Pyrrhonic Sketches

From The Road to Ataraxia

Pyrrhonic Sketches by Sextus Empericus



The Principal Differences between Philosophers.

It is probable that those who seek after anything
whatever, will either find it as they continue the search,
will deny that it can be found and confess it to be out of
reach, or will go on seeking it. Some have said, accordingly,
in regard to the things sought in philosophy, that they
have found the truth, while others have declared it impossible
to find, and still others continue to seek it. Those who
think that they have found it are those who are especially
called Dogmatics, as for example, the Schools of Aristotle
and Epicurus, the Stoics and some others. Those who have
declared it impossible to find are Clitomachus, Carneades,
with their respective followers, and other Academicians.
Those who still seek it are the Sceptics. It appears there-
fore, reasonable to conclude that the three principal kinds
of philosophy are the Dogmatic, the Academic, and the
Sceptic. Others may suitably treat of the other Schools,
but as for the Sceptical School, we shall now give an out-
line of it, remarking in advance that in respect to nothing
that will be said do we speak positively, that it must be
absolutely so, but we shall state each thing historically as
it now appears to us.


Ways of Treating Scepticism.

One way of treating the Sceptical philosophy is called
general, and the other special. The general method is that
by which we set forth the character of Scepticism, declaring
what its idea is, what its principles are, its mode of reason-
ing its criterion, and its aim. It presents also, the aspects
of doubt, οί τρόποι τῆϛ έποχῆϛ, and the way in which we
should understand the Sceptical formulae, and the distinction
between Scepticism and the related Schools of philosophy.
The special method, on the contrary, is that by which we
speak against each part of so-called philosophy. Let us then
treat Scepticism at first in the general way, beginning our
delineation with the nomenclature of the Sceptical School.


The Nomenclature of Scepticism.

The Sceptical School is also called the “Seeking School,”
from its spirit of research and examination; the “Suspend-
ing School,” from the condition of mind in which one is
left after the search, in regard to the things that he has
examined; and the “Doubting School,” either because, as
some say, the Sceptics doubt and are seeking in regard to
everything, or because they never know whether to deny
or affirm. It is also called the Pyrrhonean School,
because Pyrrho appears to us the best representative of
Scepticism, and is more prominent than all who before him
occupied themselves with it.


What is Scepticism?

The δύναμιϛ of the Sceptical School is to place the
phenomenal in opposition to the intellectual “in any way
whatever,” and thus through the equilibrium of the reasons
and things (ίσοσθένεια τῶν λόγων) opposed to each
other, to reach, first the state of suspension of judgment,
έποχή, and afterwards that of imperturbability, άτα-
ραξία. We do not use the word δύναμιϛ in any
unusual sense, but simply, meaning the force of the system.
By the phenomenal, we understand the sensible, hence we
place the intellectual in opposition to it. The phrase “in
any way whatever,” may refer to the word δύναμιϛ in
order that we may understand that word in a simple sense
as we said, or it may refer to the placing the phenomenal
and intellectual in opposition. For we place these in
opposition to each other in a variety of ways, the phenomenal
to the phenomenal, and the intellectual to the intellectual,
or reciprocally, and we say “in any way whatever,” in
order that all methods of opposition may be included. Or
“in any way whatever” may refer to the phenomenal and
the intellectual, so that we need not ask how does the
phenomenal appear, or how are the thoughts conceived, but
that we may understand these things in a simple sense. By
“reasons opposed to each other,” we do not by any means
understand that they deny or affirm anything, but simply
that they offset each other. By equilibrium, we mean
equality in regard to trustworthiness and untrustworthiness,
so that of the reasons that are placed in opposition to each
other, one should not excel another in trustworthiness.
έποχή is a holding back of the opinion, in consequence
of which we neither deny nor affirm anything, άταραξία
is repose and tranquillity of soul. We shall explain how
άταραξία accompanies έποχή when we speak of the aim.


The Sceptic.

What is meant by a Pyrrhonean philosopher can be
understood from the idea of the Sceptical School. He is a
Pyrrhonean, namely, who identifies himself with this system.


The Origin of Scepticism.

Scepticism arose in the beginning from the hope of
attaining άταραξία for men of the greatest talent were per-
plexed by the contradiction of things, and being at a loss
what to believe, began to question what things are true,
and what false, hoping to attain άταραξία as a result of the
decision. The fundamental principle of the Sceptical sys-
tem is especially this, namely, to oppose every argument
by one of equal weight, for it seems to us that in this way
we finally reach the position where we have no dogmas.


Does the Sceptic Dogmatise?

We say that the Sceptic does not dogmatise. We do
not say this, meaning by the word dogma the popular assent
to certain things rather than others (for the Sceptic does
assent to feelings that are a necessary result of sensation,
as for example, when he is warm or cold, he cannot say
that he thinks he is not warm or cold), but we say this,
meaning by dogma the acceptance of any opinion in regard
to the unknown things investigated by science. For the
Pyrrhonean assents to nothing that is unknown. Further-
more, he does not dogmatise even when he utters the
Sceptical formulae in regard to things that are unknown,
such as “Nothing more,” or “I decide nothing,” or any of
the others about which we shall speak later. For the one
who dogmatises regards the thing about which he is said
to dogmatise, as existing in itself; the Sceptic does not
however regard these formulae as having an absolute
existence, for he assumes that the saying “All is false,”
includes itself with other things as false, and likewise the
saying “Nothing is true”; in the same way “Nothing
more,” states that together with other things it itself is
nothing more, and cancels itself therefore, as well as other
things. We say the same also in regard to the other
Sceptical expressions. In short, if he who dogmatises
assumes as existing in itself that about which he dogmatises,
the Sceptic, on the contrary, expresses his sayings in such a
way that they are understood to be themselves included,
and it cannot be said that he dogmatises in saying these
things. The principal thing in uttering these formulae is
that he says what appears to him, and communicates his
own feelings in an unprejudiced way, without asserting
anything in regard to external objects.


Is Scepticism a Sect?

We respond in a similar way if we are asked whether
Scepticism is a sect or not. If the word sect is defined as
meaning a body of persons who hold dogmas which are in
conformity with each other, and also with phenomena, and
dogma means an assent to anything that is unknown, then
we reply that we have no sect. If, however, one means by
sect, a school which follows a certain line of reasoning based
on phenomena, and that reasoning shows how it is possible
to apparently live rightly, not understanding “rightly” as
referring to virtue only, but in a broader sense; if, also, it
leads one to be able to suspend the judgment, then we
reply that we have a sect. For we follow a certain kind of
reasoning which is’ based upon phenomena, and which shows
us how to live according to the habits, laws, and teachings
of the fatherland, and our own feelings.


Does the Sceptic Study Natural Science?

We reply similarly also to the question whether the
Sceptic should study natural science. For we do not study
natural science in order to express ourselves with confidence
regarding any of the dogmas that it teaches, but we take it
up in order to be able to meet every argument by one of
equal weight, and also for the sake of άταραξία. In the
same way we study the logical and ethical part of so-called


Do the Sceptics deny Phenomena?

Those who say that the Sceptics deny phenomena
appear to me to be in ignorance of our teachings. For as
we said before, we do not deny the sensations which we
think we have, and which lead us to assent involuntarily
to them, and these are the phenomena. When, however,
we ask whether the object is such as it appears to be,
while we concede that it appears so and so, we question,
not the phenomenon, but in regard to that which is asserted
of the phenomenon, and that is different from doubting
the phenomenon itself. For example, it appears to us
that honey is sweet. This we concede, for we experience
sweetness through sensation. We doubt, however, whether
it is sweet by reason of its essence, which is not a question
of the phenomenon, but of that which is asserted of the
phenomenon. Should we, however, argue directly against
the phenomena, it is not with the intention of denying
their existence, but to show the rashness of the Dogmatics.
For if reasoning is such a deceiver that it well nigh snatches
away the phenomena from before your eyes, how should
we not distrust it in regard to things that are unknown, so
as not to rashly follow it?


The Criterion of Scepticism.

It is evident that we pay careful attention to phenomena
from what we say about the criterion of the Sceptical
School. The word criterion is used in two ways. First,
it is understood as a proof of existence or non-existence, in
regard to which we shall speak in the opposing argument.
Secondly, when it refers to action, meaning the criterion to
which we give heed in life, in doing some things and
refraining from doing others, and it is about this that we
shall now speak. We say, consequently, that the criterion
of the Sceptical School is the phenomenon, and in calling
it so, we mean the idea of it. It cannot be doubted, as it
is based upon susceptibility and involuntary feeling. Hence
no one doubts, perhaps, that an object appears so and so,
but one questions if it is as it appears. Therefore, as we
cannot be entirely inactive as regards the observances of
daily life, we live by giving heed to phenomena, and in an
unprejudiced way. But this observance of what pertains
to the daily life, appears to be of four different kinds.
Sometimes it is directed by the guidance of nature, some-
times by the necessity of the feelings, sometimes by the
tradition of laws and of customs, and sometimes by
the teaching of the arts. It is directed by the guidance of
nature, for by nature we are capable of sensation and
thought; by the necessity of the feelings, for hunger leads
us to food, and thirst to drink; by the traditions of laws
and customs, for according to them we consider piety a
good in daily life, and impiety an evil; by the teaching of
the arts, for we are not inactive in the arts we undertake.
We say all these things, however, without expressing a
decided opinion.


What is the aim of Scepticism?

It follows naturally in order to treat of the aim of the
Sceptical School. An aim is that for which as an end all
things are done or thought, itself depending on nothing, or
in other words, it is the ultimatum of things to be desired.
We say, then, that the aim of the Sceptic is άταραξία in
those things which pertain to the opinion, and moderation
in the things that life imposes. For as soon as he began
to philosophise he wished to discriminate between ideas,
and to understand which are true and which are false, in
order to attain άταραξία. He met, however, with contra-
dictions of equal weight, and, being unable to judge, he
withheld his opinion; and while his judgment was in sus-
pension άταραξία followed, as if by chance, in regard to
matters of opinion. For he who is of the opinion that
anything is either good or bad by nature is always troubled,
and when he does not possess those things that seem to
him good he thinks that he is tortured by the things which
are by nature bad, and pursues those that he thinks to
be good. Having acquired them, however, he falls into
greater perturbation, because he is excited beyond reason
and without measure from fear of a change, and he does
everything in his power to retain the things that seem to
him good. But he who is undecided, on the contrary,
regarding things that are good and bad by nature, neither
seeks nor avoids anything eagerly, and is therefore in a
state of άταραξία. For that which is related of Apelles the
painter happened to the Sceptic. It is said that as he was
once painting a horse he wished to represent the foam of
his mouth in the picture, but he could not succeed in
doing so, and he gave it up and threw the sponge at the
picture with which he had wiped the colors from the
painting. As soon, however, as it touched the picture it
produced a good copy of the foam. The Sceptics likewise
hoped to gain άταραξία by forming judgments in regard
to the anomaly between phenomena and the things of
thought, but they were unable to do this, and so they
suspended their judgment; and while their judgment was
in suspension άταραξία followed, as if by chance, as the
shadow follows a body. Nevertheless, we do not consider
the Sceptic wholly undisturbed, but he is disturbed by
some things that are inevitable. We confess that some-
times he is cold and thirsty, and that he suffers in such
ways. But in these things even the ignorant are beset in
two ways, from the feelings themselves, and not less also
from the fact that they think these conditions are bad by
nature. The Sceptic, however, escapes more easily, as he
rejects the opinion that anything is in itself bad by nature.
Therefore we say that the aim of the Sceptic is άταραξία
in matters of opinion, and moderation of feeling in those
things that are inevitable. Some notable Sceptics have
added also suspension of judgment in investigation.


The General Method of Scepticism.

Since we have said that άταραξία follows the suspension
of judgment in regard to everything, it behooves us to
explain how the suspension of judgment takes place.
Speaking in general it takes place through placing things
in opposition to each other. We either place phenomena
in opposition to phenomena, or the intellectual in opposi-
tion to the intellectual, or reciprocally. For example, we
place phenomena in opposition to phenomena when we say
that this tower appears round from a distance but square
near by; the intellectual in opposition to the intellectual,
when to the one who from the order of the heavens builds
a tower of reasoning to prove that a providence exists, we
oppose the fact that adversity often falls to the good and
prosperity to the evil, and that therefore we draw the con-
clusion that there is no providence. The intellectual is
placed in opposition to phenomena, as when Anaxagoras
opposed the fact that snow is white, by saying that snow
is frozen water, and, as water is black, snow must also be
black. Likewise we sometimes place the present in oppo-
sition to the present, similarly to the above-mentioned
cases, and sometimes also the present in opposition to the
past or the future. As for example, when someone pro-
poses an argument to us that we cannot refute, we say to
him, “Before the founder of the sect to which you belong
was born, the argument which you propose in accordance
with it had not appeared as a valid argument, but was
dormant in nature, so in the same way it is possible
that its refutation also exists in nature, but has not yet
appeared to us, so that it is not at all necessary for us to
agree with an argument that now seems to be strong.” In
order to make it clearer to us what we mean by these
oppositions, I will proceed to give the Tropes (τρόποι),
through which the suspension of judgment is produced,
without asserting anything about their meaning or their
number, because they may be unsound, or there may be
more than I shall enumerate.

The complete text of Book I