Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.08


Richard Bett, Sextus Empiricus. Against the Ethicists. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xxxiv + 302. $65.00. ISBN 0-19-823620-4.


Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto.

Sextus Empiricus (second century, C.E.) holds an improbably major position in the history of philosophy. The works of his that survive are The Outlines of Pyrrhonism in three books and Against the Learned in eleven books. The first six books of the latter actually form a distinct work devoted to the skeptical examination of grammar, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. The remainder comprise Against the Logicians (books seven and eight); Against the Physicists (books nine and ten); and Against the Ethicists (book eleven). It is generally conceded that this mass of material contains little of original philosophical thought. Rather, it records the arguments of the entire Pyrrhonian tradition against so-called "dogmatic" philosophy. Sextus' works survive; those of other Pyrrhonian skeptics do not. As a compendium of arguments and argumentative strategies to use against philosophical claims made by various schools, Sextus' works were found to be of incomparable value.

The work Against the Ethicists is, as the title indicates, a skeptical treatment of various dogmatic claims (Stoic, Epicurean, Platonic, Peripatetic) about what is good and bad in life and whether and why knowledge of these matters. The basic strategy of Sextus is to show that (1) we do not know what is good and bad "by nature" and (2) we do not need to know this in order to be happy. In fact, forswearing any interest in such knowledge is the beginning of wisdom and the foundation of happiness. Absent any knowledge of what is good and bad by nature, we can follow our inclinations or predilections based on what appears good or bad to us. In other words, for practical purposes a form of relativism will do very nicely.

Richard Bett's English translation of this work is the first since that of R. G. Bury in the Loeb series more than sixty years ago. Although Bury's translation of this as well as all the other extant works of Sextus was and remains serviceable, it is far from satisfactory. Other works, principally The Outlines of Pyrrhonism, have had superior translations, but until now, Against the Ethicists has been, despite the growing interest in Sextus, largely ignored. Bett's careful translation is far superior to that of Bury and henceforth ought to be the main English translation consulted. There were a few places in which it seemed to me that Bett is too literal to be helpful to the Greekless reader, and if the translation were ever to be detached for publication from the accompanying commentary, some revision might be desirable. Some of my reservations about translations, such as the rendering of enargeia as "plain experience," are answered in the commentary.

The heart of the book (over eighty percent) is the commentary on the translation. Judicious and learned, it ably elucidates Sextus' sometimes very elliptical and elusive arguments. The major interpretative thrust of the commentary, as well as of the introduction and two appendices, is that Against the Ethicists is, contrary to widespread belief, a work that precedes in time the part of The Outlines of Pyrrhonism III which deals roughly with the same material. Indeed, in a note (xxviii, n. 50) Bett suggests that the simplest hypothesis is that The Outlines of Pyrrhonism is a revised version of Against the Learned. Bett provides an impressive defense of the inferiority of the argument of the latter to the former. It is certainly not Bett's fault that as he builds his case, one's philosophical interest in the earlier work wanes. And yet a nagging and obvious doubt regarding his hypothesis is that it is very difficult to make a case for philosophical development in Sextus. If he is in fact primarily a compiler of traditional arguments, like, say, Cicero, the superiority of one version of an argument to another hardly counts for its relative lateness.

Putting aside the scholarly question of relative date of composition, we ought to ask what, in the author's view is the distinctive contribution of Against the Ethicists to skeptical philosophy. Sextus apparently wants to argue that nothing is good or bad by nature. Unlike The Outlines of Pyrrhonism which argues that disagreement in ethical matter is unresolvable and so knowledge of what is in fact good or bad by nature is unobtainable, Against the Ethicists depends on what Bett calls "The Recognition Requirement". This is the requirement that recognizing that something is beneficial to oneself is a necessary condition of its being so. If one does not recognize something as beneficial, then it is not. So, the very fact of disagreement amongst persons about what is beneficial entails that nothing is universally so. What this very strange requirement evidently means, for example, is that fluoride in your drinking water does not benefit you unless you recognize that it does. Bett says that this idea has an "intuitive appeal". My intuition differs in this regard. Perhaps the "Recognition Requirement" would be of some value against certain dogmatists, say Epicureans, who would incautiously argue that pleasure and pleasure alone is beneficial. In this case it is intuitively plausible to hold that a pleasure is not beneficial unless it is recognized as such. And perhaps Sextus would claim, as he does in The Outlines of Pyrrhonism, that the skeptic uses arguments of varying quality depending on the "therapy" required to cure one of dogmatism. As a general principle, however, the "Recognition Requirement" is exceedingly weak, even if not utterly bizarre.

Bett's work is a distinguished addition to the literature on skepticism. His careful and balanced analysis makes Sextus' Against the Ethicists appear as perhaps a more respectable piece of philosophy than it deserves to be.