The Absolute Dog

28 May

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 Navia

A 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.

It’s not only that scholars have largely ignored 8 centuries of dogged opposition to Greek and Roman civilization, but most academics have fed us what the Dogs called typhos or lies, intellectual smog, a complete reversal of meanings, when they told us that the Dogs were just a bunch of cynical cynics, nattering nabobs of negativism. In fact they were curious, ruggedly idealistic materialists, fully embodied spirits, intensely practical and consistent in their insistence on happiness and action as the main attraction.

The Dogs’ first big sin was joy seeking.

“In much livelier language than I use here, they can be seen to have advocated the following propositions:

  1. Happiness is living in agreement with nature.
  2. Happiness is something available to any person willing to engage in sufficient physical and mental training.
  3. The essence of happiness is self-mastery, which manifests itself in the ability to live happily under even highly adverse circumstance.
  4. Self-mastery is equivalent to, or entails, a virtuous character.
  5. The happy person, as so conceived, is the only person who is truly wise, kingly, and free.
  6. Things conventionally deemed necessary for happiness, such as wealth, fame, and political power, have no value in nature.
  7. Prime impediments to happiness are false judgments of value, together with the emotional disturbances and vicious character that arise from these false judgments. (A.A. Long, 1996:29-30)

The Dogs’ second big sin was to be skeptical about theory, words, logic, laws of contradiction and predication, and the value of texts. There is no tangible evidence that they wrote anything down. We have zero (0) books from any of the early Dogs: Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates or Hipparchia. Like Socrates, they walked the city, hung out, presented the alternatives they believed in as action, demonstrations of joy in simplicity, and if you asked a question they might have a snappy answer. Asked why he was masturbating in public Diogenes said something like, “Hey, I wish I could relieve my hungry stomach by just rubbing it.” You get the idea: shameless joy seekers, puncturing the pretensions of the respectables.

The two big sins together – seeking happiness in nature and simplicity while opposing theory, language games, texts – guaranteed that most academics would not be interested for over two thousand years.

Antisthenes of Athens: Setting the World Aright costs quite a bit of money, but is a valuable introduction to the life and legacy of the first self-proclaimed Dog. Chapter 1, “Sources and Testimonies” describes how Prof. Navia sifts the varieties of evidence, taking as “primary” sources what was written about Antisthenes by his contemporaries (none of the “sixty-one works ascribed to Antisthenes” and “preserved in ten volumes” according to Laertius, writing 400 years later, have survived) and taking as “secondary” what has been written about Antisthenes in texts like Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers. In Chapter 2 Navia constructs “A Biographical Sketch” or speculative biography based on what various Greeks and Romans over centuries had to say about Antisthenes. In Chapter 3, “The Interpretation of Homer” and especially Chapter 4 “Saying Nothing about the No Thing” Navia gives us evidence of Antisthenes’ deep skepticism about language and Homer’s poetic license, as well as Navia’s own contemporary and radical critique of language as symbolic and full of lies:

“People in high and low places would be gagged into silence and would find themselves without employment, for their lives are structured in webs of lies and euphemisms under which the truth is securely suppressed. Among humans, language has a variety of functions, the most common of which is the capacity to perpetuate the deceptions in which they live. As the Cynics realized, speaking “the Thing which is not” is probably the most engaging human activity. We misname things calling them by the wrong names, utter words and expressions not knowing what they mean, and alter the facts of experience saying that they are otherwise than they are. We fabricate fables and falsehoods about all sorts of things, including ourselves, and use language as a screen to obfuscate those who listen to us. Whether in speaking or writing, lies, deceptions, and misrepresentations are the daily bread of human existence.” (pg. 54)

Chapter 5, “The Socratic Connection” makes the case for Antisthenes as the faithful, primary disciple of Socrates, as opposed to Plato who edited Socrates to suit Plato’s own philosophical goals. Navia argues at length that Plato wrote down his version of the talk, while Antisthenes walked the disciple’s walk that authenticates Socrates as the first or prototype Dog. Chapter 6, “Antisthenes, the Absolute Dog” develops the thesis that the death of Socrates at the hands of the state radicalized Antisthenes and deepened his commitment to “knowing thyself,” “defacing the currency,” and “setting the world aright.” In Chapter 7, “Simon the Shoemaker,” Navia takes the liberty of constructing a profoundly anti-Platonic “Platonic dialogue,” a symposium of voices in which we hear how Antisthenes argued with Socrates over the matter and manner of his life and death. This is the best chapter, the final chapter summing up what is known about Antisthenes, and these 16 pages would make an excellent first reading in every “Introduction to Philosophy” course, or as a jumping off point for courses on “Anarchism”, “Natural World/Legal World,” “Liberating Libertarians from their Addiction to Property and the so-called ‘free market'” and the complementary course, “Liberating Socialists from their Addiction to Statist solutions for most of our problems.” The basic issues and questions of their times and ours are represented here by the imagined voices of Socrates, Crito, Antisthenes, Apollodorus and Simon. This “ancient discussion” convinced me that the legitimate heirs of Socrates were Antisthenes and Diogenes, and certainly not Plato and Aristotle who laid the theoretical foundations for class society, empires, church and state hierarchies and the neo-conservative, fascistic ideology of the present day.

I don’t think it is an accident or coincidence that black American men responding to the strange places where a literate civilization has taken us, call each other “Dawg” and rappers like Snoop Doggy Dog identify deeply with a cartoon canine ontology. Broadly speaking we are at a point in time where language, logic, symbolism, discourse and discursive systems have 1) proliferated into specialized lingos, and 2) become fixed, rigid, deceptively technical, lying to us more and more about reality. There is an ever thicker mass mediated smog of overspun political typhos that we breathe daily; the special typhos of advertising distorts language and thought 24/7; the specialist fogs of war, diplomacy, business, academia, sciences & technologies, arts & aesthetics, commodified sports spectatorship, celebrated celebs, etc. etc. etc. etc. obscure reality and soften what is left of our brains. Navia again: “. . . lies, deceptions, and misrepresentations are the daily bread of human existence.” (p. 54)

In sum, Socratic wisdom, praxis and street philosophy were stolen by Plato and Aristotle and turned into text and typhos in service to civilization, state power, militarism, dominance, empire. The Dogs said “piss on it” and went the other way. It is time we studied their way more carefully.


Other books by Luis E. Navia are The Adventure of Philosophy (1999), Diogenes of Sinope: The Man in the Tub (1998), Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study (1996).

Long, Anthony A. “The Socratic Tradition: Diogenes, Crates, and Hellenistic Ethics” in The Cynics: The Cynic Movement in Antiquity and Its Legacy, edited by R.Bracht Branham and Marie-Odile Goulet-Caze. University of California Press 1996.

A History of Cynicism, by Donald R. Dudley. Gordon Press, New York 1974. (Reprint of Methuen, London, 1937).


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