Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Pyrrhonism

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Pyrrhonism is a system of scepticism, the founder of which was Pyrrho, a Greek philosopher, about whom very little is known except that he died in 270 B. C. The best known of Pyrrho's disciples was Timon of Philius, known as the sillographer. Pyrrho's scepticism was so complete and comprehensive that the word Pyrrhonism is sometimes used as a synonym for scepticism, The scepticism of Pyrrho's school covered three points.


(1) All the dogmatists, that is to say, all the philosophers who believed that truth and certitude can be attained, were mere sophists; they were self-deceived and deceivers of others.

(2) Certitude is impossible of attainment, not only because of the possibility that our faculties deceive us, but also because, in themselves, things are neither one thing nor the other, neither good nor evil, beautiful nor ugly, large nor small. Or, rather, things are both good and evil, beautiful and ugly, large and small, so that there is no reason why we should affirm that they are one thing rather than the other. This conviction was expressed in the famous saying, ouden mallon, nothing is more one thing than another; the paper is not more white than black, the piece of sugar is not more sweet than bitter, and so forth.

(3) The reality of things being inaccessible to the human mind, and certitude being impossible of attainment, the wise man doubts about everything; that is, he recognizes the futility of inquiry into reality and abstains from judging. This abstention is called epoche. It is the foundation of happiness. Because he alone can attain happiness who cultivates imperturbability, ataraxia; and then only is the mind proof against disquietude when we realize that every attempt to attain the truth is doomed to failure.

From this account of the principles of Pyrrhonism, it is evident that Pyrrho's aim was ethical. Like all the philosophers of the period in which he lived, he concerned himself principally with the problem of happiness. The Stoics sought to found happiness on the realization of the reign of law in human nature as well as in nature. The Epicureans grounded happiness on the conviction that transitory feeling is the one important phenomenon in human life. The Eclectics placed the intellectual basis of happiness in the conviction that all systems of philosophy are equally true. The Pyrrhonist, as well as the other sceptics of that period, believed that there is no possibility of attaining happiness unless one first realizes that all systems of philosophy are equally false and that the real truth of things cannot be attained. Pyrrhonism is, therefore, an abdication of all the supposed rights of the mind, and cannot be dealt with by the ordinary rules of logic or by the customary canons of philosophical criticism.

BRODERSEN, De Philos. Pyrrhonis (Kiel, 1819); LANGHEINRICH, Diss. Tres de Timone Sillographo (Leipzig, 1720) ; ZELLER, Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, tr. REICHEL (London, 1892); TURNER, History of Philosophy (Boston, 1903), 184 sqq.

WILLIAM TURNER.