ARCHESILAOS OF PITANE (’Αρχεσιλαος—also “Arcesilaus”)—a philosopher, b. around 315 BC, d. around 240.
Archesilaos was a student of the mathematician Autolichus. In Athens he studied under the peripatetic Theophrastus. He listened to Polemos, Crantor, and Crates. After the death of Crates in 265 he became the scholarch of the so-called Middle Platonic Academy in which he remained to the end of his life. He left no writings. His views are known from the accounts of Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, Cicero, Eusebius of Caesarea, Plutarch, and Pythodorus, one of his disciples who made notes of his lectures.
Archesilaos began a new phase in the school. He took a position that was in many respects close to the views of Timon and Pyrrho. The period in the Academy was a link of ideas joining the first and second skepticism of Pyrrho. According to Philodemos, Archesilaos acquired copies of Plato’s writings. He taught dogmatic Platonism but later became a Skeptic. He was influenced by Diodorus Chronos, a dialectician of exception abilities. Sextus Empiricus saw no essential differences between the views of Arhesilaos and those of the Skeptics (Zarysy pirrońskie [Pyrrhonic Outlines], I 232).
Archesilaos arrived at Skepticism under the influence of Pyrrhonism. Under the influence of new requirements, guided by a logic that differed from that Socrates and Plato, he interpreted Plato as a Skeptic. He was inspired by the requirements of Pyrrhonic Skepticism which he combined with aporetic elements, ironic elements, the posing of doubts, and unexpected suspensions of judgment (which can be seen in Plato and Socrates). These, however, were always directed maieutically to the discovery of truth or a preparation for such a discovery. Archesilaos thought the he must reject the one thing of which Socrates had boasted that he was certain, that “I know that I do not know” (Cicero, Academica, I 45, 1). “From a few books of Plato and Socratic dialogues he got the idea that there is nothing certain” (Cicero, Orator, III 67). As soon as Skepticism was joined to the tradition of the Academy it changed from the ethical system which it was previously into dialectical Skepticism. Archesilaos created a new “philosophy of non-philosophizing” (Lactantius, Divinorum institutionum Libri, IV 11).
The method of irony and elenchus (refutation) used by Socrates and Plato in the search for truth was used by Archesiloas in a Skeptic way. He directed it primarily against the Stoics, especially against Zeno (Cicero, Academica, I 44). He was harshly critical of the Stoic criterion of truth, which the Stoics identified with cataleptic representation. Once he established that there is no absolute certainty, he turned the suspension of judgment, which the Stoics recommended only in cases where evidence is absent, into a general rule (Sextus Empiricus, Zarysy pirrońskie [Pyrrhonic outlines], I 232).
The Stoics responded with the objection that the radical suspension of consent entailed the impossibility of resolving problems in life (the only problem that was of interest to philosophy at the time), and it made any action whatsoever impossible. Archesilaos responded with a common-sense argument (’ευλογον [eulogon]) that it is not true that when we suspend judgment moral action becomes impossible. The Stoics themselves, in order to explain ordinary moral acts, introduced καθηκοντα [kathekonta], and held that they were acts that have logical and prudential justification. According to them only a sage would be able to perform morally perfect acts, while all others are capable only of kathekonta. This is an argument that moral action is possible even if one has not found truth and has no absolute certainty. That which is prudent and logical is completely sufficient for performing “right actions”—κατορθωματα [katorthomata]. He who performs prudent actions is haapy, but happiness presupposes consideration (φρονησις [phronesis]); Actions performed according to the criterion of what is prudent are characterized by consideration and therefore they are truly right actions. Therefore the sage’s claim to a superior morality is groundless.
Archesilaos’ Skepticism was quite different from Pyrrhonic Skepticism which arose for the purpose of resolving the problem of life and happiness; happiness should consist in the renunciation of desires, apathy and the absence of internal disturbance. The Academic Skepticism started by Archesilaos, however, was diminished; it moved in a “dialectical” direction and aimed to become merely a way of defeating the arguments of Stoicism and an attempt to refute the “dogmatic” doctrines of the Stoic school, but it could not advance any positive propositions.
V. Brochard, Les sceptiques grecs, P 1887, 19593, 99–122; L. Credaro, Lo scetticismo degli Accademici, I–II, R 1889–1893, Mi 1985² H. Arnim, Realenzyklopädie der Klassischen Altertumswissenchsft, St 1896, II 1164–1169;. Goedeckemeyer, Die Geschichte des griechischen Skeptizismus, L 1905, 1967, 30–47; A. Krokiewicz, Arkezilaos [Archesilaos], KF 16 (1928), 143–176; P. Couissin, Le stoicisme de la nouvelle Académie, Revue d’histoire de la philosophie 3 (1929), 241–276; M. Dal Pra, Lo scetticismo greco, Mi 1950; A. Krokiewicz, Sceptycyzm grecki. Od Pyrrona do Karneadesa [Greek Skepticism. From Pyrrho to Carneades], Wwa 1964, 133–192; DLaert (passim); H. J. Mette, Zwei Akademiker heute. Krantor von Soloi und Archesiloas von Pitane, Lustrum 26 (1984), 7–94; H. Maconi, Nova non philosophandi philosophia, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 6 (1988), 231–253; Reale III.