Sextus Empiricus  

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"'From the fact that honey appears bitter to some and sweet to others Democritus concluded that it is neither sweet nor bitter, Heraclitus that it is both.' This report from Sextus Empiricus (PH 11.63) testifies that arguments from conflicting appearances came early to the repertoire of philosophy. --"Conflicting Appearances" (1979) by Myles Burnyeat


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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD), was a physician and philosopher, and has been variously reported to have lived in Alexandria, Rome, or Athens. His philosophical work is the most complete surviving account of ancient Greek and Roman skepticism.

In his medical work, tradition maintains that he belonged to the "empiric school", as reflected by his name. However, at least twice in his writings, Sextus seems to place himself closer to the "methodic school", as his philosophical views imply.


Sextus Empiricus's three known works are the Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Πυῤῥώνειοι ὑποτυπώσεις or Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis, thus commonly abbreviated PH), and two distinct works preserved under the same title, Against the Mathematicians (Adversus Mathematicos), one of which is probably incomplete.

The first six books of Against the Mathematicians are commonly known as Against the Professors, but each book also has a traditional title (Against the Grammarians (book I), Against the Rhetoricians (book II), Against the Geometricians (book III), Against the Arithmeticians (book IV), Against the Astrologers (book V), Against the Musicians (book VI). It is widely believed, with perhaps the exception of Sextus scholar Richard Bett, that this is Sextus's latest and most mature work.

Books VII-XI of Against the Mathematicians form an incomplete whole; scholars believe that at least one, but possibly as many as five books, are missing from the beginning of the work that was originally entitled Skeptical Treatises (Skeptika Hupomnēmata). The extant books have the traditional titles Against the Logicians (books VII-VIII), Against the Physicists (books IX–X), and Against the Ethicists (book XI). Against the Mathematicians VII-XI is sometimes distinguished from Against the Mathematicians I-VI by giving it the title Against the Dogmatists (in which case Against the Logicians are called books I-II, Against the Physicists are called books III-IV, and Against the Ethicists is called book V, despite the fact that it is commonly believed that the beginning of the work is missing and it is not known how many books might have preceded the extant books).

Note that none of these titles except Against the Mathematicians and Outlines of Pyrrhonism, are found in the manuscripts.


An influential Latin translation of Sextus's Outlines was published by Henricus Stephanus in Geneva in 1562, and this was followed by a complete Latin Sextus with Gentian Hervet as translator in 1569. Petrus and Jacobus Chouet published the Greek text for the first time in 1621. Stephanus did not publish it with his Latin translation either in 1562 or in 1569, nor was it published in the reprint of the latter in 1619.

Sextus's Outlines were widely read in Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and had a profound effect on Michel de Montaigne, David Hume, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, among many others. Another source for the circulation of Sextus's ideas was Pierre Bayle's Dictionary. The legacy of Pyrrhonism is described in Richard Popkin's The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Descartes and High Road to Pyrrhonism. The transmission of Sextus's manuscripts through antiquity and the Middle Ages is reconstructed by Luciano Floridi's Sextus Empiricus, The Recovery and Transmission of Pyrrhonism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). Since the Renaissance French philosophy has been continuously influenced by Sextus: Montaigne in the 16th century, Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Pierre-Daniel Huet and François de La Mothe Le Vayer in the 17th century, many of the "Philosophes," and in recent times controversial figures such as Michel Onfray, in a direct line of filiation between Sextus' radical skepticism and secular or even radical atheism.

Sextus is the earliest known source for the proverb "Slowly grinds the mill of the gods, but it grinds fine", alluded to in Longfellow's poem "Retribution".

See also

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