Pyrrho and pyrrhonism

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Pyrrho (c. 360 B.C.E. - c. 275 B.C.E.), a Greek philosopher from Elis, was credited in antiquity as being the first skeptic philosopher and the inspiration for the school known as Pyrrhonism, founded by Aenesidemus in the first century B.C.E.

Pyrrhonism often stands for extreme skepticism—the position that one should suspend one’s judgment even when it comes down to affirming a skeptic stance. In that, it is opposed to dogmatic skepticism as it is to other forms of dogmatism. The ultimate purpose of Pyrrho and his successors was to achieve ataraxia, or peace of mind, by abandoning any attempt to find an ever-elusive absolute truth in a world where every viewpoint and every statement could find its opposite. Finding one’s peace with the relative nature of the world thus replaced the more common quest for final answers.




Diogenes Laertius, quoting from Apollodorus, says that he started out as a painter, and that pictures by him were in existence in the gymnasium of Elis. Later, inspired by the works of Democritus, he changed to philosophy and, according to Diogenes Laertius, he became acquainted with the Megarian dialectic through Bryson, a pupil of Stilpo. However, Diogenes' testimony is doubtful.[1]

Pyrrho apparently traveled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the east, along with Anaxarchus, and studied under the Gymnosophists in India and with the Magi in Persia. He seems to have adopted a life of solitude from Oriental philosophy. Returning to Elis, he lived there in poverty but was highly honored by the Eleans, as well as by the Athenians, who gave him the rights of citizenship. His doctrines are known mainly through the satiric writings of his pupil Timon of Phlius (the Sillographer).


The main principle of Pyrrho’s thought is expressed in the word acatalepsia, implying that one cannot possibly know the true nature of things. For any given statement the opposite may be advanced with equal reason. Secondly, it is necessary in view of this fact to suspend one’s judgment (epoche). As Timon expresses it, no assertion can be known to be better than another. Thirdly, these results are applied to life in general. Since nothing can be known, the only proper attitude is ataraxia, or "freedom from worry."

The proper course of the sage, said Pyrrho, is to ask himself three questions. Firstly one must ask what things are and how they are constituted. Secondly, one must ask how he is related to these things. Thirdly, one asks what ought to be her attitude towards them. Pyrrho's answer was that things are indistinguishable, immeasurable, and undecidable and no more this than that, or both this and that, and neither this nor that. Therefore, he said, the senses neither tell truths nor do they lie.[2] Therefore one knows nothing. One only knows how things appear to him, but of their inner substance people remain ignorant.

The impossibility of knowing, even in regard to one's own ignorance or doubt, should lead the wise one to withdraw into himself. He should avoid the stress and the emotions that naturally accompany vain imagination. This theory of the impossibility of knowledge is the first and the most thorough exposition of agnosticism in the history of thought. Its ethical results may be compared with the ideal tranquility proposed by the Stoics and the Epicureans.

An alternate interpretation is that Pyrrho was not strictly speaking a skeptic according to the skeptic's own standards—even though he was considered to be a skeptic in antiquity—but that he rather was a negative dogmatist. Having a view of how things are in the world makes Pyrrho a dogmatist; denying the possibility of knowledge makes his dogma negative.[3]

Pyrrho is said to have been so seriously bound to skepticism that it led to his own unfortunate and sudden death around 275 B.C.E. According to the legend, he was demonstrating skepticism while blindfolded when his disciples tried to warn him of a dangerous cliff he was headed toward. He refused to believe them, and thus, his life ended abruptly. The historical accuracy of this claim is, however, doubtful.


Pyrrhonism, or Pyrrhonian skepticism, was a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century B.C.E. and recorded by Sextus Empiricus in the late second century or early third century C.E. It was named after Pyrrho, although the relationship between the philosophy of the school and of the historical figure is murky. Pyrrhonism became influential during the past few centuries when the modern scientific worldview was born.

Whereas "academic" skepticism, with as its most famous adherent Carneades, claims that "nothing can be known, not even this," Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold any assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry. According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. For example, Pyrrhonians might assert that a lack of proof cannot constitute disproof, and that a lack of belief is vastly different from a state of active disbelief. Rather than disbelieving psychic powers, for instance, based on the lack of evidence of such things, Pyrrhonians recognize that one cannot be certain that new evidence won't turn up in the future, and so they intentionally remain tentative and continue their inquiry. Pyrrhonians also question accepted knowledge, and view dogmatism as a disease of the mind.

The Pyrrhonian crisis

A brief period in western history, during the birth of modernity, is referred to by philosophers as the "Pyrrhonic crisis." In Feudal society, absolute truth was provided by divine authority. However, as this view lost its legitimacy, there was a brief lag (in the seventeenth century) before the Enlightenment produced science and the nation-state as the new sources of absolute truth. During this period, relativist views similar to those held in Pyrrhonism were popular among thinkers of the time.

Pyrrhonian skepticism is similar to the form of skepticism called Zeteticism promoted by contemporary thinker Marcello Truzzi.

The existential dimension

Pyrrho and Pyrrhonism belong to the post-Socratic tradition of Greek philosophy that mainly focuses on questions related to the self and its moral dilemmas, rather than on cosmological questions as was the case for the pre-Socratics. More generally, philosophia stands for the love of wisdom. Hence, even the most theoretical philosophical quest starts and ends with some moral or existential interest: Where do I come from, who am I, where am I going? And all these questions lead back to “what can I know?” to which Pyrrho answers, “nothing” and not even that is sure.

Suspending one’s judgment is thus not only the appropriate epistemological stance; it is also the attitude that will lead one to peace of mind, ataraxia. For the Pyrrhonian skeptic, trying to find a satisfactory explanation to things is by definition senseless. Through his conviction that accurate knowledge is an illusion, he refuses to even go into that direction and incites his followers to seek peace in acceptance of that reality. It is a primarily existential stance.

Pyrrhonism and Zen

When stating that things are neither this nor that (neither hot nor cold, neither white nor black, neither certain nor uncertain, etc.) and at the same time this and that (hot and cold, white and black, certain and uncertain), the Pyrrhonist acknowledges the relative nature of all knowledge and of all reality as perceived by reason. He acknowledges that, in the end, nothing can be said about reality that cannot be refuted from another perspective, and the existential jump he makes is that only by abandoning this entire perspective and taking things as they are do we have a chance to reach peace of mind.

Though the cultural background may be vastly different, this philosophical stance is immediately reminiscent of Zen Buddhism and its quest for Nirvana, the internal peace and freedom reached through detachment. That freedom is not reached through any particular philosophical insight about our reality. Rather, it is attained through the existential insight that the world of everyday reality (described nearly in the same way as the above Pyrrhonian description) leads to unsolvable contradiction, strife and opposition on every level, due to its relative nature. The emptiness or nothingness of Sunyata reached at the end of long spiritual training thus has a paradoxically positive meaning, that of allowing us to take things as they are, in their “Suchness,” without any relative perspective. There is thus a clear family resemblance between ataraxia and nirvana. The historical Pyrrho’s reported visits to India would validate a link between the two. Similarly, other ancient Greek thinkers, including Plato, are often said to have borrowed some of their inspiration from the East through India.


  1. Bett (2000) 1.
  2. Long and Sedley (1987) vol. 1, pp. 14-17, vol. 2, pp. 5-7.
  3. Long (1986) 75-88.


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External links

General philosophy sources


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