On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Pyrrho

Pyrrho is often remembered as the founder of the “skeptics.” He was a painter from Elis before studying under the “naked sages” of India as well as the Persian Magi. Diogenes Laertius says of Pyrrho: “…he seems to have adopted a profoundly noble philosophy, having introduced the notion of inability to attain conviction and that of suspension of judgment” (Book IX.61). He spent long periods of time alone in isolation and some of his paintings were still hanging at the gymnasium of Elis during Diogenes’s day.

Diogenes suggests Pyrrho lived a life consistent with his doctrine (a criteria which he seems to praise with regard to the genre of biography). He distrusted the evidence of his senses and he exercised considerable forethought in his daily life. He was a skilled dialectician and was honored in his home city with a priesthood -he was also exempt from taxation as a philosopher. He lived to about age ninety.

Pyrrho was the first among the Skeptics. Per Diogenes: “The Skeptics, then, devoted themselves to overturning all the dogmas of the schools, while they themselves affirmed nothing dogmatically” (Book IX.74). Their popular phrase was “We Determine Nothing.” Diogenes spends considerable effort discoursing on the succeeding Skeptics and their ten “modes.” He concludes the chapter by noting differing perspectives on the Skeptics: some say impassivity was the goal, while others say gentleness was their goal.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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