20 Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Skepticism

Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrronism

Translated, with Introduction and Commentary, by Benson Mates

Oxford University Press, New York Oxford 1996

Book I

1.The Main Difference between the Philosophies

When people search for something, the likely outcome is that either they find I

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 2 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 3

found it are the Dogmatists, properly so called-for example, the followers of

Aristotle and Epicurus, the Stoics, and certain others. The followers of

Cleitomachus and Carneades, as well as other Academics, have asserted that it

cannot be apprehended. The Skeptics continue to search. Hence it is with 4 reason

that the main types of philosophy are thought to be three in number: the

Dogmatic, the Academic, and the Skeptic. Concerning the first two it will best

become others to speak; but concerning the Skeptic Way we shall now give an

outline account, stating in advance that as regards none of the things that we are

about to say do we firmly maintain that matters are absolutely as stated, but in

each instance we are simply reporting, like a chronicler, what now appears to us to

be the case.

2. The Accounts of Skepticism

One account of the Skeptic philosophy is called “general”; the other, “specific”.

5 In the general account we set forth the characteristic traits of Skepticism, stating

its basic idea, its origins, arguments, criterion and goal, as well as the modes of

epoché [suspension of judgment], and how we take the Skeptic statements, and

the distinction between Skepticism and the competing philosophies. In the

specific account we state objections to each part of so-called 6 “philosophy”. Let

us, then, first take up the general account, beginning the exposition with the

various terms for the Skeptic Way.

3. The Nomenclature of the Skeptic Way

The Skeptic Way is called Zetetic [“questioning”] from its activity in

questioning 7 and inquiring, Ephectic [“suspensive”] from the pathos that arises

concerning the subject of inquiry, Aporetic [inclined to aporiai”] either, as some

say, from its being puzzled and questioning about everything or from its being at a

loss as to whether to assent or dissent, and Pyrrhonean because it appears to us

that Pyrrho applied himself to Skepticism more vigorously and conspicuously

than his predecessors did.

4. What Skepticism Is

The Skeptic Way is a disposition to oppose phenomena and noumena to one 8

another in any way whatever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence

among the things and statements thus opposed, we are brought first to epoché

and then to ataraxia. We do not apply the term “disposition” in any subtle

sense, but simply as cognate with “to be disposed.” At this point we are taking as

phenomena the objects of sense perception, thus contrasting them with the

noumena. The phrase “in any way whatever” can modify both the word

“disposition” (so as to make us take that word in a plain sense, as we said) and the

phrase “to oppose phenomena and noumena”; for since we oppose these in various

ways – phenomena to phenomena, noumena to noumena, or alternando

phenomena to noumena, we say “in any way whatever” in order to include all

such oppositions. Or we can apply “in any way whatever” to “phenomena and

noumena,” in order that we may not have to inquire how the phenomena appear or

the noumena are thought, but may take these terms in 10 their plain senses. By

“opposed” statements we simply mean inconsistent ones, not necessarily

affirmative and negative. By “equipollence” we mean equality as regards

credibility and the lack of it, that is, that no one of the inconsistent statements

takes precedence over any other as being more credible. Epoché is a state of the

intellect on account of which we neither deny nor affirm anything. Ataraxia is an

untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul. In our remarks on the goal of

Skepticism we shall come back to the question of how ataraxia enters the soul

along with epoché.

5. The Skeptic

The definition of the Pyrrhonean philosopher is implicitly contained in that

of the Skeptic Way: he is the person who has the aforementioned disposition.

6. The Origins of Skepticism

We say that the causal origin of the Skeptic Way is the hope of attaining

ataraxia. Certain talented people, upset by anomaly in “the facts” and at a loss as

to which of these “facts” deserve assent, endeavoured to discover what is true in

them and what is false, expecting that by settling this they would achieve

ataraxia. But the main origin of Skepticism is the practice of opposing to each

statement an equal statement; it seems to us that doing this brings an end to


7. Does the Skeptic Dogmatize?

Then we say that the Skeptic does not dogmatize we are not using the term

“dogma” as some do, in its more common meaning, “something that one merely

agrees to”, for the Skeptic does give assent to the pathé that are forced upon him

by a phantasia; for example, when feeling hot (or cold) he would not say “I seem

not to be hot (or cold).” But when we assert that he does not dogmatize, we use

“dogma” in the sense, which others give it, of assent to one of the non-evident

matters investigated by the sciences. For the Pyrrhonist 14 assents to nothing that

is non-evident. Not even in putting forward the Skeptic slogans about non-evident

things does he dogmatize – slogans like “Nothing *91* more” or “I determine

nothing” or any of the others of which we shall speak later. For the dogmatizer

propounds as certainty the things about which he is said to be dogmatizing, but

the Skeptic does not put forward these slogans as holding absolutely. He considers

that, just as the “All things are false” slogan says that together with the other

things it is itself false, as does the slogan “Nothing is true,” so also the “Nothing

more” slogan says that it itself is no more the case than its opposite, and thus it

applies to itself along with the rest. 15 We say the same of the other Skeptic

slogans. So that since the dogmatizer is one who posits the content of his dogmas

as being true, while the Skeptic presents his skeptical slogans as implicitly selfapplicable,

the Skeptic should not be said to dogmatize thereby. But the most

important point is that in putting forward these slogans he is saying what seems to

him to be the case and is reporting his pathos without belief, not firmly

maintaining anything concerning what exists externally.

8. Does the Skeptic Have a System?

We proceed in the same way when asked whether the Skeptic has a system. If

16 one defines a system as an attachment to a number of dogmas that agree with

one another and with appearances, and defines a dogma as an assent to something

non-evident, we shall say that the Skeptic does not have a system. But if one says

that a system is a way of life that, in accordance with 17 appearances, follows a

certain rationale, where that rationale shows how it is possible to seem to live

rightly (“rightly” being taken, not as referring only to virtue, but in a more

ordinary sense) and tends to produce the disposition to suspend judgment, then we

say that he does have a system. For we do follow a certain rationale that, in accord

with appearances, points us toward a life in conformity with the customs of our

country and its laws and institutions, and with our own particular pathé.

9. Does the Skeptic Theorize about Nature?

We reply in the same vein if asked whether the Skeptic needs to theorize about

18 nature. On the one hand, if there is a question of making an assertion with firm

confidence about any of the matters dogmatically treated in physical theory, we

do not theorize; but, on the other hand, in the course of opposing to every

statement an equal statement, and in connection with ataraxia, we do touch upon

physical theory. This, too, is the way we approach the logical and ethical parts of

so-called “philosophy.”

10. Do the Skeptics Deny Appearances?

Those who claim that the Skeptics deny appearances seem to me not to have 19

heard what we say. For, as we stated above, we do not reject the things that lead

us involuntarily to assent in accord with a passively received phantasia, and these

are appearances. And when we question whether the external object *92* is such

as it appears, we grant that it does appear, and we are not raising a question about

the appearance but rather about what is said about the appearance; this is different

from raising a question about the appearance itself. 20 For example, the honey

appears to us to be sweet. This we grant, for we sense the sweetness. But whether

it is sweet we question insofar as this has to do with the [philosophical] theory, for

that theory is not the appearance, but something said about the appearance. And

even when we do present arguments in opposition to the appearances, we do not

put these forward with the intention of denying the appearances but by way of

pointing out the precipitancy of the Dogmatists; for if the theory is so deceptive as

to all but snatch away the appearances from under our very eyes, should we not

distrust it in regard to the non-evident, and thus avoid being led by it into

precipitate judgments?

11. The Criterion of the Skeptic Way

That we hold to the appearances is obvious from what we say about the

criterion of the Skeptic Way. The word “criterion” is used in two ways: first, for

the criterion that is assumed in connection with belief about existence or nonexistence,

and that we shall discuss in our objections; and second, for the criterion

of action, by attention to which in the conduct of daily life we do some 22 things

and not others; it is of the latter that we are now speaking. Accordingly, we say

that the criterion of the Skeptic Way is the appearance – in effect using that term

here for the phantasia – for since this appearance lies in feeling and involuntary

pathos it is not open to question. Thus nobody, I think, disputes about whether the

external object appears this way or that, but rather about whether it is such as it

appears to be.

Holding to the appearances, then, we live without beliefs but in accord with

the ordinary regimen of life, since we cannot be wholly inactive. And this

ordinary regimen of life seems to be fourfold: one part has to do with the guidance

of nature, another with the compulsion of the pathé, another with the handing

down of laws and customs, and a fourth with instruction in arts and 24 crafts.

Nature’s guidance is that by which we are naturally capable of sensation and

thought; compulsion of the pathé is that by which hunger drives us to food and

thirst makes us drink; the handing down of customs and laws is that by which we

accept that piety in the conduct of life is good and impiety bad; and instruction in

arts and crafts is that by which we are not inactive in whichever of these we

acquire. And we say all these things without belief.

12. What Is the Goal of Skepticism?

After these remarks, our next task is to explain the goal of the Skeptic Way.

Now the goal or end is that for the sake of which everything is done or

considered, while it, in turn, is not done or considered for the sake of anything

else; or, it is the ultimate object of the desires. We always say that as regards

belief the Skeptic’s goal is ataraxia, and that as regards things that are 26

unavoidable it is having moderate pathè. For when the Skeptic set out to *93*

philosophize with the aim of assessing his phantasiai – that is, of determining

which are true and which are false so as to achieve ataraxia – he landed in a

controversy between positions of equal strength, and, being unable to resolve it,

he suspended judgment. But while he was thus suspending judgment there 27

followed by chance the sought-after ataraxia as regards belief. For the person

who believes that something is by nature good or bad is constantly upset; when he

does not possess the things that seem to be good, he thinks he is being tormented

by things that are by nature bad, and he chases after the things he supposes to be

good; then, when he gets these, he fails into still more torments because of

irrational and immoderate exultation, and, fearing any change, he does absolutely

everything in order not to lose the things that seem to him 28 good. But the person

who takes no position as to what is by nature good or bad neither avoids nor

pursues intensely. As a result, he achieves ataraxia.

Indeed, what happened to the Skeptic is just like what is told of Apelles the

painter. For it is said that once upon a time, when he was painting a horse and

wished to depict the horse’s froth, he failed so completely that he gave up and

threw his sponge at the picture – the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints

from his brush-and that in striking the picture the sponge produced the desired

effect. So, too, the Skeptics were hoping to achieve ataraxia by 29 resolving the

anomaly of phenomena and noumena, and, being unable to do this, they

suspended judgment. But then, by chance as it were, when they were suspending

judgment the ataraxia followed, as a shadow follows the body. we do not

suppose, of course, that the Skeptic is wholly untroubled, but we do say that he is

troubled only by things unavoidable. For we agree that sometimes he is-cold and

thirsty and has various feelings like those. But even in such cases, 30 whereas

ordinary people are affected by two circumstances – namely by the pathé

themselves and not less by its seeming that these conditions are by nature bad –

the Skeptic, by eliminating the additional belief that all these things are naturally

bad, gets off more moderately here as well. Because of this we say that as regards

belief the Skeptic’s goal is ataraxia, but in regard to things unavoidable it is

having moderate pathé. But some notable Skeptics have added “suspension of

judgment during investigations” to these.

13. The General Modes of Epoché

Since we have been saying that ataraxia follows on suspending judgment

about 31 everything, the next thing would be to explain how we reach this

suspension. Roughly speaking, one may say that it comes about through the

opposition of things. We oppose phenomena to phenomena or noumena to

noumena, or alternando. For instance, we oppose phenomena to phenomena when

we say 32 that the same tower appears round from a distance but square from close

up; and noumena to noumena when, in reply to one who infers the existence of

divine providence from the order of the heavenly bodies, we oppose the fact that

often the good fare ill and the bad fare well, and deduce from this that divine

providence does not exist; and noumena to phenomena, as when 33 Anaxagoras

argued, in opposition to snow’s being white, that snow is frozen *94* water and

water is dark in color, and therefore snow is dark in color. Or, with a different

concept of opposition, we sometimes oppose present things to present things, as in

the foregoing examples, and sometimes present things to things past or to things

future; for example, when somebody brings up an 34 argument that we are not able

to refute, we say to him: “Just as before the birth of the person who introduced the

system which you follow, the argument supporting that system did not yet appear

sound although it really was, so also it is possible that the opposite of the

argument you now advance is really sound despite its not yet appearing so to us,

and hence we should not yet assent to this argument that now seems so strong.” 35

But in order that we may more accurately understand these oppositions, I shall set

down the modes or arguments by means of which suspension of judgment is

brought about, without, however, maintaining anything about their number or

their force. For they may well be unsound, and there may be more than the ones I

shall mention.


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