Review: “How to Keep an Open Mind,” by Richard Bett

Douglas C. Bates on 2021-05-08

Ancient image of someone named “Sextus” commonly inferred to be an image of Sextus Empiricus

How to Keep an Open Mind: An Ancient Guide to Thinking like a Skeptic by Richard Bett is part of Princeton University Press’s popular Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers Series, in which Princeton has leading translators of the Classics answer a how-to question by creating fresh translations of the works of some ancient author into ordinary English. Popular earlier titles in the series include How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life, and How to Grow Old: Ancient Wisdom for the Second Half of Life.

Books in this series appear to successfully please readers when ancient wisdom is presented by a translator who is enthusiastic about the ancient author’s message. This is where How to Keep an Open Mind fails spectacularly. Richard Bett is openly hostile to the message of his ancient author, Sextus Empiricus. Bett says it is not only doubtful that the approach Sextus advocated worked in antiquity, but that “in today’s world, it’s just not plausible” (Richard Bett, Minds Wide Open April 14, 2021). Princeton should have been able to figure out that Bett was an unsuitable choice for this series, as Bett has been clear about his position on Sextus in his prior work.

Because he is hostile to Sextus’ message, Bett tries to extract from Sextus’ works a message different from the one Sextus intends for us to have. The author openly admits this, telling us “How to Keep an Open Mind is a selection of writings from the ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus. The title is mine, not his. Sextus’ skepticism is all about suspension of judgment concerning the true nature of things. Now that’s not quite the same as being open-minded. But I chose the title because open-mindedness is the lesson I think we can gain from Sextus’ approach if we adapt it to the twenty-first century” (Richard Bett, Minds Wide Open April 14, 2021).

The ideal translator for Princeton to have engaged would have been Benson Mates, whose translation of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism is the only one from a modern translator who is sympathetic to Sextus’ arguments and finds much to commend them. Unfortunately, Mates passed away in 2009. Bett, unsurprisingly, doesn’t mention Mates’ translation. Instead, he cites as “the best complete translation of Outlines of Pyrrhonism that of Annas and Barnes, translators who are famously hostile to Sextus. Barnes even stoops to calling Sextus a “quack.” Mates’ book, The Skeptic Way: Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism is far to be preferred to How to Keep an Open Mind for the reader who wishes to explore the wisdom Sextus has to give us.

One problem modern readers have with Sextus is that so much of Sextus’ work involves discrediting various ancient theories that were widely ascribed to in Sextus’ time but which for us are obscure anachronisms. Sextus is now so boring because he was then so right. Bett does a good job of leaving out much of this material so that the reader can focus on the methods Sextus recommends.

Most of what is objectionable about How to Keep an Open Mind is in the introduction. The first big problem here is on page xxii where Bett tells us “ataraxia” means “a state of not being troubled or bothered” and that he’s going to translate it as “tranquility.” Ataraxia is the psychological objective of both Pyrrhonism and Epicureanism. English writers in the 17th century borrowed “ataraxia” from Greek as the term is distorted in attempts to translate it. It would have been better if Bett had followed their lead. “Tranquility” is indeed a common translation of “ataraxia,” but “tranquility” gives a lopsided picture of what the term really means. As Adrian Kuzminski pointed out in Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism (2008 p2), “ataraxia” was a term the ancient Greeks used to describe the ideal mental state for soldiers entering battle. “Tranquility” has connotations of stillness, peace, silence, and repose that aren’t part of what the ancient Greeks meant by “ataraxia.” Sextus was clear that the term referred to a psychological state free from mental suffering, and that it was not a state of inactivity or unresponsiveness.

On page xxiv Bett says of Sextus “he seems to be saying that suspension of judgment on any topic — not just good and bad — yields tranquility.” (Emphasis in the original). This is where Bett goes badly wrong, and he of all people should know better. Sextus does not say this about “any” topic; he says it about a specific type of topic. Sextus tells us that suspension of judgment is to be employed only with regard to “dogma” which Sextus uses as a technical term. Bett gives a good introductory explanation of this term on pages xx-xxii, saying that he’s going to translate “dogma” as “doctrine,” then just a few paragraphs later seems to have forgotten that Sextus said that he was calling for suspension of judgment only with respect to dogmas.

Here’s Sextus on this in the translation that Bett gives us (p. 13):

We say that the skeptic does not have doctrines not in that more everyday sense of “doctrine” in which some say that a doctrine is when you agree to something — for the skeptic assents to reactions that are forced upon him by appearance (for example, when being warmed or cooled, he would not say “I think I am not being warmed or cooled”); we say that he does not have doctrines in the sense in which some say that a doctrine is the assent to some unclear matter investigated by the sciences — for the Pyrrhonist does not assent to anything unclear.

Sextus says here he is not advocating for suspension of judgment on just “any” topic. He tells us that reactions that are forced by appearances are excluded from suspension of judgment. Suspension of judgment is to be applied to “unclear matters.” While Bett tucks away in the glossary a helpful explanation of what is meant by “appearances” here — which really should have been in the introduction as it is such an important term — he fails to give any explanation of what Sextus means by “unclear matter” to the grave detriment of the reader. The term Bett renders as “unclear” is a concept most other translators render as “non-evident.” “Non-evident” is distinguished from “evident” — what Bett renders as “clear” and which elsewhere in this text is called “appearance.” Understanding the distinction between evident and non-evident is key to understanding the Pyrrhonist method. Bett, however, never gives a hint about its importance, although he does devote much of chapter 4 to a translation of Sextus’ own explanation. (For an excellent treatment of the topic, see Adrian Kuzminski’s Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism where he devotes one-fourth of the book to explaining this crucial topic).

On the next page, Bett continues his distortion of what Sextus said by claiming (p. xxv) “The idea seems to be that the attempt to discover the truth is an aggravating and frustrating business.” Sextus is not at all trying to convey that idea, and Bett should know this. Bett knows the term that he is translating as “skeptic” means “inquirer.” He knows that the ancient Pyrrhonists were known as “zētētikós” — inquisitive. He knows that in the first paragraph of Outlines of Pyrrhonism that Sextus characterizes Skeptics as those “who are still investigating” (Bett’s translation, p. 3). The idea is not that the attempt to discover the truth is an aggravating and frustrating business; it is that dogmatizing results in aggravation and frustration.

Bett goes on to mischaracterize Sextus’ advice, saying (p. xxv) “…when you are forced into suspension of judgment, given all of the conflicting evidence on some question, that can actually give you the tranquility you were hoping for in the first place; you just find yourself not caring as much about getting the answers, and your stress level goes way down. And if this happens, maybe you will give up on the search altogether….” That’s not at all what Sextus is telling us. It is not about caring as much about getting the answers; it is about avoiding the belief that one already has the answers about “unclear” matters. The skeptical ability is the cure for this. It is about caring that one does not get stuck being attached to wrong answers. It is about giving up clinging. It is about continuing with the search.

Bett goes on to claim (p. xxvi) that “suspension of judgment is supposed to free one of a certain sort of emotional trauma … trauma associated with not having been able to settle on any definite views … but wishing very strongly to do so.” (Italics in the original). Sextus, however, never talks about there being trauma due to a failure to be able to settle on a definite view. Indeed, this “failure” he cites as success, as it leads to ataraxia. The trauma that Sextus talks about the trauma associated with holding onto definite views about “unclear” matters one cannot be reasonably sure of.

Bett raises the question (p. xxviii) “how much of this skeptical outlook can still represent a viable way of thinking for us today?” In answering this he proposes that “there are also surely some people whose firm moral convictions, including a clear-eyed sense that some things really are important, keep them on an even keel and therefore much calmer than they would be if they were unsure about these things.” It would be nice to see some evidence to back this up. What comes to my mind are those seemingly calm, clear-eyed people with moral convictions who perpetrated things such as the Spanish Inquisition, the Reign of Terror, the starvation of the kulaks, and the Holocaust. As Bertrand Russell put it, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

Bett then doubles down on his erroneous assertion that Sextus is talking about “trauma associated with attempting to discover the truth” asking us to “imagine someone utterly immersed in a research project, whose peace of mind comes precisely from the sense that, whether the project succeeds or not, they are doing everything they can to find the answers — and who would be devastated, if, for some reason, the research was cut off at a point when they were (as they had hoped, only temporarily) suspending judgment….” This brings Bett to conclude (page xxx): “It is certainly possible for suspension of judgment on some question to lead to tranquility. But when Sextus speaks as if the one is a predictable and reliable recipe for the other, this is hard to accept.” On this point, Bett buries further criticism in a footnote at the back of the book in which he argues “Isn’t the idea that suspension of judgment leads regularly to tranquility a piece of dogmatism? Here again, Bett displays his failure to understand what Sextus means by “clear” and “unclear” as this is rooted in the Pyrrhonist concept of “signs,” in which “indicative” signs are associated with “unclear” things and “reminder” signs are associated with “clear” things. Hence, Sextus’ answer to Bett’s question can be seen here, in Bett’s translation (p. 123):

Since there is a difference between the two kinds of sign, as I said, we’re not arguing against every sign, but only against the indicative sign, as it seems to have been made up by the dogmatists. The reminder sign has been found trustworthy in ordinary life; someone who sees smoke takes it as a sign of fire, and someone who observes a scar says that a wound has occurred. So not only are we not in conflict with everyday life; we’re actually on the same side. We assent without opinions to what it has found trustworthy and direct our opposition to the things privately fabricated by the dogmatists.

So, Sextus is saying that it has been widely observed that suspension of judgment, applied according to the Pyrrhonist recipe to “unclear” matters, produces ataraxia. This is a “clear” empirical finding, not an “unclear” dogmatic theory.

Perhaps this is difficult for Bett to accept because he doesn’t accept the terms of the recipe. Bett gives further evidence of his rejection of these terms when he asks (p. xxxi) if it “is realistic to think that suspension of judgment can be applied to all questions concerning the real nature of things?” Bett’s conclusion is (p. xxiii), “But now, the ambition of full-scale suspension of judgment is not remotely an option; we just know too much.” Really? There was a time in human history where we did not know the relationship between smoke and fire, or between scars and wounds. But Sextus says that this knowledge is trustworthy. Contrary to Bett’s claim that Sextus advocates suspension of judgment on any question (what he again mischaracterizes here as “full-scale suspension of judgment”), Sextus gives us specific examples of questions about which he does not advocate suspension of judgment. Why, after 1,800 more years of the advancement of knowledge since Sextus’ era, should we not think that understandings have been achieved about things more complicated than the relationships between smoke and fire and scars and wounds that Sextus would now agree are also trustworthy?

As Bett disagrees with the wisdom Sextus provides us with, due to his profoundly mistaken understanding of it, he must find another way to meet his publisher’s requirement that he finds wisdom here for modern readers. To do this he conjures up the notion that Sextus teaches us how to keep an open mind, admitting that this was not what Sextus intended, nor did Sextus ever tell us to keep an open mind (p. xxiii). Worse, Bett then goes on to accuse Sextus of not being open minded (p. xxxiv). As Bett puts it, “An open-minded person is someone who wants to achieve a clear-eyed and unbiased view on an issue, in light of all relevant information. An attitude of this kind will certainly include the desire to avoid rash conclusions. But it will not include the ambition to avoid all conclusions — which is what Sextus’ agenda of generating suspension of judgment (and thereby tranquility) across the board in effect amounts to. … Sextus is not a paragon of open-mindedness….” (Again, italics in the original.)

Bett goes on (p. xxxviii) “…it is on questions of this kind [ethical and political] … that Sextus’ program of suspension of judgment may seem to have the most to recommend it, intellectually speaking. Yet this is a luxury that only those not engaged with real ethical and political problems can generally afford; and for this reason the skeptic has often been seen as a parasite, whose ivory-tower suspension of judgment is only possible against a background of active decision-making and social involvement…. In other words, skepticism is possible only in a functioning society and society can only function if most people are not skeptics.” (Italics in the original).

Bett ends the introduction to his book saying (p. xxxix) “Suppose we agree, to begin with, on the primary importance of living in a broadly democratic society where people of different persuasions can coexist, as opposed to a regime where opponents are simply fired, imprisoned, or shot. This is already a substantial ethical and political commitment — not something available to a pure skeptic as described by Sextus.” This conclusion is remarkably different from the selection from Sextus’ Against the Ethicists that Bett chooses to end his book with. This selection once again shows that Bett mischaracterizes Sextus (p. 195).

We have to treat with contempt those who think that he [the skeptic] is reduced to inactivity or inconsistency — to inactivity because, since the whole of life is bound up with choosing and avoiding things, the person who neither chooses nor avoids anything in effect renounces life and stays fixed like some vegetable, and to inconsistency because if he comes under the power of a tyrant and is compelled to do some unspeakable deed, either he will not stand to do what has been commanded, but will choose a voluntary death, or to avoid torture he will do what has been ordered, and thus no longer “will be empty of avoidance and choice,” to quote Timon, but will choose one thing and shrink from the other — which is the action of someone who has grasped with confidence that there is something to be avoided and to be chosen. In saying this, they do not understand that the skeptic does not live in accord with philosophical reasoning (for as far as this is concerned he is inactive), but that in accord with non-philosophical routine he is able to choose some thing s and avoid others. And if compelled by a tyrant to perform some forbidden act, he will choose one thing, perhaps, and avoid the other relying on the preconception that fits with his ancestral laws and customs; and in fact he will bear the harsh situation more easily compared with the dogmatist, because he does not, like the latter, have any additional opinion over and above these conditions.

Sextus is clear here that despite Bett’s insistence that Sextus is calling for “universal suspension of judgment” (p. xxxvi, again, italics in the original) such a claim mischaracterizes Sextus’ position.

Sextus calls for people like Bett to be treated with contempt. Where oh where here is Sextus’ supposedly universal suspension of judgment regarding whether Professor Bett should be held in contempt? Sextus is clearly not the type of thinker Bett claims he is. As for the type of society one should strive for, don’t Sextus’ remarks about tyrants imply that he doesn’t approve of them? Doesn’t one implicitly disapprove of “unspeakable deeds” and therefore disapprove of being compelled to do them? Besides, if Sextus’ suspension of judgment is “universal,” how is it he is even able to judge the deed as “unspeakable”? Bett appears unable to grasp any of this.

The quote from Timon here — Timon was the disciple of Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism/Skepticism — that the Skeptic “will be empty of avoidance and choice” is about the same thing the Third Zen Patriarch Seng-ts’an was talking about in the Hsin-hsin Ming:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinion for or against. The struggle of what one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

What Seng-ts’an, Timon, and Sextus are talking about here is difficult for many to grasp. Professor Bett has failed to grasp it despite Sextus having been one of the clearest of all of the ancient writers on the subject. As the great Zen master Huang Po said, “The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see.” Bett insists over and over that Sextus is telling us something that Sextus goes out of his way to point out is a mistaken interpretation. Bett rejects what one can see Sextus is saying and holds onto what he thinks — that suspension of judgment is to be applied to everything.

The wisdom Sextus gives us is that to be wise we must reject what we think (dogmas) and accept what we see (appearances). This, sadly, Bett fails to grasp, and as such, despite his fine skills as a translator, Sextus would advise us to treat Bett’s How to Keep an Open Mind with contempt.

Postscript

See also Massimo Piggliucci’s review of this book, and my analysis of his review.