Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.44

Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism. Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion.   Lanham:  Lexington Books, 2008.  Pp. xiv, 155.  ISBN 9780739125069.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Jerker Blomqvist, Lund University (
Word count: 2650 words

[Table of contents at the end of the review.]

According to his own preface (pp. x-xi), the author of the book under review here, Adrian Kuzminski, had been intrigued by the ancient Pyrrhonists since early years. The idea to trace similarities between Greek and Indian philosophy was the result of two travels, one to Benares, India, and the other to a number of Greek sites in Italy, Turkey and Greece itself, where "ruins of mostly sacred architecture reminded me that ancient Greek culture was more steeped in soteriological concerns than we normally assume." Further inspiration came from an article by Everard Flintoff,1 and Kuzminski fittingly recognizes his indebtedness to its author by dedicating the present book to his memory. He also thanks a number of colleagues, in particular C.W. Huntington, Jr., for their assistance. An article by Kuzminski from 20072 could be regarded as a preliminary treatment of the subject; its contents have been integrated with ch. 2 of the book. Kuzminski is now a research scholar in philosophy at Hartwick College at Oneonta, in upstate New York. He is active in local politics, involved in ongoing debates in the media, and author of a book on today's populism in a historical perspective.3

Beyond Kuzminski's own preface, a Foreword by Huntington, a short bibliography and an index (mainly of names and philosophical terms), the book consists of four chapters. The first chapter, 'Why Pyrrhonism is not scepticism,' claims that it is necessary to differentiate between two strands of Western philosophy that have essential elements in common and therefore have been confused with each other under the common designation "scepticism." Kuzminski calls these varieties "Pyrrhonism" and "scepticism," respectively. In his terminology, Pyrrhonism is in antiquity represented by a series of philosophers starting with Pyrrhon of Elis and including among others Sextus Empiricus, whose philosophical writings have in part been preserved and serve as an important source of information on ancient philosophy in general and on Pyrrhonism/scepticism in particular. The only ancient philosophers who deserve to be designed as "sceptics" in Kuzminski's meaning of the word were the members of the so-called New Academy, that is, Arcesilaus, Carneades, Clitomachus and others who flourished in the third and second centuries B.C. The terminology here becomes slightly confusing, for Sextus, who is one of Kuzminski's Pyrrhonists, calls both himself and Pyrrhon skeptikoi -- as Kuzminski is well aware (p. 5) -- and, as one might add, the Neo-Academics are never called skeptikoi in any ancient text known to us. When Sextus and other later followers of Pyrrhon chose to denote themselves as skeptikoi, they used the word in the sense of, approximately, 'searchers,' as being derived from the verb skeptomai 'to search, inquire.' The point of choosing this designation was that the "sceptics," in their search for truth, although recognizing the futility of all dogmatic philosophies, did not declare truth impossible to attain but continued searching for it. By this designation they wished to differentiate themselves from the Neo-Academics, who made dogmatic assertions to the effect that true knowledge is unattainable and that, consequently, searching for knowledge is futile.

As Sextus himself points out,4 his own philosophy was confused with that of the Neo-Academics already in antiquity. Sextus himself even recognizes some sort of affinity with Arcesilaus, who declared that philosophy aimed at "suspension of judgment" (epochê) which, according to Sextus, would result in the desirable state of "tranquility" (ataraxia).5 According to Kuzminski's interpretation, the Pyrrhonists "did accept the testimony of what is evident, that is, of the immediate, involuntary experiences we have of sensations and thoughts, and they accepted reliable inferences from these to other immediate involuntary experiences" (p.1), whereas the real sceptics, i.e. the Neo-Academics, "question evident things as well as those nonevident, claiming that our senses deceive us" and assert that "we can know nothing at all" (pp. 3-4). When concluding from this that no knowledge whatsoever is possible, the Neo-Academics represent a negative dogmatism. The Pyrrhonists avoid that by refusing to make assertions about what is non-evident and by relying on sensatory experiences for what they are, i.e., precisely sensatory experiences and not more or less misleading evidence for something beyond the sphere of immediate sensations and thoughts.

Kuzminski substantiates this distinction in his first chapter, mainly on the basis of quotations from Sextus and his own comments on them. He also tries to show that the confusion between Pyrrhonist scepticism and Neo-Academic dogmatism that occurred in antiquity, as testified by Sextus, has been perpetuated by most scholars in later times, i.e. from the rediscovery of Sextus' writings in the sixteenth century. As evidence for that continuing confusion Kuzminski quotes passages from David Hume's An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and Friedrich Nietzsche's Der Wille zur Macht, where Pyrrhon is called a nihilist and his followers are said to "remain in total lethargy" and to "live a lowly life among the lowly." Among contemporary scholarly literature he singles out, in this chapter, two works by Myles Burnyeat and Martha Nussbaum, respectively,6 and subjects them to detailed criticism (pp. 16-24).

The second chapter, 'Pyrrhonism and Buddhism,' is devoted to showing that Pyrrhon's teaching was inspired by contacts he had with Buddhists when he visited India as a member Alexander the Great's entourage.7 Since "he worked in a wholly Greek idiom," Kuzminski chooses to call Pyrrhon's Buddhist-inspired teaching in his native country "a reinvention of Buddhism ... rather than a transmission" (p. 5). Kuzminski's reasoning is based on a conglomeration of similarities between Greek Pyrrhonism and Indian Buddhism, in particular the Madhyamaka variety of Buddhism known from writings ascribed to the second-century AD philosopher Nagarjuna. Kuzminski's inspirer Flintoff had pointed out three such similarities, the "suspension of judgment," a general trend towards non-dogmatism apparent also in Indian philosophy, and the appearance of wandering holy men, of which Pyrrhon was regarded as the earliest example on Greek soil. Kuzminski makes a few additions to Flintoff's list. More specifically, he identifies five "key areas" which are thought to prove his thesis (pp. 51-60):

(i) The testing of more or less dogmatic assertions on the nature of things by a method that consists in setting out the oppositions and contradictions involved in them, leads to suspension of judgment, and brings about tranquility or a comparable state of mind.

(ii) The refusal to accept beliefs in an ultimate reality that lies behind appearances and that explains what the appearances really are.

(iii) The importance of "suspension of judgment," which according to Kuzminski has a parallel in the Madhyamaka concept of sunayata 'emptiness.'

(iv) Tranquility, which in Pyrrhonist thought is the automatic effect of suspension of judgment, has a parallel in the absence of anxiety experienced by the Buddhist sages.

(v) The attitude to what Kuzminski calls appearances, which are regarded as at the same time self-evident and "real" in some sense of the word but without foundation in any non-evident reality of a higher order.

Much space in this second chapter is devoted to polemics against three scholars: McEvilley,8 who noted the similarities between Pyrrhonism and the Madhyamaka but denied their interdependence (pp. 48-50); Bett,9 who thought contacts between Pyrrhon and the Indians unlikely and was not prepared to ascribe an entirely undogmatic stance to Pyrrhon (pp. 37-41); and Burton,10 who classifies Nagarjuna as a dogmatic (pp. 61-64).

Ch. 3, 'The evident and the nonevident,' consists of a more detailed discussion on the fifth of the "key areas" of parallelism between Pyrrhonism and Madhyamaka Buddhism as defined in ch. 2. Although the main focus of this chapter is on Greek Pyrrhonism, further analysis of the Buddhist tradition underscores the similarity of the two. Kuzminski suggests that the Madhyamaka concept of 'emptiness' could be interpreted as an analogy of Pyrrhonist ataraxia and subjects the two terms to an extended analysis. It is important to his argument that this Pyrrhonist concept is a distinctive feature of Pyrrhonism, not present in other ancient systems of philosophy (it should of course not be confused with Stoic ataraxia). In both thought systems this state of ataraxia is achieved by the individual's refusal to take a stance on questions regarding what is not evident to the senses. Kuzminski quotes (p. 98) an illustrative utterance of Nagarjuna ("'Empty' should not be asserted. 'Nonempty' should not be asserted. Neither both nor either should be asserted"), to which the sceptic standard phrase ou mallon provides a striking parallel. From this refusal the coveted ataraxia follows "by chance" (tuchikôs) or "as a shadow" to use Sextus' phraseology.11

Kuzminski devotes the last part of the chapter (pp. 104-110) to the question "what kind of way of life anyone seeking to follow these nondogmatic soteriological practices could lead." How would, e.g., a Pyrrhonist respond to demands of a tyrant or those "of a modern totalitarian regime such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany?" (p. 107). Sextus provides an answer: he denies that the Pyrrhonist will be "confined to a state of inactivity or inconsistency" because of his refusal to define what is morally good and evil. Instead, Sextus recommends the sceptic "to follow ancestral laws and customs," which, presumably, will not disturb his ataraxia. According to Sextus, the Pyrrhonist will adapt himself to the society in which he lives and to the conditions of human life, not aim at being liberated from it. This optimistic position is not quite without parallels in Buddhist philosophy, but Kuzminski produces only few analogies of Sextus' active philosopher and observes that "much of [Buddhist literature] strikes a decidedly ascetic tone" (p. 109).

The fourth chapter, entitled 'Modern Pyrrhonism', starts with the assertion that "Pyrrhonism as a tradition has fared poorly in modern times" and ends with an expression of the author's belief that, in our time, the "middle path" of genuine Pyrrhonism and its Buddhist counterpart would be a safer road to a prosperous future for the world than the two now dominant alternatives, radical scepticism and fundamentalist belief in religious or political dogmas. Kuzminski recognizes the increasing interest in Buddhism and other Eastern thought systems that has become apparent in the Western world in the last half century. However, in the process of popularization, Buddhism has become adulterated and now appears either as a new dogmatic religion or as that sort of radical agnosticism which Kuzminski associates with Neo-Academic scepticism. Kuzminski gives credit to Stephen Batchelor for trying to save Buddhism from dogmatism12 but criticizes him for not avoiding the danger of radical scepticism. Among leading modern philosophers, Wittgenstein is, according to Kuzminski (pp. 131-138), practically the only one who has taught and practiced a philosophy close to that of the ancient Pyrrhonists, although he may have been unaware of his potential forerunners, both in Greece and India.

Huntington, in his Foreword, expresses his misgivings that, since Kuzminski's book is a work of comparative philosophy and consequently embarks on the areas of expertise of both classical philologists and indologists, both these groups of scholars "will find reason to criticize this book" (p. xiii). Being a classical philologist myself, I am prepared to agree with Huntington on this point, for the book unfortunately displays an irritatingly great number of blunders (typos, questionable dates, incorrect references, names confused, careless reading of ancient testimonies, etc.) which tend to obscure its real qualities. Leaving aside these minor flaws, I can see three major problems with Kuzminski's theses regarding the supposed relationship of Pyrrhonism to Buddhism:

(i) Kuzminski assumes that "Pyrrhonism," as defined by him, remained the same philosophy without essential changes throughout antiquity, from Pyrrhon to Sextus. This is hardly in accordance with scholarly consensus today. Popkin's description of Pyrrhon as "not a theoretician but rather a living example of the complete doubter," which Kuzminski criticizes (p. 117),13 may be fairly correct, but it certainly could not be applied to Sextus. A recent publication chooses to speak of "scepticisms" in the plural rather than scepticism,14 implying considerable differences, not only between Neo-Academics and those who called themselves sceptics, but also among those who professed themselves to belong to the Pyrrhon-Aenesidemus-Sextus tradition. On the testimony of his immediate follower Timon of Phlius, Pyrrhon may even have shown dogmatist tendencies (which Sextus of course denies).15

(ii) Kuzminski's insistence that modern scholarship has mostly failed to distinguish between Pyrrhonism, as he defines it, and Neo-Academic scepticism goes too far. This distinction is not a recent discovery. I made my first acquaintance with Sextus and his writings in the early 1960's, and the authoritative works on ancient scepticism that you were supposed to consult in those days, some of them exponents of nineteenth-century scholarship,16 recognized the distinct, dogmatist position of the Neo-Academics as a well established fact. In my view, Kuzminski's criticism of, among others, Burnyeat, Nussbaum and Popkin goes too far.

(iii) Can Sextus' "Pyrrhonism" be described with the adjective soteriological? Kuzminski uses that word repeatedly about the Buddhist philosophy and eventually also about Pyrrhonism: "Pyrrhonism, if my analysis in the preceding chapters is correct, seems to be the sole Western expression of a kind of nondogmatic soteriological practice found more widely in the East" (p. 113). As "evidence for Pyrrhonist-type views in India" Kuzminski quotes (pp. 46-47) a fragment of Megasthenes stating that the Brahmins "believe that the life here is, as it were, that of a babe still in the womb, and that death, to those who have devoted themselves to philosophy, is birth into true life." In another context (p. 95) Kuzminski speaks of "the liberation from suffering promoted by both Buddhists and Pyrrhonists." He also finds an analogy to Pyrrhonism in Nagarjuna's statement "The root of cyclic existence is action. Therefore the wise one does not act" (p. 57). "Liberation" and "salvation" (if that is what is meant by soteriological practice) may be the proper words to use when describing the goals of the Madhyamaka philosophers, but the teachings of Sextus are different. What he strives for is not liberation or salvation from the necessities that govern the lives of humans; what he can promise is a fairly tolerable existence under those conditions. The key word is metriopatheia 'moderation of feeling' or 'moderate suffering.'17 Nor does Sextus avoid action. He was a doctor by profession and defended his philosophy against the allegation that scepticism would result in an inability to act or to function as a member of society. Since dogmatist philosophy failed to provide guidance, the sceptic would follow "ancestral laws and customs" and, by acting according to them, he would lead a happier life than the dogmatist.18 Sextus' sceptic philosopher belonged to this world; the followers of Madhyamaka strived to liberate themselves from it. If Pyrrhon held the same views as Sextus in these matters, he must have missed or rejected a fundamental element of what the Indian gymnosophists may have taught him.

Despite these reservations, I do not hesitate to recommend the book, not the least to classical scholars like myself. Undoubtedly, Kuzminski raises an important question regarding the ancestry of Western philosophy. He records an impressive number of parallels between Greek and Indian philosophy, and in particular his analysis of the analogy between Pyrrhonist/sceptic ataraxia and Nagarjuna's "emptiness" is notable. However, analogies, similarities, parallels or whatever you will call them are one thing, concrete proof of influence and interdependence is another. We do not know enough about the contacts between Greece and India in order to make the interchange of ideas a proven fact. Explicit references in the preserved texts are missing and, unlike durable artifacts, ideas leave no traces in the archaeological remains. Traveling between the two regions obviously did take place. It is not unlikely that it had an impact in the intellectual sphere too, so, like genuine followers of Pyrrhon, Sextus and their adherents, we have reason to continue searching (skeptesthai) for reliable knowledge in these matters. Kuzminski's book points the way.


Foreword by C.W. Huntington, Jr.
Why Pyrrhonism is not scepticism
Pyrrhonism and Buddhism
The evident and the nonevident
Modern Pyrrhonism


1.   'Pyrrho and India,' Phronesis 25:2, 1980, pp. 88-108. Two earlier scholarly works on the same subject are not mentioned by Kuzminski: Aram M. Frenkian, Skepticismul grec si filozofia indiana. Bucharest, 1957, and Jean Grenier, 'Sextus et Nagarjuna, Étude d'un exemple de parallélisme philosophique,' Revue philosophique 160, 1970, pp. 67-75. All the works in Kuzminski's bibliography are either written in English or translated into the language.
2.   'Pyrrhonism and the Madhyamaka', Philosophy East & West 57:4, 2007, pp. 482-511.
3.   Fixing the System. A Brief History of Populism, Ancient and Modern. New York: Continuum, 2008. ISBN: 978-0826429599.
4.   Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis 1.220.
5.   Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis 1.232.
6.   M.F. Burnyeat, 'Can the sceptic live his scepticism?,' in: Doubt and Dogmatism. Ed. by M. Schofield et alii. Oxford, 1979, pp. 20-53; Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire. Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton University Press, 1994.
7.   As reported by Diogenes Laertius 9.61, citing Alexander Polyhistor. Kuzminski accepts this report as reliable evidence without discussion and identifies Ascanius of Abdera as the source of Diogenes (p. 36).
8.   Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth, 2002.
9.   Richard Bett, Pyrrho, his Antecedents and his Legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
10.   David F. Burton, Emptiness Appraised. A Critical Study of Nagarjuna's Philosophy. Richmond: Curzon, 1999.
11.   Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis 1.25-29. Cf. Diogenes Laertius 9.107.
12.   Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism without Beliefs. A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. New York, 1997.
13.   Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism. From Savonarola to Bayle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. xviii.
14.   Carlos Lévy, Les scepticismes. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008. Review: BMCR 2009.01.09.
15.   Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson, 'Pyrrho's dogmatic nature,' Classical Quarterly 52.1, 2002, pp. 248-256. Sextus discusses Timon's testimony in Against the Ethicists 18-20.
16.   Albert Goedeckemeyer, Die Geschichte des griechischen Skeptizismus. Leipzig, 1905, Victor Brochard, Les sceptiques grecs. 2nd ed., Paris, 1932, Léon Robin, Pyrrhon et le scepticisme grec. Paris, 1944.
17.   Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis 1.25, 1.30. 3.235. 3.236, Against the Ethicists 11.161.
18.   Against the Ethicists 162-166 "... one also needs to look down on those who think that [the sceptic] is reduced to inactivity or inconsistency ... if compelled by a tyrant to perform some forbidden act, he will choose one thing, perhaps, and avoid the other by the preconception which accords with his ancestral laws and customs; and in fact he will bear the harsh situation more easily compared with the dogmatist, because he does not, like the latter, have any further opinion over and above these conditions" (translation: Sextus Empiricus, Against the Ethicists. Translation, commentary, and introduction by Richard Bett. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Cf. also Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis 3.235-236, Against the Physicists 1.49.

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