Sextus Empiricus and Greek Scepticism Informative Summary


Mary Mills Patrick’s thesis delves into the life and philosophy of Sextus Empiricus, a prominent figure in the Greek Skeptical school known as Pyrrhonism. Patrick examines the historical context of Sextus’s work, his likely affiliation with the Empirical School of medicine, and the enduring debate surrounding the location of the Skeptical School during his leadership. The text then focuses on Sextus’s primary contribution to Pyrrhonism – the articulation of the Ten Tropes of Epoché. These “modes of doubt,” as Sextus calls them, represent a culmination of Skeptical thought and challenge the possibility of attaining certain knowledge through sense-perception or reasoning. Patrick highlights the tension between Sextus’s commitment to radical skepticism and his apparent endorsement of Aenesidemus’s assertion that Skepticism leads to the philosophy of Heraclitus.

The thesis concludes with a critical examination of Pyrrhonism, contrasting its focus on attaining inner peace (ataraxia) through the suspension of judgment (epoché) with the dogmatism of other philosophical schools. Patrick acknowledges the valuable contributions of Pyrrhonism to scientific thought, philosophy, ethics, and religion, but ultimately identifies its inherent weakness in its negative character and psychological inconsistency.

Key Findings:

  • Sextus Empiricus, likely an Empirical physician, played a critical role in preserving and articulating Pyrrhonian skepticism through his detailed exposition of the Ten Tropes of Epoché.
  • The location of the Skeptical School during Sextus’s time remains a subject of debate, with evidence suggesting a possible shift from Alexandria to Rome.
  • The Ten Tropes of Epoché, attributed to Aenesidemus, systematically demonstrate the inherent limitations of sense-perception and reasoning as means of attaining certain knowledge.
  • The tension between Aenesidemus’s alleged embrace of Heraclitean philosophy and his commitment to skepticism presents a fascinating philosophical puzzle.
  • Pyrrhonism, while valuable for its critical insights, ultimately falters due to its negative character and the psychological impossibility of absolute skepticism.


The reader will learn about:

  • Pyrrhonian Skepticism: A school of thought founded by Pyrrho, which emphasizes the limitations of human knowledge and the pursuit of ataraxia (tranquility) through epoché (suspension of judgment).
    • Pyrrho’s teachings were primarily focused on achieving a tranquil life through the acceptance of uncertainty. He believed that knowledge of absolute truth was unattainable.
  • Sextus Empiricus’s Role: Sextus’s writings, particularly “Pyrrhonean Hypotyposes,” provide the most comprehensive account of Pyrrhonian thought available today. He systematized the Ten Tropes of Epoché and defended skepticism against competing philosophies.
    • He emphasized the practical application of Pyrrhonian principles in everyday life, advocating for conformity to social norms and customs.
  • The Ten Tropes of Epoché: These represent a systematic articulation of arguments for skeptical doubt, highlighting the relativity of sense perception, the influence of personal circumstances, and the inconsistencies of philosophical and cultural beliefs.
    • They aim to demonstrate that knowledge is inherently relative and subjective, challenging the possibility of objective truth.
  • Aenesidemus’s Alleged Heraclitism: The text explores the intriguing assertion that Aenesidemus, a key figure in the Skeptical School, linked Pyrrhonism to Heraclitean philosophy.
    • The thesis presents various interpretations of this apparent contradiction, highlighting the challenges of reconstructing Aenesidemus’s philosophical development.
  • Critique of Pyrrhonism: The thesis acknowledges the contributions of Pyrrhonism but ultimately critiques its negative character, emphasizing the psychological need for belief and the limitations of absolute skepticism.
    • While acknowledging the value of Skepticism as a tool for questioning assumptions, the thesis concludes that it ultimately provides no viable foundation for knowledge or progress.

Historical Context:

  • Sextus Empiricus lived and worked during the 2nd century AD, a period of philosophical ferment in the Roman Empire.
  • Stoicism held considerable sway in Roman society, providing a dominant philosophical framework that Sextus directly challenged through his skeptical arguments.
  • The Empirical School of medicine, to which Sextus likely belonged, emphasized observation and experience over theoretical speculation, aligning with the skeptical distrust of abstract reasoning.


  1. Sextus Empiricus was a physician: He references medical knowledge and practices throughout his work, demonstrating a deep understanding of the field.
  2. Sextus was likely an Empiricist: His name, references to an Empirical medical work, and recognition by Pseudo-Galen as an Empiricist leader support this claim, although he critiques the Empiricists’ stance on knowledge.
  3. Pyrrhonism sought to achieve ataraxia: Ataraxia, or peace of mind, was the primary goal of Pyrrhonian skepticism, achieved through the suspension of judgment.
  4. The Ten Tropes of Epoché challenge sense-perception: These arguments demonstrate the relativity of sense experience, showing that perceptions vary based on animal species, individual differences, sense organs, circumstances, and environmental factors.
  5. The Ten Tropes also target intellectual arguments: They highlight contradictions in philosophical systems, religious beliefs, laws, customs, and moral principles, showing the variability of human opinions.
  6. Sceptics did not deny phenomena: While questioning the absolute truth of sense impressions, they acknowledged the reality of these experiences, using them to guide daily life.
  7. Sextus argued that animals can reason: He presented evidence of reasoning abilities in dogs, demonstrating their capacity for choice, learning, and problem-solving.
  8. Aenesidemus developed the Eight Tropes against Aetiology: These arguments critique the dogmatic assertion of causality, arguing that phenomena do not reveal the true nature of underlying causes.
  9. Agrippa formulated the Five Tropes of Epoché: These focus on logical arguments for skepticism, including the problem of infinite regress, the relativity of knowledge, and the circularity of proofs.
  10. Sextus argued for a distinction between Scepticism and Empiricism: While acknowledging the historical connection, he claimed that Empiricism dogmatically denies the possibility of knowledge, while Sceptics refrain from such pronouncements.
  11. Pyrrho was influenced by Democritus and Indian Philosophy: His emphasis on achieving happiness through tranquility echoes Democritus, while his distrust of knowledge may have been shaped by his exposure to Indian thought.
  12. Pyrrho practiced his philosophy consistently: He lived a simple, unattached life, demonstrating indifference to external circumstances and possessions.
  13. Arcesilaus, a key figure in the Middle Academy, showed significant influence from Pyrrho: He embraced skeptical doubt, emphasizing the limitations of knowledge and the pursuit of tranquility.
  14. The Academy maintained a connection to Plato’s Idealism: Despite embracing skepticism, the Academy never fully abandoned Plato’s belief in absolute truth, ultimately leading to its return to dogmatism.
  15. Sextus distinguished Scepticism from the Academy: He criticized the Academicians for relying on probability and seeking to define good and evil, while Sceptics remained truly undecided.
  16. Aenesidemus allegedly embraced Heraclitean philosophy: Sextus reported that Aenesidemus linked skepticism to Heraclitus’s ideas, presenting a philosophical puzzle that has led to various interpretations.
  17. Sceptics argued for Aphasia: This concept refers to a state of refraining from making definitive statements about the truth or falsity of any claim.
  18. Sceptics embraced the formula “Nothing More”: This expression signified their commitment to suspending judgment, recognizing the equal weight of opposing arguments.
  19. Sextus used sarcasm and humor in his writing: He often employed irony and wit to challenge the dogmatism of other philosophical schools.
  20. Pyrrhonism ultimately failed due to its negativity: Its lack of constructive principles, focus on doubt, and inability to address fundamental human needs contributed to its eventual decline.


The text primarily uses qualitative arguments and examples to support its claims, rather than relying on specific statistical data. Therefore, listing 20 unique statistics is not possible based on the provided text.


  1. Skepticism (σκέψις): A philosophical approach that questions the possibility of attaining certain knowledge.
  2. Pyrrhonism (Πυῤῥωνισμός): A school of Greek skepticism founded by Pyrrho, emphasizing epoché and ataraxia.
  3. Epoché (ἐποχή): Suspension of judgment, a central concept in Pyrrhonism, signifying the refusal to affirm or deny any claim.
  4. Ataraxia (ἀταραξία): Tranquility or peace of mind, the ultimate goal of Pyrrhonian skepticism.
  5. Dogmatism (δογματισμός): A philosophical approach that asserts the existence of certain and demonstrable truths.
  6. Phenomena (φαινόμενα): Sensory experiences or appearances, the primary basis of knowledge for Sceptics.
  7. Tropes (τρόποι): Modes of doubt, specifically the Ten Tropes of Epoché articulated by Aenesidemus, providing arguments for skeptical doubt.
  8. Aetiology (αἰτιολογία): The study of causes, a branch of philosophy that Sceptics challenged through their arguments against causality.
  9. Aphasia (ἀφασία): A state of refraining from making assertions or pronouncements about the truth or falsity of any claim.
  10. Circulus in probando (κύκλος ἐν προόδῳ): A logical fallacy in which a claim is supported by a premise that itself depends on the claim for its validity.


  1. Honey tasting sweet to some, bitter to others: Sextus uses this example to illustrate the relativity of sensory experience, showing how perceptions can vary based on individual circumstances (in this case, having jaundice).
  2. The dog that follows a scent: This story, taken from Chrysippus, demonstrates Sextus’s argument that animals, like dogs, can reason and employ logical processes.
  3. Demophon shivering in the sun: This anecdote, also cited by Diogenes, highlights the variations in human perceptions and physical responses, supporting the argument that knowledge is inherently subjective.
  4. Paintings appearing to have depth: Sextus uses the example of paintings to illustrate the inconsistencies between different sense organs, as paintings appear three-dimensional to the eye but flat to the touch.
  5. The broken appearance of a rudder in water: This example demonstrates the influence of environmental factors on perceptions, showing how the medium through which an object is viewed can alter its appearance.
  6. Filings of horn appearing white separately, black together: This example highlights the influence of composition and quantity on perception, showing how the appearance of an object can change based on its aggregation.
  7. The astonishment of seeing the sun rarely: Sextus uses this thought experiment to illustrate the influence of rarity and familiarity on judgments, showing how even common occurrences can seem extraordinary when encountered infrequently.
  8. The custom of tattooing children in Ethiopia: This example contrasts different cultural practices, highlighting the variability of moral and social norms and challenging claims of absolute ethical standards.
  9. The story of Apelles and the horse’s foam: This anecdote illustrates the accidental nature of achieving ataraxia, showing how it can arise unexpectedly, even when not directly sought.
  10. The coiled rope mistaken for a serpent: This example, used by the New Academy, demonstrates the concept of probability, showing how initial impressions can be revised through careful observation and reasoning.


Sextus Empiricus’s work provides a detailed and compelling account of Pyrrhonian skepticism, a school of thought that challenged the foundations of knowledge and championed the pursuit of inner peace through the suspension of judgment. His thorough exposition of the Ten Tropes of Epoché, a culmination of centuries of skeptical thought, systematically dismantles claims of certain knowledge based on sense-perception or reasoning. However, while acknowledging the value of Pyrrhonism’s critical insights, the thesis ultimately concludes that its inherently negative character and the psychological impossibility of absolute skepticism render it an inadequate basis for knowledge, action, and progress. Despite its limitations, Pyrrhonism played a crucial role in challenging dogmatic assumptions and fostering a spirit of critical inquiry, contributing to the development of scientific thought, philosophy, ethics, and religion.

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