Pyrrho of Elis (4th – 3rd c. B.C.E.) was an ancient sceptical philosopher. He is known as the founder of a philosophical school named ‘Pyrrhonism’. As is often the case with these things, the actual Pyrrho may have had nothing to do with the actual Philosophical School. There is something deeply satisfying about this, considering his mythical antipathy towards certainty in knowledge.
At its simplest, Pyrrhonian scepticism appears to be an attempt to deal responsibly with a profoundly complex world. According to Sextus Empiricus, whose work has largely preserved our knowledge of Pyrrho,
When people search for something, the likely outcome is that either they find it or, not finding it, they accept that it cannot be found, or they continue to search. So also in the case of what is sought in philosophy, I think, some people have claimed to have found the truth, others have asserted that it cannot be apprehended, and others are still searching. Those who think that they have found it are the Dogmatists, properly so called, for example, the followers of Aristotle and Epicurus, the Stoics, and certain others. The followers of Clitomachus and Carneades, as well as other Academics, have asserted that it cannot be apprehended. The Skeptics [skeptikoi] continue to search. (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1.1-3)
One of the truly admirable qualities of Greek philosophy was that any philosopher worth his salt was expected to embody his beliefs. For Pyrrho this meant a complete refusal to believe anything in particular. Following the general Greek tendency to think that sensory experiences are a bit fishy, he became famous for his ability to disbelieve whatever was right before his eyes.
Accordingly he got around,
avoiding nothing and taking no precautions, facing everything as it came, wagons, precipices, dogs, and entrusting nothing whatsoever to his sensations. But he was looked after by his disciples, who accompanied him. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 9.62)
It seems his disciples weren’t quite as committed to his philosophy as he was. That’s often the trouble with disciples, bunch of degenerate hippies.
When Pyrrho was a younger chap, he was the disciple of one Anaxarchus (of whom we know virtually nothing other than that he had a disciple). This is how you do discipleship:
“And once, when Anaxarchus had fallen into a pond, he [Pyrrho] passed by without assisting him; and when some one blamed him for this, Anaxarchus himself praised his indifference and absence of all emotion.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)
And just because it’s funny…
And it is said that he carried his indifference so far that he even washed a pig. [Egad!] And once, when he was very angry about something connected with his sister (and her name was Philista), and some one took him up, he said, “The display of my indifference does not depend on a woman.” On another occasion, when he was driven back by a dog which was attacking him, he said to some one who blamed him for being discomposed, “That it was a difficult thing entirely to put off humanity; but that a man ought to strive with all his power to counteract circumstances with his actions if possible, and at all events with his reason.” They also tell a story that once, when some medicines of a consuming tendency, and some cutting and cautery was applied to him for some wound, that he never even contracted his brow. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)
At the core of sceptical philosophy lies the insight that any claim about truth either appears to rest on other claims, or to require that we accept it without reasons. The first situation seems to commit us to an infinite series of claims about truth, the second seems to put us in grave danger of being intellectually irresponsible (by just being gullible).
Diogenes Laertius summarises the ancient sceptical position,
XI. These Sceptics then deny the existence of any demonstration, of any test of truth, of any signs, or causes, or motion, or learning, and of anything as intrinsically or naturally good or bad. For every demonstration, say they, depends either on things which demonstrate themselves, or on principles which are indemonstrable. If on things which demonstrate themselves, then these things themselves require demonstration; and so on ad infinitum. If on principles which are indemonstrable, then, the very moment that either the sum total of these principles or even one single one of them, is incorrectly urged, the whole demonstration falls instantly to pieces. But if any one supposes, they add, that there are principles which require no demonstration, that man deceives himself strangely, not seeing that it is necessary for him in the first place to establish this point, that they contain their proof in themselves. For a man cannot prove that there are four elements, because there are four elements.
Besides, if particular proofs are denied in a complex demonstration, it must follow that the whole demonstration is also incorrect. Again, if we are to know that an argument is really a demonstrative proof, we must have a test of truth; and in order to establish a test, we require a demonstrative proof; and these two things must be devoid of every kind of certainty, since they bear reciprocally the one on the other.
How then is any one to arrive at certainty about obscure matters, if one is ignorant even how one ought to attempt to prove them? For what one is desirous to understand is not what the appearance of things is, but what their nature and essence is. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)
Now before you get all excitable and start jumping around yelling ‘Nein! Nein!’, you should probably know you are hardly the first person to think that this is a bit dodgy. Everyone, including (probably) Pyrrho’s Mum, has thought that were very serious questions how consistently this philosophical position can be held:
…in admonishing us to have no opinion, they [the skeptics] at the same time bid us to form an opinion, and in saying that men ought to make no statement they make a statement themselves: and though they require you to agree with no one, they command you to believe themselves. (Eus. Prep. Ev. 14.18, Gifford).
And more practically, you might walk into a wagon or off a cliff while your disciples aren’t watching.
It’s important to recognise that the form of truth to which Ancient Sceptics objected is what we would call a ‘realist’ understanding, namely, that a claim is true because (somehow) it corresponds to a real objective world.
Now clearly, if truth is restricted to matters pertaining to real existence, as contrasted with appearance, the same will apply [to related skeptical conceptions]. The notions involved, consistency and conflict, undecidability, isostheneia, epoché, ataraxia, since they are defined in terms of truth, will all relate, via truth to real existence rather than appearance. (Burnyeat, Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism, p. 121)
This saves the Ancient Sceptics from wooly inconsistency and makes them into forerunners of ‘anti-realist’ conceptions of truth.
What do you think about truth? Is it somehow related to what is in the world? How do you deal with uncertainty and mistakes? Do you have the courage of your convictions like Pyrrho?