The Academics

A Dispute about Assent within the Academy

Cicero (106 - 43 BCE)

"These considerations necessarily engendered the doctrine of ἐποχή, that is, ‘a holding back of assent,’ in which Arcesilas was more consistent, if the opinions that some people hold about Carneades are true. For if nothing that has presented itself to either of them can be perceived, assent must be withheld; for what is so futile as to approve anything that is not known? But we kept being told yesterday that Carneades was also in the habit of taking refuge in the assertion that the wise man will occasionally hold an opinion, that is, commit an error" (Academica II.59).

"[For the wise man] might perceive nothing and yet form an opinion—a view which is said to have been accepted by Carneades; although for my own part, trusting Clitomachus more than Philo or Metrodorus, I believe that Carneades did not so much accept this view as advance it in argument" (Academica II.78).

"When we say that the Sceptic refrains from dogmatizing we do not use the term 'dogma (δόγμα),' as some do, in the broader sense of 'approval of a thing (εὐδοκεῖν)' (for the Sceptic gives assent to the feelings which are the necessary results of sense-impressions, and he would not, for example, say when feeling hot or cold 'I believe that I am not hot or cold'); but we say that 'he does not dogmatize' using 'dogma' in the sense, which some give it, of 'assent to one of the non-evident objects of scientific inquiry (τινι πράγματι τῶν κατὰ τὰς ἐπιστήμας ζητουμένων ἀδήλων συγκατάθεσιν)'; for the Pyrrhonean philosopher assents to nothing that is non-evident. Moreover, even in the act of enunciating the Sceptic formulae concerning things non-evident—such as the formula 'No more (one thing than another),' or the formula 'I determine nothing,' or any of the others which we shall presently mention,—he does not dogmatize. ... in his enunciation of these formulae he states what appears to himself and announces his own impression in an undogmatic way, without making any positive assertion regarding the external realities" (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I.1.13-15).

"[A]lthough both the Academics and the Sceptics say that they believe some things, yet here too the difference between the two philosophies is quite plain. For the word 'believe' (πείθεσθαι) has different meanings: it means not to resist but simply to follow without any strong impulse or inclination, as the boy is said to believe his tutor; but sometimes it means to assent to a thing of deliberate choice and with a kind of sympathy due to strong desire, as when the incontinent man believes him who approves of an extravagant mode of life. Since, therefore, Carneades and Cleitomachus declare that a strong inclination accompanies their credence and the credibility of the object, while we say that our belief is a matter of simple yielding without any consent (ἁπλῶς εἴκειν ἄνευ προσπαθείας)..." (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism I.1.229-230).
"After setting out these points, he [Clitomachus] adds that the formula 'the wise man withholds assent' is used in two ways, one when the meaning is that he gives absolute assent to no impression at all, the other when he restrains himself from replying so as to convey approval or disapproval of something, with the consequence that he neither makes a negation nor an affirmation; and that this being so, he holds the one plan in theory, so that he never assents, but the other in practice, so that he is guided by probability, and wherever this confronts him or is wanting he can answer 'yes' or 'no' accordingly. In fact as we hold that he who restrains himself from assent about all things nevertheless does move and does act, the view is that there remain impressions of a sort that arouse us to action, and also answers that we can give in the affirmative or the negative in reply to questions, merely following a corresponding impression, provided that we answer without actual assent; but that nevertheless not all impressions of this character were actually approved, but those that nothing hindered" (Academica II.104).

"I agree with Clitomachus when he writes that Carneades really did accomplish an almost Herculean labour in ridding our minds of that fierce wild beast, the act of assent, that is of mere opinion and hasty thinking ..." (Academica II.108).

"[I]f, when I said that nothing can be grasped, he said that the wise man sometimes forms an opinion, I would even refrain from combating him, especially as even Carneades does not vehemently combat this position" (Academica II.112).

"Clitomachus used to declare that he had never been able to understand what Carneades did accept..." (Academica II.139).

"'My view [Philo's view before his Roman Books]?' replied Catulus, 'I am coming round to the view of my father, which indeed he used to say was that of Carneades, and am beginning to think that nothing can be perceived [= nothing can be cognized], but to deem that the wise man will assent to something not perceived, that is, will hold an opinion, but with the qualification that he will understand that it is an opinion and will know that there is nothing that can be comprehended and perceived; and therefore although [in this way] agreeing with their rule of ἐποχήν [which in Greek means "holding back"] as to everything, I assent emphatically to that second view, that nothing exists that can be perceived.'
'I have your view,' said I, 'and I do not think it quite negligible; but pray, Hortensius, what do you think?'
'Away with it [both assent and us]!' he replied with a laugh.
'I take you,' said I, 'for that is the true Academic verdict.'
The conversation thus concluded, Catulus stayed behind, while we went down to our boats" (Academica II.148).

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