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is exactly what the Cyrenaics had already maintained. The
inadequacy of reason is proved by a more original method.
Had men any settled principles of judgment, they would
agree on questions of conduct, for it is with regard to these
that they are best informed, whereas the great variety of laws
and customs shows that the exact opposite is true. They are
more hopelessly divided on points of morality than on any
other.* It will be remembered that Pyrrho's fellow-towns-
man, Hippias, had, about a hundred years earlier, founded
his theory of Natural Law on the arbitrary and variable
character of custom. The result of combining his principles
with those professed by Protagoras and Gorgias was to
establish complete moral scepticism ; but it would be a
mistake to suppose that moral distinctions had no value for him
personally, or that they were neglected in his public teachings
Timon, a celebrated disciple of Pyrrho, added another
and, from the speculative point of view, a much more power-
ful argument, which, however, may equally have been

' Zeller, op. cii., p. 484 j Ritter and Preller, Hisi, Ph., p. 336,


borrowed from the master's lectures. Readers of the Pos-
terior Analytics will remember how strongly Aristotle dwells
on the necessity of starting with firsfe principles which are
self-evidently true. The chain of demonstration must have
something to hang on, it cannot be carried back ad infinitum.
Now, Timon would not admit of such a thing as -first prin-
ciples. Every assumption, he says, must rest on some
previous assumption, and as this process cannot be con-
tinued for ever, there can be no demonstration at all. This
became a very favourite weapon with the later Sceptics, and,
still at the suggestion of Aristotle, they added the further
'trope' of compelling their adversaries to choose between
going back ad infinitum and reasoning in a circle — in other
words, proving the premises by means of the conclusion.
Modern science would not feel much appalled by the scepti-
cal dilemma. Its actual first principles are only provisionally
assumed as ultimate, and it is impossible for us to tell how
much farther their analysis may be pursued ; while, again,
their validity is guaranteed by the circular process of showing
that the consequences deduced from them agree with the
facts of experience. But as against those modern philo-
sophers who, in adherence to the Aristotelian tradition, still
seek to base their systems on first principles independent of
any individual experience, the sceptical argument is un-
answerable, and has even been strengthened by the progress
of knowledge. To this day, thinkers of different schools
cannot agree about the foundations of belief, and what to one
seems self-evidently true, is to another either conceivably or
actually false. To Mr. Herbert Spencer the persistence of
force is a necessary truth ; to Prof. Stanley Jevons its creation
is a perfectly possible contingency; while to others, again,
the whole conception of force, as understood by Mr. Spencer,
is so absolutely unmeaning that they would decline to enter-
tain any proposition about the invariability of the objective
reality which it is supposed to represent. And when the


d /irion dogma.tlst affects to treat the negations of his oppo-
nents as something that they do not think, but only think
they think, they may, with perfect fairness, attribute his
rejection of their beliefs — as, for example, free-will — to a simi-
lar subjective illusion. 'Moreover, the pure experimentalists
can point to a circumstance not foreseen by the ancient
sceptics, which is that propositions once generally regarded
as incontrovertible by thinking men, are now as generally
abandoned by them.

Having proved, to his satisfaction, that the nature of
things is unknowable, Pyrrho proceeds to deal with the two
remaining heads of the philosophic problem. To the question
what should be our relation to a universe which we cannot
reach, the answer is, naturally, one of total indifference. And
the advantage to be derived from this attitude is, he tells us,
that we shall secure the complete imperturbability wherein
true happiness consists. The sceptical philosophy does not
agree with Stilpo in denying the reality of actual and imme-
diate annoyances, for it denies nothing ; but it professes to
dispel that very large amount of unhappiness which arises
from the pursuit of fancied goods and the expectation of
future calamities. In respect to the latter, what Pyrrho
sought was to arrive by the exercise of reasoning at the
tranquillity which unreasoning animals naturally enjoy.
Thus, we are told that, when out at sea in a storm, he called
the attention of the terrified passengers to a little pig which was
quietly feeding in spite of the danger, and taught them that
the wise man should attain to a similar kind of composure.

Various other anecdotes of more or less doubtful authen-
ticity are related, showing that the philosopher could gene-
rally, though not always, act up to his own ideal of indifference.
He lived with his sister, who was a midwife by profession,
and patiently submitted to the household drudgery which she
unsparingly imposed on him. Once, however, she succeeded-
in goading him into a passion j and on being rather inoppor-^


tunely reminded of his professed principles by a bystander,
the sceptic tartly replied that a wretched woman like that
was no fit subject for a display of phi^sophical indifference.
On another occasion, when taunted for losing, his self-posses-
sion at the attack of a furious dog,* he observed, with truth,
that, after all, philosophers are human beings.^

Thus we find Pyrrho competing with the dogmatists as a
practical moralist, and offering to secure the inward tran-
quillity at which they too aimed by an easier method than
theirs. The last eminent representative of the sceptical
school, Sextus Empiricus, illustrates its pretensions in this
respect by the well-known story of Apelles, who^ after vainly
endeavouring to paint the foam on a horse's mouth, took the
sponge which he used to wipe his easel, and threw it at the
picture in vexation. The mixture of colours thus accidentally
applied produced the exact effect which he desired, but at
which no calculation could arrive. In like manner, says Sextus,
the confusion of universal doubt accidentally resulted in the
imperturbability which accompanies suspense of judgment
as surely as a body is followed by its shadow.^ There was,
however, no accident about the matter at all. The abandon-
ment of those studies which related to the external world was
a consequence of the ever-increasing attention paid to human
interests, and that these could be best consulted by complete
detachment from outward circumstances, was a conclusion
inevitably suggested by the negative or antithetical moment
of Greek thought. Hence, while the individualistic and
apathetic tendencies of the age were shared by every philo-
sophical school, they had a closer logical connexion with the
idealistic than with the naturalistic method ; and so it is among
the successors of Protagoras that we find them developed
with the greatest distinctness ; while their incorporation with

• &)S ■j^aKenhv etrj 6\o<rxep&s eKdvvai &u6pa)iroy. For this and the other stories,
see Diog. L., IX., 66-8.
2 FyrrA. Hyp.y I., 28 ff.




Stoicism imposed a self'-contradictbry strain on that system
which it never succeeded in shaking off. Epicureanism
occupied a position midway between the two extremes ; and
from this point of view, we shall be better able to under-
stand both its inherent weakness as compared with the other
ancient philosophies, and the admiration which it has attracted
from opposite quarters in recent years. To some it is most
interesting as a revelation of law in Nature, to others as a
message of deliverance to man — not merely a deliverance
from ignorance and passion, such as its rivals had promised,
but from all established systems, whether religious, political,
or scientific. And unquestionably Epicurus did endeavour
to combine both points of vltw in his theory of life. In
seeking to base morality on a knowledge of natural law he
resembles the Stoics. In his attacks on fatalism, in his
refusal to be bound down by a rigorously scientific explana-
tion of phenofnena, in his failure to recognise the unity and
power of Nature, and in his preference of sense to reason, he
partially reproduces the negative side of Scepticism ; in his
identification of happiness with the tranquil and impertur-
bable self-possession of mind, in his mild humanism, and in
his compliance with the established religion of the land,
he entirely reproduces its positive ethical teaching. On the
other hand, the two sides of his philosophy, so far from
completing, interfere with and mar one another. Emancipa-
tion from the outward world would have been far more
effectually obtained by a total rejection of physical science
than by the construction of a theory whose details were, on
any scientific principles, demonstrably untrue. The appeal
to natural instinct as an argument for hedonism would, con-
sistently followed out, have led to one of two conclusions,
either of which is incompatible with the principle that im-
perturbability is the highest good. If natural instinct, as
manifested by brutes, by children, and by savages, be the one
sure guide of action, then Callicles was right, and the habitual


indulgence of passion is wiser than its systematic restraint.
But if Nature is to be studied on a more specific and dis-
criminating plan, if there are human aft distinguished from
merely animal impulses, and if the higher development of
these should be our rule of life, then Plato and Aristotle and
the Stoics were right, and the rational faculties should be
cultivated for their own sake, not because of the immunity
from superstitious terrors which they secure. And we may
add that the attendance on public worship practised by
Epicurus agreed much better with the sceptical suspense of
judgment touching divine providence than with its absolute
negation, whether accompanied or not by a belief in gods
who are indifferent to sacrifice and prayer.

It was, no doubt, for these and similar reasons that all
the most vigorous intellects of Hellas ranged themselves
either on the Stoic or on the Sceptic side, leaving the half-
hearted compromise of Epicurus to those who could not think
out any one theory consistently, or who, like the Romans at first,
were not acquainted with any system but his. HencefortTi,
during a period of some centuries, the whole philosophic move-
ment is det-ermined by the interaction of these two fundamental
forces. The first effect of their conflict was to impose on
Scepticism an important modification, illustrating its essen-
tially parasitic character. We have seen it, as a general
tendency of the Greek mind, clinging to the very texture of
mythology, accompanying the earliest systematic compilation
of facts, aiding the humanistic attacks on physical science,
associated with the first great religious reaction, operating as
the dialectic of dialectic itself, and finally assuming the form
of a shadowy morality, in rivalry with and imitation of ethical
systems based on a positive and substantial doctrine. We
have now to trace its metamorphosis into a critical system
extending its ramifications in parallelism with the immense dog-
matic structure of Stoicism, and simultaneously endeavouring
to reach the same practical results by a more elastic adaptation


to the infirmities of human reason and the uncertainties of
sensible experience. As such, we shall also have to study its
influence over the most plastic of Roman intellects, the great
orator in whose writings Greek philosophy was reclothed with
something of its ancient charm, so that many who were
debarred from admission to the groves and porticoes of
Athens have caught an echo of the high debates which once
stirred their recesses, as they trod the shady slopes of
Tusculum under his visionary guidance, or followed his
searching ^y&s over the blue waters to Pompeii, while he
reasoned on mind and its object, on sense and knowledge, on
doubt and certainty, with LucuUus and Hortensius, on the
sunlight Baian shore. It is the history of the New Academy
that we shall now proceed to trace,


When we last had occasion to speak of the Platonic
school, it was represented by Polemo, one of the teachers
from whose lessons Zeno the Stoic seems to have compiled
his system. Under his superintendence, Platonism had com-
pletely abandoned the metaphysical traditions of its founder.
Physics and dialectics had already been absorbed by Aristo-
telianism. Mathematics had passed into the hands of experts.
Nothing remained but the theory of ethics ; and, as an ethical
teacher, Polemo was only distinguished from the Cynics by
the elegance and moderation of his tone. Even this narrow
standing-ground became untenable when exposed to the
formidable competition of Stoicism. The precept. Follow
Nature, borrowed by the new philosophy from Polemo,
acquired a far deeper significance than he could give it, when
viewed in the light of an elaborate physical system showing
what Nature was, and whither her guidance led. But stone
after stone had been removed from the Platonic superstructure
and built into the walls of other edifices, only to bring its


original foundation the more prominently into sight. This
was the initial doubt of Socrates, widened into the confession
of universal ignorance attributed to hifh by Plato in the
Apologia. Only by returning to the exclusively critical attitude
with which its founder had begun could the Academy
hope to exercise any influence on the subsequent course
of Greek speculation. And it was also necessary that the
agnostic standpoint should be taken much more in earnest
by its new representatives than by Socrates or Plato. With
them it had been merely the preparation for a dogmatism
even more self-confident than that of the masters against
whom they fought ; but if in their time such a change of
front might seem compatible with the retention of their old
strongholds, matters now stood on a widely different footing.
Experience had shown that the purely critical position could
not be abandoned without falling back on some one or other
of the old philosophies, or advancing pretensions inconsistent
with the dialectic which had been illustrated by their over-
throw. The course marked out for Plato's successors by the
necessities of thought might have been less evident had not
Pyrrhonism suddenly revealed to them where their oppor-
tunities lay, and at the same time, by its extinction as an
independent school, allowed them to step into the vacant

It was at this juncture that the voluntary withdrawal of
an older fellow-pupil placed Arcesilaus at the head of the
Academy. The date of his accession is not given, but we are
told that he died 241 or 240 B.C. in the seventy-fifth year of
his age. He must, therefore, have flourished a generation
later than Zeno and Epicurus. Accomplished, witty, and
generous, his life is described by some as considerably less
austere than that of the excellent nonentities whom he
succeeded. Yet its general goodness was testified to by no
less an authority than his contemporary, the noble Stoic,
Cleanthes. ' Do not blame Arcesilaus,' exclaimed the latter


to an unfriendly critic ; ' if he denies duty in his words, he
affirms it in his deeds.' 'You don't flatter me,' observed
Arcesilaus, ' It is flattering you,' rejoined Cleanthes, ' to say
that your actions belie your words.' ^ It might be inferred
from this anecdote that the scepticism of the new teacher,
like that of Carneades after him, was occasionally exercised
on moral distinctions, which, as then defined and deduced,
were assuredly open to very serious criticism. Even so, in
following the conventional standard of the age, he would
have been acting in perfect consistency with the principles of
his school. But, as a matter of fact, his attacks seem to have
been exclusively aimed« at the Stoic criterion of certainty.
We have touched on this difficult subject in a former chapter,
but the present seems a more favourable opportunity for
setting it forth in proper detail.

The Stoics held, as Mr. Herbert Spencer, who resembles
them in so many respects, now holds, that all knowledge is
'V ultimately produced by the action of the object on the
subject. Being convinced, however, that each single percept
tion, as such, is fallible, they sought for the criterion of
certainty in the repetition and combination of individual
impressions ; and, again like Mr. Spencer, but also in com-
plete accordance with their dynamic theory of Nature, they
estimated the validity of a belief by the degree of tenacity
with which it is held. The various stages of assurance were
carefully distinguished and arranged in an ascending series,
y^ First came simple perception, then simple assent, thirdly,
comprehension, and finally demonstrative science. These
mental acts were respectively typified by extending the fore^
finger, by bending it as in the gesture of beckoning, by
clenching the fist, and by placing it, thus clenched, in the
grasp of the other hand. From another point of view, they
defined a true conviction as that which can only be produced
by the action of a corresponding real object on the mind.

' Diog. L., VII., 171.


This theory was complicated still further by the Stoic inter-
pretation of judgment as a voluntary act ; by the ethical
significance which it consequently received ; and by the con-
centration of all wisdom in the person of an ideal sage. The
unreserved bestowal of belief is a practical postulate dictated
by the necessities of life ; but only he who knows what those
necessities are, in other words only the wise man, knows
when the postulate is to be enforced. In short, the criterion
of your being right is your conviction that you are right, and
this conviction, if you really possess it, is a sufficient witness
to its own veracity. Or again, it is the nature of man to act
rightly, and he cannot do so unless he has right beliefs,
confirmed and clinched by the consciousness that they are

Arcesilaus left no writings, and his criticisms on the Stoic
theory, as reported by Cicero and Sextus Empiricus, have a
somewhat unsatisfactory appearance. By what we can make
out, he seems to have insisted on the infallibility of the wise
man to a much greater extent than the Stoics themselves,
not allowing that there was any class of judgments in which
he was liable to be mistaken. But just as the Stoics were
obliged to accept suicide. as an indispensable safeguard for
the inviolability of their personal" dignity and happiness, so
also Arcesilaus had recourse to a kind of intellectual suicide
for the purpose of securing immunity from error. The only
way, according to him, in which the sage can make sure of
never being mistaken is never to be certain about anything.
For, granting that every mental representation is produced
by a corresponding object in the external world, still different
objects are connected by such a number of insensible grada-
tions that the impressions produced by them are virtually
indistinguishable from one another ; while a fertile source of
illusions also exists in the diversity of impressions produced
by the same object acting on different senses and at different
times. Moreover, the Stoics themselves admitted that the


sage might form a mistaken opinion ; it was only for his con-
victions that they claimed unerring accuracy, each of the two
— opinion and conviction— being the product of a distinct
intellectual energy. Here again, Arcesilaus employed his
method of infinitesimal transitions, refusing to admit that the
various cognitive faculties could be separated by any hard
and fast line ; especially as, according to the theory then held
by all parties, and by none more strongly than the Stoics,
intellectual conceptions are derived exclusively from the data
of sense and imagination. We can see that the logic of Scep-
ticism is, equally with that of the other Greek systems, deter-
mined by the three fundamental moments of Greek thought.
There is first the careful circumscription of certainty ; then
there is the mediating process by which it is insensibly
connected with error ; and, lastly, as a result of this process,
there is the antithetical opposition of a negative to an
affirmative proposition on every possible subject of mental

To the objection that his suspensive attitude would
render action impossible, Arcesilaus replied that any mental
representation was sufficient to set the will in motion ; and
that, in choosing between different courses, probability was the
most rational means of determination. But the task of reducing
probable evidence to a system was reserved for a still abler
dialectician, who did not appear on the scene until a century
after his time. Arcesilaus is commonly called the founder of
the Middle, Carneades the founder of the New Academy.
The distinction is, however, purely nominal. Carneades
founded nothing. His principles were identical with those of
his predecessor ; and his claim to be considered the greatest
of the Greek sceptics is due to his having given those prin-
ciples a wider application and a more systematic development.
The Stoics regarded it as a special dispensation of providence

' Cicero, Acad., II,, xxiv., 77 ; Sext. Emp., Adv. Math.^ VII., 150-7 ;
Zeller, Ph. d, Gr., III., a, pp. 492 ff.


that Chr>'sippus, the organising genius of their school, should

have come between its two most formidable opponents, being

thus placed in a position to answer tfte objections of the

one and to refute by anticipation those of the other.' It

might seem to less prejudiced observers that the thinker

whose cause benefited most by this arrangement was

Carneades. Parodying a well-known iambic, he used to

say :

Without Chrysippus I should not have been.' ^

And, in fact, it was by a close study of that writer's voluminous
treatises that he was able to cover the immense extent of
ground which Scepticism thenceforward disputed with the
dogmatic schools. Nor were his attacks directed against
Stoicism only, but against all other positive systems past and
present as well. What he says about the supposed founda-
tion of knowledge is even now an unanswerable objection to
the transcendental realism of Mr Herbert Spencer. States of
consciousness speak for themselves alone, they do not include
the consciousness of an external cause.^ But the grounds on
which he rests his negation of all certainty are still superficial
enough, being merely those sensible illusions which the
modern science of observation has been able either to elimi-
nate altogether or to restrict within narrow and definable
limits. That phenomena, so far from being necessarily
referred to a cause which is not phenomenal, cannot be
thought of at all except in relation to one another, and that
knowledge means nothing more than a consciousness of this
relation, was hardly perceived before the time of Hume.

Turning from sense to reason, Carneades attacks the
syllogistic process on grounds already specified in connexion

1 Plutarch, De Comm. Notit., i., 4 ; Zeller, op, cit., p. 81 (where, however, the
reference to Plutarch is wrongly given).

* Et M 7^P ^^ Xpi<riiriros ovk tiv ^v iyda.' (Diog. L., IV,, 62,) The original
line ran, ct ft-h 7^P ^v Xpiirnnros ovk &v ^v ffrod.

3 Sext. Emp., Adv. Math., VII., 159-65.


with the earlier Sceptics ; and also on the plea that to prove;
the possibility of syllogism is itself to syllogise, and thus
involves either a petitio principii or a regress ad infinitum}
Such a method is, of course, suicidal, for it disproves the
possibility of the alleged disproof, a consideration which the
Stoics did not fail to urge, and which the later Sceptics could
only meet by extending the rule of suspense to ■ their own
arguments against argument.^ Nevertheless the sceptical
analysis detected some difficulties in the ordinary theory of

Online LibraryAlfred William BennThe Greek philosophers → online text (page 14 of 39)