Arcesilaus (/ˌɑːrsɛsɪˈl.əs/; Greek: Ἀρκεσίλαος; 316/5–241/0 BC)[1] was a Greek philosopher and founder of the Second or Middle Academy—the phase of Academic scepticism. Arcesilaus succeeded Crates as the sixth head (scholarch) of the Academy c. 264 BC.[2] He did not preserve his thoughts in writing, so his opinions can only be gleaned second-hand from what is preserved by later writers. He was the first Academic to adopt a position of philosophical scepticism, that is, he doubted the ability of the senses to discover truth about the world, although he may have continued to believe in the existence of truth itself. This brought in the sceptical phase of the Academy. His chief opponents were the Stoics and their dogma of katalepsis (i.e., that reality could be comprehended with certainty).

Arcesilaus and Carneades
Born316/5 BC
Died241/0 BC
EraAncient philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolPlatonism, Academic skepticism
Main interests
Notable ideas
Founder of Academic skepticism


Arcesilaus was born in Pitane in Aeolis. His early education was provided by Autolycus the mathematician, with whom he migrated to Sardis. Afterwards, he studied rhetoric in Athens; but adopted philosophy and became a disciple first of Theophrastus and afterwards of Crantor.[3] He subsequently became intimate with Polemo and Crates, and eventually became head of the school (σχολάρχης). [4]

Diogenes Laërtius says that, like his successor Lacydes, Arcesilaus died of excessive drinking, but the testimony of others (e.g. Cleanthes) and his own precepts discredit the story, and he is known to have been much respected by the Athenians.[4]


Arcesilaus committed nothing to writing, his opinions were imperfectly known to his contemporaries, and can now only be gathered from the confused statements of his opponents. This makes his philosophy difficult to evaluate and partly inconsistent. This led scholars to see his scepticism in several ways. Some see his philosophy as completely negative or destructive of all philosophical views. Others regard him as taking the position that nothing can be known on the basis of his philosophical arguments. Others claimed he held no positive views on any philosophical topic, including the possibility of knowledge.[5] Sextus Empiricus said that Arcesilaus' philosophy appeared essentially the same as Pyrrhonism, but granted that this might have been superficial.[6]

On the one hand, Arcesilaus is said to have restored the doctrines of Plato in an uncorrupted form; while, on the other hand, according to Cicero,[7] he summed up his opinions in the formula, "that he knew nothing, not even his own ignorance." There are two ways of reconciling the difficulty: either we may suppose him to have thrown out such aphorisms as an exercise for his pupils, as Sextus Empiricus,[8] who calls him a Sceptic, would have us believe; or he may have really doubted the esoteric meaning of Plato, and have supposed himself to have been stripping his works of the figments of the Dogmatists, while he was in fact taking from them all certain principles.[9]

The Stoics were the chief opponents of Arcesilaus; he attacked their doctrine of a convincing conception (katalêptikê phantasia) as understood to be a mean between episteme (knowledge) and doxa (opinion) – a mean which he asserted could not exist, and was merely the interpolation of a name.[10] It involved a contradiction in terms, as the very idea of phantasia implied the possibility of false as well as true conceptions of the same object.

It is a question of some importance as to how the Academic scepticism of the Middle and New Academy was distinguished from that of Pyrrhonism. Admitting the formula of Arcesilaus, "that he knew nothing, not even his own ignorance," to be an exposition of his real sentiments, it was impossible in one sense that scepticism could proceed further: but the Academic sceptics do not seem to have doubted the existence of truth in itself, only our capacities for obtaining it. It differed also from the principles of Pyrrhonism in the practical tendency of its doctrines: while the object of the Pyrrhonists was the attainment of ataraxia (equanimity), the Academic sceptics seem rather to have retired from the field of speculation to practical life, and to have acknowledged some vestiges of a moral law within, at best but a probable guide, the possession of which, however, formed the real distinction between the sage and the fool. Slight as the difference may appear between the speculative statements of the two schools, a comparison of the lives of their founders and their respective successors leads to the conclusion, that a practical moderation was the characteristic of the Academic skeptics.[11]

Commentary on Arcesilaus

Blaise Pascal wrote of Arcesilaus in his Pensées (1669, para. 375):

I have seen changes in all nations and men, and thus after many changes of judgement regarding true justice, I have recognized that our nature was but in continual change, and I have not changed since; and if I changed, I would confirm my opinion. The sceptic Arcesilaus, who became a dogmatist.


  1. Dorandi 1999, p. 48.
  2. "Arcesilaus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  3. Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica VI
  4. Chisholm 1911.
  5. "Arcesilaus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)". 2005-01-14. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  6. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book 1, Chapter 33, Section 232
  7. Cicero, Academica, i. 12
  8. Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrh. Hypotyp. i. 234
  9. Cicero, De Oratore, iii. 18.
  10. Cicero, Academica, ii. 24.
  11. Sextus Empiricus, adv. Math. ii. 158, Pyrrh. Hypotyp. i. 3, 226.


  • Dorandi, Tiziano (1999). "Chapter 2: Chronology". In Algra, Keimpe; et al. (eds.). The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 48. ISBN 9780521250283.
  • Simone Vezzoli, Arcesilao di Pitane. L'origine del platonismo neoaccademico (Philosophie hellénistique et romaine, 1), Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2016, ISBN 978-2-503-55029-9


This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.