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Pyrrho of Elis, marble head, Roman copy, Archaeological Museum of Corfu
Bornc. 365–360 BC
Diedc. 275–270 BC (aged c. 85–95)
Elis, Greece
EraHellenistic philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Main interests
Epistemology, metaphysics, ethics
Notable ideas
Philosophical skepticism, ataraxia, adiaphora, epoché

Pyrrho of Elis (/ˈpɪr/; Ancient Greek: Πύρρων ὁ Ἠλεῖος, romanizedPyrrhо̄n ho Ēleios; c. 360 – c. 270 BC), born in Elis, Greece, was a Greek philosopher of Classical antiquity, credited as being the first Greek skeptic philosopher and founder of Pyrrhonism.


Map of Alexander the Great's empire and the route he and Pyrrho took to India

Pyrrho of Elis is estimated to have lived from around 365/360 until 275/270 BCE.[1] Pyrrho was from Elis, on the Ionian Sea. He was likely a member of the Klytidiai,[2] a clan of seers in Elis who interpreted the oracles of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia[3] where Pyrrho served as a high priest. The Klytidiai were descendants of Klytios, who was the son of Alcmaeon and the grandson of Amphiaraus. In the Python, Pyrrho's student Timon of Phlius describes first meeting Pyrrho on the grounds of an Amphiareion, i.e., a temple of Amphiaraus, while they were both on a pilgrimage to Delphi.[4]

Most biographical information on Pyrrho, as well as some information concerning his demeanor and behavior, come from Diogenes Laertius; his work on Pyrrho's life drew primarily from the works of mid-third century BC biographer Antigonus of Carystus.[5] Diogenes Laërtius, quoting from Apollodorus of Athens, says that Pyrrho was at first a painter, and that pictures by him were exhibited in the gymnasium at Elis. Later he was diverted to philosophy by the works of Democritus, and according to Diogenes Laërtius became acquainted with the Megarian dialectic through Bryson, pupil of Stilpo.[6] Unlike the founders of other Hellenistic philosophies, Pyrrho was not substantively influenced by Socrates.[7]

Pyrrho, along with Anaxarchus, travelled with Alexander the Great on his Indian campaign, "so that he even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India and the Magi" in Persia.[5] Returning to Elis, he lived in poor circumstances, but was highly honored by the Elians, who made him a high priest, and also by the Athenians, who conferred upon him the rights of citizenship.[8]

As for his behavior, Pyrrho is reported to have been very reclusive, appearing only rarely to his household. This was due to a reproach given to Anaxarchus which he had overheard, arguing that he would not be able to teach anyone else to be good while he paid court to kings.[9] He is also said to have retained equanimity at all times, even to the extent of completing a conversation after his audience departed and he was left alone. His indifference is further demonstrated by a report that after Anaxarchus fell into a muddy puddle, Pyrrho walked by without offering assistance, an act that was later praised by Anaxarchus himself.[10] As tales of his nonchalance seem to dominate the sources about him, still others relate a degree of sensitivity. One account tells of him being angered on behalf of his sister, justifying himself with the statement that "where a little woman was concerned it was not appropriate to display indifference". Another tells of him being frightened by a dog and explaining that "it was difficult to strip oneself completely of being human; but one could struggle against circumstances, by means of actions in the first instance, and if they were not successful, by means of reason".[11] The inconsistency of these tales is echoed in the descriptions of his general approach as well. Diogenes himself states that Pyrrho avoided nothing and took no precautions, thereby making his safety dependent on his disciples, this according to Antigonus of Carystus,[12] but he also quotes Aenesidemus as saying:

'Although he practised philosophy on the principles of suspension of judgement, he did not act carelessly in the details of daily life. He lived to be nearly ninety.'[13]

Pyrrho's pupils included Timon of Phlius, Hecataeus of Abdera, and Nausiphanes, who was one of Epicurus' teachers.[14] Arcesilaus was also a pupil of Pyrrho, and he maintained Pyrrho's philosophy except in name.[15] Upon becoming scholarch of the Platonic Academy, Arcesilaus transformed its teachings to conform with those of Pyrrho. This initiated Academic Skepticism, the second Hellenistic school of skeptical philosophy.[16]



Pyrrho did not produce any written work.[5] Most of the information on Pyrrho's philosophy comes from his student Timon. Only fragments of what Timon wrote have been preserved, mostly by Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes Laertius, and Eusebius. Little is known for certain about the details of Pyrrho's philosophy and how it may have differed from later Pyrrhonism. Most of what we know today as Pyrrhonism comes through the book Outlines of Pyrrhonism written by Sextus Empiricus over 400 years after Pyrrho's death.

Most sources agree that the primary goal of Pyrrho's philosophy was the achievement of a state of ataraxia, or freedom from mental perturbation, and that he observed that ataraxia could be brought about by eschewing beliefs (dogma) about thoughts and perceptions. However, Pyrrho's own philosophy may have differed significantly in details from later Pyrrhonism. Most interpretations of the information on Pyrrho's philosophy suggest that he claimed that reality is inherently indeterminate, which, in the view of Pyrrhonism described by Sextus Empiricus, would be considered a negative dogmatic belief.[1]

A summary of Pyrrho's philosophy was preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Timon, in what is known as the "Aristocles passage."[5] There are conflicting interpretations of the ideas presented in this passage, each of which leads to a different conclusion as to what Pyrrho meant:

'The things themselves are equally indifferent, and unstable, and indeterminate, and therefore neither our senses nor our opinions are either true or false. For this reason then we must not trust them, but be without opinions, and without bias, and without wavering, saying of every single thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not.'[17]

In the writings of Cicero[18] and Seneca[19] Pyrrho is listed among those philosophers who left no one to carry on their teachings,[20] though the opposite may be understood from Pliny.[21] And so it is uncertain whether Pyrrhonism was a small but continuous movement in antiquity or whether it died out and was revived. Regardless, several centuries after Pyrrho lived, Aenesidemus led a revival of the philosophy. Pyrrhonism was one of the two major schools of philosophical skepticism that emerged during the Hellenistic period, the other being Academic skepticism.[22] Pyrrhonism flourished among members of the Empiric school of medicine, where it was seen as the philosophic foundation to their approach to medicine, which was opposed to the approach of the Dogmatic school of medicine. Pyrrhonism fell into obscurity in the post-Hellenistic period.

Pyrrhonists view their philosophy as a way of life, and view Pyrrho as a model for this way of life. Their main goal is to attain ataraxia through achieving a state of epoché (i.e., suspension of judgment) about beliefs. One method Pyrrhonists use to suspend judgment is to gather arguments on both sides of the disputed issue, continuing to gather arguments such that the arguments have the property of isostheneia (equal strength). This leads the Pyrrhonist to the conclusion that there is an unresolvable disagreement on the topic, and so the appropriate reaction is to suspend judgement. Eventually the Pyrrhonist develops epoché as a habitual response to all matters of dispute, which results in ataraxia.

Ancient Indian influences on Pyrrho


Diogenes Laërtius' biography of Pyrrho[23] reports that Pyrrho traveled with Alexander the Great's army on its conquest of India (327 to 325 BCE) and based his philosophy on what he learned there:

...he even went as far as the Gymnosophists, in India, and the Magi. Owing to which circumstance, he seems to have taken a noble line in philosophy, introducing the doctrine of incomprehensibility, and of the necessity of suspending one's judgment....

The sources and the extent of the Indian influences on Pyrrho's philosophy, however, are disputed. Philosophical skepticism was already present in Greek philosophy, particularly in the Democritean tradition in which Pyrrho had studied prior to visiting India. On the other hand, by this time Indian philosophy too had developed certain notions of skepticism tied to composure.[20] Richard Bett heavily discounts any substantive Indian influences on Pyrrho, arguing that on the basis of testimony of Onesicritus regarding how difficult it was to converse with the gymnosophists, as it required three translators, none of whom understood any philosophy, that it is highly improbable that Pyrrho could have been substantively influenced by any of the Indian philosophers.[24] It has also been hypothesized that the gymnosophists were Jains, or Ajnanins,[25][26][27] and that these are likely influences on Pyrrho.[25] Authors see probable influence of Indian skepticism not only in Pyrrhonism,[28] but also in Buddhism itself as a common ground.[29]

See also



  1. ^ a b Bett, Richard Arnot (2000). Pyrrho, his antecedents, and his legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198250654. OCLC 43615424.
  2. ^ Dee L. Clayman, Timon of Phlius: Pyrrhonism into Poetry ISBN 3110220806 2009 p51
  3. ^ Pausanias, Graeciae Descriptio 6.17.6
  4. ^ Eusebius of Caesaria Praeparatio Evangelica Chapter 18
  5. ^ a b c d Bett, Richard; Zalta, Edward (Winter 2014). "Pyrrho". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved February 19, 2018.
  6. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 11, Section 61 [1]
  7. ^ Richard Bett, "Pyrrho and the Socratic Schools", From the Socratics to the Socratic Schools: Classical Ethics, Metaphysics and Epistemology Routledge, March 12, 2015, p. 149 "There is no evidence of Pyrrho having regarded Socrates as an intellectual or ethical inspiration.... Similarly, one would be hard pressed to find any kind of link between the two in terms of philosophical "succession"...."
  8. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 11, Section 64, 65 [2]
  9. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 11, Section 64
  10. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 9, Section 63
  11. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 9, Section 66
  12. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 11, Section 62
  13. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 11, Section 62
  14. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 9, Section 69 [3]
  15. ^ Eusebius of Caesarea, Praeparatio Evangelica Chapter VI
  16. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IV, Chapter 6, Section 33 [4]
  17. ^ Eusebius. "Praeparatio Evangelica Book XIV". Tertullian Project. Retrieved 27 January 2023.
  18. ^ Cicero, Tusculan disputations, chapter 5 section 85
  19. ^ Seneca, Natural questions, chapter 7 section 32
  20. ^ a b Long, A.A.; Sedley, D.N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 17.
  21. ^ Pliny, Natural History, Chapter 7 section 80
  22. ^ Popkin, Richard Henry (2003). The History of Scepticism : from Savonarola to Bayle (Revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198026716. OCLC 65192690.
  23. ^ Diogenes Laërtius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Book IX, Chapter 9 [5]
  24. ^ Richard Bett, Pyrrho, His Antecedents and His Legacy, 2000, p177-8.
  25. ^ a b Barua 1921, p. 299.
  26. ^ Jayatilleke 1963, pp. 129–130.
  27. ^ Flintoff 1980.
  28. ^ Sellars, John (2018). Hellenistic Philosophy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191655630.
  29. ^ Heirman, Ann; Bumbacher, Stephan Peter (2007). The Spread of Buddhism. Brill. ISBN 9789047420064.


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