Arcesilau: biography of this Greek philosopher

Arcesilaus was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of the so-called Middle or Second Platonic Academy.

We know that he was a disciple of several important philosophers of his time, being the successor of the Crates of Triasio in the Platonic Academy, making a transformation in this same institution weakening the positive affirmations of Plato.

He is known to reconstruct the Socratic method through the irony, questioning and doubt of philosophical controversies. Let’s take a closer look at its history and how it was, in a way, innovative in relation to the philosophy of its time, by a biography of Arcesilau in summary format.

    Brief biography of Arcesilau

    Arcesilau (in classical Greek Αρκεσίλαος) was born in Pitane, in the region of Eólida, present-day Turkey, For the year 315 to. C. when the region was under the dominion of the prosperous Greek civilization, being son of escito, also known like Seuthos or Scythos. We don’t know much about his childhood, to say the least, but we know that he always went to study rhetoric in Athens and preferred to study philosophy.

    He was a disciple of the philosopher Theophrastus and later of Crantor. In addition, being in the city, which was the cultural center of classical Greece, he had the opportunity to attend the courses of Polemón and Crates. Arcesilau not only learned philosophy, but also had the opportunity to study mathematics with Autole de Pitane and Hipponico, as well as to know the knowledge of Plato, whom he admired deeply.

    After the death of Crates, who had been head of the Platonic Academy, Socrates, another philosopher, ensured the continuity of the institution by recognizing Arcesilaus as a great philosopher and decided to cede the leadership of the Academy to him. Being in the institution transformed it, weakening Plato’s positive statements and covering up skepticism and the Socratic method.. Among the other characters he may have encountered in life were Pyrrhus, Diodorus Cronus and Menedemus, although there is no absolute certainty.

    While he was a man who had to live in a time of great stability and who, moreover, never got too involved in politics, his personal life is another matter. Sources at the time reported on his debauchery and his courtesans. Apart from all this, not much is known, but it is believed that he died in 240 BC. C., drunk and delusional. Likewise, it must be said that it could all be a simple slander, as Plutarch and the stoic Cleantes present a very different image of Arcesilau, defending him as a very responsible figure and fulfilling his duties.

    An interesting aspect of his life is that, unlike most of the philosophers of his time, he had a great fortune. Hellenic philosophers were not characterized by possessing great wealth and tended to have a more ascetic lifestyle. He was also very generous and looked after the welfare of his friends. According to Plutarch, Arcesilaus was a respectful man of his adversaries.

      Philosophy of this Greek thinker

      What we know about Arcesilau’s philosophical opinion does not come from handwriting. He did not devote himself to writing and his opinions were passed on by his contemporaries, so it is deductible that they may have misinterpreted his words or not put together all of Arcesilau’s thought. This is why it is difficult to assess the philosophy of this Greek thinker.

      Scholars have interpreted his skepticism in various ways. For some, his philosophy is completely negative or destructive, while others consider that nothing can be known on the basis of his philosophical arguments. Some say he does not have positive opinions on any philosophical subject, including the probability of knowing.

      The Greek philosopher Sixth Empiricist claimed that Arcesilaus’s philosophy seemed, in substance, to be the same as Pyrrhus’s, but he also admitted that this appreciation might have been superficial. It is said that Arcesilaus restored the doctrines of Plato incorruptibly, while others, like Cicero, regard Arcesilaus’ vision of knowledge as follows: If Socrates said: “I only know that I know nothing” , then Arcesilaus would have added “that he knew nothing, not even his own ignorance.”

      The main opponents of Arcesilau’s philosophy were the Stoics. This philosopher attacked his doctrine with a convincing conception (katalêptikê phantasia), understood as a meaning between knowledge (episteme) and opinion (doxa). He felt that this could not exist and that it was simply an interpolation of the name. For him, all this implied a contradiction in its terms, since the very idea of ​​”phantasy” gives rise to the possibility of false and true conceptions of the same element.


      Arcesilau is generally considered a skeptical philosopher. The academic skepticism of the Middle or Second Academy, essentially founded by him, was distinguished from the view of Pyrrhus. Take into account Arcesilau’s idea that one could not even be aware of one’s own ignoranceIt seems that, in a sense, the skepticism could not advance. However, the truth is that academic skeptics do not seem to have questioned the very existence of reality, but how human beings can get it in its purest and truest form.

      Another aspect in which it was different from the pirronismo was in the implementation of its doctrines. While Pyrrhonia aimed to achieve equanimity (ataraxia), academic skeptics seem to have opted for practical life speculation. Practical moderation was a key feature of skeptical academics because, although they questioned the means by which knowledge was acquired, the legitimacy of each point of view was not questioned, although they accepted a some debate.

      Knowledge criticism

      Arcesilaus was of the opinion that when it comes to knowledge, one could only have opinions. It was not possible to say anything. For him, opinion is still a lack of knowledge, not of wisdomSo there is no certainty that what is known is really known. You have to let go of everything because these are just beliefs.

      He believed that one could not distinguish between real and non-real representations of the world, being the clearest demonstration of this idea of ​​non-existent objects, such as dreams, errors of the senses or madness. We all supposedly have a representation of these “objects” that have no physical space.

      say that it is impossible to rely on the data of the senses to reason about true knowledge of the causes and principles of the world, both physical and immaterial. Reason, in fact, knows nothing, since there is no criterion of truth. Everything is hidden in the dark and nothing can be truly perceived or understood, so nothing can ever be assured, nothing affirmed, or nothing approved.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Laërtius, Diogenes (1925). Academics: Arcesilaus. Lives of eminent philosophers. 1: 4. Translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (two volume ed.). Classic library by Loeb.
      • Brittain, Charles. Arcesilaus. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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