Essays

Scepticism – Steven Gambardella

They say, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ but the Greek philosopher Carneades had other ideas. 

The head of Athens’s famous Academy was dispatched to Rome in 155 B.C.E. on a diplomatic mission. The Romans had fined the Athenians 500 talents for attacking Oropus, a nearby town, and it was up to Carneades and his fellow diplomats to persuade their imperial rulers to reduce the fine.

The Sceptic (“Skeptic” in American English) philosopher was invited to speak to Roman audiences since the Athenians were so renowned for their oratory excellence. Romans, particularly the younger generations, were enthralled by the sophistication of Greek culture at the time.

The philosopher accepted the offer and gave his first lecture concerning the virtue of justice. He spoke beautifully about the value of justice and Rome’s laws, drawing on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. 

Greatness, he argued, can only come to the just, since injustice injures the perpetrator as much as the victim. The crowd that had gathered were tremendously impressed. 

The next day Carneades got up on the podium and said the very opposite of what he had said the previous day. 

He tore apart the notion that justice was natural, and scorned the idea that the Roman state was just. Great nations – like Rome – become great by wicked deeds against the weak. Justice is unprofitable, and the Romans were wise to be unjust.

The point of these lectures was to demonstrate that any claims to knowledge and truth were on shaky grounds. The crowd could be persuaded that justice was the highest virtue one day, then be persuaded that it was a folly the next. Neither conclusions were “correct”, every conclusion was unwarranted.

The younger Romans were confused but still impressed. Older Romans were horrified. Cato the Elder, the puritanical Senator, had the Greek diplomats promptly sent home for Carneades’ sophistry.

Pyrrho: A New Way of Thinking

Scepticism has a public relations problem in the modern world for the same reason. In the ancient world it was in many ways more sophisticated than its rival schools, Stoicism and Epicureanism, but doesn’t have the same allure as these schools. 

This is because Scepticism is an anti-doctrine, it’s about being smart rather than right. Rather than having a positively defined set of beliefs about the world, the Sceptics saw salvation in rejecting every belief that wasn’t truly instinctive.

The school’s emphasis on critique, rather than building universal perspectives and ethical systems makes it less appealing to people finding their way in the world. Scepticism seems at face value to be too academic, but Scepticism was always intended to be a cure for mental disturbance.

The origins of Scepticism stretch back to the fourth century B.C.E. with Pyrrho of Elis. The school’s founder was originally a painter by profession but became increasingly interested in philosophy. 

Pyrrho of Elis, from Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy, 1655 (Public domain, source: Wikipedia)

Pyrrho travelled with the army of Alexander the Great during the conquests of Asia (whether he fought or not is uncertain). In India and Persia, he was exposed to the ideas of different Eastern philosophies, including the “naked philosophers” (or “Gymnosophists”) of India, who committed themselves to a life of asceticism and pure contemplation. 

Pyrrho returned to Elis committed to living a self-sufficient and acetic life. He developed a new way of thinking – rather than a new system of thinking – that rejected the previous philosophical doctrines he had learned. Pyrrho wrote nothing, everything we know about him is mostly through secondary sources.

We know the core ideas through a number of sources, most notably through a Roman doctor named Sextus Empiricus who lived some 400 years later. Sextus relates to us the core ideas of “Pyrrhonism” and how Pyrrho and his followers put them into practice. 

The philosopher committed himself to an attitude that can be put very simply. The goal of Pyrrhonism is the state of ataraxia — freedom from mental disturbance — that can be brought about by eschewing judgements about our experience of the world.

To Pyrrho our sense perceptions are unreliable and therefore our beliefs are neither true nor false and we should not rely on them. Instead we should not believe nor commit ourselves to opinion because our opinions and beliefs will only cause us mental disturbance. 

Put simply, the main tenet of Scepticism is as follows: certainty about anything is impossible, to admit it does us more good than harm.

In the modern sense of the word, to be a sceptic is to disbelieve. Scientists like Richard Dawkins are described as “sceptics” because they describe religion and the paranormal as false ideas.

The Sceptic school of ancient Greece is different. It’s important to understand that ancient Scepticism is about the suspension of judgement entirely – to view things as neither true nor false, not just false. The Greek word for this suspension is epochē.

Pyrrho and his followers believed that to live without opinion, with a constant open mind, that chooses not this way nor that, is to live in a state of ataraxia.

Ataraxia

In Ancient Greek philosophy “ataraxia” is a very important word. It roughly translates to “unperturbed”. The word was often used in a military context, being the ideal unfazed state of mind for a soldier before they go into battle. 

John Francis Peters, Summer 98, 1998, (source: John F Peters, copyright generously waived by the artist)

It is a natural “resting” state of serenity, rather than a positively defined state such as “happy” or “excited”, but it is nevertheless a positive state of mind. In the same way that when free of illness our bodies are in a state of homeostasis, ataraxia is simply the absence of perturbation. 

Perturbation comes in many forms, not just fear – we may desire something we cannot have, or we may be stressed or sad about a loss of something we had. It is a state many people sadly spend most of their lives in – worrying about money, popularity, being stressed by work or family life.

In all cases of a perturbed mind, the Sceptic would argue that you have made a judgement about what is bothering you. Therefore the route cause of your perturbation is your opinion. 

I may, for example, be perturbed because I have a strong desire to acquire a piece of jewellery. The basis of that desire is my belief that the jewellery is worthy of my desire because it is beautiful. 

But on what basis, the Sceptic would ask, have I deemed this piece of jewellery to be beautiful? 

It is my judgement that the piece of jewellery is beautiful that has perturbed me. For as long as I suspend judgement – by considering the jewellery as neither beautiful nor plain or ugly – I will be in a state of ataraxia.

An often-used example of ataraxia is a tale told of Phyrro’s reaction when a storm struck a ship he was travelling on. The other passengers were terrified that the ship might wreck in the storm. 

Pyrrho, however, according to Diogenes Laertius, remained “calm and serene and, pointing to a little pig on the ship that was eating away, said that the wise man ought to repose in just such a state of freedom from disturbance.”

Unlike the pig, Pyrrho understood the dangerous situation he was in. But Pyrrho suspended judgement on whether or not the boat would be wrecked, or if he would come to harm or if death was even a bad thing. 

John Francis Peters, Ground Level, 1993 (source: John F Peters, copyright generously waived by the artist)
To suspend judgement is to strip our experience of life of human artifice.

This contrasts with the tale that Seneca tells of the Stoic at sea in a storm who turned white with fright, but nevertheless never yielded to the “proto-passion” of fear to become as terrified as the rest of the passengers. 

While a Stoic would accept that the situation was dangerous but then reason that it was out of their control, the sceptic would simply refuse to commit to any belief in what “danger” entails.

Diogenes relates a number of anecdotes of Pyrrho putting himself in danger by simply denying the reality of horse drawn carts, feral dogs and sheer drops. 

While these anecdotes may be exaggerations, Pyrrho’s attitude does seem tantamount to madness. How could you exist if you denied the basic facts that enable us to live, that fire could be hot or that we could die if left thirsty?

The answer seems to be that Sceptics like Pyrrho lived according to instinctive needs, custom and convention. By “instinctive needs” they listened to their bodies. They obeyed hunger, for example. By custom and convention, they assented to the law and customs of the society they lived in, but without really believing in those laws or customs. 

Sextus Empiricus wrote, “We sceptics follow in practice the way of the world, but without holding any opinion about it.”

The Sceptics went through the motions of worshiping the state gods of Greece and Rome, without neither disbelieving nor believing in them, to “avoid the rashness of the dogmatisers.”

Perhaps for this reason Bertrand Russell saw Scepticism as a feeble philosophy. In his History of Western Philosophy he wrote, “Scepticism was a lazy man’s consolation, since it showed the ignorantto be as wise as the reputed men of learning.”

Against Dogmas

But Scepticism was far more nuanced, and became more sophisticated as the Hellenistic age wore on. To argue that the school’s ideas were tantamount to ignorance is to misunderstand its mission and the intellectual prowess underlying sceptical argumentation. 

The sceptic would argue that it is the ignorant that flock to dogmas – those easy explanations for the problems we have in our lives, only to find more problems by committing themselves to beliefs.

Michel de Montaigne, the philosopher who revived interest in Scepticism during the Renaissance, wrote: 

“‘What am I to choose?’ ‘What you like, as long as you choose!’ There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know.”

In 266 B.C.E. the Sceptics took control of the Athenian Academy that had been founded by Plato over a century earlier.

In this era of “Academic Scepticism” the School developed a whole toolkit of ideas and positions to ensure all claims to truth and certainty were undermined through the power of reasoning. A number of reasons that no truth is truly valid were developed.

Well-being was still at the heart of the philosophy, but it developed in sophistication to become a kind of anti-philosophy that served only to undermine any type of belief. 

The Sceptics were fierce opponents of the Stoics and the Epicureans – two of the dominant belief-systems in the ancient world. Perhaps in response to charges of nihilism, Carneades developed the notion of pithanon, which roughly translates as “the probable” or “the plausible”. 

The concept was never written down by Carneades and it has been a matter of dispute among philosophers as to what Carneades actually intended with the idea. 

It can be read in two ways, negative and positive. In the negative sense pithanon can undermine a claim to truth. For example, if a Stoic were to argue for the existence of Anima (the soul), a Sceptic could retort “it’s a plausible idea, but only that. A concept with a logically sound structure or that’s based on observation may be plausible, but never absolutely true.”

In the positive sense, pithanon can allow us to form ideas about the world that enable us to live better, yet fall short of being a claim to truth. This enables us the space to reason while keeping intact the non-committal attitude required for ataraxia.

The Sceptics non-committal attitude was wise at a time of conflicting dogmas. While some were willing to play along with societies common practices and customs (depending on how dangerous it was to call them into question), those that interrogated the dominant ideologies – sometimes, as in the case of Carneades above, at their own risk – were holding society in check.

Our beliefs can be destructive not only to ourselves, but they also pit us against each other. In many ways Scepticism is a utopian philosophy – to not commit to belief is to not commit to conflict or dispute.


John Francis Peters, Against the Tide, 1998 (source: John F Peters, copyright generously waived by the artist)
Caption: To question the truth of all the human ideas that have been handed down to us is a difficult and lonely course to take

Non-Commital

There is a tendency in all of us is to commit to world views. We commit to creeds, philosophies, political persuasions, fashions, and sports teams. Just take a look at Twitter, where everybody has a “bio” declaring what and who they are. Our beliefs about the world partly — sometimes wholly — define us. 

People seem to take their pick from an endless menu of doctrines and beliefs about the world and then stick to them. Conservative, Liberal, Socialist, Republican, Royalist, Nationalist, Internationalist, Stoic, Epicurean, Existentialist, Yogi. How much of our free will has brought us to these doctrines? 

Cicero observed this of the various philosophical beliefs of the ancient world. He wrote, “to whatever doctrine they have been driven, as if by a storm, to it they cling as to a rock.” 

The randomness and chaos of our existence simultaneously delivers us to a world view and ensures we cling to it as a refuge from the very chaos that brought us to it. Most often this happens without prior judgement and before maturity.

If you grow up in a conservative household, you are more likely to be a lifelong conservative. If you grow up in the Salford area of Manchester in England, you’ll likely become a lifelong Manchester United supporter.

This is why national pride is such a fatuous self-deception. If you were born in a wealthy country then congratulations, you won the cosmic lottery. But you could just have easily been born in Somalia or Bangladesh where grinding poverty is endemic. Do those people a favour, don’t hold them in contempt by believing your nation is superior.

Of Pyrrho, Michel de Montaigne wrote:

“The fantastic imaginary, false privileges that man has arrogated to himself, of regimenting, arranging and fixing truth, he [Pyrrho] honestly gave renounced and gave up.” 

Honesty is the key word here. How many of us really believe in the causes and dogmas we subscribe to? Do we believe in those things because we believe them to be right or because life is easier to be swept along with the tide of other people’s opinions, of ready-made explanations?

Pyrrho simply saw belief in any supposed truth as a futile quest that leads only to desire, since nothing is good nor bad except by belief. To find tranquility it’s best not to desire in the first place, and therefore it is wise to cease to believe. No person, the Sceptics contended, had a privileged access to any truth the world may hold. As Michel de Montaigne put it, “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” 

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