Arete of Cyrene - c 400/ 300 BCE. Libya, North Africa

Arete of Cyrene came from a city in North Africa in what is now the nation of Libya. Greek legend has it that the city was named after Cyrene, daughter of Hypsesus who appears in a Greek myth.

According to the myth Apollo came upon Cyrene wrestling a lion. He was smitten and took her off to Mt. Pelion. Later he founded a city which he named after her and installed her as queen.

But historically the city was actually founded around 630 BCE by Greek colonists from Thera. The city eventually became an important center and was known for its academic pursuits. They had a well known medical school, the geographer Erastosthenes lived there and of course there was the Cyrenaic school of philosophy founded by Aristippus, the father of Arete of Cyrene and continued by her and then her son.

Parents of Arete of Cyrene.

We know little about her mother but a great deal is known about Aristtipus, the father of Arete of Cyrene. Aristippus left Chyrene for Athens reportedly because he had head of Socrates and his dialogues. He became a close follower of socrates, so much so that in Plato's Phaedo there is surprise that he was not with Socrates on the day of his death. (It appears that Artistippus was visiting visiting Cleombrotus, another Socratic disciple on the Island of Aegina.)

in his work, Diogenes Laertius makes careful note that there are several personages with the name Aristippus including a grandson, who was the son of Arete of Cyrene.

Diogenes includes a long section about Aristippus (father of Arete of Cyrene) in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers and the work shows him as having an independent mind with quick responses to those who would call him to task. Diogenes lists a series of work composed by Aristtippus, father of Arete of Cyrene:

".... here are three books extant, written by the Cyrenaic philosopher, which are, a history of Africa, and which were sent by him to Dionysius; and there is another book containing twenty-five dialogues, some written in the Attic, and some in the Doric dialect. And these are the titles of the Dialogues-- Artabazus; to the Shipwrecked Sailors; to the Exiles; to a Beggar; to Lais; to Porus; to Lais about her Looking-glass; Mercury; the Dream; to the President of the Feast; Philomelus; to his Domestics; to those who reproached him for possessing old wine and mistresses; to those who reproached him for spending much money on his eating; a Letter to Arete his daughter; a letter to a man who was training himself for the Olympic games; a book of Questions; another book of Questions; a Dissertation addressed to Dionysius; an Essay on a Statue; an Essay on the daughter of Dionysius; a book addressed to one who thought himself neglected; another to one who attempted to give him advice. Some say, also, that he wrote six books of dissertations; but others, the chief of whom is Sosicrates of Rhodes, affirm that he never wrote a single thing. According to the assertions of Sotion in his second book; and of Panoetius, on the contrary, he composed the following books,- one concerning Education; one concerning Virtue; one called An Exhortation; Artabazus; the Shipwrecked Men; the Exiles; six books of Dissertations; three books of Apophthegms; an essay addressed to Lais; one to Porus; one to Socrates; one on Fortune. ..."

Since Arete of Cyrene was much influenced by her father's pursuit of philosophy, it might be useful to read the entire piece about Aristippus as found in Diogenes. To do so, scroll down to section VI of

Life of Aristippus

Arete of Cyrene, her life.

Diogenes Laertius notes that Arete of Cyrene followed her father to Athens and studied philosophy. It is widely accepted that after her father's death, she headed the Cyreneiac school which he had founded.

Arete of Cyrene had a son, who she named after her father, Aristippus. She raised him herself and in contrast to the custom of the times, did not hire tutors for him. She taught him herself so he was called, "mĂȘtrodidantos" [Mother-Taught]. This son also bbecame a philosopher and it appears that he was the person who codified much of the philosophy of the Cyreniac School.

Diogenese states:

"Now the pupils of Aristippus were his own daughter Arete, and Aethiops of Ptolemais, and Antipater of Cyrene. Arete had for her pupil the Aristippus who was surnamed mĂȘtrodidantos, whose disciple was Theodorus the atheist, but who was afterwards called theos. Antipater had for a pupil Epitimedes of Cyrene who was the master of Pyraebates, who was the master of Hegesias, who was surnamed peisithanatos (persuading to die), and of Anniceris who ransomed Plato."

Diogenes then goes on to explain the beliefs of the Cyrenaics. Since it is clear that Arete of Cyrene was a major figure in this school of thought, it is well worth reading Diogenese's description of the basic tenets of the school. See: Scroll down to part VII of Life of Aristippus

Anne Elizabeth Cadigand notes in her "Women Scientists of Antiquity" that: "Historical records indicate that she taught science and philosophy for thirty-three years, and wrote over forty books. "She was so highly esteemed that they had inscribed on her tomb an epitaph which declared that she was the splendor of Greece and possessed the beauty of Helen, the virtue of Thirma, the soul of Socrates, and the tongue of Homer."

Arete of Cyrene and the Father's of the Christian Church

Arete of Cyrene is found in the work of Clement of Alexandria, a 2nd century Christian "Father of the Church". He mentions Arete of Cyrene as one of a long line of women who cultivated their souls.

Clement of Alexandria argued that women as well as men can attain perfection. Since few talk about this early non-sexist Church Father and his arguments about the value of women and their souls, I quote a some sections. This piece comes from Book II Chapter XIX of Stromata by Clement of Alexandria (Alexandria was another North African city of learning and the home of the Great Library of Alexandria.)

Clement begins his argument by establishing a long history of women known for their virtue


In this perfection it is possible for man and woman equally to share. It is not only Moses, then, that heard from God, "I have spoken to thee once, and twice, saying, I have seen this people, and lo, it is stiff-necked. Suffer me to exterminate them, and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make thee into a great and wonderful nation much greater than this;" who answers not regarding himself, but the common salvation: "By no means, O Lord; forgive this people their sin, or blot me out of the book of the living."[3] How great was his perfection, in wishing to die together with the people, rather than be saved alone !

But Judith too, who became perfect among women, in the siege of the city, at the entreaty of the elders went forth into the strangers' camp, despising all danger for her country's sake, giving herself into the enemy's hand in faith in God; and straightway she obtained the reward of her faith,--though a woman, prevailing over the enemy of her faith, and gaining possession of the head of Holofernes. And again, Esther perfect by faith, who rescued Israel from the power of the king and the satrap's cruelty: a woman alone, afflicted with fastings,[4] held back ten thousand armed[5] hands, annulling by her faith the tyrant's decree; him indeed she appeased, Haman she restrained, and Israel she preserved scathless by her perfect prayer to God. I pass over in silence Susanna and the sister of Moses, since the latter was the prophet's associate in commanding the host, being superior to all the women among the Hebrews who were in repute for their wisdom; and the former in her surpassing modesty, going even to death condemned by licentious admirers, remained the unwavering martyr of chastity.

Dion, too, the philosopher, tells that a certain woman Lysidica, through excess of modesty, bathed in her clothes; and that Philotera, when she was to enter the bath, gradually drew back her tunic as the water covered the naked parts; and then rising by degrees, put it on. And did not Lesena of Attica manfully bear the torture ? She being privy to the conspiracy of Harmodius and Aristogeiton against Hipparchus, uttered not a word, though severely tortured. And they say that the Argolic women, under the guidance of Telesilla the poetess, turned to flight the doughty Spartans by merely showing themselves; and that she produced in them fearlessness of death. Similarly speaks he who composed the Danais respecting the daughters of Danaus:--

"And then the daughters of Danaus swiftly armed themselves,

Before the fair-flowing river, majestic Nile[4],"

. . . (sections omitted here)...

Clement then moves to the Greeks and the philosophers :

"And the rest of the poets sing of Atalanta's swiftness in the chase, of Anticlea's love for children, of Alcestis's love for her husband, of the courage of Makaeria and of the Hyacinthides. What shall I say ? Did not Theano the Pythagorean make such progress in philosophy, that to him who looked intently at her, and said, "Your arm is beautiful," she answered "Yes, but it is not public." Characterized by the same propriety, there is also reported the following reply.[6] When asked when a woman after being with her husband attends the Thesmophoria, said, "From her own husband at once, from a stranger never." Themisto too, of Lampsacus, the daughter of Zoilus, the wife of Leontes of Lampsacus, studied the Epicurean philosophy, as Myia the daughter of Theano the Pythagorean, and Arignote, who wrote the history of Dionysius.

And the daughters of Diodorus, who was called Kronus, all became dialecticians, as Philo the dialectician says in the Mrenexenus, whose names are mentioned as follows--Menexene, Argia, Theognis, Artemesia, Pantaclea. I also recollect a female Cynic,--she was called Hipparchia, a Maronite, the wife of Crates,--in whose case the so-called dog-wedding was celebrated in the Pcecile. Arete of Cyrene, too, the daughter of Aristippus, educated her son Aristippus, who was surnamed Mother-taught. (Italics mine) Lastheneia of Arcis, and Axiothea of Phlius, studied philosophy with Plato. Besides, Aspasia of Miletus, of whom the writers of comedy write much, was trained by Socrates in philosophy, by Pericles in rhetoric. I omit, on account of the length of the discourse, the rest; enumerating neither the poetesses Corinna, Telesilla, Myia, and Sappho; nor the painters, as Irene the daughter of Cratinus, and Anaxandra the daughter of Nealces, according to the account of Didymus in the Symposiaci. The daughter of Cleobulus, the sage and monarch of the Lindii, was not ashamed to wash the feet of her father's guests. Also the wife of Abraham, the blessed Sarah, in her own person prepared the cakes baked in the ashes for the angels; and princely maidens among the Hebrews fed sheep. Whence also the Nausicaa of Homer went to the washing-tubs.

The wise woman, then, win first choose to persuade her husband to be her associate in what is conducive to happiness. And should that be found impracticable, let her by herself earnestly aim at virtue, gaining her husband's consent in everything, so as never to do anything against his will, with exception of what is reckoned as contributing to virtue and salvation. But if one keeps from such a mode of life either wife or maid-servant, whose heart is set on it; what such a person in that case plainly does is nothing else than determine to drive her away from righteousness and sobriety, and to choose to make his own house wicked and licentious.

It is not then possible that man or woman can be conversant with anything whatever, without the advantage of education, and application, and training; and virtue, we have said, depends not on others, but on ourselves above all. Other things one can repress, by waging war against them; but with what depends on one's self, this is entirely out of the question, even with the most strenuous persistence. For the gift is one conferred by God, and not in the power of any other. Whence licentiousness should be regarded as the evil of no other one than of him who is guilty of licentiousness; and temperance, on the other hand, as the good of him who is able to practise it.. Clement of Alexandria See: Stromata . Scroll down to Chapter XIX.

For those interested in the Cyrenic School of Philosophy and its main theses, which Arete of Cyrene son is believed to have codified, there is an article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the topic.

What is amazing is that this encyclopedia does NOT mention Arete of Cyrene despite her pivotal role in leading the school after the death of Aristippus or her education of Arete of Cyrene educating her son in Cyrenic philosophy or her leadership of the school until the rise of her son's generation.


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