Please note: I will be quoting from various sources, which endorse two different spellings of the key subject, “skeptic” and “sceptic.” I have followed the specific spelling used per resource, so there will be some inconsistency in the text in order to acknowledge the differences.
Scepticism was a strange doctrine of extreme caution, doubt and total conformity. Sceptics believed that no specific course of action was any more rational than any other.
It was what we, today, might describe as a “go with the flow” philosophy, and followers felt comfortable to go along with whatever customs prevailed in the country they inhabited.
Even if they had no religious beliefs, they might become priests, or they might perform pagan rituals. It all depended on what was expedient.
In “Ancient Skepticism,” Katja Vogt says: “The Greek word ‘skepsis’ means investigation. By calling themselves skeptics, the ancient skeptics then called themselves ‘investigators’… They do not put forward theories, and they do not deny that knowledge can be found.”
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The Lazy Man’s Philosophy
Since the Sceptics believed that whatever they did, no one could prove that they were wrong, this could be described as a philosophy of dogmatic doubt. If they didn’t know something then they would not affirm to anything at all.
In History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says:
“The man of science says, ‘I think it is so-and-so, but I am not sure.’ The man of intellectual curiosity says, ‘I don’t know how it is but I hope to find out.’ The philosophical Sceptic says, ‘nobody knows and nobody ever can know.’”
People called this the “lazy man’s philosophy,” but maybe that was not entirely fair. The Sceptics had observed how fervently people defended their own views and beliefs, and how easily disputes arose in the community. They thought that the knowledge that people claimed was actually unattainable.
However, it allowed ignorant people to pretend to be as clued up as their highly educated fellow citizens.
Scepticism Starts with a Soldier
The philosophy of Scepticism began with a soldier from Alexander the Great’s army, whose name was Pyrrho. This was the Academy of Pyrrhonism in the third century B.C.
Pyrrho had spent much of his time travelling and was ready to settle down and remain in his native city, Elis, and this he did until his death in 275 B.C. Russell does not bestow any great admiration for Pyrrho. He says that the soldier brought little that was new to his philosophy, apart from some “systematizing and formalizing of former doubts.”
However Pyrrho left no written legacy. Pyrrhonism may not be ideal for those who needed to believe in something, but it seemed to dispense with a certain amount of anxiety in an uncertain world.
Pyrrho had a disciple called Timon, who managed to complicate the matter even further.
Timon’s Objection to Deduction from General Principles
Russell explains: “The only logic acceptable to the Greeks was deductive, and all deduction had to start, like Euclid, from general principles regarded as self-evident. Timon denied the possibility of finding such principles.”
This meant that any intellectual argument had to be derived from something else, so that “….all argument will be either circular or an endless chain hanging from nothing.”
Russell makes a connection between Timon’s philosophy and that of the great empiricist, Scottish philosopher David Hume 1711-1776, because he argued that any knowledge that was not based on real experience must be false.
We can see this in the honey anecdote from Timon, that it is highly probably but not absolutely certain that the honey will be sweet. “He [Hume] maintained that something which had never been observed – atoms for instance – could not be validly inferred, but when two phenomena had been frequently observed together, one could be inferred from the other.”
The Importance of Belief
However, belief is an important element of the everyday lives of human beings. It is hard to see how we can avoid forming beliefs. Even walking from one room to another involves an element of belief. If we did not form beliefs, would we be able to communicate with one another in any meaningful way?
In Ancient Skeptics, Katja Vogt recognises this and says: “Suspension is a core element of skepticism. The skeptic suspends judgement. However, if this means the skeptic forms no beliefs whatsoever, then skepticism may be a form of cognitive suicide.”
Scepticism is Absorbed into the Platonic Tradition
The School of Pyrrho ended when Timon died in Athens in 235 B.C. but modified doctrines continued when they were, somewhat surprisingly, appropriated by the Academy which subscribed to the Platonic tradition through Timon’s contemporary, Arcesilaus.
“Many of the dialogues [dialogues of Plato] reach no positive conclusion,” says Russell, “and aim to leave the reader in a state of doubt.” Apparently, it was not too difficult to advocate Scepticism using Plato’s many-sided arguments.
Arcesilaus had a strong personality and his teaching continued to influence the Academy for the next 200 years. He was fond of putting forward contradictory theories and demonstrating to his students how to argue and win from either argument. He liked to object to students’ arguments in order to develop their debating skills. In Russell’s opinion this led to “cleverness and an indifference to truth.”
Russell may be right, but it is sobering to reflect that, occasionally, in high profile civil court cases, some people, mainly the rich and famous, can hire very clever barristers, whose skill is of prime importance in achieving a successful outcome.
Carneades Antagonises Cato
Modern students might be forgiven for assuming that things were fairly laid back since philosophers conducted Sceptical arguments to prove cleverness and wit, and no one could lay claim to being absolutely correct. However, this was not the case, at least, not between Carneades and Cato, both of whom had pretensions towards leadership of the Academy.
According to Bertrand Russell, in 156 B.C. Carneades left Athens to go to Rome on a diplomatic mission. He decided he would run a course of lectures. Fascinated young men from the region gathered to hear him.
Carneades started off well enough, lecturing about Aristotle and Plato and their ideas about justice. In his subsequent lecture, he aped Arcesilaus and argued against everything he had said in his first lecture.
This is the gist of his two arguments: First, he claimed, the infliction of suffering caused a greater evil to the perpetrator than to the victim. In his second lecture, he said great States became greater through aggression towards weaker neighbours.
He also espoused a selfish maxim, “In a shipwreck, you may save your life at the expense of someone weaker, and you are a fool if you do not.” The idea of “Women and children first,” did not help anyone with his or her chances of survival in a disaster. If you are in danger, you should drag your wounded comrade from his horse and save yourself.
The Roman youths, Russell claims, loved the lecture.
Cato’s Brutal Moral Code
Russell says that Cato, followed a “stern, stiff, stupid and brutal moral code by means of which Rome had defeated Carthage.” Cato lived a hard and repressed life, consuming rough food, wearing cheap clothes and engaging in severe manual labour. He avoided bribery and did not plunder. “He exacted of other Romans all the virtues that he practised himself, and asserted that to accuse and pursue the wicked was the best thing an honest man could do.”
He threw a man called Manilus out of the Senate for lovingly kissing his wife in front of his daughter, – “his wife never kissed him, but when it thundered.”
Cato objected to all fun, luxury and feasting. He had a cringe-worthy habit of forcing his wife to suckle his slaves’ children. This was to make the slaves’ children love his own because they had been nourished by the same milk!
He had no pity for slaves that became old, but sold them off. Slaves condemned to death for some faulty behaviour died at Cato’s own hand. Certainly, Cato was what we might today describe as “a very nasty piece of work.”
Russell’s point in relating these stories was to show the amazing contrast in the behaviour between these two important Sceptics, the first traditional but lax, the second ignoble and cruel.
Cato did not crush the creed of Carneades. According to Russell, “The Athenians, in Cato’s view, were a lesser breed without [outside] the law; it did not matter if they were degraded by the shallow sophistries of intellectuals, but the Roman youth must be kept puritanical, imperialistic, ruthless and stupid. He failed, however, later Romans, while retaining many of his vices, adopted those of Carneades also.”
Scepticism Succumbs to Doctrines of Salvation
Hasdrubal followed Carneades as head of the Academy. His principles were similar and he wrote over four hundred books. Hasdrubal was against the prevailing beliefs arising at that time in magic and astrology. A theory of probability began to develop, ie. that we cannot be certain, but certain things are more likely to be true than others.
The Cretan, Aenesidemus from Knossos, for whom we have no specific dates, threw out the theories on probability and reverted to an earlier form of Scepticism.
In the second century A.D. Lucian, a satirist, took over, and then, a little later, Sextus Empiricus, whose works still survive. Sextus Empiricus also integrated theories of empiricism into the Sceptic philosophy.
Religion Pushes Scepticism Aside
Some Sceptical doctrines found their way into another famous School of Philosophy known as “Stoicism.”
Gradually, Scepticism fell out of favour, as described by Bertrand Russell:
“…the temper of the age was turning more and more to dogmatic religion and doctrines of salvation. Scepticism had enough force to make educated men dissatisfied with the State religions, but it had nothing positive, even in the purely intellectual sphere to offer in their place,” says Russell.