previous next

Sextus Empi'ricus

was a physician, and received his name Empiricus from belonging to the school of Empirici. He was a pupil of Herodotus of Tarsus (Diog. Laert. ix.; Timon), who was a physician, and apparently a contemporary of Galen. Sextus may, therefore, have lived in the first half of the third century of the Christian aera. Nothing is known of his life. He belonged to the Sceptici.


Two works of Sextus are extant. The two works are a great repository of doubts; the language is as clear and perspicuous as the subject will allow.

Doctrines of the Sceptics
(Πυρρώνιαι Ὑποτύπωσεις σκεπτικὰ ὑπομνήματα

The Πυρρώνιαι Ὑποτύπωσεις σκεπτικὰ ὑπομνήματα, contains the doctrines of the Sceptici, in three books.

Against the Mathematici
(Πρὸς τοὺς μαθηματικοὺς ἀντιρρητικοί

The second work, entitled, Πρὸς τοὺς μαθηματικοὺς ἀντιρρητικοί, against the Mathematici, in eleven books, is an attack upon all positive philosophy. The first six books are a refutation of the six sciences of grammatic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astrology, and music. The remaining five books are directed against logicians, physical philosophers, and ethical writers, and form, in fact, a distinct work, which may be viewed as belonging to the Ὑποτυπώσεις.

Lost Medical Works

None of the medical works of Sextus are extant, though it appears from his own writings that he did write on medical subjects.


Latin Editions

H. Stephens published the first Latin translation of the Hypotyposes, in 1562, 8vo. The first Latin translation of the work against the Mathematici is by G. Hervet, Antwerp and Paris, 1569, 1601, fol.

Greek Editions

The first edition of the Greek text of both works was that of Paris, 1621, fol.; but Geneva is often stated to be the place of publication : it is probable that some copies were printed with Paris on the title page, and others with Geneva. The second edition was that of J. A. Fabricius, Leipzig, 1718, fol. which contains the Latin version and some emendations; but the text has not yet been revised with sufficient care. The edition of J. G. Mund is a reprint of the text of Fabricius, with a commentary ; but only one part has appeared, which contains the text of the Hypotyposes, Halle, 1796, 4to.


Buhle translated the Hypotyposes, Lemgo, 1801, 8vo. There is a French translation of the Hypotyposes, in 1725, 12mo., which was probably published at Amsterdam. The anonymous translator is said to be the Sieur Huart, a teacher of mathematics; but the translation is not highly spoken of.


Sextus is the only Greek sceptic whose complete works we possess; and we may probably assume that he has collected all that could be said against the Dogmatici, and all that the Sceptici had to say for themselves. He does not present what he says as his own, but as the exposition of the sceptical school. Ritter (Gesch. der Philosophie, vol. iv. p. 299. &c.) has a long dissertation on Sextus, which as usual is not favourable. His philosophy of negations is certainly not satisfactory, nor is Ritter's judgment on Sextus. Much that he finds fault with, is precisely that which some thinkers will set a value on. The chief objection that Ritter makes against him is, that he does not keep his exposition of Scepticism free from such assertions as destroy Scepticism itself. He "denies that there is any general moral rule of life which can be prescribed (Adv. Math. 11.203), because every man must order his life according to chance and circumstances, whereas, however, this general rule of life is excepted, that a man must direct himself according to circumstances." But it seems no contradiction to say that there is no general rule to guide us in all circumstances, and yet to say that we must do as well as we can without such a rule. Sextus maintains that scepticism alone can make a man happy, because it teaches that nothing is naturally (φύσει) good or bad (Adv. Math. 11.208). The meaning of the proposition depends on the meaning that is to be given to Nature, that much abused word. Nature is nothing more tlan the constitution of all things by the will of God and the notion of good and bad, which is a notion of limited practical application, is not applicable to the general constitution of all things. Such contradictions as these, however, though in truth they do not necessarily involve contradictions, Ritter observes, are only in part to be attributed to the unskilfulness of Sextus : the greater part are to be attributed to the direction that Greek scepticism in general took, or to its tendency particularly among the later Sceptici.

Ritter considers that the old sceptical objections were mainly designed to oppose the reasons founded on the intellect to the purely sensuous view of things. But the objections of the Sceptici, as they appear in Sextus, are solely directed against philosophical systems : the Sceptici are disposed to consider phaenomena as true for practical purposes, but to reject all scientific investigation of them as idle inquiries. Accordingly, they assume a kind of practical art, which is based on experience; and admit that a useful art of life may be derived from the observation of many particular cases. (Adv. Math. 8.8.)

It is an exemplification of the nature of the sceptical doctrines, as exhibited by Sextus, that the objections to mathematical science are not directed against reckoning by number and against mensuration, but against the scientific form of mathematics, and mainly against its fundamental notions; against the admissibility of proof, and against axioms, against the notion of body, divisibility into equal parts, and the like. The object of the modern scepticism thus appears to be to stop all progress in science which has not utility for its object, and to treat it as a pestilent luxury ; in which view there is both wisdom and folly ; wisdom, inasmuch as some purpose of utility is the end of all science, and folly, inasmuch as utility is not always best attained by proceeding directly towards it. The Sceptici did not go so far as to deny that much useful knowledge was traditional, and might be communicated by speech and writing ; for no man's sole experience is sufficient to give him all useful knowledge.

Ritter admits that the Sceptici have urged many things that are well worthy of consideration, both against the form and the matter of the sciences ; and this is true. Their notion of the relation of cause and effect was connected with their notion of the being of God, whom they acknowledged to be the supreme activity (Pyrrh. Hyp. 3.2, δραστικώτατον αἴτιον). They showed clearly the contradictions which existed in all attempts to define the nature of God after the measure of human notions : that passions and motives are attributed to him, which passions and motives imply some change in the patient, and this is inconsistent with the nature of God. Even the attributing of particular virtuous qualities to God is an inconsistency, inasmuch as God, a perfect being, cannot be said to exercise virtues which in themselves imply the possibility of vice. The sun of their objections, properly viewed, is this, that God is incomprehensible.

It is difficult to form a just estimate of the value of what Sextus has collected. A good translation and a careful analysis of the work would be worth a man's labour. The sceptical arguments were directed against proof; but there is evidence which is not demonstration, and yet is sufficient, not only for practical purposes, but for a philosophical conviction. All conviction is not and cannot be founded on demonstration. The ultimate truths do not, in their nature, admit of demonstration, for there is nothing from which the demonstration can proceed. If a man, then, cannot have a conviction of these ultimate truths, he must reject them, or live in doubt.


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: