‘Sextus Empiricus And Greek Scepticism’ By Mary Mills Patrick

This book should really say ‘by Mary Mills Patrick and Sextus Empiricus’ because the final forty odd pages is actually a translation of a sort of primer on Sextus’ brand of Scepticism (Pyrrhonism, if you’re curious). As far as I can tell, this book (which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg) is an 1894 doctoral thesis.

Dr. Patrick certainly does fill up the original writing (not the translation) with a lot of filler, some of which feels contradicted by the subsequent translation of Sextus’ actual words. It’s not uninteresting; the section where she tries to determine where Sextus likely taught and lectured was pretty cool, actually. But then she goes into an odd attack on the Sceptics and Pyrrhonists for ultimately being a sterile school of philosophy. She writes that they set the stage for future scientific advances, with their focus on method and examination of phenomena, but kind of wuss out on actually taking it to the next level.

Especially after reading the actual writing of Sextus, I call garbage on that.

It reminds of when my former stepmother asked me about a college course I was taking – symbolic logic, so be precise. Though raised Catholic and, at that time, attending the Episcopal church, her personal brand of faith was very much in the Southern, white, evangelical tradition. So naturally she asked me what I was learning had to say about abortion. I really didn’t know how to answer that except, ‘well, um… nothing, really.’

‘Well, shouldn’t it?’ she asked.

And, of course, the answer was, no, not really.

And the same here. I’m sorry that a philosopher of late antiquity didn’t properly follow through and start the Copernican Revolution for you over a thousand years ahead of schedule, but maybe we could just be satisfied with what he actually wrote and did, which was pretty cool.

To briefly talk about the bits that make up the majority of the translation, it’s about various ‘tropes’ that explain why we should suspend judgement in terms of claiming knowledge. These are things like noting that various animals clearly perceive things differently, so why should we assume our perceptions are more accurate? Similarly, different people perceive differently. There’s more, but I’m not going to list them all because the book is free, for heaven’s sake, so you can read it yourself. But suffice to say, it made a lot of sense to me an I got a kick out of it. I do wish that she hadn’t chosen to leave so many Greek words and phrases untranslated. Sometimes, through context, I knew a word to be ataraxia (a state of being untroubled) and once I was certain it was an anecdote that I was familiar with (about it supposedly, according to ancient Greeks, being acceptable in India to have sex in public; a weird example of a two thousand year old urban myth), but often I just wound up shrugging my shoulders.