How to keep an open mind with Sextus Empiricus

by Massimo Pigliucci

What do you know? Not much, and you?

That was the tagline of a Public Radio International comedy quiz show that ran for three decades hosted by Michael Feldman (and which is now a podcast, of course). But it could just as well describe the skeptical philosophy known as Pyrrhonism.

Named after Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BCE), Pyrrhonism was the original western version of Skepticism. Unfortunately for us, Pyrrho apparently never wrote anything. His student, Timon of Phlius, did, but most of his works are now lost. As a result, one of our major sources on the whole philosophy is Sextus Empiricus (late second and early third century), the author of the famous Outlines of Pyrrhonism, which has been translated into modern language by Richard Bett for Princeton University Press’ ongoing Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series.

The essence of Pyrrhonism is that our unhappiness is rooted in the fact that we are too attached to all sorts of opinions we have no business being attached to, because they are about “non-evident” matters, i.e., broadly and imprecisely speaking, matters that are not obvious to the senses (like: it’s day now!) or to basic reasoning (like: 2+2=4). One example might be any broad statement about what does or does not make people happy. (Did you catch the irony?) … (continue at Substack)

What criterion for knowledge?

by Massimo Pigliucci

There is a problem in epistemology—the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge—that has been raised more than two millennia ago and just doesn’t seem to go away. Here is how the problem, in a nutshell, is rendered by Andrew Cling in his contribution to the edited collection Skepticism—From Antiquity to Present: To know a proposition, we must first know a criterion of truth. To know a criterion of truth, we must first know a proposition. Therefore we cannot know any proposition or any criterion of truth.

To put it differently, the so-called problem of the criterion comes about because (i) whatever answer we give to the question “what do we know about X?” presupposes an answer to the underlying question “how do we know about X?” But (ii) we cannot answer the second question without answering the first one. Which means we can’t really answer either. Ergo, (iii) we don’t know crap, unless we are willing to (iv) engage in circular reasoning in which a proposition is justified by a second proposition, which is then justified by a third one, and so on, until we encounter a proposition that can only be justified by a previous one; or (v) we are okay with an infinite series of justifications, in which the first proposition is justified by a second one, which is justified by a third one, and so on and so forth, forever. … (continue at Substack)

The philosophy of football

by Massimo Pigliucci

The football (i.e., soccer, for Americans) World Cup is in full swing. Setting aside the more than justified controversies about FIFA, the organizing body, and Qatar, the hosting country, I’ve had some time to reflect on the game itself from a bit of a detached perspective. After all, Italy didn’t make it to the tournament this year, so I’ll have to wait until the 2026 edition in North America (a joint US-Mexico-Canada effort) to see the Azzurri in action again. Fate permitting.

I’d like to analyze the idea of football—seen from the point of view of a player—in Stoic terms, because I think football embodies many of the lessons of Stoicism itself. Which is a bit ironic, given that the ancient Stoics taught us not to give a damn about games, and especially not to care about which team may or may not win. Epictetus admonishes:

“When the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk.” (Encheiridion, 33.3) … (continue at Substack)

How to be free, Epictetus style

by Massimo Pigliucci

Epictetus was a late first century and early second century slave-turned-teacher and Stoic philosopher. He literally changed my life. His Discourses were the first book from original sources that I read after discovering Stoicism as a practical philosophy, and it struck me like a ton of bricks. But in a good way. I immediately responded to Epictetus’s sense of humor, which often borders on sarcasm. I appreciated his no-nonsense talk to his students, the fact that he doesn’t pull punches, that he calls it as he sees it. But most importantly the fact that his philosophy is arguably the most useful form of Stoicism, which in turn is the most useful of ancient philosophies.

(I wrote three books on Stoicism based on Epictetus: How to Be a StoicA Handbook for New Stoics, and A Field Guide to a Happy Life.)

What better way, then, to begin this occasional series of commentaries based on the excellent “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” books put out by Princeton University Press, than with Anthony Long’s translation of Epictetus’s Encheiridion, retitled “How to Be Free.” Long is arguably the foremost scholar on Epictetus, and his introduction to the famous manual for a good life (as well as to a few selected excerpts from the Discourses) is well worth the price of admission. … (continue at Substack)

Profiles in Skepticism: the Cyrenaics

by Massimo Pigliucci

The Cyrenaics were the original hedonists, far more so than their more successful later competitors, the Epicureans. Their creed was that pleasure is the only true good, and by pleasure they meant physical and immediate. No delayed gratification for them, and no fancy intellectual stuff either. The Cyrenaics were the true sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll practitioners of the ancient world!

Yet Richard Bett, in his chapter in the collection Skepticism: From Antiquity to Present, considers the possibility that the Cyreanics were also skeptic, at least when it came to their epistemology, their theory of knowledge.

Sextus Empiricus, the major exponent of the Pyrrhonist school (well, other than Pyrrhus himself!) disagreed. He pointed out, to begin with, that the goal of a Cyrenaic life was pleasure, while the goal of a Skeptic life is ataraxia, freedom from worry. But that, frankly, is neither here nor there. Ataraxia is no more inherently a skeptical goal than virtue or pleasure. Just consider that the Cicero, a prominent member of the other school of Greco-Roman skepticism, the Academics, thought that the goal of is to live virtuously, similar to what the Stoics also maintained. … (continue at Substack)

Philosophy as a Way of Life—IV—Only the present is our happiness

by Massimo Pigliucci

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote a letter to his long-time correspondent, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, to lament our inability to live in the present moment, to grasp its essential healthiness. The Greco-Romans, says Goethe, understood that the present is pregnant with meaning, and to them it was sufficient in itself. By contrast, Goethe continues, for us moderns the ideal is the future, while we consider the present to be banal.

“Then the spirit looks neither ahead nor behind. Only the present is our happiness.” (Second Faust)

Pierre Hadot—in his Philosophy as a Way of Life—reminds us of Goethe’s analysis, adding that the ancients articulated the concept of kairos, the favorable or decisive instant. To be able to grasp the kairos is the key to our accomplishments. For instance, a good general strikes when the kairos is right; a good artist fixes in marble or on canvas the best kairos of whatever scene she is working on; and so forth.

But Hadot also warns against idealizing the Greco-Romas, thinking that they somehow managed to live a life of bliss and lack of stress. On the contrary, they were just as burdened by the past and preoccupied for the future as we are. And that’s exactly what prompted the evolution of life philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism. In fact. to “convert” to a philosophical way of life means, to a great extent, to develop a renewed appreciation for the healthiness of the moment as a way to achieve serenity. … (continue at Substack)

Reflecting on Ken Frazier, skeptic

by Massimo Pigliucci

Ken Frazier has passed away a few days ago. His death affected me more than I would have anticipated. We were not close friends, largely because we have lived our lives thousands of kilometers apart and had only a few opportunities to spend time together at conferences. But I have known of Ken for most of my life, and met him personally the first time in 1999. It has been an occasional, but long relationship.

Ken was the longtime editor of Skeptical Inquirer, the premier magazine devoted to fighting pseudoscience and defending reason and science. Indeed, Ken has been the editor since the magazine changed its name from the rather unwieldy “Zetetic,” back in 1978. He has written essays in every issue for 35 years.

He has also published a number of books, most recently Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience. He won the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Pioneer Award for his “effective worldwide advancement of rational skepticism,” and was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science because of his “distinguished contributions to the public understanding of science through writing for and editing popular science magazines that emphasize science news and scientific reasoning and methods.”

But you can read about Ken’s accomplishments on his Wikipedia page. You can also check out his memorial page, with testimonies from many friends and colleagues. He was a steady light for the skeptical movement, as well as one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met, and will be sorely missed. … (continue at Substack, FREE)

Who’s afraid of skepticism?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here goes an old joke about skepticism. Two skeptics meet at a convention. One of them says, “Hi, I don’t believe we’ve met.” The other responds: “I don’t believe you don’t believe we met…”

Skeptics have that sort of reputation, or worse. A friend of mine, who has been working for many years on behalf of a group known as New York City Skeptics, tells me that he avoids using “the s-word” in public, because a typical reaction is something along the lines of “ah, those are the people that don’t believe in anything, right?”

In fact, skepticism comes from the Latin scepticus, which itself derives from the Greek skeptikos, meaning “inquiring, reflective.” To be a skeptic, then, means to reflect and inquire about things. A most commendable attitude, I should think!

And yet, it isn’t just the person in the street who is distrustful of skeptics. Many professional philosophers are too! Here is Kant venting his frustration about a particularly vexing (to him) example of skepticism:

“It … remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.” (Refutation of Idealism, in Critique of Pure Reason) … (continue at Substack)

Philosophy as a Way of Life—III—Socrates and the finest state of the human soul

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m going to bet that it is going to be hard to find anyone who has never heard of Socrates. Even in this world of social media and alternative realities the name of Socrates is essentially synonymous with philosophy. Which doesn’t mean one necessarily knows anything about the sage of Athens, or about philosophy. (Which is fair enough. I can name Taylor Swift, for instance, but not a single one of her songs…)

Pierre Hadot, in his influential Philosophy as a Way of Life is interested in Socrates, not necessarily the historical person,  about which it is hard to say much anyway, but the philosophical figure, which has become a symbol for philosophy itself.

He begins with his (alleged) physical appearance. Socrates was ugly, by universal agreement of all the available sources: Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes. As Nietzsche put it: “Everything in him is exaggerated, buffo, a caricature.” (Twilight of the Idols. The Problem of Socrates, 3-4) Hadot writes:

“Alcibiades, in his famous speech in praise of Socrates at the end of the Symposium, compares Socrates to the little statues of Sileni [a kind of ugly satyr] that could be found in sculptors’ shops, which concealed little figurines of the gods inside themselves. Similarly, Socrates’ exterior appearance—ugly, buffoon-like, impudent, almost mon­strous—was only a mask and a facade.” (p. 148)

And it wasn’t just his physical appearance. Socrates often behaved like a buffoon, pretending to be naive and not too bright. In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says: “He spends his whole life playing the part of a simpleton and a child.” (216e) … (continue at Substack)

Determinism, swerves, and the relationship between metaphysics and ethics

by Massimo Pigliucci

Last weekend I taught an intensive online seminar—eight hours total—on Socrates as seen by Xenophon. We read and discussed the Memorabilia, which presents a lively portrait of the sage from Athens, with Socrates freely giving advice to wannabe politicians as well as courtesans. It is also, incidentally, the book that inspired Zeno of Citium to get into philosophy, and therefore indirectly led to the founding of Stoicism.

At some point we got into a discussion on the relationship between metaphysics—how we think the world works—and ethics—how we think we should behave in the world. The Stoics argued that the two are tightly related: to live ethically means to live “in agreement with Nature,” and to do the latter we need to understand Nature. Turns out, though, that the Stoics were not the only ones to connect metaphysics and ethics. So did their arch-rivals, the Epicureans, though the latter posited a different metaphysics and arrived at a different ethics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the basic framework of the debate is still with us today. And so are the available options to resolve the debate, despite more than two thousand years of intervening philosophy and quite a few centuries of modern science. Here, then, is yet another chance to dive into Greco-Roman thought not just as a historical curiosity, but because it could change the way we look at the world and at our place in it.

Let us start by comparing and contrasting Stoic and Epicurean metaphysics, then we’ll examine a couple of major consequences the two views have for ethics. And finally I’ll make some comments about what this means for us denizens of the 21st century. … (continue at Substack, FREE)