Antisthenes was an ancient Greek philosopher born in 445 BC in Athens. He was a student of Socrates and is considered the founder of Cynicism, a philosophy known for embracing poverty and hardship, being contemptuous of social norms, and seeing virtue as the ultimate goal of life, achieved by acting in accordance with nature. Antisthenes is considered Socrates’ most important student, and t have carried on his emphasis on correct action (ethics). In contrast to Plato, Antisthenes focus on deeds rather than words. He would also come to see pleasure as an evil, pain as being good, famously saying “I’d rather be mad than feel pleasure.”
Antisthenes was a nothos, someone born in Athens but not a citizen. He first learned rhetoric (public speaking) from the Sophist Gorgias, but abandoned it to become one of Socrates’ closest followers. He was compelled to Socrates because of his virtuous action, concerned with doing what is right rather than things like wealth, fame, or worldly pleasures. Socrates believed that virtue could be taught, that actions are more important than words, that eros (love) was the path to wisdom, and that virtue is the same for men and women. Antisthenes embraced all of these things, and would continue to develop his own ethic based on these principles.
Antisthenes differed from Plato in that he did not believe one must abide by the laws of the state. In the dialogue Crito, Socrates accepts an unjust death sentence, explaining that one must follow the laws of the state if one is unable to change them. In contrast, Antisthenes believed that laws as well as conventions (nomos) interfered with living a life of virtue. Cynic philosophy embraces the laws of nature (physis) rather than those laws and conventions that have been artificially created by men.
While Socrates led an ascetic (simple) lifestyle, famously walking around barefoot, Antisthenes went much further by actively avoiding things that are pleasurable and embracing that which is painful. He believed that people become dependent on pleasing things, which affects their ability to be free. He once heard someone speaking highly of luxury, to which he replied “May the sons of your enemies live in luxury.” He did distinguish between pleasures that are merely to satisfy sexual or artificial desires versus those which come “from out of one’s soul.” He embraced friendship, and believed that the wise person knows who is worthy of love.
Like Socrates, Antisthenes embraced reason. He believed that reason was the basis of virtue, and said that “Wisdom is a most sure stronghold which never crumbles away nor is betrayed.” The cynics believed that acting in accordance with reason and virtue was only possible by following one’s nature (physis). Antisthenes was critical of commonly held beliefs such as the Greek notion that there are many Gods. He believed there is one God, and that he cannot be represented by the things of this world. He was known for being witty and sarcastic, saying that “he would rather fall among crows (korakes) than flatterers (kolakes), for the one devour the dead, but the other the living.”
Antisthenes ascetic lifestyle, contempt for society, criticism of Plato, and sense of ridicule would be embraced and taken to an even greater extreme by his successor Diogenes of Sinope. His emphasis on living a virtuous life would serve as the basis of Cynicism, as well as the later school of Greek philosophy known as Stoicism. Stoicism would be further developed by the Roman philosophers, and come to influence developments in Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Christianity. Antisthenes is seen as the bridge which connects these later developments to their original Socratic roots.