Are Philosophers Tactless? Regarding Antisthenes, from Xenophon’s Symposium

Preliminary to the dissertation, in the style the dissertation will most likely be completed. Making notes on the actual dissertation text as you read this. Please don’t worry about not knowing all the names, I will flesh out what is worth knowing, I won’t waste your time.

Socrates is a very noble guest in Xenophon’s Symposium. He attends Kallias’ banquet because he doesn’t want to hurt Kallias’ feelings (1: 7), and upon seeing Kallias enchanted with Autolycus (1: 10), promotes Kallias as much as possible. Kallias is complimented mightily on being a good host (2: 3), is defended in his claim he makes men more just through his money (4: 5), relied on for aid in dealing with Hermogenes’ taciturnity (6: 3), and finally told that his love for Autolycus is not only a good thing, but divinely inspired (8: 37). There are many other deeds of Socrates in the Symposium, but Strauss has suggested all the deeds are really one: he is exhorting Kallias to love the polis.

The above is only backdrop for our present concern, the character of Antisthenes. Antisthenes proclaims that he is madly in love with Socrates (8: 4), and Socrates jokingly replies that his love should be kept secret as it is only physical infatuation (8: 6). Strauss proclaims Antisthenes “unerotic,” though, and we have to wonder what is meant by that. I think those of us who consider ourselves philosophic in some small way, but nowhere near on the level of Socrates, would find ourselves sympathetic to Antisthenes.

1. Antisthenes as philosopher

Unlike Socrates, he has difficulty warming up to the dinner party. People playing the flute and dancing, lots of food and upper class snobs bragging about how they make people more just through money or know everything because they’ve memorized Homer via paid tutors – seriously, shouldn’t a philosopher – shouldn’t anybody – be offended by how grating it all is? There’s a war going on at the time of this party (421 BC is the date the Loeb editor gives), and the spirit of celebration can’t possibly be shared by all on command: witness Charmides’ barely concealed (and very justifiable) anger at the demos for his poverty in 4: 29-33.

So Antisthenes represents one who thinks he loves Socrates, but perhaps doesn’t truly. Yet his reaction to this party is more in line with what we would expect from a philosopher than Socrates’. Asked what the most valuable thing he knows is, Antisthenes claims that his pride resides in his wealth, although all know him to be poor. He holds true wealth to be held in people’s souls (4: 34-35), for what people are willing to do to each other if they are even remotely insecure about wealth shows many who seem to be wealthy to be poor (4: 35-37 – he cites the rich who take risks because of fear of competition, moves to those who squander inheritances, and finally talks about despotism as the enslavement of an entire city for the sake of a few bucks). For himself, though, he says he has too many possessions. He can eat so that he is satisfied; he doesn’t need too many extra garments or expensive shelters to resist the cold. He enjoys sleep and finds it difficult to get out of bed. Women aren’t a problem because he talks only to those who have no one else with whom to converse.

Antisthenes explains the “most worthy” possession of his wealth: If he were robbed, any occupation would provide for him adequately (4: 40). He can enjoy fancy foods and wines such as the ones at the party, but because he is “most contented” with what he has, he is “least likely to covet what belongs to others” (4: 42-43). He credits Socrates for this “wealth” of his, says that he is willing to share his spiritual wealth with all, and that his most “graceful” (the word has strong implications of immortality/divinity) possession is his “leisure” (4: 44), by which he can take in many things and hang out with Socrates.

Is Antisthenes not in Socrates’ league merely because he loves Socrates, and has resigned himself to be a follower? Or is there something else about a philosopher, a necessary nobility that Antisthenes does not quite have?

2. The trouble with Antisthenes

The trouble is inherent in the very listing of his “wealth.” The whole speech is too pointed, it would be considered a mocking of a less gracious host than Kallias. Poor Kallias is spending lots of money to feast this man. If wisdom is moderation, and part of moderation is knowing how to be a philosopher without rubbing it in every 5 seconds, then wisdom isn’t declaring oneself wise and moderate and better than everyone else all the time.

But there’s more than just the timing of the speech, or his refusal to make fun of himself (4: 62), or his nearly causing a fight with the Syracusean (a fight the Syracusean deserves, but still – 6: 8). The lack of grace is evident in his confusion about what is noble and what is graceful, and you can see that in his listing above. Usually we would say “leisure” is noble, and the ability to be continent – to provide for necessities by not having many in the first place – a particular grace. Instead, Antisthenes has reversed the order and placed continence under the “worthy,” and leisure under divinity. Now there’s nothing wrong with reversing this order, necessarily, except that continence is a means for the temperate as well as the intemperate. If one can control one’s appetites wholly, one has the potential to be the worst sort of tyrant over men – making them believe that one is a saint while one is really working to be stronger than everyone else so as to dominate. Continence can mark a greedy general as well as an ascetic, and not all ascetics, of course, are wise merely because they are ascetics. Sometimes they’re looking for influence in order to be remembered, and do not really care if they are wise or not.

What reveals Antisthenes as flawed is the one time he praises Kallias. While he eventually disputes that Kallias can make men more just through money, Antisthenes does like Kallias’ emphasis on justice. From Strauss’ Xenophon’s Socrates, pg. 149:

…in Antisthenes’ view justice is the least disputable kind of gentlemanship, for manliness and wisdom are thought to be sometimes harmful to both friends and the city (hence unjust) whereas justice is never in any respect associated with injustice; he implied that wisdom is at least thought to be compatible with injustice; he was silent on the harm that manliness and wisdom (and justice) can do to their possessor (Mem. IV 2.33), for the question concerned now the harm to others; he was silent on continence because it was thought to be compatible with greed (Mem. I 5.3)

It would seem to me that Socrates could agree that continence should be subordinate to leisure. But that is not specific enough – a despot is more than willing to be continent for the sake of leisure. A despot will happily use means that look just in order to advance injustice. Understanding what’s wrong above starts with “justice is never in any respect associated with injustice” – is it not the case we do harm to criminals, sometimes excessive harm accidentally? From the Republic, Book 1 – is it not just for someone who wishes to guard something well to be familiar with all the ways a thief can operate, perhaps be skilled at stealing himself? From Lesser Hippias – is it not the case that Odysseus teaches much about justice and wisdom and rule, all while being a liar?

3. So what do we conclude?

I think Antisthenes is a stand-in for those who wish to understand what Socrates truly stood for, and benefit others. It’s not that he isn’t philosophic – he is. He just has a lot to learn, and shouldn’t get carried away with how powerful the mind can be. Happiness for oneself is, in large part, a matter of perception. But true happiness for oneself and others involves subordinating oneself to what they want to achieve, and showing them what is best through subtle and caring means of persuasion. Socrates’ deeds in the Symposium are truly graceful because they are cornball for the most part: he compliments others frequently and avoids insulting anyone. Charmides and Antisthenes and Hermogenes all are in Socrates’ circle, and have legitimate complaints against being at the party. Antisthenes seems to me to be an incomplete philosopher, one who has a little bit of growing up to do. When he grows a bit more, he’ll realize just how much the philosopher is a guest, how much he would rather not be the center of attention (9: 4-6).

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