back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #G54

Xenophon, The Dinner Party + more on Antisthenes of Athens


8 February 2002
Scribe: John Kohler


These minutes were spoken on 6 February; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                 Friday’s lecture focused on Antisthenes of Athens and was given by the Italian guest Professor Andrea Falcon.  Antisthenes was introduced as both a devoted follower of Socrates and as a moral philosopher, and later, aspects of his thought were questioned.


                 To begin, we explored and analyzed the sources on Antisthenes.  Our knowledge of his writings and thought is indirect since we can access only ancient secondary sources.  We know Antisthenes played a significant role in Ancient Philosophy, and was responsible for writing ten volumes.  However, very little of the content has survived.  Our knowledge of Antisthenes is mostly not dependent on Plato, who mentions him only once, and Aristotle, who describe Antisthenes five times, but without respect.  In The Dinner Party, Xenophon accounts for Antisthenes in greater detail.  Diogenes Laertius comments on Antisthenes, but he is writing from a particular perspective, suggesting a Stoic “pedigree” from Diogenes of Sinope to Socrates, as far forward as Zeno.  Thus, we have no choice but to turn to the secondary sources.


                 Antisthenes was a close companion of Socrates.  Testimony One of the handout supports this claim:


T1 He started out being a pupil of Gorgias the orator […] But later on he came into contact with Socrates, and derived so much benefit from him that he used to advise his own students to become students of Socrates along with him (Diogenes Laertius 6.2).


As the Testimony states, Antisthenes began his education as a “pupil of Gorgias,” and had already possessed accomplished rhetorical skills when he began studying with Socrates.  He was not young when his relationship with Socrates began, but he was nevertheless a dedicated companion.  Diogenes notes that Antisthenes walked five miles everyday to study with the great philosopher.  Of course, Antisthenes was not technically a “student” of Socrates since Socrates did not claim to teach.  Plato illustrates their close relationship in the Phaedo, depicting Antisthenes alongside Critobulos and Crito at the death of Socrates. It is evident Antisthenes was a genuine friend.


                 However, Plato was also a close companion of Socrates, and hence, must have known Antisthenes.  Why, then, would Plato mention Antisthenes only once in the whole of his extant literary works?  To answer this question we must consider the tradition and legacy Socrates left behind.  It appears there was dispute over the correct interpretation of the philosophy of Socrates.  For example, Plato and Xenophon recorded different interpretations of Socrates.  Therefore, it is plausible Antisthenes offered yet another understanding of Socrates’ thought.  Plato must have disregarded Antisthenes because he promoted a competing interpretation.


                 Antisthenes understood Socrates as a moral philosopher, and was himself primarily an ethical thinker.  While Plato emphasized Socrates as an abstract philosopher, Antisthenes saw him as a practical and moral one.  Antisthenes believed Socrates centered his philosophy on the question “how should one lead one’s life?”  In Testimony Three from the handout, Socrates is described as one concerned “with ethical questions, and not at all with nature as a whole.”  As Antisthenes was greatly influenced by Socrates, he adopted this approach to philosophy and focused his philosophical interests around the same question, “How shall one lead one’s life?”  Hence, we should come to think of Antisthenes as both a follower of Socrates and a moral philosopher. 


                 The Dinner Party is one of the major extant sources on the life of Antisthenes.  The literary work is constructed in the dialogue genre, and should be read in light of Plato’s Symposium.  The party described by Xenophon is hosted by Callias, the wealthy Athenian.  (Additional background on Callias and other characters who crop up in the Plato corpus can be found at the website  Socrates is present at the event and participates in a lively discussion with his colleges Critobulus, Hermogenes, Antisthenes and Charmides, debating such topics as virtue and love.  However, we are interested in extracting information about Antisthenes.


                 The philosophy and thought of Antithenes are stated in section four of the dialogue when the group agrees to share their personal expertise and sources of pride.  Although Antisthenes is penniless, he proclaims that he takes pride in his wealth:


Well, come along now, Antisthenes,’ said Socrates.  ‘You tell us how it is that you pride yourself on your wealth, although you have such limited means (The Dinner Party, 4.34)


For Antisthenes, wealth is dependent on the “mind”, not on physical possessions.


Because gentlemen, I believe that it’s not in their estates that people have wealth or poverty, but in their minds [souls].  I see many private persons who, although they have very great wealth, consider themselves so poor that they submit to any hardship and any hazard with a view to increasing their possessions; and I know cases too of brothers who have inherited equal shares and, although one of them has more than enough to cover his expenditure, the other is altogether indigent (The Dinner Party, 4.35).


The word “mind”, can more accurately be translated “soul”; and therefore, Antisthenes believes wealth does not consist of money or land, but of a state of your soul. 


                 Eudaimonia, which translates into happiness, success and fulfillment, is a main concern and ultimate goal for Antisthenes.  This state cannot be attained through external goods, and according to Antisthenes, materially wealthy people are often unhappy because they become slaves to the acquisition of money and possessions.  Individuals must reflect on their disposition to make the possessions they have, enough.  Wealth of the soul, and therefore eudaimonia, is dependent on internal goods and consists of a disposition of the soul.


                 This state of success, for Antisthenes, is reached by practicing self-control.  One cannot have control over external goods, such as land and money, but one can have control over the internal.  Therefore, it is important to “train” yourself and practice self-control.  Antisthenes states:


The quantity of my possessions is such that I myself can hardly discover them; but still I have quite enough to satisfy my hunger when I eat, to quench my thirst when I drink, and to clothe myself so that out of doors I am no colder than Callias here for all his great wealth.  And when I get home, the walls of my house seem to me like a really warm tunic, and the roof like a really think cloak, and my bedclothes are so adequate that it’s hard work even to wake up!  If my body ever feels the need for sexual intercourse, I am content with what is available that any women I approach welcome me with open arms, because nobody else will go near them (The Dinner Party, 4.37-38).


We are souls in a body and we have natural bodily needs, such as the need for shelter, food and sex.  In this respect the philosophy of Antisthenes is similar to the Epicureans.  Like the Epicureans, Antisthenes thought it would be unbeneficial to indulge in these desires more than is necessary, yet also denounced self-denial, which deprives the body of necessities.  There is nothing wrong with indulging once in a while, such as dinning on thesion wines and oysters, but luxury should be the exception not the rule.  Antisthenes believed that self-control is the foundation of all the virtues; and thus, self-control is the path to true success.


                 In The Memoirs of Socrates, Antiphon and Socrates discuss the importance of self-control:


It seems to me, Antiphon that you identify happiness with luxury and extravagance; but I have always thought that to need nothing is divine, and to need as little as possible is the nearest approach to the divine; and that what is divine is best, and what is nearest to the divine is the next best (1.10).


Since it is impossible to be both mortal and self-sufficient, to practice self-control is next to divine.  Antisthenes would have supported this line of thought.

                 The question arose, why is it acceptable to indulge, if self-control is so highly valued?  Our Italian guest answered: “Why not!”  Success and happiness through self-control are not easily lost, and so it would be pleasurable to enjoy the inessential once one has reached a state of success.  Although other ancient thinkers, such as Diogenes, made statements that slightly disagree with this idea, there is a consensus that contentment is not ruined by luxury.


                 Another problem arose: How can one train to get self-control?  Answer: one begins by focusing on a simple lifestyle and practicing frugality.  One would learn to eat only in times of hunger and drink only in periods of thirst.  A stable and controlled self will develop out of these practices.


                 Why, a third student asked, is self-denial bad?  Answer: Xenophon and Socrates pointed out that we are not divine, and we are in no way self-sufficient (Memoirs to Socrates 1.10).  We have bodies, which have necessary desires; thus, it would not be beneficial to deny the body of these necessities.  Aristotle, a student added, believed that it is actually justified for a virtuous person to indulge at certain times.  Hence, to know when indulgence is justified or not requires self-control.  This aspect of Aristotle’s thought is consistent with the philosophy of Antisthenes.


                 Another student wondered, how are you to know whether you are in the state of true “happiness”?  Professor Falcon answered, knowledge of happiness is clarified in comparison with the unhappy, for example the unsatisfied money seekers.  It is important to remember Antisthenes is not stating that a happy feeling is the goal of self-control, but eudaimonia, which is the state of the soul.  Happiness is a complicated notion, which is not universally defined.  Nevertheless, Prof. Andrea Falcon proposed that we, as developing thinkers, should question the relationship between happiness and self-control for ourselves.  Upon reflection we will see that self-control is identical with happiness.