Profiles in skepticism: Arcesilaus, founder of the Skeptic Academy
Plato’s school went skeptical. Why? It was a return to Socrates, of course.
Plato’s Academy, established in 387 BCE in Athens, ended up being the longest running philosophical school of the western tradition, eventually shut down by the Christian emperor Justinian in 525 CE, nine centuries later. During its long and fascinating history it went through a number of philosophical phases, one of which began in 264 BCE, when Arcesilaus of Pitane became the sixth head (scholarch) of the Academy and oriented it toward skepticism.
Arcesilaus claimed to be influenced by Socrates (of course), Plato (obviously), and some of the Presocratics. He was also very clearly influenced by Pyrrho. He explicitly claimed not to be saying anything new, but rather to re-introduce and popularize the ideas of his predecessors. Nevertheless, he is historically important because he changed the whole nature of the school founded by Plato, as very nicely explained in an essay by Anna Maria Ioppolo, part of a collection entitled Skepticism: From Antiquity to the Present edited by Diego Machuca and Baron Reed.
Despite his profession to lack originality, Arcesilaus was attempting to produce a new, eclectic form of Platonism which combined elements of various other philosophies that he thought valuable. He was harshly criticized for this. Aristo of Chios, an heterodox Stoic, made fun of Arcesilaus for having produced a horrible philosophical chimaera, featuring, as he put it, “Plato in front, Pyrrho behind, Diodorus in the middle,” Diodorus Cronus being a dialectician associated with the Megarian school of logic.
The joke, however, was on Aristo. The school to which he professed to belong, Stoicism, itself got started as a chimaera of made out of heterogenous ideas. His own teacher, Zeno of Citium, had assembled Stoic philosophy from elements of Cynicism, Platonism, the teachings of the Megarians, and a sprinkle of Presocratic thought, especially from Heraclitus.
This raises the general issue of whether it is a good idea to look for eclectic, or syncretic philosophies. The answer is: it depends. On the one hand, pretty much no philosophy (or religion, for that matter) arises out of nothing. It is always a recombination of previous ideas, mixed with some innovation. Sometimes it is a response to old ideas, as in Buddhism’s reaction to the Brahminic tradition.
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