Antisthenes of Athens (c. 445-365 BCE) was a Greek philosopher who founded the Cynic School. He was a follower of Socrates and appears in Plato’s Phaedo as one of those present at Socrates’ death. He is one of the primary interlocutors in Xenophon’s works Memorabilia and Symposium. Antisthenes, like Crito, was among the older students of Socrates’ and Charles Kahn writes that he was regarded as Socrates’ most important follower (Kahn, 4-5). He believed that virtue could be taught and that only the virtuous were truly noble. It should be noted, however, that `Virtue’ here is a translation from the Greek word `arete’ which meant something closer to `personal excellence’ than the English word `virtue’. In Plato’s Meno it was argued that arete could not be taught (else noble fathers would have produced noble sons and such was not, empirically, the case) but Antisthenes argued otherwise in that he had learned arete from Socrates and, therefore, arete could be taught.
Socrates' students all founded philosophical schools of one kind or another and all of them were so diverse that it is a testimony to the expansive quality of Socrates' philosophy that so many men could interpret his teachings in such different ways. The hedonistic philosopher Aristippus, for example, claimed to be following Socrates' example in living a life in pursuit of pleasure while Plato claimed he was carrying on Socrates' vision through an ascetic discipline of the mind. Antisthenes, also, asserted that his philosophy was grounded in Socrates' original vision. It seems almost impossible, at first, that Aristippus, Plato, and Antisthenes could have had the same teacher, so different are their philosophies at first glance. Underlying all three, however, is that very same virtue which Socrates held so dear: the importance of being free to be true to oneself and one’s own convictions in life. The Cynic School Antisthenes founded stressed the importance of prevailing over adversity by acceptance of it, that arete is the same for women as it is for men, and that this personal excellence is displayed in deed more so than in word. These same values, expressed differently, were taught by both Plato and Aristippus.
Regarding his early life, the biographer Diogenes Laertius (3rd century CE) writes:
Antisthenes was an Athenian, the son of Antisthenes. And he was said not to be a legitimate Athenian; in reference to which he said to someone who was reproaching him with the circumstance, "The mother of the Gods too is a Phrygian;" for he was thought to have had a Thracian mother. On which account, as he had borne himself bravely in the battle of Tanagra, he gave occasion to Socrates to say that the son of two Athenians could not have been so brave. And he himself, when disparaging the Athenians who gave themselves great airs as having been born out of the earth itself, said that they were not more noble as far as that went than snails and locusts.
Originally he was a pupil of Gorgias the rhetorician; owing to which circumstance he employs the rhetorical style of language in his Dialogues, especially in his Truth and in his Exhortations. And Hermippus says, that he had originally intended in his address at the assembly, on account of the Isthmian games, to attack and also to praise the Athenians, and Thebans, and Lacedaemonians; but that he afterwards abandoned the design, when he saw that there were a great many spectators come from those cities. Afterwards, he attached himself to Socrates, and made such progress in philosophy while with him, that he advised all his own pupils to become his fellow pupils in the school of Socrates. And as he lived in the Piraeus, he went up forty furlongs to the city every day, in order to hear Socrates, from whom he learnt the art of enduring, and of being indifferent to external circumstances, and so became the original founder of the Cynic school (I, II).
The focus of Antisthenes’ work was ethics (although he also wrote on physics, logic, and literature) and he seems to have devoted himself extensively to that subject. He also wrote a literary criticism on the Odyssey, an essay on dying, and works dealing with every subject from music to `the uses of wine’. Diogenes Laertius claims there “are ten volumes of his writings extant” though, today, only his Ajax and his Odysseus remain. He is considered the first Cynic philosopher (`cynic’ from the Greek for `dog’, Kynos, or Kynikos which means dog-like) and, by example, taught Diogenes of Sinope and others, like Crates, how to live truly and shamelessly. Regarding the origin of the name `cynic’ Diogenes Laertius writes, “He used to lecture in the Gymnasium, called Cynosarges [meaning place of the white dog] not far from the gates; and some people say that it is from that place that the sect got the name of Cynics. And he himself was called Haplocyon (downright dog).” The word `cynic' did not have the same meaning at the time as it does in the modern day and did not mean `skeptical' or refer to someone who believes human beings are only motivated by self-interest and personal desires, but meant `dog-like' in that the Cynics were thought to live like dogs. Antisthenes and his followers had few possessions beyond their cloaks and bags, lived where they could find shelter, and did not seem to engage in any kind of work. The evolution of the word `cynic' to its present meaning may come from the Cynics' lack of regard for accepted theories on ethics, morality, the gods, and the proper way to live one's life.
Whether Antisthenes was, in fact, the founder of the Cynic school or whether that honor belongs to Diogenes of Sinope has long been disputed. It is argued that Antisthenes could not have taught both Diogenes of Sinope and Crates of Thebes and impossible that Crates went on to teach Zeno of Citium as he lived long after the deaths of these men. This argument further claims that the disputed chronology was created by the Stoics later in order to link Zeno of Citium's teachings directly back to Socrates. The other side argues that Antisthenes did, in fact, have Diogenes of Sinope and Crates of Thebes as pupils and Crates certainly could have taught and influenced Zeno of Citium. This claim is further disputed by scholars who claim that Diogenes came to Athens after Antisthenes had died and point out that Aristotle refers to the followers of Antisthenes as `Antistheneans' and not as `Cynics'. There is no resolution to this debate in scholarly circles thus far but the majority contend that Antisthenes founded the Cynic School and taught Diogenes of Sinope the Cynic philosophy which found full expression later through Zeno of Citium.
The Cynic School was characterized by the discipline of self-denial which rejected luxuries, social status, and the acquisition of wealth and unnecessary material objects. It was thought that, by freeing oneself from those social conventions associated with `being someone' that one would be free to become oneself. Since virtue could be taught, and virtue (or, specifically, personal excellence), led to contentment, one could lead the happiest life by placing the pursuit of one's own virtue before all else. Since material gain was seen to often interfere with such a pursuit, it was rejected in favor of the ascetic life. Further, concerns about the future and one's fate were considered superfluous and a needless distraction. Adherents of Antisthenes' philosophy were encouraged to focus on the present and be content with what they had and what they were doing in the present day rather than waste time worrying about what they might be doing or where they might be tomorrow. Regarding Antisthenes' philosophy, Diogenes Laertius writes:
And the doctrines he adopted were these. He used to insist that virtue was a thing which might be taught; also, that the nobly born and virtuously disposed, were the same people; for that virtue was of itself sufficient for happiness. And was in need of nothing, except the strength of Socrates. He also looked upon virtue as a species of work, not wanting many arguments, or much instruction; and he taught that the wise man was sufficient for himself; for that everything that belonged to any one else belonged to him. He considered obscurity of fame a good thing, and equally good with labour. And he used to say that the wise man would regulate his conduct as a citizen, not according to the established laws of the state, but according to the law of virtue. And that he would marry for the sake of having children, selecting the most beautiful woman for his wife. And that he would love her; for that the wise man alone knew what objects deserved love (V).
Antisthenes died in Athens of a disease which may have been consumption. He is said to have borne his illness and impending death with calm and acceptance as simply another part of the life he had so enjoyed and so saw no reason to complain.
- The Life of Antisthenes from Diogenes Laertius
- Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. Princeton University Press, 1984.
- Baird, F.E. Philosophic Classics, Volume I Ancient Philosophy Paperback. Pearson, 2010.
- Kahn, C.H. Plato and the Post-Socratic Dialogue. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato. Signet Classics, 2008.
- Toynbee, A. J. Greek Historical Thought. Mentor, 1952.
c. 445 BCE - 365 BCE