Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kurt Lampe's "The Birth of Hedonism"

Kurt Lampe is a lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life, and reported the following:
This book is about the Cyrenaics, an ultra-hedonistic school of ancient Greek philosophy that flourished in present-day Libya about 2400-2250 years ago. In it I’ve set myself two overlapping tasks. First, since the evidence is really difficult, I’m trying to establish some basic facts. Second, I’m trying to communicate to a non-specialist audience what it was really like to live and breathe this philosophy.

Page 99 is only typical of the first task, and only partly so. It comes in the middle of a chapter in which I’m responding to existing scholarly interpretations. These interpretations make the Cyrenaics out to hold obviously weak positions. For example, the Cyrenaics seem to care only about whatever they’re feeling at the present moment (like the pleasure of sex), excluding any interest in forward planning. My investigation in the previous chapter shows this just isn’t true. (I think Cyrenaic philosophy has serious flaws, but this isn’t one of them!)

But in most ways this chapter, which is only nine pages long, is far from typical. Generally I relegate controversies to the footnotes and appendices. Instead I focus on questions like the following: How can philosophers who are so devoted to enjoyment also be committed to “serious” studies, the development of theory, and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue? If we pull together all the pieces of evidence, can we form a picture of Cyrenaicism as a complex, rational, purposeful way of life? Beginning with classical philosophy’s most extreme commitment to bodily pleasure, Cyrenaics soon drifted into its only clear example of pessimism and one of few instances of atheism. What is the meaning of this trajectory from radical hedonism into pessimism and atheism?

Meaningful answers to these questions require not only analysis of concepts and arguments but also appreciation of cultural history. More recent literature and philosophy can also help us to imagine how these theories and practices fit together. In this book I’ve drawn on all of these resources in an effort to understand and evaluate these little-known lovers of luxury.
Learn more about The Birth of Hedonism at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue