Meditation XVIII, Sextus Empiricus (AD c.200) – Outlines of Pyrrhonism

Sextus Empiricus

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.

~

Following the death of Plato and Aristotle, three schools, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics would dominate the Greek philosophy. The similarity between all three schools was to achieve ataraxia, which can be defined as an ideal tranquillity or freedom from disturbance. For the Stoics, ataraxia is achieved by accepting misfortunes without complain when we can do nothing about it. A man that sees his son drowning would try to save him. Failing to do so he should not feel distress or unhappy as divine providence have determined it for the best. Therefore his failure is for the best.

The Epicureans on the other hand, called for a way of life directed at worldly happiness which would set the mind free from disturbance and a body free from pain. Pleasure is the goal of living and virtues are only means to achieve that goal. Lastly, we have the sceptics, philosophers that believe that we can only achieve ataraxia by ‘suspension of judgement’ and adhering to none of the dogmatic beliefs. It is philosophy of scepticism that we this meditation would deal with.

The founder of the philosophy of scepticism is a man called Pyrrho, who we believe was a citizen and a priest (some say a painter). Pyrrho refuses to commit himself to any positive belief and attempted to maintain tranquillity (ataraxia) by balancing any possible thesis with its equally possible antithesis. He maintains ‘nothing is honourable or base, or just or unjust, and that nothing exists in truth’. Our knowledge of Pyrrho comes from Sextus Empiricus whom we know virtually nothing about except that he was a sceptic and a physician. Sextus Empiricus wrote a number of works on the history of sceptic philosophy of which the Outlines of Pyrrhonism is one of them.

In the Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus compares the scepticism of Pyrrho which he deems superior and that of the Academics (sceptic philosophers from the Academy founded by Plato). He further claims that scepticism as a philosophy has its practical purposes and the tranquillity of the soul will be an outcome of one that abandons the quest of knowledge of any sorts. The Outlines of Pyrrhonism gives us some good arguments that call for the refusal to attach oneself to any dogmatic belief, namely, The Five Modes.

The Five Modes of Epochē (Suspension of Judgement)

1. Disagreement

    For any given topic, different philosophers are unable to reach an absolute verdict one way or another. The inability for different philosophers to resolve different philosophies and form a coherent answer would end up with a suspension of judgement.

    2. Infinite Regress

      Due to the fact that what is offered as support for believing a given proposition is itself in need of such support, and that support is in need of another support, we have no foundation to establishing anything. The cause of A is B and the cause of B is C, what then is the cause of C? And when would this regression end?

      3. Relativity

        The external object appears this way or that way in relation to the judging subject even though it is the same object. Three hills of different heights in a row may appear as three hills to a man staring from one angle or one big hill from a man staring from another angle.

        4. Hypothesis

          The Dogmatists, involved with infinite regress, begin with something that they do not establish but that they deem worthy of acceptance without question or demonstration.

          5. Circularity

            A is the cause of B and B is the cause of A. Which is the cause of which, the chicken or the egg? Another version goes, we know God from the Bible and the Bible came from God.

            At the end of the day, the lack for a stable foundation of knowledge causes us to suspend all judgement and this state of balance would enable us to achieve ataraxia.

            ~ Ee Suen Zheng

            Bibliography

            • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
            • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
            • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
            • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

            “To every argument an equal argument is opposed.”

            ~ Sextus Empiricus

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            1. […] systematic enquiry that Bacon advocates as an answer to scepticism was institutional. He saw the advancement of science as a social activity held in a faculty like a […]

            2. […] foundation to which human knowledge should stand upon and to answer the problems presented by scepticism. The revival of classical scepticism in the seventeenth century put forth problems like, ‘How do […]



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