Pyrrhonism for Stoics

Douglas C. Bates
35 min readSep 7, 2023

A booklet explaining Pyrrhonism for those already familiar with Stoicism

Pyrrho of Elis, founder of Pyrrhonism. Image based on an ancient sculpture

Introduction

Pyrrhonism is perhaps the subtlest and most difficult to grasp of the Hellenistic philosophies of life. Aenesidemus, who defected from Academic Skepticism to spark a revival of interest in Pyrrhonism, said in his book Pyrrhonian Discourses, that language lacked ways of expressing key elements of Pyrrhonism. These difficult-to-express elements seem to be shared with similar difficult-to-express elements of Buddhism, particularly in Buddhism’s Madhyamaka and Zen forms.

Exacerbating these difficulties in understanding is that a variety of modern interpretations of Pyrrhonism have been put forward. Most of these interpretations come from academics who are not Pyrrhonists. Worse, some of these academics are hostile to the idea that Pyrrhonism is a viable philosophy of life — most notably, Jonathan Barnes and Richard Bett. The academics who consider themselves to be Pyrrhonists have either mostly published only in Portuguese (e.g., Porchat, Smith), or whose approach to Pyrrhonism does not make it accessible as a philosophy of life for ordinary people (e.g., Foglein).

Despite there being a variety of interpretations of Pyrrhonism, the interpretations espoused by advocates of Pyrrhonism (e.g., Porchat, Smith, Kuzminski, Bates) are all in general agreement with each other. This suggests that the interpretations of Pyrrhonism advanced by non-Pyrrhonists are erroneous interpretations.

It seems that there’s something that non-Pyrrhonists fail to understand about Pyrrhonism. I noted this in the introduction to my book, Pyrrho’s Way: the Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism. Understanding Pyrrhonism seems to require a gestalt shift — something like a Copernican shift. While to us it appears that the Earth is the center, the center is someplace else. Understanding Pyrrhonism requires something similar. Certain things that we instinctively think as not only real but necessary for thought come to be understood as delusions, the removal of which improves thought.

Our personal perspectives have us see the world around us in a particular way. Understanding Pyrrhonism seems to require letting go of that perspective and looking at the world in another way. In the case of Pyrrhonism, this way…

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Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. http://www.pyrrhonism.org Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”