BMCR 2001.06.23

Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the World Aright

, Antisthenes of Athens : setting the world aright. Contributions in philosophy, no. 80. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001. xii, 176 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0313316724 $62.00.

Antisthenes of Athens was the most important Socratic disciple in Athens in the early decades of the fourth century BCE, if we trust Xenophon and apparent references in Isocrates; and his thought, if we knew much about it, would probably supply some missing links between Socrates and the fifth-century intellectual enlightenment, on the one hand, and the fourth-century Cynic movement and third-century blossom of Stoic philosophy, on the other. Yet the vagaries of history, modern as well as ancient, have virtually erased Antisthenes from our awareness.1 Although his name should at least appear in the indices of modern secondary works on topics ranging from ancient democracy and citizenship to women and gender, from logic and the reception of Parmenides to literary criticism and Homer, from the culture/nature debate to theology, it rarely does. When Antisthenes’ name does appear, what is said is usually of little interest, either too evasive on a given thorny issue, or too dependent on outdated scholarly traditions ultimately rooted in Diogenes Laertius or prejudices about “cynic” attitudes (serious Cynic ideas having been out of the question until recently). Basically, modern generalists do not know what to say about Antisthenes because the field lacks the sort of specialized yet accessible scholarly discourse that exists for other fragmentary figures such as Antiphon, Democritus, or Prodicus, for whom the primary evidence is often no more plentiful and no less contradictory. This is not to say there is or need be consensus about such figures, only that debate is alive.

Thus Luis Navia’s new book on Antisthenes is poised to open an important discussion on a topic not only unjustly neglected, but also, given the recent explosion of interest in the ancient Cynics,2 timely. Only the sixth monograph published on Antisthenes in any language since 1900 (and this includes an edition of the fragments, as well as a peculiar 1935 dissertation which analyzes a text of Themistius as a rewriting of a lost text by Antisthenes 3), only the second ever in English (following H.D. Rankin’s 1986 Anthisthenes (sic) Sokratikos, whose importance to its publisher A.M. Hakkert might be indicated by the type-written copy if not by the misspelling in the title) and the first published in either the U.S. or Britain, Antisthenes of Athens by its historical position takes on a great challenge, to reintroduce and reinterpret its hero for the twenty-first century. It now becomes the work on Antisthenes most widely available in American university libraries, and the first (or often only) to turn up in computerized searches.

N., however, a professor of philosophy at New York Institute of Technology, has made light of this scholarly challenge (reporting that “Much has been written on Antisthenes,” p. 2) and has instead taken on a different challenge, to engage an audience of the reading public, rather than scholars of the ancient world, with the reformative projects of Antisthenes. According to N., who has written previously (and, it seems, rapidly) on Socrates, the ancient Cynics and Diogenes of Sinope,4 Antisthenes, too, can serve as “a source of guidance” (p. xii) as we acknowledge and confront today’s versions of “irrationality or the negation of reason,” which has “ensured the perennial abandonment of genuine human nature” (p. ix). This may be true, and it is surely exciting to see topics from the classical world packaged for a general audience. At the same time, both N.’s project and his text imply that we have a decent consensus about Antisthenes at the level of primary research. Since in fact we do not, and since N.’s own strengths do not lie in the analysis of primary ancient texts, the book suffers from countless errors of omission, unexplained selectivity, and unsupported conclusions.

The book consists of a preface, seven chapters and an appendix. The first chapter, “Sources and Testimonies,” is an assessment of the evidence; the next, a biography of Antisthenes in which N. posits three successive stages and two conversions in Antisthenes’ life and thought, from sophist to Socratic and then from Socratic to Cynic. The following four chapters, the core of the book, are an apparently chronological treatment of these three successive phases: ch. 3 on Homeric studies, ch. 4 on language (both allegedly sophistic interests), ch. 5 on Antisthenes’ relationship to Socrates, and ch. 6 on Antisthenes as “the Absolute Dog” ( ἁπλοκύων, Diog.Laert.6.13), or arch-Cynic. The final chapter is a fictional Socratic dialogue of Simon the Shoemaker, N.’s adaptation of Plato’s Crito from the “Cynicizing” perspective of Simon, in which Antisthenes appears as a character. An English translation of the Life of Antisthenes from Diogenes Laertius follows as an appendix; there is a bibliography, index of names, and index of subjects.

The topic of the first chapter seems a promising start for a critical scholarly work, but the conclusions and their implications for the rest of the book are disappointing. After acknowledging our almost total loss of the once prodigious literary output of Antisthenes (Diogenes Laertius lists more than sixty titles, on a range of topics rivaled only by Aristotle and Democritus), N. states that we must depend on “ancient secondary sources,” i.e., testimonia on Antisthenes and that the most important of these is the biography of Diogenes Laertius. Neither statement tells the whole story, and both must be rejected if we are to make any progress with Antisthenes. First, among the “fragments” of Antisthenes we do have short texts which are likely to preserve his own words: most importantly, the complete fictional speeches of Ajax and Odysseus dueling in λόγος over the prize of Achilles’ weapons, and, secondly, at least seven quotations or close paraphrases from Antisthenes’ Homeric studies preserved in the bT Homeric scholia. We also have the catalogue of Antisthenes’ writings in Diogenes Laertius, which seems to preserve a scholar’s view of Antisthenes’ literary output and whose contents often conflict with the Cynic dogma attributed to Antisthenes in the Laertian biography. In this catalogue, as in other citations of Antisthenes’ thought (the total number of fragments and testimonia in the edition of Giannantoni (cit. n. 1) is 208), we may never assume that Antisthenes’s own words have been preserved, but we must always entertain that possibility: there are rewarding results. Having rejected this most important category of evidence, N. will go on to mention the speeches (which he believes are fragmentary, pp. 14, 51 n.4) only once more in passing, as an example of A’s early preoccupation with the sophists, and the reader is referred to a recent structural analysis by G. Focardi5 (a more interpretive piece by K. Sier6 is missing from the bibliography).

The Homeric studies, to which N. does devote the full ch. 3, are presented not in their own right, but through the lens of an important 1993 article by J. Pépin7, together with the article’s privileging of testimony in Dio Chrysostom. Only one of the seven Homeric fragments, on Nestor’s drinking, is ever discussed. In fact, N. never gives extended analysis or discussion of any ancient text, “primary” or “secondary,” though he does cite and discuss Greek terms. In a footnote (p. 16, n. 11) N. informs us that Antisthenes’ fragments have been collected and published multiple times, but among the editions he omits to mention is, incomprehensibly, the most recent and now preferred edition in G. Giannantoni (cit. n. 1), which also contains twenty extended notes (216 pp.) on the status of scholarly opinion on various aspects of Antisthenes’ life, writings and thought. Several of the most recent articles in N.’s bibliography cite fragments from Giannantoni, and N.’s omission must be an oversight. N. never tells us which collection(s) he has used: it appears from his citations of the commentary to Decleva Caizzi’s edition (cit. n. 3) that he has used hers, still an important work; at the same time, from his general neglect of texts, one suspects that none of the editions has been of very great importance.

As for the testimonies on which N. insists we must rely, the biography in Diogenes Laertius does offer the most coherent surviving ancient account of Antisthenes In the case of Diogenes of Sinope, where virtually all the ancient evidence is biographical or doxographical anecdote, the coherence of Laertius’ biography secures its status as the best starting point for studying his persona. But Laertius is hardly an ideal source: he wrote some five centuries after Antisthenes’ death, and he is interested in portraying Antisthenes as the first Cynic, an identitification which, whatever our inclinations to accept the thesis, could have had little meaning for Antisthenes himself, who was acting and writing within the terms of his immediate past, not his future reception. And indeed for Antisthenes, as distinct from Diogenes of Sinope, we have contemporary testimony in Xenophon, Aristotle and, enigmatically, Plato, all in their own ways reliable authors who probably knew Antisthenes personally and at least wrote accounts intended to be credible to those who did. N. does accept Xenophon and Aristotle (on whom more below) as good sources for Antisthenes, and he rightly limits the importance of the Platonic corpus as useful evidence, since the many passages in which the influence of an unnamed Antisthenes has been suspected over the last 150 years can be evaluated only by comparison with other information about Antisthenes, and, whenever another source supplies confirmation, the evidence in Plato thereby becomes redundant. All the same, Plato gives invaluable evidence for Socraticism, as N. recognizes, and so is always of indirect relevance to Antisthenes. Despite his recognition of the importance of the contemporary sources, N. finally confirms his preference for Diogenes Laertius with the observation that almost everything Laertius says about Antisthenes is repeated in another source. This observation, though correct, does not account for the likelihood that the emphases in Laertius’ biography reflect the concerns of Hellenistic historians rather than the issues crucial for Antisthenes in classical Athens, or that other late texts which confirm Laertius’ statements have been borrowed from him or from the same diadochic traditions on which he has depended. N.’s final words on the sources are that no individual testimony can be trusted entirely and the only productive approach is a balanced attitude to all the testimonies. A balanced approach is indeed the best. Yet one always needs starting points and principles for preference, and N. has relied too much on Diogenes Laertius for these.

N. promotes Xenophon’s writings as a good source for Antisthenes, but in preference to the scenes in the Memorabilia and Symposium where Antisthenes appears as a character or interlocutor, he appeals most to the Apology, for which, he proposes, Antisthenes’ own Σωκρατικοὶ λόγοι might have been a source. Antisthenes’ role as a source for all of Xenophon’s writings about Socrates, whom Xenophon probably did not know well, is an important question, but N. fails to provide arguments, apart from an appeal to the work of A.H. Chroust,8 for finding Antisthenes behind the Apology, especially in the face of Xenophon’s own claim there that his source is a report, whether oral or written, by Hermogenes. In N.’s ch. 5, “The Socratic Connection,” where we might expect to find readings of the scenes in Xenophon which portray Antisthenes and Socrates as intimates (see e.g. Patzer, cit. n. 3), instead we find citations of Diogenes Laertius, discussion of the “Socratic problem,” and preference for Plato as evidence for the Socraticism by which Antisthenes is then measured; only for this last task does Xenophon’s evidence have value. The importance of Xenophon is clearest in ch. 7, “Simon the Shoemaker,” where N. has borrowed from Xenophon’s Apology both to set the scene of Socrates’ last days and to supply his Antisthenes character with arguments for why Socrates should not escape from prison in defiance of the democratic jury’s death sentence, even though the sentence cannot represent justice. This interesting suggestion remains highly speculative; it seems that more secure conclusions about the relationship between Antisthenes and Socrates are available elsewhere in Xenophon.

Aristotle’s five statements about Antisthenes, in Topics, Metaphysics, Politics and Rhetoric, also count as good material for N.; the two important Metaphysics passages, 1024b26 ff. and 1043b4ff., form the basis for ch. 4, “Saying Nothing about the No Thing” (for which a scene from Gulliver’s Travels seems to be an equally important inspiration). N. acknowledges that these passages have been well studied and have yielded “widely divergent results” (p. 55), and also that, if we had enough information to reconstruct Antisthenes’ theory of language adequately, we would find it “probably very complex” (p. 54). It is surely not within the scope of N.’s project to outline all of the many interpretations that might be (and have been) taken of Aristotle’s reports that Antisthenes asserted that “it is impossible to contradict” ( οὐκ ἔστιν ἀντιλέγειν) and “it is impossible to define the ‘what it is'” ( οὐκ ἔστι τὸ τί ἐστιν ὁρίσασθαι). However, N. does not lead his reader through the stages of even his preferred interpretation of the fragments. Without showing his intervening steps, N. paraphrases the second thesis as “‘predication is impossible’ or ‘definitions other than ostensive definitions are meaningless'” (p. 55). These statements are not quotations from Aristotle or anyone else; rather, they compound interpretations of hints and terms scattered throughout Aristotle’s account of Antisthenes’ position into one succinct statement. Although one might connect these theses with the Socratic question, τί ἐστι; (with Döring9 or, in a different way, Brancacci, cit. n. 3), N., adhering to his partition of Antisthenes’ thought into its Sophistic, Socratic and Cynic phases, seems to follow Grube, Rankin and others10 to the conclusion that Antisthenes was no logician, or, at best, only a near-logician. Rankin indeed calls Antisthenes a Neo-Eleatic, and N. follows this step as well. Comparing these theses to Parmenides’ paths of truth and opinion, N. concludes that Antisthenes decided that, since using language according to truth was impossible, the best position was rejection of language all together, that is, silence.

A similar conclusion emerges also in ch. 3 on Homeric studies, where Antisthenes’ thesis that Homer says “some things according to truth ( κατ’ ἀληθειαν), other things according to opinion ( κατὰ δόξαν)” (Dio Chrysostom 53.4-5) is also assimilated to Parmenides’ two ways. Like his contemporaries, Antisthenes was surely influenced by the terms of Parmenides’ statements. But, if he ever held Eleatic views, they died in one or the other of his conversions, for we learn elsewhere that Antisthenes disputed not only Parmenides’ thesis (as represented by Zeno) that what is is unmoving, but also his mode of asserting it: no language was suitable to refute the Eleatics, but only the act of walking (fr. 159 G). Here Antisthenes’ rejection of language is a rejection, not an acceptance, of Eleaticism. Moreover, Antisthenes’ famous rejection of Plato’s theory of Forms in favor of ordinary names (fr. 149 G) would seem very similar to a rejection of Parmenidean truth. According to N., Antisthenes’ rejection of language, a biographical event, was “the prelude to his Cynic conversion,” which finally occurred at Socrates’ unjust death and was characterized by the cessation of all but the barest verbal activity. (One wonders when it was that Antisthenes wrote his Σωκρατικοὶ λόγοι.) Only in ch. 5 do we find any mention of how Antisthenes’ logical theses should be compared to the inquiries of Socrates: according to N., one thing Socrates failed to transmit to Antisthenes was his “search for universals and for ideal Forms” (p.79). Among ancient philosophers it now seems to be generally believed that, while Socrates may have searched for ideal Forms, it was Plato’s achievement to find them: thus Antisthenes’ renouncing of the possibility of definition of the “what it is” may have been just as faithful to the Socratic project as Plato’s discovery of the Forms.

Diogenes Laertius is the primary ancient source for the partition of Antisthenes’ life into Sophistic and Socratic phases, and N.’s too ready acceptance of this claim (now usually dismissed as a Hellenistic explanation for the varied rhetorical characters of Antisthenes’ writings: see Giannantoni’s notes 21 and 22), expanded with his own claim that the execution of Socrates drove Antisthenes to his final Cynic stage, sets up many of the missed opportunities in this book. But N. in his chapters on Antisthenes as Socratic and Antisthenes as Cynic has also relied too heavily on his own previous work on Socrates and Cynicism and has managed to say little additional about any of his three intertwining topics, Antisthenes, Socraticism, or Cynicism. The reviewer was somewhat dismayed to discover that “a diatribe spuriously ascribed to Diogenes”, which N. prints as an indented quotation on p. 101 and then procedes to analyze, turns out to be N.’s own fictional composition (what Diogenes “wished to say”) from his 1998 monograph, pp. 118-119; other passages are transparently paraphrased, though as far as I could see not repeated verbatim, from previous books.

In his only real attempt in the book at a philological approach, N. makes some odd blunders in his tracking of Cynic terminology through the fourth century. Preparing to show that Antisthenes was indeed a Cynic, N. discerns the core of the ancient Cynic revolt in the terms τῦφος, λόγος and ἀτυφία. Since his goal is to tie Antisthenes into the Cynic nexus, one wonders why he is not better attuned to the evidence which does associate Antisthenes with the τῦφος term and its negation. It is not the case, as N. states, that the relevant sense of τῦφος, puffed-up pride, is first attested in Crates’ “Pera” poem and that only paraphrases of the same idea are attributed to Antisthenes and Diogenes. Both τῦφοω and ἀτυφία are associated with Antisthenes in testimonia in Diogenes Laertius (in an anecdote where he combats Plato) and Clement of Alexandria (frr. 27,111 G.), and it is likely that Heracles’ battles against τῦφος in Dio Chrysostom’s Oration 51 (discussed by N.) have roots in Antisthenes and/or Diogenes of Sinope. Most important, perhaps, Decleva Caizzi’s study of τῦφος,11 which N. cites, shows that the relevant sense is used already in Antisthenes’ lifetime in Plato’s Phaedrus 229d ff. Here Socrates declines to interpret mythical stories in an allegorical way, in a manner that seems to allude to the practices of others: we might wonder whether Plato is even taking a jab at Antisthenes. So the case for this term as a link between Antisthenes and later Cynics seems stronger than N. implies. As for λόγος, N. understands it to mean “reason,” not “language,” and does not cite or examine any particular example of its use by Antisthenes or later Cynics: apparently abbreviating from his previous work, he asserts simply that life according to reason, not convention, was the Cynic goal. According to N., one shortcoming of the ancient Cynics is that they do not give us any “clear conception of reason or…cohesive explanation of how human life is to be guided by it” (p. 116). Since all we have learned about Antisthenes in this book suggests that he rejected λόγος (here understood as “language,” but N. never proves that the Greeks distinguished these senses), the most rigorous argument in this final chapter could lead one to believe that Antisthenes, lacking positive association with τῦφος or λόγος or ἀτυφία, was no Cynic at all. In fact, there is potential in all these terms, and maybe especially λόγος, for explaining Antisthenes’ Cynic afterlife.

The bibliography includes most of what has been published on Antisthenes, apart from Giannantoni’s fragments, the German scholarship on Socrates which is best on Antisthenes, such as Maier and Gigon, and the scholarship on the Ajax and Odysseus speeches (which even Blass discussed). I also missed Niehues-Pröbsting’s discussion of the difference between ancient Cynicism (Kynismus) and modern cynicism (Zynismus), but other works on this topic are cited 12.

The strength of N.’s book is in its very attempt to bring Antisthenes into modern discussion, not only scholarly discussion, but discussion among generally educated people. It is only unfortunate that the necessary preliminary groundwork has not been well laid. For classical scholars, Rankin’s 1986 book, which does grapple directly with most of the relevant ancient texts, remains far preferable. N.’s book has, however, been proofread better than any other recent book I have read: I found just two instances where a minor word had been omitted and no other typographical errors.


1. The modern scholarly silence on Antisthenes is best explained as the reaction to an anti-Platonist Antisthenes industry in late nineteenth-century Germany that reconstructed a figure so central to his age that the complete works of Plato and Xenophon, not to mention lost literature, were judged to be responses to or imitations of Antisthenes and his once voluminous literary output. On the reconstructions and the reaction, represented by Wilamowitz and Schwarz, see R. Höistad, Cynic Hero and Cynic King (Uppsala 1948) and Giannantoni Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae (2nd ed., Naples 1990) v.4 n.23.0.

2. M.-O. Goulet-Cazé, L’ascèse cynique. Un commentaire de Diogène Laerce VI 70-71. (Paris 1986), developing a strand from D. Dudley, A History of Cynicism (Cambridge 1937); M.-O. Goulet-Cazé and R. Goulet, edd., Le Cynisme ancien et ses prolongements (Paris 1993); R. B. Branham and M.-O. Goulet-Cazé, edd., The Cynics. The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and its Legacy (Berkeley 1996). See also BMCR 01.05.02, Nesselrath on G. Luck’s collection of Cynic fragments, Die Weisheit der Hunde (Stuttgart 1997).

3. The previous five monographs, in chronological order, are H. Kesters Antisthène. De la dialectique. Étude critique et exégétique sur le XXVIe Discours de Thémistius (Louvain 1935); F. Decleva Caizzi, Antisthenis Fragmenta (Milan 1966); A. Patzer Antisthenes der Sokratiker. Das literarische Werk und die Philosophie dargestellt am Katalog der Schriften (Heidelberg 1970); H.D. Rankin, Anthisthenes (sic) Sokratikos (Amsterdam 1986); and A. Brancacci, Oikeios Logos: La filosofia del linguaggio di Antistene (Naples 1990).

4. Navia’s most recent work includes The Philosophy of Cynicism: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood 1995), Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (Greenwood 1996) and Diogenes of Sinope: The Man in the Tub (Greenwood 1998). Previous work was on Socraticism: Socrates, the Man and his Philosophy (Lanham: University Press of America 1985), Socratic Testimonies (University Press of America 1987), Socrates: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland Publishing 1988) and The Socratic Presence: A Study of the Sources (Garland 1993).

5. G. Focardi, “Antistene Declamatore: L’Aiace e L’Ulisse, alle Origine della Retorica Greca,” Sileno XIII (1987) 147-173.

6. K. Sier, “Aias’ und Odysseus’ Streit um die Waffen des Achilleus,” in C. Mueller-Goldingen and K. Sier edd. ΛΗΝΑΙΚΑ : Festschrift für Carl Werner Müller (Stuttgart and Leipzig 1996) 53-80.

7. J. Pépin, Jean, “Aspects de la Lecture Antisthénienne d’Homère,” in Goulet-Cazé and Goulet edd. 1993 (n.2) 1-13.

8. A.H. Chroust, Socrates: Man and Myth. The Two Socratic Apologies of Xenophon (London 1957).

9. K. Döring, “Antisthenes: Sophist oder Sokratiker?” Siculorum Gymnasium 38 (1985) 229-242.

10. G.M.A. Grube, “Antisthenes was no Logician,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 81 (1950) 16-27. Rankin’s four articles are cited and summed up in the monograph cited in note 3.

11. F. Decleva Caizzi, ” Τῦφος : Contributo alla storia di un concetto,” Sandalion 3 (1980) 53-66.

12. H. Maier, Sokrates: sein Werk und seine geschichtliche Stellung (Tübingen 1913); O. Gigon, Sokrates (2nd ed. Frankfurt 1979), and his commentaries on Xenophon’s Memorabilia, books 1 and 2 (Basel 1953 and 1956); F. Blass, Die attische Beredsamkeit (2nd ed. Leipzig 1886); H. Niehues-Pröbsting, Der Kynismus des Diogenes und der Begriff des Zynismus (2nd ed., Frankfurt 1988).