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Topic #G54

Xenophon, The Dinner Party + more on Antisthenes of Athens

8 February 2002
Scribe: Anushki Bodhinayake


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



              In today’s lecture, our guest speaker, Andrea Falcon, gave us an overview of  Antisthenes with respect to today’s assigned readings, The Dinner Party[1] and Antisthenes of Athens.[2]  He began the lecture remarking on how little has been preserved of Antisthenes’s writing and that this forces us to rely mainly on ancient secondary sources when studying his work. Next, he pointed out that while Plato had referred to Antisthenes only once in Platonic writings, Aristotle had done so many times. As to why this was so, he would explain later in the lecture.


              Falcon then directed our attention to a class handout that began with the statement, “Antisthenes was a Socratic Philosopher.” He read the following passage from the handout:


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 of Socrates along with him.[3] 


He then remarked on what a “close and devoted” follower of Socrates Antisthenes was. So much so that, as gathered from the Phaedo,[4] he was present at the death scene in, along with Crito, Critobulos, Hermogenes and others. It seems that while Socrates was certainly known for having an enormous impact on somewhat inexperienced and impressionable young men, Antisthenes, was relatively older and already had expertise. Falcon emphasized however, that Antisthenes was not merely a pupil (or more specifically, a “companion,” since Socrates opposed the idea of being thought of as a teacher.) 


              Going back to the reason as to why Antisthenes was mentioned only once by Plato, Falcon suggested that there was a struggle for interpretation of Socrates, and that Antisthenes was among philosophers such as Xenophon and Plato himself to do so.


Falcon again directed our attention to the class handout. Reading aloud from it, he stated that Antisthenes promoted “a certain interpretation” of Socrates centering itself on the moral question of, “How should one live their life?” Falcon pointed out that Antisthenes was subsequently primarily a moral philosopher. Similarly, other philosophers had their own interpretation of Socrates; for instance, Aristotle interpreted the main focus of Socrates being with ethical questions “and not at all with nature as a whole.”[5]


Falcon then began a focused discussion on The Dinner Party. He observed that this was a typical example of Socratic literature, and that Plato also has a version, (thus, an example of struggle by different philosophers for interpretation of Socrates.) He reminded the class of the context of the dinner party itself: that it was organized and hosted by Callias (one of the wealthiest members of Athens, who himself had an interest in the Sophists) that Socrates and his companions were initially reluctant to attend but went so as not to offend Callias. He went on to remind us of the various topics discussed at the venue, such as “virtue,” “love” and “expertise.” With regard to the topic of “expertise,” more specifically, which expertise each member of the dinner party felt they were most proud of, Antisthenes proclaimed that his was wealth. Falcon remarked on the paradoxical nature of this claim since Antisthenes himself admits that he hasn’t a penny! However, he then referred to the following to explain what Antisthenes meant by this: “I believe that it’s not in their estates that people have their wealth or poverty, but in their mind.”[6]


At this point, Falcon then stated that the word “mind” was not a proper translation of what was meant in the text, and that it should instead be substituted with the word “soul,” since this was a more accurate translation. Falcon’s interpretation of this was that the disposition of the soul does not depend on what one has, but in making what one has enough. In this way, one can attain eudaimonia. He points out that, Antisthenes insists that self-control is very important in trying to attain eudaimonia, since we may not gain any control over external things and so we have to control ourselves in other ways. However, Falcon notes that Antisthenes recognizes that we are indeed souls within a living body and therefore have human survival needs such as those for shelter, warmth, sex, and that these are nonetheless natural. On the other hand, however, Antisthenes states that we need to self-control and not self-deny ourselves with regards to such needs. It is seen that Antisthenes advocates a minimalist life in order to attain eudaimonia. Furthermore, according to Antisthenes, in this way, one may appreciate luxuries if they are available, while knowing what is truly important. Falcon then linked this idea to a question asked by Socrates in Memoirs of Socrates,[7] whereby Socrates asks the question “What is happiness to be associated with?”  Antisthenes is indeed taking up this question and seems to be suggesting that while we cannot be self-sufficient, we can be self-controlled, and this is how to reach ultimate eudaimonia.


              A student then asked, “If one is content with their surroundings, why then should they indulge in luxuries?”  To this, Falcon replied that perhaps a better way to approach this concern would be remember that Antisthenes was advocating self-control and not self-denial, and that there is admittedly no threat in enjoying luxuries when available.


              Next, a student asked, “How do you train for self-control?” Falcon suggested that the way in which one would train for such a task would be to indulge in only the simple things and to exercise in frugality of the body. That is, to eat only when hungry, to drink only when thirsty and so on. Falcon compared running with learning virtue: one must run regularly in order to stay fit, whereas, virtue cannot be lost once learned.


              Another question was raised, as to why self-denial is such a bad thing.  To this, Falcon replied that, admittedly, we, as embodied beings have certain needs and emphasized Antisthenes’ claim that we should strive to achieve self-control rather than self-denial.


              Lastly, a student queried whether one truly knows when they are happy considering the possibility that one can be in self-denial about this in itself. He added, that it seemed as if a certain amount of excessiveness was necessary in order to attain happiness, claiming that “we’re human after all!” Falcon replied to this in saying that excessiveness can certainly be destructive, more often than not. With regards to the connection between happiness and our so-called “human nature,” Falcon stated that the state of our soul is not a psychological state, in fact, he added, this was the qualitative difference between the idea of happiness and eudaimonia.


              Falcon ended the lecture by restating Antisthenes’ emphasis of the relationship between self-control and eudaimonia and gave us some “food for thought” in asking whether we thought the self-control was a means to an end or identical to eudaimonia.  He concluded by suggesting that it seemed from the readings as if they are in fact identical.


[1] Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, tr. Tredennick/Waterfield (Penguin 1990).

[2] Diogenes Laerrtius, Lives and Sayings of Famous Philosophers, book VI, chapter 1: Antisthenes.

[3] This hand-out was given in class.

[4] Plato, Complete Works, Hackett.

[5] see handout given in class.

[6] Supra note 1.

[7] Ibid.