Socrates vs. Sextus Empiricus

Perhaps no other philosopher throughout history has been as influential as Plato. His works were collections of dialogues between his dear and equally popular friend, Socrates. While Plato and Socrates are likely to be the most widely known thinkers in ancient Greek philosophy, there were additional formidable intellectuals in this age, including Sextus Empiricus. Although both thinkers were passionate in their pursuits of wisdom, their worldviews were vastly different. However, this should not intimidate us from an attempt to find harmony between the two schools of thought. This attempt will be made by first using the interactions of Socrates with his fellow Greeks in Plato’s writings “Euthypro” and “Republic”. It will then be juxtaposed with the one true surviving work of Sextus Empiricus, “The Outlines of Pyrrhonism”. These works will be described, cited and further compared. Finally, an opinion will be given as to which attitude is the most fruitful outlook towards reality and why.

Euthypro is filled with the effective, yet simple, question and answer method of inquiry by Socrates, now aptly coined “The Socratic Method”. The writing is named after a young man who is charging his father with the murder of one of their servants. Euthypro’s moral judgment and civil action against his father is a great taboo in ancient Greek culture. Nevertheless, Euthypro is intent on proving his rightness in the matter and even believes that it is a religious decree of divine command. The aim of Socrates in the dialogue is to find clarification from Euthypro with a clear and modest set of questions: What is piety and is it pious because it is loved by the gods or is it loved by the gods because it is pious? Euthypro says that piousness is to prosecute the wrongdoer and cites the story of Zeus bounding up his own father for an injustice done among his siblings. Further exercising his method, Socrates questioned if Euthypro had actually solved their dilemma. He also recalled Greek theology and evidenced that what is loved by some gods is actually hated by other gods. Euthypro struggles throughout the narrative to find consistency with his own statements and his definition of piety. Socrates ends his exchange with Euthypro by asking, “When you say this (what is dear to the gods is piousness), will you be surprised if your arguments seem to move about instead of staying put? . . . Or do you not realize that our argument has moved around and come again to the same place?”[1] Socrates is skeptical of a claim as large as Euthypro’s and demonstrates that Euthypro’s own dogmatic belief is self-defeating and also begs the question. Although hilarious in his rich sarcasm, Socrates was still open to an answer that could be considered a truth, but his challenge was not met.

In Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates is forced before a court to defend himself against the slander of a man named Meletus. His accuser says that Socrates is an evildoer and spends his time corrupting the youth with his philosophy. Unlike many of Plato’s other works, “Republic” finds Socrates in a rigorous yet inspiring tirade against the pedantic ideals of Athens. He accuses its rulers of being too consumed with wealth and trade, but not allowing substantive inquiry in regards to the welfare of the souls of their citizens. In one of his strongest statements before the court, he says, “And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what he does not know. It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men. . . . I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad.”[2] This passage reveals that much of the wisdom of Socrates began with his knowledge that he did not know all things. Unlike Euthypro or Meletus, Socrates did not allow his zeal for a matter to be seen as equal with his wisdom in it. This skepticism of his own epistemology is crucial for understanding the truths Socrates learned about reality but also an imperative for drawing parallels among his opposing contemporaries and their theories of reality.

Sextus Empirus was the chief proponent of Skeptic philosophy. As I have already shown, Socrates demonstrated that Euthypro could not live according to his own dogma. Skeptics could have agreed with Socrates, but not for the same reasons. Skeptics would have told Euthypro that many of his dogmatic beliefs were unwarranted and that he should suspend judgment on matters concerning objective realities. Skeptics sought the ability to suspend judgment as a medicine against the plague of stress and doubt. This suspension of judgment would grant Euthypro mental tranquility instead of making him hostage to his own emotions. This willingness to suspend judgment, especially in dialogue, was important to Socrates as well because he learned that in order to know more, you must admit you know less and question unexamined doctrines. Skeptics would also contend that Euthypro’s truth claims were not to be considered statements of fact but rather beliefs that merely “appeared to be true” to him. Sextus Emiricus clarifies, “Now what we call an ‘ability’ not in any peculiar sense of the word, but simply it denotes a ‘being able’. ‘Appearances’ we take as meaning the objects of sense-perception; hence, we set over and against them the object of thought… We say that the skeptic does dogmatize. But in saying this we do not understand the word ‘dogma’ as some do, in the more general sense of ‘approval of a thing’”.[3] In other words, the Skeptic feels that meaning within the human experience is subjective to the person who is having the experience. An orange might taste like an orange to one, mainly in its tangy flavor, or “appearance”, but that does not ascribe a certain property to the actual object of an orange. What life seems to be like from anyone’s perspective is not necessarily a truth about reality, but instead a useful description about one’s own cognitive process. It is important to note that dogmatism, as understood by the Skeptic, is confirmation of “non-evident” things. In essence, it is the ability to take a position regarding how one sees the world while at the same time refraining from a knowledge claim about things outside oneself.

A great deal of the wisdom of Socrates came from a suspension of judgment regarding norms that appeared to be true in Greek culture. Therefore, like a Skeptic, he spoke with an open doubt towards his contemporaries; however, he differed from Sextus Empiricus in that he believed that appearances can point to collective actualities independent of personal experience.

Although I could agree with the Pyrrhonists’ suspension of judgment as an operative ethic toward life, I feel that the view of Socrates is the most plausible attitude toward the world. I say this because the Pyrrhonists’ view, while robust in its epistemological forte, is lacking metaphysical latitude. I see conflict between internal appearances, their relationships to the external and other minds as objects of one’s own sense-perception. Unless you accept Solipsism (which Empiricus does not overtly affirm), it is true that other minds exist that are having their own experience, yet it would also be true that these minds exist outside of another mind’s appearance. It would be an objective truth that we are all just having our own subjective experiences, but that seemingly would be dogma. Furthermore, the claim that suspending judgment as a correct approach to reality is ultimately a claim about external reality itself and seems to be self-referentially false. Like Socrates, I agree that we must be wary of our own knowledge in order to become wise. In that sense, we should all be very skeptical of our own dogmas. That said, Empiricus, whether intentionally or unintentionally, deconstructed too many properly basic beliefs. In the grand house of philosophy, Socrates made himself at home while the Pyrrhonists simply peeked in the windows, if they would even concede that the house existed. At least, that is how its appears to me.

[1] Plato. “Euthypro.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 26. Print.

[2] Plato. “Apology.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 33. Print.


[3] Empiricus, Sextus. “Outlines of Pyrrhonism.” Classics of Western Philosophy, 8th Edition. Ed. Steven M Cahn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012. Pg. 356. Print.


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