Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.28

Luciano Floridi, Sextus Empiricus. The Transmission and Recovery of Pyrrhonism.   Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, American Philological Association, 2002.  Pp. xvi, 150.  ISBN 0-19-514671-9.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Guillaume Dye (
Word count: 1534 words

In this short book (86 pages without the appendices, notes, bibliography and indices), Luciano Floridi (hereafter F.) seeks to provide "a comprehensive study of the available evidence concerning the transmission, recovery, and intellectual influence of Sextus' writings, from late antiquity until the first publication in print and, in a few cases, slightly thereafter" (viii). This book belongs therefore to the literary genre of the Quellenforschung and is not, stricto sensu, a work on the skeptical philosophy, or a philosophical work on skepticism. That doesn't mean the book is of no interest to philosophers (as F. rightly notices, "philosophy is neither its history nor its exegesis, but it flourishes more easily when it is critically aware of its past" (viii)), but only that the reader is expected to find much philology and history of ideas, but almost no philosophy, in this monograph.

The book is divided into four chapters and four appendices. The first chapter ("Fortuna", 3-51) provides a close examination of Sextus' biography and the recovery, transmission and early reception of his works. This long chapter is divided into three sections. Section 1 ("Life", 3-7) is an up-to-date discussion of our scanty knowledge on Sextus' life. Section 2 ("Works, Latin Translations, and Commentaries", 8-11) is a brief presentation of Sextus' (extant) works and their medieval and early modern Latin translations (these translations are studied in chapters 3 and 4). Section 3 ("Transmission, Recovery, and Early Reception" 11-51) constitutes the heart of the work. F. divides his study into three parts: Antiquity (11-13), Middle Ages (13-25), Renaissance (25-51).

The discussion of the fortuna of Sextus' works in Antiquity is well-informed, but it contains nothing really new on the subject (but there is not much to say about it, and some interesting observations are postponed in the next section). F. briefly sketches a (traditional) image of Sextus as a philosopher which seems to me questionable, namely a "sagacious and insightful compiler, seldom innovative" (11). Sextus deserves probably more credit as a philosopher and not just as an intelligent secondary source, but this debatable question is arguably outside the scope of this book. The same goes for the dispute about the chronology of Sextus' works, briefly alluded by F. (7, 10, 108, n. 34 and 35).

The section on skepticism in the Middle Ages is most useful (like the list of ancient texts available to medieval readers which contained indications about skeptical topics, but not enough to make skepticism a center of interest (16)), often full of good sense (F. throws a much needed clarity on such confused topics as the differences between skepticism and unfaith or the reasons why Western Europe lost touch with the Pyrrhonian literature),1 and very learned (see for example the brief discussion of skepticism in Byzantine philosophy (20-22)). These remarks hold for the rest of the book. However, F.'s claim, obviously influenced by the studies of Horovitz, van Ess and Baffioni,2 and perhaps carried along by his own impetus, that "there seems to have been [in Arabic philosophy] a wider availability of original [skeptical] texts than in Western countries" (22, my emphasis), is contentious and should probably be qualified.3

The third section is the plat de résistance of the chapter: the final remarks of section 2, on the renewal of skeptical controversies within the Byzantine culture of the fourteenth century (24-25) enable F. to situate the era of Italian Humanism and the rediscovery of Sextus' writings in Western Europe in a finely drawn perspective. F. is thus led "to isolate six distinct paths followed by the diffusion of the Pyrrhonian texts and by reception of the skeptical doctrines during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries" (25). This approach, as F. concedes, is obviously schematic, and these paths, which are woven together, should not be studied independently. They nevertheless structure F.'s rigorous and often illuminating discussion, and can be described as follows.

First, there is the influence of Greek scholars, namely the literary exchange of information about Sextus' writings occurring between the Greek scholars who came to Italy and the Italian humanists (26-27).

Secondly, there is the independent rediscovery of Sextus manuscripts by the Italian humanists (27-28).

Thirdly, the influence of Greek scholars and the work of the Italian humanists caused, but were also an effect of, the gradual growth in the number of copies of Sextus manuscripts (28-29).

Fourthly, this increase led to a reception of Pyrrhonism informed by antiquarian, doxographic and philological concerns (30-31).

Fifthly, this initial reception was followed by a philosophical evaluation of Pyrrhonism as a skeptical position. This evaluation was a matter of ethical and religious interpretations (32-35).

Sixthly, the progressive increase in the number of Sextus manuscripts available was paralleled by a geographical shift from Italy toward northern Europe, particularly France, where skeptical doctrines found their most favorable reception during the first half of the sixteenth century (35-51). It is also in France that a more epistemological use of Sextus' writings (rather than a religious or ethical use) began to develop. One cannot here overestimate the influence of Latin translations of Sextus. F. skillfully assesses this influence by studying the exact origins of the famous skeptical sentences in Montaigne's library (42-48) and shows convincingly that they cannot derive from the Greek text of the Outlines of Pyrrhonism but come above all from Stephanus' translation of the Outlines, which also contained a translation of Diogenes Laertius' Life of Pyrrho and of Galen's De optimo docendi genere (these are of course not the sole sources but the main ones).

The second chapter ("Bibliography", 53-62) is a bibliography of Sextus' writings, critical editions and vernacular translations (in Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Russian and Spanish), with brief comments when necessary. Let us signal a (minor) point not made by F., namely the fact that the most recent French translation of the Outlines included in this bibliography (Esquisses pyrrhoniennes, intr., trad. et comm. par Pierre Pellegrin, Paris: Seuil, 1997) has been reissued in 2001 with a few modifications. The last section of the chapter deals with the "Projected or Alleged Editions or Translations" (61-62), from 1582 and the Ippotiposeon of Marlin Martínez de Cantatapiedra, sometimes wrongly viewed as a translation of the Outlines to 1829 and Philippe Lebas' doctoral thesis (Scepticae Philosophiae Secundum Sexti Empirici Pyrrhonianes Hypotyposes vel Institutiones Expositio), which is essentially a brief summary of the Outlines.

The third chapter ("Outlines of Pyrrhonism", 63-78) studies the Latin translations of the Outlines: first, the anonymous medieval translations (Marcianus Lat. X.267, Parisinus Lat. 14700, Madrilenus BN 10112), secondly, the Renaissance translations, by Joannes Paéz de Castro and Stephanus, and thirdly the commentary added by Stephanus to his translation of the Outlines. F. describes meticulously the medieval manuscripts and shows an impressive learning when he deals with the Renaissance works. He takes seriously Stephanus' preface to his translation of the Outlines (74-76) -- a fascinating work, eight pages long, where Stephanus relates the peculiar events in his life that have led him to translate Sextus and the theoretical reasons behind such a philological effort. However, F. has unfortunately not been able to take into account (nor even mention) the thorough study of this text by Emmanuel Naya.4

The fourth chapter ("Against the Mathematicians", 79-87) studies the Latin translations of Against the Mathematicians): first the only anonymous medieval translation (Marcianus Lat. X.267), which contains fragments of Against the Mathematicians III-V, secondly the Renaissance translations, by Johannes Laurentius, Johannes Wolley and Gentianus Hervetus.

The first appendix provides a list of Sextus' Greek manuscripts, lost manuscripts, excerpts and Latin translations (89-93). The second one is a quantitative analysis of the manuscript tradition, directly derived from the results of the first appendix (95-96). The third appendix is the stemmatics of the Latin translations of the Outlines and Against the Mathematicians in relation to the Greek manuscripts (97-99), and the fourth provides a quantitative analysis of the chronological distribution of the occurrence of the various technical terms qualifying the Pyrrhonians (skeptic, zetetic, ephectic, aporetic, pyrrhonian) (101-105). However, limiting the analysis to a simple quantification of the chronological distribution has one main defect: it obscures the fact that a name can change its meaning over time. This is precisely what happens with σκεπτικός, which first meant, roughly, "one who observes carefully", and came to refer specifically to the Pyrrhonians only late in the history of Greek philosophy.

Anyway, one must praise F. for his precise and rigorous work, which makes the book an essential starting point for future work in this field. No one interested in the fate of Greek philosophy or the intellectual history of the Renaissance can afford to ignore it.5


p. 30, l. 27, Against the Arithmeticians and Astrologers should be read, instead of Against the Arithmeticians and Astiologers.

p. 42, l. 10, "la plupart de ces aphorismes ..." should be read, instead of "la plupart de ces aphorisms ..."

p. 59, l. 8, Sextus Empiricus contre les Musiciens should be read, instead of Sextus Empiricus contre le Musiciens.

p. 62, l. 32, Philippe Lebas should be read, instead of Philip Lebas.

p. 78, last line, Against the Musicians should be read, instead of Against the Musians.

p. 114, n. 113, l. 2, "there seems" should be read, instead of "there seem".


1.   One should here be aware of the distinction between knowledge and use, or employment (a distinction F. has rightly emphasized, for example in his "The Diffusion of Sextus Empiricus' Works in the Renaissance", Journal of the History of Ideas 56.1, 1995, esp. pp. 75ff): for example, skeptical sources were not employed, or used, during the late Middle Ages, but they were perhaps not completely unknown.
2.   Cf. S. Horovitz, Der Einfluss der griechischen Skepsis auf die Entwicklung der Philosophie bei den Arabern, Jahres-Bericht des jüdisch-theologischen Seminars Fraenckel'scher Stiftung für das Jahr 1909 (Breslau, rept. Farnborough, 1971), J. van Ess, "Scepticism in Islamic Religious Thought", in God and Man in Contemporary Islam, ed. C. Malik (Beirut: American University of Beirut Press), 1972, pp. 83-98 [also in Al-Abh.ath 1968, pp. 1-18], C. Baffioni, "Per l'ipotesi di un influsso della scepsi sulla filosofia islamica", in G. Giannantoni (ed.), Lo scetticismo antico, 2 vols. Atti del Convegno organizzato dal Centro Studi del Pensiero Antico del C.N.R., Roma 5-8 novembre 1980 (Naples: Bibliopolis), 1981, vol. 1, pp. 415-434.
3.   See D. Gutas, "Pre-Plotinian Philosophy in Arabic (Other than Platonism and Aristotelism): A Review of the Sources", in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, herausgegeben von W. Haase und H. Temporini, II, 36.7, 1994, pp. 4939-4973.
4.   Cf. Emmanuel Naya, "Traduire les Hypotyposes pyrrhoniennes: Henri Estienne entre la fièvre quarte et la folie chrétienne", in Le scepticisme au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle, sous la direction de Pierre-François Moreau (Paris: Albin Michel), 2001, pp. 48-101 (pp. 94-101 are a French translation of Stephanus' dedication).
5.   Note that F.'s book can usefully be complemented with Moreau's collection (see the preceding note).

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