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Plutarch's Adversus Colotem and the Cyrenaics: 1120C-1121E

Le Contre Colotès de Plutarque et les Cyrénaïques : 1120C-1121E (§ 24-25)
Il Contro Colote di Plutarco e i Cirenaici: 1120C-1121E (§ 24)
James Warren


Lecture du Contre Colotès de Plutarque (1120C-1121E), avec des références aux autres témoignages conservés sur l’épistémologie cyrénaïque. Cette contribution examine en particulier deux affirmations de Plutarque : (1) que Colotès a raison d’affirmer que les Cyrénaïques sont incapables d’offrir un mode de vie viable fondé sur leur épistémologie et (2) que les Épicuriens tels que les définit Colotès sont eux-mêmes dans une position similaire.

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Notes de l’auteur

A version of this essay was presented at a conference on Adv. Col. held in Lyon in April 2010. I thank the organisers, Pierre-Mariel Morel, Thomas Bénatouïl, and Valéry Laurand, and also Mauro Bonazzi, Luca Castagnoli, Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, André Laks, Emidio Spinelli, and Francesco Verde for their comments.

Texte intégral

1The section of Adv. Col. dealing with Colotes’ attack on the Cyrenaics takes a familiar and obvious form. Plutarch first presents in § 24 what he takes to be Colotes’ rash and ill-informed criticism of the Cyrenaics’ epistemology and shows in what way Colotes has misunderstood them. Next, in § 25 Plutarch turns to show that the criticisms which Colotes launched against the Cyrenaics are in fact problems which apply to the Epicureans’ epistemological views and that, far from landing blows against his opponents, Colotes has instead demonstrated various insurmountable obstacles to his own preferred philosophy. Plutarch then imagines an Epicurean attempt to distinguish their view from the Cyrenaics’ stance and dismisses it.

2This section of the work is interesting in various ways. It is one of our best sources for reconstructing the original Cyrenaic epistemological view and the considerations that may have led the Cyrenaics to hold it. It is also a good demonstration of Plutarch’s strategy in answering Colotes: he tries to show that the problems which Colotes identifies in the Cyrenaics’ philosophy in fact apply forcefully to the Epicureans themselves.

§ 24: Colotes’ attack on the Cyrenaics

  • 1 References are to Stephanus page and then to the page and line numbers of R. Westman’s (...)
  • 2 On the precise reference and significance of the “ancients” in Adv. Col., see E. Kechag (...)
  • 3 For Plutarch’s generally low opinion of Colotes’ scholarship and intent, see also 1108B (...)
  • 4 See E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit(...)

3Chapter 24 marks a move from the treatment of Colotes’ attacks on “the ancients” (hoi palaioi: 1120C; 200.14 W)1 to his criticism of his contemporaries (hoi zōntes), above all the Academic philosophy of Arcesilaus and the philosophy of the Cyrenaics.2 These two contemporary schools were the last to be treated in Colotes’ original work which, barring its initial attack on Democritus, seems to have taken on opponents in a more or less chronological order. Colotes’ treatment of these last two also appears to have been marked by a difference in Colotes’ style: he deliberately omitted to name his contemporary opponents and instead let his readers infer their identities. This gives Plutarch the opportunity to wonder whether Colotes was suffering an uncharacteristic attack of the scruples or perhaps even shame at his disrespectful practices (1120C; 200.14-18 W),3 but it is more likely to have been a relatively common trope in philosophical polemic at this time. These two contemporary schools are similar, so Plutarch notes, in so far as both are sceptics of a sort. They are also, we might note, like the case of Stilpo – who is the subject of the immediately preceding § 22 and § 23 – philosophies which might plausibly be thought to be “Socratic” in inspiration.4 But while the New Academy professed to suspend judgement on all things (1120C; 200.20 W), the Cyrenaics took a different view. The Cyrenaic position is then outlined in a brief report (1120C-D; 200.21-26 W). Other passages later in these two chapters will illuminate some of the details.

ἐκεῖνοι δὲ τὰ πάθη καὶ τὰς φαντασίας ἐν αὑτοῖς τιθέντες οὐκ ᾤοντο τὴν ἀπὸ τούτων πίστιν εἶναι διαρκῆ πρὸς τὰς ὑπὲρ τῶν πραγμάτων καταβεβαιώσεις, ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ἐν πολιορκίᾳ τῶν ἐκτὸς ἀποστάντες εἰς τὰ πάθη κατέκλεισαν αὑτούς, τό “φαίνεται” τιθέμενοι τὸ δ’ “ἐστί” <μηκέτι> προσαποφαινόμενοι περὶ τῶν ἐκτός.

  • 5 See V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, Cambridge, CUP, 1998, p. 144-14 (...)

4Voula Tsouna’s translation gives:5

But the former [sc. the Cyrenaics], placing all pathē and all sense-impressions within themselves, believed that the evidence coming from them is not sufficient regarding assertions about external objects. Instead, distancing themselves from external objects, they shut themselves up within their pathē as in a state of siege, using the formula “it appears” but refusing to affirm in addition that “it is” with regard to external objects.

5A later passage offers some further evidence for the motivation for this cautious stance (1120F; 201.13-18 W):

ὅθεν ἐμμένουσα τοῖς πάθεσιν ἡ δόξα διατηρεῖ τὸ ἀναμάρτητον, ἐκβαίνουσα δὲ καὶ πολυπραγμονοῦσα τῷ κρίνειν καὶ ἀποφαίνεσθαι περὶ τῶν ἐκτὸς αὑτήν τε πολλάκις ταράσσει καὶ μάχεται πρὸς ἑτέρους ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν ἐναντία πάθη καὶ διαφόρους φαντασίας λαμβάνοντας.

So, when opinion stays close to the pathē it preserves its infallibility, but when it oversteps them and meddles with judgements and assertions about external objects, it often both disturbs itself and fights against other people who receive from the same objects contrary pathē and different sense-impressions.

6The central distinction at work in the first passage and recalled in the second appears to be between what is “inside” the perceiver and what is outside. Inside are the pathē and phantasiai while outside are the pragmata. The basic epistemological task at hand is conceived as a move from a grasp of the internal impressions to claims about something external, a move which is, if at all possible, meant to generate sound or reliable assurances (katabebaiōseis).

  • 6 A TLG search reveals only this passage in Plutarch, Diod. Sic., IX, 10, 5 and the relat (...)
  • 7 See βεβαίως at SE, M, VII, 191 (and V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, (...)

7What exactly is katabebaiōsis? (In their Loeb edition B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy render it as “certainty”; V. Tsouna’s translation gives “assertions”.) The compound noun is not at all common,6 which might suggest that it is a piece of authentic Cyrenaic vocabulary.7 Plutarch uses the related compound verb once, at Caes. 46 where it clearly means: “Livy assures us that this is what happened”. The form of the verb without the kata- prefix is more common, even in similarly epistemological contexts. But yet again, it is not immediately clear what it means.

8The most obvious point of comparison is the end of Epicurus KD 24, a text that is surely in Plutarch’s mind at this point:

εἰ δὲ βεβαιώσεις καὶ τὸ προσμένον ἅπαν ἐν ταῖς δοξαστικαῖς ἐννοίαις καὶ τὸ μὴ τὴν ἐπιμαρτύρησιν, οὐκ ἐκλείψεις τὸ διεψευσμένον, ὡς τετηρηκὼς ἔσῃ πᾶσαν ἀμφισβήτησιν κατὰ πᾶσαν κρίσιν τοῦ ὀρθῶς ἢ μὴ ὀρθῶς.

But if, in the opinions in your thoughts, you affirm [βεβαιώσεις] both everything that is awaiting confirmation and also what is not then you will not eliminate falsehood, since you will preserve every disagreement in every judgement between what is correct and what is not.

  • 8 The text of the latter part of KD 24 is debatable: see C. Bailey, Epicurus: The Extant (...)

9This part of KD 24 gives the second of two injunctions for epistemological rigour.8 The first injunction requires you never to reject a given impression because of an insufficient discrimination between an opinion and a present impression. The second advises against overvaluing a given impression to the extent of affirming as secure something which, strictly speaking, still requires sufficient further confirmatory evidence (epimarturēsis). It is always important to distinguish between those beliefs that are still awaiting confirmatory evidence and those which are not. Hasty affirmation of the former kind alongside the latter will lead to all kinds of error.

10A similar point appears earlier in Adv. Col., at 1109E (which Körte ascribes to Metrodorus and includes as his fragment 1). Here the Epicurean is trying to explain how even apparently conflicting sense perceptions must all be accepted as true. One mistake that people often make is to think that they can make more assured (βεβαιοῦν) the truth of their own sense-perception by saying that another’s conflicting sense perception is false.

11These texts suggest that the bebaiotēs, so to speak, of an assertion is generated by the evidence supporting it. Just as Livy’s evidence supports Plutarch’s claim in his biography of Caesar, so an assertion about some external pragma is assured to the extent that evidence can be offered to support it. The overall point of our text at 1120C-D, therefore, seems to be that, according to the Cyrenaics, the standard for reaching a katabebaiōsis (a confident assurance/affirmation) about (external) pragmata is so high that one’s pathē and phantasiai are insufficient to ground such confident assurances. 1120F supports this view in so far as it says that, in keeping to the pathē, the Cyrenaic hopes that opinion might remain “free from error” (anamartētos), meaning not only that it will not say anything false but also that it will not say anything that cannot be relied upon to be true. (Other sources put this in the Stoic terminology of katalēpsis so that the Cyrenaic thesis amounts to the claim that only the pathē are katalēpta: see e.g. Diog. Laert. II, 92, SE M, VII, 191.)

12The picture that emerges is that the Epicureans and Cyrenaics share in broad terms a methodology for determining when it is and is not appropriate to rely on a perceptual appearance or experience to ground an opinion. The Cyrenaics would appear to agree with Epicurus’ advice that what is necessary is some kind of confidence in the reliability of that appearance, but unlike the Epicureans they are extremely pessimistic about the chances of us being able ever to produce the grounds needed for this kind of affirmation.

13At this stage we have been given no explanation of precisely how the appearances are insufficient: are they too limited in some way? The Cyrenaic says: “I have the appearance that x is F but this is not sufficient for me to be assured that x is F”. The evidence from a little later in the passage – at 1120E – suggests that the line of thought which justifies this caution is based upon the recognition of the variety and often conflicting evidence of the senses. Plutarch writes that their argument is roughly as follows: even though I may always have found honey sweet, the fact that there are those who do not is grounds for thinking that I have insufficient warrant for affirming that honey is sweet. Instead I should content myself with retreating to the safe and defensible position of saying that it appears sweet or perhaps that “I am being sweetened”.

14The explanation Plutarch gives for the Cyrenaics’ view that our impressions and pathē are insufficient is certainly very close to that given in Sextus Empiricus M VII, 191-193 (SSR IV A 213): sometimes something that is not F can give the impression of being F. Jaundiced people see everything as yellow, even things that are considered to be not yellow. It is worth pausing our discussion of Plutarch’s version for a moment to consider this other account. I have labelled the various parts of the argument for ease of reference later.

[191] (A) φασὶν οὖν οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ κριτήρια εἶναι τὰ πάθη καὶ μόνα καταλαμβάνεσθαι καὶ ἀδιάψευστα τυγχάνειν, τῶν δὲ πεποιηκότων τὰ πάθη μηδὲν εἶναι καταληπτὸν μηδὲ ἀδιάψευστον. (B) ὅτι μὲν γὰρ λευκαινόμεθα, φασί, καὶ γλυκαζόμεθα, δυνατὸν λέγειν ἀδιαψεύστως καὶ ἀληθῶς καὶ βεβαίως <καὶ> ἀνεξελέγκτως· (C) ὅτι δὲ τὸ ἐμποιητικὸν τοῦ πάθους [192] λευκόν ἐστιν ἢ γλυκύ ἐστιν, οὐχ οἷόν τ’ ἀποφαίνεσθαι. (D) εἰκὸς γάρ ἐστι καὶ ὑπὸ μὴ λευκοῦ τινα λευκαντικῶς διατεθῆναι καὶ ὑπὸ μὴ γλυκέος γλυκανθῆναι. (E1) καθὰ γὰρ ὁ μὲν σκοτωθεὶς καὶ ἰκτεριῶν ὠχραντικῶς ὑπὸ πάντων κινεῖται, ὁ δὲ ὀφθαλμιῶν ἐρυθαίνεται, ὁ δὲ παραπιέσας τὸν ὀφθαλμὸν ὡς ὑπὸ δυεῖν κινεῖται, ὁ δὲ μεμηνὼς δισσὰς ὁρᾷ τὰς Θήβας καὶ δισσὸν φαντάζεται τὸν ἥλιον, [193] (E2) ἐπὶ πάντων δὲ τούτων τὸ μὲν ὅτι τόδε τι πάσχουσιν, οἷον ὠχραίνονται ἢ ἐρυθαίνονται ἢ δυάζονται, ἀληθές, τὸ δὲ ὅτι ὠχρόν ἐστι τὸ κινοῦν αὐτοὺς ἢ ἐνερευθὲς ἢ διπλοῦν ψεῦδος εἶναι νενόμισται, οὕτω καὶ ἡμᾶς εὐλογώτατόν ἐστι πλέον τῶν οἰκείων παθῶν μηδὲν λαμβάνειν δύνασθαι.

[191] (A) The Cyrenaics, then, say that the pathē are the criteria of truth and that only these are apprehended and met with without deceit, while none of the things which have caused the pathē is apprehended or without deceit. (B) For, they say, it is possible to say that we are “whitened” and “sweetened” without deceit (i.e. truthfully) and reliably (i.e. irrefutably). (C) But that what is the cause of the pathos is [192] white or sweet is impossible to declare. (D) For it is reasonable that someone is disposed “whitely” by something not white and “sweetened” by something not sweet. (E1) For just as a dizzy person and someone with jaundice are affected by everything in a yellow fashion, someone suffering from ophthalmia is “reddened”, someone who presses on his eye is affected by doubling, and someone in a mania sees two Thebes and imagines that the sun is double [193] (E2) so in all these cases the fact that they all undergo some pathos – e.g. they are being “yellowed” or “reddened” or “doubled” – is true, but that what is affecting them is yellow or red or double is considered false, so it is also overwhelmingly reasonable that we are able to grasp nothing more that our own pathē.

  • 9 Compare the similar argument, in more compressed form, for at Anon. in Plat. Theaet. 65 (...)

15Let us notice the general form of the argument that Sextus presents. At the outset of the argument, but towards the end of the passage, the Cyrenaics refer to a number of familiar and – they like to think – plausible examples of mistaken perceptions; these are given at E1. For example, someone with a particular eye problem views everything as somehow “reddened”. Alternatively, someone with jaundice sees everything tinged with a yellow colour. Of course it is reasonable to think that such a person is mistaken and that therefore there are occasions on which a person may see something as red which is not in fact red. This is the general moral extracted from such cases and expressed in D. The Cyrenaics refrain, we should note, from asserting explicitly that the imagined case is one in which something not yellow, for example, is perceived as yellow; rather, they assert that something generally considered to be (νενόμισται) not yellow is perceived as yellow. At no point do they make any determinate assertion about the nature of the external object. They ought not, of course, since otherwise their conclusion would be in tension with one of their premises and they need not make any such assertion to generate their sceptical worries. The various examples, we should also note, do not suffice to show that such mistakes are widespread nor that they are very common at all. In that case it would be uncharitable to translate εἰκός in D as “probable” (with Bett) or “likely” (with Bury). For one thing, the examples are all evidently of people who are in rather unusual states of sickness or who are engaged in the deliberate deformation of their perceptual organs. Given that we do not generally walk around pressing our eyeballs it would not be a persuasive case to argue that since, were we to do so, things which are not double would appear so, it is probable or likely that whenever we experience sweetness, say, it is being caused by something not sweet. Further, if we were convinced, for example, that each experience of sweetness is likely to come from something not sweet then such experiences would be a reasonably reliable guide at least to what is not sweet. Likelihood and probability therefore are not only unwarranted but also undesired qualifications to this general statement. Rather, the examples in E1 are sufficient only to make it reasonable to think that this kind of error can and does occasionally happen; that will be enough for the Cyrenaics to urge their eventual conclusion. (We might also note that the conclusion at the end of E2 is also cast in terms of what is the most reasonable – εὐλογώτατον – conclusion to draw.)9

16Next, notice that the subsequent step in the argument is indeed validly inferred from this appropriately weaker understanding of D: since it is reasonable to think that someone may experience sweetness as a result of something generally thought of as not sweet it is impossible to infer from a given experience of sweetness that the particular object being perceived is indeed sweet. The possibility of error, in other words, makes it impossible to deduce conclusively the nature of the object of perception. Further explanation of this stance can be found in C, since there we have the other half of the comparison and a fuller explanation of what the Cyrenaics take to be the necessary conditions for being able to declare something confidently. Even in the case of someone who experiences sweetness when encountering an object which is not sweet, the experience of sweetness has certain characteristics. Those characteristics are expounded by four adverbs which appear to fall into two co-ordinate pairs: (i) ἀδιαψεύστως καὶ ἀληθῶς καὶ (ii) βεβαίως <καὶ> ἀνεξελέγκτως. The two pairs offer two distinct characteristics for one’s apprehension of pathē, namely that it is somehow (i) veridical or accurate and also (ii) reliable or irrefutable. This helps to explain further what was revealed to be deficient about our grasp on external objects since what matters about our grasp of the pathē is precisely the combination of these two kinds of characteristic. First, there are cases in which it is somehow evident that one’s conception of an external object is false since the cases in E1 have licensed the inference that it is reasonable to conclude that occasionally an experience of sweetness can come from an object which is not sweet. Moving outside this method of cognition and asserting that something “is sweet” will therefore sometimes fail to display characteristic (i); it will sometimes be false. Second, because of the possibility of error which this occasional failure reveals, such assertions also fail to display characteristic (ii); they are unreliable. In other words, since it is reasonable to think that such perceptions are sometimes give a false account of how things are, it would be unreasonable to think that any given such perception is a sure and reliable guide to how things are. This demand for reliability before moving from an appearance to an assertion about how some external object is, I suggest, the same thing we find in Plutarch as a demand for katabebaiōsis.

17Returning to Plutarch’s Adv. Col., the general form of the argument in 1120E is something like the following:
1. Sense impressions sometimes (to some people) present some X as F and at other times (to other people) as not F.
2. The same thing cannot be both F and not F.
3. There is no way of preferring one impression over a conflicting impression.
4. We have insufficient evidence to say for sure that X is either F or not F.

18The presentation of the case in 1120E is in fact rather careful. Plutarch summarises what is recognisable as a argument based on perceptual conflict, much like the argument which Sextus offers as the grounds for the Cyrenaics view in his report at M, VII,191-193. The general form of this is evident: it is unclear whether the honey, for example, is itself sweet because of the fact that even if it appears sweet this appearance is “counter-witnessed” (antimatureisthai: 1120 E; 201.8-9 W) by its not appearing so to some other animals and humans. Plutarch is careful here on two counts. First, he offers as evidence for the conclusion that honey does not appear sweet to at least some other animals and humans their evident reactions to it: some animals just do not like honey. It is impossible, of course, to know directly how honey appears to an animal or to another person but we are supposed to infer that it does not appear sweet to them from their not liking it. It is not wondered, we might note, whether they do not like honey precisely because it does appear sweet to them, but perhaps this can be forgiven. At the least, it cannot be confidently asserted that honey does appear sweet to all perceivers and there are reasonable grounds based on the behaviour of animals, the reports of sick people and so on to think that occasionally it does not appear sweet. Second, let us notice that Plutarch uses familiar Epicurean terminology in his presentation of the Cyrenaics’ argument. Antimarturesthai is likely to be a term which, if not coined by the Epicureans, is certainly strongly associated with their developed methodology of inference and proper belief-formation. Here, Plutarch appears to be using the term merely to mean something like “be contradicted”, since he thinks that one appearance might “counter-witness” a different conflicting appearance. The Epicureans seem rather to have reserved the term for the “counter-witnessing” of something adēlon by a given appearance, a rather more restricted and precise notion (see e.g. the report in SE, M, VII, 211-16). Nevertheless, by casting the Cyrenaics’ argument in the terminology of Colotes’ own Epicureanism Plutarch is evidently trying to prepare us for the content of § 25, in which he bases an attack on Epicurean empiricism on the claim that they are not significantly different from the Cyrenaics whom Colotes has attacked.

  • 10 This phrasing may well also recall the Academic-Stoic debate about the possibility of k (...)

19We can now at last return to the image of a siege at Plut., Adv. Col., 1120D. The Cyrenaics react to the conclusion in 4 above, not by offering a relativistic account of X’s being F (as does the Protagoras of Plato’s Theaetetus), nor simply by suspending judgement on the matter (as Sextus prefers), but rather by finding something which is not subject to the problems outlined here, namely the impression or pathos itself. Given that the particular pathos some one individual undergoes does not exhibit the conflicts outlined in the various familiar examples, then provided we restrict what we say to claims about the pathos then there is no difficulty in affirming something for sure. Even if I cannot say for sure that this honey is sweet, for instance, I can say for sure that I am experiencing a pathos of such-and-such a sort. The pathos has within itself its own proper evident and guaranteed character (1120E; 201.4-6 W: ... τῶν παθῶν τούτων ἑκάστου τὴν ἐνάργειαν οἰκείαν ἐν αὑτῷ καὶ ἀπερίσπαστον ἔχοντος.).10

  • 11 V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 3. See J.  (...)

20The siege is a way of imagining the relationship between a given individual and the outside world. Since each individual does not have at his disposal sufficient grounds to affirm anything confidently about how the external pragmata are, he gives up this disputed territory and retreats within his personal/city boundaries, relying now only on what he can be sure of and what is beyond dispute. Plutarch offers this as an analogy for the Cyrenaics’ flight from the ekta to the pathē, continuing the theme of a contrast between external pragmata and internal states of the perceiver. The point of the analogy must be that this is a forced retreat and that however much the Cyrenaics might desire to sally forth and take back the territory around the city, they are somehow prevented from doing so. The reason for their involuntary enclosure must be just what has been outlined before, namely the fact that they have insufficient evidential warrant to claim any territory beyond their own internal states. Aristocles offers a slightly different analogy but one which again points to the idea that the Cyrenaic should be conceived as someone who is too weak to do anything more that avow the facts of his internal states. For Aristocles, the Cyrenaics are not heroically besieged citizens who are unwillingly held inside, but instead are oppressed by a kind of torpor (PE 14.19.1). Either way, what V. Tsouna calls the Cyrenaics’ “turn inwards” is clearly cast as a move made faute de mieux and required by certain independently accepted standards for sufficiency in defending claims about items in the external world.11

21The expansion of the metaphor in 1120F might also help. There, the Cyrenaics are cast as avoiding conflict not only the sense of avoiding saying something indefensible about external pragmata but also in the sense of avoiding conflict with other perceivers and their claims about how things are. The important sentence is this, which we considered earlier (201.13-18 W):

ὅθεν ἐμμένουσα τοῖς πάθεσιν ἡ δόξα διατηρεῖ τὸ ἀναμάρτητον, ἐκβαίνουσα δὲ καὶ πολυπραγμονοῦσα τῷ κρίνειν καὶ ἀποφαίνεσθαι περὶ τῶν ἐκτὸς αὑτήν τε πολλάκις ταράσσει καὶ μάχεται πρὸς ἑτέρους ἀπὸ τῶν αὐτῶν ἐναντία πάθη καὶ διαφόρους φαντασίας λαμβάνοντας.

So, when opinion stays close to the pathē it preserves its infallibility, but when it oversteps them and meddles with judgements and assertions about external objects, it often both disturbs itself and fights against other people who receive from the same objects contrary pathē and different sense-impressions.

22The image of the siege is recalled by the opening word. Plutarch considers what would happen if opinion were to break out (ekbainousa) and involve itself in matters that do not belong solely to the perceiver in question (polupragmosunē). Such a busy-body kind of opinion, set on making judgements about external matters, will fall prey to two problems. First, it will cause itself some degree of concern or anxiety (tarassei). The word is presumably chosen because of its particular Epicurean resonance since Plutarch will presently argue that Colotes and his Epicurean colleagues are themselves no better placed than the Cyrenaics. And if a Cyrenaic cannot maintain ataraxia without retreating into the absurdly restricted position which Colotes criticises, then the Epicurean will face just the same difficulty. The anxiety must be a measure of the fact that in offering such judgements, opinion is venturing out on to ground which is far less secure than the territory it is used to when dealing merely with internal pathē. The judgements are far less assured since opinion does not have sufficient katabebaiōsis for its claims. As Epicurus’ KD 24 insists, this hasty kind of assertion generates doubt and leaves the judger open to all kinds of error.

23Second, if opinion ventures on to ground that does not belong solely to the perceiver in question, it will fall into conflict with other perceivers. It is agreed by the Cyrenaics that some given external object may well cause in different perceivers different impressions. There is no conflict between the perceivers’ claims if they are restricted simply to reports about how each is being affected internally. But once anyone tries to claim the intervening ground, so to speak, the territory external to both, then conflict is likely.

24This suggests another conception of the siege image in 1120C. On this additional view, the siege is not, so to speak, the result of a battle waged between a Cyrenaic and the external pragmata. Rather, the picture is of Cyrenaics who are so epistemologically conflict-averse that each remains shut inside his own pathē in order to avoid even the potential for conflict between perceivers raised by making claims about external pragmata.

§ 24: Colotes’ criticisms: the apraxia charge and the scope of Cyrenaic doubt

25According to Colotes, as a result of the aversion to the very possibility of epistemological conflict, the Cyrenaics fall into the same general set of problems that beset all the philosophers detailed in his work. Indeed, the title of the work: That it is impossible to live following the doctrines of other philosophers (1107E) shows the strategy rather clearly. In the case of the Cyrenaics, the claim is that by retreating solely into their pathē they render themselves unable to navigate around the world: a Cyrenaics says only, for example, that he “is walled” when he experiences a certain kind of pathos. In merely avowing his own affection he does not commit himself to any claim about the wall. Colotes cannot see how, in that case, the Cyrenaic is able to prevent himself from bumping into things (since he has no opinion about the wall, including where it is). But since the Cyrenaic is evidently able to manoeuvre about the world relatively effectively, chat with other Cyrenaics, find and eat his dinner and so on, the suspicion lingers that he is indeed committed to various beliefs about things other than his own pathē. If they are sincere, their lives become unliveable; if they manage to live a recognisably human life, then they are not consistent with their own philosophical stance.

26The accusation raises an important question about the scope of Cyrenaic scepticism. In restricting their claims to their own pathē were the Cyrenaics retreating, as it were, within themselves to such an extent that they were not prepared even to assert the existence of a world beyond their pathē? Or were they perfectly happy to accept that there is such a world and that there are the various external objects by which they are affected but nevertheless refuse to assert anything about the particular qualities or powers of those external objects? The former possibility is a radical form of scepticism that would be hard to parallel in other ancient writers. If it is the Cyrenaic view, it would make Colotes’ apraxia charge very serious. A Cyrenaic might, on the latter and less radical view, feel that his commitment to there being an external world populated by various external objects including, for example, a wall in front of him at the moment, would allow him sufficient grounds for living a life even though he will not affirm for sure that the wall is, for example, rough or painted red.

27There is no compelling evidence for the view that the Cyrenaics systematically doubted either the existence of an external world or the existence of external objects. Indeed, we have already seen that the clearest argument in our sources in favour of the Cyrenaic epistemological view appears to be based on the premise that there are external objects that affect us and that a given external object may affect different perceivers or the same perceiver in different circumstances in differing ways.

  • 12 As we have already set aside global scepticism about the external world, they seem no (...)

28Nevertheless, even if we set aside a global scepticism about the existence of an external world, there is still an important choice to be made. We might put the question as follows. Let us distinguish two kinds of scepticism that might still be ascribed to the Cyrenaics. When a Cyrenaic accidentally places his hand so that he is affected in a certain way and avows a pathos by saying “I am burned”, he is led to do so because he understands that the way he is affected is insufficient warrant for asserting something else in addition. What is the additional claim he declines to make? Consider two possibilities:
(a) This fire burns.
(b) This thing that burns me is fire.12

29Call a refusal to assert claims of type (a) a “scepticism about the nature of affecting objects”, and call a refusal to make claims of type (b) a “scepticism about the identity of affecting objects”. The distinction is interesting because Colotes’ report might lend support to ascribing both types of scepticism to the Cyrenaics. We will come to the evidence for this shortly. First, however, I will offer a brief survey of our other evidence for the scope Cyrenaic scepticism.

30Later in this chapter of Adv. Col. (1120E; 201.2 Wff.) the focus turns to the familiar examples of perceptual conflict such as the traditional worry whether honey is or is not sweet and other sources give us paradigmatic examples of Cyrenaic locutions that would seem appropriate to this kind of concern, namely the kind of concern about making claims of type (a): a refusal to say whether honey is sweet rather than merely appears so or generates a pathos of being sweetened. This is also the predominant form in which other sources cast the Cyrenaics’ conclusions. For example, the very claim given above as an example of type (a) appears in the brief précis of the Cyrenaic view in Anon. in Plat. Theat. at 65.32-9 Bastiniani-Sedley (ὅ̣τι μὲν γὰρ καίομαι, | φασίν, καταλαμβά|ν̣ω, ὅτι δὲ τὸ πῦρ ἐσ|35τιν καυστικόν, ἄδη|λον· εἰ γὰρ ἦν τοιοῦτο, | πάντα ἂν ἐκαίετο ὑ|π’ αὐτοῦ).

  • 13 V. Tsouna (The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 77) is (...)
  • 14 See e.g. M, VII, 197: μηδενὸς δὲ κοινοῦ πάθους περὶ ἡμᾶς γινομένου προπετές ἐστι τὸ λ (...)

31Sextus too concentrates on Cyrenaic claims of the type: “We are sweetened” (M VII, 191) and in general he casts his overall presentation of their position in terms of a doubt raised by apparent cases of the same item appearing to have different qualities to different perceivers or causing different effects on different subjects (VII, 196-198). However, it has been noted that Sextus is carefully non-committal is his descriptions of the objects in question: he does not say, for example, that a cloak might appear white to one person and not to another but only that “the external thing” or “what is productive of the pathos” does so. This leaves it open whether the item in question is, for example, a cloak, as well as leaving it impossible to decide whether or not it is (rather than merely appears) white. Indeed, it has been suggested that this is a careful lack of commitment of Sextus’ part that perhaps reflects a similar caution on the part of the Cyrenaics themselves: a caution that might in turn give grounds for ascribing to them a scepticism about the identity of external objects.13 All the same, Sextus is primarily interested in the Cyrenaics’ refusal to make claims about what these external items are like, what we might call claims about their properties or qualities (being white, being sweet), and not about what these items are (a cloak, a wall, some honey).14 If that is right, we might account for his non-committal terms for external objects simply as a result of his wanting to give a very general account of the Cyrenaics’ line of reasoning; we are invited to fill in some specific object – a cloak, a wall – to the general description of “something external that causes a pathos of white”. The lack of determinacy is an expositional convenience rather than a marked and significant philosophical stance.

32The anonymous commentator’s report explicitly asserts scepticism of type (a) and nothing more. Sextus’ report is compatible with scepticism of type (b). This leaves Aristocles of Messene (ap. Eusebius PE, XIV, 19) as the only major source that puts the Cyrenaic view in terms that explicitly assert a scepticism about the identity of external objects. Here is XIV, 19, 1 (F5 Chiesara):

ἑξῆς δ’ ἂν εἶεν οἱ λέγοντες μόνα τὰ πάθη καταληπτά· τοῦτο δ’ εἶπον ἔνιοι τῶν ἐκ τῆς Κυρήνης. οὗτοι δ’ ἠξίουν, ὥσπερ ὑπὸ κάρου πιεζόμενοί τινος, οὐδὲν εἰδέναι τὸ παράπαν, εἰ μή τις παραστὰς αὐτοὺς παίοι καὶ κεντῴη· καιόμενοι γὰρ ἔλεγον ἢ τεμνόμενοι γνωρίζειν ὅτι πάσχοιέν τι· πότερον δὲ τὸ καῖον εἴη πῦρ ἢ τὸ τέμνον σίδηρος, οὐκ ἔχειν εἰπεῖν.

Next will be those who say that the affections (pathē) only are apprehensible; some of those from Cyrene affirm this. As if oppressed by a kind of torpor, they insisted that they knew nothing at all, unless someone standing by struck and pricked them; they said that, when burnt or cut, they knew that they were affected by something, but whether what burnt them was fire, or what cut them iron, they could not tell. (transl. M.L. Chiesara)

33The relevant phrase is at the end: “... whether what burnt them was fire, or what cut them iron, they could not tell”. This seems unusual. It does not say, for example, “... whether fire burns or iron cuts, they could not tell”. The difficulty, in other words, is not in assigning certain properties to particular kinds of external object – the familiar sceptical worry about whether fire burns “by nature” – but is instead the difficulty of identifying just what external item it was that caused a particular pathos.

  • 15 M.L. Chiesara, Aristocles of Messene: Testimonies and Fragments, op. cit., p. 138, su (...)

34This subtle difference in the statement of what the Cyrenaics say they do not know – that they do not know that what burns is fire rather than that they do not know whether fire burns – is a deliberate part of Aristocles’ presentation of the Cyrenaic view, since he goes on in PE XIV, 19, 4 to base his criticisms on precisely the ascription to the Cyrenaics of a scepticism about the identity of external objects.15 He points out the absurdity of a person not knowing what he is affected by. People know one another; they know roads, cities, food; craftsmen know their tools and so on. Generally, this way of casting the Cyrenaics’ position makes them appear even more absurd than we might already suspect. Perhaps it also makes the Cyrenaics more like the absurdly sceptical Pyrrhonians of PE, XIV, 18 – who don’t even know whether they are cut or burned (XIV, 18, 24) – whose general metaphysical outlook, says Aristocles, would prevent them from identifying, naming, and indeed saying, anything determinate.

  • 16 See V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 83 (...)

35Let us now return to Adv. Col. Plutarch’s account is interesting because it contains some evidence that might make possible a stronger case for ascribing to the Cyrenaics scepticism of type (b). Colotes’ examples here of Cyrenaic avowals suggest a much wider set of claims than those covered by type (a). Early in Colotes’ presentation of the sort of absurd things Cyrenaics have to say, he gives the examples of: “I am walled”, “I am horsed”, and “I am man-ned” (1120D; 200.28-30 W). The implied refusal to assert on the basis of a certain perceptual experience “This is a wall” would indeed point to a scepticism about the identity and not merely the qualitative nature of affecting objects. But this evidence ought not to be given much credence. Plutarch introduces this report with the qualification that Colotes is doing so “in jest” (κωμῳδῶν) so we ought to be suspicious of this being a reasonable interpretation of Cyrenaic intentions, let alone an accurate report of what they did in fact recommend. And there is every reason for Colotes to try to push as far as possible what he thinks is the absurdity of his opponents’ views.16

  • 17 I discuss Aristocles’ use of Aristotle to dismiss Pyrrho in J. Warren, “Aristocles’ f (...)
  • 18 This observation merely puts in doubt the accuracy of Colotes’ presentation of the hi (...)

36We have good reason, therefore, to think that this unusual presentation of the Cyrenaics’ view by both Aristocles and Colotes can be explained in terms of their general polemical intent. Aristocles wants to push the Cyrenaics towards the extreme and absurd view he also finds expressed by Pyrrho and which, building on Aristotle’s discussions of various extreme views in Met. Γ 4 and 5, he thinks cannot consistently be applied by someone living a human life.17 Similarly, Colotes’ claims at 1120D can be set aside as unlikely to be an accurate representation of their intended view. Both Colotes and Aristocles have exaggerated the Cyrenaics’ scepticism to produce what they think are more compelling examples of the absurdities of their opponents’ ways of life.18

§ 25: Plutarch’s criticism of Colotes’ epistemology

37Plutarch’s strategy in chapter 25 is simple. Beginning with an extended simile, he shows that the purported criticisms of the Cyrenaics demonstrate that Colotes has failed to recognise the faults in the Epicureans’ own view. The simile of children learning to read points to the phenomenon that incautious or as-yet-uneducated children might be comfortable reciting characters written on their own tablets but become perplexed when then encounter those same characters elsewhere (1120F-21A; 201.18-24 W). Just so, Colotes is quite comfortable reciting the various views he reads in Epicurus’ works but finds those same ideas perplexing when he sees them elsewhere, for example in the Cyrenaics’ theories. We have already noticed how Plutarch has done his best to use terminology which ought to be familiar to the Epicureans or is in all likelihood distinctively Epicurean property when outlining and then explaining the Cyrenaic view (in particular: bebaiousthai and antimarturesthai; another example occurs immediately after the simile: bebaiousi at 201.28 W). So it is in this respect literally true that Colotes fails to understand terms when used by the Cyrenaics which he is happy to employ himself.

38There are some further points to be made about the simile. Plutarch is in some sense engaging in a “companions in guilt” argument: Colotes makes various criticisms of the Cyrenaic argument but, insofar as any of his criticisms are indeed properly grounded, he fails to see that those same troubles he identifies for the Cyrenaics apply in spades for the Epicureans. In that case, the point ought to be that Colotes sees clearly only when he is looking at the Cyrenaics; his over-familiarity with the Epicurean view has blinded him to its failings. Unlike the students who are competent only with the material in a familiar setting, it is only when Colotes looks at these same ideas in a fresh and unfamiliar context that he sees clearly how genuinely problematic they are. Understood in these terms, perhaps the simile is not well chosen. However, we might excuse Plutarch once we recognise that he is trying to run in parallel two distinct criticisms of Colotes which are in an important sense in tension with one another. First, he is trying to claim that Colotes simply fails – wilfully or otherwise – to understand what the Cyrenaics mean and therefore his criticisms do not hit their mark. Second, he is also trying to claim that the criticisms made of the Cyrenaics apply properly to the Epicureans themselves. The simile tries to embrace both of these strategies by showing how Colotes is in fact perplexed only by seeing very familiar ideas in a new setting and also by showing that therefore anything that is misconceived about those self-same ideas in one context will similarly be present in the other.

  • 19 They also appear in Epicurean texts. See e.g. Lucr. DRN, IV, 500-506.
  • 20 Eusebius PE, XIV, 20, 13 feels able to claim with little qualification not only that (...)

39Plutarch goes on to try to illustrate the sense in which the two schools’ views are relevantly similar. For the Epicureans, he claims, it is similarly the case that they affirm the truth only of the appearances a perceiver receives and the pathē a perceiver undergoes. Since the Epicureans think that all perceptions are true and also agree that there are occasions on which we should not affirm that an external object is just as it is presented to the senses, they will find themselves as much besieged within their own incorrigible experiences as the Cyrenaics. Here Plutarch illustrates his case by deploying the familiar examples of a tower that appears round although it is in fact square and of an oar that appears bent although it is straight.19 The important point in both examples is that the Epicureans insist that the appearance is veridical – the senses report truthfully and accurately how the object does in fact appear to them – but nevertheless counsel against asserting that the external object is just the way it (truly) appears. For Plutarch, the combination of the Epicureans’ insistence on sense-appearances and pathē as criteria of truth (see e.g.Ep. Hdt. 38, 55, 82) and their acceptance that there are occasions in which the external object does not correspond to the way it is depicted by the appearances amounts to more or less the same as the Cyrenaic claim that “only the pathē are kataleptic”.20

40The kernel of Plutarch’s criticism is summarised well at 1121B; 202.4-7 W (with which we should compare 1120D, 200.25-6 W):

διαφορὰν οὖν τοῦ πάθους πρὸς τὸ ὑποκείμενον ἐκτὸς ἔχοντος ἢ μένειν ἐπὶ τοῦ πάθους δεῖ τὴν πίστιν ἢ τὸ εἶναι τῷ φαίνεσθαι προσαποφαινομένην ἐλέγχεσθαι.

Thus, since the pathos differs from the object, it is necessary for belief either to stick to the pathos or to be refuted whenever it asserts how things are in addition to how things appear.

41A dilemma threatens: to maintain the unassailable truth of the appearances then they can only be reports restricted to the way in which a certain object affects the perceiver or – to put it in terms used in the Epicurean physical account of perception – they can report only the effect of the interaction between the eidōla from the external object and the perceiver’s sensory apparatus as it is constituted at that time. Statements restricted to descriptions of that sort will be true but will not license any significant conclusions about the external objects themselves: the Epicureans will have retreated within the walls and be as besieged as the Cyrenaics. Alternatively, if the Epicurean boldly affirms anything about the external object of the form, for example: “the oar is bent”, then he cannot be absolutely certain of asserting something true. A cautious policy of sticking only to what can be reliably taken as true leads to the retreat for which they berate the Cyrenaics; ambition leaves the Epicurean open to serious error.

  • 21 For this suggestion see V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., (...)
  • 22 Lucretius relies on this to explain how a square tower may appear round: DRN IV, 353- (...)

42The next move is predictable. Plutarch imagines the Epicurean offering a distinction between his view and the Cyrenaics such that – so the Epicurean hopes – there might be some way to combine being scrupulous about the reliability of one’s claims with being able to assert something true of external objects themselves. However, the Epicureans are not allowed to pursue in much detail what might have been a promising line of defence. They do not, as they surely ought, insist that when they say that all perceptions are true they do indeed mean that all perceptions represent faithfully something about an external object, something that contrasts with the Cyrenaic position in so far as the latter restricts itself to claims about states and effects internal to the perceiver.21 Plutarch forestalls this line of argument by insisting that the external object that the perceptions represent is, strictly speaking, not the oar itself but rather the flimsy eidōla emanating from the oar and distorted along their journey to the eye. For Plutarch, the objects with which the perceiver is in contact are the eidōla rather than the originators of the eidōla. These are, admittedly, themselves external objects of a sort even if they are not the external objects we might imagine we perceive. Yet the Epicureans also will need to say that, furthermore, the way in which those eidōla are received by a given perceiver and the resulting sense-perception is crucially affected by the arrangement of the perceiver’s perceptual apparatus.22 If that is true then it is not so easy to see how the Epicureans can insist that the precise cause of a given perceptual experience is some external object rather than some response or change in the perceiver to a certain stimulus conditioned at least in part by the perceiver’s own physiology. And that is in turn not very far indeed from what seems to be the correct understanding of a Cyrenaic pathos.

  • 23 See the discussion from Epicurus’ Symposium of whether wine is generally (καθόλου) he (...)
  • 24 DRN IV, 256-258: illud in his rebus minime mirabile habendumst, | cur, ea quae ferian (...)

43There is therefore some merit in Plutarch’s objection. After all, the Epicureans will rely on stories about the effects of transit in eroding the eidōla or of the current physiology of a perceiver to maintain the foundational claim that every perception is true while nevertheless allowing there to be the possibility of the external object being in various ways unlike how it truly appears. Plutarch insists that the Epicureans ought to say only that it is the eidōla that generate the appearance and are in fact what is perceived: if we perceive anything accurately and truly, it is a bent-oar-eidōlon, not the oar itself (1121B; 202.2-4 W). The problem is more acute in the case of the distance senses, of course, since the working of taste and touch does not on the Epicureans’ view require reference to eidōla. But even in these cases it is necessary for the Epicureans to refer to physiological differences between perceivers to account for variable perceptions of the same object.23 The Epicureans were no doubt aware of this kind of objection and there are signs that they tried to counter it by insisting on the idea that perception involves direct contact with an external object distinct from the eidōla which it produces. Lucretius, for example, asserts that the eidōla themselves cannot be seen individually but that we perceive the external objects themselves via these eidōla.24

44Plutarch is not interested in pursuing any further discussion of this point of specifying precisely what it is that is perceived according to the Epicurean theory. The Epicureans are, on the other hand, allowed by him to voice a different objection based on their methodology for forming beliefs about external objects: 1121C; 202.18-21W.

“νὴ Δία” φήσει τις, “ἀλλ’ ἐγὼ τῷ πύργῳ προσελθὼν καὶ τῆς κώπης ἁψάμενος ἀποφανοῦμαι τὴν μὲν εὐθεῖαν εἶναι τὸν δὲ πολύγωνον, ἐκεῖνος δέ, κἂν ἐγγὺς γένηται, τὸ δοκεῖν καὶ τὸ φαίνεσθαι, πλέον δ’ οὐδὲν ὁμολογήσει.”

“Most certainly”, one will answer. “But for my part, after I come close to the tower and after I touch the oar, I shall assert that the oar is straight and that the tower is angular; but this other person, even if he gets close he will admit what seems to be the case and what appears to him, but nothing more.”

45The Cyrenaic wishes to insist that the two kinds of claim: “this tower appears square” and “this tower is square” must always be kept apart simply because one of them is a report about how a perceiver is affected and the other is a claim about a property of an external object and there is no reliable, truth-preserving method of inferring the latter from the former. Merely seizing the oar or getting close to the tower is just to have a new and different pathos: there is no compelling reason to think that this new appearance must be more indicative of the truth than the previous one. The Epicurean, on the other hand, does think that there remains the possibility of drawing reliable inferences about how an external object is on the basis of various and differing perceptions of how it appears. Some perceptions are better – perhaps more useful – than others, although all perceptions are true. This points to the central claim of Plutarch’s criticism. To Plutarch’s mind, the Cyrenaic is being consistent and the Epicurean is not, since the Cyrenaic is maintaining precisely what he asserted at the outset, namely that each appearance is as reliable or evidentially significant as any other (1121D; 202.23-24 W: τὸ πᾶσαν εἶναι φαντασίαν ὁμοίως ἀξιόπιστον ὑπὲρ ἑαυτῆς, ὑπὲρ ἄλλου δὲ μηδεμίαν ἀλλ’ ἐπίσης ἔχειν). This too is a principle that the Epicureans were happy to expound (e.g. Lucr., DRN, IV, 495-498; SE, M, VII, 205-210, VIII, 63). But Plutarch thinks that they are contradicting this principle in their practice by taking one appearance (the appearance when I seize the oar or get up close to the tower) as reliable and the other as not. The Epicureans ought to think either that in all cases it is legitimate to move directly from “x appears F” to “x is F” or, like the Cyrenaics, that it is never legitimate to do so. The former alternative, of course, has already been shown to be absurd since it would result in us asserting contrary claims: “the oar is straight” and “the oar is bent”.

  • 25 See E. Asmis, “Epicurean empiricism”, in J. Warren (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to (...)

46Plutarch does show some signs of being aware of the Epicureans’ more elaborate system of sign-inference and their methodology of “confirmation” (epimarturēsis) and “disconfirmation” (antimarturēsis), all of which is given a more detailed exposition by Sextus at M, VII, 211-16. But although Plutarch notes them in passing at 1121E they are not given much further discussion. This has led some commentators to think that Plutarch – perhaps deliberately – is not being very fair to the Epicureans. In particular, Plutarch may be guilty of under-emphasising the extent to which the Epicureans thought that reasoning, that is reasoning about the various appearances, has a role to play in our processes of belief-formation. In short, the scenario imagined here by Plutarch seems to be one in which the Epicurean merely rejects one appearance (“This oar appears bent”) simply because of a preference for another appearance (“This oar appears straight”). Plutarch has no interest in wondering what the grounds for that preference might be and, indeed, insists that there can be no possible grounds for that preference since all appearances are supposed to be equally true and equally reliable. Yet the Epicureans do appear to have the resources to avoid the problem if they can show how reason itself, working with a set of appearances, might come to form a belief about how some external object is, without at any point undermining the truth of all of the various and possibly differing ways in which it appears.25

47This observation might finally indicate a way in which the Epicureans and the Cyrenaics do in fact differ, and significantly so. Plutarch is right to emphasise that they are alike in so far as both schools see no reason to reject any perceptual appearance or experience as false. Furthermore, both schools pay close attention to the fact that such appearances are rather variable: the same object may appear differently to different observers and the same object may appear differently to the same perceiver from different distances, using different senses and so on. Plutarch understandably concentrates on these similarities because they are just what will allow him to argue that if Colotes diagnoses any errors at all then they are errors to which the Epicureans themselves are also prone. Yet the rhetorical strategy of Plutarch’s argument risks him overlooking an important, even crucial, difference between the two schools that might indeed undermine the claim that they are “companions in guilt”. The Epicureans and Cyrenaics do appear to differ in what we might call their relative optimism about what might be achieved in making progress in our knowledge of those things around us that strike us in such varying ways, and that difference appears to be generated by a different conception of the power of our reasoning capacities to generate reliable and well-grounded beliefs. For the Cyrenaics, at least as they are portrayed here in Plutarch and in our other sources, the variety of appearances is such that we cannot in all conscience risk saying anything about how the objects in the world in fact are; we should retreat within and rest content with the unassailable expressions of how the world affects us. For the Epicureans, the world is not so disturbingly variable in the ways in which it appears to us. Honey, for example, is generally sweet. And on those rare occasions on which it does not appear sweet there are ready explanations for why it does not do so. Furthermore, for the Epicureans our reason is sufficiently capable of teasing out a consistent picture from all the information we receive while nevertheless accepting all the appearances as true. And so, provided we carefully apply some regulative principles of inference, we can break free from the siege and confidently assert some beliefs about how the world is.

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1 References are to Stephanus page and then to the page and line numbers of R. Westman’s 1959 Teubner edition (Plutarchi Moralia. Vol. VI fasc. 2, Leipzig, Teubner, 1959).

2 On the precise reference and significance of the “ancients” in Adv. Col., see E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, Oxford, OUP, 2011, p. 26-28.

3 For Plutarch’s generally low opinion of Colotes’ scholarship and intent, see also 1108B-C.

4 See E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p. 148-50; V. Tsouna, “The Socratic origins of the Cynics and Cyrenaics”, in P.A. Vander Waerdt (ed.), The Socratic Movement, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 367-391; A.A. Long, “The Socratic legacy”, in K. Algra, J. Barnes, J. Mansfeld, M. Schofield (ed.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cambridge, CUP, 1999, p. 617-641.

5 See V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, Cambridge, CUP, 1998, p. 144-146. Translations of Adv. Col. used here are taken from that section.

6 A TLG search reveals only this passage in Plutarch, Diod. Sic., IX, 10, 5 and the related Constant. De sententiis, 284, 29.

7 See βεβαίως at SE, M, VII, 191 (and V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 38-41), although the text there is not secure.

8 The text of the latter part of KD 24 is debatable: see C. Bailey, Epicurus: The Extant Remains, Oxford, OUP, 1926, ad loc. P. Von der Muehll’s 1922 Teubner edition (Epicuri epistulae tres et ratae sententiae a Laertio Diogene servatae. Accedit Gnomologium epicureum vaticanum, Stuttgart, Teubner, 1922) indicates a lacuna after ἐπιμαρτύρησιν. Compare also Ep. Hdt. 52: καὶ ταύτην οὖν σφόδρα γε δεῖ τὴν δόξαν κατέχειν, ἵνα μήτε τὰ κριτήρια ἀναιρῆται τὰ κατὰ τὰς ἐναργείας μήτε τὸ διημαρτημένον ὁμοίως βεβαιούμενον πάντα συνταράττῃ.

9 Compare the similar argument, in more compressed form, for at Anon. in Plat. Theaet. 65.18-39 (Bastianini-Sedley) (earlier text given as SSR IV A 214): ἔ]στιν τι τὸ ποι|ῆ̣σ̣[αν, ἔσ]τ̣ιν τι τὸ πά|[σ]χ̣ο̣ν̣· ε̣ἰ̣ δ̣ὲ̣ ὑπεναντί|20[α ὑ]π̣[ὸ τοῦ] α̣ὐτοῦ πάσ|[χ]ο̣υ̣σ̣ι̣, [ὁ]μ̣ολογήσου̣|[σ]ι μὴ εἶναι ὡρισμέ|ν̣ην τὴν τοῦ ποιή|σ̣α̣ντος ἰδιότητα· οὐ|25κ ἂν γὰρ τὸ αὐτὸ ἐν τῶι | α̣ὐ̣τῶι χρόνωι διάφο|ρα [ε]ἰργάζετο πάθη̣. | ὅθ̣εν οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ | μ̣όνα τ̣ὰ πάθη φασὶν |30 κ̣α̣ταληπτά, τὰ δὲ ἔ|ξωθεν ἀκατάληπτα. | ὅ̣τι μὲν γὰρ καίομαι, | φασίν, καταλαμβά|ν̣ω, ὅτι δὲ τὸ πῦρ ἐσ|35τιν καυστικόν, ἄδη|λον· εἰ γὰρ ἦν τοιοῦτο, | πάντα ἂν ἐκαίετο ὑ|π’ αὐτοῦ. G. Bastianini and D.N. Sedley, edition of Anonymous Commentator on Plato’s Theaetetus, in Corpus dei papiri filosofici greci e latini, vol. 3, Florence, Olschki, 1995, p. 227-562, comment ad loc.: “Il confronto con i Cirenaici è limitato al loro uso della prima premessa (ὅθεν, 29), cioè che lo stesso oggetto taloro impressione contemporaneamente in modo differente due soggetti percipienti. Cfr. S.E. M. VII 191-193. Per il principio (cfr. Pl. Phdr. 263s) che una cosa è F in sé dove esserere F per tutti, si veda Polistrato, De contemptu XXIII-XXIV”. Part of the conclusion of this argument is the same as that in the Sextus passage: only the pathē can be grasped. The contrast in Sextus is between these pathē and what generate them while in Anon. it is between the pathē and “things outside” (ta exōthen). (But see M 7.194 and 195: peri de to ektos hypokeimenon...)

10 This phrasing may well also recall the Academic-Stoic debate about the possibility of kataleptic impressions. See e.g. Galen, PHP, IX, 7, 3 (vol. 5, 778 K). See M. Bonazzi, “Contro la rappresentazione sensibilie: Plutarco tra l’Academia e il Platonismo”, Elenchos 25, 2004, p. 41-71, at p. 50: “Il refirimento all’ ἀπερίσπαστον consituisce certamente un rinvio significativo alle rappresentazioni persuasive di cui parlava Carneade, che permettevano di vivere ma che non garantivano una comprensione della realtà”. M. Bonazzi, p. 50 n. 24, compares SE M, VII, 176-189 and PH, I, 227-229.

11 V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 3. See J. Brunschwig, “La théorie cyrénaïque de la connaissance et le problème de ses rapports avec Socrate”, in G. Romeyer-Dherbey, J.-B. Gourinat (ed.), Socrate et les Socratiques, Paris, Vrin, 2001, p. 457-477, at p. 462-463.

12 As we have already set aside global scepticism about the external world, they seem not to doubt “(c) There is something that burns me”. See J. Brunschwig, “The beginnings of Hellenistic epistemology”, in K. Algra, J. Barnes, J. Mansfeld, M. Schofield (ed.), The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, op. cit., p. 229-259, at p. 257.

13 V. Tsouna (The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 77) is prepared to find the possibility of scepticism of type (b) in Sextus’ version of the Cyrenaic argument. She points to the various locutions for “external objects” conceived generally, such as ta ektos [hypokeimena] and ta poiētika tōn pathōn: “These locutions are entirely non-committal with regard to the identity of external objects: what is burning me may be fire or it may be something else, and the only thing that I can say about it is that it makes me feel burnt”. M.L. Chiesara, Aristocles of Messene: Testimonies and Fragments, Oxford and New York, OUP, 2001, at p. 138, also notes the brief report at M, VI, 53 in which Sextus says that sound does not exists since it is not a pathos but rather is productive of a pathos. This report is certainly exaggerated since it begins by claiming the Cyrenaics say that only the pathē exist (μόνα φασὶν ὑπάρχειν τὰ πάθη) rather than the more familiar claim that only the pathē can be grasped.

14 See e.g. M, VII, 197: μηδενὸς δὲ κοινοῦ πάθους περὶ ἡμᾶς γινομένου προπετές ἐστι τὸ λέγειν ὅτι τὸ ἐμοὶ τοῖον φαινόμενον τοῖον καὶ τῷ παρεστῶτι φαίνεται.

15 M.L. Chiesara, Aristocles of Messene: Testimonies and Fragments, op. cit., p. 138, suggests that since Aristocles and the anonymous commentator on the Theaetetus use the same examples – fire and iron – then they depend on the same source. Indeed, the presence in all reports of the terminology of katalēpsis suggests that “all texts dealing with the Cyrenaic theory of knowledge depend on an Academic source”, probably Clitomachus. Colotes’ version would predate Clitomachus, but Clitomachus might well lie behind Plutarch’s reception of Colotes.

16 See V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 83, who agrees that the surviving evidence, particularly the locutions “walled”, “horsed” etc., is not strong enough to ascribe to the Cyrenaics a general scepticism about the identity of external objects. She takes the view (p. 85-87) that in this passage of Adv. Col., 1120D, Colotes is maliciously and wilfully extending the Cyrenaic locutions beyond what they themselves would have proposed but is nevertheless in doing so raising an interesting question. There are similar signs elsewhere in Adv. Col. that Colotes exaggerates his opponents’ claim to increase the strength of his criticisms. See, for example, the inclusion of σύγκρισις at 1110E; 180.9-10 W among the things said by Democritus to be merely “by convention”, something not present in any of the other versions we have of the sentiment of DK68B9.

17 I discuss Aristocles’ use of Aristotle to dismiss Pyrrho in J. Warren, “Aristocles’ first refutations of Pyrrhonism (Eus. PE 14.18.1-10)”, PCPhS 46, 2000, p. 140-164. For more on Aristocles and the Cyrenaics, see V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., ch. 5.

18 This observation merely puts in doubt the accuracy of Colotes’ presentation of the historical Cyrenaic view. It leaves entirely open, we should emphasise, the question whether the Cyrenaics are in fact entitled to think that they can restrict their scepticism to questions of the qualitative nature and powers of external objects and resist falling into a scepticism about the identity of external objects and, indeed, whether they can be sure about any differentiation between items in the external world. See V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 87-88.

19 They also appear in Epicurean texts. See e.g. Lucr. DRN, IV, 500-506.

20 Eusebius PE, XIV, 20, 13 feels able to claim with little qualification not only that the Epicureans and Cyrenaics shared an ethical theory – since both assert that pleasure is the telos – but also that they share an epistemological theory, namely the assertion that only the pathē are katalēpta. It is likely that Eusebius is here dependent on a strand of anti-Epicurean criticism, possibly Academic in source, that is given a more elaborate expression here in Plutarch. Both show signs of the long-standing criticism of Epicurean hedonism that charges it as collapsing either into Cyrenaic hedonism (which the Epicureans wish to reject) or into the view that painlessness is the telos. Cicero, Fin., I and II offers the longest and most sophisticated example of that strategy which might well derive from the Hellenistic Academy. For signs that Plutarch too is aware of this line of criticism, that would run in parallel with the epistemological discussion pursued here, see Adv. Col., 1122E (λεῖα κινήματα recalls the standard Cyrenaic definition of pleasure: Aristoc. ap. Eus. PE, XIV, 18, 32 and Diog. Laert., II, 86) and Plut., Non posse, 1089A.

21 For this suggestion see V. Tsouna, The Epistemology of the Cyrenaic School, op. cit., p. 117-122.

22 Lucretius relies on this to explain how a square tower may appear round: DRN IV, 353-363. Plutarch has made this point before, at 1109E-1110D; 178.6-180.4 W, in his discussion of Colotes’ attack on Democritus. Compare S.E. M, VII, 206-209.

23 See the discussion from Epicurus’ Symposium of whether wine is generally (καθόλου) heating at 1109F-1110B (178.8-179.2 W) and compare Plutarch at 1121B (202.7-12 W).

24 DRN IV, 256-258: illud in his rebus minime mirabile habendumst, | cur, ea quae feriant oculos simulacra videri | singula cum nequeant, res ipsae perspicantur. See E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1984, at p. 128-131.

25 See E. Asmis, “Epicurean empiricism”, in J. Warren (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism, Cambridge, CUP, 2009, p. 84-104, at p. 96-98; 98: “Plutarch fails to distinguish between the immediate evidence of sense perception and conclusion that are obtained by a rational examination of the phenomena. What the Epicureans in fact said, but Plutarch garbled, is: going up closer to the tower, or touching the oar, is one way, among numerous others, of testing, through the use of reason, what exists objectively”. (See E. Asmis, Epicurus’ Scientific Method, op. cit., p. 150-159.)

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James Warren, « Plutarch's Adversus Colotem and the Cyrenaics: 1120C-1121E », Aitia [En ligne], 3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2013, consulté le 30 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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James Warren

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

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