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Author Topic: Self-Help: "How to Be a Pyrrhonist: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism"  (Read 251 times)
Pyrrhonist
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« on: April 18, 2019, 03:58:32 PM »

Chapter 1
…[Pyrrho] 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….
Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pyrrho

…whatever Greeks acquire from foreigners is finally turned by them into something nobler….
Plato (or more likely his student, Philip of Opus), Epinomis

Pyrrho’s Journey to the East
Even in antiquity Westerners looked to India for wisdom. We know the Neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus, tried to go to there but had to turn back. Some people even claim -- on scant evidence -- that Jesus went there. But there’s only one Westerner from antiquity whom we know not only went to India, but who brought back something that profoundly influences Western thought to this day. His name was Pyrrho of Elis. Pyrrho was a priest at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and a philosopher in the tradition of Democritus. Pyrrho successfully make the trip because he was a member of Alexander the Great’s court during Alexander’s conquest of everything from Greece to India. Alexander had assigned the several philosophers in his court to learn everything they could about the philosophies of his newly conquered lands. Pyrrho spent a year and a half in India doing exactly that.

Pyrrho carried with him to India two problems. In the three decades following Democritus’ death, two key elements of Democritean philosophy had come under attack, first by Plato, and then forcefully and convincingly by Aristotle.

Democritus had outlined a philosophical system for achieving a happy and fulfilling life based on strategies for eliminating unpleasant and unhelpful mental states and cultivating positive ones such that the resulting peace of mind would lead to a life of virtue. Aristotle overturned this, proposing a detailed system based on the virtue ethics conceived of by Socrates: that acting in accordance with virtue leads to peace of mind -- the inverse of Democritus’ formula.

The other problem was worse. Aristotle had persuasively argued that Democritus was wrong about the fundamental nature of knowledge, again starting with ideas conceived of by Socrates. Since the validity of any philosophical system rests upon its epistemology, Aristotle’s attack was an existential threat to the entirety of Democritean philosophy.

The Greeks had for long noted a distinction between appearance and reality, based on observations such as how when an oar is put into water it appears bent, and how square towers seen from a distance look round. As appearances were known to deceive, the great epistemological question was about how much they could be relied upon to lead us to the truth about reality. Democritus built upon the views of earlier Greek philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, Xenophanes, and Parmenides, all of whom argued that obtaining the truth about reality was either impossible or highly limited. Aristotle broke decisively with this aspect of Greek thought. In his Metaphysics he declared that Democritus and these earlier philosophers were wrong, and he laid out his theory about how truth was accessible.

In India Pyrrho found a unified solution to both of these problems. He brought it back to Greece and built a new school of philosophy on it: Pyrrhonism, which flourished along with other schools of pagan philosophy until they were exterminated as part of the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

In the 19th Century, when Buddhist texts were starting to become available in European languages, scholars began noticing some uncanny similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism. Nietzsche even went so far as to call Pyrrho “a Buddha.” But it would not be until the early 21st Century that proof emerged that the solution Pyrrho found involved repurposing key ideas from Buddhism to make them compatible with Greek thought and useful against Aristotle.

Two things made it difficult to identify the Buddhist philosophy at the heart of Pyrrhonism. One was that subsequent Pyrrhonist philosophers had to revise Pyrrho’s Buddhist-derived argument because, like many other Buddhist statements, it was paradoxical, and Greek philosophers had little toleration for violations of the law of non-contradiction. The other was that while Pyrrhonism’s ideal mental state, ataraxia, seems to be a secularized version of Buddhism’s nirvana, Pyrrhonism’s methods for achieving that state are starkly dissimilar from those of Buddhism. That Pyrrhonism flourished for half a millennium until being snuffed out by force is a testament to the effectiveness of those methods.

It would also not be until the early 21st Century that spiritual seekers who were attracted to Buddhism but disturbed by its contradictions and dissatisfied with its methods would seek out Pyrrhonism as an alternative approach.

Chapter 2
…philosophy begins in wonder.
Socrates, Theaetetus

Philosophy does not begin in wonder. It begins in anxiety, with the disquieting suspicion that things are not how they should be and are not what they seem.
Hans Abendroth, The Zero and the One

The Quest for Eudaimonia
To make Buddhist ideas fit into Greek thinking, Pyrrho had to make some adjustments to those ideas. In India philosophy and religion were deeply intertwined. The role of philosopher and saint were merged in a way that would be unacceptable in Greece. Pyrrho’s roles as priest and philosopher did not intermingle. In Greece philosophers could almost not help but attract controversy. Everyone knew that Socrates’ enemies had him sentenced to death on charges of introducing new gods. Pyrrho knew he could not make Pyrrhonism religious in the way Buddhism was.

Besides, the Greeks didn’t have a concept quite like the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Their most similar concept was “eudaimonia.” Like how the Buddha saw greed, anger, and delusion as the barriers to enlightenment, the Greeks saw unpleasant and unhealthy emotions, such as anger, envy, and anxiety as the barriers to eudaimonia. Eudaimonia, however, is a practical concept devoid of the spiritual attributes of enlightenment.

“Eudaimonia” is typically translated into English as “happiness.” This is an unsatisfactory translation, but English has no single word that encompasses the idea. Eudaimonia is about a happy, flourishing, meaningful life achieved through wisdom. And for the Hellenistic philosophers, the path to wisdom was via reason, not mystical awakening.

Pyrrhonism is not the only Hellenistic philosophy that aims to lead its practitioners towards eudaimonia. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism, Aristotelianism (also known as Peripateticism), Cyrenaicism, and Cynicism all share that goal. These days people commonly think of philosophy as a dry, academic hair-splitting about things normal people are not interested in. The Hellenistic philosophies are not like that. Their chief concerns are wisdom, character development, and the best way to live. They are philosophies one practices, much like how one practices Buddhism.

While the Hellenistic philosophers took care to avoid conflict with Greco-Roman paganism, their philosophies each had their own metaphysics and views of the divine like religions do. For example, the ancient Stoics were pantheists and their teachings regularly invoked Zeus. The Epicureans, on the other hand, claimed that the gods did not interfere in human affairs, yet they promoted a near-monastic approach to living, complete with their own Epicurean celebrations and rituals.

If you aspire to eudaimonia, I can recommend to you nothing more highly than I can Pyrrhonism. 
« Last Edit: April 24, 2019, 02:48:13 PM by Pyrrhonist » Logged
rivergirl
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« Reply #1 on: April 21, 2019, 06:51:36 PM »

In my opinion, your first chapter should include some sort of text. Grin
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Pyrrhonist
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« Reply #2 on: April 24, 2019, 02:48:43 PM »

That's odd. I see text.
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rivergirl
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« Reply #3 on: April 25, 2019, 08:35:45 PM »

Ok, there's text there now. Wasn't before.
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