A New Perspective on Antisthenes: Logos, Predicate and Ethics in His Philosophy by P. A. Meijer
Antisthenes of Athens (ca. 445–365 BCE) was a contemporary follower of Socrates who wrote prolifically on topics ranging from semantics to ethics to Homeric criticism. He was also a fierce rival of Plato and, in our ancient sources, his austere ethical views are sometimes presented as an inspiration for the Cynic and Stoic schools of philosophy. Evidently, Antisthenes was a major figure in antiquity, but we have only second-hand reports of his philosophical life and legacy. The most prominent modern scholarship on Antisthenes is in Italian and German, but there is now a growing interest among Anglophone classicists and philosophers that will only be bolstered by the 2015 publication of the first ever English edition of the testimonia with commentary (Susan Prince, Antisthenes of Athens: Texts, Translations, and Commentary). Meijer unfortunately was not in a position to make use of Prince's monumental commentary but, nonetheless, A New Perspective on Antisthenes provides a fresh and engaging treatment of some of the more interesting elements in Antisthenes's philosophical legacy—his views on definition and predication, his literary criticism, and his ethics—in a manner that is accessible to specialist and non-specialist alike.
The first part, "Logos and Predicate," is the most detailed and compelling of the entire book. Meijer addresses the evidence from Plato, Aristotle, and others concerning Antisthenes's position on the possibility of contradiction and speaking falsely. Our sources report that he said that it is impossible to state a contradiction (ouk estin antilegein), since in that case one is in fact talking of what-is-not and thus saying nothing. They also report that he posited that a logos is that which makes clear what a thing is. He is also interpreted as maintaining that the only true predication (logos) is of the form "A is A"; and Aristotle labels this true predication the oikeios logos, "the thing's own logos." Meijer seeks to work through the distorting biases in these later reports, which he sees as hostile, unsympathetic, and ultimately inaccurate in their depictions of what Antisthenes himself thought. Meijer argues that Antisthenes never held the view that contradiction is impossible but instead held a more nuanced position. Antisthenes's interest is two-fold and concerns productive philosophical methodology: he confronts the "mad contradictor" who simply denies everything affirmed as a logos about A, as well as the "contradictor" who posits a positive alternative logos about A in order to demonstrate that apparent contradictions rest either on a silly "is too, is not" interplay or on confusions about the referent (a logos about A is really about B, so no contradiction) rather than about anything substantial. In the same revisionist mood, Meijer offers a bold new interpretation of what Antisthenes was seeking to achieve with the idea of the oikeios logos. Rather than being about a definition and capturing the essence of a distinct thing, as Aristotle would have us believe, Antisthenes was pursuing a different avenue altogether. Meijer suggests that Antisthenes was thinking roughly as follows: each name (onoma) for a thing has "its own story" or "its own account" (oikeios logos) as a matter of history and linguistic usage; we can feasibly trace that unique story through linguistic-historical study into the origins and uses of names; this is a productive method that clarifies the meaning of the words that we use, but we do not get a definition of an essence as a result; but we were never trying to get definitions of essences in the first place. This is an ingenious and attractive suggestion that prompts some tantalizing further considerations: [End Page 169] for instance, could the argument perhaps be bolstered by comparing the similar activities of contemporary sophists such as Prodicus (with whom Antisthenes is connected in the ancient sources), or by comparing the later etymological practice of the Stoic school?
The remainder of the book is less absorbing. The second part focuses on theology and Homeric criticism and, in particular, Meijer provides a nice discussion of Antisthenes's defense of Odysseus's character, which was based on tracing the meaning of the epithet polytropos. Here Meijer shows Antisthenes to be employing in practice the method of historical-linguistic analysis that is advocated in the first part of the book. The third part, "Ethics," is the least polished and offers a broad descriptive run-through of Antisthenes's positions regarding a number of ethical categories, covering much familiar material in the process. There are brief discussions of Antisthenes's views on paideia, sex and marriage, the nature of "the wise man," the use of exemplars such as Alcibiades and Aspasia in moral philosophy, and politics and kingship (good and bad rule), which might serve as helpful introductions.