Arcesilaus, c.316-c.241 B.C., Greek philosopher of Pitane in Aeolis. He was the principal figure of the Middle Academy. Despite his position in the Academy, his teachings diverged from Platonic doctrine. By emphasizing the doubt expressed by Socrates as to the possibility of gaining knowledge, he took a position comparable to that of the Skeptics (see skepticism). He argued that knowledge and opinion could not be distinguished from each other, so that what anyone claims to know may be more or less probable but not certain. In denying the possibility of certainty he was a major opponent of the Stoics (see Stoicism). Arcesilaus indirectly influenced Carneades and his school.

See A. A. Long, The Hellenistic Philosophers (2 vol. 1987).

Arcesilaus (Ἀρκεσίλαος) (ca. 316-ca. 241 BC) was a Greek philosopher and founder of the Second or Middle Academy—the skeptical phase of the Academy. Arcesilaus succeeded Crates as head (scholarch) of the Academy c. 264 BC. He did not preserve his thoughts in writing, so his opinions can only be gleaned second-hand from what is preserved by later writers. He was the first Academic to adopt a position of philosophical skepticism, that is, he doubted the ability of the senses to discover truth about the world, although he may have continued to believe in the existence of truth itself. This brought in the skepical phase of the Academy. His chief opponents were the Stoics and their belief that reality could be comprehended with certainty.


Arcesilaus was born in Pitane in Aeolis. His early education was provided by Autolycus the mathematician, with whom he migrated to Sardis. Afterwards, he came to Athens to study rhetoric; but adopted philosophy and became the eromenos and disciple first of Theophrastus and afterwards of Crantor. He subsequently became intimate with Polemo and Crates, and eventually became head of the school (σχολάρχης).

Diogenes Laërtius says that, like his successor Lacydes, he died of excessive drinking, but the testimony of others (e.g. Cleanthes) and his own precepts discredit the story, and he is known to have been much respected by the Athenians.


Arcesilaus committed nothing to writing, his opinions were imperfectly known to his contemporaries, and can now only be gathered from the confused statements of his opponents.

On the one hand, he is said to have restored the doctrines of Plato in an incorrupted form; while, on the other hand, according to Cicero, he summed up his opinions in the formula, "that he knew nothing, not even his own ignorance." There are two ways of reconciling the difficulty: either we may suppose him to have thrown out such aphorisms as an exercise for his pupils, as Sextus Empiricus, who calls him a Sceptic, would have us believe; or he may have really doubted the esoteric meaning of Plato, and have supposed himself to have been stripping his works of the figments of the Dogmatists, while he was in fact taking from them all certain principles.

The Stoics were the chief opponents of Arcesilaus; he attacked their doctrine of a convincing conception (katalêptikê phantasia) as understood to be a mean between science and opinion - a mean which he asserted could not exist, and was merely the interpolation of a name. It involved a contradiction in terms, as the very idea of phantasia implied the possibility of false as well as true conceptions of the same object.

It is a question of some importance as to how the skepticism of the Middle and New Academy was distinguished from that of Pyrrhonism. Admitting the formula of Arcesilaus, "that he knew nothing, not even his own ignorance," to be an exposition of his real sentiments, it was impossible in one sense that skepticism could proceed further: but the Academic skeptics do not seem to have doubted the existence of truth in itself, only our capacities for obtaining it. It differed also from the principles of the pure skeptic in the practical tendency of its doctrines: while the object of the one was the attainment of perfect equanimity, the other seems rather to have retired from the barren field of speculation to practical life, and to have acknowledged some vestiges of a moral law within, at best but a probable guide, the possession of which, however, formed the real distinction between the sage and the fool. Slight as the difference may appear between the speculative statements of the two schools, a comparison of the lives of their founders and their respective successors leads to the conclusion, that a practical moderation was the characteristic of the Academic skeptics.


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