BMCR 2001.02.30

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism

, , , Outlines of scepticism. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xxxv, 248 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521771390 $19.95.

Originally published by Cambridge UP in 1994, this translation by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes of the three books of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Pyrrhôneioi hypotypôseis) reappears six years later in the series ‘Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy’. Now as then the title is Outlines of Scepticism, which is, as the translators say, ‘the title of our translation, not the translation of Sextus’ title’ (xxxiv). They or the publisher fear that ‘Pyrrhonism’ will be misunderstood. The translation itself and the accompanying footnotes are reprinted from the first edition with minimal corrections (vii). In addition the book features a list of abbreviations, a chronological table (with names of pertinent philosophers, rulers and Jesus), suggestions for further reading, a revised note on the translation, an updated bibliography, English and Greek glossaries of terms, and indices of names and subjects. Finally, Jonathan Barnes has written a new introduction, placing the work in its historical and philosophical context. The book, then, is clearly intended to serve at least as a self-sufficient introduction to the scepticism of Sextus for the Greekless student of ancient philosophy and philosophy in general.

A complete English translation of the Outlines is available in at least two other versions, namely those of R. G. Bury (Loeb, 1933-49) and Benson Mates (Oxford, 1996). The first book and portions of the other two books have also been translated by Sanford G. Etheridge (Hackett, 1968, revised 1985). Finally, the first book alone appeared in M. Patrick’s Sextus Empiricus and Greek Scepticism (Cambridge, 1899). The recent translations are surely indicative of a great interest (at least in the English speaking world) in ancient scepticism and perhaps in scepticism in general. With them, Sextus’ scepticism is likely to reach a much wider audience than before, when he was mainly if not solely the preserve of historians of ancient philosophy. Perhaps Sextus’ time has come again, as it did in the sixteenth century? Probably not.

The various aids to the reading of the work listed above are exemplary. A few comments are nevertheless in order. The list of abbreviations on pages ix-x is not exhaustive. Cicero’s Luc, Eusebius’ PE, and Galen’s an pecc dig, for example, are missing. In fact, something has gone wrong at some stage in the process of publishing the book, for all explanations of abbreviations between Cicero’s fin and Porphyry’s abstin are missing from the list of abbreviations. The gap coincides with the page break. Further, works are sometimes mentioned, in the notes, not by their abbreviated Latin title but by a full English translation.

The footnotes are of two kinds. One group ‘records, baldly, each occasion on which we have translated a reading different from the one printed in the standard edition of Sextus’ (xxxv), i.e. the Teubner edition of Mutschmann and Mau from 1958. These occasions are quite numerous, but mostly trivial and do little to alter the meaning of the text. The notes in effect constitute an apparatus criticus (confined to cases of divergence from the Teubner text) bereft of its usual codes, abbreviations, and exact references to individual manuscripts; they give the authorship of individual suggestions, Bekker, for example, or Keyser, while a few are original. This set of notes therefore requires an understanding of Greek, and that one have the Teubner edition at hand, and they are intended for the specialist. It is of great help to have the sensible views of Annas and Barnes on the textual problems of the Outlines.

The other group of notes can be divided into two sorts, both aimed at the general reader as well as the specialist. A few notes offer short elucidations of what Sextus has in mind and the meaning of the terms he uses. Most of the notes, however, offer explanations by referring the reader either to other passages in Sextus, to passages of other ancient authors, or to secondary literature (apparently confined to the bibliography of the 1994 edition). These notes are extremely useful to all readers. There are nevertheless at least a few typographical errors. In a review of the first edition, Richard Bett pointed them out.1 Strangely, these have not been corrected.

Barnes is responsible for the new introduction (xi-xxxi). He starts with a clear historical account of what we know about Sextus and his works before moving on to consider the Outlines, the history of ancient scepticism, and Sextan scepticism. His text is admirably clear, and he discusses the issues that have attracted most attention, for example what Sextus means by ‘belief’, and whether the sceptic abandons it altogether, a type of it, or only in a certain sense. His exposition seems remarkably objective in taking into account opposing views, for he has himself espoused views on most sides of Pyrrhonian scepticism. I would nevertheless like to mention one issue of consequence in which another approach would seem to merit attention.

Barnes asks an important question: What sort of a writer was Sextus, and to what extent was he a ‘copyist’ rather than an original author? According to Barnes Sextus himself contributed little. Comparisons of parallel passages in the Outlines and Against the Dogmatists‘strongly suggest that Sextus was a copyist’ (xv). Barnes may of course be right, and Sextus certainly copied from other authors to some extent, but I fail to understand the argument as it stands; additional assumptions are needed. If Barnes is right, then Sextus’ sources, both for his accounts of and his arguments against dogmatic philosophy, are surely copied from earlier sceptical texts, as Barnes says. He maintains that these sceptical texts would have been of different kinds and offered different varieties of scepticism. This would then explain the inconsistencies that one may find in Sextus’ work. Another and indisputable feature of Sextus’ work is that his discussions of dogmatic philosophy are mostly directed against the Stoics, and to some extent the Epicureans, of the last centuries B.C. Barnes suggests the reason: the texts copied by Sextus “were written at a period when Stoicism was the dominant philosophy” (xvi). This means that Sextus’ sources, which explain the inconsistencies in his work, belong to the last centuries B.C.

If Sextus is copying works of scepticism from the last centuries B.C., inclusive of Aenesidemus, one would have thought that some of the sources are likely to have been Academic, for Aenesidemus’ Pyrrhonian revival belongs to the end of this period, and there does not seem to have been much Pyrrhonian writing before that time. Further, the Academics were constantly fighting with the Stoics. This would explain the Academic look of much of Sextus’ scepticism, a look not disregarded by Sextus, who says that Arcesilaus’ ‘persuasion and ours are virtually the same’ (I.232). But this look is disregarded by Barnes because, apparently, he does not share the view that finds Academic roots for Sextus’ scepticism, or, at least, does not emphasise it.2 Hence, the sources for Sextus’ copying, on Barnes’ account, must belong to the 1st century B.C., after the revival of Pyrrhonism and before the decline of the Stoa. In order to find different Pyrrhonian accounts from the 1st century B.C., one would have to find at least some other Pyrrhonist besides Aenesidemus from that time whom Sextus may have copied. The only known candidate is Agrippa, who is post-Aenesideman and pre-Sextan (at the very earliest he could have been working around the beginning of the millennium, although that is uncomfortably close to Aenesidemus, who is, I believe, at work after or close to Cicero’s death). This is in fact what Barnes does, tentatively. So his idea is this. Sextus copied from old Pyrrhonian texts, probably of the 1st century B.C. The main authors are likely to have been Aenesidemus and Agrippa. At least some of the inconsistencies in Sextus can possibly be explained with reference to Sextus’ copying these different authors. It is of course important for an understanding of Sextus to understand his ideological background. Barnes’ idea, then, is of consequence to his understanding of Sextan scepticism, both the idea of Sextus as a copyist and that he copied Pyrrhonian texts from the 1st century B.C. It does not follow from this view that the texts copied were under no influence from Academic scepticism, but Barnes appears to place little weight on such influences.

There are difficulties with Barnes’ view, although its explanatory power is considerable. Sextus is different from Aenesidemus (as far as we can tell), and that difference can be explained by positing other influences on Sextus. Again, Sextus is akin to Aenesidemus in other respects, in a way that can be explained by positing influences from Aenesidemus. For example, the relativism that protrudes at times in Sextus’ account of the modes of Aenesidemus can be explained as stemming from Aenesidemus, while Sextus’ attempt at ruling out relativism could be seen as the result of other influences. But such attempts do not attest themselves as consequences of the ‘copying’ of different sources. In his version of the ten modes of Aenesidemus, Sextus is clearly having trouble with some sort of relativism, but equally clearly he is trying to deal with the problem, substituting relativism (probably Aenesideman) with undecidability arguments. If he is copying something, he is copying an original attempt at reconciling the Aenesideman modes with undecidability arguments. It is possible, but it seems unnecessary, to posit an original work as the source of Sextus’ copying in order to explain an original attempt to deal with inconsistencies between Aenesidemus’ scepticism and some other version of scepticism. Hence I think it unfair to portray Sextus as first and foremost a copyist, a rather slavish occupation, unless philological arguments were to rule out the possibility of originality.

One can point out other inconsistencies in Sextus’ work. In the course of explaining Sextus’ scepticism, Barnes points out an inconsistency in Sextus’ explanation of the sense in which equipollence ‘demands’ suspension of judgement. Is the demand psychological only, or is it a requirement of rationality? Appropriately Barnes assents to neither option, although elsewhere he has opted for the first alternative.3 I would suggest that this inconsistency is a good example of the problem facing Sextus (or, possibly, his source) in his attempt to reconcile different sorts of scepticism, namely Pyrrhonian and Academic. Barnes himself appeals, tentatively, to Sextus’ use of different sources when he discusses the possible ways of understanding ‘belief’ in Sextus’ work, these different sources being, perhaps, Aenesidemus and Agrippa.

In Sextus’ works, one does appear to find an attempt at a synthesis of Pyrrhonian and Academic scepticism, especially insofar as the undecidability argument is Academic in origin. Apparently, Barnes would disagree, but perhaps only to the extent of saying that Sextus did not use Academic sources, while there may still be underlying affinities between the two scepticisms. But this synthesis is not attempted, to my knowledge, in any texts earlier than those of Sextus himself, although earlier texts may have shown confusion of the two scepticisms (as is, perhaps, attested by Diogenes’ version); according to Aulus Gellius, the differences between the two scepticisms was a much debated problem (XI.5.5). If Sextus is attempting such a synthesis, he is clearly not simply copying texts, although he is without doubt relying, heavily, on texts. But relying on texts is different from copying texts. Reliance on texts for material leaves room for independent treatment of the material and originality, which would be severely restricted in the case of copying. Nevertheless, Barnes may be right in his suggestion that it is the scepticism advocated by Agrippa that changes Aenesideman scepticism. That does not preclude the possibility that this Agrippan sort of scepticism might be heavily influenced by Academic scepticism. But that is, as Barnes says about his own suggestions regarding Agrippa, ‘mere speculation’ (xix). For it is hazardous to let too much rest on this Agrippa, whose name occurs once in Diogenes Laertius (IX.88) and nowhere else.

The translation itself is in lucid English, and literary aspirations, as the translators emphasise (xxxiv), cede to the interests of philosophical readers, although I find the style excellent. Translations of technical terms are without idiosyncracies, as far as I can tell. Nevertheless, there are bound to be differences of opinion when it comes to translating such terms. It is, for example, a matter of dispute how to translate the phrase hoson epi tôi logôi, especially in I.20. In this case, the translators refer to secondary literature. Again, how should one translate pathos ? The translators opt for ‘feeling’, as a rule, as opposed to ‘affect’ or ‘affection’ or even ’emotion’, while pathêtikôs is sometimes rendered ‘passively’. They translate telos simply with ‘aim’, as opposed to ‘end’ or ‘goal’.

The translators clearly wish to be exact in their work, to offer an English version as close to the original as taste permits. They succeed without doubt, especially if compared with Bury, whose translation, although perfectly serviceable, sometimes seems to have sacrificed exactness for style. I have not seen Mates’ translation. Annas and Barnes also have the advantage over Bury of being able to draw on the scholarship of the last two decades, as well as contributing considerably to it. In fact, their book, The Modes of Scepticism, has probably done more than any other work to awaken general interest in ancient scepticism.


1. R. Bett, Review of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Scepticism, Journal of Hellenic Studies 115 (1995), 211-12.

2. I have two reason for this view. First, Barnes never says that the Academics influenced the Pyrrhonism of Sextus. Secondly, he says, ‘I mention Academic scepticism only because Aenesidemus, the first serious Pyrrhonian after Pyrrho, had begun his philosophical life in the Academy’ (xviii).

3. See J. Annas & J. Barnes, The Modes of Scepticism (Cambridge, 1985), 49.