Category: Persons

Antisthenes

Philosopher, one of the so-called minor Socratics. Lived in Athens during the last quarter of the 5th century and the first half of the 4th century BC. He was involved in the Sophistic movement and later joined the Socratic circle. He adopted the Socratic view of virtue combined with an ascetic life-style. He was viewed as an opponent of hedonism, an advocate of asceticism and a forerunner of the philosophical school of Cynicism. The paradox of the impossibility of contradiction has also been historically attributed to him.

Life and Work

Antisthenes (c.446-c.366 BC) was an Athenian citizen (albeit scorned in the later tradition because of his mother’s alleged Thracian origin). His association with the Sophists is indisputable, although not so his alleged tutelage under the orator Gorgias. About 25 years younger than Socrates (469-399 BC), Antisthenes was one of Socrates’ disciples gathered at his execution (Plato, Phaedo 59b). Among the disciples, he was the one who grew personally and philosophically closest to Socrates, at least according to Xenophon's Symposium and Memorabilia. But it is not always easy to determine which aspects of his philosophy should be traced back to Socrates.

In the view of Diogenes Laertius (early 3rd century AD), Antisthenes was the teacher of the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic (‘dog-like’, from the Greek word for dog). But there is no evidence of a direct relation, and is also unlikely that dog was a nickname for Antisthenes before it came to designate Diogenes of Sinope (c.403-c323 BC). The reports regarding an alleged Antisthenean school at the gymnasium of Cynosarges are also dubious - although Antisthenes may have had students, and indeed ones paying tuition. Subsequent Cynics were certainly inspired by his actual ascetic commitment to the Socratic ideal and his indifference to worldly goods. But the portrayal of Antisthenes as founder and head of the school (scholarchēs) of Cynical philosophy has not been confirmed.

Be that as it may, Antisthenes’ figure was integrated, from antiquity onwards, within a scheme of philosophical lineage that enabled Stoicism to lay a claim to Socratic origins, on the basis of an alleged uninterrupted succession of teacher-pupil relations (progressing from Antisthenes’s austerity to Diogenes’s apathy and, finally, by way of Crates’s continence, to Zeno’s endurance). Moreover, the ethical doctrines of Antisthenes are often interpreted as part of a clash between two opposing philosophical conceptions of the Good, in which Antisthenes is perceived as a representative of antihedonism and Aristippus as a representative of hedonism.

Only a few fragments have survived from the works of Antisthenes. The reconstruction of his thought is based primarily on ancient reports, anecdotes and quotations. More than sixty titles of works by him are listed in a catalog compiled by Diogenes Laertius, thus painting a picture of a prolific writer who engaged with a broad spectrum of subjects. A pair of two short declamations, titled Ajax and Ulysses, dealing with the dispute over the armor of the slain Achilles, are probably genuine. In addition to works on Homeric interpretation and rhetorical exercises he also composed, similarly to other students of Socrates, various Sôkratikoi logoi, which, however, have not survived. He also compiled works on mythological and historical figures (Heracles and Cyrus, respectively) as exemplars of behavior.

Through his work, Antisthenes participated in the moral debates of his time, as well as in the discussion regarding the relation of language to reality, a controversy that had been inaugurated by the Sophists and went on in the classical philosophy of the 4th century BC.

The philosophy of Antisthenes

Virtue and Pleasure

Antisthenes’ commitment to the Socratic ideal becomes especially apparent in his thinking about virtue. He holds that virtue suffices to bring about happiness (eudaimonia); it is based on knowledge and can be taught. Virtue is the ultimate value, and wisdom its surest fortification (SSR V A 134). The wise person is self-sufficient, since one’s wealth, or lack thereof, lies not in their property but in their soul (SSR V A 82). From a moral standpoint, material goods are indifferent, and the law of virtue outweighs the laws established by the polis. Antisthenes doesn’t endorse Socratic rationalism blindly; rather, he modifies it, drawing inspiration from the ascetic and uncompromising character of Socrates. He argues that virtue is sufficient for happiness (eudaimonia) being in need of nothing except the strength of Socrates (SSR V A 134). He explicitly recognizes that virtue turns on concrete actions. Knowledge in and of itself does not guarantee that the person will remain steadfast in the practical pursuit of virtue and not succumb to the undermining power of the passions. Virtue depends upon a formation of the will that frees humans from the desire for unnecessary pursuits and harmful pleasures.

An indifference toward worldly goods and pleasures is essential to virtue. Humans have better prospects for attaining happiness (eudaimonia) when exercised in self-control and fortitude, frugality and austerity. The virtuous person seeks simplicity, renounces wealth and whatever is inessential, disregards social conventions and is indifferent to politics. The anticomformist asceticism of the later Cynics has its source in this conception of self-control.

The proverbial phrase «Ι would rather go mad than experience pleasure» (SSR V A 122) is often attributed to Antisthenes and interpreted as asserting the incompatibity between virtue and pleasure. Thus, Antisthenes appears in later tradition as opposed to unrestrained hedonism (as endorsed by Aristippus) and as an advocate of militant antihedonism. «If I could get hold of Aphrodite, I would shoot her with a bow and arrow» (SSR V A 123).

But is Antisthenes really advocating a radical devaluation of pleasure? He certainly adopts a polemic stance against material pleasures, and holds labour and exertion in high regard: «we should prefer the pleasures after, not before exertions» (SSR V A 126). Yet, his critical attitude towards pleasure does not constitute an absolute rejection of pleasure but is variable, depending on the character of the pleasure. He mainly rejects «easy» and too-intense pleasures, that tend to confuse the mind and distract humans from the pursuit of virtue. On the other hand, simple and measured pleasures that stem from strenuous effort are deemed acceptable. «Pleasure is good if it does not require subsequent regret» (SSR V A 127).

Language, Logic, Metaphysics

Antisthenes not only endorsed the Sophist thesis that contradiction is impossible, but moreover claimed that it is impossible to define the essence of something. Due to the paucity of ancient sources, we can only speculate in regard to Antisthenes’ views on the nature of language and their implications for logic and ontology. But it is highly unlikely that he shared the philosophical perspective of Plato and Aristotle regarding definitions and universals. He undoubtedly entertained some kind of theory about the natural link between names and objects. In fact, Epictetus attributes to Antisthenes the saying «the beginning of education is the examination of names» (SSR V A 160). According to Diogenes Laertius as well, it was Antisthenes who first formulated a definition of the greek term logos: «Logos is what revealsthe what is or was» (SSR V A 151).

Antisthenes accepts the impossibility of contradiction but does not invoke the protagorean argument of the relativity of truth. He argues that for each thing nothing could be said except by its own (oikeios) logos (SSR V A 152). Due to the lack of sources his views remain obscure, but it is likely that develop on opposition with platonic views and reflect the competition for the Socratic heritage.

Author: Lampros Spiliopoulos
  • McKirahan, R., Tsouna, V. "Socratic Origins of the Cynics and Cyrenaics." Vander Waerdt, P.A. ed. The Socratic Movement. 1994.
  • Goulet-Cazé, M-I, Branham, B. eds. The Cynics. The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and its Legacy. Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1996.
  • Giannantoni, G. ed. Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae 4 vols. Nάπολη, 1990.
  • Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 3. Cambridge, 1969.
  • Decleva Caizi, F. ed. Antisthenis Framenta. Mailand and Varese, 1966.
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