Antisthenes Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Area of Achievement: Philosophy Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Anisthenes} Founder of the philosophical school of classical Cynicism, Antisthenes regarded virtue as the sole basis of happiness and viewed self-control and rejection of materialism as the only means of achieving virtue.

Early Life

Antisthenes (an-TIHS-thuh-neez) was the son of an Athenian citizen, also named Antisthenes; his mother was a Thracian slave. Because both parents were not Athenian citizens, Antisthenes was not entitled to citizenship under a law passed by Pericles in 451 b.c.e., and he could not take part in Athenian politics or hold public office. He probably attended the Cynosarges gymnasium, located outside the gates of Athens and reserved for children of illegitimate unions (gymnasia were the central institutions of Greek mental as well as physical education). Antisthenes bitterly resented Athenian boasts of superiority; when Athenians asserted that they had always resided in Attica, having been born of its soil, he responded that snails and wingless locusts could make the same claim. Although not a citizen, he served in the Athenian army; Socrates congratulated him on his brave conduct at the Battle of Tanagra in 426 b.c.e. during the Peloponnesian War.

Despite any disadvantage Antisthenes experienced as a consequence of his outsider status, he remained in Athens his entire life and was a major participant in the vibrant intellectual and cultural activity of the city. When the Sophist Gorgias lectured on rhetoric and logic in Athens, the young Antisthenes attended, and he adopted the Sophist approach, writing and offering lectures on these topics himself. After Antisthenes met Socrates, however, he abandoned his own teaching to follow his new mentor, walking five miles every day from his house at the Piraeus to listen and join in the dialogues through which Socrates taught.

Although he did not live in poverty—his father had left him enough property to provide an adequate income—Antisthenes disdained luxury and prided himself on his austere lifestyle. Socrates joked that he could see Antisthenes’ love of fame peeping through the holes in his cloak. Plato records that Antisthenes was one of the close friends of Socrates who attended him during his execution. After the death of Socrates in 399 b.c.e., Antisthenes returned to teaching at the Cynosarges gymnasium and developed the philosophical approach that came to be known as classical Cynicism, radicalizing and exaggerating the ideas and attitudes he had learned from Socrates.

Life’s Work

Few statements can be made about Antisthenes’ ideas and actions that are not contradicted by one scholar or another. During his lifetime, he reportedly produced sixty-two dialogues, orations, and essays that were collected in ten volumes; however, only brief fragments of these survive, mostly in quotations and paraphrases by later Greek and Roman authors, many of whom were critical of Antisthenes. The quotations were frequently chosen for their wit and reflect Antisthenes’ liking for paradoxes that challenged accepted ideas and customs. As a result, the fragments are sufficiently ambiguous to support widely varying interpretations.

Even the origin of the name “Cynicism” is disputed. The word “cynic” derives directly from the Greek word cunikos, meaning “doglike.” Some claim it was applied to the philosophy because of the name of the gymnasium where Antisthenes taught, interpreting the name “Cynosarges” as “Agile Dog” or “White Dog.” Others say it came from Antisthenes’ Greek nickname (which translates as “Absolute Dog”), given him derisively because of his desire to live life as a dog might, free of human restraints and conventions. This appellation was accepted by Antisthenes and his successors as an appropriate label. Another version credits the origins of the name to his follower, Diogenes of Sinope. When some men eating at a feast threw bones at him and called him a dog, Diogenes approached the men in doglike fashion and urinated on them.

From Socrates, Antisthenes had learned that virtue was the only good worth striving for and that virtue could be taught; in contrast, wealth, fame, pleasure, and power were worthless, and life should be devoted to reason, self-control, and self-sufficiency. He also learned that language should be used only to express the truth. Antisthenes proceeded to expand and exaggerate the ideas learned from Socrates and to illustrate his concepts through his manner of living. To demonstrate his self-sufficiency and contempt for materialism, he reduced his possessions to the bare minimum, walking about Athens supporting himself by a strong stick, his hair and beard uncombed, in what became the Cynic uniform: a threadbare cloak and a leather knapsack containing a few necessities.

The Cynics believed that they needed to shun what others...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)