Onesicritus A Study In Hellenistic Historiography Essay

1 There are three Greek recensions of the Alexander Romance (A, β and γ), of which the earliest (A) is not later than AD 300 and may be essentially Hellenistic: see the introduction to my Penguin translation of the Romance (1991). It contains some historical material but except in rare cases cannot be used as historical evidence. The encounter with the Brahmans appears in all three recensions at 3.5 ff., and in γ also at 2.35a. In the A recension, chapters 3.7–16 reproduce Palladius De Bragmanibus, which also appears in γ after 2.35a. (See further n. 4). In A, chapter 17 is the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle about India, which becomes a third person narrative in recension β and its derivatives. For convenience I cite my own translation, which is based on the expanded β-recension, L, edited by van Thiel, H., Leben und Taten Alexanders von Makedonien (Darmstadt1983), plus additional material from the other recensions.

2 Alexander historians: FGrH 134 Onesicritus, FGrH 133 Nearchus, FGrH 139 Aristobulus. On these see Pearson, L., The lost histories of Alexander the Great (Chico, CA1983); Brown, T.S., Onesicritus: a study in Hellenistic historiography (Berkeley1949); Pédech, P., Historiens compagnons d'Alexandre (Paris1984), 104–14. The other major classical source on India is Megasthenes (FGrH 175): the fragments are collected in translation in McCrindle, J.W., Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (Calcutta, Bombay and London1877). See also Stein, Otto, Megasthenes und Kautilya, Abh. Kaiserl. Akad. Wiencxci5 (1922).

3 On Greek knowledge of India see the general accounts of Bevan, E.R., ‘India in Greek and Roman literature’, Cambridge History of Indiai (1922), 351–83; J.W. McCrindle, op. cit. (n. 2) and The invasion of India by Alexander the Great (London 1896) and Ancient India described in classical literature (Westminster 1901, repr. Delhi 1979); Lassen, C., Indische Alterthumskunde (Leipzig1847–1862); Majumdar, R.C., The classical accounts of India (Calcutta1960); Sedlar, J.W., India and the Greek world (Totowa NJ1980); Karttunen, K., India in early Greek literature (Helsinki1989)-his work stops short of the period of Alexander; Dihle, A., ‘The conception of India in Hellenistic and Roman literature’, PCPS n.s. x (1964), 15–23; Puri, B.N., India as described by early Greek writers (Allahabad1939); better is the same author's later book, India in classical Greek writings (Ahmedabad 1963).

4 The meeting in the Alexander Romance is greatly expanded in the work of the fifth-century Palladius, De Gentibus Indiae et de Bragmanibus, which contains a much longer version of Dandamis' speech but does not include the question-and-answer episode. An earlier version of Palladius' work has been discovered on papyrus (Pap. Genev. inv. 271 )and is generally interpreted as a Cynic diatribe, which Palladius adapted to his own purposes.

Palladius' work has been interpolated in two of the three main recensions of the Greek Alexander Romance, but does not feature in any of the eastern or western derivatives of the Greek Romance which derive from the lost recension δ*. The short medieval Greek prose Life of Alexander does not contain the encounter with the Brahmans at all, and hence neither does the popular Phyllada tou Megalexantrou. However, the meeting does feature in the Byzantine poem on the Tale of Alexander known as the Rimada, where it follows the same pattern as in the beta versions of the Romance, without the additions of Palladus.

The meeting does appear in Julius Valerius iii 10 ff, which derives from A: it concerns the Brahmans or gymnosophists who live ‘among the Oxydorkai’. The question-and-answer session is given in oratio obliqua, and there is no gift-giving at the end of the episode. In the second Latin translation, by Leo the Archpriest (10th century AD), known as the Historia de Proeliis (ed. Pfister, F., Heidelberg1913), the people are the Oxidraces who ‘dicuntur gymnosofistae’. (iii.5). The episode is very brief in Leo, containing neither Alexander's ‘credo’ nor the gift-giving.

A further variant on the meeting is represented by a Latin work known as the Collatio Alexandri cum Dindimo, (ed. Pfister, F., Kleine Texte zum Alexanderroman, Heidelberg1910) which consists of a long debate in epistolary form on the merits of the Brahmans' ascetic life, in the course of which Alexander criticises them heavily. No Greek original of this text is extant, but one is likely to have existed since the episode is incorporated in all the interpolated versions of the Historia de Proeliis. (See Bergmeister, H.J., Historia de Proeliis: Synoptische Edition der Rezensionen des Leo Archipresbyter und der interpolierten Fassungen J1, J2, J3Meisenheim am Gian1975). One result of this addition is that the meeting with the Brahmans actually appears twice, in different forms, the first time treating them under the name of gymnosophists or naked sophists, and corresponding to the meeting in the Romance, and the second under the name of Brahmans, incorporating the Collatio. See for example Schell, R., Liber Alexandri Magni: Die Alexandergeschichte der Handschrift Paris, B.N. n.a. 1.310 (Munich1989), pp. 170 f. and 178 ff.

In addition, the meeting with the Brahmans is one of only three episodes from the history of Alexander deemed worthy of inclusion in his chronicle by the ninth-century writer George the Monk. (The other two are Alexander's meeting with the High Priest in Jerusalem, which reads like a fashion show report, and the story of Candace.) George's account of the Brahmans is clearly based on Palladius', though he seems also to have been using Bardaisan of Edessa's work on barbarian customs, de Fato.

5 Arr. Anab. vii 2.

6 Arr. Anab. vi 7 and 16; D. S. xvii 102–3.

7McCrindle, J.W., The invasion of India by Alexander the Great (1896), 355 f. Arr. Ind. 4.9 places the Sydracae (i.e. Oxydracae) at the confluence of the Jhelum and the Chenab, which conflicts with the location of his Anabasis. See Brunt, P.A., Arrian (Loeb) ii p. 468.

8 Plin. N.H. vi 64; McCrindle, J.W., Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (1877) 133.

9 D. S. xvii 102.4. Dionysius Periegetes refers to Thirlwall wishes the names to be those of two races containing predominantly the respective castes -quoted by McCrindle (n. 7) 351—surely too neat a solution.

10 Str. xv 1.66.

11 Str. xv 1.59.

12 Plut. Alex. 59.8; cf. Arr. Ind. 11; Str. xv 1.39 (Megasthenes).

13 Arr. Anab. vi 16.5.

14 Quintus Curtius ix 4.15 calls them Sudracae; Pliny, NHxii6 Sydracae; Strabo xv 1.6 Hydracae. The name has been thought (McCrindle, AIDCW 12 n. 1) to be reflected in the city of Uch, but the location of this city is rather far south for the data given by Arrian. Their appearance in the Mahabharata is at ii 52.15 (vol. ii, p. 118 in the translation by J.A.B. van Buitenen (Chicago 1975)).

15 Philostr. Vit.Ap. ii.33.

6 A visit of Alexander to the Ganges crept into the fabulous accounts of his travels quite early: see Craterus' letter to his mother, FGrH 153F2 (= Str. xv 1.35). It became canonical in later works like the lter Alexandri ad Paradisian.

17 Dandamis, and Dandamis' views on the renegade Calanus, play an important role in Palladius' monograph.

18 Str. xv 1.61.

19 Str. xv 63 ff.

20 Ps-Origen 24, quoted in McCrindle, Ancient India 120; see Thapar, Romila, Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas (Delhi1961) pp. 18, 60.

21Apol. 42.

22 The location of the Brahmans beyond the Ganges in the Far East is also found in the Narrative of Zosimus (Ante-Nicene fathers add. vol. ii 219–24), who visits the land of the Brahmans where one would expect the Land of the Blessed: Pfister, F., Kleine Schriften zum Alexanderroman (Meisenheim am Gian1975), 149 f.

23 Str. xv 1.63–65.

24 Str. xv 1.64. Cf.Tarn, W.W., The Greeks in Bactria and India (2nd ed. Cambridge1951) 429 n. 1, who suggests that the first stage was from an Indian local dialect (i.e. a Prakrit) to Sanskrit.

25Pearson, L., The lost histories of Alexander the Great (Chico, CA1983) 99.

26Brown, T.S., Onesicritus (Berkeley1949) ch. 2. On the Cynic elements in Calanus' ideas, especially his selfimmolation, see my article, CQ xliv (1994) 500–510.

27 Pédech, op. cit. (n. 2) 104–14.

28Berg, B., ‘Dandamis: an early Christian portrait of Indian asceticism’, C&Mxxxi (1970) 269–305.

29Sayre, F., Diogenes of Sinope (Baltimore1983) 40.

30 D.L. ix 35.

31 Aristoxenus of Tarentum fr. 53 in Wehrli, , Die Schule des Aristoteles (Basel1945) II p. 24; from Euseb. praep. evang. xi 3.

32 For the Magi, Seneca Ep. 58.31. See Flintoff, E., ‘Pyrrho and India’, Phronesisxxv (1980), 88–108, esp. 105 n.7. Flintoffs article is an argument for strong Indian influence on the philosophy of Pyrrho.

33The Laws of Manu, translated by Doniger, W. with Smith, B.K. (Harmondsworth1991).

34 Cf. Upanishad Mundaka 1.2.11 (forest dwelling is best); Jabala 4. The Sanskrit term is Vanaprastha: C. Lassen, op.cit. in n. 3, ii (1852), 699.

35 Manu vi 87. Cf. Flintoff 99 on Pyrrho's adaptation of this pattern. He cites Bhagat.

36 Str. xv 1.66.

37 Str. xv 1.59.

38 The implication is that they may be found near any city. The same passage of Megasthenes seems to be at the root of Ps. Origen's description of ‘a sect of Brahmans’ who drink of the River Tagabena. Unfortunately the location of this river is undecidable. See further n. 52.

39Dihle, A., ‘The conception of India in Hellenistic and Roman literature’, PCPS n.s. x (1964), 15–23 (21). On Megasthenes see in general Brown, T.S., ‘The reliability of Megasthenes’, AJPlxxvi (1955) 18–33, and O. Stein (n. 2). For the case against Megasthenes, Majumdar, R.C., ‘The Indika of Megasthenes’, JAOSlxxvi (1958) 276.

40 For a lucid account of the requirements of brahmacharya see e.g. Gandhi, M.K., Autobiography (Harmondsworth1982), part iii, chs. 7 and 8, and passim.

41 Str. xv 1.70. The Pramnae are the philosophic kind of Brahmans known as Pramanikas: Mookerji, R.K., Chandragupta Maurya and his times (Delhi etc1943), 309 = fourth edition (1966) 189.

42 Manu iii 1. In other words thirty-seven years is a maximum for the first of the four stages of the Brahmanical life: Mookerji (op.cit. in preceding note) 298=185. Calanus (according to Strabo xv. 1.61, following Aristobulus) said that he could leave his ascetic life after having practised it for ‘forty’ years.

43Cf. Manu iv 1— from life with one's guru to married life; and iii 4.

44 Str. xv 1.57.

45 Str. xv 1.39 and Arr. Ind. 11.

46Thapar, R., Asoka and the dedine of the Mauryas (Delhi1973) 58. For the reliability of Megasthenes, see Mookerji (op. cit. in n. 41) 297–309 = 184–196; Halbfass, W., Indien und Europa (Basel1981), 26–28, of which there is a revised version in India and Europe (Albany 1988) 13–15. Megasthenes receives the ultimate accolade of having a children's comic devoted to his career, Megasthenes the Greek Ambassador to India (Amar Chitra Katha no. 384 (Bombay 1987).)

47 Str. xv 1.61.

48Marshall, J., A guide to Taxila (Cambridge1951) 19 n. 3; Karttunen, K., India in early Greek literature (Helsinki1989) 223.

49Dani, A.H., The Historic City of Taxila (Paris1986), 42 f; Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India 136 f.

50 Dani 168, cf. 130, stating that there are Buddhist monuments from Taxila from the third century BC, contra Sir John Marshall who stated that Bhir mound had Buddhist settlements as early as the sixth to fifth centuries BC.

51Guide to Taxila 3; Palladius de Bragm. ii 4. So also McCrindle, Alexander's invasion, 342–3, and Ancient India as described by classical writers, 22, 33; Puri, B.N., India in classical Greek writings (Ahmedabad1963) 30 f.

52 Is there any connection of the Tamra-nala/Tiberoboam with the river Tagabena beyond which Megasthenes is said (in Ps.-Origen) to have seen a group of ascetic Brahmans? The connection is unconvincing, even if we are suspicious of McCrindle's suggestion (Invasion of India 120) that the Tagabena is the modern Tunghabadra, the Sanskrit name of which was Tungavena. If I were looking for a model for Palladius' Tiberoboam, I might equally pick on Pliny's Tonberum (NH vi 96), which was apparently near the mouth of the Indus, or the river Tamrapani in south India. The similarity of this latter name to Tambapanni, the Indian name for Ceylon, which the Greeks called Taprobane, suggests that there may, somewhere here, be a reason for the medieval location of the Brahmans in the island of Taprobane (e.g. in the Book of Sir John Mandeville, World's Classics ed. p. 32). Palladius' information on the Brahmans is alleged to come from a Theban scholastikos who visited Taprobane ‘where the Makrobioi live’. He does not locate the Brahmans in Taprobane, but a reader ignorant of geography might conclude that he did. But I cannot believe that there is anything to be gained for history by consideration of these names.

53 Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India 415, and J.D.M. Derrett in his edition of Palladius hint at such a view. See below on the implications of the dialogue form.

54Derrett, J.D.M., ‘The History of Palladius on the Races of India and the Brahmans’, C&Mxxi (1960), 64–135; the reference is to pages 74–76.

55 Thapar, Asoka 60; Sayre, Diogenes, 42, followed by J. Sedlar, India and the Greek world 68 ff. Cf. also. O. Stein, op. cit. (n. 2) 292. The name of Jains may have been known to late classical antiquity, as Hesychius has a lemma which in Stein's view (293) could be derived from Megasthenes.

56Craven, R.C., Indian Art (London1976) 33 asserts that the philosophers Alexander met were Jains, specifically those of one of the two main sects, known as Digambaras, ‘those who are clothed in air’. Cf.Dundas, P., The Jains (London1992) 40–8, esp. 42.

57 Nudity: e.g. Rig Veda hymn 10.136.

58Bouquet, A.C., Hinduism (2nd ed.London1962) 64; Dundas, The Jains, 155. It seems however to be implied by Archelaus FGrH 123F1 (ap. Solinus lii 18–23), who describes an Indian race who go naked, live on vegetables (but also fish) and whose sick creep away to die. However, they also eat the flesh of dead relatives, which casts doubt on the value of this testimony.

59 Str. xv 1.68. Megasthenes shows knowledge of Jain doctrines according to O. Stein, op. cit. (n. 2) 294.

60 Dani 93.

61Chatterjee, A.K., A comprehensive history of Jainism (Calcutta1978) i17–43.

62 Str. xv 1.61.

63 Dundas, The Jains 134. Bardaisan ap. Stob. Phys. i 54 mentions the shaving of bodies. (Translation in McCrindle, Ancient India as described in classical literature, 167–9).

64Anderson, G., Philostratus (Beckenham1986), 210. The Samanaioi of Bardaisan (cited in Porphyry, de Abst. iv 18) have a monastic organization but do practise suicide by fire. Curiouser and curiouser…

65 Dundas, The Jains 104.

66 Laws of Manu iv 36.

67 Thapar Asoka 59.

68 Clem. Strom, i 15. 71.3–6. P. 359 P (= Megasthenes fr. 43 in McCrindle, Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian):

69 McCrindle, Ancient India as described by classical writers, p. 65.

70 Dihle 22. McCrindle 98 confidently takes the sramanas to be Buddhists. Lang, D.M., Wisdom of Balahvar (London1957) 24 says that classical sources ‘refer to Buddhists ‥ as Samanians’.

71 Buddhism as a doctrine must have been known to Greeks dwelling in the land of its origin, at least if any of them troubled to read the two Greek-language inscribed edicts of King Asoka (third century BC) announcing his conversion to Buddhist practice: see Schlumberger, D. et al. , ‘Une bilingue gréco-araméenne d'Asoka’, Journal Asiatiqueccxlvi (1958) 1 and Schlumberger, D., ‘Une nouvelle inscription grecque d'Asoka’, Journal Asiatiquecclii (1964) 137; these items have entered scholarly discussion in Halbfass, W., India and Europe (Albany1988) 19 and 457 n. 98, and Sherwin-White, S. and Kuhrt, A., From Samarkhand to Sardis (London1993) 101–2, both with further bibliography. But this would not necessarily make even local Greeks any clearer about the difference of Buddhist and other forms of asceticism. The name of Buddha does appear on a coin of the Kushan king Kanishka (late 1 steady 2nd c. CE) wisth a representation of the Buddha inscribed in Greek BOΔΔ (reproduced in Craven, R.C., Indian Art (London1975) 85). Thereafter the Buddha appears in classical texts from time to time. Jerome adv. Jovin. I writes that the gymnosophists have the doctrine of the birth of Buddha from the side of a (virgin) mother. One does encounter statements such as that ‘the classical world would have become acquainted with the Buddhist religion at the time of Alexander the Great's expedition to India’, (D.M. Lang, loc.cit.). Lang goes on to say that Buddhist teachings were absorbed by Gnostic philosophers including the Elkesaites from whom Mani sprang. Bardaisan acquired information on Buddhism from Indian ambassadors to Elagabalus, according to Porphyry De Styge ap. Stob. i 3.56 9144) ff; see Anderson, G., Philostratus (Beckenham1986) 209. But in the Book of the Laws of Countries he describes only Brahmans, who abstain from idolatry, sexual intercourse, meat and wine. (Cureton, W., Spicilegium Syriacum (1855) 17). In an unnamed work by Bardaisan quoted by Jerome (adv. Jovin. 2.14). Bardesanes. vir Babylonius, in duo dogmata apud Indos gymnosophistas dividit: quorum alterum appelat Brachmanas; alterum Samanaeos. These too live by the Ganges. Bardaisan got his information probably from Indian ambassadors to the emperor Elagabalus; see Drijvers, H.J.W., Bardaisan of Edessa (Assen1966) 175, 218.

72 O. Stein (n. 2) 290.

73 Dihle(n. 3)21.

74 Flintoff (n. 32) 100 f.

75 B.N. Puri (n. 3 (1939)) 29; cf. R.K. Mookerji (n. 4) 304=189.

76 Dundas, The Jains 104. Maybe even later: Schübring, W., The doctrine of the Jainas (Delhi etc1962), 50–51.

77 OED: ‘properly an indigent person [[Arabic faqir], but specially applied to a Mahommedan (sic) religious mendicant, and then loosely and inaccurately to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics.’

78 Dundas, The Jains 146.

79 Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India 414–36.

80 Fourth Omen in Mahavastu tr. J.J. Jones; cited from D.M. Lang, The Wisdom of Balahvar 15–16. This encounter is the basis also of Josaphat's encounter with the monk Barlaam in the Romance of Barlaam and Josaphat attributed to John Damascene. However, there is no reason to believe that the story of Barlaam and Josaphat reached Greek ears before the 10th-11th century AD. (St John Damascene (Loeb edition) introd. by D.M. Lang, xxxvi if). One may note that the testing of the false Barlaam by the king's picked sages is an important episode in Barlaam and Josaphat, with death as the penalty for losing; another king-and-philosopher conflict.

81Rhys Davids, T.W., The Questions of King Milinda (London1890–1894).

82Rhys Davids, T.W., Sacred Books of the East (London1890–1894) xxxv–xxxvi; Tarn, loc.cit.; D.M. Lang, Wisdom of Balahvar 151–6.

83 Tarn, loc cit.

84Merkelbach, R., Die Quellen des griechischen Alexanderromans2 (Munich1977).

85Derrett, J.D.M., ‘Greece and India: the Milindapanha, the Alexander-romance and the Gospels,’ Zschr. f. Religions- und Geistesgeschichtexix (1967) 33–64.

86Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad is a good example (pp. 127–32 in the Penguin selection). West, M.L., Early Greek philosophy and the Orient (Oxford1971) 201, rightly castigates classical scholars for being ‘frightened of Upanishads’.

87 Iamblichus Vit. Pyth. 82.

88 D. S. ix 26.

89 D. L. i 103–4. Another poser put to Anacharsis was ‘What among men is both good and bad?’ ‘The tongue’. (This occurs also in Vit. Aesopi 51–55). Anacharsis also praised a life according to nature, according to Ep. 9 in the supposititious collection (p. 48.29 f. in A. Malherbe's edition). On the letters of Anacharsis see also Reuters, F.H., Die Briefe des Anacharsis (Berlin1963). The collection belongs to early Hellenistic times: Kindstrand, J.F., Anacharsis: the legend and the Apophthegmata (Uppsala1981), 63 f.

90 Plut. Alexander 64. The questions vary slightly in all the versions: e.g. Julius Valerius iii 12, ‘To whom may a man not lie?-God’.

91Boissonade, , Anecdota Graecai45–6 (codex regius Paris. 1630), containing several collections of aphorisms and wisdom texts. The date of this text is unknown; it could as well be an excerpt from Plutarch as a forerunner.

92PBerol 13044 of c 100 BC (= FGrH 153.9); ed. Wilcken, U., ‘Alexander der Grosse und die indischen Gymnosophisten’, SB Berlin1923, 161 ff. This story also influenced the Jewish accounts of Alexander's encounter with the sages of the South: see Wallach, L., ‘Alexander the Great and the Indian Gymnosophists in Hebrew tradition’, Proc. Amer. Acad. Jewish Researchxi (1941) 47–83; Kazis, I. (ed.), The Book of the Gests of Alexander of Macedon (Cambridge MA1962).

93Cf. AIT. Anab. vi 16.

94 Alexander is again the addressee of a discourse on kingship in Dio Chrysostom, On Kingship; on which see Jones, C.P., The Roman world of Dio Chrysostom (Cambridge, Mass.1978) 116–9.

95 It is possible that India turned Alexander's head. Recognised as a son of Dionysus in Nysa (QCR viii 10.1) he began to see himself as a god from now onwards: Goukowsky, P., Essai sur les origines de la légende d'Alexandre (Paris1978). However he may have appeared to the Nysaeans, this was not a view that could commend itself to the Hindu Brahmans. His claim to divinity became more aggressive after the death of Hephaestion (who does not feature in the Romance); the Romance situates his claim in the context of his penetration of the furthest east.

96Merkelbach, R., Die Quellen des griechischen Alexanderromans2 (Munich1977) 74.

97 Derrett (n. 84).

98van Thiel, H., ‘Alexanders Gespräch mit den Gymnosophisten’, Hermesc (1972) 343–59; Huizinga, J., Homo ludens (London1970) ch. 6.

99 van Thiel op. cit.

100Dudley, D.R., History of Cynicism (London1937) 95.

101 D. L. ii 108.

102 D. L. ii 106 ff.

103 D. L. n 113–20, esp. 119, the Vegetable Puzzle; RE s.v. Megarikoi. Diodorus Cronus denied ambiguity: Aul. Gell, ii 2.

104Cf. Lucian Vitarum audio 22. Long, A.A., BICSxviii (1971) 26; also Long, , Hellenistic philosophy (London1974) index s.v. ‘Megarians’.

105 Str. xv 1.63.

106 It is not impossible that the Alexander Romance influenced the Milindapanha, as Derrett suggests; but I would disagree with his suggestion that Anantakaya in the Milindapanha could be identified with Onesicritus, who has no part in this story. Hamilton in his commentary on Plutarch's Alexander ad loc. (p. 179) regards the entire encounter as unhistorical.

107Brown, T.S., Onesicritus (Berkeley1949) 47–8.

108Conybeare, J., Harris, R. and Lewis, H.The Story of Ahikar (Cambridge1898).

109Wills, L.M., The Jew in the court of the foreign king (Minneapolis1990).

110Perry, B.E., Aesopica (Urbana1952). The story-pattern became entrenched in Greek literature, and reappears strikingly in Plutarch's Dinner of the Seven Sages (153a ff.) suggesting that the motif may well be grounded in Greek folklore. Curiously it is introduced in the text by a request from Amasis, Pharaoh of Egypt, to Bias for assistance in a contest of wits with the king of the Ethiopians, a situation recalling the contest of Nectanebo and Esarhaddon in the tale of Ahiqar which provided the basis for an episode in the Life of Aesop.

111Perry, B.E., The Life of Secundus the Philosopher (Ithaca1964).

For the American technical death metal band, see Pyrrhon (band).

Bornc. 360 BC
Elis, Greece
Diedc. 270 BC
Elis, Greece
EraAncient philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy

Notable ideas


Pyrrho of Elis[1] (; Greek: Πύρρων ὁ ἨλεῖοςPyrron ho Eleios, c. 360 – c. 270 BC) was a Greek philosopher of Classical antiquity and is credited as being the first Greek skeptic philosopher.


Pyrrho of Elis is estimated to have lived from around 365-360 BC until 275-270 BC.[2] Pyrrho was from Elis, on the Ionian Sea. 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 Laertius became acquainted with the Megarian dialectic through Bryson, pupil of Stilpo.[3]

While little is known for certain about Pyrrho’s philosophy and life, his primary influencers were most likely early philosophers whose work focused on the indeterminacy of the world, such as Plato and the Eleatics.[2] It is thought that he was taught by Anaxarchus of Abdera, and was also influenced by Eastern philosophy he encountered on a trip to India with Alexander the Great.[4]

Diogenes reports that Pyrrho, along with Anaxarchus, travelled with Alexander the Great on his exploration of the East, 'so that he even went as far as the Gymnosophists in India and the Magi' in Persia. This exposure to Eastern philosophy seems to have inspired him to adopt a life of solitude; returning to Elis, he lived in poor circumstances, but was highly honored by the Elians and also by the Athenians, who conferred upon him the rights of citizenship.[3]

Pyrrho wrote nothing. His doctrines were recorded in the writings of his pupil Timon of Phlius. Unfortunately these works are mostly lost. Today Pyrrho's ideas are known mainly through the book Outlines of Pyrrhonism written by Sextus Empiricus.[3]

Sources on Pyrrho[edit]

Pyrrho did not produce any written work detailing his philosophical principles.[4] Most of the information on Pyrrho’s principles comes from his most notable follower, Timon of Phlius, whose summary of Pyrrho's teachings are preserved in the Aristocles passage.[4] However, there are conflicting interpretations of the ideas presented in this passage, each of which leads to a different conclusion as to what Pyrrho meant.[4]

Most biographical information on Pyrrho, as well as some information concerning his demeanor and behavior, come from the works of mid-third century BC biographer Antigonus of Carystus.[4] Biographical anecdotes from Diogenes Laertius are also frequently cited; his work on Pyrrho's life drew primarily from Antigonus' accounts.[4]


As Pyrrho left no written teachings, the exact details of his philosophy are uncertain. Most sources agree that the primary goal of Pyrrho’s philosophy was the achievement of a state of ataraxia,[4] or freedom from worry,[2] and that he observed that ataraxia could be brought about by eschewing beliefs about thoughts and perceptions.

However, Pyrrho’s own philosophy may have differed significantly from the later Pyrrhonists.[2] 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.[2]

A summary of Pyrrho's philosophy was preserved by Eusebius, quoting Aristocles, quoting Timon, in what is known as the "Aristocles passage."

"Whoever wants to live well (eudaimonia) must consider these three questions: First, how are pragmata (ethical matters, affairs, topics) by nature? Secondly, what attitude should we adopt towards them? Thirdly, what will be the outcome for those who have this attitude?" Pyrrho's answer is that "As for pragmata they are all adiaphora (undifferentiated by a logical differentia), astathmēta (unstable, unbalanced, not measurable), and anepikrita (unjudged, unfixed, undecidable). Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our doxai (views, theories, beliefs) tell us the truth or lie; so we certainly should not rely on them. Rather, we should be adoxastous (without views), aklineis (uninclined toward this side or that), and akradantous (unwavering in our refusal to choose), saying about every single one that it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[5]

The main principle of Pyrrho's thought is expressed by the word acatalepsia, which connotes the ability to withhold assent from doctrines regarding the truth of things in their own nature; against every statement its contradiction may be advanced with equal justification.[3]


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 lead a revival of the philosophy. Pyrrhonism was one of the two major schools of skeptical thought that emerged during the Hellenistic period, the other being Academic skepticism.[6]

Aenesidemus developed ten arguments to be used as justification for suspending all judgement on the true nature of things.[7] A further set of five arguments was developed by Agrippa the Skeptic.[7] These arguments, as well as several other sets of tropes used as justification for suspending judgement, are presented in the texts of Sextus Empiricus, whose works contain the most detailed surviving account of Pyrrhonist practice.[6]

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 cure suffering and unhappiness through achieving suspension of judgment.[7] 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 on the topic. The Pyrrhonist develops suspension of judgment as a habitual response to all matters of dispute, achieving a state of “epoche” – a general suspension of judgement about the real nature of things. Reaching epoche results in ataraxia, or freedom of worry, which relieves the practitioner of the causes of unhappiness.[2]

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-Hellenic period.[6]

Pyrrhonism has three styles of practice, or types of practitioners. These are the ephectic (a "suspension of judgment"), zetetic ("engaged in seeking"), and aporetic ("engaged in refutation").[8]

Indian influences on Pyrrho[edit]

Diogenes Laertius' biography of Pyrrho[9] reports that Pyrrho traveled with Alexander the Great's army to India 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. Elements of scepticism were already present in Greek philosophy, particularly in the Democritean tradition in which Pyrrho had studied prior to visiting India. Pyrrhonism was a logical extension of these, requiring no exogenous influences. 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.[10]

According to Christopher I. Beckwith's analysis of the Aristocles Passage, adiaphora, astathmēta, and anepikrita are strikingly similar to the Buddhist Three marks of existence,[11] indicating that Pyrrho's teaching is based on Buddhism. Beckwith disputes Bett's argument about the translators, as the other reports of using translators in India, involving Alexander the Great and Nearchus, say they needed only one interpreter, and Onesicritus was criticized by other writers in antiquity for exaggerating. Besides, Pyrrho spent about 18 months in India, which is long enough to learn a foreign language.[12]

It has been hypothesized that the gymnosophists were Jains, or Ajnanins , and that these are likely influences on Pyrrho.


Pyrrhonism regained prominence in the late fifteenth century.[6] The publication of the works of Sextus Empiricus played a major role in Renaissance and Reformation thought. Philosophers of the time used his works to source their arguments on how to deal with the religious issues of their day. Girolamo Savonarola was one of the first thinkers to apply Pyrrhonist reasoning to the defense of true religion. Major philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne, Marin Mersenne, and Pierre Gassendi later drew on the model of Pyrrhonism outlined in Sextus Empiricus’ works for their own arguments. This resurgence of Pyrrhonism has been called the beginning of modern philosophy.[6] Pyrrhonism also affected the development of historiography. Historical Pyrrhonism emerged during the early modern peiord and played a significant role in shaping modern historiography. Historical Pyrrhonism questioned the possibility of any absolute knowledge from the past and transformed later historian's selection of and standard for reliable sources.[16]

See also[edit]



  • Algra, K., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J. and Schofield, M. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Annas, Julia and Barnes, Jonathan, The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Barua, Benimadhab (1921). A History of Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (1st ed.). London: University of Calcutta. p. 468. 
  • Beckwith, Christopher I., Greek Buddha. Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2015.
  • Bett, Richard, "Aristocles on Timon on Pyrrho: The Text, Its Logic and its Credibility" Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 12, (1994): 137-181.
  • Bett, Richard, "What did Pyrrho Think about the Nature of the Divine and the Good?" Phronesis 39, (1994): 303-337.
  • Bett, Richard, Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Brunschwig, Jacques, "Introduction: the Beginnings of Hellenistic Epistemology" in Algra, Barnes, Mansfeld and Schofield (eds.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 229-259.
  • Burnyeat, Myles (ed.), The Skeptical Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
  • Burnyeat, Myles and Frede, Michael (eds.), The Original Sceptics: A Controversy, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
  • Doomen, Jasper, "The Problems of Scepticism" Logical Analysis and History of Philosophy 10 (2007): 36-52.
  • Flintoff, Everard (1980). "Pyrrho and India". Phronesis. Brill. 25 (1): 88–108. JSTOR 4182084. 
  • Halkias, Georgios, "The Self-immolation of Kalanos and other Luminous Encounters among Greeks and Indian Buddhists in the Hellenistic world". Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Vol. VIII, 2015: 163-186.
  • Hankinson, R.J., The Sceptics, London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Jayatilleke, K.N. (1963). Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge(PDF) (1st ed.). London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. p. 524. 
  • Kuzminski, Adrian, Pyrrhonism; How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2008.
  • Long, A.A., Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics, University of California Press, 1986.
  • Long, A.A. and Sedley, David, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Striker, Gisela, "On the difference between the Pyrrhonists and the Academics" in G. Striker, Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 135-149.
  • Striker, Gisela, "Sceptical strategies" in G. Striker, Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 92-115.
  • Striker, Gisela, "The Ten Tropes of Aenesidemus" in G. Striker, Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 116-134.
  • Svavarsson, Svavar Hrafn, "Pyrrho’s dogmatic nature", The Classical Quarterly, 52 (2002): 248-56.
  • Svavarsson, Svavar Hrafn, "Pyrrho’s undecidable nature", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 27 (2004): 249-295.

External links[edit]

  1. ^Hugh Chisholm, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 696. 
  2. ^ abcdefHome., Bett, Richard Arnot (2000). Pyrrho, his antecedents, and his legacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198250654. OCLC 43615424. 
  3. ^ abcd One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Pyrrho of Elis". Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 696. 
  4. ^ abcdefgBett, Richard; Zalta, Edward (Winter 2014). "Pyrrho". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2/19/2018. 
  5. ^Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia(PDF). Princeton University Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  6. ^ abcdePopkin, Richard Henry (2003). The History of Scepticism : from Savonarola to Bayle (Revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198026716. OCLC 65192690. 
  7. ^ abcPierre., Hadot, (2002). What is ancient philosophy?. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674013735. OCLC 48857664. 
  8. ^Pulleyn, William (1830). The Etymological Compendium, Or, Portfolio of Origins and Inventions. T. Tegg. p. 353. 
  9. ^"The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers". Peithô's Web. Retrieved March 23, 2016. 
  10. ^Richard Bett, Pyrrho, His Antecedents and His Legacy, 2000, p177-8.
  11. ^Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia(PDF). Princeton University Press. p. 28. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  12. ^Beckwith, Christopher I. (2015). Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia. Princeton University Press. p. 221. ISBN 9781400866328. 
  13. ^1985-, Matytsin, Anton M.,. The specter of skepticism in the age of Enlightenment. Baltimore. ISBN 9781421420530. OCLC 960048885. 

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