Question everything: scepticism as a way of life

Question-everythingIn 155BC, Carneades the Sceptic travelled to Rome to give an important speech to the Roman Senate. Carneades was the head of the Athenian Academy and the most dignified philosopher of his day. He was known as a brillant speaker with a whip-sharp mind and a mastery of sceptical techniques that was second to none. In Rome, there were mixed feelings about Carneades’ speech. Some people were concerned about Carneades’ brand of sceptical philosophy and the effect it might have on the Roman youth. Others, however, were curious to learn what Carnaedes had to offer. Greek scepticism was a mystery to the Romans, yet to immigrate across the Ionian Sea. Carnaedes was an ambassador from the land of skeptikos. Was this a land worth visiting?

Introducing Sceptic philosophy to the Romans was not Carneades’ main objective. Carneades came to Rome as a diplomat, tasked with convincing the Senate to reduce a fine that had been imposed on Athens for the invasion of Oropus. The Romans believed the fine was just, while the Athenians thought it was wildly inappropriate. Carneades had promised to take a sceptical approach to the debate, to see if it were possible to transform the way that both parties thought about things. To achieve this, he’d deliver two speeches in the course of two days, both on the topic of justice.

On the first day, Carneades wowed his audience with a stunning review of Platonic and Aristotelian arguments in favour of justice. Justice, Carneades declared, was the supreme virtue, the Archimedian point that should guide all thought and discussion. The Roman senators were impressed. That evening, there was much talk of Carneades’ oratorical power and persuasiveness. How would he top it on the second day, people wondered?

When Carneades turned up the next day, the Senate was packed with the best and brightest of Rome, ready to imbibe his wisdom. Carneades stood at the podium and calmly refuted everything that he’d said the day before. The senators listened aghast as the great philosopher enumerated the virtues of injustice, which Carneades presented as a natural law that any reasonable person should adhere to. He wound up with some practical advice for the senators. ‘Rome has won her empire by injustice both to gods and men’, Carneades declared. And such is the course that Rome should maintain. Heaven forbid that the capital should explore the virtues of justice. How foolish! Carnaedes claimed: ‘A policy of justice would make Rome again what she was originally – a miserable poverty-stricken village’.

To say that Carneades’ speech went down badly is an understatement. Carneades and his entourage were ejected from the city. Scepticism never set root in Rome and the Greeks, presumably, learned an important lesson: never enlist a philosopher in diplomatic work. [Read more…]