The Cyrenaics, Durham: Acumen, 2012. Hardcover. xiii + 224pp. ISBN 978-1-84465-290-7.
This book was a pleasure to read—something that at least some Cyrenaics, including the Annicerian sect, would have deemed possible. It is also a welcome re-evaluation of an interesting group of philosophers often relegated to the sidelines, but given interesting coverage by later sources, particularly those interested in Academic philosophy, such as Cicero, Plutarch, Sextus, and the anonymous Theaetetus-commentator. Quite apart from any link with the subsequent history of Plato’s school, the book becomes especially interesting to Platonists because of the line taken by Zilioli, finding traces of a developed Cyrenaic philosophy in such Platonic works as Theaetetus and Philebus.
There is an excellent first chapter dealing with the notion that the Cyrenaics were a ‘school’, and with the debate over the real architect of that school or movement: whether is was Aristippus the friend of Socrates or Aristippus the Younger. Zilioli will ultimately argue with conviction that it was the former (40-44). The scholarship on the school is also introduced.
The second chapter then moves to Diogenes Laertius as a source for Aristippus the Elder, the alleged founder, and a colourful figure regardless. This finally impressed upon me that in 356BC Aeschines thought better than to set up his own Socratic school in Athens because of the high regard there for Plato and Aristippus. However, Zilioli notes that most of the listed pupils of Aristippus were much younger and from Cyrene, suggesting that later teaching in Cyrene had most impact. In the course of all this historical discussion one has to forgive a few cases of Italian influence on the spelling of names: e.g. Sphetto (19), Aristocle (26), Teopompus (32). I was reluctant to accept the argument (p. 20) that Aristippus had the opportunity to hear Protagoras, given that he seems to have been alive in 336BC some 85 years after the sophist had perished, and the fact that Theodorus of Cyrene had been a close friend of Protagoras (Tht. 161b, 162a, 164e, 168e) hardly makes it necessary that he should have visited Cyrene. Nor does the description of Aristippus as ‘sophist’ point to Protagoras’ direct influence. Rather, it is scarcely credible that he could have failed to be intensely interested in the legacy of Protagoras, whether or not he ever met the man, and the term ‘sophist’ tended to be used rather uncritically to describe rival intellectuals rather than those of a given creed. The idea that Aristippus wrote nothing is rightly dismissed, and the treatment of Aristippus’ alleged works (34-36), if necessarily speculative, is usually reasonable. I was not persuaded that Aristippus invented the protreptikos logos, though, given that not only the Clitophon but also the Euthydemus seems to treat protreptic activities as quite normal, as if the notion had an established history.
The third chapter discusses alleged Aristippan passages in the Theaetetus, not merely the secret doctrine passage credited to kompsoteroi of 156a3 which certainly fits the Cyrenaics well and where the school is thought relevant by anon. in Tht. (LXV.19-35), but also the sensation-theory as finally refuted at 184b-6e, and especially the ‘wooden horse’ idea of 184d. If the Cyrenaics do lurk behind the Theaetetus as suggested then it may be no accident that one of the interlocutors is from Cyrene and that the fifth word of the dialogue proper (143d1) is ‘Cyrene’.
We now move to the ‘philosophy’ section of the book. Partly on the basis of the Theaetetus, Zilioli is able to make the idea that all things out there are indeterminate as central to the Cyrenaic world-view, so that the external world would not be non-existent for this school as some have maintained. I thought that at 82 the thesis might have been strengthened by refusing to take Sextus’ hyparktôn at M6.53 as ‘of things that exist’ (= ontôn) but instead translating more robustly: ‘of things that are present [to one]’. The indeterminacy thesis serves ultimately to locate the Cyrenaics within a tradition extending from the late Presocratics and Sophists down to Pyrrho.
Chapters on ‘Persons, objects and knowledge’, ‘Language and meaning’, and ‘Pleasure and happiness’ follow, all worth reading. If I have a criticism it is perhaps that there is rather too little consideration of the likely sources of those authors who preserve key fragments, and the agendas that such sources may have had. In particular, the most important fragment in Sextus, M190-200, designed to link the Cyrenaics closely with Academic philosophy from Plato to Carneades, and possibly deriving from Antiochus of Ascalon’s Canonica (mentioned in 7.201) cannot be regarded as entirely impartial. How this affects the presentation of their criteria (both of truth and of action, either involving the pathê) is unclear, but I suggest that it does encourage exaggeration in the depiction of the Cyrenaics as a Socratic school.
In the course of the ethical chapter Zilioli again challenges the Platonist by finding the Cyrenaics behind the theory of the kompsoi at Philebus 53c-55a (164-70). My immediate reaction is that the Cyrenaics may indeed have been behind the notion that pleasure is a motion (kinêsis, Arist. EN X.3.4), but are unlikely to have chosen the word genesis which appears to be the technical term employed in this argument by both Plato and Aristotle (EN VII.11, X.3.5; cf. MM II.7), so that they are probably not identical with the kompsoi. Comparison between 53c6-7 and 54d4-7 seems to me to clearly make these kompsoi anti-hedonists, but I acknowledge that their anti-hedonism may be utilizing what was initially a Cyrenaic theory about the nature of pleasure. One should not make too much of the possible connection between kompsoi in the Philebus and kompsoteroi in the Theaetetus, unless one is prepared to make a full study of this adjective, which is used by Plato some thirty times.
The book concludes with a chapter on later Cyrenaic sects, an appendix of testimonies in translation, bibliography and a simple index. It serves a useful purpose, and this is a book I am glad to possess.