How to keep an open mind with Sextus Empiricus
Part II of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series
What do you know? Not much, and you?
That was the tagline of a Public Radio International comedy quiz show that ran for three decades hosted by Michael Feldman (and which is now a podcast, of course). But it could just as well describe the skeptical philosophy known as Pyrrhonism.
Named after Pyrrho of Elis (360–270 BCE), Pyrrhonism was the original western version of Skepticism. Unfortunately for us, Pyrrho apparently never wrote anything. His student, Timon of Phlius, did, but most of his works are now lost. As a result, one of our major sources on the whole philosophy is Sextus Empiricus (late second and early third century), the author of the famous Outlines of Pyrrhonism, which has been translated into modern language by Richard Bett for Princeton University Press’ ongoing Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series.
The essence of Pyrrhonism is that our unhappiness is rooted in the fact that we are too attached to all sorts of opinions we have no business being attached to, because they are about “non-evident” matters, i.e., broadly and imprecisely speaking, matters that are not obvious to the senses (like: it’s day now!) or to basic reasoning (like: 2+2=4). One example might be any broad statement about what does or does not make people happy. (Did you catch the irony?)
The goal of life, for the Pyrrhonists, is ataraxia, that is, tranquillity. And the way to achieve it is epoché, or suspension of judgment. Phenomenologically speaking, they had a point. Tranquillity is indeed pleasurable, and many of us would rather be serene than anxious or angry or whatever. And it is also arguably the case that holding on to strong opinions about non-evident matters — say, in politics, or ethics, or metaphysics — is likely to cause us headaches and a general movement away from ataraxia.
In order to avoid this, Sextus and his fellow Pyrrhonists devised a series of techniques to make sure, as Bett says in his introduction to the book, that we never accept anything put forth by someone who thinks he understands how the world works. That’s what the Outlines is largely about.