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Pyrrho

From Academic Kids

Pyrrho (c360 BC - c270 BC), a Greek philosopher from Elis, is usually credited as being the first skeptic philosopher and is the founder of the school known as Pyrrhonism. Diogenes Laertius, quoting from Apollodorus, says that he was at first a painter, and that pictures by him were in existence in the gymnasium at Elis. Later he was diverted to philosophy by the works of Democritus, and became acquainted with the Megarian dialectic through Bryson, pupil of Stilpo.

Pyrrho, along with Anaxarchus, travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the east, and studied in India under the Gymnosophists and under the Magi in Persia. From the Oriental philosophy he seems to have adopted a life of solitude. Returning to Elis, he lived in poor circumstances, but was highly honoured by the Elians and also 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 his thought is expressed in the word acatalepsia, which implies the impossibility of knowing things in their own nature. Against every statement the contradictory may be advanced with equal reason. Secondly, it is necessary in view of this fact to preserve an attitude of intellectual suspense, or, as Timon expressed it, no assertion can be known to be better than another. Thirdly, these results are applied to life in general. Pyrrho concludes that, since nothing can be known, the only proper attitude is ataraxia, "freedom from worry".

The impossibility of knowledge, even in regard to our own ignorance or doubt, should induce the wise man to withdraw into himself, avoiding the stress and emotion which belong to the contest of vain imaginings. This drastic skepticism is the first and the most thorough exposition of agnosticism in the history of thought. Its ethical results may be compared with the ideal tranquillity of the Stoics and the Epicureans.The proper course of the sage, said Pyrrho, is to ask himself three questions. Firstly we must ask what things are and how they are constituted. Secondly, we ask how we are related to these things. Thirdly, we ask what ought to be our attitude towards them. As to what things are, we can only answer that we know nothing. We only know how things appear to us, but of their inner substance we are ignorant. The same thing appears differently to different people, and therefore it is impossible to know which opinion is right. The diversity of opinion among the wise, as well as among the vulgar, proves this. To every assertion the contradictory assertion can be opposed with equally good grounds, and whatever my opinion, the contrary opinion is believed by somebody else who is quite as clever and competent to judge as I am. Opinion we may have, but certainty and knowledge are impossible. Hence our attitude to things (the third question), ought to be complete suspense of judgment. We can be certain of nothing, not even of the most trivial assertions.

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