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cropped CAT 13 George Cooke. Aristippus.  BA 86.png

CAT 13. Engraved by George Cooke. Aristippus. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Aristippus (4th century B.C.), Greek philosopher, founder of the Hedonistic school. From entry in HG 6: “Aristippus was born at Cyrene, in Africa. He was a disciple of Socrates, but differed much from the doctrine of that illustrious master. The one acknowledged no happiness but in virtue, the other found no enjoyment but in voluptuousness. . . . Aristippus heard of the captivity of Socrates with sentiments of grief; but as he was then at Egura, and felt that he could not deliver this great man from the rage of tyrants, he wished to avoid the melancholy but august spectacle of his last moments. He only sought for what was agreeable in friendship, and avoided the vexations and affections of it. . . . He was the first philosopher who took payment for his lessons. . . . He only considered an intercourse with women so far as it related to voluptuousness, and kept his heart free amid the intoxication of his senses. ‘I possess Laïs,’ he said, ‘but Laïs does not possess me.’ . . . The philosopher, who flourished four hundred years before Christ, died in returning from the court of Syracuse to Cyrene. His works have not reached us. It does not appear that the ancients held them in much estimation.” Horace, however, did confess the occasional moment in which “I enter, as it were by stealth, the school of Aristippus” (n.p.).

The Cypriote in Clarel arrives singing a song whose “tune” he identifies as the “hymn of Aristippus.” This “care-killing” song interrupts the mourning for Nehemiah, who has died on the shores of the Dead Sea. Its lyrics are a poem in three stanzas, of which this is the first:

    "Noble gods at the board
    Where lord unto lord
Light pushes the care-killing wine:
    Urbane their pleasure,
    Superb in their leisure—
        Lax ease—
Lax ease after labor divine!" (NN C 3.4.1-7)

Melville liked these lyrics well enough that in 1888 he copied out all three stanzas and sent them to Edmund Clarence Stedman, who had asked for one of his “’best known’ shorter poems” for publication in an anthology (NN CO 506-07). Melville called it the “Ditty of Aristippus.” Laïs, consort of Aristippus, makes a cameo appearance in Melville’s poem “The Parthenon,” where the divine temple is itself compared to “Lais, fairest of her kind, / In subtlety your form’s defined” (NN PP 302).