Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, claim that the Stoic school descended from Socrates in the following succession: Socrates taught Antisthenes, who inspired Diogenes the Cynic, who taught Crates of Thebes, the mentor of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism. This is called the Cynic-Stoic succession.
See my earlier article for a description of the passages in Xenophon’s Symposium depicting Antisthenes’ character and his philosophy.
Aside from Xenophon, one of our best accounts of Antisthenes comes from the chapter about him in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, which this article explores in detail.
We’re told Antisthenes (445 – 356 BC) was an Athenian, although he was not of pure Attic blood. He distinguished himself, as a young man, at the second battle of Tanagra, during the Peloponnesian War, and was praised by Socrates for his bravery in battle. Whereas other Athenians sneered at the fact his mother was a barbarian, from Thrace, Socrates defended him and appears to have thought very highly of him.
At first he was a student of the Sophist Gorgias, from whom he learned an elegant rhetorical style. He became a teacher and gathered a following of students at an early age. Later he became one of the most prominent followers of Socrates, whom he actually told his students to attach themselves to instead. He was also highly-regarded by the Athenian general Xenophon, another close friend of Socrates. Xenophon was about fifteen years his junior so it’s possible they may have fought together in some of the same battles. Socrates himself was a decorated war hero. So perhaps these three men may have bonded over their common debt to the military way of life.
Antisthenes was about twenty-five years younger than Socrates. He and Xenophon undoubtedly both looked up to Socrates as an older veteran, renowned for his courage in battle. Diogenes Laertius says that the most distinguished of the followers of Socrates were Antisthenes, Xenophon, and Plato. Plato was about the same age as Xenophon. Of the three, only Antisthenes seems to have been present at Socrates’ trial and execution; Plato was absent due to illness and Xenophon was on a military service. Antisthenes is also said to have sought justice against the men who brought Socrates to trial on false charges.
Antisthenes is held responsible for the exile of Anytus and the execution of Meletus. For he fell in with some youths from Pontus whom the fame of Socrates had brought to Athens, and he led them off to Anytus, whom he ironically declared to be wiser than Socrates; whereupon (it is said) those about him with much indignation drove Anytus out of the city. (Diogenes Laertius)
According to legend, Antisthenes and Plato did not get along and often criticized each other’s philosophies. Xenophon likewise was said to have become estranged from Plato. Antisthenes taunted him for being arrogant, comparing him to a proud, showy horse. It’s sometimes thought that Xenophon’s account of Socrates was more faithful, whereas Plato embellished his Socratic dialogues with his own ideas and notions derived from Pythagoreanism.
They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.
In addition to being a soldier it’s implied by Diogenes Laertius that Antisthenes wrestled. He was a famously tough and self-disciplined character. For example, he would walk barefoot over five miles every day to Athens and back again, from his home in the port city of Peiraeus, just to hear Socrates speak. (That would be a round trip of about three or four hours each day.)
Socrates did gently mock Antisthenes for a kind of inverse snobbery: taking too much pride in his own austerity. According to Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Socrates, when Antisthenes turned his cloak so that the tear in it became visible, Socrates said “I see your vanity through the tear in your cloak.”
It seems to be implied that after the execution of Socrates, Antisthenes was sought out by young men who wanted to learn philosophy from him, one of the most highly-regarded of the Socratic inner circle. However, he repelled students forcefully unless they were extremely persistent. He only accepted a handful.
To the question why he had but few disciples he replied, “Because I use a silver rod to eject them.” When he was asked why he was so bitter in reproving his pupils he replied, “Physicians are just the same with their patients.” (Diogenes Laertius)
He’s sometimes described as carrying a bakteria, the wooden rod or narrow staff used by Spartan officers to beat helot slaves and discipline subordinates.
One day an Athenian man was making a sacrifice to the gods when a small white dog dashed up and snatched away his offering. He chased the dog and it finally dropped the meat at a spot just outside the city gates of Athens. The man was alarmed but received an Oracle telling him to set up a temple to the god Hercules in the precise location where the dog had dropped the offering. He did so and the area, dedicated to Hercules, became known as the Cynosarges, or “White Dog”. Later a gymnasium was built there and that was where Antisthenes would teach philosophy. He too was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon, the “Absolute Dog”, and some ancient sources claim that he was ultimately the founder of the Cynic (“Dog”) tradition, made famous by Diogenes of Sinope. Antisthenes wrote at least three books about Hercules, and it’s tempting to see his fascination with the figure of Hercules as inspired by the history of the area in which he taught.
Some ancient authors, such as Diogenes Laertius, considered Antisthenes actually to be the founder of the Cynic tradition. Some even claimed that he taught Diogenes. However, most modern scholars believe that it’s impossible they could have met. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Diogenes would have heard of Antisthenes and would have been exposed to his philosophy. So it’s possible that he was the main precursor of the Cynic tradition and that his lifestyle and his writings, well-known at the time, influenced Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes Laertius, for example, says:
From Socrates he learned patient endurance, emulating his attitude of indifference [apatheia], and so became the founder of the Cynic way of life. He demonstrated that pain is a good thing by instancing the great Heracles and Cyrus, drawing the one example from the Greek world and the other from the barbarians.
Diogenes Laertius portrays Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics as sharing much in common. In addition to sharing the attitude of philosophical apatheia (indifference, or detachment) they also agreed that the fundamental goal of life was virtue:
They [the Cynics] hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the Goal to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Heracles: exactly like the Stoics. For indeed there is a certain close relationship between the two schools. Hence it has been said that Cynicism is a shortcut to virtue ; and after the same pattern did Zeno of Citium live his life.
They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.
They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Heracles, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between Virtue and Vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.
Antisthenes made several witty and curt remarks, which could be interpreted as exhibiting as a form of the famous Cynic parrhesia, or frankness of speech.
When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”
He walked barefoot and dressed in a single cloak, like the Cynics after him. Although, as we’ve seen, it’s unlikely to be true that they actually met, according to one legend, when Diogenes asked Antisthenes for a coat to keep out the cold, he taught him to fold his cloak around him double, so that he would only need one garment for both winter and summer.
However, we also have the following anecdotes in Dio Chrysotom:
It was not long before [Diogenes] despised [all the philosophers at Athens] save Antisthenes, whom he cultivated, not so much from approval of the man himself as of the words he spoke, which he felt to be alone true and best adapted to help mankind. For when he contrasted the man Antisthenes with his words, he sometimes made this criticism, that the man himself was much weaker; and so in reproach he would call him a trumpet because he could not hear his own self, no matter how much noise he made. Antisthenes tolerated this banter of his since he greatly admired the man’s character; and so, in requital for being called a trumpet, he used to say that Diogenes was like the wasps, the buzz of whose wings is slight but the sting very sharp. (On Virtue)
Diogenes Laertius wrote “Epicurus thought pleasure good and Antisthenes thought it bad”. Indeed, he seems to have been well-known for teaching that pleasure was bad. He famously said “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure”. The Stoics differed from this in teaching that both pleasure and pain were merely indifferent, neither good nor bad. He also advocated a simple life. By seeking things that are easy to obtain we’re more likely to achieve contentment. He jokingly said, “We ought to make love to such women as will feel a proper gratitude”.
He practised indifference to the opinion of others. When told that Plato was criticizing him, he replied “It is a royal privilege to do good and be ill spoken of”. Marcus Aurelius quotes this saying in The Meditations (7.36). He advised that when men are slandered, they should endure it more courageously than if they were pelted with stones. (Which will perhaps remind us of the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”) Likewise, that “it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.” When someone said to him “Many men praise you”, he replied, “Why, what have I done wrong?” (He made a similar quip when praised by some men he considered scoundrels.) This appears to be an allusion to a theme in Socratic philosophy that says that praise is worthless, and maybe even pernicious, unless it comes from the wise and virtuous.
Diogenes Laertius summarized the main arguments of his philosophy as follows:
- That virtue can be taught.
- That only the virtuous are noble.
- That virtue by itself is sufficient for happiness, since it needed nothing else except “the strength of a Socrates.”
- That virtue is about action and does not require much eloquence or learning.
- That the wise man is self-sufficient, for all the goods of others are his.
- That, paradoxically, ill-repute and pain are good things because they provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our wisdom and virtue.
- That the wise man is not guided by the established laws in his social conduct but by the law of virtue.
- That the wise will marry in order to have children with suitable women.
- That the wise man will not disdain to love, for only he knows who are worthy to be loved.
If this is accurate, it does seem virtually identical to the Cynic philosophy, at least in terms of these key points. It’s also very similar to Stoicism, except that Antisthenes and the Cynics view pain, hardship and disrepute as good things, insofar as they provide us with opportunities to learn virtue, like the Labours of Hercules. By contrast, the Stoics view these things as indifferent with regard to virtue, and not necessarily to be actively sought out in life.
Antisthenes said that “virtue is the same for women as for men.” This was the title of a book by the Stoic Cleanthes and based on two lectures that survive by the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the idea that women are as capable of learning philosophy as men was a long-standing feature of Stoicism, perhaps ultimately derived from Antisthenes.
Antisthenes was a very prolific writer. In fact some critics attacked him for writing too much about trifling things. His earlier training under the Sophist Gorgias seems to have taught him an elegant rhetorical style. However, one gets the impression his arguments were considered less learned and sophisticated than Plato’s. Diogenes Laertius says that in his day the collected writings of Antisthenes were preserved in ten volumes, each containing several texts. In total, he names the titles of over sixty individual texts attributed to Antisthenes.
These include dialogue, speeches, and other texts. The topics include rhetoric, the interpretation of poets, natural philosophy, law and economics, love and marriage, music, debate, education, knowledge, and also the virtues of courage and justice, and the nature of the good. Notably, perhaps, he wrote at least four books on Cyrus, three on Hercules, two on death or dying, and about eight on The Odyssey or characters probably derived from it (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Circe and the Cyclops) so these were perhaps some of his favourite themes. Two books entitled The Greater Heracles, or Of Strength, and Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength, may possibly have elaborated on what he meant by “Socratic strength”.
He also wrote about, or in response to, several historical and mythological figures: Cyrus, Aspasia, Satho, Theognis, Homer, Helen, Ajax, Calchas, Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Athena, Circe, the Cyclops, Hercules, Proteus, Amphiaraus, Archelaus, Midas, Orestes, Lysias, Isocrates, and the Sophists in general. He also wrote books on Menexenus, one of Socrates’ sons, and Alcibiades, his lover. One would presume he wrote about Socrates as well, although what and how much is unclear. His writings were popular and probably had an influence on generations of philosophers, particularly the Cynics and Stoics.