1902 Encyclopedia > Antisthenes

Greek philosopher
(c. 455 - c. 360 BC)

ANTISTHENES was the earliest Greek expositor of a philosophy and mode of life to which the name Cynicism soon came to be applied. Though a native of Athens, he was the son of a Thracian mother; and it was in the gymnasium of Cynosarges, to which the half-breeds were restricted, that he is said to have taught. From that place he and his followers probably received the name Cynic; but the popular derivation of the word connected it with the dog, whose shamelessness and importunity many of their actions seemed to imitate. In the time of Diogenes the name was firmly fixed as a nickname, and even adopted by the Cynics themselves.

Antisthenes was apparently born some years before the Peloponnesian war began, and from his remark on the rejoicings after the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.)—that the Thebans were like a pack of schoolboys who had thrashed their master—it may be inferred that he lived on nearly the middle of the 4th century B.C. He may be regarded as an elder contemporary of Plato. In youth he studied rhetoric under Gorgias, perhaps also under Prodicus and Hippias. These studies bore fruit, not merely in the stylistic ability which made his writings eulogised by later critics, but more especially in the doctrine he after-ward held, that the study of names was the first step in education. He opened a school of his own, and was on the way to distinguish himself in the usual course of oratory, when he met with Socrates, and his views of life underwent a change. From that time he became the inseparable admirer of Socrates, to hear whom he waited every morn-ing from Piraeus to Athens, a distance of about 5 miles.

Antisthenes was poor, and lived in the midst of a commercial population which had suffered severely from the disasters attending the downfall of the Athenian empire. He became the philosopher of the proletariate, carrying into the haunts of the indigent and the vicious those principles which had been spreading in wealthier circles, and modifying them to suit altered circumstances. His earlier culture had always been more literary and rhetorical than strictly philosophical, and he never attained a mastery over metaphysical problems. Aristotle speaks of him as uneducated and simple-minded ; and Plato has been understood, in more places than one, to refer to the zeal without knowledge with which he dwelt upon the difficulties of dialectic. Words and names were to him more important than thoughts The puzzle of the one and the many, which then was so prominent, led him to the strange con-clusion that we can never say that one thing (or name) is another, as that a tree is green, but only that a tree is a tree. Such an adhesion to identical propositions as the sole form of judgment led him to deny the possibility of contradiction altogether. He objected to the Platonic theory of the substantive existence of relative and quali-tative terms, such as good or beauty. The dramatising legend shows him putting out his criticism thus: "Plato," he said, " I can see a horse, and I can see a man ; but humanity and horsehood I cannot see." " True," replied Plato, " you have the eye which sees a horse and a man ; but the eye which can see horsehood and manhood you have not." The idea expressed by the so-called abstract term was to Antisthenes merely subjective—a bare concep-tion (_____) in the mind. Antisthenes, in short, opposes a crude Realism to the Idealism of Plato The attitude of Antisthenes towards intellectual philosophy is in the main negative, and the general result he comes to is that logical or metaphysical investigations which go beyond name are unfruitful and frivolous.

A certain training is, however, necessary before a man can become what Antisthenes wishes him to be—his own master, independent of all external goods and social ties. This preparation consists in the laborious endeavour (_____) to raise himself above those external circumstances of human life which reflection shows to be useless and vain show (_____). We must separate what we really are by nature from our artificial surroundings, so as to dis-cover the minimum of real wants in life ; and then fixing our mind on that standard, we must discard whatever is desirable only because popular opinion calls for it. Seeing that nature needs but little, and that this little is easily attained, if we do not insist on the delusions which attend it, the wise man will, it is true, gratify the natural cravings, but will not do more. These inevitable appetites of sex and food being satisfied, without the additions and refinements which art and fashion require, he will renounce pleasure as such. In the paradoxical language of Antisthenes, he would rather plunge into insanity than into pleasure. His aim must be to become, as much as may be, independent of everything outside, using it as needful, but not desiring it as a gratification. Such a mastery of self is what is called virtue, and is enough for happiness. It is hard to win, but once attained it can never be lost. The Cynic is one who surrenders the city of human life, with its varied scenes, on account of the difficulty of keeping his ground, and who is content if he can hold out the barren rock of the citadel as a soldier, constantly on the watch and in procinctu. Unfortunately this conception of a minimum of needs is somewhat vague, and allows many degrees. Diogenes could criticise and improve upon Antisthenes, and the Indian gymnosophists pointed out that Diogenes himself exceeded the strict demands of nature.

Antisthenes, though he did not encourage the formality of a school, and drove away the curious or enthusiastic with his staff, taught others by his example and by his caustic words. The Cynic was something of a missionary. He adopted a peculiar garb, at first perhaps for reasons of economy, but subsequently as a symbol of his profession. A rough cloak, which could be doubled to counterfeit an inner garment, and served the purposes of a night covering; a wallet, in which provisions could be carried; a staff to support his steps, and perhaps something from which to drink, constituted the property of the bare-footed Cynic; and to these was afterwards added a long beard. The successors of Antisthenes lived, like mendicant friars, on the alms of the public, and wandered from place to place, sleeping by night on the steps of public buildings, or occupying any vessel or tub which might suit their purpose. Antisthenes himself seems not to have been specially extravagant in conduct; but the later Cynics, who were without his early culture, made it a point to disregard all decency and social conventions. Whatever they had to do they deemed it their duty to do in public—at least such is the tenor of many tales. The wise man, they held, would follow another law than that of his city; he was a citizen of the world. Sexual desires he would unquestionably have to satisfy, but in the most convenient way, without regard to sentimental objections or to beauty —the uglier the better. Some, at least, of the Cynics main-tained the advisability of a community of wives. They allowed to no ceremonies more than a relative force. According to Diogenes, the practice of cannibalism among certain tribes shows that the prohibition against eating human flesh is no part of the code of nature.

So far the Cynics taught practically. But they were also great in repartee and sarcasm. The fine touch of Socratic irony, which had given offence by talking occa-sionally about pots and pans, was succeeded by a rough and sometimes gross satire, which scrupled not to deal with matters viler still. Antisthenes, it is said, had some powers of social attraction; but if it were so, his succes-sors were more marked by the severity of their rebukes. From the Homeric poems, the Bible of the Greeks, they drew many of the weapons of their warfare, parodying its language, and applying it to suit their own circumstances. Public manners, men, and measures were assailed in no merciful spirit. Antisthenes compared the cry of demo-cratic pohticians to the speech in which the hares demanded equality of rights from the Hon. He was equally at odds with the aesthetic and literary tendencies of his time. Aristippus, Plato, and Isocrates were among his literary enmities. Nor was he less trenchant in his criticisms of popular superstitions, of soothsayers, and mystery-mongers. When the priest dilated in his sermon on the blessedness of the other world for the initiated, Antisthenes interrupted him with the words: "Why don't you die, then?"
Antisthenes was a voluminous writer; his works, according to Diogenes Laertius, filled ten volumes. Of these scarcely anything is left. They seem to have been on various subjects, many of them being apparently a moralising interpretation of the poems of Homer. We can base our estimate of Antisthenes only on the sayings attributed to him, and, above all, to his follower Diogenes.

The great age of Cynicism in Greece is the century from 400 to 300 B.C. Diogenes, who succeeded Antisthenes, carried the exaggeration still further, and yet, in the story of the education of the children of Xeniades by him, there are traits which anticipate the educational theory of Rabelais and Rousseau. Crates, who succeeded Diogenes, voluntarily abandoned his possessions ; and Hipparchia was so enamoured of Cynical life, that she refused her wealthy suitors, and married the landless and ill-favoured Crates. They were both notable features in the school, which includes the names of Monimus (a slave who was attracted by the fame of Diogenes), Onesicritus, Metrocles, and Menippus. In Menedemus the Cynical succession disappears, perhaps combining with the Megaric. For more than three centuries the name continued a tradition, when in the 1st and 2d centuries of the Christian era it was revived. The majority of the Cynics of that date were a worthless set of vagabonds, who used the garb and the name as a cover for all iniquities. They may be compared to the mendicant orders in the worst days of their corruption. But amongst them two or three names have a brighter light thrown upon them. Demetrius is lauded by his contemporary Seneca, and about a hundred years later Demonax is enthusiastically presented to the world by Lucian. There is much of the old Cynic in these descriptions; but the men were more eclectic, and had in some respects followed the advance of the general culture. Cynicism lasted for a few centuries longer, but never contributed anything to philosophy properly so called. It was a mode of life rather than a theory; and it sank before the monasticism and asceticism which marked certain directions in the history of the Christian church. (W. W.)

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