What Role Did Skepticism Play in the Conquests of Alexander the Great?

What Role Did Skepticism Play in the Conquests of Alexander the Great?

Anaxarchus and Pyrrho. These are two names which are not as well known to the general public as those of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Yet these men are no less important. While the latter three philosophers greatly impacted philosophical study by unraveling the layers of the fundamental wisdom of physis, logos and ethos (nature, reason and ethics), Anaxarchus and Pyrrho dealt directly with one of the most powerful leaders in the ancient world: Alexander the Great. Their dealings introduced the "new" Greek skepticism into the Hellenistic world, and impacted one of the greatest military leaders of the ancient world.

Anaxarchus the Happy Skeptic

Anaxarchus of Abdera was not only a friend of Alexander the Great, but also a longstanding companion. A philosopher following in the footsteps of Democritus (a pre-Socratic philosopher who developed an early atomic theory of the universe), Anaxarchus is considered a forerunner of a Greek skepticism, as he valued nothing of the world around him and followed in his teacher's (Diogenes of Smyrna) footsteps in believing that they know nothing and everyone knows nothing, regardless of study and intellect. This simplistic thinking eventually earned Anaxarchus the moniker of eudaimonia, the Greek word for happiness or fortune, as he found contentment and pleasure in all aspects of life—a philosophical variation of "ignorance is bliss", it seems. His student, Pyrrho, furthered Anaxarchus' views and values, both while they traveled together with Alexander the Great, and after they parted ways.

Alexander the Great and Diogenes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1770s)

Alexander the Great and Diogenes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1770s) ( Public Domain )

Pyrrho’s Mindset Skepticism A Healthy Skepticism for Alexander?

Credited with introducing skepticism into Ancient Greek philosophy, this early form was called Pyrrhonism after himself. Though Pyrrho wrote nothing of these teaching himself, Sextus Empiricus copied the transcriptions from Timon of Philus, thereby allowing later generations to read and understand something of this early form of skeptical thought. Eusebius, Greek historian of the fourth century, records Pyrrho's beliefs twice removed from Timon, but no less relevant. He says that to live in happiness (also called eudaimonia in the Greek), one must consider the nature of ethical affairs, our attitudes toward those affairs, and that the outcome of these affairs might be dependent on said attitudes. In essence, Pyrrho believed that everything came back to the mindset of those involved in the world's problems. Pyrrho seemed to follow the notion that whatever those mindsets regarding these affairs, one could never accomplish a full, absolute certainty of anything in the human world. This idea is called  acatalepsy, or the incomprehensibleness of everything.

Pyrrho, ancient Greek philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655)

Pyrrho, ancient Greek philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655) ( Public Domain )

A Healthy Skepticism for Alexander?

So how did those beliefs, along with those of Anaxarchus, affect or influence Alexander the Great? Anaxarchus preached that all laws were "conventional"; none were natural and therefore, obeying such laws was not helpful to society but rather detrimental. He likened the human experience to the experiences of "dreamers and madmen" because both of those are trying to achieve unachievable results. This is reflected in the way Anaxarchus looked after Alexander. One of the more famous stories of Alexander's life is a quarrel he had with a close friend, in which he murdered his friend in a blind rage. Following this, Alexander is reported to have realized his mistake and attempted to commit suicide to right the wrong he had achieved. In this infamous (and likely somewhat fabricated tale), Alexander is saved by his guards and weeps in his chambers. Anaxarchus tells him that he (Alexander) is the one who makes the laws; as the great conqueror and warrior, student of Aristotle and self-proclaimed semi-divine warrior, Alexander should be enslaved to no laws but those he creates. Anaxarchus, therefore, was as much Alexander's cheerleader as he was the Ph.D. advisor every scholar hopes to have—he who will slap the student back into gear.

Pyrrho’s Extremism

Pyrrho also traveled far with Alexander's entourage, both he and Anaxarchus going as far as India. However, where Anaxarchus' skepticism stopped, Pyrrho's continued. Anaxarchus appreciated luxury and possessions, even though he recognized they had no value. This possibly gave Alexander the confidence to continue his "plundering" and conquering within the constraints of his advisors' teachings. Pyrrho, alternatively, completely rejected all forms of luxury, eventually leaving Anaxarchus and Alexander to live a life of total and complete solitude. Unlike Anaxarchus, Pyrrho aimed for ataraxia, or total and complete apathy. Apathy, in Pyrrho's skeptical severity, meant no opinions, and no opinions meant no need for action. In the same way Anaxarchus felt all laws were valueless, so did Pyrrho feel about action: "All action is the result of preference, and preference is the belief that one thing is better than another…and all belief in delusion…" In a very simplistic way, Pyrrho's teachings would have seemingly brought Alexander back down to earth—away from the conquering and pillaging, and toward a life content with calm tranquility. It is not a wonder, then, why Pyrrho chose to leave Alexander, since Alexander continued his expeditions with Anaxarchus right alongside him, claiming luxuries in the name of knowing luxuries were ultimately meaningless.

Alexander the Great Receiving News of the Death by Immolation of the Indian Gymnosophist Calanus by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, 1672

Alexander the Great Receiving News of the Death by Immolation of the Indian Gymnosophist Calanus by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, 1672 ( Public Domain )

Should We Be Skeptical of the Record?

Neither Anaxarchus nor Pyrrho wrote down their teachings into any sort of text or doctrine. Pyrrho's student Timon recorded some of Pyrrho's teachings, but even those have been lost through the curse of time and war. However fortunate it is that some of Anaxarchus' and Pyrrho's teaching are recorded in later texts—such as those of Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Empiricus—it is equally unfortunate that these writings are prone to the interpretation and accidental (or intentional) bastardization of the writers.  Thus, while the impact of Anaxarchus and Pyrrho on Alexander is somewhat shrouded in unproven and biased "anecdotes", the teachings of these great men are still best explained through an analysis of these anecdotes, regardless of how far removed they are. As both philosophers stated, eudaimonia lies in knowing that one knows nothing and that objects are meaningless; so perhaps in knowing little of their precise teachings, we are, in fact, given a lesson greater than that which they gave Alexander himself.

Top image: The philosopher Pyrrho from Elis, in an anecdote taken from Sextus Empiricus' Pyrrhonic Sketches by Petrarca-Meister ( Public Domain )

By Ryan Stone


Annas, Julia and Jonathan Barnes. 1985. The Modes of Scepticism: Ancient Texts and Modern Interpretations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers . (trans. Robert Drew, 1925.) Loeb Classical Library.

O'Keefe, Tim. "Anaxarchus (c. 380-270 B.C.E.)" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy . Accessed June 8, 2017.

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