Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Skepticism, Renaissance

  • Charles E. SnyderEmail author
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_1129-1


Philosophical skepticism takes two distinct forms in the ancient Greek and Roman tradition, but only one of those forms has an afterlife in the Renaissance. Renaissance skepticism refers primarily to the revitalization of dogmatic skeptical argumentation in the service of religious truth, on the one hand, and the disavowal of a less assertive form of classical skepticism, on the other. Ancient philosophical skepticism inspired Renaissance thinkers who had already accepted religious truth on the basis of a fundamental faith in divine revelation, including Jewish rabbis preaching in Italy and Christian authors battling scholastic Aristotelianism in France. Ancient skeptical argumentation became grist for the religious mill of proclaiming the superiority of religious truth over the doctrines of philosophy.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

Classical skeptics adhere to the belief that for human beings nothing can be known for certain and the belief that one should suspend belief, even about the belief that nothing can be known for certain. Sextus Empiricus’ brand of classical skepticism invokes the example of Pyrrho and the goal of psychological tranquility and moderate feeling to profile the practical life of classical skepticism. By contrast, dogmatic skeptics are resolute in arguing for the belief that nothing can be known for certain. This second form of skepticism adheres more firmly to the belief that nothing can be known for certain, and that one should withhold belief. In arguing for these beliefs, dogmatic skeptics give assent to the framework of criteria and notions that dogmatic philosophers rely on to make positive claims. Metrodorus of Stratonicea and Philo of Larissa, disciples of Clitomachus in the late Hellenistic Academy, broke ranks with the classical skepticism that held sway in the Academy from Arcesilaus to Clitomachus. Metrodorus and Philo believed firmly in the view that certain beliefs are more persuasive, beliefs which now enable the dogmatic skeptic to argue more stridently (Cicero, Academica 2.67, 2.104–5) for the view that nothing can be known for certain. Thus traces of classical skepticism survive in Cicero’s Academica. But in that work, Cicero devotes considerable effort to defending the dogmatic skepticism of the late Hellenistic Academy. Sextus’ classical skepticism sanctions a mitigated and less assertive mode of belief according to which the skeptic lives an ordinary life and evades the framework of notions and criteria affirmed by dogmatic philosophers. It was as customary for philosophers in late antiquity and beyond to dismiss this way of life as untenable as it was for later religious thinkers to disavow almost entirely, for the ordinary life of the Pyrrhonist does not seem readily reconcilable with the authoritative proclamations of truth according to divine revelation. In addition to Cicero and Sextus, the writings of Philo Judaeus, Plutarch, Galen, Aulus Gellius, Diogenes Laertius, and early Christian authors like Lactantius, Jerome, Augustine, Eusebius, and Photius should not be forgotten as indirect sources of ancient skeptical argumentation, but the textual remains of classical skepticism proved difficult for Renaissance thinkers to extract from later testimonies. Familiar with many of these ancient sources, the philologically trained Spanish humanist Pedro de Valencia (1555–1620) illustrates the difficulty. Valencia published in 1596 his Academica sive de iudico erga verum, ex ipsis primis fontibus, perhaps the most probing and impartial historical exposition of ancient skepticism by a Renaissance thinker. But even Valencia is prone to ignore the subtle difference between classical and dogmatic skepticism in antiquity, judging academic skepticism in general to be a means to the realization that God is the sole source of truth.

Humanists and religious thinkers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries exploited the polemical zeal of dogmatic skepticism but paid no mind to the less assertive form of classical skepticism present in Cicero and reported by Sextus. Friends and enemies of ancient philosophical skepticism transformed the remains of philosophical skepticism into dogmatic skepticism. Desiderius Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly may be a curious exception, with his mild acclaim of classical Academic skepticism for not asserting anything. Despite the rediscovery of the polemical power of dogmatic skepticism during the Renaissance period, the appropriations of religious skepticism in the Renaissance had no more use for classical skepticism and the psychological state of tranquility than the philosophers and theologians of late antiquity and the Medieval period (Frede 1984).

Innovative and Original Aspects

A Dominican monk teaching philosophy in Florence, Giralomo Savonarola (1452–1498) understood the critical potency of the arguments contained in the extant manuscripts of Sextus Empiricus for the rejection of Aristotelian philosophy and the reform of the Catholic Church. Savonarola chose not to learn Greek, and thus had not read Sextus Empiricus himself. And yet he had enough sense of those writings to recommend them as part of a campaign against the dominant pagan philosophies of his time (Floridi 2002). He encouraged the translation and study of Sextus as a means of submitting oneself to the superiority of Christian faith.

His disciple Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola (1469–1533) composed in 1520 his Examen vantitatis doctrinae gentium et veritatis christianae disciplinae, an attack upon Aristotle’s epistemology and pagan philosophy more generally with the help of arguments from Sextus’ works (Schmitt 1972; Cao 2007). Pyrrhonian skepticism is worthy of Pico’s attention insofar as the skeptic is a credible witness in the prosecution of philosophy in the service of divine revelation. Gianfrancesco was not intrigued by the end or the practicality of Pyrrhonian skepticism. The same can be said for Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1468–1535), whose De Incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et atrium, atque excellentia Verbi Dei, declamatio invectiva (Agrippa 1530) criticizes all the human arts and sciences as unreliable and immoral, for he considered it much better to believe in the revelation of God and the Church of Jesus Christ.

The Mantuan Rabbi Judah ben Moscato (1533–1590) published in Venice a collection of 52 sermons titled Nefuṣot Yehudah, addressing an assortment of theological and philosophical topics from the perspective of the Jewish rabbinical tradition. Moscato’s ideas range across non-Jewish sources, including Greek and Roman mythology, Neo-Platonic philosophy, and the classical philosophy of Heraclitus. In preaching that the human arts and sciences, including geometry, arithmetic, and metaphysics, consist of only partial truth, Moscato deploys the denials and negations of dogmatic skepticism, though it remains unclear whether, or to what extent, Moscato borrowed indirectly or directly from Cicero, Sextus, or later sources for an understanding of ancient skepticism. Nonetheless, in reserving perfect knowledge for those who study the Torah, Moscato’s religious skepticism resumes the negative aspect of dogmatic skepticism to prepare the way for the positive truth-claims he does make on the basis of the Torah.

In 1562, Henricus Stephanus (Henri Estienne 1528–1598) published the first Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus’ Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis, and in 1569, it was republished along with a Latin translation of Adversus Mathematicos by the Catholic Priest Gentianus Hervetus (1499–1584). The Latin translations had an immediate impact, especially in France, where Cicero’s works already had a significant role in the controversies concerning scholastic pedagogy (Schmitt 1972).

The physician and philosopher Francisco Sanches (1551–1623) was reputed to be a skeptic in his own day. Pierre Bayle praised Sanches as a “grand Pyrrhonian,” but today most scholars agree that Sanches had not been familiar with Sextus’ writings (though he was certainly familiar with Diogenes’ Lives). Scholars typically describe his 1581 Quod nihil scitur as the work of an Academic skeptic (Limbrick 1988, Popkin 2003), as it challenges the dogmatic claims of scholastic Aristotelianism, and to an extent Platonic philosophy. The very first words of Quod nihil scitur, “Not even this one thing I know, namely that I know nothing,” alerts readers not to expect arguments or claims that establish that nothing can be known. If Sanches had been an Academic skeptic, it was not the later dogmatic skepticism of Metrodorus, Philo, and Cicero (Caluouri 2007). In a letter to the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, Sanches signs Carneades philosophus, making it seem as if Sanches was more inclined to revive the classical skepticism of Carneades’ Academy, especially since he had no apparent interest in the Pyrrhonian goal of tranquility (ataraxia) or moderation in feeling (metriopatheia). As a Catholic, however, Sanches asserted the truth of divine Revelation and thus had strong beliefs about the aim of human life. Classical skepticism of the Academic variety, of course, refrained from such an assertion.

Michel de Montaigne’s “Apologie de Raimund Sebund” (1580) is the most far-reaching appropriation of ancient skepticism in the Renaissance. Montaigne complies with his father’s request to translate Raimund Sebond’s Natural Theology and defends his theology in his longest and most skeptical essay. Despite having never read Sextus in Greek, Montaigne relied on Pyrrhonian tropes to attack the vanity of human reason “to make room for faith” (II.12, F375, V506). But in his ironic praise of Pyrrhonian skepticism (II.12, F422, V561), Montaigne appeals to a criterion favored only by dogmatic skeptics of the Academy, a signal to his more astute readers that his essays deliberately make a mongrel of classical and dogmatic skepticism. And yet, the “Apologie” concludes with a judgment much more characteristic of Sebond than classical or dogmatic skeptics, asserting that only faith may elevate humanity to a position of communicating with the divine. While Montaigne appeals to the dogmatic skepticism of Cicero in putting forth the criterion of the probable, Montaigne’s “Apologie” reflects a harmonization of Christian faith and a notion of human reason expunged of its predilection for conceit and ultimate authority.

Writing in a more traditional style, the Catholic priest and theological advisor Pierre Charron developed in De la Sagesse (1601) a systematic account of skeptical wisdom inspired mainly by Montaigne. Another important influence on Charron was Omer Talon (ca. 510–1562), the colleague of Petrus Ramus in Paris who wrote an influential commentary and introduction to Cicero’s Academica in 1547 and Cicero’s de Oratore in 1553. Ramus was accused of being a “new Academic” for his attempt to reform university pedagogy with the help of Talon, turning it away from scholastic Aristotelianism toward Academic skepticism and Ramism. Like Talon and Montaigne, Pierre Charron embraces the dogmatic skepticism of the Academy in arguing for the limited perfectibility of human reason based on a knowledge of human nature. The skeptical sage makes discoveries about what human reason cannot attain. Charron’s skeptical wisdom reinforces religious truth through the positive acceptance of faith (Neto 2014).

Simone Luzzatto (1583–1663), a Venetian rabbi proficient in mathematics and astronomy, published in Italian his Socrate overo dell’humano sapere in 1651. The work remains largely unstudied by Renaissance scholars today. Writing as the chief rabbi of Venice, Luzzatto seems to compose Socrate for a readership wider than his Jewish community. Luzzatto deploys a semihistorical Socrates in making a critique of his own scientific and cultural milieu, with extended commentary on the current sciences of the natural world, from observations in the field of optics to Galileo’s studies of the moon and planets. While Socrates defends himself against the charge of subverting the human sciences, he identifies himself as a seeker of probable knowledge. In the end, Socrates renounces the pursuit of certain knowledge in light of the endless controversies in the natural sciences, but his belief in the certainty of divine revelation seems immune to Luzzatto’s theologically motivated skepticism (Veltri 2011).

Impact and Legacy

Modern philosophy may have benefitted from a more accurate historical understanding of ancient Greek skepticism. Philosophers like Descartes and Hume reduced ancient skepticism to the question of how impressions and ideas given to us could yield any certain knowledge about how things are. Descartes sought an answer to this question and reinvigorated the demand for the kind of certainty characteristic of ancient Stoicism, accepting the dogmatic framework of Hellenistic epistemology, as if classical skeptics had not already warned philosophers and dogmatic skeptics against this very framework. Hume may have found support for his tendency to evade the framework of dogmatic epistemology in the practical life of classical skeptics, but his understanding of ancient skepticism is for the most part reducible to dogmatic skepticism. In presenting modified versions of skepticism and seeking limited certainty, the Catholic priest and philosopher Pierre Gassendi, who had relied to a degree on the work of Sanches, may also have profited from the effort of classical skeptics to resist the kind of certainty idealized by other Hellenistic philosophers. The same could be said of Marin Mersenne, who sought to formulate a notion of knowledge independent of the criterion of cognitive certainty, anticipating what would become a criterion much more amenable to the modern natural sciences.



Primary Literature

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Secondary Literature

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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Maimonides Centre for Advanced StudiesUniversität HamburgHamburgGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marco Sgarbi
    • 1
  • Peter Mack
    • 2
  1. 1.University Ca' Foscari VeniceVeniceItaly
  2. 2.The Warburg Institute, School of Advanced StudyUniversity of LondonLondonUK