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Portrait bust of Antisthenes
Full name Antisthenes
Born c. 445 BCE
Died c. 365 BCE
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Inspired the Cynic school
Main interests Asceticism, Ethics, Language, Literature, Logic
Notable ideas Laid the foundations of Cynic philosophy

Antisthenes (Greek: Ἀντισθένης; c. 445-c. 365 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and a pupil of Socrates. Antisthenes first learned rhetoric under Gorgias before becoming an ardent disciple of Socrates. He adopted and developed the ethical side of Socrates' teachings, advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue. Later writers regarded him as the founder of Cynic philosophy.



Antisthenes was born c. 445 BCE and was the son of Antisthenes, an Athenian. His mother was a Thracian.[1] In his youth he fought at Tanagra (426 BCE), and was a disciple first of Gorgias, and then of Socrates, whom he never quit, and at whose death he was present.[2] He never forgave his master's persecutors, and is even said to have been instrumental in procuring their punishment.[3] He survived the Battle of Leuctra (371 BCE), as he is reported to have compared the victory of the Thebans to a set of schoolboys beating their master.[4] Although one source tells us that he died at the age of 70,[5] he was apparently still alive in 366 BCE,[6] and he must have been nearer to 80 years old when he died at Athens, c. 365 BCE. He is said to have lectured at the Cynosarges,[7] a gymnasium for the use of Athenians born of foreign mothers, near the temple of Hercules. Diogenes Laërtius says that his works filled ten volumes, but of these, only fragments remain. His favourite style seems to have been dialogues, some of them being vehement attacks on his contemporaries, as on Alcibiades in the second of his two works entitled Cyrus, on Gorgias in his Archelaus and on Plato in his Satho.[8] His style was pure and elegant, and Theopompus even said that Plato stole from him many of his thoughts.[9] Cicero, however, calls him "a man more intelligent than learned" (Latin: homo acutus magis quam eruditus).[10] He possessed considerable powers of wit and sarcasm, and was fond of playing upon words; saying, for instance, that he would rather fall among crows (korakes) than flatterers (kolakes), for the one devour the dead, but the other the living.[11] Two declamations have survived, named Ajax and Odysseus, which are purely rhetorical.


Marble bust of Antisthenes in the British Museum


Antisthenes was a pupil of Socrates, from whom he imbibed the fundamental ethical precept that virtue, not pleasure, is the end of existence. Everything that the wise person does, Antisthenes said, conforms to perfect virtue,[12] and pleasure is not only unnecessary, but a positive evil. He is reported to have held pain[13] and even ill-repute (Greek: ἀδοξία)[14] to be blessings, and said that "I'd rather be mad than feel pleasure."[15] It is, however, probable that he did not consider all pleasure worthless, but only that which results from the gratification of sensual or artificial desires, for we find him praising the pleasures which spring "from out of one's soul,"[16] and the enjoyments of a wisely chosen friendship.[17] The supreme good he placed in a life lived according to virtue, – virtue consisting in action, which when obtained is never lost, and exempts the wise person from error.[18] It is closely connected with reason, but to enable it to develop itself in action, and to be sufficient for happiness, it requires the aid of Socratic strength (Greek: Σωκρατικὴ ἱσχύς).[12]


His work on Natural Philosophy (the Physicus) contained a theory of the nature of the gods, in which he argued that there were many gods believed in by the people, but only one natural God.[19] He also said that God resembles nothing on earth, and therefore could not be understood from any representation.[20]


In logic, Antisthenes was troubled by the problem of the One and the Many. As a proper nominalist, he held that definition and predication are either false or tautological, since we can only say that every individual is what it is, and can give no more than a description of its qualities, e. g. that silver is like tin in colour.[21] Thus he disbelieved the Platonic system of Ideas. "A horse," said Antisthenes, "I can see, but horsehood I cannot see."[22] Definition is merely a circuitous method of stating an identity: "a tree is a vegetable growth" is logically no more than "a tree is a tree."

Antisthenes and the Cynics

Antisthenes, part of a fresco in the National University of Athens.

In later times, Antisthenes became to be seen as the founder of the Cynics, but it is by no means certain that he would have recognized the term. Aristotle, writing a generation later refers several times to Antisthenes,[23] and his followers "the Antistheneans,"[21] but never associates him with Cynics, nor with Aristotle's contemporary Diogenes of Sinope. There are many later tales about Diogenes dogging Antisthenes footsteps and becoming his faithful hound,[24] but it is not certain whether the two men ever actually met. Even the story about Antisthenes lecturing in the Cynosarges gymnasium may be a later desire to link him with a place associated with Cynic philosophy, although as the son of a foreign-born mother, Antisthenes would probably have frequented the place. It is true, however, that Antisthenes adopted a rigorous ascetic lifestyle,[25] and he certainly developed many of the principles of Cynic philosophy which became an inspiration for Diogenes and many later Cynics. It was said that he had laid the foundations of the city which they afterwards built.[26]


  1. ^ Suda, Antisthenes.; Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 1
  2. ^ Plato, Phaedo, 59 b.
  3. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 9
  4. ^ Plutarch, Lycurgus, 30.
  5. ^ Eudocia, Violarium, 96
  6. ^ Diodorus Siculus, xv. 76.4
  7. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 13
  8. ^ Athenaeus, v. 220c-e
  9. ^ Athenaeus, xi. 508c-d
  10. ^ Cicero, Epistulae ad Atticum, xii. 38.
  11. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 4
  12. ^ a b Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 11
  13. ^ Julian, Oration, 6.181b
  14. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 3, 7
  15. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 3
  16. ^ Xenophon, Symposium, iv. 41.
  17. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 12
  18. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 11–12, 104–105
  19. ^ Cicero, De Natura Deorum, i. 13.
  20. ^ Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, v.
  21. ^ a b Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1043b4
  22. ^ Simplicius, in Arist. Cat. 208, 28
  23. ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1024b26; Rhetoric, 1407a9; Topics, 104b21; Politics, 1284a15
  24. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 6, 18, 21; Dio Chrysostom, Orations, viii. 1–4; Aelian, x. 16; Stobaeus, Florilegium, 13.19
  25. ^ Xenophon, Symposium, iv. 34–44.
  26. ^ Diogenes Laërtius, vi. 15

Further reading

  • Luis E. Navia, (2001), Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the World Aright. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-31672-4

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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