Sextus Empiricus and the Search for Intellectual Tranquility

The ancient Greek Skeptics, Stoics, and Epicureans all had a common task: the search for ataraxia (tranquility), or a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety. 

The Epicureans thought this could be achieved through the simple pursuit of “natural and necessary” pleasures, the avoidance of limitless “vain and empty” desires like wealth, fame, and power, and the overcoming of common fears associated with the gods and with death. (See Epicurus on the Three Obstacles to Happiness and Tranquility.)

The Stoics, in contrast, believed that ataraxia could be achieved by denying the importance of anything other than judgment and virtue. According to the Stoics, once we learn to distinguish between external events and judgments, and realize that we react to our judgments alone—and that our judgments are entirely up to us—we can regain control of our own tranquility regardless of circumstance. (See Stoicism and the Art of Living: Three Principles for Daily Practice.) 

The Skeptics, however, took a fundamentally different approach. They believed, more or less, that the cause of all psychological disturbance is deeply epistemological. In other words, the greatest cause of our suffering, anxiety, and frustration results from our endless defense of dogmatic beliefs and our pathological need for certainty. The Skeptics believed that the cure for this disturbed state is either the suspension of judgment altogether or the abandonment of the search for certain truth.

The ancient Greek Skeptics

First, it’s important to note that ancient Greek skepticism comes in several subtle varieties. In addition to the differences between schools (Academic versus Pyrrhonian skepticism), the members within each school vigorously disagreed with each other. On top of that, there is additional uncertainty in regard to exactly how each philosopher should be interpreted. 

These heavily debated academic issues are interesting in their own right, but that is not the direction this post will take; instead, we will explore what ancient Skepticism, in its general approach, can teach us today about relaxing our more dogmatic tendencies and achieving greater intellectual tranquility, all of which was best described in the works of Sextus Empiricus.

As Sextus said:

“Skepticism relieved two terrible diseases that afflicted mankind: anxiety and dogmatism.”

Sextus Empiricus on the path to becoming a Skeptic

Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 CE?) was a physician and philosopher who lived sometime during the second or third century CE. While we know very little about his life, much of his work has survived, including the Outlines of Pyrrhonism, which is the best account we have of Pyrrhonian skepticism

One of Sextus’s greatest insights was his elaboration on the path one takes to becoming a Skeptic. He pointed out that one does not normally set out to become a Skeptic; instead, the developing Skeptic goes through an initial stage consisting of the search for certain truth among conflicting beliefs. 

This initial stage, it should be pointed out, requires a certain level of doubt and curiosity; if one is predisposed to dogmatism or indifference, he may not experience a sufficient level of doubt in his own beliefs or feel any particular compulsion to investigate matters more deeply. One must therefore be initially predisposed to seeing the multiple sides of every argument before he or she can set out on the skeptical path. 

This awareness of conflicting beliefs and arguments creates cognitive dissonance, or a sense of contradiction in one’s ideas, beliefs, and behaviors. Through exposure to strong arguments on both sides of a topic, one feels an intense sense of uncertainty regarding what one should actually believe.

For example, someone raised within a particular religion may come to question the truth or legitimacy of that religion’s teachings. This will likely create an uncomfortable feeling of alternation between belief and non-belief, which is difficult to maintain. The individual will have to either change their mind or else reinforce their original beliefs, perhaps searching for any justifications they can find to restore the original balance. In many cases, though, a sense of a lack of closure lingers in the mind. 

Eventually, the Skeptic learns to universalize this sense of doubt to all beliefs. Regardless of the topic, the Skeptic notices that arguments are always met with counter-arguments, which are then met with rebuttals and counter-rebuttals ad infinitum (see the Socratic dialogues). This creates for the Skeptic a general sense of cognitive dissonance—not associated with any single belief—but associated with the attainment of knowledge in general.

In the final stage, the Skeptic, according to Sextus, discovers that a true state of tranquility is not achieved by resolving cognitive dissonance via the adoption of one argument over another, but by suspending judgment altogether or by abandoning the prospect of attaining certain truth. What began as a quest to determine certain knowledge ends with a recognition of the impossibility of the task, which leads to a sense of relief through the suspension of judgment. As Sextus noted:

“Scepticism is an ability, or mental attitude, which opposes appearances to judgments in any way whatsoever, with the result that, owing to the equipollence of the objects and reasons thus opposed we are brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of ‘unperturbedness’ or quietude.”

But this raises the question as to whether or not certain truth is in fact impossible to attain. 

The skeptical challenge

At the heart of the skeptical challenge is the recognition that 1) the starting point of all claims to knowledge is perception, and 2) that perception is an unreliable guide to knowledge. That perception is the starting point of all claims to knowledge is self-evident in light of the fact that, without sense-perception, we wouldn’t be conscious of anything at all and therefore couldn’t hold any beliefs. 

Our sense-perceptions, therefore, are the necessary starting points for the formation of beliefs, but can we trust them? According to the Skeptic, the answer is no. Sextus demonstrated this through what he described as the “Modes,” or techniques of argumentation the Skeptic can employ to cast doubt on any dogmatic claims. There are several Modes and groupings of Modes, but they all essentially point to the fundamental unreliability of the senses. 

Here’s an example. Say there are two people in a room, one with normal color vision (Person 1), and one with a variety of red-green color blindness (Person 2). On the table in the room are two apples, one red and one green. Person 1 sees a red and green apple, but Person 2, who cannot see the color red, sees two green apples. 

For one of the apples, Person 1 sees a red apple and Person 2 sees a green apple. We can ask the following question: What color is the actual apple, independent of how Person 1 or 2 perceives it? There are five possibilities. The apple is:

  1. Red
  2. Green
  3. No color (or the possibility that color exists only in the mind)
  4. Some other color(s)
  5. The apple doesn’t exist outside of the mind

How can we answer this? We could say the apple is red (based on the person with normal color vision), but why should we prioritize his perception over Person 2? We are saying that Person 2’s perception is inaccurate because it differs from Person 1, but what makes Person 1 (or “normal” human color vision in general) the universal standard by which all else is judged? What if other animals with “normal” color vision perceive the same apple as, say, purple? Can we really make the claim that human perception is the ultimate guide to the underlying reality of all objects in the universe? And even if it was, what’s to say that the color red Person 1 sees is the same color red that I, or anyone else, sees?

Perceptions differ between animals, between different people, between the same person in different states (dreams, hallucinations, disease), and between the same object perceived in different circumstances (a stick that appears bent in water). There is simply no way to get outside of our own perceptions to compare the differing perceptions to one another and to the way things “actually” are. Our perceptions of objects always pass through the filters of our minds, and there is no way for us to determine the “true nature” of those objects independent of our perceptions. There is always the object, our perceptions, and the sensory apparatus that stands in between both that prevents us from directly accessing the object. 

So we can’t answer whether the apple itself is red or green, or no color at all, or some different color, or even whether or not the apple exists when we’re not looking at it. We can only say, “the apple appears red to me,” but we cannot claim with complete certainty that the apple is, in itself, red, and that other people who see the apple as green are “wrong.” 

And if we can’t assert with certainty the color of an apple, then how can we claim certain knowledge of anything else, particularly the complex abstract truths of philosophy or religion?  

Answering the Skeptical challenge

The Skeptical challenge is not trivial. If our perceptions are fundamentally unreliable and do not provide direct access to the world we inhabit, then it becomes impossible to verify any of our claims with certainty. Must we then follow the Pyrrhonists and suspend judgment altogether, refusing to believe anything?

The answer is no, not necessarily, but we must first recognize a key distinction; namely, that knowledge does not require certainty. We should notice that the Skeptic is claiming that, if we can’t be certain of our knowledge, then we cannot claim to have knowledge at all. But why should we hold our beliefs to such an impossibly high standard? This is where we begin to depart from the philosophy of Sextus. 

We could say, for example, that, while knowledge cannot be justified conclusively, it can be reasonably supported based on the evidence at hand. We can say, “this is what I believe to be true, my best explanation based on the evidence at hand. But it is not certain or final, and may be revised based on new evidence or better explanations.” This, in essence, is the epistemological position known as fallibilism.

Through fallibilism, we can avoid the dogma and anxiety Sextus is seeking to eliminate without needing to deny the possibility of knowledge or refusing to hold any beliefs. We also avoid the common criticisms of ancient Skepticism that point out 1) the relative success of science (which shows that we must know something) and 2) the impossibility of living a normal life without any beliefs. 

Notice that fallibilism underlies the approach of critical rationalism and science. It is often taken for granted, but modern science operates according to the principle that all scientific claims are provisional and open to revision in light of new evidence or superior predictive models. Scientific theories are never conclusively proven; they are only supported by evidence and by their resistance to falsification. This is fallibilism in action. 

By adopting the critical rationalist perspective, based on the epistemological stance of fallibilism, you can achieve intellectual tranquility by avoiding dogma while maintaining active but provisional beliefs. And by recognizing the provisionality of your beliefs, you allow the possibility to change your mind in the light of better explanations and new evidence.

Concluding remarks

Critical rationalism, based on the foundation of fallibilism, is, I believe, the most appropriate and practical orientation to the theory of knowledge. But even here, there is some controversy over how far to go with the fallibilist position. Is it the case that no knowledge can be known with certainty, or only certain kinds of knowledge? Are the basic mathematical and logical truths certain, or not? What about my own subjective experience and consciousness? Isn’t my knowledge of my own existence certain, as Rene Descartes would later claim?

These are fascinating questions the interested reader can explore further (see the entry on fallibilism in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In any case, whether or not you believe in certain knowledge in a limited sense, the basic orientation of skepticism, tempered by critical rationalism, provides us all with much needed humility in the face of a complex world that we are ill-equipped to properly understand—but must nonetheless make the attempt to do so. 

Further reading 

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