Pyrrho - Greece's most charistmatic sceptic
Pyrrho (c.365-c.275 BC) was ancient Greece's most charismatic sceptic.
The words "sceptic" and "scepticism" come from the Greek skepsis, meaning thought or inquiry. But a sceptic like Pyrrho took inquiry to its limits, questioning everything and believing nothing. Pyrrho hailed from Elis, the Peloponnesian city-state best known for hosting the Olympic Games every four years at the sanctuary of Olympia.
Pyrrho was about twenty years younger than Aristotle, and he accompanied Aristotle's pupil, Alexander the Great, during Alexander's expedition to India. Pyrrho was greatly impressed by the Hindu ascetics, or "fakirs", particularly their inner tranquillity. Pyrrho's scepticism was based on the idea of isostheneia - the view that the reasons in favour of any given belief are always equally good (or equally bad) as the reasons against that belief.
In light of this, the only reasonable response is to suspend judgement, to perform what was called the epochē - a refusal to commit oneself to any belief or doctrine. Pyrrho thus advocated a "life without belief", and he saw such a life as the only sure path to happiness.
He thought that once we stop trying to resolve the endless philosophical disputes, we can finally attain ataraxia - peace of mind, freedom from disturbance. But is a life without belief really possible? This has always been a difficult problem for the Pyrrhonists (the followers of Pyrrho). It seems that if we do not hold any beliefs at all, then we cannot live and function in the world. Beliefs seem essential and indispensable. In other words, it seems impossible to live out the kind of scepticism endorsed by Pyrrho. In fact, Pyrrho's own life bears this out.
According to some reports, when Pyrrho tried to put his scepticism into practice, he would not trust in his senses and so would ignore precipices, oncoming wagons and dangerous dogs, and his friends would have to follow him around to protect him from these dangers. But, curiously, Pyrrho lived to 90 years of age! Pyrrho's own view was that, even if we cannot come to know ultimate reality or truth, we can still base our actions on such things as nature, custom, impulse and "appearances" (phainomena) - all the while never supposing that any of these give us access to how things really are in themselves.
But there remains one final problem. If we should suspend all beliefs, then what about the belief that we should suspend all beliefs? Should we suspend that belief too? Pyrrhonian scepticism ends us being self-refuting.
Nick Trakakis teaches philosophy at the Australian Catholic University
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