In my last postI introduced Pyrrho of Elis, a Pagan Greek philosopher who, returning from an extended visit to India, sounded a new note in Greek philosophy. In the Greek cultural context, this was heard as a variant form of Scepticism. Originally a skeptikos was “a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates etc.” (1) though over time Scepticism came to signify a kind of compulsive doubting, as it does now. The extract below shows the distinctiveness of Pyrrho’s project, and its likely debt to Buddhist ideas of the time.
“Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with Scepticism in Western philosophy. But unlike Sceptics, who believe there are no true beliefs, Pyrrhonists suspend judgement about all beliefs, including the belief that there are no true beliefs. Pyrrhonism was developed by a line of ancient Greek philosophers, from its founder Pyrrho of Elis in the fourth century BCE through Sextus Empiricus in the second century CE. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. Since beliefs are attachments to what is not evident, they say, and are therefore distorting, uncertain, and subject to challenge and contradiction, they generate anxiety and fear, compounding suffering. By suspending judgement on beliefs, Pyrrhonists seek to liberate themselves from attachment to things nonevident; having achieved this, they claim a certain tranquillity (ataraxia) follows. Only appearances are evident, they say, these being sensations and thoughts which we cannot help having, which are involuntary, and it is by them rather than by our beliefs that we should live.
“Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism. Indeed, its origins can plausibly be traced to the contacts between Pyrrho and the sages he encountered in India, where he travelled with Alexander the Great. Even though Pyrrhonism went on to develop in a Greek idiom without reference to Eastern traditions, the similarity is remarkable, suggesting a commonality of insight not much explored. Although Pyrrhonism has not been practised in the West since ancient times, its insights occasionally have been independently recovered, most recently in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. They remain relevant, perhaps more than ever, as an antidote to today’s cultures of belief.” (1)
Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher now associated with the the deep ecology movement and coiner of the term ‘ecosophy’, was a modern admirer of Pyrrhonism and wrote a book about it in 1968 (2). I intend to follow this up in my continuing inquiry, partly to find out how his engagement with Pyrrho and Greek Scepticism may have informed his later development..
- Adrian Kuzminski Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism New York: Lexington Books, 2008
- Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968)