Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Loeb Classical Library No. 273)
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About the Author
- Publisher : Harvard University Press (January 1, 1933)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 560 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0674993012
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674993013
- Item Weight : 13.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.54 x 1.03 x 6.69 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #707,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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This book is a summary and an introduction to the other works of the Hellenistic sceptical philosopher Sextus Empiricus. Why were his works not part of the curriculum when the reviewer studied philosophy for several semesters decades ago? Why was 'scepticism', when not ignored altogether, considered a mere negation rather than 'suspension of judgement' leading to 'ataraxia', often translated as 'tranquillity' or 'mental imperturbability'?
It is amazing that Sextus Empiricus' books survived at all, given their ability to wash away dogmatic systems - philosophical, scientific and religious - like elaborate sand castles at high tide. Dogmatists of all sorts - especially those earning their livelihoods and / or maintaining their powers by propagating some dogmatic system - unable to refute the arguments - apparently simply ignored sceptical works or, when this was not possible, deliberately misrepresented this philosophic school.
Even today, a search engine including some 20 English language dictionaries shows only one definition of 'Pyrrhonism' that mentions the central notion of 'suspension of judgement' and none at all that mention 'ataraxia'.
Sextus Empiricus, by contrast, gave excellent positive, unbiased summaries of the various dogmatic schools he patiently refuted by multiple arguments. The last paragraph of the book 'Why the Sceptic sometimes purposely propounds Arguments which are lacking in Power and Persuasion' in respect of the 'rashness and conceit' of the Dogmatists demonstrates the benign, well-wishing disposition of the author.
Finally, decades after having formally studied philosophy, the reviewer is very happy to study the Sceptical School. Better late than never!
The Outlines, like the other extant works of Sextus Empiricus, is largely a recording of teachings attributed to a Greek philosopher of the 4th c. B.C. named Pyrrho of Elis. Pyrrho is a shadowy figure and himself left no extant writings, but is believed by longstanding rumor (preserved most quote-ably by the Roman historian Diogenes Laertius) to have been influenced by Buddhism during his travels with Alexander the Great to India.
Pyrrho's thought influenced middle and later phases of Plato's Academy and flourished there for some centuries, where it was intensely worked and re-worked. Indeed, Pyrrho's thought ultimately exerted such great influence in classical civilization that his name became synonomous with the modern technical meaning of the word "skepticism" (in fact, the title of this work, which in Greek is "Pyrrhoniae Hypothesi," is sometimes translated as "Outlines of Skepticism").
Ancient skepticism fell into obscurity following the fall of Rome and languished in obscurity for nearly a millennium. Fortunatley, however, the works of Sextus were rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance and from there enjoyed wide attention in Europe for some centuries, impacting the works of such notable figures as Montaigne and Walter Raleigh.
Nevertheless, ancient skepticism again fell out of academic view in more recent times. This is peculiar and unfortunate; this body of thought was no less influential than Platonic, Aristotelian, and other classical movements now effectively canonized in Western culture and was kept well in the forefront of academic thought for many centuries, but is now largely a curiosity seriously studied only by specialist philosophers and classics scholars.
What is most interesting to me about ancient skepticism is that I think everything that could possibly be said by modern doubters -- the phenomenologists, the existentialists, the mass of usually unthinking and poorly educated oafs who call themselves postmodernists -- was already said by the ancients. Indeed, the absolutely key points that a doubter must make in order to render his doubts even coherent all appear in the Outlines, in my opinion, and I see nothing in the supposedly radical works of modern day doubters that is really more radical than what is contained in Sextus.
Finally, there is no better introduction to ancient skepticism than the Outlines. Sextus is unbelievably straightforward and easy to understand, especially if you have any experience reading other works of skepticism.
Personally, I think the Barnes & Annas translation, available in an in-print Cambridge University edition, is better because it is better suited to modern readers and is copiously annotated. However, this or any other edition will do for a non-specialist looking for an understanding ancient skepticism.