Monday, January 22, 2007

Pyrrhon of Elis

[posted by Callimachus]

"Four years before the birth of Alexandros of Makedonia, Pyrrhon the Skeptic Philosopher was born in Elis, a country town in the northwest of the Peloponnese known throughout the civilized world as the site of the Olympic Games. ....

"He rounded out his education by travelling with Anaxarkhos to India, where he studied with the naked sophists, and to Persia, where he learned from the Magi. He returned to Elis an agnostic who withheld his opinion of every matter. He denied that anything was good or bad, right or wrong. He doubted that anything exists, said that habits and custom dictate our actions, and would not allow that a thing is either more this than that on its own.

"He thus went out of his way for nothing, leaving all to chance, and was wholly incautious with encounters, whether with carts in the street, cliffs toward which he was walking, or dogs. He said he had no reason to believe that his solicitude for his welfare was wiser than the results of an accident. Antigonos of Karystos tells us that his friends followed him about to keep him from falling into rivers, wells, and ditches. He lived for ninety years.

"... He kept his composure at all times. If all of the audience drifted away while he was lecturing, he finished the lecture just as if there were people listening. He liked to fall into conversation with strangers and go with them wherever they were going. For days at a time, none of his pupils or friends knew where he was.

"... He often talked to himself. When questioned about this, he replied that he was teaching himself how to be good. He was a formidable debater, sharp at cross-examination and skilled in logic. The philosopher Epikouros, an admirer from a distance, was always curious to know the latest doings and sayings of Pyrrhon. As for the Eleans, they were so proud of Pyrrhon that they elected him arkhiereos for festivals and sacrifices, and remitted his, and all other philosophers’, taxes.

"He was made an honorary citizen of Athens. He lived with his sister, who was a midwife. He was not above taking produce to market, and could be seen at the stalls selling poultry, garlic, and honey. He was known to dust the house and sweep the floors for his sister, and was once seen washing the pig."

[From Guy Davenport, "Pyrrhon of Elis"]

As I get older, my view of life gets more Pyrrhonic. I mean in the big things. As a former meter reader who went door to door for Philadelphia Electric Company when I was 18 and 19, I have a bone-deep distrust of dogs, large and small. I treat them with pre-emptive defensiveness. But even Pyrrhon did not keep his legendary apathy when a dog gnawed on his shin.

That's a little thing. By a big thing I mean world affairs. Whether a nation acts out of pure selfishness, or benevolence, so many uncontrollable consequences pile up so quickly that the outcome rarely matches the intention. Unforeseen consequences, backfires, missteps, blowbacks, spinoffs overwhelm original intentions. This is as much true of a choice to do something as it is of a choice to do nothing. Refusal is activism.

But unlike Pyrrhon, I don't think this means it matters not whether you behave according to a standard of virtues or not. Quite the opposite. I think my country ought to make its decisions with an eye on intelligent virtue. On how well the decision comports with the image of the kind of nation we want to be and we tell ourselves we are.

In a Pyrrhonic world, trying to do the morally honest thing might not have more chance than venality of giving you a good outcome, but at least you can hold your head high.

And maybe it does turn out well more often than not. But that would be an article of faith because there's no way to rewind the tape of history and play it a different way. It is a secular faith: You don't make the virtuous choice because God commands it or rewards it. You do it because you believe it works. Not quite Darwin; more like Prince Kropotkin and perhaps every bit as dreamily idealistic.

It's a belief all the same. And the Pyrrhonic part of me acknowledges that I have no real proof that what I believe is more true than the opposite. That is my religion, except where it comes to dogs, and to people who behave like them.

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