Skepticism in Post Aristotelians & Jains


By Ms. Isha Gamlath, E-Mail:


Abstract : A common feature of the post-Aristotelian School was skepticism. The Hellenistic period to which these schools belonged to was a time when the dominion of Macedonia had caused subjectivism. This subjectivism is reflected in the field of philosophy as sell. Subject to the diverse philosophical systems prior to their own and introduced into the philosophy that  stemmed from Indo-Aryan origins the pursuit of truth was no longer the aim of post Aristotelian philosophers. They developed an entirely subjective and hence, a skeptical attitude towards the acquisition of knowledge. Among the several resemblances between these philosophers and Jains, skepticism is distinct. This paper draws attention to skepticism in the philosophies of the post - Aristotelians and the Jains.

Paper : There is numerous reference to the Jain influence on the post - Aristotelians. An unknown Germen school of Indology succeeded in securing an idol resembling Mahavira, the greatest of all Thirthankaras, in Athens belonging to the period of either 6th or 7th century B.C. A large number of idols of Jains gods have also been found in the vicinity of the Mediterranean. There is also reference to the close association between the Jain monks and Gymnosophists and the Greeks. Dr. B. N. Pandey in his 'Bharat aur Manav Sanskriti' notes the existence of Jain monks in Greece around 400 B.C. The Jain ascetic Sri Kalyan Muni is said to have accompanied Alexander the Great on his return to Greece from India. In later times he came to be known as Saint Colnus in Greece. Impressed by the Jain way of living many Greek Scholars visited the Jain monks in the African continent for spiritual knowledge. Pyrrho was known to have traveled to India and associated the Gymnosophists. All throughout his later life Pyrrho lived like a naked Jain monk. Strict rules of conduct including celibacy except (with the exception of Cynics and Cyreniacs who had no moral rules regarding sex), non-injury and asceticism were some of the Jain features in the philosophy of post-Aristotelians. Exertion, withdrawal from sensory pleasures as means of escaping from worldly burdens are evident of the Jain influence. But the theory of syadavada which resulted in the skeptical note in the post-Aristotelians is the most significant Jain tenet in their philosophy.

The skeptical tone of the better known post-Aristotelian schools including the Cyreniacs, the Cynics the Pyrrhonists the Skeptics, the Neo-Pythagoreans and the New Academics is based on the theory that knowledge is accessible according to individual means. Each individual is in possession of his or her own knowledge which is confined to him or her. According to the sacred Jain scriptures there is no universal truth but a subjective truth which differed from one person to the other. Absolute negation or absolute affirmation is impossible in the knowledge in the sense that the individual could both believe and disbelieve any theory of knowledge. This they called anekantha or the many sidedness of any view. Appolodorus in his Chronicles says that the Pyrrhonists held that no action can be termed as just or unjust. Nothing exists in truth. Convention and habit are the basis of all human actions. Sensation cannot be trusted for one thing is neither is or is not or both is and is not Sextus Empiricus in Against Professors brings out that according to Timon, disciple of Pyrrho, that nothing good or bad exists. Timons in Images declares that 'the appearance prevails everywhere wherever one goes' and in On Sensation that 'honey is sweet I do not affirm but I agree that honey appears to be sweet but cannot be certain.' Hence the Timon and the Pyrrhonists in general deny that possibility of genuine knowledge. 

The founder of the Cynic school in Athens, Antisthenes, constructed a theory that happiness was based on virtue and that virtue was based on knowledge. Therefore virtue can be taught. Influenced the Sophists and the Jain theory of anekantha, the Cynics maintained a skeptical attitude towards truth. The Jain theory of syadvada or the concept of reality which is indeterminate forms the basis for anekanthavada. Syadvada stems from the word syat which means may be. Syadvad indicated that an argument can be examined from many points of view. This is anekantha. The anekantha theory invites to look at everyargument using the sapthabhangi or seven fold formula. The Sapthabhangi is as follows.

  1. May be is (Syat asti)

  2. May be not (Syat Nasti)

  3. May be is and is not (Syat asti nasti)

  4. May be is inexpressiblie (Syat Avyaktavyah)

  5. May be is and is inexpressible (Sya asti ca avyaktavyah)

  6. May be is not and inexpressible (Syat Nasti ca avyaktvavyah)

  7. May be is, is not and is inexpressible (Syat asti ca nast ca avyakvyah)

There is a striking comparison between Jain Sapthabhangi and of Protagors the Sophists arguments which bore a direct influence on the Cynics. Protagoras said -

1.     Nothing exists
a.     Not being does not exist
b.     Being does not exist,
I      As everlasting
II     As created
III    As both
IV    As Many
c.    A mixture of being and non-being does not exist.
2     If anything exists it is incomprehensible
3.    If it is comprehensible it is incommunicable.

(Sextus from On Being or On nature in fragment 3)

The skeptical tone of Protagoras is obvious when we says that neither being nor non-being is true or false. There is not strict rule that governs knowledge. It is totally individual and subjective; and above all skeptical.

The Cyreniacs, headed by Aristippus whose goal in all life's movements was pleasure derived from Protagoras that human knowledge was limited to sensations. Man knew only what appeared to him as true but not the very nature, the very essence of things. Basing on such a skeptical attitude towards everything in life a fragment records when Aristippus sound very persuasive. He once went to Dionyssos the tyrant of Syracuse.

'I went to Socrates when I need knowledge I come to you when I need money.' (Diogenes Laertius, ii. 78)

The Sophistic word play is clearly visible which itself resembles the Jain sapthabhanbgi.

On a similar footing Carneades of the new Academy argued the toie idea that reality would be gained through ' Presentations'. Theses presentations may be true or false or persuasive or non-persuasive. The persuasive ones are usually true. Such presentations are more acceptable if everybody recognises their credibility after closer examination.

Carneades agures against Gods Providence, prophecy and fate. On the same footing Protagoras the sophist 'made the weaker cause the stronger' (fr.6b). He believed in no Vada or Nyaya that can be universally true. About the existence  of gods he is skeptical and his ideas are in keeping with the Jain syadvada theory. They are:

About the gods I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist nor inform; for the factors, preventing knowledge are many; (fr. 4)

The Jains maintained that any substance is both a substance and not a substance any substance possesses an infinite number of qualities or ananthadarshana tamaham vastu. These qualities can be acquired from infinite pints of view. A jug could be made of clay, steel or glass. It could be of any colour size or shape. All these can be true and false. A definition of a jug cannot be made for certain. Hence the knowledge acquired of a jug is skeptical. It is this skeptical tone that the Sophists, Jains and may post-Aristotelian schools maintained in their philosophies.



By Ms. Isha Gamlath is a Senior Lecturer in Department of Classics, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka


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