Ethics and Sextus Empiricus

Sextus Empiricus lived in the late second, early third centuries AD. He was a physician and a philosopher, and the last of the followers of Pyrrho of Elis (fourth/third century BC), an early Greek sceptic. One of Sextus’ works, Outlines of Pyrrhonism (or here) (Gr. Purroneioi Hupotuposeis), is most known for this formulation of the earlier sceptical arguments. Pyrrhonian sceptics do not deny knowledge altogether. Rather, they deny that there is any way we can know something to be true. That is to say, the problems are (as in the three most important of the Agrippan modes): a) infinite regress (i. e., that one’s belief is justified by something else, which itself needs justified by something else, and so on ad infinitum), or b) circular reasoning (i. e., that one’s belief is justified by something else, but that other thing receives its justification by the belief in question), or c) dogmatism (i. e., that one’s belief is justified by simple assertion of its truth, but this is no justification). Further, and this will have bearing on our ethical discussion in a moment, there is the problem of the criterion, that is to say, the problem of getting behind how a thing appears to us and to its essential reality. (Yes, folks, this was long before Kant said the same thing in the eighteenth century, some 1600 years later. This is why I study ancient philosophy: Ad fontes!)

In the Outlines, Sextus’ criticism of ethics comes in his account of the tenth of the ten modes (at Book I Chapter XIV/146-163) and in his examination of the good, the bad and the indifferent (at Book III Chapters XXI-XXIII/168-187). Sextus issues his criticisms on two fronts: on the strength of the conflict of different ethical accounts, and on the inability to actually define the essence of the good, bad or indifferent are and to determine whether things are good, bad, or indifferent by nature.

In the tenth mode, Sextus notes that ethics is based on rules of conduct (choice of a way of life or of a particular actions adopted by one person or many), habits (joint adoption of a certain kind of action by a number of men, the transgressor of which is not actually punished), laws (written contracts among members of a state, the transgressor of which is punished), legendary beliefs (acceptance of unhistorical and fictitious events, such as the legends about Cronos), and dogmatic conceptions (acceptance of a fact which seems to be established by analogy or some form of demonstration). He then proceeds to show the contradictory nature of these five things in themselves (e. g., by opposing habit to habit and law to law; so, some of the Ethiopians tattoo their children, but we do not; or, A Roman man who renounces his fatherís property doe not pay fatherís debt, but among the Rhodians he always pays them), as well as opposing each of these five things to one another (e. g., by, among other options, opposing habit to legendary belief, and rules of conduct to law; so, Cronos devoured his children, whereas we protect our children; and homicide is forbidden, but gladiators destroy one another). In other words, since there is no agreement among the things in themselves, or between them, making up ethics, then we must suspend judgment about ethical matters, for there is no way we can judge between them as to which is true or not.

In the last half of Book Three, he returns once again to ethics, this time examining it from the standpoint of our rational conceptions about the good, the bad and the indifferent, and on the nature of these things themselves. He looks the definitions of these three concepts in three ways: essentially, accidentally, and as productive of certain ends. The differences in the definitions of these terms shows our inability to get at the “real thing.” But if we define these concepts in terms of properties, we aren’t dealing with the essential thing itself, nor can we know if these adhere to an essence if we do not know what the essence is, and if other “essential things” have similar properties, then we are even further removed. And finally, if we cannot know the essence of the thing, then we cannot know if something is productive of ends related to that thing (e. g., happiness to the good). Since we cannot know what the good, the bad or the indifferent is, in itself, we must suspend judgment.

Furthermore, since there is substantive discrepancies among accounts of the good, and one cannot argue for one account or another lest he become a partisan for that account and lose objectivity, we must suspend judgment. But even if, for the sake of argument, we take up a particular claim about the good, to what does that good apply: the body, the soul, or both together? But if to the body, then that is irrational and we cannot know it. But if to the soul, then the soul and its parts are not able to be sensorily apprehended, and we cannot know it. And if not either, than not both together. In other words, good, bad and indifferent cannot be accounted for “by nature.” As Sextus puts it: “[I]t is impossible to explain how in a heap of atoms there can come about pleasure and assent or judgment that this object is choiceworthy and good, and that object to be avoided and evil” (III.XXIII/187).

The upshot of this, however, is not what one might first think. Pyrrhonian sceptics are not relativists. They do not think there is no truth, or that all “truths” are true. They are saying that we cannot know whether those things we think are true, are, in fact, true. On what the good is, we may certainly have an opinion, but it is just that, an opinion, which cannot be grounded in reason alone. But sceptics are not anarchists. As Sextus writes:

Adhering, then, to appearances we live in accordance with the normal rules of life, undogmatically, seeing that we cannot remain wholly inactive. And it would seem that this regulation of life is fourfold, and that one part of it lies in the guidance of Nature, another in the constraint of the passions, Another in the tradition of laws and customs, another in the instruction of the arts. Nature’s guidance is that by which we are naturally capable of sensation and thought; constraint of the passions is that whereby hunger drives us to food and thirst to drink; tradition of customs and laws, that whereby we regard piety in the conduct of life as good, but impiety as evil; instruction of the arts, that whereby we are not inactive in such arts as we adopt. But we make all these statements undogmatically. (Outlines, Book I Chapter XI/23-24)

The end of the Pyrrhonian sceptic is ataraxia, quietude of soul. One is not torn between judgments and impressions, but holds the opinions he holds undogmatically. In practice, in terms of ethics, the sceptic does not make ethical judgments but simply holds to appearances without conviction. That is to say, sceptics are utterly conventional in their morals, following the general dictates of society, though not dogmatically asserting that one must do so.

But here we are into the sceptical way of life, and this is beyond my point. What I can say is that Sextus shows very well the failure of the modernist paradigm: that reason can be the sole arbiter of ethical claims. But he also shows the failure of postmodern relativism (though I have not highlighted how this is the case in the summary above). That is to say, it is a non sequitor to move from “we cannot know the good” to “there is no good to know.”

No, contra postmodernism, we are reason-endowed creatures, and that reason is a powerful tool. But contra modernism, our reason is not the final arbiter of truth. We need something extra-rational to ground truth and our claims to knowledge and ethical certainty. Apart from such grounding, reason collapses in upon itself. But reason is, nonetheless, an inescapably powerful tool for knowledge, even if real and ultimate knowledge is, as Christianity asserts, Personal.

Thus ends the summary.

[Note: Additionally, one should consult Sextus’ Against the Ethicists (Gr. Pros Ethikous), which historically came to be grouped with some other works under the title Against the Mathematicians (Gr. Pros Mathematikous) as the eleventh and final book of that collection. Jonathon Barnes and Julia Annas, The Modes of Scepticism is also a must read.]