by Charlie Keil
Review of Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the World Aright by Luis E. Navia. Greenwood Press. 2001
“I share Bertrand Russell’s conviction that modern cynicism constitutes the very antithesis of classical Cynicism.”
– Luis NaviaA little poem to make the main point: after the socratic crack the dogs continued to roam free plato the first fire hydrant aristotle the nearest tree
We have been following the wrong ancient Greek philosophers for almost 2500 years because we have let words on the page speak louder than actions in the street.
Antisthenes, some say the most dedicated student of Socrates, became known as “the Dog” or “the Absolute Dog” because of his “absolute commitment to reason infused by a creative energy” (E. Bignone cited in Navia) for setting the world aright. Similarly, Diogenes became known as “the Dog” or “the Dog of Sinope,” and it was as “dogs” that a variety of popular or “street” philosophers found “a will to resist and to set the world aright by means of the application of rational principles to human conduct” (Navia, pg. 96) over an 8 century period from 5th century BC to 3rd century AD. Remember dogs were not the overbred poojies of bourgeois pet fetishism that we know today, but they did stand guard, sorted out friends from foes, lived lives without shame, indifferent to ettiquette and rules. The Dogs
“became, with pride and self-assurance, self-chosen dogs because that name reflected in some measure the way in which they presented themselves. In appearing in the garb of dogs or doggish people, however, their intention was not to abandon human nature and replace it with canine nature or to advocate the transformation of people into animals. In them, as can be gathered from statements attributed to Antisthenes, the point was to distinguish between nature (‘fesis’ in Greek) and convention (‘nomos’ or “law” in Greek), and to remain attached to the former, while setting aside the later. If a happy and virtuous life is to be attained, we must divest ourselves of the artificiality under which we have become buried through the influence of irrational conventions and atavistic modes of being. We must deface the currency that has made us what we were not meant to be. The flight from what is natural that characterizes the human condition is what needs to be corrected, and if the world is to be set aright, it is to nature that we must return.” (Navia, pg 100)
I really like just about everything I can find to read about the Dogs (see Bibliography below). Navia’s book about Antisthenes makes me understand how and why the Dogs were hidden from me during the 60 of my 65 years that I spent being taught and then teaching in schools. I could have been learning about why Diogenes chose to live in a tub when I was in Kindergarten; all the stories about Diogenes confronting the big men of his time convey simple lessons that a child in Kindergarten or first grade could learn: Alexander the Great to Diogenes, “Let me grant your greatest wish o wise man!” Diogenes to Alexander the Great, “Dude, could you move just a little to one side or the other? You’re blocking my sunshine.” Yet I didn’t figure out that the Dogs of antiquity were probably the first western anarchists and resisters, the prime or prototype opponents of civilization and class society, perhaps early western Buddhists and certainly the first beatniks, until after I had retired from academia. I took four consecutive semesters of philosophy courses at Yale in the late 1950s and never got to word one about the Dogs; none of my profs took their “black humor, paradox and surprise, ethical seriousness” (A.A. Long 1996:33) seriously. Graduate school in 1960s Anthropology did not steer me toward the Dogs as the first fieldworkers and participant-observer-critics in social and cultural anthropology, the first westerners to advocate for slaves, women and “barbarians” and against racism, sexism, and imperialism. Somehow, thirty years of research, writing and teaching at a university while working with left and anarchist colleagues didn’t encourage me to sniff out my ancestral Doggie ancestors. Continue reading