The Neglected Philosophies: Pyrrhonism

In Ancient Greece, a philosophy emerged called Pyrrhonism that offered a new take on happiness.  While other philosophies espoused beliefs, Pyrrhonism claimed belief WAS the problem. However, unbelief was not the solution either, since unbelief was also belief. The solution? A suspension of judgment (epoche) that would lead to freedom from disturbance (ataraxia).  

But can one live without judgment? The Pyrrhonists  did not think so, so they allowed some judgments based on evident things and reasonable inferences from them, as required for action.  What are evident things? To the Pyrrhonists, these are the involuntary things that our senses and mind “report”. The key here is involuntary. For instance, if I judge something to be good, or choose to relive a memory, that is voluntary. However, if I see a blue sky or feel a shudder of disgust, or a thought pops into my head of its own accord, this is involuntary.

Now one could argue that many thoughts are really voluntary, but happen so quickly that they only seem involuntary, but that would not matter for the Pyrrhonists.  See, they were  only concerned with the way things seem. If a thought seems involuntary, then it is treated as such. If later the same thought seems voluntary, then it is suspended. To argue bout whether something is involuntary or only seems that way is a judgment about the true nature of this thing, the kind of judgment they avoid.

An example they use is how an oar appears bent when underwater but straight when out of it. Most people would say the oar is really straight but the refraction of light makes it appear bent. The Pyrrhonist would say nothing and simply take it for granted that appearances changed.  Trying to explain assumes an underlying reality beyond appearances. Not that the Pyrrhonist denies that either, but simply would not go there  unless needed for action.  

Appearances are taken as just that, with no claim of an underlying substance, consistency, nature/essence, or lack thereof. Visual images are just that, thoughts are just that, and so on. What they really represent (if anything) is left alone. When one must judge based on appearances, one does so but does not cling to judgment beyond that.

All judgments are covered — the good and the bad and the neutral, the petty and the noble, the dramatic and the minor, the motives of others, what may have happened, the past, whether something was really good, if the universe is infinite and so on.  See, judgment is a habit, and the goal is to break this habit.

Why would this lead to tranquility? There are a few possibilities.

The first is there are two components of suffering: the situation itself and our judgment of it, which can easily dwarf the first. Thus removing the second component of suffering can eliminate most of our suffering.

The second is that what we want is mental.  I want a car, I do not want appearances. I want an object, built up in my mind, an “essence” which can interact with many other judgments. By getting out of the habit of forming judgments and relying on appearances, I unravel the mechanisms that build these objects or “essences” and their related judgments..

The third is that very often “reality” is used as an authority to deny us happiness. Here are some pain-causing questions:

  • Am I happy with X, or am I deluding myself?
  • Is this really working, or is it a placebo effect?
  • What a lovely thing, but it is not real.
  • I would love to do this, but it is not meaningful.
  • I am a failure.

These are all the kinds of thoughts in which things beyond appearance (beliefs about the nature of reality) undermine our happiness. The Pyrrhonist would not engage in such self-defeating thoughts and would simply take the appearance (happiness, apparent cause, beauty) as appearance and leave it at that. Reality would also be taken as appearance and thus would not be given dominion over other parts of our lives.

Also the above stressed the intentional aspect, but we must also consider that the more we practice epoche, the less judgments we may spontaneously form. This means we may find ourselves more spontaneously at peace and naturally judging less and taking appearances at face value more. Judgment is a tool. We  don’t carry a hammer around when we finish pounding a nail, why carry judgments when we are not acting?

Again, I cannot overemphasize that the key to understanding Pyrrhonism is to understand that they are not affirming or denying anything. They are simply avoiding judging when they do not have to. As such, Pyrrhonism is a way if life in which epoche is used to achieve ataraxia and not a view. 

Unfortunately, Pyrrhonist teachings are neglected for some very good reasons. One of them becomes obvious when you realize their alternate name: Skeptics.  There was a reason I avoided using that word when discussing this school.

Yes, they received an undeserved reputation as doubters and soon were caricatured with the kinds of stereotypes reserved for pathological doubters. As if that were not enough, another school also calling itself skepticism (Academic Skepticism) arose, and this school was a about doubting our ability to know anything. The two schools were confused with each other.

Worse yet, even Pyrrhonism sounded a lot like an academic exercise. Often it was presented as a way of dealing with philosophical problems which made it seem detached from the practical details of life. Even when it purported to deal with life, its strategies (e.g.: The Ten Modes) sound so academic, that it is hard to not think of it as a rhetorical device.

A good source for Pyrrhonism is this book, freely available online, which argues that Pyrrhonism was Buddhism brought back from India. Whether or not you believe this, the book does a good job of explaining Pyrrhonism. What’s more, it uses Buddhism to shed light on Pyrrhonist teachings.  Knowledge of Buddhism is not necessary, but may enhance your understanding of Pyrrhonism and/or Buddhism from reading this book.

The canonical source for Pyrrhonism is Sextus Empiricus. Here is a relatively brief, but good overview of Pyrrhonism. He explains things well, but much of it has an academic vibe about it, especially when he discusses The Modes.

Finally here is a book that I imagine the Ancient Greeks would approve of. It does not mention skepticism. Or philosophy. Or happiness. It is about drawing. Yes, drawing. Yet its approach is very Pyrrhonist. The author claims most people cannot draw because they cannot see. When they try to draw something (like a tree), their judgments take over (eg: now drawing the branch) and they stop seeing the image they are trying to draw. The book includes exercises for getting past the judgments to SEE.  This practice is a good way to suspend judgment, and if you want to improve your drawing, well its good for that too.

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19 thoughts on “The Neglected Philosophies: Pyrrhonism

  1. Great as always. I actually had not heard of Phyrrhonism (maybe I had, but as Skeptics). Their teachings do sound a lot like Buddhism, so I have no problem believing them to be related. In fact, there was a Greek empire in India (the Bactrian empire, if my memory serves) for more than 200 years that almost certainly came in contact with Buddhism.
    I’ve always wanted to learn to draw and always failed miserably. Maybe “Drawing on the Right Side…” is the one I’ve been looking for.

  2. Thanks! IIRC, there’s some documentation about philosophers with Alexander who encountered the “gymnosophists” in India, and it has been speculated that these were ascetics who taught their beliefs, which later got imported into Greece as Pyrrhonism.

    I didn’t realize the Bactrian empire was Greek. Looks like I’m going to dig up some info on that.

    Yes, I recommend “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. I tried the exercises and they worked for me. Even if they don’t work, they’re good for their philosophical potential.

  3. Very interesting article. Reading along at first I thought it was just me, seeing buddhism there. I’ve practised non-judgement this past year and found it very interesting. It has led to some estrangement, especially from modern day skeptics, but I think it makes a lot of sense to see the bent oar. After all, all of reality as we perceive it most of the time, is really just our imagination. If I may ask, how do you see the bent oar?

    1. Thank you. You’re definitely ahead of me, as I needed to do some research before the connections were made clear. Part of it was the presentation which made it seem like Pyrrhonism was just about philosophical debates.

      The Buddhist school most often compared to Pyrrhonism is Madhyamika (sp?).

      I just see a bent oar, but then my mind’s on Pyrrhonism right now, so that (and expectation) may very well be giving me that “appearance” when I visualize it.

  4. 🙂
    Yes, I guess we’ll never really know.

    I’m really interested in the meetings of eastern and western philosophy, this is a fascinating (possible) connection. But I do think this pyrrhonistic view has practical use. Just imagine how often we clash on the basis of (mostly irrelevant) beliefs. I can hardly imagine why western philosophy would see this take on things as an unimportant dead end street. Anyway, I’m putting “Hardcore Zen” aside to look into this book you referred to. Thanks again for posting on this!

    1. Exactly. I can easily see how Pyrrhonism would be neglected, as it is subtle. Suspending judgment comes to sound a lot like doubt, and people really like things to be black and white, even when it comes to “doubt”! So it may not be so much a conscious decision to ignore it as a misunderstanding which helped it get eclipsed by what most people think of when they think of “Skepticism”.

      The meeting between Eastern and Western philosophy is a fascinating one, as they often tackled similar subjects in different ways, and one school can shed light on another.

      Pyrrhonism in particular has shed some light on one way to look at the Buddhist Middle Way, and one way to look at some difficult writings in the Buddhist/Hindu tradition that claimed things were not this, not that, not either or not both. From the perspective of suspending judgment, it gels, and it took Pyrrhonism (for me anyway) to drive that point home.

      Some fruitful avenues (off the top of my head) to explore (some of which I may) are West/East parallels like: Substance/Form, Schopenhauer/Buddhism, Cynicism/Taoism, Spinoza/ Hinduism, Selflessness (Hume & Parfitt)/ Selflessness (Buddhism).

  5. Thanks for the advice. Since I’m also looking into selflessness and did not know Parfitt before you and David Yerle mentioned him, I’ve ordered his book. A western take on selflessness seems very interesting.

    I like looking at Eastern and Western philosophy for exactly the same reason that you mention: they look at the same subjects in different ways. Sometimes the buddhist texts give me a feeling that stuff got lost in translation. I see your point on the “not this, not that, not either, not both” quote. I’ve read a long discourse on that once that I could not make heads or tails of…Oh, now I remember. It was Steve Hagen trying to make a mathematical equation out of it. I definitely find the Pyrrhonists explanation superior to that one.

    The Madhyamika school is Nagarjuna’s school, by the way. According to many people he’s the one to look out for in buddhism. Stephen Batchelor has translated him.

  6. I picked it up to see it afresh. Are you familiar with Nagarjuna? He commented on the prajnaparamita sutra (heart sutra) and made it into a philosophy. (Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, but I’m sure you know that.) Batchelor translated Nagarjuna from the Tibetan. I know he can read Sanskrit, but not well enough to translate. He got a lot of negative comments from scholarly translators because he made contemporary poetry of Nagarjuna. The scholars thought his interpretation too far removed from the original text. I think there’s something to say for it, though. Nagarjuna writes about emptiness. It’s not an easy concept. And the zen community took Nagarjuna’s work to be just a lot of koans. Like all koans, when I read them, I think I’m missing something, still. So there are many interpretations. If you like poetry, I think Batchelor has written a book that’s well worth reading.

    Have you ever worked with koans? The monastery I went to is Rinzai zen.

      1. Yep, I referred to it. I liked the book, but I think people who have been practicing a while would get more out of it than beginners. Maybe it’s just me, but the book seems to be an attempt to prevent us from getting attached to practice or our perceptions of “progress” with respect to practice. As such, it would require some experience to understand the issues discussed…

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