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Sextus Empiricus (c. 200 CE):
Outlines of Pyrrhonism

[Loeb translation]

Pyrrhonism was the ancient philosophical school also known as "skepticism". Its proponents systematically doubted every proposition. One of the ways they found to do this was to point to conflicts, to "put into question" more or less anything. In his "Outlines", the Roman era Greek writer Sextus Empiricus addressed homosexual activity on two occasions.

[1:152] And we oppose habit to the other things, as for instance to law when we say that amongst the Persians it is the habit to indulge in intercourse with males, but amongst the Romans it is forbidden by law to do so; and that, whereas with us adultery is forbidden, amongst the Massagetae it is traditionally regarded as an indifferent custom, as Eudoxus of Cnidos relates in the first book of his Travels; and that, whereas intercourse with a other is forbidden in our country, in Persia it is the general custom to form such marriages; and also among the Egyptians men marry their sisters, a thing forbidden by law amongst us.


And so, too, those who assert that the virtuous life [197] is naturally good might be refuted by the fact that some of the sages choose the life which includes pleasure, so that the claim that a thing is by nature of this sort or that is contradicted by the divergence of opinion amongst the Dogmatists themselves.

And perhaps it may not be amiss, in addition to [198] what has been said, to dwell more in detail, though briefly, on the notions concerning things shameful and not shameful, unholy and not so, laws and customs, piety towards the gods, reverence for the departed, and the like. For thus we shall discover a great variety of belief concerning what ought or ought to be done.

For example, amongst us sodomy is regarded as [199] shameful or rather illegal, but by the Germanic they say, it is not looked on as shameful but as a customary thing. It is said, too, that in Thebes long ago this practice was not held to be shameful, and they say that Meriones the Cretan was so called by way of indicating the Cretans' customed and some refer to this the burning love of Achilles for Patroclus. And [200] what wonder, when both the adherents of the Cynic philosophy and the followers of Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, declare that this practice is indifferent? Having intercourse with a woman, too, in public, although deemed by us to be shameful, is not thought to be shameful by some of the Indians; at any rate they couple publicly with indifference, like the philosopher Crates, as the story goes. Moreover, [201] prostitution is with us a shameful and disgraceful thing, but with many of the Egyptians it is highly esteemed; at least, they say that those women who have the greatest number of lovers wear an ornamental ankle-ring as a token of their proud position. And with some of them the girls marry after collecting a dowry before marriage by means of prostitution. We see the Stoics also declaring that it is not amiss to keep company with a prostitute or to live on the profits of prostitution.

Moreover, with us tattooing is held to be shameful [202] and degrading, but many of the Egyptians and Sarmatians tattoo their offspring. Also, it is a [203] shameful thing with us for men to wear earrings, but amongst some of the barbarians, like the Syrians, it is a token of nobility. And some, by way of marking their nobility still further, pierce the nostrils also of their children and suspend from them rings of silver or gold-a thing which nobody with us would do, just [204] as no man here would dress himself in a flowered robe reaching to the feet, although this dress, which with us is thought shameful, is held to be highly respectable by the Persians. And when, at the Court of Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily, a dress of this description was offered to the philosophers Plato and Aristippus, Plato sent it away with the words-

A man am I, and never could I don
A woman's garb;

but Aristippus accepted it, saying-

For e'en midst revel-routs
She that is chaste will keep her purity.

Thus, even in the case of these sages, while the one of them deemed this practice shameful, the other did not. And with us it is sinful to marry one's mother [215] or one's own sister; but the Persians, and especially those of them who are reputed to practise wisdom- namely, the Magi,-marry their mothers; and the Egyptians a take their sistcrs in marriage, even as the poet says:

Thus spake Zells unto Hera, his wedded wife and his sister.

Moreover, Zeno of Citium says that it is not amiss for a man to rub his mother's private part with his own private part, just as no one would say it was bad for him to rub any other part of her body with his hand. Chrysippus, too, in his book The State approves of a father getting children by his daughter, a mother by her son, and a brother by his sister. And Plato, in more general terms, has declared that wives ought to be held in common. Masturbation, too, which we [206] count loathsome, is not disapproved by Zeno; and we are informed that others, too, practise this evil as though it were a good thing.

Moreover, the eating of human flesh is sinful with [207] us, but indifferent amongst whole tribes of barbarians. Yet why should one speak of " barbarians "

HTML, Paul Halsall

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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021 [CV]