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Topic #G55

Aenesidemus and Pyrrhonian Philosophy

8 March 2002

Scribe: Diane Tang



These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Prof. Hutchinson began the lecture by speaking of two great ancient philosophers from the 1st century B.C.  He mentioned Aenesidemus who took his inspiration from the Academic Sceptics.  Prior to his arrival, the most important and the bravest of the sceptics up until that point was Carneades, who we don’t really talk about.   Prof. Hutchinson talked about Carneades in the moment of contrast with Aenesidemus.   Carneades was a great academic sceptic; Aenesidemus was later and admired but thought that as Prof. Hutchinson mentioned before in the 1st century that the academics went soft.  They whimped out and got mushy in their rigorous formally and muscular scepticism.  So this is why Aenesidemus decided to break away and form a splinter party and named it after a legendary figure of radical scepticism of pyrrhonian (Pyrrho of Elis).  This is why Aenesidemus is a pyrrhonian.  Now this was the case of a school, which was named by the founder as an act of establishing identity.  Other schools like Socratic schools were named because that was the guy’s name.  People knew him and followed him, but in the case of Aenesidemus there was no direct personal connection at all, and since Pyrrho wrote nothing there was not much of a literate connection either.  That is what happens in the all-growing scepticism.  Aenesidemus got busy and systematized a whole bunch of arguments, which are in fact quite powerful.  And almost all the power that survived in the later version of the pyrrhonian system because we have through sets of Empedocles sources much later.  All the power that has survived, Prof. Hutchinson believes comes from Aenesidemus.   In the 10th century B.C. there was a Bysantian scholar by the name of Photious, he did a terrible thing by only extracting a couple of pages of each of Aenesidemus’ books in his library.  And since a lot of books went missing especially when the Christians literally smashed through Istanbul as a part of their crusades. 


In many of these books there were important information and consequently were destroyed.  Because of this, the only information we have on Aenesidemus philosophy is what had been written down by his follower name Photious.  Photious, as in photon, was also known to be the author of not just the general persuasions but a collection of arguments against causation.  A collection of 10 modes of general sceptical persuasions, and he was also perhaps incidental in certain other formalizing and systematizing collections of arguments.  Now why would you go about collecting arguments?  Prof. Hutchinson found it to be a sterile argument to the idea or number or even the collection of arguments to be like pinning down insects to a black velvet cloth.  But this seems to be the cause of how Carneades was about.  He was another influence on Aenesidemus.  Now Carneades was a sceptic of the 2nd century B.C. and Carneades was truly a master, truly a virtuous intellect who was a great speaker.  He traveled to Rome where he dazzled them with a speech in favour of all the traditional institutions of justice and law.  He then the next day, returned and dazzled then with another speech that was exactly the contrary.  He became famous or rather notorious for this in certain circles, but this was the kind of virtuous performance.  A show he totally mastered.  He was kind of a weirdo with long hair, he looked weird like Socrates and he said in a jockative way that the reason why he didn’t have time to cut his hair or accept dinner invitation or cut his finger nails or toe nails was because there were so many arguments that Chryssipius had written.   There are approximately 311 books that the dogmatic philosopher had and he hadn’t gotten through them all yet and was running out of time.  So he didn’t really have time for the inessential things because he had to get through all the arguments. 


Anyways Carneades was himself in his own way kind of a formalizer and a systematizer.  Although he wrote nothing, he went around with a trusty fellow Clitomachus who wrote everything down for him.  This again much similar to the way in which Socrates conducted his teachings.  He didn’t care to commit his fluid thoughts to a fixed written form, but did care to communicate intensely about philosophy with a bunch of other people to try to teach them in person in various ways.  This is what Socrates also did, for people trying to remember what he said, people needed to take notes of it.  Prof. Hutchinson believes that the roots of some Socratic literature not all of course, is the traditional root of philosophy in which a student taking of Socrates written remarks and then showing them to him to correct misapprehensions and the same thing shows in sceptical philosophers such as Carneades.   In both cases we know a fair amount about what they were, because there was no fixed written notation, there is a limit which you cannot past beyond their minds.  We know more about Plato’s Socrates then Carneades because Plato has fully revealed himself in his written texts, whereas Carneades has chosen not to reveal himself at any particular time through his written text but is filtered out through somebody else. 


Prof. Hutchinson then wanted to try to get a sense of what the motivation may have been for someone like Aenesidemus to think that the academics have whimped out and gone soft.  Why does one need a more radical scepticism in this day in age?  Why at this time does one need an updated more radical version of this philosophy?  The immediate cause is that if there had been a movement of accommodations between the sceptical philosophy and the dogmatic school of Plato and the Stoics.  There was a merge that began in Athens that was smooshing together all the schools.  This was an attempt to find a common synthesis in philosophy.  This is quite difficult if you think about it, for a Sceptic to stay on board a project beyond certain point because your going to find yourself on board with a whole bunch of Dogmatics who are doing all sorts of crazy things who are many times doing the contrary of what you tell them to.  Scepticism, if anything is an approach or an attitude of commitments to attempt to look at things from various sides.  As well as holding certain things lightly other than firmly, scepticism is of course a trait of character.  As a trait of character it is to consider or reconsider trying to find the important perspectives to try to find the important source of information.  This is to avoid excessive case of judgment, being able to apologize gracefully, and admit when you’re wrong.  All these things are signs of a sceptical person.  Somebody who is prepare to hold opinions whether they are wrong, must hold them with and appropriate degree of firmness.  But then if anyone is identified as a sceptic they stand out even amongst sceptical peoples.  A system of philosophy which is taught through students or is learned from book traditions can only learn in a consistent manner by each student.  But all consistent scepticism is subject to some version of self-reputation as an argument.  If you’re so consistently sceptical of being firmly sceptical, isn’t that being dogmatically sceptical?   But if you’re dogmatically sceptical, you’re not supposed to be sceptical by your own mission.  So they have this backwards thought that causes one to stumbled onto chasing their own tail. 


Prof. Hutchinson warned us that the readings for this weekend would be a little dry, boring and sterile.  There is certain sterility in the categorization of thinking in various forms.  However, what you want to do is go quickly and lightly across it and sample what you think will make some kind of sense.  In some places we will find that it will make more sense then in others.  This is not so much of a system of sceptical principles but rather a basket of ideas, with this the other item approach strategy of the likes which should you need to be sceptical.  Should you need to be prescribed some kind of sceptical diet or herb, the question is whether or not they are safe?  The question is whether they are going to do any good or will they harm you.  What kind of good do you expect these sceptical baskets of arguments to do for us?  Here, Prof. Hutchinson wanted to intensify the medical metaphor, which is from the very end section of the book of Sextus in the later 3rd century ad. source.  He wrote quite a lot and is a great source of early philosophy for us, this a book of sextus or sometimes called Sex of Empirius.  In the Hellenistic Philosophy on page 316 PH 3. 280-281,  Prof. Hutchinson gives us a better understanding of what is meant by this “basket of ideas” and the purpose it serves.  He is trying to show that the role of philosophy is to help people.  This is partly rhetorical, and he is admitting that many doctrines within this whole book are in fact ridiculous.  If the disease were the opinion then how would you describe the state of health.  Truly it shouldn’t be freedom from opinion because it is like an empty head, hard to think objectively within.  Unless you can define opinion in a way which is always vicious in a commitment, this will always exceeds it’s evidence.  Well that is what makes opinions to be a bad thing.  In the passage mentioned above, it serves to illustrate how opinion is the disease of the body and that the Sceptic philosophy is that which can restore it to its health.   Here, it looks as if the Sceptics have taken over the therapeutically analogy employed from the Epicureans and of course the Stoics.  Here, the Sceptics offer remedies, but fail to provide  procedural diagnosis.  They claim that by struggling and searching, we are anxious and concern and are likely to give up the search.  When we adopt the Sceptic attitude, we are likely to rest satisfied knowing that this is not something I’m not going to know.  It could be this or it could be that.  Someone with outside attitude apparently is a pay off according to the Scpetics.  The pay off is adorexia, now this adorexia is the one main formula of objective of all the Hellenistic schools or of a multiple choice test question.  What is the objective of Hellenistic schools?  The answer is adorexia, the meaning of adorexia stands for a freedom from disturbance, from concern, and it means being unruffled, like an unruffled sea.   

Now this is very relevant because of the concerns being addressed by the Epicureans.  Epicureans as well as the Stoics  address the issues of anxiety,  they believe that we should submit ourselves or let go of nature by accepting our role in nature and feeling as a part of an organic thing and not struggling against what cannot be changed or what cannot be other wise.  It is a struggle of what cannot be otherwise which the Stoics diagnosed as the essential source of anxiety and stress hence their approach to also bring adorexia.  The process of adorexia aims to accomplish is to submit to nature rather than struggle against it. 


Prof. Hutchinson also asked the question “ What is the goal of scepticism?”  Professor wanted to make an important illustration, in fact he referred to the story about the painter Apelles that probably also applies to the Sceptic.  They say that when Apelles was painting a horse and wished to depict the horse’s froth.  He was so unsuccessful that he gave up  and flung at the pictures the sponge that he used to wipe off his paintbrushes.  The mark made by the sponge produced the representation of a horses froth.  The Sceptics hope to attain freedom from disturbance by judging the inconsistency of appearances and ideas, and not being able to do this,  they suspended judgment,  they throw in the towel.  Throwing in the towel is a sign of relief.  When someone doesn’t throw in the towel it can be a source of many serious problems.  Prof. Hutchinson is a big fan of throwing in the towel.  When you can’t win something, when you can’t win a struggle, when you can’t get somewhere or you can’t find out something; when you can make up a problem but can’t cure it with understanding and you keep hammering at it you don’t know when to throw in the towel.  You think it will happen and work but truly sometimes you make a fool out of yourself because of poor planning to struggle against what you can’t bring about.  However, we all know it is quite disputable whether this is a way of life.  We cannot do this for life in all situations that we are concerned about.  That is why Prof. Hutchinson said at the end of our last lecture that it is an ingredient but it can’t be a whole meal.  He is asking to care less about what is good or bad and this can be useful advice sometime but we care too much of our integrity of our Bon Jovi collection and all of our excessive concerns.  Generally speaking , is it really the case that we suffer from and excess of commitments.  We suffer from misdirection, we need to work our way through experience to find our way.  In order to be interested in the sceptic philosophy as a therapy, one must agree that they suffer because of uncertainties in their experiences.  When one does not know what to do, one should investigate rather than suffer.


On the other hand there can be problems which fall short of mental health.  These are usually just concerns, anxieties and worried which it would be better if we loosen our grasps as to what we think is good or bad.  One should apply this Sceptical philosophy selectively here and there to when somebody has disfunctional opinion state.  When someone has an excessive grasps on the importance of this and that turning out, this is a disfunctional opinion state.  Ones friend can sometimes gently advise you that you’re in a disfunctional opinion state.  Your friends will say to you gentle or less gentle reminders that would be interesting to face, and to perhaps reconsider, because this is what friends are for.  But to want this therapy, one must want the results.  By applications of this Sceptical philosophy, one must want the commitments.  Furthermore, there is a danger that some people have already noticed, that if you take too much of this stuff you end up in a state of apathy.  Too much doubting results in apathy, where a person has no regard for any concern in their recovery or in their life.  This therapy can induce depression where a person becomes confused, miserable, apathetic, indecisive, and hopeless.  When doctors see these symptoms, they will talk about sleeping, eating and other things that will confirm depression, and thanks to the diagnostic manual, doctors can recognize these symptoms.  Generally people go to doctors not to get depressed but to get un-depressed.  However, sometimes there is no need for a person to go to the doctor when they need help in restoring their health.  One has to take independent advice before one swallows any of this Sceptical teachings.  And this of course taking your own council and own advice.  Prof. Hutchinson, referred to the Protagoras passage where an excited Hippocritus calls upon Socrates to exclaim that Protagoras has arrived and that they must go and see him at once.  Once there, Socrates asked him what it was that he had hoped to gain in seeing him.  This is an important thing to consider when going to see the doctor or teacher.  But when you swallow teachings from books or from people you will discover that the affects don’t settle in until later.  Prof  Hutchinson, lastly exclaimed that medical therapy can cut both ways for Sceptics.  It can be helpful medication but like all medications they can be abused.  It can be sought to be a cure all, the Greek word for cure all is pentacia. “Pen” being a Greek word has the meaning of all.  But we have to remember that we can’t always cure everything.