Pyrrhonism: Ancient Skepticism

Unknown-6.jpegI find it rather interesting how many of the Hellenistic schools of thought have their own adjectives; yet then again, not only were the schools highly influential in their time, but they made themselves comically vulnerable to rumors and misconceptions, which have traveled forth even today. Among those schools is one of the most intriguing: that of the Skeptics. And as with every adjective that derives from a Greek philosophy, the ideal skeptic has changed over the generations, changing from a vigorous inquirer (skeptic, σκεπτικοι) to a radical doubter. Skepticism has enjoyed a long tradition, reaching from Modern philosopher René Descartes with his Cartesian skepticism to David Hume and his inductive skepticism.

While the typical behavior of a skeptic can be traced to the Pre-Socratic philosophers, it is Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-270 BCE) to whom we formally attribute the philosophical concept of Skepticism. Pyrrho followed the philosopher’s tradition of writing nothing, speech being his only method of relaying his teachings. During Alexander the Great’s conquests, Pyrrho, accompanied by atomist Anaxarchus, met the peculiar sages known as the gymnosophists, or naked lovers of wisdom. From these Indian gurus he adopted “the idea of ungraspability and suspension of judgement.”[1] This idea of suspended judgement (epoche, εποχη) was central to Pyrrhonism. Like every other lover of wisdom, Pyrrho’s mission was to find truth in life, which he felt would free us of worries, ultimately in the goal of achieving the Epicureans’ state of equanimity known as ataraxia. What he found, however, was that there was no truth in the world, for no matter what you say there is always a refutation of equal credibility. The Sophist Protagoras said, “Man is the measure,” claiming that everything is relative to us. Pyrrho supported this idea, arguing that all statements can have opposites. His consequent suspension of judgement thusly removed all labels such as right and wrong, hot and cold, et cetera. What may be beautiful to one person may be ugly to another. Given any claim, there will always be something to go against it. All of this could be led back to the senses, which Pyrrho denounced as unreliable. According to Pyrrho, the senses are all we have, though. To him, appearances, how things appear to us, can be either true or false, but we will never really know, insofar as knowledge is impossible. For example, if we look at a cup of water with a pencil in it, its initial appearance, the pencil being unevenly disjointed by refraction, is true, since we are seeing it with our eyes. Its appearance upon taking it out of the water and finding that it is whole is also true because we are seeing it with our eyes. In both cases our perceptions were true but false at the same time.

Stories tell of Pyrrho living “neither avoiding anything nor watching out for everything, taking everything as it came, whether it be wagons or precipices or dogs.”[2] Antigonus of Carystus added, “If anyone walked out on him in the middle of whatever he was saying, he just finished speaking to himself.”[3] “And once, when Anaxarchus fell into a ditch, he passed by him and did not give him any help … Anaxarchus himself praised his [Pyrrho’s] indifference and lack of sentimentality.”[4] Another time “his fellow passengers were frightened by a storm. He, however, was calm and serene.”[5]

So how do we know all of this about Pyrrho, you ask? Most of what we know of him comes from second-hand sources. Diogenes Laertius, the biographer, got his sources from stories told by others. A more reliable source is Timon of Phlius (320-230 BCE), Pyrrho’s disciple. Timon wrote a lot on his revered master, though he is most known for his Silloi, satires written about other philosophers and writers. While Timon was the closest associate of Pyrrho, fellow Skeptics Aenesidemus and Agrippa made greater contributions to Pyrrhonism. To support Pyrrho’s way of life and to protect it from any logical criticisms, Aenesidemus proposed 10 arguments (tropoi, τροποι) that summed up Pyrrhonian suspension:

  1. All animals perceive things differently
  2. Humans perceive things differently
  3. The sense organs perceive things differently
  4. Circumstances change how we perceive things
  5. Cultures and beliefs change how we perceive things
  6. Everything is affected by something else, which changes how we perceive things
  7. Location, specifically distance, changes how we perceive things
  8. Quantities of something change how we perceive things
  9. The frequency of something’s occurrence changes how we perceive things
  10. Things relative to other things change how we perceive things

Agrippa felt the need to truncate these arguments, turning them into five:

  1. No matter what is said, there will always be an opposing viewpoint
  2. All claims require justification, which will go on infinitely
  3. Depending on the current conditions, one’s perceptions may change
  4. Following tropoi 2, justifications will be assumed
  5. Justifications become circular reasoning

Finally, these arguments were reduced to two core ideas:

  1. The intrinsic value of an object is indiscernible by people; we can find only external value
  2. Any attempts to describe intrinsic value will result in circular reasoning

The stories of total obliviousness and mortal ignorance surrounding Pyrrho are sure to inspire some skepticism (pun intended), for Aenesidemus defended him, declaring, “He [Pyrrho] only theorized suspension of judgement, whereas he did not actually act improvidently.”[6] Followers of Pyrrho were not the only Skeptic philosophers, seeing as Plato’s Academy entered its Middle period, a period of Skepticism, upon the appointment of Arcesilaus (316-241 BCE). Arcesilaus, in the style of Socrates, famously averred, “I am certain I know nothing.” Of course, this meant he was certain he was not certain he knew nothing. He continued teaching dialectic, the classic art of Socratic dialogue, in the Academy, stressing the impossibility of true knowledge. Eventually, his legacy was surpassed by Carneades (214-129). A skilled dialectician and Skeptic, Carneades was known for his ability, like Protagoras, to argue both sides of a topic. One of his notable stunts involved him lecturing in Rome on the concept of justice, praising it. The following day he argued in disfavor of justice, turning his previous lecture completely around. It is said he angered many politicians, Cato the Younger included, ending with Carneades being exiled from Rome. After some time, the question of whether the Skeptic life was livable popped up, considering Pyrrho lived precariously close to death–at least that is how he is depicted in the stories. If we live suspending judgements, what is to stop us from endangering our lives? Carneades came up with a solution known in Skepticism as probability (pithanotita, πιθανότητα). Because we use appearances to determine what something is, according to Carneades, we can distinguish things that may harm us by building up these appearances, using deductive reasoning to decide something is bad. Using the example of a shadow, we may make out the shape of it, thinking it to be a person, but only until we see it move can we tell if it is alive, and furthermore, if we hear the moving, human-shaped shadow talking, we can reasonably conclude it is, in fact, a person. The varying degrees of probability as they steadily stack up will guide us to a certain deduction. Roman physician and Skeptic Sextus Empiricus (160-210 CE) was the last writer of Antiquity to continue the Skeptic tradition. His book, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, provides the basis for the basic principles of Skepticism. The Skeptics did not consider themselves as having any doctrines, however.

To conclude, whenever the word “skeptical” is thrown around, it is best you suspend your judgement, because you never know if the appearance may be fooling you. Pyrrho, a true sage, was able to practice what he preached, and he created a lifestyle worth emulating; one should only act with small doses of skepticism, though, as you would not want to fall into a ditch like Anaxarchus. Have fun doubting!


[1] Inwood and Gerson, Hellenistic Philosophy, pg. 173
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Id., pg. 174
[6] Id., pg. 173

For further reading: A History of Philosophy Volume 1: Greece and Rome by Frederick Copelston (1993)
Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf (1982)
The Story of Philosophy
 by James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom (2012)
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich (1995)
Hellenistic Philosophy by Brad Inwood and L.P. Gerson (1988)
The History of Western Thought
by Bertrand Russell (1972)
The Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion (2006)
The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb (2000)
History of Philosophy
 by Julian Marias (1967)


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