Arcesilaus: biography of this Greek philosopher.
A summary of what is known about the life of Arcesilaus, skeptical philosopher.
Arcesilaus was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of the so-called Middle or Second Platonic Academy.
It is known that he was a disciple of several important philosophers of his time, being the successor of Crates of Triasius in the Platonic Academy, making a transformation in that same institution weakening the positive affirmations of Plato.
He is known for bringing back into vogue the Socratic method through irony, interrogation and doubt in philosophical controversies. Let us look a little deeper into his story and how he was, in a way, innovative for the philosophy of his time, by means of a biography of Arcesilaus in abridged format.
- Related article, "How are Psychology and Philosophy alike?"
Brief biography of Arcesilaus
Arcesilao (in classical Greek Αρκεσίλαος) was born at Pitane, in the region of Aeolida, present-day Turkey.around 315 B.C. when the region was under the rule of the prosperous Greek civilization, being the son of Scythos, also known as Seuthos or Scythos. Of his childhood not much is known, to say nothing, but it is known that although he went to study rhetoric in Athens he preferred to study philosophy.
He was a disciple of the philosopher Theophrastus and later of Crantor.. Moreover, while in the city, which was the cultural center of Classical Greece, he had the opportunity to attend the classes of Polemon and Crates. Arcesilaus not only learned about philosophy, but also had the opportunity to study mathematics with Autolycus of Pitaneus and Hipponicus, besides being acquainted with the knowledge of Plato, whom he deeply admired.
After the death of Crates, who had been the leader of the Platonic Academy, Socratides, another philosopher, ensured the continuity of the institution by recognizing Arcesilaus as a great philosopher and decided to give him the leadership of the Academy. While at the institution, he transformed it, weakening Plato's positive affirmations and recovering skepticism and the Socratic method.. Among other figures he may have known during his lifetime were Pyrrhon, Diodorus Cronus and Menedemus, although there is no absolute certainty.
Although he was a man who lived in quite stable times and, moreover, never interfered too much in politics, his personal life is another matter. The sources of the time rumor about his debaucheries and courtesans. Apart from all this, not much more is known, only that it is believed that he must have died in 240 B.C., alcoholic and delirious. It should also be said that all this could be simple slander, since Plutarch and the stoic Cleantes offer a very different image of Arcesilao, defending him as a very responsible character and fulfilling his duties.
An interesting aspect of his life is that, unlike most of the philosophers of his time, he possessed a large fortune.. Hellenic philosophers were not characterized by great wealth and tended to have a more ascetic lifestyle. He was also very generous and ensured the welfare of his friends. According to Plutarch, Arcesilaus was a man respectful of his adversaries.
Philosophy of this Greek thinker
What we know of the philosophical views of Arcesilaus has not come to us from writings in his own handwriting. He did not dedicate himself to writing and his opinions were transmitted by his contemporaries, with which it is deducible that either they could have misinterpreted his words or they did not gather all the thought of Arcesilaus. That is why it is difficult to evaluate the philosophy of this Greek thinker.
Scholars have interpreted his skepticism in several ways.. For some his philosophy is completely negative or destructive, while others consider that nothing can be known on the basis of his philosophical arguments. Some claim that he has no positive views on any philosophical subject, including the probability of knowledge.
The Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus claimed that the philosophy of Arcesilaus seemed, in essence, the same as that of Pyrrhon, but he also admitted that this assessment may have been superficial. Arcesilaus is said to have restored Plato's doctrines uncorrupted, while others, such as Cicero, consider Arcesilaus' view of knowledge to be as follows: If Socrates said "I only know that I know nothing," then Arcesilaus would have added "that he knew nothing, not even his own ignorance."
The main opponents of Arcesilaus' philosophy were the Stoics. This philosopher attacked their doctrine of a cogent conception (katalêptikê phantasia), understood as meaning between knowledge (episteme) and opinion (doxa). He considered that this could not exist and that it was simply an interpolation of the name. For him, all this implied a contradiction in terms, since the very idea of "phantasia" gives rise to the possibility of false and true conceptions of the same element.
Arcesilaus is usually considered a skeptical philosopher. The academic skepticism of the Middle or Second Academy, essentially founded by him, was distinguished from Pyrrhon's view. Taking into account Arcesilaus' idea that one could not even be cognizant of one's own ignorance. Arcesilaus' idea that one could not even be cognizant of one's own ignorance, it seems that, in a sense, skepticism could not advance.it seems that, in a certain sense, skepticism could not advance. What is certain, however, is that the academic skeptics do not seem to have doubted the very existence of reality itself, but rather how we human beings can obtain it in its purest and truest form.
Another aspect in which they differed from Pyrrhonism was in the implementation of their doctrines. While the Pyrrhonists had as their goal the attainment of equanimity (ataraxia), the academic skeptics seem to have opted for the speculation of practical life.. Practical moderation was the fundamental characteristic of academic skeptics since, although they questioned the ways in which knowledge was obtained, they did not question the legitimacy of each point of view, although they did accept some debate.
Criticism of knowledge
Arcesilaus was of the opinion that, with respect to knowledge, one could only have opinions. It was not possible to affirm anything. For him, opinion is nothing more than a lack of knowledge, not wisdom, so there is no certainty.Therefore, there is no certainty that what is known is really known. It is necessary to renounce everything since they are mere beliefs.
He was of the opinion that one cannot distinguish between real and non-real representations of the world, the clearest demonstration of this idea being objects without existence, such as dreams, errors of the senses or madness. We all have, supposedly, a representation of these "objects" lacking physical space.
He says that it is impossible to rely on the data of the senses to reason about the true knowledge of the causes and principles of the world, both physical and immaterial. of the causes and principles of the world, both physical and immaterial. Reason, in reality, knows nothing, since there is no criterion of truth. Everything is hidden in darkness and that nothing can be really perceived or understood, with the result that nothing can ever be assured, nothing can be affirmed, and nothing can ever be approved.
- Laërtius, Diogenes (1925). The Academics: Arcesilaus. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. 1:4. Translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (Two volume ed.). Loeb Classical Library.
- Brittain, Charles. Arcesilaus. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)