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.