Antisthenes (ante 443 BCE–post 366 BCE)

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(ante 443 BCEpost 366 BCE)

Antisthenes, son of an Athenian father and Thracian mother, was a pupil of the rhetorician Gorgias and an intimate and admirer of Socrates. He taught professionally at Athens, maintaining his own interpretation of Socrates against other Socratics such as Plato and Aristippus. There is, however, only one reference in classical literature to Antistheneans (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1043b24); later antiquity saw him as a founder of Cynicism, a view that may have gained support through later historical systematization or from Stoics attempting to trace their philosophical pedigree to Socrates. Nevertheless, while the historical relationship between Antisthenes and Diogenes remains obscure, there were elements in Antisthenes' thought that heralded and may have given some impulse to Diogenes. His numerous works have not survived (a list of titles is found in Diogenes Laertius's Lives, 6.1518); but he is characterized in Xenophon, and Diogenes preserves a doxographical and anecdotal account. Antisthenes had rhetorical and sophistic interests and was famed for his style and his myths as well as for his Socratic dialogues.

The influence of Socrates shaped Antisthenes' overriding interest in practical ethics. He held happiness to be dependent solely on moral virtue, which involved practical intelligence and so could be taught, partly from a study of the names of things and definitions. But the good man also required strength of mind and character; for by contrasting external goods with the inviolability of the "wealth of the soul," Antisthenes came to stress the importance of self-control by a hostility to luxury and sensual pleasure that went some way toward Cynic asceticism. Thus, the achievement of virtue necessitated a mental and physical effort to toil through opposing difficulties, suffering, and pain. Antisthenes glorified this struggle in the myths of Heracles; and for Cynics "toil" (ponos ) became a technical good and Heracles a saint.

Antisthenes combined a moral interest in politics with a wariness of the dangers of participation, and attacked the rules of convention when they were in opposition to the laws of virtue. He denounced famous statesmen of previous generations and outlined his own ideal king, whose preeminence was due to his own moral self-mastery.

Most tantalizing is the brief glimpse Aristotle affords of Antisthenes' interest in the logic of predication and definition. He denied the possibility of contradiction (Topics 104b21), apparently because he believed (Metaphysics 1024b27 ff.) that each object could be spoken of only by its own peculiar verbal designation that said what it was; that is, words corresponded directly with reality, and since predication was confined to assigning names to things, or limited to formulas determining their real structure, any other predicative account must then refer to something different or to nothing at all, and contradiction did not arise. There was a similar difficulty with falsity. Elsewhere (Metaphysics 1043b23ff.) the Antistheneans are said to have denied the possibility of defining what a thing (like silver) was; one could only explain what sort of thing it was (for instance, "like tin"). Aristotle's context referred to simple substances that could not be analyzed but only named or described. Similar problems to these occur in Plato (as in Sophist 251A f.; Theaetetus 201C ff.; Euthydemus 283E ff.; Cratylus 429B ff.). It has been argued that in one or more of these passages Plato had Antisthenes in mind, but this is not at all certain. The problems were common to the period. Interesting similarities have been pointed out between Antisthenes' logic and the nominalism of Thomas Hobbes.

See also Aristotle; Cynics; Diogenes Laertius; Hobbes, Thomas; Plato; Socrates.



Antisthenis Fragmenta. Edited by A. W. Winkelmann. Zürich, 1842.

Diogenes Laertius. Lives. 6.119.

Xenophon. Symposium and Memorabilia.


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Antisthenes (ante 443 BCE–post 366 BCE)

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