- Scepticism and Orthodoxy: Gianfrancesco Pico as a Reader of Sextus Empiricus; With a Facing Text of Pico's Quotations from Sextus
Gian Mario Cao's book insists on a strict definition of skepticism in order to distinguish it from other, related ways of thinking. He argues that the only means of obtaining a proper historical account of the subject consists in keeping a firm grasp of the main tenets of ancient skepticism —namely, isostheneia (equipollence or equal strength of contrasting arguments), epoché (suspension of judgement), and ataraxia (tranquillity) —as terms of comparison. Adopting these rigid criteria enables Cao to trace modern skepticism back to the ancient sources of skeptical thought. In the case of Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469-1533), this approach serves to challenge the thesis that one can correctly assign the term skeptic to this follower of Savonarola. Cao questions the appropriateness of the two main labels commonly used to classify the character of Pico's philosophical approach: "Christian pyrrhonism" (R. H. Popkin) and "radical skepsis" (E. Garin). In fact, according to Cao, Pico's Examen vanitatis doctrinae gentium (1520) reveals a rather tepid commitment to skepsis in the classical sense of the term (it originally meant "endless research" ), elevating instead the idea of disagreement (diaphônia, or the undecidable dissention between philosophical opinions) to a pivotal role throughout its argument. These conceptual preferences highlight the essentially antiphilosophical nature of Pico's work, and not just because from the very beginning they are made to serve a primarily apologetic purpose (which, as Popkin [End Page 1338] properly demonstrated, consists in ridding his reader's minds of pagan philosophy and so preparing the ground for their ready reception of bare revelation); Pico also demonstrates in his writing a profound lack of engagement with the skeptic agenda.
The result seems paradoxical. Pico was really one of the earliest Renaissance intellectuals to make extensive use of Sextus Empiricus's Pyrrhoniae hypotyposes and Adversus mathematicos (second century CE), and yet he was in no way influenced by the antidogmatism of the Hellenic thinker; rather, his general attitude toward philosophy was fundamentally authoritarian, even contrary to philosophical liberty. From a philosophical standpoint, one can observe in particular two decisive points at which Pico's "philosophy" can be qualified as "Christian," but not as "pyrrhonist" : the first is his misunderstanding of the "zetetic" (investigative) nature of skepsis; the second is his rejection of ataraxia as a moral end to pursue. In Pico's view, the truth of disclosed doctrines is prior to every investigation, just as the superiority of the religious end (the salvation of the soul) is decidedly more important than every ethical argument. Cao is correct to point out that "rather than sketching a method of research, Gianfrancesco is claiming a superior jurisdiction over research" (9): the jurisdiction of revelation.
This is the main argument of the book, which contains analytical parts of great interest. Cao minutely analyses the way in which Pico's Examen vanitatis introduces the tropes of skepticism, demonstrating the presence of "a distinctly humanistic and encyclopedic flavour" (13), and insisting on the attenuation or transformation of epoché. Often in Pico, "judgement is interrupted, rather than suspended" (18); at other times, epoché is absent, since it is not equipollence that is being discussed, but "the falsity at play in all human controversies" (19). Ultimately, for Pico Sextus's epoché has a paralyzing character, since it leads "to logical arguments rather than to ethical values" (20). More generally, observes Cao, in the Examen vanitatis "scepticism is stripped of its therapeutic power and consists entirely of a diagnostic furor" (21). Pico is far from the psychological condition of uncertainty and "shows no interest whatsoever in its theoretical codification. He does not doubt" (21). Skepticism is neither in Pico's premises nor in his conclusions, which demonstrates his distance from Sextus's methodology. More specifically...