The Pyrrhonians see clearly that part of our misery in this life is due to our inability to attain certain knowledge. Wanting certainty, but unable to secure it, we are thrown back upon conflicting beliefs that inflame passions. The heat of the passions seems to vary inversely with the rational unprovability of the beliefs that stoke them. The Pyrrhonians try to find happiness in the midst of this misery. We are to suspend judgment (belief) and thereby attain peace of mind. Theirs is not a theoretical but a therapeutic conception of philosophy. The Skeptic therapy diagnoses our illness as belief and prescribes the purgation of belief as the cure. Martha C. Nussbaum (The Therapy of Desire, Princeton UP, 1994, 284-285) puts it well:
In short, says the Skeptic, Epicurus is correct that the central human disease is a disease of belief. But he is wrong to feel that the solution lies in doing away with some beliefs and clinging all the more firmly to others. The disease is not one of false belief; belief itself is the illness -- belief as a commitment, a source of concern, care, and vulnerability.
. . . Greek Skepticism, attaching itself to the medical analogy, commends this diagnosis and proposes a radical cure: the purgation of all cognitive commitment, all belief, from human life.The Skeptic, "being a lover of his fellow human beings, wishes to heal by argument, insofar as he can, the conceit and the rashness of dogmatic people" (PH 3.280).
We note the radicality of both the diagnosis and the cure. Since belief as such makes us ill, the cure must lie in the purgation of all beliefs including, I assume, any beliefs instrumental in effecting the cure. Just as a good laxative flushes itself out along with everything else, doxastic purgation supposedly relieves us of all doxastic impactation, including the beliefs underpinning the therapeutic procedures. You might say that the aperient effect of epoche is to restore us to mundane regularity.
I reject the Skeptic Way, its destination, and its 'laxatives.' I agree that we are ill, all of us, and that that part of our misery in this life is due to our inability to attain what we desire and feel is our birthright, namely, certain knowledge, in particular, certain knowledge of ultimates. But I reject both the diagnosis and the cure. The problem is not belief as such, and the solution is not purgation of belief.
Pyrrhonism is rife with problems. Here is one about the value of ataraxia. It is a value, but how high a value?
The Passivity of Ataraxia
The notion that ataraxia (mental tranquillity, peace of soul, freedom from disturbance) is either essential to happiness or the whole of happiness is a paltry and passive conception of happiness. The peace of the Pyrrhonian is not the "peace that surpasses all understanding" (Phillipians 4:7), but a peace predicated upon not understanding -- and not caring any more about understanding. Could that be a peace worth wanting?
The Skeptic who, true to his name, begins with inquiry abandons inquiry when he finds that nothing can be known with certainty. But rather than have recourse to uncertain belief, the Skeptic concludes that the problem is belief itself. Rather than go forward on uncertain beliefs, he essays to go forward belieflessly. Inquiry, he maintains, issues in the psychological state of aporia (being at a loss) when it is seen that competing beliefs cancel each other out. The resulting evidential equipoise issues in epoche (withdrawal of assent) and then supposedly in ataraxia.
Now mental tranquillity is a high value, and no one who takes philosophy seriously can not want to possess more of it. But the Skeptic's brand of tranquillity cannot be the highest value, and perhaps not much of a value at all. The happy life cannot be anything so passive as the life of ataraxia. We need a more virile conception of happiness, and we find it in Aristotle. For the Stagirite, happiness (eudaimonia) is an activity (ergon) of the soul (psyche) in accordance with virtue (arete) over an entire life. (Cf. Nicomachean Ethics.) His is an active conception of the good life even though the highest virtues are the intellectual and contemplative virtues. The highest life is the bios theoretikos, the vita contemplativa. Though contemplative, it necessarily involves the activity of inquiry into the truth, an activity that skepticism, whether Pyrrhonian or Academic, denigrates.
The Porcinity of Ataraxia
Disillusioned with the search for truth, our Skeptic advocates re-entry into the everyday. Unfortunately, there is something not only passive, but also porcine about the Skeptic's resting in ataraxia. Nussbaum again:
Animal examples play an important part in Skepticism, illustrating the natural creature's freedom from disturbance,and the ease with which this is attained if we only can, in Pyrrho's words, "altogether divest ourselves of the human being" (DL 9.66). The instinctive behavior of a pig, calmly removing its hunger during a storm that fills humans with anxiety, exemplifies for the Skeptic the natural orientation we all have to free ourselves from immediate pain. It also shows that this is easily done, if we divest ourselves of the beliefs and commitments that generate other complex pains and anxieties. Pointing to that pig, Pyrrho said "that the wise man should live in just such and undisturbed condition" (DL 9.66).
How is that for a porcine view of the summum bonum? I am put in mind of this well-known passage from John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, Chapter II:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they know only their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
Is the Skeptic Committed to Ataraxia's being a Value?
The Skeptic aspires to live belieflessly, adoxastos. He aims to live beyond all commitments, or at least beyond all commitments that transcend present impressions. (It is a nice question, one best left for later, whether our Skeptic can, consistently with his entire approach, cop to a commitment to something as Chisholmianly noncommital as his here and now being-appeared-to-sweetly when, for example, he eats honey. Does he not here and and now accept, affirm, believe that he is being-appeared-to-sweetly when he consumes honey? Sticking to impressions, he does not accept, affirm, believe that the honey IS sweet, but 'surely' he must accept, affirm, believe that he IS (in reality) presently being appeared-to-sweetly. No?)
Setting aside for now our parenthetical worry, what about the commitment to the pursuit of ataraxia? He who treads the Skeptic Path is committed to the value of ataraxia, and this value-commitment obviously transcends his present impressions. It is the organizing principle behind his therapeutic procedures and his entire way of life. It is what his quasi-medicinal treatments are for. Ataraxia is the goal, the 'final cause' of the therapy. So here we have yet another doxastic-axiological commitment that is part and parcel of the Skeptic Way. We see once a again that a life without commitment is impossible.
Nussbaum considers how a Skeptic might respond:
I think he would now answer that yes, after all, an orientation to ataraxia is very fundamental in his procedures. But the orientation to ataraxia is not a belief, or a value-commitment. It has the status of a natural inclination. Naturally, without belief or teaching, we move to free ourselves from burdens and disturbances. Ataraxia does not need to become a dogmatic commitment, because it is already a natural animal impulse . . . Just as the dog moves to take a thorn out of its paw, so we naturally move to get rid of our pains and impediments: not intensely or with any committed attachment but because that's just the way we go. (305)
This quotation is right before the pig passage quoted above. Nussbaum does not endorse the response she puts in the mouth of the Skeptic, and she very skillfully presents the difficulty. The Skeptic, whether he aims to be consistent or not, must adopt a Skeptical attitude toward ataraxia "if he is to avoid disturbance and attain ataraxia." (Nussbaum, 301) He cannot be committed to ataraxia or any of the procedures that supposedly lead to it without running the risk of disturbance.
I would add that our Skeptic cannot even be committed to the possibility of ataraxia. The pursuit of ataraxia enjoins a suspension of judgment as to its possibility or impossibility. For any claim that humans are capable of ataraxia is a claim that goes beyond the impressions of the present moment, a claim that can give rise to dispute and disturbance. But it is even worse that this. It occurs to me that our Skeptic cannot even grant that he or anyone has ever experienced ataraxia in the past since this claim too would go beyond the impressions of the present moment.
Suppose you went to this doctor for treatment. You ask him how successful his procedures are. "How many, doc, have experienced relief after a course of your purgatives and aperients?" The good doctor will not commit himself. He has no 'track record' he will stand by. No point, then, is asking about the prognosis.
How then can the Skeptic save himself from incoherence? It seems he must reduce the human being to an animal that simply follows its natural instincts and inclinations. Divesting himself of his humanity, he must sink to the level of the animal as Pyrrho recommends. Indeed, he must stop acting and merely respond to stimuli. Human action has beliefs as inputs, and human action is for reasons. But all of this is out if we are to avoid all doxastic and axiological commitments.
We now clearly see that the Skeptic Way is a dead end. We want the human good, happiness. But we are given a load of rhetoric that implies that there is no specifically human good and that we must regress to the level of animals.
But even this recommendation bristles with paradox. For it too is a commitment to a course of action that transcends the moment when action is impossible for a critter that merely responds instinctually to environmental stimuli.
To Emil Cioran I would say: safety is overrated.