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A HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY(BERTRAND RUSSELL)-017

CHAPTER XXVI Cynics and Sceptics
THE relation of intellectually eminent men to contemporary society has been very different in
different ages. In some fortunate epochs they have been on the whole in harmony with their
surroundings--suggesting, no doubt, such reforms as seemed to them necessary, but fairly
confident that their suggestions would
____________________
* C. F. Angus in Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. VII, p. 231. The above quotation from
Menander is taken from the same chapter.
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be welcomed, and not disliking the world in which they found themselves even if it remained
unreformed. At other times they have been revolutionary, considering that radical alterations were
called for, but expecting that, partly as a result of their advocacy, these alterations would be
brought about in the near future. At yet other times they have despaired of the world, and felt that,
though they themselves knew what was needed, there was no hope of its being brought about.
This mood sinks easily into the deeper despair which regards life on earth as essentially bad, and
hopes for good only in a future life or in some mystical transfiguration.
In some ages, all these attitudes have been adopted by different men living at the same time.
Consider, for example, the early nineteenth century. Goethe is comfortable, Bentham is a
reformer, Shelley is a revolutionary, and Leopardi is a pessimist. But in most periods there has
been a prevailing tone among great writers. In England they were comfortable under Elizabeth and
in the eighteenth century; in France, they became revolutionary about 1750; in Germany, they
have been nationalistic since 1813.
During the period of ecclesiastical domination, from the fifth century to the fifteenth, there was a
certain conflict between what was theoretically believed and what was actually felt. Theoretically,
the world was a vale of tears, a preparation, amid tribulation, for the world to come. But in
practice the writers of books, being almost all clerics, could not help feeling exhilarated by the
power of the Church; they found opportunity for abundant activity of a sort that they believed to
be useful. They had therefore the mentality of a governing class, not of men who feel themselves
exiles in an alien world. This is part of the curious dualism that runs through the Middle Ages,
owing to the fact that the Church, though based on other-worldly beliefs, was the most important
institution in the every-day world.
The psychological preparation for the other-worldliness of Christianity begins in the Hellenistic
period, and is connected with the eclipse of the City State. Down to Aristotle, Greek philosophers,
though they might complain of this or that, were, in the main, not cosmically despairing, nor did
they feel themselves politically impotent. They might, at times, belong to a beaten party, but, if so,
their defeat was due to the chances of conflict, not to any inevitable powerlessness of the wise.
Even those who, like Pythagoras, and Plato
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in certain moods, condemned the world of appearance and sought escape in mysticism, had
practical plans for turning the governing classes into saints and sages. When political power
passed into the hands of the Macedonians, Greek philosophers, as was natural, turned aside from
politics and devoted themselves more to the problem of individual virtue or salvation. They no
longer asked: how can men create a good State? They asked instead: how can men be virtuous in a
wicked world, or happy in a world of suffering? The change, it is true is only one of degree; such
questions had been asked before, and the later Stoics, for a time, again concerned themselves with
politics --the politics of Rome, not of Greece. But the change was none the less real. Except to a
limited extent during the Roman period in Stoicism, the outlook of those who thought and felt
seriously became increasingly subjective and individualistic, until, at last, Christianity evolved a
gospel of individual salvation which inspired missionary zeal and created the Church. Until that
happened, there was no institution to which the philosopher could give whole-hearted adherence,
and therefore there was no adequate outlet for his legitimate love of power. For this reason, the
philosophers of the Hellenistic period are more limited as human beings than the men who lived
while the City State could still inspire allegiance. They still think, because they cannot help
thinking; but they scarcely hope that their thought will bear fruit in the world of affairs.
Four schools of philosophy were founded about the time of Alexander. The two most famous, the
Stoics and Epicureans, will be the subjects of later chapters; in the present chapter we shall be
concerned with the Cynics and Sceptics.
The first of these schools is derived, through its founder Diogenes, from Antisthenes, a disciple of
Socrates, about twenty years older than Plato. Antisthenes was a remarkable character, in some
ways rather like Tolstoy. Until after the death of Socrates, he lived in the aristocratic circle of his
fellow disciples, and showed no sign of unorthodoxy. But something--whether the defeat of
Athens, or the death of Socrates, or a distaste for philosophic quibbling-- caused him, when no
longer young, to despise the things that he had formerly valued. He would have nothing but
simple goodness. He associated with working men, and dressed as one of them. He took to openair
preaching, in a style that the uneducated could understand. All refined
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philosophy he held to be worthless; what could be known, could be known by the plain man. He
believed in the "return to nature," and carried this belief very far. There was to be no
government, no private property, no marriage, no established religion. His followers, if not he
himself, condemned slavery. He was not exactly ascetic, but he despised luxury and all pursuit
of artificial pleasures of the senses. "I had rather be mad than delighted," he said. *
The fame of Antisthenes was surpassed by that of his disciple Diogenes, "a young man from
Sinope, on the Euxine, whom he [ Antisthenes] did not take to at first sight; the son of a
disreputable money-changer who had been sent to prison for defacing the coinage. Antisthenes
ordered the lad away, but he paid no attention; he beat him with his stick, but he never moved.
He wanted 'wisdom,' and saw that Antisthenes had it to give. His aim in life was to do as his
father had done, to 'deface the coinage,' but on a much larger scale. He would deface all the
coinage current in the world. Every conventional stamp was false. The men stamped as generals
and kings; the things stamped as honour and wisdom and happiness and riches; all were base
metal with lying superscription." a€
He decided to live like a dog, and was therefore called a "cynic," which means "canine." He
rejected all conventions--whether of religion, of manners, of dress, of housing, of food, or of
decency. One is told that he lived in a tub, but Gilbert Murray assures us that this is a mistake: it
was a large pitcher, of the sort used in primitive times for burials. a€? He lived, like an Indian
fakir, by begging. He proclaimed his brotherhood, not only with the whole human race, but also
with animals. He was a man about whom stories gathered, even in his lifetime. Every one
knows how Alexander visited him, and asked if he desired any favour; "only to stand out of my
light," he replied.
The teaching of Diogenes was by no means what we now call "cynical"--quite the contrary. He
had an ardent passion for "virtue," in comparison with which he held worldly goods of no
account. He sought virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire: be indifferent to the
goods that fortune has to bestow, and you will be emancipated from fear. In this respect, his
doctrine, as we shall see, was
____________________
* Benn, Vol. II, pp. 4, 5; Murray, Five Stages, pp. 113-14.
a
€ Murray, Five Stages, p. 117.
a

?
Murray, Five Stages, p. 119.
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taken up by the Stoics, but they did not follow him in rejecting the amenities of civilization. He
considered that Prometheus was justly punished for bringing to man the arts that have produced
the complication and artificiality of modern life. In this he resembled the Taoists and Rousseau
and Tolstoy, but was more consistent than they were.
His doctrine, though he was a contemporary of Aristotle, belongs in its temper to the Hellenistic
age. Aristotle is the last Greek philosopher who faces the world cheerfully; after him, all have,
in one form or another, a philosophy of retreat. The world is bad; let us learn to be independent
of it. External goods are precarious; they are the gift of fortune, not the reward of our own
efforts. Only subjective goods --virtue, or contentment through resignation--are secure, and
these alone, therefore, will be valued by the wise man. Diogenes personally was a man full of
vigour, but his doctrine, like all those of the Hellenistic age, was one to appeal to weary men, in
whom disappointment had destroyed natural zest. And it was certainly not a doctrine calculated
to promote at or science or statesmanship, or any useful activity except one of protest against
powerful evil.
It is interesting to observe what the Cynic teaching became when it was popularized. In the
early part of the third century B.C., the Cynics were the fashion, especially in Alexandria. They
published little sermons pointing out how easy it is to do without material possessions, how
happy one can be on simple food, how warm one can keep in winter without expensive clothes
(which might be true in Egypt!), how silly it is to feel affection for one's native country, or to
mourn when one's children or friends die. "Because my son or my wife is dead," says Teles,
who was one of these popularizing Cynics, "is that any reason for my neglecting myself, who
am still alive, and ceasing to look after my property?" * At this point, it becomes difficult to
feel any sympathy with the simple life, which has grown altogether too simple. One wonders
who enjoyed these sermons. Was it the rich, who wished to think the sufferings of the poor
imaginary? Or was it the new poor, who were trying to despise the successful business man? Or
was it sycophants who persuaded themselves that the charity they accepted was unimportant?
Teles says to a rich man:
____________________
* The Hellenistic Age ( Cambridge, 1923), p. 84 ff.
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"You give liberally and I take valiantly from you, neither grovelling nor demeaning myself
basely nor grumbling." * A very convenient doctrine. Popular Cynicism did not teach
abstinence from the good things of this world, but only a certain indifference to them. In the
case of a borrower, this might take the form of minimizing the obligation to the lender. One can
see how the word "cynic" acquired its every-day meaning.
What was best in the Cynic doctrine passed over into Stoicism, which was an altogether more
complete and rounded philosophy.
Scepticism, as a doctrine of the schools, was first proclaimed by Pyrrho, who was in
Alexander's army, and campaigned with it as far as India. It seems that this gave him a
sufficient taste of travel, and. that he spent the rest of his life in his native city, Elis, where he
died in 275 B.C. There was not much that was new in his doctrine, beyond a certain
systematizing and formalizing of older doubts. Scepticism with regard to the senses had
troubled Greek philosophers from a very early stage; the only exceptions were those who, like
Parmenides and Plato, denied the cognitive value of perception, and made their denial into an
opportunity for an intellectual dogmatism. The Sophists, notably Protagoras and Gorgias, had
been led by the ambiguities and. apparent contradictions of sense-perception to a subjectivism
not unlike Hume's. Pyrrho seems (for he very wisely wrote no books) to have added moral and
logical scepticism to scepticism as to the senses. He is said to have maintained that there could
never be any rational. ground for preferring one course of action to another. In practice, this
meant that one conformed to the customs of whatever countryone inhabited. A modern disciple
would go to church on Sundays and. perform the correct genuflexions, but without any of the
religious beliefs that are supposed to inspire these actions. Ancient Sceptics went through the
whole pagan ritual, and were even sometimes priests; their Scepticism assured them that this
behaviour could not be proved wrong, and their common sense (which survived their
philosophy) assured them that it was convenient.
Scepticism naturally made an appeal to many unphilosophic minds. People observed the
diversity of schools and the acerbity of their disputes, and decided that all alike were pretending
to knowledge which
____________________
* The Hellenistic Age ( Cambridge, 1923), p. 86.
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was in fact unattainable. Scepticism was a lazy man's consolation, since it showed the ignorant
to be as wise as the reputed men of learning. To men who, by temperament, required a gospel, it
might seem unsatisfying, but like every doctrine of the Hellenistic period it recommended itself
as an antidote to worry. Why trouble about the future? It is wholly uncertain. You may as well
enjoy the present; "What's to come is still unsure." For these reasons, Scepticism enjoyed a
considerable popular success.
It should be observed that Scepticism as a philosophy is not merely doubt, but what may be
called dogmatic doubt. The man of science says "I think it is so-and-so, but I am not sure." The
man of intellectual curiosity says "I don't know how it is, but I hope to find out." The
philosophical Sceptic says "nobody knows, and nobody ever can know." It is this element of
dogmatism that makes the system vulnerable. Sceptics, of course, deny that they assert the
impossibility of knowledge dogmatically, but their denials are not very convincing.
Pyrrho's disciple Timon, however, advanced some intellectual arguments which, from the
standpoint of Greek logic, were very hard to answer. The only logic admitted by the Greeks was
deductive, and all deduction had to start, like Euclid, from general principles regarded as selfevident.
Timon denied the possibility of finding such principles. Everything, therefore, will
have to be proved by means of something else, and all argument will be either circular or an
endless chain hanging from nothing. In either case nothing can be proved. This argument, as we
can see, cut at the root of the Aristotelian philosophy which dominated the Middle Ages.
Some forms of Scepticism which, in our own day, are advocated by men who are by no means
wholly sceptical, had not occurred to the Sceptics of antiquity. They did not doubt phenomena,
or question propositions which, in their opinion, only expressed what we know directly
concerning phenomena. Most of Timon's work is lost, but two surviving fragments will
illustrate this point. One says "The phenomenon is always valid." The other says: "That honey is
sweet I refuse to assert; that it appears sweet, I fully grant." * A modern Sceptic would point out
that the phenomenon merely occurs, and is not either valid or invalid; what is valid or invalid
must be a state-
____________________
* Quoted by Edwyn Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics, p. 126.
-234-
ment, and no statement can be so closely linked to the phenomenon as to be incapable of
falsehood. For the same reason, he would say that the statement "honey appears sweet" is only
highly probable, not absolutely certain.
In some respects, the doctrine of Timon was very similar to that of Hume. He maintained that
something which had never been observed--atoms, for instance--could not be validly inferred; but
when two phenomena had been frequently observed together, one could be inferred from the
other.
Timon lived at Athens throughout the later years of his long life, and died there in 235 B.C. With
his death, the school of Pyrrho, as a school, came to an end, but his doctrines, somewhat modified,
were taken up, strange as it may seem, by the Academy, which represented the Platonic tradition.
The man who effected this surprising philosophic revolution was Arcesilaus, a contemporary of T
imon, who died as an old man about 240 B.C. What most men have taken from Plato is belief in a
supersensible intellectual world and in the superiority of the immortal soul to the mortal body. But
Plato was many-sided, and in some respects could be regarded as teaching scepticism. The
Platonic Socrates professes to know nothing; we naturally treat this as irony, but it could be taken
seriously. Many of the dialogues reach no positive conclusion, and aim at leaving the reader in a
state of doubt. Some--the latter half of the Parmenides, for instance--might seem to have no
purpose except to show that either side of any question can be maintained with equal plausibility.
The Platonic dialectic could be treated as an end, rather than a means, and if so treated it lent itself
admirably to the advocacy of Scepticism. This seems to have been the way in which Arcesilaus
interpreted the man whom he still professed to follow. He had decapitated Plato, but at any rate
the torso that remained was genuine.
The manner in which Arcesilaus taught would have had much to commend it, if the young men
who learnt from him had been able to avoid being paralysed by it. He maintained no thesis, but
would refute any thesis set up by a pupil. Sometimes he would himself advance two contradictory
propositions on successive occasions, showing how to argue convincingly in favour of either. A
pupil sufficiently vigourous to rebel might have learnt dexterity and the avoidance of fallacies;
-235-
in fact, none seem to have learnt anything except cleverness and indifference to truth. So great
was the influence of Arcesilaus that the Academy remained sceptical for about two hundred years.
In the middle of this sceptical period, an amusing incident occurred. Carneades, a worthy
successor of Arcesilaus as head of the Academy, was one of three philosophers sent by Athens on
a diplomatic mission to Rome in the year 156 B.C. He saw no reason why his ambassadorial
dignity should interfere with the main chance, so he announced a course of lectures in Rome. The
young men, who, at that time, were anxious to ape Greek manners and acquire Greek culture,
flocked to hear him. His first lecture expounded the views of Aristotle and Plato on justice, and
was thoroughly edifying. His second, however, was concerned in refuting all that he had said in
his first, not with a view to establishing opposite conclusions, but merely to show that every
conclusion is unwarranted. Plato's Socrates had argued that to inflict injustice was a greater evil to
the perpetrator than to suffer it. Carneades, in his second lecture, treated this contention with
scorn. Great States, he pointed out, had become great by unjust aggressions against their weaker
neighbours; in Rome, this could not well be denied. In a shipwreck, you may save your life at the
expense of some one weaker, and you are a fool if you do not. "Women and children first," he
seems to think, is not a maxim that leads to personal survival. What would you do if you were
flying from a victorious enemy, you had lost your horse, but you found a wounded comrade on a
horse? If you were sensible, you would drag him off and seize his horse, whatever justice might
ordain. All this not very edifying argumentation is surprising in a nominal follower of Plato, but it
seems to have pleased the modern-minded Roman youths.
There was one man whom it did not please and that was the elder Cato, who represented the stern,
stiff, stupid, and brutal moral code by means of which Rome had defeated Carthage. From youth
to old age, he lived simply, rose early, practised severe manual labour, ate only coarse food, and
never wore a gown that cost over a hundred pence. Towards the State he was scrupulously honest,
avoiding all bribery and plunder. He exacted of other Romans all the virtues that he practised
himself, and asserted that to accuse and pursue the wicked was the best thing an honest man could
do. He enforced, as far as he could, the old Roman severity of manners:
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" Cato put out of the Senate also, one Manilius, who was in great towardness to have been made
Consul the next year following, only because he kissed his wife too lovingly in the day time,
and before his daughter: and reproving him for it, he told him, his wife never kissed him, but
when it thundered." *
When he was in power, he put down luxury and feasting. He made his wife suckle not only her
own children, but also those of his slaves, in order that, having been nourished by the same
milk, they might love his children. When his slaves were too old to work, he sold them
remorselessly. He insisted that his slaves should always be either working or sleeping. He
encouraged his slaves to quarrel with each other, for "he could not abide that they should be
friends." When a slave had committed a grave fault, he would call in his other slaves, and
induce them to condemn the delinquent to death; he would then carry out the sentence with his
own hands in the presence of the survivors.
The contrast between Cato and Carneades was very complete: the one brutal through a morality
that was too strict and too traditional, the other ignoble through a morality that was too lax and
too much infected with the social dissolution of the Hellenistic world.
" Marcus Cato, even from the beginning that young men began to study the Greek tongue, and
that it grew in estimation in Rome, did dislike of it: fearing lest the youth of Rome that were
desirous of learning and eloquence, would utterly give over the honour and glory of arms. . . .
So he openly found fault one day in the Senate, that the Ambassadors were long there, and had
no dispatch: considering also they were cunning men, and could easily persuade what they
would. And if there were no other respect, this only might persuade them to determine some
answer for them, and to send them home again to their schools, to teach their children of
Greece, and to let alone the children of Rome, that they might learn to obey the laws and the
Senate, as they had done before. Now he spake thus to the Senate, not of any private ill will or
malice he bare to Carneades, as some men thought: but because he generally hated philosophy."
a€
The Athenians, in Cato's view, were a lesser breed without the law; it did not matter if they
were degraded by the shallow sophistics of intellectuals, but the Roman youth must be kept
puritanical, im-
____________________
* North's Plutarch, Lives, Marcus Cato.
a
€ Ib.
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perialistic, ruthless, and stupid. He failed, however; later Romans, while retaining many of his
vices, adopted those of Carneades also.
The next head of the Academy, after Carneades (ca. 180 to ca. 110 B.C.), was a Carthaginian
whose real name was Hasdrubal, but who, in his dealings with Greeks, preferred to call himself
Clitomachus. Unlike Carneades, who confined himself to lecturing, Clitomachus wrote over four
hundred books, some of them in the Phoenician language. His principles appear to have been the
same as those of Carneades. In some respects, they were useful. These two Sceptics set
themselves against the belief in divination, magic, and astrology, which was becoming more and
more widespread. They also developed a constructive doctrine, concerning degrees of probability;
although we can never be justified in feeling certainty, some things are more likely to be true than
others. Probability should be our guide in practice, since it is reasonable to act on the most
probable of possible hypotheses. This view is one with which most modern philosophers would
agree. Unfortunately, the books setting it forth are lost, and it is difficult to reconstruct the
doctrine from the hints that remain.
After Clitomachus, the Academy ceased to be sceptical, and from the time of Antiochus (who died
in 69 B.C.) its doctrines became, for centuries, practically indistinguishable from those of the
Stoics.
Scepticism, however, did not disappear. It was revived by the Cretan Aenesidemus, who came
from Knossos, where, for aught we know, there may have been Sceptics two thousand years
earlier, entertaining dissolute courtiers with doubts as to the divinity of the mistress of animals.
The date of Aenesidemus is uncertain. He threw over the doctrines on probability advocated by
Carneades, and reverted to the earliest forms of Scepticism. His influence was considerable; he
was followed by the poet Lucian in the second century A.D., and also, slightly later, by Sextus
Empiricus, the only Sceptic philosopher of antiquity whose works survive. There is, for example,
a short treatise, "Arguments Against Belief in a God," translated by Edwyn Bevan in his Later
Greek Religion, pp. 52-56, and said by him to be probably taken by Sextus Empiricus from
Carneades, as reported by Clitomachus.
This treatise begins by explaining that, in behaviour, the Sceptics are orthodox: "We sceptics
follow in practice the way of the world, but without holding any opinion about it. We speak of the
Gods
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as existing and offer worship to the Gods and say that they exercise providence, but in saying this
we express no belief, and avoid the rashness of the dogmatisers."
He then argues that people differ as to the nature of God; for instance, some think Him corporeal,
some incorporeal. Since we have no experience of Him, we cannot know His attributes. The
existence of God is not self-evident, and therefore needs proof. There is a somewhat confused
argument to show that no such proof is possible. He next takes up the problem of evil, and
concludes with the words:
"Those who affirm positively that God exists cannot avoid falling into an impiety. For if they say
that God controls everything, they make Him the author of evil things; if, on the other hand, they
say that He controls some things only, or that He controls nothing, they are compelled to make
God either grudging or impotent, and to do that is quite obviously an impiety."
Scepticism, while it continued to appeal to some cultivated individuals until somewhere in the
third century A.D., was contrary to the temper of the age, which was turning more and more to
dogmatic religion and doctrines of salvation. Scepticism had enough force to make educated men
dissatisfied with the State religions, but it had nothing positive, even in the purely intellectual
sphere, to offer in their place. From the Renaissance onwards, theological scepticism has been
supplemented, in most of its advocates, by an enthusiastic belief in science, but in antiquity there
was no such supplement to doubt. Without answering the arguments of the Sceptics, the ancient
world turned aside from them. The Olympians being discredited, the way was left clear for an
invasion of oriental religions, which competed for the favour of the superstitious until the triumph
of Christianity.

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