Was Pyrrho a Buddhist? Bett on Pyrrho

Richard Bett, in his book, Pyrrho His Antecedents and His Legacy (2000, Oxford University Press) has outlined the philosophical thread of ancient Greek scepticism from Pyrrho of Elis through Anesidemus to Sextus Empiricus. As the title indicates, Bett addresses the question of influences upon and influences of Pyrrho’s sceptical attitude. Since Pyrrho left no written testament, a considerable portion of the task at hand involves establishing exactly in what Pyrrho’s philosophy consisted. The book has four chapters treating: 1) Pyrrho’s philosophy, 2) Pyrrho’s life, 3) Pyrrho’s antecedents, and 4) Pyrrho’s influence upon later scepticism.

The first chapter is devoted to an analysis of a single paragraph from Aristocles, a Peripatetic whose work Peri Philosophia exists only as fragments, as quoted by an opponent, anti-pagan Eusebius, the fourth century bishop of Caesarea. We have a colorful chapter about Pyrrho in Diogenes Laertius’ (DL) Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (translated in the Loeb Library series of bi-lingual texts by R. D. Hicks and first published by Harvard University Press in 1925.)

Bett discounts Diogenes’ views as to the core of Pyrrho’s philosophy, seeing in Diogenes a blurring of the philosophy of early and late Pyrrhonism. The single paragraph of Aristocles in Eusebius is the statement upon which Bett relies in determining the substance of Pyrrho’s views. And this one paragraph is not a record of Pyrrho’s own words, but the representation (by an opponent of scepticism) of the words of Timon, referred to by both Aristocles and Diogenes as a pupil of Pyrrho.

Bett maintains that Pyrrho held the metaphysical position that reality is indeterminate, in contrast to an epistemological scepticism that doubts only our ability to know with certainty its nature. He insists that this indeterminacy thesis is distinct from the view of later sceptics, who instead held to the position of suspension of judgment on any metaphysical subject.

In the third chapter Bett addresses the subject of the forerunners of Pyrrho. On this subject, Diogenes is quite clear. He says of Pyrrho that “he was first a painter; then he studied under Stilpo’s son Bryson: thus Alexander in his Successions of Philosophers. Afterwards he joined Anaxarchus, whom he accompanied on his travels everywhere so that he even forgathered with the Indian Gymnosophists and with the Magi. This led him to adopt a most noble philosophy, to quote Ascanius of Abdera, taking the form of agnosticism and suspension of judgment.” (DL, IX, Chapter 11, 61)

Bett addresses this theory directly and comes down squarely against it. Specifically, he argues against a connection between the quadrilemma of Pyrrho in the Aristocles passage and those of Siddattha Gotama, also known as the Buddha, which are strikingly close in structure. Bett argues this case for three reasons: 1) Gotama denied assent to four specific metaphysical topics, not “each single thing” as in the Aristocles passage, 2) Bett says that, unlike Pyrrho, Gotama’s rejection of these questions “opens up a path to enlightenment and Nirvana, which is to occur at an altogether different level,” and 3) Pyrrho could not have found translators who could conveyed these subtle philosophical concepts. Although Bett’s book is well researched and well written, this reviewer finds none of these reasons convincing.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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