Why Skeptical? (Part 1)

Why Skeptical? (Part 1) January 23, 2016

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, the original Skeptical Catholic, This image was orginally posted to Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_de_Montaigne#/media/File:Michel_de_Montaigne.jpg


In a recent lecture given by Alasdair MacIntyre, he quotes the great Catholic poet Charles Peguy as saying “A great philosophy is not that which passes final judgements, which takes a seat in final truth. It is that which introduces uneasiness, which opens the door to commotion.”

No philosophy has opened the door to commotion better than skepticism.  What is it?  Contemporary readers might associate the word with paranormal debunkers like the Skeptical Inquirer or the Amazing Randi.  That is not the kind of skepticism that interests me here.  Perhaps the best way to explain it is to give a short history of the origin of philosophical skepticism. Needless to say, this will by necessity be a cursory and oversimplified account of ancient skepticism. If you want to know more I will include at the end of this post links to books on the subject that I’ve found enlightening.  Also feel free to explore the links I’ve provided to the Stanford and Internet Encyclopedias of Philosophy.

Skepticism as a philosophical way of life has its origins in antiquity where it was represented by two principal schools, the skepticism of the New Academy and the skepticism of the Pyrrhonians. The ideal skeptic of the New Academy was found in the figure of Socrates, the gadfly of the Athens, always upsetting, interrogating, and exposing the beliefs of the Athenian elite, or at least that is the Socrates that the adherents of the New Academy revered. What made this Academy ‘new’ and what contrasted it with the Old Academy was its insistence on the centrality of critiquing claims to dogmatic certainty rather than establishing its own set of positive philosophical doctrines, as the earlier Academics had done. This skeptical turn in Plato’s school happened during the headship of Arcesilaus and that trend persisted up until it began to wane in the years leading up to destruction of the Academy during Sulla’s siege and eventual sack of Athens.

It was during this time of skepticism’s waning influence that Aenesidemus, apparently frustrated with the new turn toward philosophical dogmatism, started what would become known as the Pyrrhonian school of skepticism. What we know of this school of philosophy comes to us principally from works of Sextus Empiricus, a Pyrrhonian physician who lived at least a couple centuries after the founding of the school by Aenesidemus. Rather than looking back to Socrates as an ideal and founder, the Pyrrhonians looked back to the enigmatic figure of Pyrrho of Elis.

The Pyrrhonians have an origin story for their skeptical way of life.  Philosophical inquiry, they say, began when certain sagacious individuals, disturbed and distressed by the puzzles, contradictions, and paradoxes that appeared to them in the course of life, set themselves to apply their reason so as to discover with certainty How Things Really Are (hereafter HTRA), rather than how they simply appear to be.  This was motivated by a desire for tranquility (ataraxia).  The idea was that once the sage had discovered HTRA, he or she would be undisturbed by contradictions and would stand secure in the contemplation of truth.  And thus was born the dizzying array of philosophical schools (to say nothing of the innumerable other non-philosophical strains of thought who staked a claim on HTRA).  Among these philosophical schools, which the Pyrrhonians disparagingly called the dogmatists, were the Academics (Plato’s school), Peripatetics (Aristotle’s school), the Cynics, the Cyrenaics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics.  Each of these systems of thought (and ways of life) proposed a more or less elaborate schema of beliefs which represented HTRA according to each school which, if adopted, would lead to a happy or tranquil life (the details of how this ethical end is characterized varies by school).

But certain other sages, as the story goes, admitted to themselves that each of these schools, given enough good will, sincere philosophical enquiry, and clever apologetic strategy, could appear equally warranted as candidates for HTRA by an honest and intelligent seeker.  Observing this array of equally plausible philosophical alternatives, these individuals had no other choice but to suspend judgement (epochê) about HTRA. To their surprise, and as by a fortuitous accident, this suspension of judgement resulted in the very tranquility, the hope of which had spurred them to begin philosophizing in the first place.

The reason suspension leads to tranquility is that a good deal of suffering and distress are consequent upon our strongly held beliefs about HTRA.  Take the example of John.  John has just been dumped by Anne, his girlfriend of several years.  Among the things he takes to be HTRA is that romantic love is life’s highest good and also that Anne is his soulmate.  For this reason John is taking the breakup quite badly, barricading himself in his apartment with bottles of booze and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks set on an endless loop.  Let us imagine that John survives the breakup with his liver intact.  Like a spurned Troilus he turns from his former beliefs about romance and Anne’s soulmate status in disgust and seeks new beliefs to guide his life.  His sick and bitter soul leads him to the work of Ayn Rand and he wonders if he ought to become an objectivist.  Then again, a higher and better part of him thinks that maybe he should take up Buddhism, which has always been an interest of his.  He is torn and conflicted.  Were John a Pyrrhonian he would not be suffering in these ways.  He would enjoy complete tranquility with regard to the anguish of competing worldviews and would only suffer minor and unavoidable (metriopatheia) physical and emotional disturbance by the sudden loss of Anne from his life.

The Pyrrhonian philosophy is further distinguished from other schools in that it does not require assent to any particular beliefs.  Rather, it is a kind of skill.  Lets call it the Knack.  The Knack is a series of skeptical strategies (more on these later) that, if one finds oneself adhering to a non-evident and dogmatic belief about HTRA, steer the mind away from assent to such matters and back to the tranquil harbor of epochê, the suspension of judgement about HTRA.  If one is lucky and not prone to rash assent to some picture of HTRA, then such a person will not even have to employ the Knack.  A colorful analogy used by the physician Sextus Empiricus is that the Knack is like an emetic (a medicine that causes vomiting) that is taken when someone has ingested a harmful substance.  Just as one vomits out the emetic along with the poison, so someone can dispense with the Knack once the offending dogmatic beliefs are no longer seducing the mind.

Another important difference between the Academic skeptic and the Pyrrhonian is that the former has at least one belief about HTRA and that is that we cannot know HTRA.  The Pyrrhonian suspends judgement even about this.  Like an ancient Agent Scully the Pyrrhonian says that perhaps the truth is out there and discoverable, but I suspend judgement regarding all that.  As a consequence of this difference the members of the New Academy were known to be actively engaged in philosophical controversy against all claims to certainty but particularly with their rivals- the Stoics- that most smug and certain of the philosophical sects.  The Pyrrhonians on the other hand tended to retire from the marketplace of philosophical ideas and into more practical ways of life, such as medicine in the case of Sextus.  They were guided in their everyday living not by some grand and all-encompassing worldview but rather by what Sextus calls the fourfold criterion.

Therefore, while living undogmatically, we pay due regard to appearances.  This observance of the requirements of daily life seems to be fourfold, with the following particular heads: the guidance of nature, the compulsion of the feelings, the tradition of laws and customs, and the instruction of the arts.  It is by the guidance of nature that we are naturally capable of sensation and thought. It is by the compulsion of the feelings that hunger leads us to food and thirst leads us to drink.  It is by virtue of the tradition of laws and customs that in everyday life we accept piety as good and impiety as evil.  And it is by virtue of the instruction of the arts that we are not inactive in those arts which we employ.  All these statements, however, we make without prejudice. (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Chapter XI, Etheridge translation.)

While the Platonist of the Old Academy turns inward to the intellect and away from the world of appearance in order…supposedly…to access and contemplate an unchanging world of Forms, the Pyrrhonian launches headlong into the stream of phenomenal, bodily, social, and conventional life, carried along by swirling currents of natural aptitude, bodily feeling, emotion unclouded by dogma, instinct, intuition, tradition, custom, fashion, training in arts and crafts, religious observance, etc.  Sometimes these currents clash against each other and she must follow whichever appears most compelling or fitting in the moment while never succumbing to mental flight to an empyrean, world of Forms, atoms in the void, or any other account of HTRA.

It should to clear by now that this skeptical way of life, especially in its purest Pyrrhonian form, is not compatible with orthodox Christianity, however interesting and compelling it might seem considered in itself.  Nevertheless it has, in a more diluted form, made its impact on Christianity, an impact I find largely positive.  In my next post I will explore how it did so and how I came to be so interested in it.  In the meantime, here are some excellent books should you wish to explore ancient skepticism (and the wider world of Hellenistic philosophy) more deeply.

Our best source for ancient skepticism.

The best introduction and commentary on that best source.

A survey of the philosophies of the Hellenistic Age.

An imaginative exploration of the Hellenistic schools and how they sought to tame suffering.

An exploration of ancient philosophies as ways of life or traditions of wisdom.


Browse Our Archives