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Pyrrho in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy.jpg
Born c. 360 BC
Elis, Greece
Died c. 270 BC
Elis, Greece
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Pyrrhonism
Notable ideas

Pyrrho of Elis[1] (/ˈpɪr/; Greek: Πύρρων ὁ Ἠλεῖος Pyrron ho Eleios, c. 360 – c. 270 BC) was a Greek philosopher of Classical antiquity and is credited as being the first Greek skeptic philosopher.


Pyrrho of Elis is estimated to have lived from around 365-360 BC until 275-270 BC.[2] Pyrrho was from Elis, on the Ionian Sea. Diogenes Laërtius, quoting from Apollodorus of Athens, says that Pyrrho was at first a painter, and that pictures by him were exhibited in the gymnasium at Elis. Later he was diverted to philosophy by the works of Democritus, and according to Diogenes Laertius became acquainted with the Megarian dialectic through Bryson, pupil of Stilpo.[3]

While little is known for certain about Pyrrho’s philosophy and life, his primary influencers were most likely early philosophers whose work focused on the indeterminacy of the world, such as Plato and the Eleatics,[2] it is thought that he was taught by Anaxarchus of Abdera, and was also influenced by Eastern philosophy he encountered on a trip to India with Alexander the Great.[4]

Diogenes reports that Pyrrho, along with Anaxarchus, travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East, 'so that he even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India and the Magi' in Persia. This exposure to Eastern philosophy seems to have inspired him to adopt a life of solitude; returning to Elis, he lived in poor circumstances, but was highly honored by the Elians and also by the Athenians, who conferred upon him the rights of citizenship.[3]

Pyrrho wrote nothing, his doctrines were recorded in the writings of his pupil Timon of Phlius. Unfortunately these works are mostly lost. Today Pyrrho's ideas are known mainly through the book Outlines of Pyrrhonism written by Sextus Empiricus.[3]

Sources on Pyrrho[edit]

Pyrrho did not produce any written work detailing his philosophical principles.[4] Most of the information on Pyrrho’s principles comes from his most notable follower, Timon of Phlius, whose summary of Pyrrho's teachings are preserved in the Aristocles passage.[4] However, there are conflicting interpretations of the ideas presented in this passage, each of which leads to a different conclusion as to what Pyrrho meant.[4]

Most biographical information on Pyrrho, as well as some information concerning his demeanor and behavior, come from the works of mid-third century BC biographer Antigonus of Carystus.[4] Biographical anecdotes from Diogenes Laertius are also frequently cited; his work on Pyrrho's life drew primarily from Antigonus' accounts.[4]


As Pyrrho left no written teachings, the exact details of his philosophy are uncertain. Most sources agree that the primary goal of Pyrrho’s philosophy was the achievement of a state of ataraxia,[4] or freedom from worry,[2] and that he observed that ataraxia could be brought about by eschewing beliefs about thoughts and perceptions.

However, Pyrrho’s own philosophy may have differed significantly from the later Pyrrhonists.[2] Most interpretations of the information on Pyrrho’s philosophy suggest that he claimed that reality is inherently indeterminate, which, in the view of Pyrrhonism described by Sextus Empiricus, would be considered a negative dogmatic belief.[2]

A summary of Pyrrho's philosophy was preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Timon, in what is known as the "Aristocles passage."

"Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastous (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantous (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[5]

The main principle of Pyrrho's thought is expressed by the word acatalepsia, which connotes the ability to withhold assent from doctrines regarding the truth of things in their own nature; against every statement its contradiction may be advanced with equal justification.[3]


It is uncertain whether Pyrrhonism was a small but continuous movement in antiquity, or whether it died out and was revived. Regardless, several centuries after Pyrrho lived, Aenesidemus lead a revival of the philosophy. Pyrrhonism was one of the two major schools of skeptical thought that emerged during the Hellenistic period, the other being Academic skepticism.[6]

Aenesidemus developed ten arguments to be used as justification for suspending all judgement on the true nature of things.[7] A further set of five arguments was developed by Agrippa the Skeptic,[7] these arguments, as well as several other sets of tropes used as justification for suspending judgement, are presented in the texts of Sextus Empiricus, whose works contain the most detailed surviving account of Pyrrhonist practice.[6]

Pyrrhonists view their philosophy as a way of life, and view Pyrrho as a model for this way of life, their main goal is to cure suffering and unhappiness through achieving suspension of judgment.[7] One method Pyrrhonists use to suspend judgment is to gather arguments on both sides of the disputed issue, continuing to gather arguments such that the arguments have the property of isostheneia (equal strength), this leads the Pyrrhonist to the conclusion that there is an unresolvable disagreement on the topic, and so the appropriate reaction is to suspend judgement on the topic. The Pyrrhonist develops suspension of judgment as a habitual response to all matters of dispute, achieving a state of “epoche” – a general suspension of judgement about the real nature of things. Reaching epoche results in ataraxia, or freedom of worry, which relieves the practitioner of the causes of unhappiness.[2]

Pyrrhonism flourished among members of the Empiric school of medicine, where it was seen as the philosophic foundation to their approach to medicine, which was opposed to the approach of the Dogmatic school of medicine. Pyrrhonism fell into obscurity in the post-Hellenic period.[6]

Pyrrhonism has three styles of practice, or types of practitioners, these are the ephectic (a "suspension of judgment"), zetetic ("engaged in seeking"), and aporetic ("engaged in refutation").[8]

Indian influences on Pyrrho[edit]

Diogenes Laertius' biography of Pyrrho[9] reports that Pyrrho traveled with Alexander the Great's army to India and based his philosophy on what he learned there:

...he even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy, introducing the doctrine of incomprehensibility, and of the necessity of suspending one's judgment....

The sources and the extent of the Indian influences on Pyrrho's philosophy, however, are disputed. Elements of scepticism were already present in Greek philosophy, particularly in the Democritean tradition in which Pyrrho had studied prior to visiting India. Pyrrhonism was a logical extension of these, requiring no exogenous influences. Richard Bett heavily discounts any substantive Indian influences on Pyrrho, arguing that on the basis of testimony of Onesicritus regarding how difficult it was to converse with the gymnosophists, as it required three translators, none of whom understood any philosophy, that it is highly improbable that Pyrrho could have been substantively influenced by any of the Indian philosophers.[10]

According to Christopher I. Beckwith's analysis of the Aristocles Passage, adiaphora, astathmēta, and anepikrita are strikingly similar to the Buddhist Three marks of existence,[11] indicating that Pyrrho's teaching is based on Buddhism. Beckwith disputes Bett's argument about the translators, as the other reports of using translators in India, involving Alexander the Great and Nearchus, say they needed only one interpreter, and Onesicritus was criticized by other writers in antiquity for exaggerating. Besides, Pyrrho spent about 18 months in India, which is long enough to learn a foreign language.[12]

It has been hypothesized that the gymnosophists were Jains, or Ajnanins ,[13][14][15] and that these are likely influences on Pyrrho.[13]


Pyrrhonism regained prominence in the late fifteenth century,[6] the publication of the works of Sextus Empiricus played a major role in Renaissance and Reformation thought. Philosophers of the time used his works to source their arguments on how to deal with the religious issues of their day. Girolamo Savonarola was one of the first thinkers to apply Pyrrhonist reasoning to the defense of true religion. Major philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne, Marin Mersenne, and Pierre Gassendi later drew on the model of Pyrrhonism outlined in Sextus Empiricus’ works for their own arguments. This resurgence of Pyrrhonism has been called the beginning of modern philosophy.[6] Pyrrhonism also affected the development of historiography. Historical Pyrrhonism emerged during the early modern peiord and played a significant role in shaping modern historiography. Historical Pyrrhonism questioned the possibility of any absolute knowledge from the past and transformed later historian's selection of and standard for reliable sources.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hugh Chisholm, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 696. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Home., Bett, Richard Arnot (2000). Pyrrho, his antecedents, and his legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198250654. OCLC 43615424. 
  3. ^ a b c d  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Pyrrho of Elis". Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 696. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Bett, Richard; Zalta, Edward (Winter 2014). "Pyrrho". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2/19/2018.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (PDF). Princeton University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Popkin, Richard Henry (2003). The History of Scepticism : from Savonarola to Bayle (Revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198026716. OCLC 65192690. 
  7. ^ a b c Pierre., Hadot, (2002). What is ancient philosophy?. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674013735. OCLC 48857664. 
  8. ^ Pulleyn, William (1830). The Etymological Compendium, Or, Portfolio of Origins and Inventions. T. Tegg. p. 353. 
  9. ^ "The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers". Peithô's Web. Retrieved March 23, 2016. 
  10. ^ Richard Bett, Pyrrho, His Antecedents and His Legacy, 2000, p177-8.
  11. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (PDF). Princeton University Press. p. 28. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  12. ^ Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 221. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  13. ^ a b Barua 1921, p. 299.
  14. ^ Jayatilleke 1963, pp. 129-130.
  15. ^ Flintoff 1980.
  16. ^ 1985-, Matytsin, Anton M.,. The specter of skepticism in the age of Enlightenment. Baltimore. ISBN 9781421420530. OCLC 960048885. 


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