The Greek philosopher Antisthenes (ca. 450-360 B.C.) was a devoted student and follower of Socrates and is credited with founding the Cynic Sect, which exerted great influence on the course of popular philosophy throughout antiquity.

Born in Athens of an Athenian father and a Thracian mother who may have been a slave, Antisthenes was denied citizenship because of his mother's social status. However, that proved no deterrent to his education, for he studied with the famous Sophist, Gorgias. Antisthenes also became a member of Socrates's circle and on his master's death turned to teaching, meeting with his students in the Gymnasium Kynosarges. It was perhaps from this meeting place that his group became known as Cynics (doglike), although popular etymology links the name with the style of life his followers chose.

Antisthenes wrote 10 volumes, which included a denunciation of Plato (to which Plato's Euthydemus is a reply); Heracles, which glorified the ancient hero for his benefactions to mankind; Cyrus, which praised Cyrus the Elder as a model ruler; Alcibiades, which denounced self-centered passion; Archelaus, which denounced tyranny; and Politicus, in which democracy is accorded the same treatment.

Antisthenes's teachings laid the groundwork for Cynic theory. Happiness may be acquired through virtue which is based on knowledge. This knowledge is not the carefully developed scientific knowledge which the Stoics favored later but simply the concrete knowledge of what words mean. Contrary to Plato, his contemporary and rival, Antisthenes taught that only physical things are real and that a predicate different from the subject to which it refers is impossible to apply. This simplicity of physical theory affected the Cynics' ethics as well. Man must live with the understanding that all except his own individual freedom of spirit is to be held in contempt. Wealth, social position, and, above all, bodily pleasures are to be cast aside in favor of a life of hardship, toil, and concern for others. Heracles is the Cynics' model, and his life was often held up as an example of a human life lived according to the best principles.

As roving mendicants and preachers, the Cynics roundly criticized men for the folly of their conventions and for the delusions under which they lived. Particular targets of their attacks were religious celebrations with their sacrifices and elaborate rituals. In putting into practice their ideal of anaideia (shamelessness), they consciously outraged their fellowmen by carrying out acts in public which revealed their utter contempt for the opinions of men.

Antisthenes was important as the founder of a sect which offered a simpler and more natural way of life at a time when the values of the city-state were in serious decline and men had to seek for spiritual guidance elsewhere. If his and his followers' strictures were sometimes coarse, biting, and vulgar, they were nonetheless motivated by a deep concern for their fellowmen and a desire to share with them the freedom which could be found in independence of mind and spirit.


Further Reading on Antisthenes

An excellent account of Antisthenes is in Donald R. Dudley, A History of Cynicism: From Diogenes to the 6th Century A.D. (1937), and in Farrand Sayre, Diogenes of Sinope: A Study of Greek Cynicism (1938). Also useful is Eduard Zeller, Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy (1883; 13th rev. ed. by Wilhelm Nestle, 1928; trans., from Nestle's edition, by L. R. Palmer, 1931). Briefer but good introductory accounts of cynicism in the context of the intellectual history of Greece are in standard histories of Greek literature, such as Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature (1958; trans. 1966).