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Pyrrho (c. 360–c. 270 BCE)

(c. 360c. 270 BCE)

Pyrrho of Elis is much less well known than the eponymous philosophy he inspired, Pyrrhonism. Diogenes Laertius, in his biography of Pyrrho in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, offers his usual mixture of anecdote, scandal, and unreliable doctrinal information (9.6170). Thus Pyrrho was said to have had no concern for his own safety and to have been rescued from precipices and oncoming traffic by the timely interventions of his (presumably nonskeptical) friends (9.62). Aenesidemus rejected such fables, "saying that while he did philosophize in accordance with suspension of judgment, he did not act in a heedless manner" (9.62). Such stories, as well as ones presumably designed to exalt his image, such as one that claims that he demonstrated his unworldly indifference by washing pigs (9.66), are apocryphal, but they indicate what others apparently took his skeptical detachment to amount to.

He is also said to have traveled with Anaxarchus as far as India, where he consorted with the "gymnosophists," the naked philosophers, which led him "to philosophize in the noblest manner, adopting non-apprehension (akatalēpsia ) and suspension of judgment (epochē ); he said that nothing was good or bad, just or unjust, and that in all cases nothing is really true, but that men act by law and custom in all cases; for each thing is no more (ou mallon ) thus than not" (9.61). This suggests that Pyrrho did indeed institute much of what was to become distinctive about later Pyrrhonism, but it also implies that he was primarily concerned with ethical questions (broadly construed)an impression confirmed by some later evidence, most noticeably that of Cicero, who treats him exclusively as originating an obsolescent quietist ethics.

However, other testimonies suggest a broader engagement with more general epistemological themes. Pyrrho himself wrote nothing, but a disciple, Timon of Phlius, lauded his master in both prose and poetry, of which some seventy-one fragments survive. Some aredevoted to exalting Pyrrho's imperturbable and noble character at the expense of the "vanity" of other philosophers. But more important for an assessment of Pyrrho's philosophical position is a report of a passage from one of Timon's prose works, embedded in an antiskeptical tract of the Aristotelian Aristocles of Messene, and itself preserved by way of the Christian Eusebius. (Such is the tortuous route of the early skeptical tradition, and attempting to purge such intrinsically hostile reports of later accretions of distortion and selectivity is a serious scholarly challenge.)

Aristocles reports Pyrrho as holding that "we are so constituted as to know nothing," and hence that all inquiry is pointless. Since for Sextus Empiricus and other later skeptics, the first claim would be unacceptably (if negatively) dogmatic, and since Sextus defines the Pyrrhonian way as one of continued (if unrequited) inquiry, this may be a misrepresentation on Aristocles' part. But it is equally possible that Pyrrho did conclude that nothing was knowable and inquiry futile, and that the subsequent rejection of these views was a later development. This latter possibility gains support from recent suggestions (see Bett 2000) that Pyrrho was not in fact the skeptical hero that later skeptics, such as Sextus, wanted to paint him as for ideological reasons of their own. Both Aenesidemus and Sextus treated Pyrrho as an archetypical role model. But Sextus, while remarking that "the skeptic school is called 'Pyrrhonian' from the fact that Pyrrho seems to have taken up scepticism more thoroughly and conspicuously than any of his predecessors" (1.7), rarely mentions him by name elsewhere in his large oeuvre. And Diogenes reports that one Numenius claimed that Pyrrho dogmatized, that is, held positive tenets (9.68). If this is right, then Pyrrho might have become a model because of his legendary imperturbability, rather than because of any practice of skeptical argumentation. Working against this view are some of the citations quoted and Diogenes' claim that Pyrrho was skilled in dialectical argument (9.64), which was to be the hallmark of later skepticisms.

At all events, Timon, as reported by Aristocles, states that according to Pyrrho, "[i] One must consider three questions: First, how are things by nature? Second, what should our attitudes toward them be? Third, what will be the result of adopting such an attitude? [ii] Pyrrho declared all things equally indifferent, unmeasurable, and undecidable; [iii] for this reason [or since] neither our sensations nor our judgments are true or false. [iv] Consequently, we should not put our trust in them but should be without opinion, uncommitted, and unswayed, saying of each thing no more [ou mallon ] [a] that it is than [b] that it is not, or [c] that it both is and is not, or [d] that it neither is nor is not. [v] For those thus disposed, the consequence will be first nonassertion [aphasia ] then tranquility [ataraxia ]" (Aristocles, in Eusebius, 14.18.2; = Long and Sedley Fr. 1F5; my translation).

This is by far our most important philosophical testimony for Pyrrho, and it is based upon (and perhaps reports verbatim) a text of Pyrrho's own pupil. It is, however, multiply difficult to interpret. The following interpretation is one way to try to make sense out of this difficult passage. The "things" (pragmata ) of [i] may be states of affairs in the world or, more vaguely, subjects of possible cognition. "Indifferent" (adiaphora ) in [ii] may perhaps be better rendered "undifferentiable" (thus making the claim not about the metaphysical condition of things but rather about our epistemic position with regard to pragmata ). "Since," the alternative connective of [iii], represents a textual conjecture that has won some scholarly support, and it has the obvious effect of reversing the direction of dependence between [ii] and [iii]. The scope of "no more" in [iv] is unclear (the sentence is syntactically ambiguous); it may govern four disjuncts (including disjuncts [c] and [d]), rather than just the first two. Finally, the precise sense of "aphasia" in [v] is disputed.

With the connective "for this reason" in [iii] (the reading of the manuscripts), the assertion is that the indeterminacy of things renders our sensations and judgments about them neither true nor false. At first sight, this seems to be a strange inference. (Does not indeterminacy simply render them false, insofar as they make positive claims that fail to correspond to the indeterminate facts?) Yet the assertion can be made intelligible if we suppose that for a claim of the form "x is F " to be true, x must be unequivocally F, and equally for it to be false, x must be wholly not F. Thus, because of the indeterminacy in things, any unequivocal statement of the form "x is F " will be partly true and partly false, and hence neither wholly true nor wholly false. Consequently, withholding strong belief and commitment makes sense. (In favor of the manuscript reading, the sequence of consequence is maintained: from states of affairs, via epistemic consequences, to epistemic attitude, to pragmatic consequence.) In addition, the account of truth just given supports the interpretation that "no more" in [iv] has narrow scope, that is, that [c] and [d] are alternative ways of describing the counterpoise between [a] and [b]. To get this interpretation, we have to understand "it is" to mean "it is unequivocally" in [a] and [b], but not in [c] and [d].

The upshot, then, is that we will make no statements; not that we will literally say nothing, but that we will express no strong commitment to the unequivocal truth of our first-order remarks about the world. And when we attain this state, tranquility will follow like a shadow. As later skeptics put it, once one stops seeking to make (and support) unequivocal claims about the world, all one's initial anxiety (apparently caused by the second-order belief that there should be answers to such questions and the consequent frustration of not finding them) vanishes. If all this is right, then Pyrrho really was a recognizable precursor to the later skepticism that took his name. Yet Pyrrho was not a thoroughgoing skeptic, for as the interpretation offered above suggests (but does not demand), Pyrrho did commit himself to speculations at least about the actual (Heraclitean) state of affairs of things in a way that Sextus Empiricus at least (although perhaps not Aenesidemus) would have found anathema.

See also Aenesidemus; Ancient Skepticism; Sextus Empiricus; Timon of Phlius.


Annas, J., and J. Barnes. Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Bett, Richard. Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Translated by R. D. Hicks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Eusebius of Caesarea. Preparation for the Gospel. Translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1903.

Hankinson, R. J. The Sceptics. London: Routledge, 1995.

R. J. Hankinson (2005)

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