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Sextus Empiricus and the Principles of Skepticism

The originating cause of Skepticism is, we say, the hope of attaining quietude. Men of talent, who were perturbed by the contradictions in things and in doubt as to which of the alternatives they ought to accept, were led on to inquire what is true in things and what false, hoping by the settlement of this question to attain quietude. The main basic principle of the Skeptic system is that of opposing to even proposition an equal proposition; for we believe that as a consequence of this we end by ceasing to dogmatize. . . .

That the senses differ from one another is obvious. Thus, to the eye paintings seem to have recesses and projections, but not so to the touch. Honey, too, seems to some pleasant to the tongue but unpleasant to the eves; so that it is impossible to say whether it is absolutely pleasant or unpleasant. The same is true of sweet oil, for it pleases the sense of smell but displeases the taste. . . . Rain water, too, is beneficial to the eyes but roughens the windpipe and lungs; as also does olive oil, though it mollifies the epidermis. The cramp fish, also, when applied to the extremities produces cramp, but it can be applied to the rest of the body without hurt. Consequently we are unable to say what is the real nature of each of these things, although it is possible to say what each thing at the moment appears to be. . . .

Seeing, then, that there is a controversy . . . regarding “the true,” since some assert that something true exists, others that nothing true exists, it is impossible to decide the controversy, because the man who says that something true exists will not be believed without proof, on account of the controversy; and if he wishes to offer proof, he will be disbelieved if he acknowledges that his proof is false, whereas if he declares that his proof is true he becomes involved in circular reasoning and will be required to show proof of the real truth of his proof, and another proof of that proof, and so on ad infinitum. But it is impossible to prove an infinite series; and so it is impossible also to get to know that something true exists. . . .

And since the criterion of truth has appeared to be unattainable, it is no longer possible to make positive assertions either about those things which . . . seem to be evident or about those which are non-evident . . . if we are forced to suspend judgment about the evident, how shall we dare to make pronouncements about the non-evident?

[Source: Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, trans. R. G. Bury, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933), pp. 9, 45, 205, 213.]

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