Pyrrhonism, like many of the other Hellenistic philosophies, sets forth a prescription of how to live a life of eudaimonia (happiness, flourishing, and excellence). The Pyrrhonist view is that what enables one to achieve eudaimonia is to achieve a consistent state of equanimity. The Greek term for this state is ataraxia, meaning a mental state of being unperturbed, untroubled, and unanxious. Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism, borrowed the term from the Greek military, which used it to describe the ideal mental state for soldiers entering battle. We Pyrrhonists do not claim that ataraxia is objectively good; we just maintain that experience shows that ataraxia is more conducive to eudaimonia than the state of being anxious, troubled, and perturbed.
Our observation is that what prevents people from having ataraxia is belief in what in ancient Greek are known as dogmas. The ancient Greek term dogma is similar in meaning to the modern English term, “dogma,” but with some crucial differences. The distinguishing characteristic of a dogma is that it is a belief in something “non-evident.” “Non-evident” means to be derived from something other than experience. It’s roughly equivalent to the English term, “non-empirical.”
Another difference with the English term “dogma” is that “dogma” represents something believed in without justification. Justification is irrelevant to the ancient Greek term dogma. One can have accounts of why believing in something is reasonable, but if that account depends on things non-evident, the belief is still dogma. (More about dogma).
On matters involving experience, people can attempt to have the same experience and potentially come to agreement about such matters, at least with regard to the experience itself (not what is behind, or the cause of, or the meaning of the experience). On issues that are beyond the realm of experience people have no criterion — no shared basis — for coming to agreement. Beliefs about such matters are dogmas. As there is no criterion for resolving disputes about dogmas, endless dispute is possible.
Over the span of recorded history, various dogmatic approaches for attaining wisdom have been proposed. While several of these have gained many adherents, there remains vast disagreement among the various adherents about what dogmas lead to wisdom. On this basis, we can conclude that the dogmatists have failed to provide mankind with a method for attaining wisdom. Dogma itself appears to be the impediment to wisdom.
Belief in any sort of dogma can impede ataraxia; however, one dogma is particularly responsible for preventing ataraxia. This dogma is the belief that something is good or bad by nature. “By nature” is the ancient Greek way of saying that it is objectively or inherently so. Nearly all of the other Hellenistic schools of philosophy believed certain things were good or bad by nature; although they disagreed substantially with each other about what things by nature were good or bad.
We Pyrrhonists point out that disagreement about what is good or bad goes beyond philosophy: it’s an everyday matter. For example, person A thinks something is good because it seems to be good from their perspective. Person B thinks the same thing is bad because it appears to be bad from their perspective. Then these two argue endlessly about the matter, perhaps becoming angry and even declaring each other to be evil — all caused by thinking that what is good and bad is an objective property of those things, and not of their views on those things.
To dispel belief in dogmas, Pyrrhonism prescribes a large number of what Pierre Hadot terms “spiritual exercises.” Some of these exercises bring one’s mind to an inability to come to conclusion, like how some of the early Platonic dialogs such as the Euthyphro conclude. Some induce the mind to suspend judgment. Some direct the mind to keep searching so as to avoid coming to conclusions. In other words, these exercises help one to let go of attachments and judgments.
While Pyrrhonist practice helps one achieve a mental state of ataraxia, we remain subject to physical pain and discomfort. But, being without belief as to whether these things are bad by nature, we find that they can be more easily tolerated.
In addition to eudaimonia, another result of attaining ataraxia is that it allows one to seem to live rightly, not only with respect to virtue, but in the broader sense as well. This is because a mind unclouded by anxiety and dogmas seems to be more likely to produce correct decisions. Of course, there is the qualifier, “seems to,” as we lack an objective standard. But just because we have no objective standard doesn’t mean we are left with no standards whatsoever.
For those who base their decisions on dogmas — which is what most people do — the idea of making decisions without using dogmas is difficult to conceive of. Instead of using dogmas to make decisions, we Pyrrhonists use an alternative method of reasoning which:
· Is focused on attending to phenomena. This way of reasoning evaluates phenomena on the basis of experience.
· Helps one to cultivate the ability to suspend judgment about non-evident matters. Suspension of judgment puts an end to dogmatizing. Suspension of judgment does not apply to phenomena. It applies only to interpretations of phenomena, i.e., explanations of the supposed reality behind the phenomena, not the phenomena themselves.
· Points us toward a way of life that is in general accord with the necessities of life, the customs of our society, the local laws, the concerns of our institutions, and our own personal feelings.
To learn more about Pyrrhonism, read the introduction to Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.