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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 116-118
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Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy
Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics
Richard Bett. Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. x + 264. Cloth, $60.00.
Charles Brittain. Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xii + 406. Cloth, $60.00.
These two books demonstrate once again that the ancient skeptics could indeed live their skepticism. In recent decades Myles Burnyeat, Benson Mates, and too many others have retailed the old canard that the skeptic cannot live his skepticism, but here we have two branches of ancient skepticism that sound quite liveable. Both books are subtle and brilliant examples of the genre of reconstructing philosophy from meager and fragmentary evidence.
Bett's book follows up on the case he made in his 1997 translation of Sextus Empiricus's Against the Ethicists for three stages in ancient Pyrrhonism. The first is that of Pyrrho (ca. 360-ca. 270 B.C.), a dogmatist who held what Bett labels the indeterminacy thesis: we do not know anything because the world is indeterminate and thus we cannot know it. The second is a similarly dogmatic stage under Aenesidemus (first century B.C.), also followed by Sextus in Against the Ethicists. The third is the more thoroughly skeptical suspension of judgment of the mature Sextus of the Outlines of Pyrrhonism (second century A.D.). Bett points out that it would indeed be odd if Pyrrhonism had not evolved in any way in five hundred years. What was unique throughout the tradition was the connection drawn between indeterminacy or suspension of judgment and the goal of ataraxia or tranquility (179, 220).
Bett tries to avoid reading later concerns back into the earlier materials, and reevaluates the later materials based on his new reading of the earlier. He argues that Pyrrho's indeterminacy thesis was a metaphysical claim, not an epistemological one. One benefit of [End Page 116] understanding Pyrrho this way is that he does not make a self-refuting exception to his epistemological skepticism for his own claims. Rather, he can just admit to being a kind of dogmatist. Then, Pyrrho's ethical dogmatism is also perfectly consistent. Bett draws a picture of Pyrrho's practical life that rejects the walking-off-of-cliffs apocrypha, but accepts evidence of a quasi-Cynic, anti-theoretical lifestyle. Pyrrho's rejection of social norms puts him at odds with Sextus's later use of laws and customs as guides to behavior. There are still further questions here: why was Pyrrho in particular such a hero to philosophers, if most (or at least many) people are resolutely non-theoretical?
Bett points out that Pyrrho gives us no reason to think that the abandonment of theories and opinions must always lead to tranquility (81). But in another connection, he recognizes that temperament may be decisive (111), and that may be the deciding factor here, too. There is no answer to people who say that abandoning theories makes them nervous: the Pyrrhonians simply say that it makes them tranquil. Irreducible differences in temperament may also explain why Pyrrho did not bother with theoretical controversy and Sextus revelled in it.
Among other points, Bett discourages all but the most general case for an influence from India on Pyrrho. Bett's thumbnail comparisons between Pyrrho and each of Aristotle, Plato, the Eleatics, Xenophanes, and others show that Pyrrho's philosophy was not at all extraordinary for its time and place. Most philosophers expected claims about nature to be invariable and without qualification (118). Bett says this is odd by modern standards (197), but even today scientific laws are said to apply to all times and all places.
The title of Bett's book will mislead some readers. If you are a specialist and your world revolves around ancient philosophy, you will be satisfied that Pyrrho's "legacy" includes Aenesidemus and ends...