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Ἀντισθένης), a CYNIC philosopher, the son of Antisthenes, an Athenian, was the founder of the sect of the Cynics, which of all the Greek schools of philosophy was perhaps the most devoid of any scientific purpose. He flourished B. C. 366 (Diod. 15.76), and his mother was a Thracian (Suidas, s.v. D. L. 6.1), though some say a Phrygian, an opinion probably derived from his replying to a man who reviled him as not being a genuine Athenian citizen, that the mother of the gods was a Phrygian. In his youth he fought at Tanagra (B. C. 426), and was a disciple first of Gorgias, and then of Socrates, whom he never quitted, and at whose death he was present. (Plat. Phaed. § 59.) He never forgave his master's persecutors, and is even said to have been instrumental in procuring their punishment. (D. L. 6.10.) He survived the battle of Leuctra (B. C. 371), as he is reported to have compared the victory of the Thebans to a set of schoolboys beating their master (Plut. Lyc. 30), and died at Athens, at the age of 70. (Eudocia, Violarium, p. 56.) He taught in the Cynosarges, a gymnasium for the use of Athenians born of foreign mothers, near the temple of Hercules. Hence probably his followers were called Cynics, though the Scholiast on Aristotle (p. 23, Brandis) deduces the name from the habits of the school, either their dog-like neglect of all forms and usages of society, sleeping in tubs and in the streets, and eating whatever they could find, or from their shameless insolence, or else their pertinacious adherence to their own opinions, or lastly from their habit of driving from them all whom they thought unfit for a philosophical life.


Antisthenes' writings were very numerous, and chiefly 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 a most furious one on Plato in his Satho. (Athen. 5.220b.)

His style was pure and elegant, and Theopompus even said that Plato stole from him many of his thoughts. (Athen. 11.508c.) Cicero, however, calls him "homo acutus magis quam eruditus" (ad Att. 12.38), and it is impossible that his writings could have deserved any higher praise. He possessed considerable powers of wit and sarcasm, and was fond of playing upon words; saying, for instance, that he would rather fall among κοράκες than κολάκες, for the one devour the dead, but the other the living ; and that one of his pupils stood in need βιβλιαρίου καινοῦ, καὶ γραφείου καινοῦ (i. e. καὶ νοῦ).


Two declamations of his are preserved, named Ajax and Ulysses, which are purely rhetorical, and an epistle to Aristippus is attributed to him.

Philosophical System

His philosophical system was almost confined to ethics. In all that the wise man does, he said, he conforms to perfect virtue, and pleasure is not only unnecessary to man, but a positive evil. He is reported to have held pain and even infamy (ἀδοξία) to be blessings, and that madness is preferable to pleasure, though Ritter thinks that some of these extravagances must have been advanced not as his own opinions, but those of the interlocutors in his dialogues. According to Schleiermacher (Anmerkungen zum Phileb. S. 204), the passage in the Philebus (p. 44), which mentions the theory, that pleasure is a mere negation, and consists only in the absence of pain, refers to the opinions of Antisthenes; and the statement in Aristotle (Eth. Nic. 10.1), that some persons considered pleasure wholly worthless (κομιδῇ φαῦλον) is certainly an allusion to the Cynical doctrine. 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 ἐκ τῆς ψυχῆς (Xen. Symp. 4.41), and the enjoyments of a wisely chosen friendship. (D. L. 6.11.) The summum bonum he placed in a life according to virtue,-- virtue consisting in action, and being such, that when once obtained it is never lost, and exempts the wise man from the chance of error. That is, 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 energy (Σωκρατικὴ ἰδχύς); so that we may represent him as teaching, that the summum bonum, ἀρετὴ, is attainable by teaching (διδακτὸν), and made up of φρόνησις and ἰσχύς. But here he becomes involved in a vicious circle, for when asked what φρόνησις is, he could only call it an insight into the good, having before made the good to consist in φρόνησις. (Plat. Rep. vi. p. 505.) The negative character of his ethics, which are a mere denial of the Cyrenaic doctrine, is further shewn in his apophthegm, that the most necessary piece of knowledge is τὸ κακὰ ἀπομαθεῖν, while in his wish to isolate and withdraw the sage from all connexion with others, rendering him superior even to natural affection and the political institutions of his country, he really founds a system as purely selfish as that of Aristippus.


The Physicus of Antisthenes contained a theory of the nature of the gods (Cic. de Nat. Deor. 1.13), in which he contended for the Unity of the Deity, and that man is unable to know him by any sensible representation, since he is unlike any being on earth. (Clem. Al. Strom. v. p. 601.) He probably held just views of providence, shewing the sufficiency of virtue for happiness by the fact, that outward events are regulated by God so as to benefit the wise. Such, at least, was the view of his pupil Diogenes of Sinope, and seems involved in his own statement, that all which belongs to others is truly the property of the wise man. Of his logic we hear that he held definitions to be impossible, 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. (Arist. Met. 8.3.) Thus he, of course, disbelieved the Platonic system of ideas, since each particular object of thought has its own separate essence. This also is in conformity with the practical and unscientific character of his doctrine, and its tendency to isolate noticed above. He never had many disciples, which annoyed him so much that he drove away those who did attend his teaching, except Diogenes, who remained with him till his death. His staff and wallet and mean clothing were only proofs of his vanity, which Socrates told him he saw through the holes of his coat. The same quality appears in his contempt for the Athenian constitution and social institutions generally, resulting from his being himself debarred from exercising the rights of a citizen by the foreign extraction of his mother. His philosophy was evidently thought worthless by Plato and Aristotle, to the former of whom he was personally hostile. His school is classed by Ritter among the imperfect Socraticists; after his death his disciples wandered further and further from all scientific objects, and plunged more deeply into fanatical extravagances. Perhaps some of their exaggerated statements have been attributed to their master.


The fragments which remain of his writings have been collected by Winckelmann (Antisthenes, Fragmenta, Turici, 1842).

Further information

Winckelmann's brief Antisthenes, with the account of him by Ritter (Gesch. der Philosophie, 7.4) will supply all the information which can be desired. Most of the ancient authorities have been given in the course of this article. We may add to them Arrian, Epictet. 3.22, 4.8, 11; Lucian, Cynic. iii. p. 541; Julian, Orat. vii.


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  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 15.76
    • Diogenes Laertius, Vitae philosophorum, 6.1
    • Plutarch, Lycurgus, 30
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