Philosopher (c.445 BC – c.365 BC)
Antisthenes was a philosopher and the founder of the Cynic School of philosophy. Credited as one of Socrates’ most loyal students and Diogenes’ teacher, Antisthenes was concerned not with Plato’s metaphysics, not with Aristotle’s logic or with Anaxagoras’ nous. Rather, he was interested in the practical aspects of philosophy and its ways of achieving true happiness through virtue.
He was born in Piraeus to a poor Athenian father and a Thracian slave mother. As a result, Antisthenes was considered an “illegitimate” citizen of Athens, something that stigmatized him throughout the entirety of his life, which he lived in complete poverty and disregard. As a child, Antisthenes admired Socrates and hence approached him to become his student. Socrates accepted him not just as a student, but as a friend. He remained very loyal to Socrates, the two exhibiting immense courage when they fought together in the Battle of Tanagra and the Battle of Amphipole. Antisthenes was present during Socrates’ final moments when he drank the hemlock, standing beside him during his death.
Following Socrates’ death, Antisthenes went to Cynosarges, a suburb located outside the walls of Athens where the Gymnasium of the “poor” was located, a place where all the illegitimate children of Athens exercised. There he founded his own philosophic school known as the Cynic School of philosophy, to indicate that just like the illegitimate children of Athens, he as well was an outcast of the Athenian society. His school’s fame would eventually cross the borders of Athens and become known to all of Greece.
Like Diogenes after him, Antisthenes’ philosophy could be described as a more extreme form of that of Socrates, he himself described as a “Socrates gone mad”. Antisthenes believed that virtue and wisdom can be achieved by living a strict ascetic life, devoid of any physical or emotional pleasures. He claimed that the theoretical knowledge on philosophy was useless and that virtue can be taught. A philosopher must free himself from external obligations and self-delusions and accustom himself to physical hardships, as this brings man closer to the Divine and therefore achieves true eudaimony.
Antisthenes considered deeds and actions over words and theories in the attainment of virtue and did not require a great deal of words or learning. One must learn to abandon old habits and live a natural life, independent from the outside world. Indeed, Antisthenes put his ideas into practice in his everyday life. He was homeless, walked around barefoot with just an old tribon and carrying a stick. He had no family or property and lived a life of deliberate poverty and complete abstinence of any pleasure. He contemned glory, rejected comfort and hated riches, stating that people who scorn wealth, glory and pleasures of life are the noblest men of all in contrast to those who embrace them and are superior to poverty, ingloriousness, pain and death. Such men are wise and wise men are self-sufficient according to the philosopher.
Antisthenes remained a social and political outcast of Athens throughout his life. Even though wise and loving of his homeland, he was a strong anti-democrat, stating that laws are made for the many to follow, not for the few, who are guided b virtue instead. As founder of the Cynics, he became a public figure known as the leader of all the poor, the disregarded and afflicted members of society. Nevertheless, both he and Diogenes were very well respected individuals in all of Greece, if not admired by many for their beliefs and practices. He wrote over 60 books on his philosophy by which he exerted important influence throughout the ages. None of them survive today.
- Βολωνάκης, Ἰωάννης Κ., Τῆς Ἀρχαίας Ἑλλάδος οἱ Μεγάλοι Ἠγέται. Ἐκδόσεις Γεωργιάδης. Ἀθῆναι: 1997.Print.
- Piering, Julie. Antisthenes (c.446 BC – c.366 B.C.E.). Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Iep.utm.edu. January 25, 2019. Web.
- Pleures, Konstantinos. Greek Philosophers. Hilektron Publications. Athens: 2014. Print.