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Greek Skeptics, from Pyrrho to Arcesilaus

In the Hellenist world that emerged after the death of Alexander the Great, freedom of expression was common and a new school of thought emerged: Skepticism. Its founder was Pyrrho (born around 360 and died around 270), a Greek from Elis, in the northeast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

While campaigning as a soldier with Alexander, he had come into contact with a great variety of conflicting beliefs. He studied with ascetic philosophers in India, the Gynosophists, who regarded food and clothing as detrimental to purity of thought. Pyrrho saw contrary belief as a source of trouble for the world. Returning to Elis, he lived ascetically and took up painting. He established himself as a teacher in Elis, and he argued that equally valid arguments could be made on either side of any question and therefore it was best to draw no conclusion about the nature of things – a conclusion about humanity’s inability to make conclusions. What he was saying, basically, was that people could believe anything they wanted. How people believing anything they wanted would reduce contrary belief as a source of trouble he did not say.

A few followers of Pyrrho tried to demonstrate inconsistencies and contradictions in the conclusions of others – an attempt to point out that these others did not know what they were talking about. They claimed that the senses were an unreliable and invalid source of knowledge. They examined the logic of Aristotle and concluded that people could not deduce their way to truth from a self-evident premise.

Not believing in conclusions, Pyrrho and his followers believed that one should live according to one's circumstances and desires. What mattered, Pyrrho concluded, was living well and living unperturbed. This fit an aristocratic lifestyle, and it was compatible with those who ruled. The ruling elite considered Skeptics harmless, and the Skeptics were not about to struggle politically against rulers or the wealthy.

The imperturbability that Pyrrho sought eluded him. He made much money teaching his doctrine of Skepticism, and in his later years he spent much time attacking a philosopher named Arcesilaus, about 44 years his junior, whom he believed had copied his ideas and was endangering his source of wealth. It was Arcesilaus who had revived Plato's academy in Athens and changed it to teaching Skepticism.

From a Skeptic platform, Arcesilaus further abandoned the notion that people could believe anything they wanted. At Plato's old academy he argued against another philosophy that had arisen in Hellenist times and was competing for attention: Stoicism.

Arcesilaus was with Plato in doubting that the senses were a pathway to truth. But he did believe in truth. This and their skepticism was something the Skeptics never worked out. Meanwhile, people would be using Skepticism's position against conclusions as justification for relying on intuition and faith – no matter the unreliability of these. In Skepticism people found justification for believing in their god or gods, and they practiced religion as insurance against damnation, assuming that it was their religion that provided this assurance and not another religion.

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