- Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism
Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, by Adrian Kuzminski, is a short monograph of four chapters in which the author argues that Pyrrho of Elis (ca. 365–270 b.c.e.) developed his form of skepticism after coming into contact with Indian philosophers on his journey with Alexander the Great. Although the subtitle suggests that the primary focus of the study will be to develop this argument for historical diffusion, the book is more of an apology for Pyrrhonism, which Kuzminski thinks can be better understood by emphasizing its striking similarities with Buddhism. While presenting a plausible scenario for historical diffusion, he emphasizes parallels specifically with the Mādhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism in order to provide a better understanding of Pyrrhonism's meaning, purpose, and potential. Kuzminski is persuasive in his use of Buddhism to clarify Pyrrhonism and to correct previous misinterpretations of Pyrrhonism by Western philosophers, but his treatment of historical and philological issues is often neither thorough nor totally persuasive. In what follows, I will present a summary of the book followed by some critical remarks. Kuzminski's focus is on Pyrrhonism, but I will provide more discussion of his treatment of its similarities and contact with Buddhism.
In his first chapter, "Why Pyrrhonism is Not Scepticism," Kuzminski argues that in contrast to the dogmatic and nihilist approach of the Academic skeptics who held that truth cannot be known, Pyrrhonism is best understood as a nondogmatic therapeutic philosophy that promoted suspension of judgment. This distinction is supported by the account of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus (fl. second century c.e.). In order to stress Pyrrhonism's practical and soteriological goals, Kuzminski contrasts ancient accounts of Pyrrho, who is described as living a tranquil and reclusive life, with those of Arcesilaus (fl. third century b.c.e.), the first head of the skeptical Academy, who is said to be somewhat pompous and prone to extravagant displays. Kuzminski blames the confusion between these two schools of thought on a number of prominent modern philosophers and contemporary scholars, including David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, M. F. Burnyeat, and Martha Nussbaum. Kuzminski considers Arne Naess the closest to a contemporary Pyrrhonist.
In chapter 2, "Pyrrhonism and Buddhism," Kuzminski undertakes his most direct comparison of the two traditions.1 He emphasizes the plausibility of historical diffusion by pointing to both general evidence for sustained contact between Greece and India via trade routes and the Persian empire and possible references to Ionian Greeks in the middle-length discourses of the Buddha. Kuzminski rejects the claims [End Page 424] of Richard Bett, who argues on the basis of a later Greek fragment of Aristocles (fl. second century c.e.) that our sources for Pyrrhonism do not actually go back to the historical Pyrrho and that Pyrrho was more of a nihilist.2 According to Kuzminski, the account is biased and reflects the same misunderstanding many modern scholars have had. Kuzminski's point of departure for his specific comparison of Pyrrhonism and Buddhism is Everard Flintoff's 1980 article in which he argued that a persuasive case could be made for the necessary historical relationship between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism not on the basis of individual parallels but by considering the combination of similarities as a whole.3 Kuzminski, however, is critical of Flintoff on a couple of points such as his claim that the quadrilemma is unprecedented in Greece prior to Pyrrho.
When Kuzminski turns to his specific comparison of Pyrrhonism and Buddhism, he refers primarily to Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakārikā and Candrakīrti's Madhyamakāvatāra. Both traditions share the idea that their philosophy is better understood as a method rather than a doctrine, and Kuzminski argues that the Pyrrhonist method of producing contradictory arguments in order to be led to a state of suspension of judgment (epochē) and then tranquility (ataraxia) is paralleled in the text of Candrakīrti. Both consider it necessary to accept involuntary sensory impressions and thoughts but to reject inferences...