Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.07.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.07.32

Anne-Isabelle Bouton-Touboulic, Carlos Lévy​ (ed.), Scepticisme et religion: constantes et évolutions, de la philosophie hellénistique à la philosophie médiévale. Monothéismes et philosophie, 21​.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2016.  Pp. 300.  ISBN 9782503565453.  €80.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Máté​ Veres, Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies – University of Hamburg (

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[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The present volume collects thirteen papers delivered at an international conference, held in Bordeaux in June 2013, devoted to encounters between philosophical scepticism and religious belief from the Graeco-Roman period to the Western Middle Ages. Broadly speaking, the chapters present case studies concerning, first, the confrontation between ancient scepticism and philosophical theology; second, varieties of fideism emerging in the post-Hellenistic period; finally, the medieval discourse concerning scepticism and Christian belief, with a particular emphasis on Augustine's reception of Ciceronian scepticism. In the preface, the editors provide a brief historical overview of their chosen theme, parts of which are then recapitulated—somewhat redundantly—in various individual contributions.

Among the protagonists of ancient Academic and Pyrrhonean scepticism, Cicero receives relatively little attention in his own right. In the introduction, the editors stress the importance of his De Natura Deorum, a literary representation of the Academic attitude towards philosophical theology, offering a short, non-committal summary of the interpretation developed by Carlos Lévy in his 1992 monograph.1 Cicero immediately reappears in the very first chapter, written by Anna-Maria Ioppolo, who reads his De Divinatione and De Fato at face value as providing evidence for Carneades' arguments against the Stoic theory of divination. Ioppolo shows that, in arguing against the claim that divination is a proper domain of expertise, Carneades (as represented by Cicero) follows a dialectical strategy familiar from Plato's Gorgias. In the remainder of the volume, Cicero figures as the most important source for sceptical epistemology in Latin Christianity (see below).

Sextus Empiricus is discussed in two consecutive chapters: Emidio Spinelli describes the Sextan argument against dogmatic theology in Book III of the Outlines of Pyrrhonism, while Stéphane Marchand outlines the practical stance implied by the very same argumentative strategy. In the Outlines, Sextus motivates suspension of judgement about god conceived as an active cause, by counterbalancing dogmatic proposals as to the conception, existence, and providential activity of the divine. In this context, Spinelli makes a passing reference to the methodological remarks in Against the Physicists Book I, without elaborating on the differences between the strategy followed in these two works. Furthermore, he attributes the Sextan argument concerning providence lock, stock, and barrel to an Epicurean source, even though the outcome of the Sextan argument is not that gods do not exercise providence—which would be the Epicurean view—but rather that any definite take on the matter, including the denial of divine providence, will land the inquirer in trouble.

Marchand picks up at what Spinelli calls Sextus' "théologie élementaire de l'habitude", which is the non-dogmatic acceptance of ordinary views about the divinity. He argues that Sextus' expressed intention to participate in the religious practices of his society is more than simply a part of his response to the charge of inactivity. Rather, on Marchand's view, Sextus makes a conscious attempt to distance his suspension in matters of theology from straightforward atheism, perhaps with an eye to the charge of impiety raised against the Epicureans. As part of his effort to clarify the Sextan position, Marchand signals his tentative agreement with Spinelli with regard to the importance of experience for the Pyrrhonean outlook, a suggestion that gets them close to implying that the sceptic does after all take her or his cognitive states to be epistemically warranted. All in all, Sextus receives a fair, if not exhaustive, treatment in these chapters.

In their studies, which are among the most successful in the volume, Mauro Bonazzi and Carlos Lévy provide glimpses of authors relatively neglected in the study of scepticism, presenting Plutarch of Chaeronea and Philo of Alexandria as incorporating Academic and Pyrrhonean tenets into their respective Platonist and monotheist positions. In Bonazzi's analysis, Plutarch sees Pyrrhonean and Academic scepticism as based on rather different epistemologies. As part of his defense of Arcesilaus against the Epicurean Colotes, Plutarch groups Pyrrhonism together with Epicureanism as a form of empiricism, while he takes the Hellenistic Academy to propagate suspension of judgement exactly in accordance with a dualist metaphysics of the sensible and the intelligible realm. Plutarch's Platonising interpretation of the sceptical Academy allows him to assimilate it into a unified Academic tradition, and to emphasise the fallibility of the human mind and thus the need for ongoing inquiry.2

One implication of Bonazzi's reading is that one should not apply the label of fideism to Plutarch's position, since it does not imply an opposition between competing claims of faith and reason. According to Lévy, it is in fact with Philo of Alexandria that fideism appears on the scene. Scholars of scepticism mostly know Philo as one—indeed, the earliest—of our sources for the Ten Modes of Aenesidemus; Lévy highlights the significance of the Modes for Philo insofar as he argued for the claim that unaided human reason is unable to arrive at the truth. Philo was, however, deeply hostile to the sceptics, since in his view they failed to recognise the radical distance between God and created beings. Interestingly, Philo uses the term epoche exactly once, in his allegorical commentary on the sacrifice of Isaac, where the miraculous appearance of the sacrificial animal is described in terms of suspending judgement.

Two chapters discuss further developments in Late Antiquity. In her paper, Brigitte Pérez-Jean relates structural analogies between, on the one hand, the development of negative theology in Middle Platonism, with a particular focus on Maximus of Tyre, and on the other hand, the appearance of aphasia in the early Pyrrhonist tradition. The discussion is somewhat unfocused, and lacks a clear conclusion. Jesús Hernández Lobato directs our attention to the Cappadocian Fathers, arguing that Gregory of Nyssa's philosophy of language is to be understood in the context of his scepticism concerning the human ability to attain knowledge. In contrast to Eunomius' theory of its divine origin, Gregory argues that language is merely conventional, and is therefore misleading us on the way to the truth; one should rather engage in the project of negative theology in the hope of attaining knowledge by way of mystical experience. Regrettably, Lobato chooses to invoke alleged similarities with the ideas of Wittgenstein or Lacan at the expense of a detailed analysis of Gregory's views in their proper context.

Turning to the Latin Middle Ages, Cicero reappears as a formative influence on Lactantius and Augustine through his reports on the sceptical Academy. According to Gábor Kendeffy, Lactantius appropriates various sceptical arguments not in order to argue for a genuine sceptical position but, rather, to establish a dogmatic anthropology, showing the inability of the human mind to come to true views in the fields of physical and ethical investigation. In his quest to provide an alternative to Arnobius' fideism, so Kendeffy argues, and to show the internal incoherence of pagan philosophy, Lactantius shows keen interest in the destructive capacity of the Carneadean arguments he found in Cicero.

In a series of contributions, Anne-Isabelle Bouton-Touboulic, Isabelle Bochet, and Giovanni Catapano outline Augustine's changing views concerning Academic scepticism throughout his early intellectual development. The young Augustine, despairing of finding the truth and grappling with the Manichean challenge, uses scepticism as a means to clear the way for an honest search for the truth. Bouton-Touboulic and Bochet analyse his Contra Academicos and his De utilitate credendi, arguing in unison that Augustine's instrumental use of scepticism is to be understood in light of his pre-existing commitment to the truth of Christian revelation as well as of his view that the Academy was secretly espousing dogmatic Platonism. Catapano picks up the story with the Enchiridion, showing that—now in the context of the Donatist controversy—Augustine eventually rejects scepticism, championing a novel epistemic ideal: instead of the wise man of the Hellenistic Stoics and Academics who refuses to assent in the absence of certainty, Augustine's just man will have faith, which implies giving assent to Scriptural tenets necessary for salvation. At the end of the day, even if they do not succeed in showing that the Augustinian project is ultimately successful, these chapters provide a lucid and informative survey of the role played by scepticism in Augustine's intellectual biography.3

The final two papers introduce the reader to post-Augustinian developments. Christophe Grellard presents us with John of Salisbury's discussion of divine foreknowledge, crucially informed by Augustine's criticism of Cicero's alleged rejection of divine providence in the De Fato, De Divinatione, and De Natura Deorum. Being aware of Augustine's authority, John of Salisbury nevertheless vindicated the need for further inquiry into theological matters, labouring under the conviction that humans can at best aim at holding probable views. Finally, Alice Lamy discusses the origin, sources, and influence of Jean Gerson's notion of certitudo moralis, which she argues is tied as much to the sceptical heritage as to the tradition of Cistercian mysticism.

The volume is extremely well produced and is practically without typographical errors (though read "native" for "nativ" on p. 26, "as an antidote" instead of "is an antidote" on p. 57 n3, "Dieu se manifeste" for "Dieu ce manifeste" on p. 72, "skeptic's piety" instead of "skeptics piety" on p. 95 n18, and "antimanichéen" instead of "animanichéen" on p. 183 n68); occasionally, however, the punctuation is missing (e.g. on p. 66 or p. 139).

Some of the cited items failed to find their way into the consolidated bibliography: see Floridi 2010 (21 n41), Beaujeau 2002 (22 n43), Gassendi 2006 (115 n31), Whittaker 1983 (119 n2), Tarrant 2012 (120 n6), Wallis 1987 (121 n9), Donini 2010 (122 n13), Perrin 1974 (140 n20), Scheid 2010 (173 n10), Brunt 1986 (173 n11), Beaujeau 1964 (174 n17), Schüssler 2003 and 2009 (254), Brinzei 2013 (257). Some of these might be typos, or references to different editions of the same works; similarly, Conche 1973 (p.17) is indicated as Conche 1973/1994, Le Bonniec 1984 also appears dated 1974 (p. 278), and see also Ferrari 1996 or 1992 (p. 83) and Mandouze 1968 or 1958 (p. 196). On occasion, the bibliography fails to disambiguate between different works by the same author, as in the case of more than one Lévy 2008 (see p. 134 n42), or various Hoffmans (p. 198) and more than one Catapano 2006 (p. 235 n1).

In sum, the volume manages to vindicate ancient and medieval scepticism about religion as a topic of considerable interest, presents a valuable survey of non-Anglophone scholarship on the matter, breaks some new ground in the interpretation of particular texts, and leaves the door open for further investigations into the very same authors as well as others not covered by the present contributions.

Table of Contents

Ioppolo, La critique de Carnéade sur la divination, pp. 41-56
Bonazzi, Le platonisme de Plutarque de Chéronée entre scepticisme, théologie et métaphysique, pp. 75-88
Lévy, De l’epochѐ sceptique à l’epochѐ transcendantale, pp. 56-73
Spinelli, «Le dieu est la cause la plus active»: Sextus Empiricus contre la théologie dogmatique, pp. 89-102
Marchand, Religion et piété sceptiques selon Sextus Empiricus, pp. 103-117
Pérez-Jean, Ne pas dire le principe: usage sceptique et usage théologique de la négation, pp. 119-135
Kendeffy, L'appropriation des arguments néoacadémiciens par Lactance, pp. 137-155
Lobato, Más allá del pensiamento: El escepticismo epistemológico de Gregorio de Nisa, pp. 157-169
Bouton-Touboulic, Scepticisme et religion dans le Contra Academicos d'Augustin, pp. 171-192
Bochet, Le scepticisme de la Nouvelle Académie et la réflexion d'Augustin sur la légitimité du croire: le De utilitate credendi, pp. 171-192
Catapano, Errore, assenso e fede. La critica dello scetticismo academic nell'Enchiridion di Agostino, pp. 193-217
Grellard, Scepticisme et prescience divine, de saint Augustin à Jean de Salisbury, pp. 219-233
Lamy, L'amour consciencieux de la créature pour Dieu. Héritages anciens et postérité doctrinale du scepticisme de Jean Gerson, pp. 253-268


1.   See Lévy, Cicero Academicus. Recherches sur les Académiques et sur la Philosophie Cicéronienne. Rome: École Française de Rome, 1992, esp. pp. 557-588.
2.   Bonazzi's chapter is closely related to his "Plutarch on the difference between the Pyrrhonists and the Academics", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 43 (2012), 271-298.
3.   There is regrettably little attention paid to the diversity of sceptical voices in Cicero's Academica, as well as to some of the most important recent discussions of this work. Notably missing are, among others, the papers collected in Inwood and Mansfeld, ed., Assent and Argument, Brill, 1997, and the analysis in Brittain, Philo of Larissa, Oxford University Press, 2001. ​

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