17

The Sceptics: Untroubledness Without Belief

We have seen that the ancient sceptics all take themselves to be different from the other schools in not recommending one favoured way of solving common problems and achieving a shared goal. Rather, they radically reject the basic assumption of all the other schools, namely that we can achieve anything by shared philosophical thinking and endeavour. For they all hold that continued genuine enquiry will face the thinker with situations where there is no option but to suspend belief; intellectual enquiry is thus, if properly done, self-abolishing, since the enquirer finds that all serious disputes are unsettleable, all debates endless, and the only honest outcome, detachment from the original questions.

Prima facie it is odd to combine this with a systematic presentation of scepticism as a philosophy like any other school philosophy -- a definition, a criterion, a set of principles, and, most of all, an account of its final end. Among ancient sceptics, only the later Pyrrhonists, represented for us by Sextus, do this. Pyrrho himself wrote nothing, and in the accounts by his follower Timon, we find, apart from brief descriptions of sceptical strategy, nothing but a positive portrayal of Pyrrho as an attractive model, and highly negative portrayals of other, dogmatic philosophers, presenting them as ridiculous and pretentious. The general moral is clear: follow Pyrrho and you will avoid the paths of pompous idiocy, which is all other philosophers offer. What you will positively get is presented as calm and tranquillity,1 but we have no positive indications as to how tranquillity is linked to sceptical enquiry, or as to why we should expect tranquillity to be what the sceptic ends up with. The Academic sceptics, who do stress enquiry and philosophical argument, do not claim that tranquillity will result from this: they do not, indeed, represent it as having any further point beyond itself. It is only in Sextus that we find that the later Pyrrhonists explicitly claimed both that sceptical enquiry will result in suspension of belief and that the sceptic is in fact doing what the other schools do, namely specifying our final end. For suspension of belief results in untroubledness (ataraxia), and this is in fact the only satisfactory final end for us to seek.

It might seem that there is a conflict here right at the start. For the sceptics tell us that if we enquire vigorously, we will reach suspension of judgement. But if we are, as sceptics, seeking a final end, happiness, then surely we are seeking suspension of judgement in order to be happy. But then how can we be enquiring in a genuine way? Surely we will be tempted not to enquire as vigorously as we might, if we are

____________________
1
See Burnyeat ( 1980b).

-351-

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