accommodated by, or make up a part of, Aristippus’ conception of pleasure, but there is little reason to believe it is exhausted by them. It is best to see it as one involving a significantly wide field of positive psychological states.


Kristian Urstad
(Nicola Valley Institute & British Columbia Institute of Technology)


16 For example, see Irwin, 1977, 111; Gosling and Taylor, 1982, 177, think it tempting to treat pleasure in the Protagoras ‘as a sensation like warmth’. This empiricist conception is commonly assumed because in the Protagoras it appears (to these interpreters) that the only differentiation made between kinds of pleasures is quantitative, the amount of pleasure achieved (356b), a criterion friendly to a conception of pleasure as a distinct and commensurable sensation state (see also Irwin, 1995, 90).
17 For more on the relationship between Aristippus and the Protagoras, see Urstad, 2008, Section II.

18On recognition of the fact that Socrates there makes little attempt to define pleasure at all, that he never delves into its nature, see Riel, 2000, 9 and D. Frede, 1999, 349.

19 On the closeness between ‘living well’ (and such similar expressions) and pleasure in Greek thought, see Stokes, 1986, 366.
20 For instance, Merlan, 1960, 33-5; Zeller, 1963, 112; Irwin, 1995, 16.

21 Of course Socrates in the Philebus is not extolling hedonism. Pleasure turns out to receive fifth position on the candidate list for the highest good (67a).
22 We should notice that Plato, throughout his works, uses a variety of suggestive idioms in describing pleasure. For instance, at Gorgias 496e drinking is said to be a filling of a deficiency  and thereby a pleasure, and at 499e we are told we must perform good pleasures. Again, this seems to betray the largely open-ended understanding of pleasure at the time.
23 Grote, 1865, III, 538: “Xenophon was a man of action, resolute in mind and vigorous in body, performing with credit the duties of the general as well as of the soldier. His heroes were men like Cyrus, Agesilaus, Ischomachus –warriors, horsemen, hunters, always engaged in active competition for power, glory or profit, and never shrinking from danger, fatigue, or privation. For a life of easy and unambitious indulgence…he had no respect. It was on this side that the character of Aristippus certainly seemed to be…the most defective.”

24 See Taylor, 1991, 138.
25 Some commentators take this fragment to be beyond doubt preserving Aristippus’ own words (see Guthrie, 1975, 494).

26 “It does not seem to me misplaced, following the playful sanctity of Socrates and the joyful freedom of Aristippus, to move on to Diogenes of Sinope, who far surpasses all others with the inexhaustible charm of his words. In the end, though, with all their differing qualities, I have put these three on a par.” (Apophthegmata, in Opera Omnia, ed. J. Leclerc; see also Erasmus, Apophthegmes, 1969, 68. 62.)
27 In Opera Omnia, ed. Kühn, Vol. 19, 230; see also Grote, 1865, 551, n. a.

28 Indeed, Grote, 1865, 551, is absolute in taking the account of pleasure attributed to Aristippus by Galen to be ‘a very different doctrine’ from the sensation model held by the younger Aristippus.
29 A month, according to Xenophon (Mem. 4. 8. 2).
30 Despite how Plato depicts Socrates’ final moments, the effects of ingesting hemlock must have been dreadful (see Gill, 1973).
31 Perhaps one way to make sense of this is to see Aristippus as a hedonist who believes in an afterlife and in its posthumous rewards and punishments. He might thus justify suffering the pains and cutting his life short because of the greater sensory pleasures promised for him in the afterlife. This is a possibility but I see no suggestion of it in the testimony.

32 See Seneca, Letters 23. 4-5 for a description of ‘joy’ which might be seen in part to bear witness to Socrates’ frame of mind near his death.

SOURCE   Journal of Ancient Philosophy Vol. III 2009 Issue 1

About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
This entry was posted in PHILOSOPHICAL THEMES and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.