Although there are already a number of good historical introductions to ancient skepticism (in French, the classical one by Victor Brochard; in Italian, the magnificent but also ancient monograph by Mario Dal Pra; and more recently in English, those of Maria Lorenza Chiesara and Robert J. Hankinson),1 it is certainly not inappropriate to return to this attitude—it is not a school—to investigate its central figures and most relevant ideas.
In fact, starting with the introduction, the author clarifies that his intention is not to carry out a project of philosophical archaeology, rescuing curious notions from a dark and forgotten past. Skepticism, unlike the classical and Hellenistic schools of thought, retains surprising vitality. There is paradox here: on the one hand, every now and then, skepticism returns to the forefront of thought, insofar as it implies a questioning of our way of doing philosophy and ultimately our model of rationality, theoretical language and practical action; on the other hand, it seems that no one seriously considers leading a skeptical life: in a certain sense, Sextus Empiricus, in whom the ancient tradition of skepticism culminates, was the last skeptic. Professor Stéphane Marchand devotes himself to unraveling this enigma and elucidating the keys to understanding the vitality of skepticism in his clear and rigorous monograph.
Although the four chapters into which the book is divided coincide broadly with those that can be found in the other introductions to skepticism mentioned above, its treatment is different in a number of ways. For example, the present book omits Brochard’s distinction between ‘dialectical’ and ‘empirical’ skepticism as well as the emphasis on Agrippa in Dal Pra, and it lacks anything corresponding to the more thematic character of the second part of Hankinson’s book.
In the initial chapter, the author focuses on the figures of Pyrrho of Elis, and his combative disciple, Timon of Phlius. In the case of the former, Professor Marchand lays out the interpretative options offered by the testimonies collected by Decleva Caizzi.2 We perhaps find ourselves before a thinker at the limits of philosophy, living an indifferent existence consciously alien to philosophical discourse. But with the latter, things are quite different. The author attributes to Timon the creation of an original philosophical proposal, namely, that of Pyrrhonism. Although the sources are scarce and fragmentary, Professor Marchand outlines the main lines of this Pyrrhonism, understood as a mainly gnoseological critique of the philosophical schools of his time (with special attention to Aristotelianism). Timon undoubtedly formulates elements that will play a very important role in later skepticism,3 such as the use of the notion of ‘phenomena’. At the same time, there is some distance from the very technical skepticism the Academy, or Pyrrho’s nominal heirs, namely Aenesidemus of Knossos and Sextus Empiricus.
The second chapter of the book is devoted to the skeptical Academy, focusing especially on the well-known heads of this institution, Arcesilaus of Pitane and Carneades of Cyrene and concluding with a short review of the reception of Academic skepticism by Philo of Larissa and Cicero and of the history of eventual decline and abandonment of this current of thought. With regard to the above-mentioned heads, the autonomous development of this current of ancient skepticism was driven not only by the introduction of important notions such as the suspension of judgment, appropriated and adapted from Stoicism by Arcesilaus, or Carneades’ appeal to the ‘persuasive’ as a criterion for action, but also by the Socratic-Platonic context and the debate with the Stoics (as Ioppolo, among others, has emphasized).4 Thus, according to Professor Marchand’s interpretation, Academic skepticism evolved and introduced many elements that would later be recovered and reformulated by Aenesidemus, in its critique of the dogmatic epistemology of Stoicism as well as in its development of a criterion of action, meant to address the Stoic objections to skeptical apraxia. In addition, it is worth pointing out the Academics’ critical, refutative, and ironic understanding of philosophy (more attentive to Plato’s style of writing than to his doctrines). All of this culminated in a kind of epistemological fallibilism, both in the case of Philo, and finally in the return to dogmatism in the subsequent Academy.
The third chapter addresses a thinker about whom we hardly know anything, Aenesidemus of Knossos.5 This author, who would have begun his philosophical career influenced by the skeptical Academy, according to prevailing interpretations, would have then distanced himself from the dogmatic turn of this school in order to develop his own current of thought, in which some of the main elements of Neo-Pyrrhonism are already clearly outlined. There are some historiographical questions that are difficult to resolve, involving the relationship between Aenesidemus’ thought and that of Pyrrho of Elis himself; but beyond this, Professor Marchand addresses questions such as the exposition of the ‘tropes’, or argumentative schemas, which Aenesidemus likely compiled and perfected; the problem of the ‘phenomenon’ as a criterion; and the relation of Aenesidemus’ thought with that of Heraclitus. Although it is not possible to settle these hermeneutical problems definitively or with the depth of a specialized study, Professor Marchand has good quality discussions of them.
The fourth chapter, the final one before the conclusion, focuses on the most studied and well-known author of all the ancient skeptics, and the only one from whom we have complete works: Sextus Empiricus.6 This chapter is more thematic in character, focusing above all on the Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Professor Marchand focuses here on Sextus’ definition of skepticism, on the ends he supposedly pursues, on his method and on his use of tropes, as well as on the definition and role of his necessary counterpart, dogmatism. In addition, the chapter continues with a very interesting, though not terribly original, review of the role of the ‘phenomenon’, mainly as a criterion for action, the principal original proposal of Sextus that attempts to respond to the problem of action. Later, the author ventures into a more interesting review of a topic less written about in the earlier introductions: the problem of skeptical language and the general possibility of formulating a skeptical attitude. Finally, he closes his exposition with a reference to the important relationship between the skeptical attitude and certain medical schools of the Hellenistic period (although this, again, is an aspect explored at some length in other books).
By way of conclusion, Professor Marchand returns to the paradox I mentioned at the beginning of this review, and questions the fortune of skepticism after Sextus Empiricus. His proposal, controversial but attractive and well supported textually and argumentatively, is that skepticism evolved into a principally theoretical study, mainly under the influence of the reading of Augustine of Hippo, a notorious adversary of academic skepticism and general critic of a possible skeptical life. The transformation of skepticism with Augustine’s reading, which in many ways would anticipate that of Descartes, makes it in the end a necessary step or stage towards the development of dogmatic thought. This transformation implies that what was initially proposed as a different form of philosophizing, one that questioned our dominant model of rationality, becomes domesticated by dogmatism.
Professor Stéphane Marchand’s book is a magnificent introduction to the study of ancient skepticism, which has received relatively little attention despite its enormous validity and fertility. Apart from the inevitable reiteration of certain questions, which can be found well formulated, although now somewhat outdated, in the other introductions already mentioned, it is regrettable that this small work did not venture into some of the central problems of Greek skepticism in more detail. These problems include the important question of criterion, or the role of nature as the limit of skeptical research, or its relationship with relativism, as well as the difficulties experienced by skeptical attitudes towards causality or contradiction. All of this is mentioned in this work, but in a somewhat superficial way, without pausing over the problems of the skeptical attitude towards metaphilosophical discourse. It is true that this might have required a thematic approach rather than Professor Marchand’s historical one, but it would have been equally desirable to go into greater detail in the treatment of these aspects, which constitute fundamental assumptions of skepticism in all its manifestations.
1. V. Brochard, Les sceptiques grecs, Imprimerie Nationale, 1887; M. Dal Pra, Lo scetticismo greco, Laterza, 1950; M. L. Chiesara, Storia dello scetticismo greco, Einaudi, 2003 ; R. J. Hankinson, The Sceptics, Routledge, 1995.
2. F. Decleva Caizzi (ed.), Pirrone. Testimonianze, Bibliopolis, 1981.
3. R. Bett, Pyrrho, his Antecedents, and his Legacy, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 84 ff.
4. A. M. Ioppolo, Opinione e scienza: il dibattito tra Stoici e Accademici nel III e nel II secolo a. C., Bibliopolis, 1986.
5. R. Polito (ed.), Aenesidemus of Cnossus: Testimonia, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
6. See, among others, C. Perin, The Demands of Reason: An Essay on Pyrrhonian Scepticism, Oxford University Press, 2010.