They are known as “the 5 tropes of Agrippa”, but, in reality, little or nothing is known about the Agrippa to which they refer. These “5 paths of doubt” are closely linked to the Greek skeptical school and appear in the Pyrrhonian sketches by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210). However, Diogenes Laertius (180-240) attributes them to a Roman philosopher named Agrippa, or to his followers.
But, first of all, what are the 5 tropes of Agrippa? What does it consist on? What do they mean? In the following article we briefly review what these 5 “paths of doubt” are, what each of them is based on and what role they have in the path of knowledge.
What are the 5 tropes of Agrippa or the “paths of doubt”?
Both names refer to the 5 principles by which it is impossible to achieve true knowledge. Closely linked to the skeptical school, championed by Pyrrho of Elis (360-275 BC), these five tropes (from the Greek I climbchange or alter) intend explain the impossibility of accessing ultimate knowledge. For many, they constitute the zenith of skeptical philosophy, since they categorically express why skeptical thinkers distrusted the ultimate and absolute truth.
- Related article: “The 15 most important and famous Greek philosophers”
The context: the turbulent Hellenistic era
The so-called Hellenistic period is the last of the Greek classical periods and is characterized by a certain disillusionment and distrust in the future, arising after the dismemberment of the empire forged by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). The philosophical currents cracked and the so-called Hellenistic schools appeared: Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism, among others.
The latter, led by the aforementioned Pyrrho of Elis, tried to fight general disenchantment through a philosophy based on a distrustful attitude towards obtaining knowledge. So, Faced with the absolute impossibility of accessing the truth, the wise man had to refrain from issuing any judgment.from where ataraxia or peace of the soul was achieved.
The precepts of skepticism were tremendously popular and reached even Rome itself. The fact of suspending the trial seemed to exert a powerful attraction on the citizens; as if, suddenly, the weight of responsibility was lifted from their shoulders. However, at the time when Sextus Empíricus wrote his Pyrrhonian Outlines (2nd century AD), this current was already suffering a profound decline.
- You may be interested: “The 10 Stoic Keys to a psychologically healthy life”
Who was the philosopher Agrippa?
We have already commented: nothing is known about him other than the mention that Diogenes Laertius makes of his person and work. Experts have considered that, presumably, the 5 tropes that Sextus Empiricus mentions could have been written by him, but, again, there is no way to confirm this.
If this Agrippa existed, he must have lived in the 1st century AD, and may have had Roman citizenship. If so, he was chronologically very distant from the original Greek skeptical school, which had its splendor during the last centuries before our era. Anyway, Its 5 tropes draw directly from the 10 tropes of Aenesidemus, which were also intended to demonstrate the impossibility of making a reliable judgment.. Let’s stop, then, at each of these tropes and see their meaning.
- Related article: “The 10 branches of Philosophy (and their main thinkers)”
What are the 5 tropes of Agrippa and what do they mean?
Below we list these 5 tropes or “paths of doubt” and briefly outline what they mean.
1. Dissent or disagreement
The first trope refers to disagreements. It is not possible to find any precept on which everyone agrees; there are always divergences that often contradict each other. This, a priori, should not be an impediment to accessing the truth, because the fact that there is a disagreement does not imply that agreement is not possible.
2. “Ad infinitum”
Or, what is the same, “to infinity.” This trope indicates that any fact requires proving, thus establishing an infinite chain of verifications. If, for example, from A we draw B as a conclusion, we will also need to prove A, because, otherwise, we would be starting from an unproven fact (so B would also be unproven). And so on with a long etcetera.
The third trope talks about the relationships between things, which cause these same things to change. In other words, the meaning of something will depend on its relationships. Besides, Things can also be transformed when the perspective with which they are examined is varied.. Again, it is impossible to find a definitive conclusion.
4. Begging the question
We have already seen how the demonstration can be prolonged ad infinitum (to infinity). So the solution could be to set the starting point to true per se; that is, it does not require any demonstration. But could a skeptic simply accept that this principle is true? Why not then establish the opposite proposition as true? We find ourselves, once again, at a dead end.
5. The vicious circle
Okay, we have that each verification requires, in turn, that the point from which it comes is demonstrated. Can we then justify something by its consequences? Nor, since these in turn need to be verified. In this way we enter a vicious circle from which, once again, it is impossible to get out.