Sunday, August 4, 2019

I suspend judgment........................

      Like the others, Skepticism amounted to a form of therapy.  This, at least, was true of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, the type originated by the Greek philosopher Pyrrho, who died about 275 BC, and later developed more rigorously by Sextus Empiricus in the second century AD. ("Dogmatic" or "Academic" Skepticism, the other kind, was less far-reaching.)   Some idea of the bizarre effect Pyrrhonism had on people is apparent from the story of how Henri Estienne, Montaigne's near-contemporary and first French translator of Sextus Empiricus, reacted to his encounter with  Sextus's Hypotyposes.  Working in his library one day, but feeling too ill and tired to do his usual work, he found a copy while browsing through an old box of manuscripts.  As soon as he started reading, he found himself laughing so heartily that his weariness left him and his intellectual energy returned.  Another scholar of the period, Gentian Hervet, had a similar experience.  He too came across Sextus by chance in his employer's library, and felt that a world of lightness and pleasure had opened up before him.  The work did not so much instruct or convince its readers as give them the giggles.
     A modern reader perusing the Hypotyposes might wonder what was so funny.  It does contain some sprightly examples, as philosophy books often do, but it does not seem wildly comic.  It is not obvious why it cured both Estienne and Hervet of their ennui—or why it had such an impact on Montaigne, who would find it the perfect antidote to Raymond Sebond and his solemn, inflated ideas of human importance.
     The key to the trick is the revelation that nothing in life need be taken seriously.  Pyrrhonism does not even take itself seriously.  Ordinary dogmatic Skepticism asserts the impossibility of knowledge;  it is summed up in Socrates's remark:  "All I know is that I know nothing."  Pyrrhonian Skepticism starts from this point, but then adds, in effect, "and I'm not even sure about that."  Having stated its one philosophical principle, it turns in a circle and gobbles itself up, leaving only a puff of absurdity.
      Pyrrhonians accordingly deal with all the problems life can throw at them by means of a single word which acts as a shorthand for this maneuver:  in Greek, epekho.  It means "I suspend judgment."  Or, in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, je souliens:  "I hold back."  This phrase conquers all enemies;  it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes.

-Sarah Bakewell,  How To Live - 0r - A Life of Montaigne:  In One Questions And Twenty Attempts At An Answer

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