How to measure a good life?

It is said that one day in Athens, Plato encountered Diogenes washing lettuces in the market, and said to his fellow philosopher that if he would have only taught the heirs of kings, he would not need to be washing lettuces. In response, Diogenes replied that if Plato had only decided to wash lettuces, he would not need to be coddling heirs.

Both men believed that they were in possession of a good life, free from care and worry, but obviously living very different lives. Certain popular philosophers of modernity would have us believe that there is only one “objectively” correct man (and many would want us to believe that it is Plato). The fact of the matter is, though, that “happiness” is, and always has been, a purely hypothetical concept. While pleasure can be observed through the responses to stimuli of neural preceptors in the brain (and even this, is not a universal truth in defining what is pleasurable stimuli), “happiness” is forever elusive.

Diogenes defined his Happiness as a total freedom from social convention, to the extreme of living as a beggar who slept in a discarded bathtub (ostensibly not surrounded by four walls covered in pictures of shapely tits1 — but who knows what kind of graffiti he may have been surrounded by?)

Plato defined his Happiness from an ivory tower, living, by any definition, not merely a comfortable, but conventionally luxurious life. Though ostensibly not taking payment in money, he clearly took to the habit of, as Aristippus of Cyrene might consider, being in the possession of his pupils/employers.

Of course, as a Hedonist, I prefer to take my tip from Aristippus: I possess, I am not possessed. While my life may, on the surface, seem more in line with portrayals of Socrates’ later years (as portrayed by his biographers of Plato and Xenophon) — subsisting in no small part on disability benefits and gift monies, revelling in a good party but, in no practical way, hosting, etc… — the principle reigns that I’m not possessed by money as much as I possess the pleasures that money can, and cannot, buy.

Money is only of value when it can serve individual goals of pleasure and happiness, to possess more than one needs at any one time is to simply become possessed by it. A good life is not something that can be bought into, it’s something one either possesses or does not, and like any possession, it can be acquired or lost.


1: Likely a very obscure reference, especially to any readers who fancy themselves above watching pornography. If you want to get the ref, though, seek out a bizarre little opus of 1990s titty-flicks called Hootermania. Trust me, it’s *much* weirder than the title suggests, and is especially hilarious to Arthurian nerds.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[PBP2013] Hedonism

The Lion of Cyrene in Libya

The Lion of Cyrene in Libya

The Hedonist loves fine things, from food to clothes, to entertainment to perfumes. Because of one’s love for these things, one has little regard for cost, in either direction. The lover of money, rather than pleasures, will brag of how much or how little something cost them, boasting either their assumed wealth or assumed savvy. Fine food and entertainment speaks for itself.

Hedonism is clearly at odds with Capitalism. Capitalism is an institutionalised love of money, placing a person’s inherent value by how much money one has. The Hedonist, educated in life’s pleasures, measures one’s worth by one’s diversity of pleasures.

The Hedonist is able to find pleasure in a diversity of surroundings, from the grandest of palaces to the lowliest of hovels. An appreciation of fine things within one’s means includes any means by which one is living, which is always subject to change. Always.

Hedonist reality is subject to knowledge. Knowledge is limited to personal experience. Personal experience is never wrong, but what we know of the external influences on those experiences can be. Experiences are also practically impossible to fully share with others (at last with current technology) because one is limited in one’s ability to share it with language —and even that which appears “white” to oneself may appear “cream” or “platinum” to one’s neighbour. Even an experience shared by two people is not going to be completely the same; not even two women scissoring are going to have the same orgasm, even if they each experience their orgasms together.

In spite of this empiricism and scepticism, Hedonists are not atheist, unless they’re Theodorans, and even that was debated amongst the ancients outside that sect of the Cyrenaic school. If one experiences the theoi, then one does –true, one cannot be certain of what brought that experience (after all, medical and psychological studies, at best, can only really show so much, and even then, they only really can explain what happens to the body when these experiences happen, not necessarily what makes these experiences happen, or why they happen), but it is what it is, and one should take pleasures in celebrating that experience. If one has not experienced the gods, then one has not; but if pleasures are to be derived from worship of Them, regardless of experiences, then indulge, for pleasure is its own justification. Indeed, the argument that present pleasure can be derived from Their worship, even for one who has yet to experience Them, can be a great one.

Cyrenaic Hedomism recognises Pleasure (the Hedones) as the ultimate good, and Pain (the Aglae) as the ultimate evil; pain is not the denial of pleasure, denial is merely an inert state. Aristippus likened pains to a violent storm over the sea, and pleasures to a gentle breeze, whereas lacking both, there is a calm. There is no “black-grey-white”, there are pleasing actions, painful actions, and absence. If pain were one colour on the wheel, and pleasure the colour opposite that, absence of either would be absence of any colour. All pleasures are equal, all pain is equal; your classical morality is “endorsed” by the Cyrenaic only as far as its ability to endorse pleasure and discourage pain, if it endorses more denial than pleasure, it is of no use.

While bodily pleasures are certainly equal to mental and spiritual pleasures in Cyrenaic thought, in spite of the insistent that Cyrenaics value bodily pleasures more highly, there is not a shred of evidence in the collective of surviving Cyrenaic teachings; indeed, the elder Aristippus himself seems to have sought mental delights just as easily, if not more-so, and it’s fair to conclude that “bodily pleasures” only have value from the mental pleasures that they can give. Without the ability to take in delights as a thinking person, the odours of fine perfumes, the feel of velvets and satins, the sound of a Brian Eno suite, the appearance of a stunning Erté litho, and the tastes of fine chocolates are rendered inert.

Denial is Epicuran delight. Despite this, some ancient believed that Epicusus practically plagiarised portions of Theodoros, student of the younger Aristippus, son of Arete, daughter of Aristippus of Cyrene. Through this allegation, there is a link between Marxism and Cyrenaic Hedonism (Karl Marx being influenced directly by Epicurus) and between Existentialism and Hedonism (Jean-Paul Sartre and Somine de Beauvoir being directly influenced by Marxist philosophy).

The dichotomy of Pleasure and Pain in Hedonism, mythologically, strike a similar chord with Empedoclean pluralism. To Empedocles, the universe was driven by the forces of Love (phila) and Strife (neikos), or rather, attraction and repulsion —respectively domains of Eros and Eris, and as per Apeulius, the former being the father of the Hedones, Pleasures, and the latter per Hesiod as the mother of Algea, the Pains.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[PBP2013] A: Aristotle on Aristippus of Cyrene

“Or again as Aristippus said in reply to Plato when he spoke somewhat too dogmatically, as Aristippus thought: ‘Well, anyhow, our friend’, meaning Socrates, ‘never spoke like that’.”

—Aristotle, Rhetoric

When speaking of things as they happened, there is always a minimum of three versions: Your side, Their side, and What Really Happened. The reason so many so-called “Socratic” schools existed is because he never wrote anything down; we only have the words of his disciples, who often differed on at least some matters, to tell us what he taught. The fact that Plato, who in later works was clearly inserting his own philosophies into the mouth of a Socrates that was no longer based on his departed teacher, but a Socrates of his own invention, missed several points in clear on a number of counts: Where Plato largely ignores Socrates’ ascetic life, the Cynics —especially Diogenes of Sinope— used it to set themselves apart from the other Socratic schools. Where Plato ignores the respect for the common citizen that Socrates clearly maintained, Epicurus —a later Hedonist, though largely a student of the pre-Socratic Democritus, not Socrates’ own student, Aristippus—made use of it, and even became a primary influence on Marxism. Where Plato and Xenophon gave no clear practical application for the respect that Socrates clearly had for women —indeed, all of Socrates’ teachers were women— the Cynics and Hedonists, in practise, gave women equal ground, even if that legacy is largely ignored in academia.

There can only be so many divergent thoughts on what a man taught before one really should sit down and realise that everybody, including the man’s students are missing something; and honestly, the more I learn of Socrates, whose life is primarily written about by Plato, the more I realise how much Plato missed, and how much only the Hedonists and Cynics really understood of that wisdom.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.