In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Skepticism in Renaissance Thought

  • Introduction

Renaissance and Reformation Skepticism in Renaissance Thought
William M. Hamlin, Gianni Paganini
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0371


Both in Greco-Roman antiquity and in early-modern Europe, philosophical skepticism manifested itself in two basic forms. Pyrrhonism, named after Pyrrho of Elis (b. c. 360–d. c. 270 BCE) and carefully outlined in the treatises of Sextus Empiricus (b. c. 150–d. c. 220 CE), suggested that we have inadequate grounds for claiming certain knowledge about non-evident matters; we should therefore suspend judgment on all topics wherein conflicting perceptions or opinions may be advanced. Academic skepticism, by contrast, argued that epistemological certainty is impossible to attain, and that we should seek instead to develop forms of probable knowledge based on the scrupulous study of appearances. Refined in the Platonic Academy during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, Academic skepticism found theoretical formulation in the commentaries of Arcesilaus (b. 318–d. 243 BCE) and Carneades (b. 214–d. 129 BCE), but its dissemination in Renaissance Europe depended primarily on its presentation by Cicero (b. 106–d. 43 BCE) in the Academica (Cicero 1951a, cited under Major Sources: Classical Texts), a pair of dialogues on the nature and possibility of knowledge that was widely read from the 15th century forward. Pyrrhonists, meanwhile, felt that the Academics had gone too far: the claim that nothing is certain amounted to a new form of dogmatism, specifically a negative dogmatism, as compared to the positively dogmatic assertions of Stoic, Peripatetic, and Epicurean philosophers. Thus Pyrrhonists acquired a reputation as more thoroughgoing skeptics than those associated with Cicero and Academicism, and when Sextus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Sextus Empiricus 2000) and Against the Mathematicians (Sextus Empiricus 1939–1949, both cited under Major Sources: Classical Texts) were translated into Latin (Pyrrhoniae Hypotyposes and Adversus Mathematicos) during the mid-16th century, they prompted reactions ranging from excited admiration to antagonistic contempt. Still, for a majority of Renaissance thinkers, the two traditions of skepticism were understood as fundamentally akin to one another in their common engagement with epistemological doubt, their willingness to challenge arguments based on authority or sustained ratiocination, and their suspicion of elaborate philosophical systems. Thus, devoid of doctrine in any conventional sense, early-modern skepticism is not so much a philosophical position as a cast of mind and a set of cognitive habits. Particularly in 16th-century Europe, skeptical practice is more often characterized by partial deployments of Academic or Pyrrhonian reasoning than by all-out assault on received knowledge. Michel de Montaigne (b. 1533–d. 1592), for instance, segregates Roman Catholic belief from skeptical interrogation, despite his familiarity with the investigative tactics modeled by Sextus Empiricus and Cicero. Indeed, skeptical tactics are utilized by Protestants and Catholics alike within Reformation doctrinal dispute, revealing instrumental uses of skepticism that have more to do with defending a writer’s own beliefs than with abandoning belief altogether. At the same time, however, skepticism is sometimes deployed against religion (e.g., by the “libertines”) and used by certain major thinkers (e.g., Campanella, Descartes, Hobbes) as a basis for raising contemporary levels of metaphysical inquiry. In the end, with its stress on intellectual modesty and its commitment to the investigation of all claims to knowledge, Renaissance skepticism serves as a touchstone for the development of later philosophical outlooks, and its anti-dogmatic challenges to ethnocentrism and religious zealotry underlie social values strongly associated with post-Renaissance modernity. In addition to the specialized studies cited here, some academic journals routinely publish studies of skepticism in the early-modern period, including the Journal of the History of Ideas, Renaissance Quarterly, the Journal of the History of Philosophy, Montaigne Studies, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, the Sixteenth Century Journal, and the most recently established publication, International Journal for the Study of Skepticism.

Major Sources

The fundamental source texts for early-modern skepticism are Cicero’s Academica (Cicero 1951a) and On the Nature of the Gods (Cicero 1951b) (both cited under Classical Texts, Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Sextus Empiricus 2000) and Against the Mathematicians (Sextus Empiricus 1939–1949, both cited under Classical Texts), and Diogenes Laertius’s Life of Pyrrho (Diogenes Laertius 1925, cited under Classical Texts). But skepticism entered the Renaissance through many channels, including anti-skeptical treatises by Galen and Saint Augustine, philosophical critiques such as that of Lucretius in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), satirical dialogues by Lucian of Samosata (e.g., Icaromenippus, Sale of Creeds), and theological commentaries by early church fathers such as Eusebius and Lactantius. Plutarch’s Reply to Colotes, an anti-Epicurean treatise, offers scattered remarks about skepticism, as does Aulus Gellius’s Attic Nights, a miscellany and commonplace book. Summarized in this section are six major classical texts (by Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, Diogenes Laertius, and Augustine), followed by entries on Renaissance works that deal in significant ways with skepticism, including Montaigne’s Essais (Montaigne 2007), Sanches’s Quod Nihil Scitur (Sanches 2011), Charron’s De la Sagesse (Charron 1604), and Campanella’s Metaphysica (Campanella 1638) (all cited under Major Sources: Renaissance Treatises and Other Writings: Seventeenth-Century Writings). The terminus ad quem for coverage is roughly 1639, the year of Campanella’s death, although a few important works that postdate this terminus are included.

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