The pursuit of happiness: Pyrrho and ataraxia

Pyrrho is the founder and name-sake of the most famous Greek school of skepticism, which would later strongly influence the Hellenistic incarnation of the Academy and even dogmatists such as Epicurus.

Pyrrho studied Democritus, Bryson and was a disciple of Anaxarchus. He also took part in an expedition led by Alexander the Great to India. Upon his return to Athens, Pyrrho became increasingly opposed to the claims of the dogmatists. The dogmatists were united in their belief that real and certain knowledge of the external world could be acquired (though they often differed on matters of epistemology). Finding their thesis to be naive, Pyrrho composed an opposing skeptical thesis of fallibility; meaning simply that any claim to knowledge involves a degree of uncertainty. Following logically from this, Pyrrho thought that it was impossible for one to arrive at knowledge of the truth.

For proof of his claims Pyrrho turns to the difference in opinion between the wise and even the vulgar. Thus, he asserts that because every claim can be argued to the contrary in an equally effective manner and there are clever people on both sides of every argument, it is impossible to judge who is right. Similarly to Protagoras, Pyrrho uses a relativist empirical epistemology to support his skepticism.

However, while Pyrrho is an extreme skeptic, his philosophy shared the common Hellenistic focus on practicality; and he had plenty to say about how one should live one’s life. The central tenet of the Pyrrhonian road to happiness is the concept of ataraxia (which can be loosely translated as apathy or tranquility). Once the sage realises the fallibility of the human quest for knowledge, he will understand that no claim can be judged as true or false, good or evil – there is only opinion, custom, convention and etc. Following that, the absurdity of these customs and opinions will become clear.

For example, when one decides to go north instead of south one is making a preference. Action is the result of preference, and preference the result of believing one thing to be superior to another. Pyrrho encourages the sage to suppress the belief that going north is better than going south, because the preference (and following that the reasons the preference is based on) to go north is based on the illusion that going north is better than going south. Once one comes to understand the absurdity of preference, one will make no preference at all and reach a state of ataraxia. Pyrrho argues that in order to be happy one should go neither north nor south, but rather abstain from the choice.

Pyrrho says that unhappiness is caused by not obtaining the objects of ones desires. The good sage, who is free from desire in his state of ataraxia, will be free from unhappiness as he is free from his struggles and toils which are based on the deluded belief that one thing is better than another.

The dogmatists apparently created false spin regarding Pyrrho, such as he would require his friends company at all times to make sure he did not fall down a precipice or step in front of a carriage. However, whether these stories are true or false, their plausibility betrays the extreme nature of Pyrrho’s skeptical philosophy.


6 responses to this post.

  1. […] Pyrrho, Epicurus claimed the ultimate goal in life was to reach a state of ataraxia. For Pyrrho, […]


  2. […] Empiricus (a Pyrrhonist) writes: When they propose to establish the universal from the particulars by means of induction, […]


  3. […] are set forth for him by his essence. In this way, Aquinas stands in stark contract to the skeptic Pyrrho. Aquinas then concludes that the final cause of the intellect and reason itself is the pursuit of […]


  4. […] interest in Aristotle and Plato. The ancient texts of the Stoics, Neoplatonists, Epicureans and the Skeptics were all plumbed deeply for any long-lost wisdom they may contain. In this way, the tradition of […]


  5. […] found a use for skepticism in his method, he is not an extreme skeptic such as the likes of Pyrrho. According to Descartes, ideas such as 3 + 3 = 6 or triangles have three sides are knowable. In […]


  6. […] no scientific theory can be proved true, it can only be falsified. In this way it is like ancient Pyrrhonism, where the thought that one way is better than another lays in the deluded belief that one could […]


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