David H. Sick
Distinguishing between the doctrines of the later sects of Academics and the Pyrrhonists is treacherous, and, given the fragmentary state of the works of the second-century CE rhetor and philosopher Favorinus of Arles, it is little wonder that his exact doctrinal position among these skeptics has been subject to dispute (Glucker, Ioppolo, Levy). Yet the unusual characteristics of his life and career have attracted the interest of scholars outside of philosophy (Baldwin, Gleason, Beall, Amato, Holford-Strevens). He was a native of Gaul who excelled in Greek rhetoric and literature, a eunuch or other sexual minority who mixed freely with Greek and Roman men in the most elite social circles. This paper proposes to approach the question of Favorinus’ philosophical allegiance with evidence from his biography rather than reconstructed elements of his skeptical principles. Since Pyrrhonism promised a practical outcome, we should be able to detect results of its influence in Favorinus’ life.
The Pyrrhonists’ basic approach to epistemology is a “suspension of judgment” based on the uncertainty of knowledge. This uncertainty is not dogmatic, in that Pyrrhonists, as exemplified by Sextus Empiricus and in Aulus Gellius, do not affirm that knowledge is not possible, only that they are uncertain. The doubt is expressed by various set phrases given by Timon of Phlius: “saying about every single thing that it is not more than it is not, or that it both is and is not, or that it neither is nor is not (Eus., Praep. Ev. 14.18.4; but see also Gell. 11.5.4, where one of the phrases is attributed to Favorinus).” Such ambiguity is evident in major aspects of Favorinus’ life: as a specialist in Greek from the western parts of the Empire, as a practitioner of both rhetoric and philosophy, as a member of elite social circles at both Rome and Athens, as, most notably, a sexual minority whose society wanted to place him between two genders, and as a friend of social conservatives, whom he supported in language and custom but who might reject him summarily because of his sexual status. What is more, the Pyrrhonists used a sort of physical and social relativism to support their suspension of judgment. They noted variations in custom as well as the physical nature of humans as evidence of the mutability of human perception and the uncertainty of knowledge (SE, PH 1.79-91; 1.145-162). Sextus’ discussion of the Second Mode of Pyrrhonic proof includes numerous examples of unusual human anatomy and physiology, such as the ability to see in the dark or the shape of non-Greeks or Romans. He does not mention hermaphrodites or eunuchs, but the pertinence would not have been lost on our philosopher. This material would surely have been covered by Favorinus in his own work on the Modes, no longer extant. In short, Pyrrhonism’s questioning of humanity’s physical and social mores would have appealed to an individual such as Favorinus who inhabited the space between many of them.
Second Century CE Prose