Classics Antisthenes
Susan Prince
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0409


Antisthenes of Athens (c. 445–365 BCE) was a disciple of Socrates, among the first Socratics to gain influence in 4th-century Athens, if Isocrates’ Against the Sophists refers in part to him. The remains of his large literary production are fragmentary: some sixty-three texts are listed in a catalog of his writings, but only the short pseudo-forensic speeches Ajax and Odysseus survive. Citations and testimonia are the main basis for reconstructing Antisthenes’ intellectual production and influence on contemporaries and successors, both the Cynics and the Stoics. He was a rival of Plato, whose literary and philosophical successes eclipsed his own. Antisthenes differed from Plato on the theory of Forms, which Antisthenes rejected as unreal; the value of reading Homeric poetry, from which Antisthenes derived serious ethical truth; and the way that philosophically authoritative statements were true. According to a Hellenistic anecdote devised to represent the antagonism between the two Socratics, Plato responded to Antisthenes’ famous thesis that gainsaying cannot occur—because apparently contradicting statements can both be true from different perspectives—by asserting that Antisthenes had eliminated the basis for saying anything at all. Diogenes Laertius credits Antisthenes with the first definition of “logos,” a plausible contribution in the context of early Socraticism. Interpretation of Antisthenes’ positions on logos and gainsaying remains controversial. In ethics and politics, Antisthenes agreed with Plato generally and was overshadowed by Plato’s more successful versions of Socratic inquiry and doctrine. He was famous for denying the goodness of pleasure and elevating the value of toil. He was radically individualist and seems to have valorized mythical and legendary heroes—foremost, Heracles and Cyrus the Great, but possibly also Odysseus and others—for purposes of demonstrating ethical virtue and presumably its basis in knowledge. In his fictions about these characters, the nature of virtue might have been analyzed through narrative depiction of its acquisition during a process of education and other experience. The remains of Antisthenes’ ethical thought are preserved largely in apophthegmatic form, which are reductions of the fictions and dialogues for which he was famous until the time of the Emperor Julian. Meanwhile, Xenophon’s portrayal of Antisthenes suggests that the historical Antisthenes was abrupt and disruptive, consistently with the tone of many apophthegmata. The chief controversy in the reconstruction of Antisthenes’ ethical views is the degree of certainty, in contrast to dialogic investigation and aporetic protreptic, in his original philosophical pronouncements, which do not survive.

General Overviews

Brief overviews are Decleva Caizzi 2000, the relevant part of Döring 2011, Prince 2006, and Guthrie 1969 (still useful although outdated). The anthology of Suvák 2014 is wide-ranging, including difference of opinion on central topics. Three book-length studies in English are informative but predate or neglect critical publications in European languages. Rankin 1986 and Navia 2001 follow the traditional assumption that Antisthenes’ forensic speeches and Homeric criticism should be attributed to an early, “Sophistic” period and separated from the rest of his thought. By contrast, Meijer 2017 puts Antisthenes’ Homeric studies at the center of his account but is uneven in coverage. The best detailed overviews, which pursue a unity of thought across Antisthenes’ production, are published in Italian and German: Caizzi 1964, Patzer 1970 (see under Antisthenes’ Writings), Brancacci 1990 (see under Logic and Language), and Döring 1998. One of the bibliographical essays in Giannantoni 1990 Volume 4, pp. 355–363 (see under Early Bibliography), presents a historical overview.

  • Caizzi, Fernanda. 1964. Antistene. Studi Urbinati 38:48–99.

    Argues for the centrality of the Odysseus material, especially the discussion of the epithet polutropos in the Homeric scholia, partly on the basis of resonances of the philosophically serious rhetorician in the orations of Dio Chrysostom. Integrates this Odysseus figure with a comprehensive interpretation of Antisthenes’ thought.

  • Decleva Caizzi, Fernanda. 2000. Antisthenes. In Greek thought: A guide to classical knowledge. Edited by Jacques Brunschwig and G. E. R. Lloyd, 536–543. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

    A summary updated from Decleva Caizzi 1966 (see under Editions, Translations, and Commentaries), emphasizing the need to unify Antisthenes’ logic and ethics. Originally published in 1996 as Le Savoir grec: dictionnaire critique (Paris: Flammarion).

  • Döring, Klaus. 1998. Antisthenes, Diogenes und die Kyniker der Zeit vor Christi Geburt. In Sophistik, Sokrates, Sokratik, Mathematik, Medizin. Edited by H. Flashar, 267–364. Die Philosophie der Antike 2/1. Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe.

    An overview by an expert on the Megarians, Cynics, and other minor Socratic figures, under six subheadings: sources, biography, writings, doctrines on epistemology and logic, ethics, Homeric criticism, and rhetoric. On Antisthenes, pp. 268–280.

  • Döring, Klaus. 2011. The students of Socrates. In The Cambridge companion to Socrates. Edited by D. R. Morrison, 24–47. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A summary, in English, of Döring 1998. On Antisthenes, pp. 42–45.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1969. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 3. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Treats Antisthenes among the Sophists on grounds of interests in language, which are comparable with those of Gorgias and Protagoras. Absorbs some conclusions of Caizzi 1964, the most recent scholarship cited. On Antisthenes’ views on language, pp. 209–216; on his ethical views, 304–311.

  • Meijer, P. A. 2017. A new perspective on Antisthenes: Logos, predicate, and ethics in his philosophy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9789048532957

    Argues that Antisthenes was essentially a philologist, who took the history of words seriously by examining their meanings in Homer. The impact of Antisthenes’ gainsaying thesis was not the impossibility of contradiction, but the futility of trying to teach through refutation. The book was written several decades before publication date, and the chief interlocutor is Guthrie 1969.

  • Navia, Luis. 2001. Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the world aright. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

    Privileges the biography in Diogenes Laertius and emphasizes Antisthenes’ status as forerunner of the Cynics. Literary fragments and the forensic speeches are largely ignored.

  • Prince, Susan. 2006. Socrates, Antisthenes, and the Cynics. In A companion to Socrates. Edited by Sara Ahbel-Rappe and Rachana Kamtekar, 75–92. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Argues that Antisthenes’ version of Socraticism is consistent with later developments of Cynicism.

  • Rankin, H. D. 1986. Anthisthenes [sic] Sokratikos. Amsterdam: Hakkert.

    An overview of Antisthenes’ logic and ethics as they had been separately studied in older scholarship, interpreting Antisthenes’ logic as neo-Eleatic and Sophistic, and his ethics as oriented to the supreme value of freedom. Apart from the author’s own work, the most recent scholarship on Antisthenes cited is Burnyeat 1970 (see under Logic and Language), whereas Patzer 1970 (see under Antisthenes’ Writings) is ignored.

  • Suvák, Vladislav, ed. 2014. Antisthenica Cynica Socratica. Prague: Oikoumene.

    Twelve essays on representative topics, including the continuity from Socraticism to Cynicism, Antisthenes’ views on logic and language, Plato’s response to Antisthenes, ethical self-sufficiency, and early modern reception. Contributors diverge in their views, especially concerning continuity with Cynicism and issues of logic.

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