Sextus Empiricus Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Promoting Pyrrhonian radical Skepticism, Sextus compiled arguments against dogmatic philosophers of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Academic Skepticism, and in doing so he laid the foundation for modern philosophy.

Early Life

Little is known about Sextus Empiricus. He was an obscure Hellenistic writer but the only Greek Pyrrhonian Skeptic whose works survived and eventually made a great impact on Western intellectual history. He is said to be the last of the Alexandrian radical Pyrrhonist leaders.

Life’s Work

Experts speculate that Sextus was a physician by profession. He refers to Asclepias as the founder of “our science” (medicine), and Diogenes Laërtius and Galen, personal physician to several Roman emperors in the first and second centuries c.e., mention that he belonged to the Empirical school of medicine. Sextus was also a philosophy teacher and a kind of therapist advocating mental tranquillity through suspension of judgment.

Sextus was not an original philosopher but an excellent and methodical expounder and compiler of Pyrrhonist arguments handed down to him by his teacher Herodotus and other Skeptics. Being a physician and, in the modern sense, a scientist perhaps gave him a natural talent for meticulous compilation and classification of arguments.

Sextus was part of a radical movement, the Alexandrian Pyrrhonists, which believed in returning to traditional Pyrrhonian principles and engaging in relentless struggle against certain dogmatic philosophical ideas. One of the major goals of the group was to construct arguments against any kind of dogmatism, particularly Stoicism, Epicureanism, and the Academic Skepticism prevalent in Plato’s Academy. Sextus argued against Academic Skepticism and its famous teachers, Arcesilaus and Carneades. Pyrrhonian Skeptics considered the Academic Skeptics dogmatic philosophers for taking the position that nothing is knowable. Sextus argued that we are not allowed even this much knowledge; the best course is to suspend judgment.

Sextus was an ardent follower of Pyrrho of Elis, sometimes called the founder of Skepticism. It is said that Pyrrho, through strict observance of Skeptical practices, achieved an extraordinary tranquillity and indifference. Like Socrates, Pyrrho did not write down his thoughts and lectures. What is known about Pyrrho comes from surviving fragments written in poems by one of his devoted pupils, Timon of Philius, in the third century b.c.e. Sextus attempted to capture Pyrrho’s basic teachings and compiled a massive collection of varied arguments against philosophers and professionals of all sorts, much as Plato did for Socrates.

Pyrrho and later Sextus did not establish a school of thought and were not interested in institutionalizing their philosophy, as Plato and Aristotle had been. Pyrrho’s, and indeed Sextus’s, philosophical method was to attack other philosophers and dogmatists. Pyrrho’s basic Skeptical attitude, according to Sextus, was that objects in the world are indifferent and unfathomable, and we cannot determine them because our senses and judgments are indifferent—they are neither true nor false. We should suspend judgment on everything. If we do so, we will achieve tranquillity in life.

Skepticism began to change from Academic to Pyrrhonist with the teachings of Aenesidemus in Alexandria as early as the first century. Aenesidemus had been a student at the Academy and was disenchanted with its radical Skeptics. Sextus contends that Aenesidemus’s policy of “determining nothing” resulted in happiness and Pyrrhonian tranquillity.

Pyrrhonism developed mainly among medical doctors in Alexandria, with Sextus as one of the movement’s leaders. Two of Sextus’s works survive in nearly complete form: Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Mathematicians. In these books, Sextus describes Skepticism as the mental attitude that opposes the sources of certainty: appearances, objects of sense experience, and judgments people make about them. Through detailed and varied arguments, he shows that any dogmatic construction of knowledge only results in philosophical paradox and the illusion of knowledge. His books are rich sources of information about the ancient Greek philosophies.

The Outlines of Pyrrhonism is a methodical summary of Pyrrhonist Skeptical philosophy. It also compares the Skepticism of Pyrrho with that of the Academic Skeptics and attempts to show the weaknesses of the latter and the superiority of the former. The work is divided into three books. The first gives a general description of Pyrrhonist Skepticism and its terminology. The second and third present arguments against the basic premises of each of the divisions of philosophy: ethics, logic, and natural philosophy. Sextus’s arguments in this work and Against the Mathematicians are targeted mainly against three schools of “dogmatist” philosophers—Epicureans, Stoics, and Academic Skeptics—who believed they have knowledge of something.

Against the Mathematicians is divided into two major parts, “Against Professors of Liberal Studies” and “Against Dogmatists,” with eleven books in all. Sextus complies a detailed and meticulous taxonomy of arguments against many “dogmatist” philosophers, including the latter-day Aristoteleans and professionals and technicians such as medical doctors, military tacticians, musicians, astrologers, arithmeticians, geometricians, rhetoricians, and grammarians.

Like his Pyrrhonian...

(The entire section is 2299 words.)