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Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Skeptic’s Faith [Sextus Empiricus]


Greek words are transliterated, though I don't doubt that there is an easy way to maintain the Greek font.


I have pursued art rather than religion or philosophy because it seems to me to offer greater access to reality. Indeed, when the practitioners of those other realms appeal to me, in the person of the Buddha, say, or St. Francis, Plato, or Nietzsche, I assimilate them to art. After all, each of these sought symbolic manipulation that would in part make life seem livable. For me, understanding religion is largely a matter of interpreting metaphors, and philosophy’s most important role is that defined by the ancient Greeks, Indians, and Chinese alike: to enable one to live a good life.

Much of religion and art as well employs ample metaphorical mediation in rendering the world, often glorious and grand as in the Mahabharata or Dante. While I agree that the subtleties of human insight are more precisely expressed in the indirection of figuration, I also appreciate the early Daoists, and some among the practitioners of Zen and Vedanta who look at reality directly, without illusion or protective rhetoric and yet find illumination in that rigorously spare vision. I find elements of the same sort of consolation of philosophy digestible even to a faithless twenty-first century reader in certain of those philosophers of late antiquity, Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and Skeptics for whom the Olympian gods had become unsatisfying, but who were not attracted to the salvationist mystery cults of the era. I turn to the pre-Socratics for poetry, to Plato and Aristotle for magisterial system, but to Marcus Aurelius, Epicurus, stories of Diogenes, and to the Skeptic Sextus Empiricus for strategies aimed at a well-lived life.

Though Pyrrho of Elis, whose ideas we know primarily from Sextus Empiricus, is often named the originator of Greek skepticism, his ideas were by no means altogether novel. The Greek skeptomai means to look about carefully, to view or consider, and thus a skeptic would originally have been simply an inquirer. Indeed the Pyrrhonian skepticism of Sextus encourages continuous questioning and declines to be dogmatic even in its doubts, insisting that one must withhold judgment in the present state of knowledge while allowing for the possibility of knowledge through some future improvement in reasoning and perhaps through non-ratiocinative processes as well. Long before Sextus’ time, late in the fifth century B. C.E. the sophist Gorgias was the author of a lost book titled On Nature or the Non-Existent (an epitome is in Sextus’ Against the Professors) in which he maintained that nothing exists, though if it did exist, it could not be known, but even if it could be known, it could not be communicated, and, if it could be communicated, it could not be understood. A more thorough nihilism is difficult to imagine.

In some dialogues, Socrates is portrayed as a doubter, saying in the Apology “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” [2] Similarly the conclusion of the Theaetetus seems to leave the question of what constitutes valid knowledge entirely unresolved.

Academic skepticism descended through later thinkers associated with Plato’s school, constituting an alternative Skeptical tradition to Pyrrhonianism, embodied in the work of what was also called the New Academy of which Carneades was the most prominent exponent. As a kind of skeptic fundamentalist in this long-established tradition, Sextus aims at providing a systematic formulation of Pyrrhonian skepticism and thus mounting a persuasive and thorough polemic against the Dogmatists , meaning chiefly the Stoics, but including all believers of every sort. He rejected the Stoic faith in reasoning as well as their monistic pantheism and qualified acceptance of sense data as an accurate register of reality.

Aiming at providing a thoroughly reasoned case even at the risk of trying his readers’ patience, Sextus repeats the same series of arguments a good many times. His most telling points called tropes or modes, were for the most part inherited from Aenesidemus. [3] His most often repeated argument is that of infinite regress. Since the reason justifying a conclusion itself requires justification, no proposition can be certainly established. [5] For Pyrrho and Sextus every criterion for truth must itself be proven and the criterion used for that proof in turn requires always another proof. The Skeptics insist, in opposition to the implications of everyone’s daily behavior, that we never can be certain we are in fact perceiving reality nor can we know that our own perception is the same as another’s. Since different thinkers come to different conclusions, not only about ideas but even about sense impressions, since all humans are limited by our sensory and cognitive apparatus, since consensus is inadequate as proof, [4] it is difficult or impossible to find truly “self-evident” propositions from which to rebuild, like Descartes, a structure of thought ascending all the way to the heavens.

Perhaps the most surprising result of Pyrrhonian skepticism as described by Sextus is the state of mind that can occur after one admits one’s ignorance. According to Sextus the goal (or telos) of skepticism is ataraxia, a quietude in mind. According to Eusebius’ account of Pyrrho’s follower Timon the skeptic experiences “first speechlessness, and then imperturbability, but Aenesidemus says pleasure.” [6] Sextus readily recognizes that this calm may be imperfect and he allows for “moderate feeling” when “unavoidable.” [7] For Sextus as for Buddha, desire is the source of pain. When one suffers what seem to be “natural evils,” one “deems himself to be pursued by Furies, and when he becomes possessed of what seems to him good things he falls into no ordinary sense of disquiet both through arrogance and through fear of losing them.” [8] Pyrrho himself was said to have traveled eastward with Alexander and to have studied with Indian yogis (the gymnosophists or “naked philosophers” whom the Macedonian king himself regarded most highly) as well as with Persian magi before returning to Greece. Many of the anecdotes recorded about him after he set up as a philosopher upon his return relate to his detachment and imperturbability, though tales of his needing to be protected from walking off cliffs or being run down by carts are doubtless hyperbolic. He so impressed his fellow-countrymen that he was made chief priest during his life (his agnosticism having been found no impediment), and statues were erected in his honor both in his native town of Elis and in Athens.

Sextus emphatically insists that his skepticism in no way denies appearances which he recognizes “induce our assent involuntarily.” [9] To him the problem is in the account given of the appearances. We cannot deny, he says, that honey seems sweet, “but whether it is sweet in its essence is for us a matter of doubt.” He is not performing intellectual stunts (as one might suspect Gorgias of doing) but rather, as he says, “pointing out the rashness of the Dogmatists.” [10] Like all people, he relies constantly on his sense impressions and his cognitive abilities. He differs only in thinking that these useful abilities may fall short of delivering Reality to the consciousness. This is far from being a cul de sac for him; it is rather a beginning. On the first page or so of his book, Sextus warns his readers that he does not “positively affirm” of any of his statements “that the fact is exactly as we state it, but we simply record each fact, like a chronicler, as it appears to us at the moment.” [11] He later restates the concept while commenting on the highly practical matter of his own medical professions’ remedies: “we are unable to say what is the true nature of each of these things, although it is possible to say what each thing at the moment appears to be.” [12]

For Sextus the same tentative acceptance of the phenomena of everyday reality applies to dialectic, the art of logical argumentation. Thus Sextus concludes his book with a curious passage in which he says that the skeptic sage, being a “lover of his kind,” wishes, like a good physician, to “cure” the delusions of others. He will select the argument to use in a given situation, not on its rational superiority to other possible arguments, but on the basis of what is appropriate to use with a given opponent. [13] “Proof” is not a matter of positivistic conclusions, but rather of rhetorical victory, the verbal formulation that will accomplish the speaker’s task.

Both this acceptance of admittedly imperfect vision and the elaboration of rhetorical goals sound to me very like poetry. While we cannot grasp at Truth and hold it firm in the hand, we can record a snapshot of the play of subjective mind, and, if we do so accurately enough, it will resonate in others. Every poem, every work of art, no less than the propositions of a skeptic, might begin with the words “it is as if . . .” If such a declaration is the closest we may approach to Truth, it is the part of wisdom to accept that reality and follow Pyrrho and Sextus and those Renaissance writers whom they influenced such as Montaigne in making the most of it.


1. See Sextus Empiricus I, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I, 21d. I use the Loeb Classical Library edition with a translation by R. G. Bury. Though quotations are in English, references are to sections of the original text. See also Diogenes Laertius II.32.

2. Apology 21, d.

3. Ancient skepticism described their basic arguments as tropes or modes. Sextus Empiricus’ attempt to set forth his position systematically leads to a great deal of repetition. Modern comments taking his arguments into account include those by Karl Popper and, later, Hans Albert who coined the term “Münchhausen trilemma” to describe the choice between dogmatism, infinite regress and “psychologism” (trusting sense impressions) in terms very similar to those used in antiquity.

4. See Sextus Empiricus I, II, 43 on consensus of the majority. The Academic Skeptic Carneades had attacked consensus as a basis for theism.

5. See, for instance Sextus I, I, 116.

6. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, Bk.XIV, ch. 18, 1-5.

7. Sextus I, II, 25.

8. Sextus I, III, 237.

9. Sextus I, I, 19.

10. Sextus I, I, 20.

11. Sextus I, I, 3-5.

12. Sextus I, I, 93. As a physician, his name Empiricus would seem to suggest that he practiced in the Empiric tradition though he notes at one point that the Methodic school had much in common with Pyrrhonism, in that it “follow[s] the appearances and take[s] from these whatever seems expedient.” [Sextus I, I, 237] Both schools were opposed to the Dogmatists.

13. Sextus I,III, 280-281.

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