Pyrrhon of Elis Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Pyrrhon of Elis (PIHR-ahn of EE-lihs), like Socrates, wrote nothing, and so information on his life must be gleaned from later sources. The founder of Greek Skepticism, he may have been influenced by Indian ascetics he encountered during Alexander the Great’s eastern campaigns. For Pyrrhon, the senses were unreliable and people’s beliefs neither true nor false. He recommended the simple life, free of beliefs, with a goal of mental and emotional tranquillity (ataraxia). The Skeptic should remain neutral with respect to things that cannot be known for certain and should avoid fruitless discussion about them. Pyrrhon made his daily life a demonstration of his Skeptical detachment and is said, for instance, to have displayed a legendary sangfroid during a storm at sea. Much of the biographical information recorded about him by Diogenes Laertius is, however, of dubious veracity.


Pyrrhon’s response to the problem of knowledge marks the beginning of Greek Skepticism. It was the object of attacks by early Christian writers such as Gregory of Nazianzus but then lay dormant until the publication of a Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus’s Pyrrōneiōn Hypotypōseōn (c. second century c.e., also known as Pyrrhoniarum hypotyposes; Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1591) in France in 1562. From that time, Skepticism has strongly influenced the Western philosophical and...

(The entire section is 424 words.)


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Pyrrhon of Elis} The founder of skepticism, Pyrrhon, a companion of Alexander the Great, taught that the nature of things is inapprehensible; his attitude greatly influenced science and philosophy throughout antiquity.

Early Life

Few details about the life of Pyrrhon (PIHR-ohn) have been preserved. Born in Elis, Pyrrhon was the son of Pleistarchus or, by other accounts, Pleitocrates. Apparently of humble background, Pyrrhon first studied painting, no doubt influenced by the master Apelles in nearby Sikyon, then briefly turned his hand to poetry.

Pyrrhon’s early philosophical training must have begun soon thereafter; he studied under Bryson and Anaxarchus (a pupil of Democritus and adviser to Alexander the Great), whom he joined in the Macedonian invasion of Persia and India in 331 b.c.e. During that invasion, Pyrrhon gained a reputation for high moral conduct among the quarrelsome Macedonians. After returning to his native Elis, he was awarded a high priesthood and was exempted from taxes; he also received honorary Athenian citizenship and knew Aristotle, Epicurus, the Academic Arcesilaus, and Zeno of Citium. A tradition that Alexander had provided Pyrrhon with a comfortable endowment may help to account for the philosopher’s high social standing. Although probably a man of some means, he was renowned for his modest and withdrawn life.

Pyrrhon’s Greece witnessed a major revolution in philosophical thinking as the old political order of independent city-states yielded to the Hellenistic empires. Pyrrhonistic philosophy joined the Epicurean and the Stoic in seeking ways to achieve ataraxia—a personal state of freedom from worldly cares. Pyrrhon differed both from his contemporaries and from the previous skeptical trends of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Democritus, and the Sophists, in that he held no dogmatic position concerning the nature of truth. According to Pyrrhon and his followers, the phenomena of sense experience are neither true nor false, and there is no access to any proof of reality beyond the empirical world. The wise and happy man takes an agnostic stance on the nature of reality.

Pyrrhon did not establish a formal school, as did Epicurus and Zeno, though he was the mentor of Philo of Athens, Nausiphanes of Teios, and Timon of Phlius, his only true successor. In his third century c.e. Peri biōn dogmatōn kai apophthegmatōn tōn en philosophia eudokimēsantōn (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 1688), Diogenes Laertius quotes extensively from the writings of Timon and from the life of Pyrrhon written by Antigonus of Carystus shortly after the philosopher’s death. Diogenes Laertius’s account, together with Cicero’s somewhat problematic references, provides an important check on the portrait presented by later skeptical thinkers, including the major work of second century c.e. skeptic Sextus Empiricus.

Life’s Work

The second century c.e. Peripatetic philosopher Aristocles of Messana quotes Timon, saying that the happy man must examine three questions: What is the nature of things, what attitude should one adopt with respect to them, and what will be the result for those who adopt this attitude?

Pyrrhon held that things by nature are inapprehensible (akatalypsias) and indeterminate (adiaphora). Making use of the established distinction between appearances and reality, Pyrrhon elaborated, stating that sense experiences and beliefs are neither true nor false because the true nature of things, if one exists, cannot be known.

Pyrrhonistic skepticism is summed up in the following formula: The nature of things no...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)