Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


Sources. Pyrrho, the chief Sceptic of this period, left no writings. Of the writings of his earlier followers very few fragments have come down to us. We are obliged, therefore, to rely on secondary sources, such as Diogenes Laertius, Aristocles (quoted by Eusebius), and the Later Sceptics.{1}

The Stoics and Epicureans laid down certain theoretical principles from which they deduced canons of conduct, always keeping in view the practical aim of philosophy, to make men happy. The Sceptics agreed with the Stoics and Epicureans in referring philosophy primarily to conduct and the pursuit of happiness, but, instead of laying down theoretical principles as the Stoics and Epicureans had done, they taught that the first step to happiness is to forego all theoretical inquiry and to disclaim all certainty of knowledge.

The principal Sceptics are: (1) Pyrrho, (2) the Platonists of the Middle Academy, (3) Later Sceptics, including AEnesidemus.


Life. Pyrrho of Elis was a contemporary of Aristotle. Very little is known about his life. It is probable that he died about the year 270 B.C. Among his disciples Timon of Phlius, surnamed the sillographer, is best known. Timon composed satirical poems (silloi) in which he attacked the dogmatists, following in this the example of his teacher, who declared that Democritus alone deserved the name of philosopher, and that all the rest, Plato and Aristotle included, were mere Sophists.


In accounting for Pyrrho's Scepticism it is safe to add to the influence which Democritus may have exercised on his mind the influence of the Megarian spirit of criticism which must have prevailed in Pyrrho's native city.

All we know about the teaching of Pyrrho may be reduced to the following propositions: (1) In themselves, real things are neither beautiful nor ugly, neither large nor small. We have as little right to say that they are the one as we have to say that they are the other. Hence the famous ouden mallon.{2} (2) Real things are, therefore, inaccessible to human knowledge, and he is wise who, recognizing the futility of inquiry, abstains from judging. This attitude of mind was called epochê aphasia.{3} (3) From this withholding of judgment arises the state of imperturbability (ataraxia) in which human happiness consists.{4}

In this account of Pyrrhonism no attempt has been made to separate the doctrines of Pyrrho from those of Timon. Pyrrho taught orally, and the fact of his having left no writings accounts for the freedom with which writers attribute to him the principles and tenets of his followers.


Arcesilaus and Carneades, departing from the tradition of the Platonic school, of which they were the official representatives, lent their aid to the Sceptical movement by seeking to establish on rational and empirical grounds the thesis that it is impossible to arrive at certitude.{5} The Scepticism of the Middle Academy very quickly gave way before Eclecticism.


Under this title are included AEnesidemus and others who were for the most part physicians, and who from sensualistic premises deduced a system of Scepticism which was more radical than the idealistic Scepticism or the probabilism of the Academy.

AEnesidemus of Cnossus in Crete taught at Alexandria about the beginning of the Christian era. According to Ritter and Preller,{6} he flourished between the years 80 and 50 B.C. Diogenes{7} alludes to a work of AEnesidemus in which by means of ten tropes (tropoi) he strove to show that contradictory predicates may be affirmed of one and the same subject, and that, consequently, certain knowledge is impossible. These tropes are a fairly complete enumeration of the arguments of the Sceptics and furnished, directly or indirectly, material to more than one advocate of the relativity of knowledge in subsequent times.

According to Sextus Empiricus,{8} AEnesidemus subjected the notion of cause to special analysis, and pronounced it to be self-contradictory. A cause, he argued, either precedes the effect, or is synchronous with it, or is subsequent to it. Now, it cannot precede the effect; if it did, it would be a cause before it was a cause. It cannot be synchronous with the effect, for in that case cause and effect would be interchangeable; there would be no reason why one rather than the other should be called the product. Finally, the hypothesis that the cause is subsequent to the effect is manifestly absurd. In this way did AEnesidemus conclude, sophistically, that the notion of cause is utterly devoid of meaning.

AEnesidemus, however, did not regard Scepticism as a system, but only as an introduction (agôgê) to a system of philosophy.

Agrippa, who lived about a century after AEnesidemus, reduced the tropes to five, and argued that knowledge is impossible because, the major premise of the syllogism being itself a conclusion, syllogistic reasoning is a regressus in infinitum.

Sextus Empiricus, who is the most important of the later Sceptics, lived at Alexandria about the year A.D. 300. In his work Against the Mathematicians, and in his treatise known as Pyrrhonic Hypotyposes, he subjects to critical examination the dogmatism not only of the great constructive systems of theoretical and practical philosophy but also of arithmetic and geometry. He maintains that no science is certain, or rather that the true Sceptic should refrain from any absolute judgment whatever.

Historical Position. The history of Greek Scepticism exhibits an interesting phase of the practical idea which dominated the philosophy of Greece during the third period. Like the Stoics and Epicureans, the Sceptics were animated with the desire to find in philosophy a refuge from the disheartening conditions of the times in which they lived; but, unlike their dogmatizing contemporaries, they believed that the first step towards securing happiness is the abdication of all claim to the attainment of scientific knowledge.

{1} For biographical data, cf. Suidas, Lexikon (ed. Bernhardy, 2 vols., Halle, 1853); cf. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. CXVII, col. 1194.

{2} Cf. Diog. Laer., IX, 61.

{3} Op. cit., IX, 103.

{4} Aristocles, quoted by Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, XIV, 18, apud Migne, Patr. Graeca, Vol. XXI, coll. 1216 ff.

{5} Cf. p. 123.

{6} Op. cit., p. 570.

{7} IX, 106.

{8} Mathem., IX, 220.

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