BMCR 2019.11.44

How to be a Pyrrhonist: The Practice and Significance of Pyrrhonian Scepticism

, How to be a Pyrrhonist: The Practice and Significance of Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xvi, 263. ISBN 9781108471077. $99.99.


Richard Bett has devoted over thirty years to the study of ancient skepticism. Since the 1980s, he has written steadily on every branch of this important philosophical tradition: Pyrrho, the Academics, and Sextus Empiricus. Bett is known for meticulous scholarship, comprehensive knowledge of primary texts, and controversial views.1 As a result, his articles and books are required reading for anyone who cares about skepticism in Greece and Rome. The book under review collects twelve essays: one is new, two are forthcoming, and the remaining nine were published between 2005 and 2016. Bett discusses Sextus Empiricus in every chapter, but he also touches on Pyrrho, Academic skepticism, Aenesidemus, Nietzsche, and several themes and thinkers in contemporary philosophy.

In a word, the book is excellent. These are specialist essays, and so the audience will be accordingly limited, but everyone working on these topics will want to study these essays carefully. Bett balances a historian’s understanding of ancient philosophy with a healthy appreciation for contemporary insights. In addition, Bett writes clearly and engagingly, and the book is well edited.2 At $100, however, the book is expensive, and I hope that Cambridge University Press issues a paperback version.

Bett divides the essays into four broad groups, each of which contains three essays. According to Bett, Sextus has a difficult problem for a philosopher: he has no views to advance. As such, the first group of essays investigates how Sextus writes despite that void. Each essay in the second group discusses a topic from the history of skepticism: the debate about signs, Aenesidemus’s attack on physics, and the skeptical modes. In the third group, Bett considers the skeptic’s self, ethics, and life. These essays ask whether the skeptics make good on their promise to present a life worth pursuing. The final essays look at ancient skepticism in the light of contemporary theories and concerns. Even if we find the skeptics reasonable from a historical point of view, can they genuinely appeal to us or teach us anything now?

Rather than look at individual essays, I will consider two criticisms that Bett makes across several chapters. These criticisms deserve our attention because they suggest that we should not take the skeptics seriously or at their word. After I describe Bett’s arguments, I will say a little in response. Although I cannot settle these large questions here, I hope to show that Bett’s essays are good to think with. Like Bett himself, I will focus on Sextus Empiricus and his neo-Pyrrhonian version of skepticism. As such, when I refer below to “skepticism” or “skeptics,” I mean the school and people as Sextus understands them.

First, Bett argues that Sextus misrepresents the skeptics when he describes them as inquirers. On the one hand, Sextus insists that skeptics are benevolent and impartial inquirers who pursue the truth with open minds. It just so happens, according to Sextus, that the skeptics repeatedly fail to find answers. Instead, they settle for suspension of judgment and continue to inquire. On the other hand, Bett argues that skeptics have settled on a goal, namely ataraxia or tranquility, and on a way to achieve that goal, namely epochê or universal suspension of judgment. Thus, according to Bett, skeptics do not follow arguments wherever they lead, and if Sextus says otherwise, he is mistaken and possibly lying. Bett also claims that skeptics are willing to make arguments end in suspension of judgment in order to achieve tranquility. If Bett is right, skeptics do not necessarily care whether they reach tranquility by means of rational arguments or true premises. They want to reach tranquility—the route is less important.3

Second, Bett makes a two-pronged attack on the practical results of skepticism. Sextus claims that skeptics suspend judgment and then, by a lucky accident, tranquility follows. In addition, Sextus says that this tranquility is, or provides, eudaimonia —a happy, successful life. As a first response, Bett describes the skeptical life as radically passive: skeptics live without factual beliefs and without beliefs about value. As a result, they become alienated from everyone and everything they encounter, and even from themselves. Bett argues that such a person cannot have the kinds of desires, attachments, and projects that a good life requires.4 Second, Bett argues that skeptics are unlikely to be ethical people. Bett employs an objection that comes from Sextus himself: what will skeptics do if a tyrant forces them to choose between “some unspeakable deed” or death by torture?5 Bett worries that the person Sextus describes will be far more likely to “take the easier course” (161). Bett acknowledges that Sextus has an answer to this charge, but the answer does not impress Bett. Sextus believes that skeptics can rely on appearances and their society’s customs and laws, even in ethically challenging situations. Bett replies that such skeptics are still intolerably passive and detached. For Bett, skeptics lack the kind of attachments and commitments that help people make ethical decisions in difficult situations. Bett believes, therefore, that skeptics are unlikely to be or remain good people.

I think we can blunt the force of Bett’s first criticism. Bett seems especially concerned that Sextus is not being honest: he repeatedly says or implies that it is not plausible that skeptics find all issues undecidable. Bett believes that they are not genuinely inquiring since many answers are available if we look at the evidence in a disinterested manner. However, I think Sextus can reply that he is describing an ideal. Perhaps very few people are adept enough at arguing to pick holes in every argument, but, in theory at least, nothing prevents that outcome. If Bett objects that Sextus has promised a method that we can actually live by, Sextus can reply that he is no worse off than the Stoics, as far as this goes. The Stoics demand an enormous amount from their sage both ethically and cognitively. When other schools challenge the Stoics and ask who can live up to such demands, the Stoics grant that the sage may be “as rare as the phoenix.” Nevertheless, they insist, the sage represents an ideal towards which we should strive. I think that if we interpret skepticism in the same fashion, we remove much of the motivation for Bett’s first complaint.

When Bett accuses skeptics of being too passive, he makes an initially strong case because many people agree that a passive life is undesirable. For example, Susan Wolf claims that “a meaningful life must satisfy two criteria, suitably linked. First, there must be active engagement, and second, it must be engagement in (or with) projects of worth. A life is meaningless if it lacks active engagement with anything. A person who is bored or alienated from most of what she spends her life doing is one whose life can be said to lack meaning.”6 Closer to home, Gisela Striker writes that skeptical ataraxia “is mere detachment—a calm state indeed, but one that might in the end turn out to be also profoundly boring.”7

To assess this challenge, however, I think we need a better understanding of skeptical passivity. Bett and others appeal to Sextus himself, who says, for example, that skeptics go along with “passive appearance” ( Outlines of Pyrrhonism 1.19), but I wonder if Bett interprets “passive” here too broadly. Sextus may use “passive appearance” in implicit contrast with a specific Stoic theory, according to which we actively assent to the truth of statements such as “honey is sweet.” Sextus says that skeptics do not actively make such judgments; instead they accept whatever appearance they happen to have, i.e. their “passive appearance.” But skeptics can perfectly well be passive in this restricted sense but still quite active in their lives. Sextus argues that skeptics pursue and avoid things, follow the customs of their family and country, and engage in careers all while following appearances that are passive in his sense. In addition, Svavar Svavarsson has recently argued that skeptics can be persuaded by argument.8 If Svavarsson is right, skeptics can actively engage in argument, and they can live according to appearances they have as a result of argument. Again, such appearances are passive insofar as the skeptics do not decide which appearance they are left with—they do not pick one over another—but nevertheless the appearance is the result of something they do—namely, argue—and the appearance guides the skeptic who has it. I hope that Bett inspires further study of these questions because I think we need a deeper understanding of the interplay between activity and passivity in skepticism.

What about Bett’s other criticism of skeptical practice: are skeptics ethically unreliable? Bett argues that we cannot rely on people who merely do “the kinds of things [their] society dictates” (159). Unless people have deeper commitments—commitments that require beliefs—then they will behave badly in challenging circumstances. I am not sure what to make of this argument. It sounds initially plausible, but then I remember that all sorts of people, many of them not remotely skeptical, behave badly in challenging circumstances. Although this is perfectly consistent with Bett’s argument—these non-skeptics may behave badly for other reasons—I cannot help but wonder whether Bett relies on assumptions that he hasn’t argued for sufficiently. First, do commitments require beliefs? Sextus can reply that skeptics take on commitments as a result of appearances. I grant this seems implausible, but I am not sure that it is false. Second, if skeptics lack all commitments, as Bett claims, but also lack any concern with death or torture, as Sextus claims, why should we believe Bett that they will necessarily yield to the tyrant’s threat? As in the case of passivity and the good life, I hope that Bett’s criticisms lead to further discussion of skeptical ethics.

In closing, everyone who works on ancient skepticism will want to spend time with these essays. Bett has a sure instinct for questions that matter, and he knows the works of Sextus backwards and forwards. Cambridge University has done scholars a great service with this volume.9


1. It is no wonder that Bett knows Sextus’s works so well. As of 2018, Bett has personally translated all the extant works of Sextus except Pyrrhonian Outlines. (Bett probably skipped this work because the excellent translation of Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes was already available.)

2. I noticed only one typo, and a very small one at that: the bibliographical entry for Moller 2004 lacks page numbers, contrary to the practice of the rest of the bibliography. The pages are 425-41.

3. This reconstruction appears throughout the book, but see especially Essays 1, 6, 8, 9, and 12.

4. Again, these arguments appear throughout the book, but see especially Essays 7, 8, 9, and 10.

5. Sextus offers this example at Adversus Dogmaticos 11.164-6, and Bett discusses the problem at 159-61. I quote the translation from Richard Bett, trans., Sextus Empiricus: Against the Ethicists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 27.

6.Susan Wolf “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life” in The Variety of Values (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 107-26, on p. 111.

7. Gisela Striker, “ Ataraxia : Happiness as tranquility” in Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 183-95, on p. 193.

8. Svavar Hrafn Svavarsson, “Sextus Empiricus on Persuasiveness and Equipollence,” in Strategies of Argument: Essays in Ancient Ethics, Epistemology, and Logic, edited by Mi-Kyoung Lee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 356-73.

9. I could not have written this review without the help of Nathan Nicol. We have discussed skepticism and these essays again and again over many months, and he has helped me to understand these questions far better than I would have alone.