PYRRHO'S WAY: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism
Douglas C. Bates
The Sumeru Press (321 pp.)
A case for the contemporary relevance of an ancient philosophy.
In his nonfiction debut, Bates offers readers an elaborate, in-depth introduction to Pyrrhonism—an ancient Greek philosophy that he describes as essentially “a health maintenance program for the mind.” Founded in the fourth century B.C.E. by the philosopher Pyrrho, it draws heavily on Westernized versions of concepts from ancient Buddhism, such as the search for enlightenment and the concept of nirvana. However, Pyrrho omitted the Eastern emphasis on meditation; he also sought to characterize Pyrrhonism as an “anti-philosophy philosophy.” Bates’ book is a careful and comprehensive historical overview of the birth of the philosophy, its reception, and its spread through the centuries. It concentrates, in part, on the Pyrrhonist idea of eudaimonia; it’s essentially the Buddhist concept of harmonious, effective living—but, as Bates stresses, it’s shorn of its spiritual or meditative aspects to make it more compatible with the pragmatic practices of Western philosophy. “Instead of using meditation to launch the mind beyond the sphere of the mundane,” Bates writes, “Pyrrhonism pours rationality onto the ground we think we’re standing upon, dissolving it until the ground beneath us disappears.” As Bates brings the story of Pyrrhonism forward in time, he effectively details its conflicts with Stoic dogma, such as “The only good is moral good, and the only evil is moral evil” and “Pleasure is not a good and pain is not an evil.” As a counterbalance, Bates seeks to present Pyrrhonism as ideally suited for embracing modern times—a philosophy whose main goal is to banish illusions and see the world as it is. In this, he’s successful; “Pyrrhonism changes your mind,” he states simply, and his book’s combination of exhaustive scholarship, powerful prose, and heartfelt advocacy may indeed have some readers thinking twice about their basic beliefs.
A charismatic and thoughtful look at the value of Pyrrhonism in the 21st century.