home | history

Skepticism: Pyrrho's absurdity

The Hellenist world that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, freedom of expression was common and a new school of thought emerged: Skepticism. Its founder was Pyrrho (born around 360 and died around 270), a Greek from Elis, in the northeast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

While campaigning as a soldier with Alexander the Great, Pyrrho (approx 360 to 279 BCE) came into contact with a great variety of conflicting beliefs. He saw contrary belief as a source of trouble for the world. Returning to his home town, Elis, on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, he established himself as a teacher, and he made the mistake common to amateurs: he assumed and he over-simplified. He claimed that equally valid arguments could be made on either side of any question and therefore it was best to draw no conclusion about the nature of things – a conclusion about humanity’s inability to make conclusions.

Claiming that others didn't know what they were talking about, a few followers of Pyrrho tried to demonstrate inconsistencies and contradictions in the conclusions of others. They examined the logic of Aristotle and concluded that people could not deduce their way to truth from a self-evident premise.They claimed that the senses were an unreliable and invalid source of knowledge.

Believing that they were not making conclusions about anything, Pyrrho and his followers concluded that one should live according to one's circumstances and desires. What mattered, said Pyrrho, was living well and living unperturbed.

But the imperturbability that Pyrrho sought eluded him. He made much money teaching his doctrine of Skepticism, and in his later years he spent much time attacking a philosopher named Arcesilaus, about 44 years his junior, whom he believed had copied his ideas and was endangering his source of wealth. It was Arcesilaus who had revived Plato's academy in Athens – in 266 BCE – and changed it to teaching Skepticism, but without Pyrrho's overly simplistic idea that people could believe anything they wanted.

Arcesilaus was with Plato in doubting that the senses were a pathway to truth. But he did believe in truth. Meanwhile, people would be using Skepticism's position against conclusions as justification for relying on intuition and faith – no matter the unreliability of these. Believing felt justified in believing whatever gods they wished, and they practiced religion as insurance against damnation.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.