Sextus Empiricus

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Sextus Empiricus
Bornc. 160 CE
Diedc. 210 (aged 4950) CE
possibly in Alexandria or Rome
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Pyrrhonism, Empiric school

Sextus Empiricus (Greek : Σέξτος Ἐμπειρικός; c. 160 – c. 210 CE, dates uncertain), was a physician and philosopher, who likely lived in Alexandria, Rome, or Athens. His philosophical work is the most complete surviving account of ancient Greek and Roman Pyrrhonism.

Greek language language spoken in Greece, Cyprus and Southern Albania

Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning more than 3000 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.

Physician professional who practices medicine

A physician, medical practitioner, medical doctor, or simply doctor is a professional who practises medicine, which is concerned with promoting, maintaining, or restoring health through the study, diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of disease, injury, and other physical and mental impairments. Physicians may focus their practice on certain disease categories, types of patients and methods of treatment—known as specialities—or they may assume responsibility for the provision of continuing and comprehensive medical care to individuals, families, and communities—known as general practice. Medical practice properly requires both a detailed knowledge of the academic disciplines underlying diseases and their treatment—the science of medicine—and also a decent competence in its applied practice—the art or craft of medicine.

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy, which involves rational inquiry into areas that are outside either theology or science. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.


In his medical work, as reflected by his name, tradition maintains that he belonged to the empiric school in which Pyrrhonism was popular. However, at least twice in his writings, Sextus seems to place himself closer to the methodic school. He may have been the same person as Sextus of Chaeronea.

The Empiric school of medicine was an ancient school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. They were so called from the word empeiria because they professed to derive their knowledge from experiences only, and in doing so set themselves in opposition to the Dogmatic school. Serapion of Alexandria, and Philinus of Cos, are regarded as the founders of this school in the 3rd century BC. Other physicians who belonged to this sect were: Apollonius of Citium, Glaucias, Heraclides, Bacchius, Zeuxis, Menodotus, Theodas, Herodotus of Tarsus, Aeschrion, Sextus Empiricus, and Marcellus Empiricus. The sect survived a long time, as Marcellus lived in the 4th century. The doctrines of this school are described by Aulus Cornelius Celsus in the introduction to his De Medicina.

Pyrrhonism was a school of skepticism founded by Pyrrho in the fourth century BC. It is best known through the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus, writing in the late second century or early third century AD.

The Methodic school of medicine was an ancient school of medicine in ancient Greece and Rome. The Methodic school arose in reaction to both the Empiric school and the Dogmatic school. While the exact origins of the Methodic school are shrouded in some controversy, its doctrines are fairly well documented. Sextus Empiricus points to the school's common ground with Pyrrhonism, in that it “follow[s] the appearances and take[s] from these whatever seems expedient.”


Sextus Empiricus's three surviving works are the Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Πυῤῥώνειοι ὑποτυπώσεις, Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis, thus commonly abbreviated PH), and two distinct works preserved under the same title, Against the Mathematicians (Adversus Mathematicos), one of which is probably incomplete as there are references in the text to parts that are not in the surviving text.

The first six books of Against the Mathematicians (Πρὸς μαθηματικούς, Pros mathematikous) are commonly known as Against the Professors, and each book also has a traditional title: [2]

BookTraditional titleOriginal title
IAgainst the GrammariansΠρὸς γραμματικούς / Pros grammatikous
IIAgainst the RhetoriciansΠρὸς ῥητορικούς / Pros rhetorikous
IIIAgainst the GeometersΠρὸς γεωμετρικούς / Pros geometrikous
IVAgainst the ArithmeticiansΠρὸς ἀριθμητικούς / Pros arithmetikous
VAgainst the AstrologersΠρὸς ἀστρολόγους / Pros astrologous
VIAgainst the MusiciansΠρὸς μουσικούς / Pros mousikous

Against the Mathematicians I–VI is sometimes distinguished from Against the Mathematicians VII–XI by using an other title, Against the Dogmatists ( Πρὸς δογματικούς, Pros dogmatikous) and then the remaining books are numbered as I–II, III–IV, and V, despite the fact that it is also commonly inferred that the beginning of such a separate work is missing and it is not known how many books might have preceded the extant books. The supposed general title of this work is Skeptical Treatises' (Σκεπτικὰ Ὑπομνήματα /Skeptika Hypomnēmata). [3]

VII–VIIIAgainst the LogiciansΠρὸς λογικούς / Pros logikous
IX–XAgainst the PhysicistsΠρὸς φυσικούς / Pros Physikous
XIAgainst the EthicistsΠρὸς ἠθικούς / Pros Ethikous

Note that none of these titles except Against the Mathematicians and Outlines of Pyrrhonism, are found in the manuscripts.


Sextus Empiricus raised concerns which applied to all types of knowledge. He doubted the validity of induction [4] long before its best known critic David Hume, and raised the regress argument against all forms of reasoning:

The problem of induction is the philosophical question of whether inductive reasoning leads to knowledge understood in the classic philosophical sense, highlighting the apparent lack of justification for:

  1. Generalizing about the properties of a class of objects based on some number of observations of particular instances of that class or
  2. Presupposing that a sequence of events in the future will occur as it always has in the past. Hume called this the principle of uniformity of nature.
David Hume Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian

David Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, who is best known today for his highly influential system of philosophical empiricism, skepticism, and naturalism. Hume's empiricist approach to philosophy places him with John Locke, George Berkeley, Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes as a British Empiricist. Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic science of man that examined the psychological basis of human nature. Against philosophical rationalists, Hume held that passion rather than reason governs human behaviour. Hume argued against the existence of innate ideas, positing that all human knowledge is founded solely in experience.

The regress argument is a problem in epistemology and, in general, a problem in any situation where a statement has to be justified.

Those who claim for themselves to judge the truth are bound to possess a criterion of truth. This criterion, then, either is without a judge's approval or has been approved. But if it is without approval, whence comes it that it is truthworthy? For no matter of dispute is to be trusted without judging. And, if it has been approved, that which approves it, in turn, either has been approved or has not been approved, and so on ad infinitum . [5]

Ad infinitum is a Latin phrase meaning "to infinity" or "forevermore".

Because of these and other barriers to acquiring true beliefs, Sextus Empiricus advises [6] that we should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs; that is to say, we should neither affirm any belief as true nor deny any belief as false. This view is known as Pyrrhonian skepticism, as distinguished from Academic skepticism, as practiced by Carneades, which, according to Sextus, denies knowledge altogether. Sextus did not deny the possibility of knowledge. He criticizes the Academic skeptic's claim that nothing is knowable as being an affirmative belief. Instead, Sextus advocates simply giving up belief; in other words, suspending judgment about whether or not anything is knowable. [7] Only by suspending judgment can we attain a state of ataraxia (roughly, 'peace of mind'). Sextus did not think such a general suspension of judgment to be impractical, since we may live without any beliefs, acting by habit.

Sextus allowed that we might affirm claims about our experience (e.g., reports about our feelings or sensations). That is, for some claim X that I feel or perceive, it could be true to say "it seems to me now that X." However, he pointed out that this does not imply any objective knowledge of external reality. Though I might know that the honey I eat at a certain moment tastes sweet to me, this is merely a subjective judgment, and as such may not tell me anything true about the honey itself.

Interpretations of Sextus's philosophy along the above lines have been advocated by scholars such as Myles Burnyeat, [8] Jonathan Barnes, [9] and Benson Mates. [10]

Michael Frede, however, defends a different interpretation, [11] according to which Sextus does allow beliefs, so long as they are not derived by reason, philosophy or speculation; a skeptic may, for example, accept common opinions in the skeptic's society. The important difference between the skeptic and the dogmatist is that the skeptic does not hold his beliefs as a result of rigorous philosophical investigation. In Against the Ethicists, Sextus in fact directly says that "the Skeptic does not conduct his life according to philosophical theory (so far as regards this he is inactive), but as regards the non-philosophical regulation of life he is capable of desiring some things and avoiding others." (XI, 165). Thus, on this interpretation (and as per Sextus' own words), the skeptic may well entertain the belief that God does or does not exist or that virtue is good. But he will not believe that such claims are true on the basis of reasons since, as far as the skeptic is aware, no reason for assenting to such claims has yet been shown to be "any more" credible than the reasons for their denial. (XIX)

It must also be remembered that by "dogma" Sextus means "assent to something non-evident [ἄδηλος, adēlos]" (PH I, 16). And by "non-evident" he means things which lie beyond appearances (and thus beyond proof or disproof), such as the existence and/or nature of causality, time, motion, or even proof itself. Thus, the skeptic will, for example, believe the proposition that "Dion is in the room" if sense-data and ordinary reasoning led to the emergence of such a belief. On the other hand, if he were to "strongly" assert that Dion was "really" in the room, then he may be met with opposing arguments of equal psychological force against the self-same proposition and experience mental disquietude as a result. Thus, the Pyrrhonian does not assent to the proposition "Dion is in the room" in a dogmatic way as that would purport to describe a non-evident reality which lies beyond the "appearance" [φαινόμενον, phainomenon] of Dion being in the room. The Skeptic simply goes along with the appearance just as "a child is persuaded by...his teacher." (PH I, 229). It is for this reason then that Sextus says the Skeptic lives undogmatically in accordance with appearances and also according to a "fourfold regimine of life" which includes the guidance of nature, compulsion of pathe (feelings), laws and customs, and instruction in arts and crafts. The Skeptic follows this course of life while suspending judgment concerning the ultimate truth of the non-evident matters debated in philosophy and the sciences (PH I, 17). Thus, the Pyrrhonian Skeptic is one who believes possibly many things, but yet does not dogmatize about those beliefs since he finds no ultimate justification for them. Thus, the Pyrrhonian achieves ataraxia not by casting certain judgments about appearances but rather through his refined ability to "oppose appearances to judgments" such that he is "brought firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of 'unperturbedness' or 'quietude.'" (IV, 8)

Because of the high degree of similarity between the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus and those of the Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna [12] Thomas McEvilley suspects that Nagarjuna and Sextus Empiricus were referencing some of the same earlier Pyrrhonist texts in developing their works. [13]

The ten modes of Pyrrhonism

Pyrrhonism is more a mental attitude or therapy than a theory. It involves setting things in opposition and owing to the equipollence of the objects and reasons, one suspends judgement. "We oppose either appearances to appearances or objects of thought to objects of thought or alternando." [14] The ten modes induce suspension of judgement and in turn a state of mental suspense followed by ataraxia. If ever one is in a position in which they are unable to refute a theory, Pyrrhonists reply "Just as, before the birth of the founder of the School to which you belong, the theory it holds was not as yet apparent as a sound theory, although it was really in existence, so likewise it is possible that the opposite theory to that which you now propound is already really existent, though not yet apparent to us, so that we ought not as yet to yield assent to this theory which at the moment seems to be valid." [15] These ten modes or tropes were originally listed by Aenesidemus.

  1. "The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences in animals." [16]
  2. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among human beings. [17]
  3. The same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to the differences among the senses. [18]
  4. Owing to the "circumstances, conditions or dispositions," the same objects appear different. These are "states that are natural or unnatural, with waking or sleeping, with conditions due to age, motion or rest, hatred or love, emptiness or fullness, drunkenness or soberness, predispositions, confidence or fear, grief or joy." [19]
  5. "Based on positions, distances, and locations; for owing to each of these the same objects appear different." For example, "the same porch e when viewed from one of its corners appears curtailed, but viewed from the middle symmetrical on all sides; and the same ship seems at a distance to be small and stationary, but from close at hand large and in motion ; and the same tower from a distance appears round but from a near point quadrangular." [20]
  6. “We deduce that since no object strikes us entirely by itself, but along with something else, it may perhaps be possible to say what the mixture compounded out of the external object and the thing perceived with it is like, but we would not be able to say what the external object is like by itself." [21]
  7. "Based, as we said, on the quantity and constitution of the underlying objects, meaning generally by "constitution" the manner of composition." So, for example, goat horn appears black when intact and appears white when ground up. Snow appears white when frozen and translucent as a liquid. [22]
  8. "Since all things appear relative, we will suspend judgement about what things exist absolutely and really existent. [23] Do things which exist "differentially" as opposed to those things that have a distinct existence of their own, differ from relative things or not? If they do not differ, then they too are relative; but if they differ, then, since everything which differs is relative to something..., things which exist absolutely are relative." [24]
  9. "Based on constancy or rarity of occurrence." The sun is more amazing than a comet, but because we see and feel the warmth of the sun daily and the comet rarely, the latter commands our attention. [25]
  10. "There is a Tenth Mode, which is mainly concerned with Ethics, being based on rules of conduct, habits, laws, legendary beliefs, and dogmatic conceptions." [26]

Superordinate to these ten modes stand three other modes:

Superordinate to these three modes is the mode of relation. [27]


An influential Latin translation of Sextus's Outlines was published by Henricus Stephanus in Geneva in 1562, [28] and this was followed by a complete Latin Sextus with Gentian Hervet as translator in 1569. [29] Petrus and Jacobus Chouet published the Greek text for the first time in 1621. Stephanus did not publish it with his Latin translation either in 1562 or in 1569, nor was it published in the reprint of the latter in 1619.

Sextus's Outlines were widely read in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and had a profound effect on Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, among many others. Another source for the circulation of Sextus's ideas was Pierre Bayle's Dictionary. The legacy of Pyrrhonism is described in Richard Popkin's The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes and High Road to Pyrrhonism. The transmission of Sextus's manuscripts through antiquity and the Middle Ages is reconstructed by Luciano Floridi's Sextus Empiricus, The Recovery and Transmission of Pyrrhonism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Since the Renaissance French philosophy has been continuously influenced by Sextus: Montaigne in the 16th century, Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Pierre-Daniel Huet and François de La Mothe Le Vayer in the 17th century, many of the "Philosophes," and in recent times controversial figures such as Michel Onfray, in a direct line of filiation between Sextus' radical skepticism and secular or even radical atheism. [30]

Sextus is the earliest known source for the proverb "Slowly grinds the mill of the gods, but it grinds fine", alluded to in Longfellow's poem "Retribution". [31]

See also


  1. Berry, Jessica (2011). Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition. Oxford University Press. p. 230. ISBN   978-0-19-536842-0.
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Sextus Empiricus" . Retrieved 29 May 2015.
  3. Sara Ahbel-Rappe, Rachana Kamtekar (2009). A Companion to Socrates.
  4. Sextus Empiricus. Outlines of Pyrrhonism trans. R.G. Bury (Loeb edn) (London: W. Heinemann, 1933), p. 283.
  5. Sextus Empiricus. Against the Logicians trans. R.G. Bury (Loeb edn) (London: W. Heinemann, 1935) p. 179
  6. The extent to which a skeptic can hold beliefs as well as the kinds of beliefs a skeptic can have is a matter of scholarly dispute.
  7. See PH I.3, I.8, I.198; cf. J. Barnes, "Introduction", xix ff., in Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism. Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes (transl.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  8. Burnyeat, M., "Can The Sceptic Live His Scepticism" in Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede (ed.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (Hackett, 1997): 25–57. Cf. Burnyeat, M., "The Sceptic in His Place and Time", ibid., 92–126.
  9. Barnes, J., "The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist" in Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede (ed.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (Hackett, 1997): 58–91.
  10. Mates, B. The Skeptic Way (Oxford UP, 1996).
  11. Frede, M., "The Sceptic's Beliefs" in Myles Burnyeat and Michael Frede (ed.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy (Hackett, 1997): 1–24. Cf. Frede, M., "The Skeptic's Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge", ibid., 127–152.
  12. Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism 2008
  13. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought 2002 pp499-505
  14. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 23
  15. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Translated by R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 23
  16. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 27
  17. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 47
  18. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 55
  19. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p.61
  20. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p.69-71
  21. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p.73
  22. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p.77
  23. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 79
  24. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 81
  25. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 83
  26. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, p. 85
  27. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933, pp. 25–27
  28. Bican Şahin, [Toleration: The Liberal Virtue], Lexington Books, 2010, p. 18.
  29. Richard Popkin (editor), History of Western Philosophy (1998) p. 330.
  30. Recent Greek-French edition of Sextus's works by Pierre Pellegrin, with an upbeat commentary. Paris: Seuil-Points, 2002.
  31. D.L. Blank, trans., Sextus Empiricus: Against the Grammarians (Adversus Mathematicos I), p. 311, ISBN   0-19-824470-3

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Old complete translation in four volumes
New partial translations
French translations
Old edition

Selected bibliography

  • Annas, Julia and Barnes, Jonathan, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. ISBN   0-521-27644-6
  • Bailey, Alan, Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhonean scepticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN   0-19-823852-5
  • Bett, Richard, Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN   0-19-925661-6
  • Breker, Christian, Einführender Kommentar zu Sextus Empiricus' "Grundriss der pyrrhonischen Skepsis", Mainz, 2011: electr. publication, University of Mainz. available online (comment on Sextus Empiricus’ “Outlines of Pyrrhonism" in German language)
  • Brennan, Tad, Ethics and Epistemology in Sextus Empiricus, London: Garland, 1999. ISBN   0-8153-3659-4
  • Brochard, Victor, Les Sceptiques grecs (1887) reprint Paris: Librairie générale française, 2002.
  • Burnyeat, Myles and Frede, Michael The Original Sceptics: A Controversy, Hackett: Indianapolis, 1997. ISBN   0-87220-347-6
  • Floridi, Luciano, Sextus Empiricus: the Transmission and Recovery of Pyrrhonism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN   0-19-514671-9
  • Hankinson, R.J., The Sceptics, London: Routledge, 1998. ISBN   0-415-18446-0
  • Hookway, C., Scepticism, London: Routledge, 1992. ISBN   0-415-08764-3
  • Jourdain, Charles, Sextus Empiricus et la philosophie scholastique, Paris: Paul Dupont, 1858.
  • Janáček, Karel, Sexti Empirici indices, Firenze: Olschki, 2000.
  • Janáček, Karel, Studien zu Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes Laertius und zur pyrrhonischen Skepsis. Hrsg. v. Jan Janda / Filip Karfík (= Beiträge zur Altertumskunde; Bd. 249), Berlin: de Gruyter 2008.
  • Mates, Benson, The Skeptic Way: Sextus Empiricus's Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Pappenheim Eugen, Lebensverhältnisse des Sextus Empiricus, Berlin, Nauck, 1875.
  • Perin, Casey, The Demands of Reason: An Essay on Pyrrhonian Scepticism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Popkin, Richard, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN   0-19-510768-3
  • Vazquez, Daniel, Reason in Check: the Skepticism of Sextus Empiricus , Hermathena, 186, 2009, pp. 43–57.