Poli 490S/4: The skeptical tradition

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POLI 490S/4: The skeptical tradition
Professor James Moore
This class will be offered in the winter term 2013 on Friday mornings (9:00 – 11:30 AM).
Course description:
Skepticism is a second-order philosophical position. Given the nature of skepticism it could not be otherwise; in order to be skeptical, one must have something to be skeptical about.
Historically, in ancient and in modern times, the philosophical position that has most often provoked Skepticism has been Stoicism: the philosophical system that assumes that the world has a natural order that can be understood by reason or intelligence or conscience or a distinctive moral faculty. The early Stoics described the natural order as a divine fire that can be known by the spark of intelligence that exists in every human being. And this knowledge could be employed to extinguish the passions and affections.
Skeptics have generally been skeptical of this claim. They have insisted on the force of the passions in human affairs. This emphasis on the passions has often allied the skeptics with the Epicureans.
This course will begin with an examination of the philosophers of the Hellenistic era: the Epicureans, the Stoics and the Skeptics. Each of these philosophical traditions emerged in the 4th century BC, in the Alexandrian or post-Aristotelian period in politics and philosophy. We will consider the variations that appear in each of these systems.
There were two distinct Epicurean systems: one, frivolous, devoted to the pursuit of pleasure; it is associated with followers of Aristippus who are also called Cyrenaics. The more substantive philosophers in the Epicurean tradition: Epicurus himself, Lucretius, Horace maintained that the world has neither a beginning nor an end; that there is nothing in the world but atoms raining ceaselessly through the void; and when these atoms collide they generate heat and sometimes life; and so, human societies are typically accidental and endure by respect for the conventions and artificial institutions men impose upon themselves.
The early ascetic Stoics (Zeno and Chrysippus) were followed in the third and second centuries BC by more civic minded Stoics (Cincinnatus, Cato, Brutus) who discovered a natural order in the institutions of the Roman Republic and enlisted the passions in defence of the Republic. They were in turn succeeded by later more eclectic Stoics (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) who combined the teachings of the Stoics with the principles of the Platonists and Aristotelians.


Finally the Skeptics of ancient Greece and Rome were divided between the uncompromising or unmitigated skeptics or Pyrrhonists and the mitigated or academic Skeptics. The latter sought solutions to skeptical doubts; the former doubted the possibility of finding solutions: they sought instead to achieve a suspension of judgment.

The principal readings for this part of the course will be drawn from the dialogues of Cicero, where Epicurean, Stoical and Skeptical themes are juxtaposed and explored, and from The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.
Skepticism, Stoicism and Epicureanism were revived in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the factors that contributed to the revival of Skepticism was the increasing disenchantment that followed the wars of religion. This is particularly evident in the skeptical essays of Michel de Montaigne. We will read and discuss his essays on reaching the same conclusions by different arguments; on sadness, on drunkenness; on cruelty and on the useful and the honourable. In the seventeenth century, following the new science of Galileo, skepticism and Epicureanism were combined in the systems of Hobbes and Gassendi: we will read selections from their writings. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the skeptical reflections of Pierre Bayle were challenged by theorists of natural law and defended by Bernard Mandeville in Free Thoughts on Religion, the Church and National Happiness.
Finally, in the third part of the seminar, we will examine the philosophical disagreement between David Hume, a philosopher who made use of mitigated and Pyrrhonian skepticism and Francis Hutcheson, an eclectic Stoic. One might start one’s reading of these authors by consulting Hume’s essays on the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Platonist and the Sceptic and Hutcheson’s edition of the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. This book is available online and in print from Liberty Fund.
Students will be expected to write an essay on a theme chosen in consultation with the professor. There will also be a final exam which will permit a range of choices from questions based on the readings and class discussions.
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