The 12+12 Books of Christmas #6


Pyrrho of Elis was an ancient philosopher who did not believe that fire burns. According to legend, his friends had to follow him around to make sure he didn’t walk into fires and get himself killed. He was the first skeptic who systematically doubted everything. That said, there is a story which tells of his dissatisfaction with his cook which made him chase the poor guy through town for preparing a bad meal for his guests.

Richard Popkin’s The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle is the standard work on the subject. We get analyses of Montaigne and Descartes, for example. Popkin paraphrases Montaigne:

When one looks over the sad history of the efforts of the philosophers in all the various areas of their interests, one can only conclude, says Montaigne, that ‘indeed philosophy is but sophisticated poetry.’ All that philosophers present in their theories are human inventions. Nobody ever discovers what actually happens in nature. Instead, some traditional opinions are accepted as explanations of various events and accepted as authoritative, unquestionable principles. If one asks about the principles themselves, one is told there is no arguing with people who deny first principles. But, Montaigne insists, ‘now there cannot be first principles for men, unless the Divinity has revealed them; all the rest–beginning, middle, and end–is nothing but dreams and smoke.’

It just gets worse. Philosophers were incredibly good at digging this particular hole deeper and deeper. Skepticism was like a virus that spread and there was nothing that could stop it. A deep chasm of doubt was forming between man and true knowledge. Truth was quickly disappearing into the horizon.

The hero who saves philosophy from total skepticism is Descartes himself in Popkin’s book. He receives the epithet “the conqueror of skepticism.” I do not want to spoil it for anyone who has not read it yet, but I tell you it’s a good one. Instead of the greatest doubter the West has ever seen, Descartes is portrayed as someone who was deeply troubled by doubt. His solution to the problem, the cogito, was an ingenious twist in the story of philosophy. His argument was the birth of modern philosophy as we know it. That makes him the greatest hero, or the greatest villain, in the history of western thought.

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