Profiles in skepticism: Pyrrho
What do we know, really, about the originator of ancient Skepticism?
I have always been fascinated by the notion of skepticism, in all its forms. From the scientific skepticism movement that valiantly counters pseudoscientific claims to the classic “what if an evil demon were to try to deceive me?” skepticism of René Descartes.
I must admit, though, that one kind of skepticism that leaves me very perplexed is—ironically—the original one: Pyrrhonism. Recently I’ve read a provocative essay by Casey Perin (published in chapter 2 of Skepticism: From Antiquity to the Present) which, if anything, has only strengthened my, ahem, skepticism of Pyrrhonism.
We know very little of Pyrrho of Elis’s life, though he lived from approximately 365 BCE to circa 275 BCE. He apparently was a failed painter, and various sources tell us that he followed Alexander the Great during his expedition in India, where he met a strange group of wise men known as gymnosophists, possibly early Buddhists.
Pyrrho did not write anything down, in the style of Socrates and, later on, the Stoic Epictetus. However, his philosophy was passed on in written form by his student, Timon of Phlius (325-235 BCE). Trouble is, Timon’s works are also lost and known only through a commentary by the late first century BCE Aristotelian Aristocles. The latter in turn is known only via fragments preserved by Eusebius (260-340 CE). The bottom line is, if anyone claims they actually know what Pyrrho thought they are greatly exaggerating and comically overstepping the available historical evidence.
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