The “Sceptick,” first published in 1651 and attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh, offers one of the first known English translations, albeit unacknowledged, of portions of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines. While it is not a pure translation, and while it only offers an expurgated version of Sextus’ classical skeptical work, it is undoubtedly based on portions of the Outlines.

While Thomas Nashe mentioned an English translation of Sextus as early as 1591, no translations have yet to be found. In his essay attatched to the first edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Nashe says,

…that our opinion (as Setus Empedocus [sic] affirmeth) gives the name of good or ill to every thing. Out of whose works (latelie translated into English, for the betterment of unlearned writers) a man might collect a whole booke of this argument, which no doubt woulde prove a worthy commonwealth matter, and far better than wits wax karnell: much good worship have the Author. (Nashe in Sidney, A4v).

I will return to the question of good and ill below, but, for now, want to point out that there was at least talk of an English translation well before the publication of the one attributed to Raleigh in 1651. It is possible, even if unlikely, that Nashe was familiar with Raleigh’s translation in manuscript as it was not published until well after Ralegh’s death.

Another mention of Sextus comes from a seventeenth century text that offers an account of Sextus’ influence in England in the early seventeenth century. In his biography published much later, Joseph Mede purportedly encountered the work of Sextus Empiricus in the early 1600s while at Cambridge, producing a crisis of sense in which he took the entire world for a phantasm.1 What is clear is that Sextus had made some impact in England by around 1600, well in advance of the “Sceptick.”

Title page of Sir Walter Raleigh's "Sceptick," 1651

Published in 1651 as “Sir Walter Raleigh’s Sceptick, or Speculations,” the publication never acknowledges the work as a translation, and we do not know how early it was composed, or even if Raleigh penned the translation at all.2 Nevertheless, the “Sceptick” provides an expurgated and bare-bones translation of Sextus’ work from roughly I. 40 to about I. 98, though it cuts much of the original text. This section, where Sextus lays out the “Ten Modes” of suspension of judgment or skepticism, develops the tropes of skepticism. While Raleigh’s “Sceptick” never refers to the ten modes, he does follow many of them over the course of his expurgated translation.

For example, Raleigh’s “Sceptick” begins as follows:

His first Reason ariseth, from the consideration of the great difference amongst living Creatures, both in the matter and manner of their Generations, and the several Constitutions of their bodies. (Raleigh 1-2).

Compare this to Sextus’ Outlines, I.40, which begins:

The First argument (or Trope), as we said, is that which shows that the same impressions are not produced by the same objects owing to differences in animals. This we infer both from the differences in their origins and from the variety of their bodily structures.

This is just one example where Raleigh closely follows Sextus, and although he does not translate the entirety of sections I.40 to I. 98, nearly everything in the text does follow lines of the original.

While there is enough evidence in the progression and tropes used in the short treatise to consider it an expurgated translation of Sextus’ work, I would like to call attention to several key differences in the way in which the translation deploys some of those tropes as they pertain to the faculties of the mind. The “Sceptick” continually refers to an element that is not made much of in Sextus’ Outlines. The “Sceptick” attributes the problems of the senses to a problem of the phantasy or the imagination. In this aspect, the original remains relatively silent, but it becomes a major focus in the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century translation. While never mentioned in the sections in Sextus, the phantasy takes center stage in Raleigh’s expurgated translation. Raleigh refers to the phantasy or imagination no less than eleven times over the course of the short treatise. Compared to the original, the treatise accentuates the role of the phantasy, locating many of its questions within the problematic faculty.

Speaking of the various ways in which different animals copulate and engender, the “Sceptick” concludes,

These great differences cannot but cause a divers and contrary temperament, a qualitie in those creatures, and consequently, a great diversitie in their phantasie and conceit; so that they apprehend one and the same object, yet that they must do it after a divers manner; for is it not absurd to affirm, That creatures differ so much in temperature, and yet agree in conceit concerning one and the same object? (Raleigh 3).

Compare this to the similar conclusion in Sextus which says,

It is natural, then, that these dissimilar and variant modes of birth should produce much contrariety of sense-affection, and that this is a source of its divergent, discordant and conflicting character. (Outlines I.43).

In the “Sceptick,” the different ways of bodily formation result in or from different temperaments that manifest “a great diversitie in their phantasie and conceit.” The modern translation of Sextus merely says that the different modes of birth produce different types of “sense-affection.” The sixteenth or seventeenth century translation places the “phantasie” at the center of the controversy, since the quality and receptiveness of that faculty depended upon the temperament of the body in which it was housed. The phantasy or the imagination stands central to the later skeptical questioning of sense in this first argument or trope of skepticism.

The relative importance of the phantasy in explaining sense perception as well as its deficiency continues in the next sections. Sextus continues,

Moreover, the differences found in the most important parts of the body, and especially in those of which the natural function is judging and perceiving are capable of producing a vast deal of divergence in the sense-impressions owing to the variety in the animals.” (Outlines I.44).

Whereas Sextus refers more broadly to the parts of the body “of which the natural function is judging and perceiving,” the later translation names the faculty specifically. The “Sceptick” puts it,

But this will more plainly appear, if the instruments of Sence in the body be observed: for we shall find, that as these instruments are affected and disposed, so doth the Imagination conceit that which by them is connexed unto it. (Raleigh 3-4).

For the later translation, the problems of the external senses are inextricably bound up with the problems of the inner faculties.

If the differences among various animals matter, so too do the differences between men. As the “Sceptick” puts it,

If then it be so, that there be such differences in Men, this must be by reason of the divers temperatures they have, and divers disposition of their conceit and imagination; for, if one hate, and another love the very same thing, it must be that their phantasies differ, else all would love it, or all would hate it. These Men then, may tell how these things seem to them good, or bad; but what they are in their own Nature they cannot tell.” (23-24).

Just as the different temperaments among various species of animals differ and produce alternate modes of sensation, so too do the different temperaments among humans. Here, the phantasy or imagination plays an important role in a way less emphasized by Sextus.

The passage that comes closest to the above is as follows:

Seeing, then, that choice and avoidance depend on pleasure and displeasure, while pleasure and displeasure depend on sensation and sense-impression, whenever some men choose the very things which are avoided by others, it is logical for us to conclude that they are also differently affected by the same things, since otherwise they would all alike have chosen or avoided the same things. But if the same objects affect men differently owing to the differences in the men, then, on this ground also, we shall reasonably be led to suspension of judgment. For while we are, no doubt, able to state what each of the underlying objects appears to be, relatively to each difference, we are incapable of explaining what it is in reality. (Outlines I. 87).

Determinations of pleasurable and painful or good and bad depend not only upon the individual making the evaluation but also upon the quality and condition of that individual’s faculties. In Sextus, he does not mention the faculty responsible for the evaluation, but, once again, the phantasy or imagination play a crucial role in the “Sceptick.” In both cases, the diversity of opinions create a situation in which truth cannot be judged correctly. For Raleigh in particular, the evaluation of good and bad depends upon the phantasy in particular. Whereas Sextus continually refers to suspending judgment on these matters, the “Sceptick” rarely translates those passages, instead leaving the matter in a more extreme form of doubt.

By the time of the translation, the phantasy had become such an important component of explaining sensation and perception that it also became implicated in the skeptical questions posed by Sextus. The phantasy was important for expressing the continuity between the body, mind, and soul, but because it assumed such an important position, it also embodied many of the problems of epistemology. It’s paramaterial quality, placing it somewhere between the material and the immaterial, between the body and the soul, supposedly explained how a soul could perceive through the material body, but that paradoxical quality also opened up the possibility of epistemological questions.3

The radical potential of Sextus’ position here, as Thomas Nashe had pointed out in his “Somewhat to reade for them that list,” was that, because of the phantasy’s relationship to the body and its importance in determinations of good and ill or good and evil, the notions of good and ill might not have anything to do with something found in nature, but that instead depended upon the temperament, quality, and condition of the receiving phantasy. Determinations of good and ill might be a mechanistic process and one that depended more on the body than upon the mind. Because of its in-between status, the phantasy could be dangerous to the more immaterial mind and soul precisely because of its link to the body.

While Nashe does not specifically speak of the phantasy, the translation of Sextus in the “Sceptick” does attribute evaluations of pleasurable and painful, good and ill to the individual phantasy. Instead of locating truth in Nature, the skeptic questions what Nature can actually be meant by the very word. Human animals, according to both Sextus and the author of the “Sceptick,” have not right to claim a better grasp of reality than animals, and one can never privilege one man’s phantasy over another. Instead, one should doubt the truth of any information acquired through the senses and, consequently, all of epistemology.

For the translation, it is the phantasy and its problematic relationship to the body that inspires epistemological questions. The phantasy, which elsewhere helps secure the links between perception and thought, remains a problematic faculty, and the problematic nature of that phantasy renders all that passes through it into doubt. For Sextus, the faculty itself was not singled out, but the translation locates many of its skeptical questions in relation to the dangerous faculty of the phantasy or imagination.

The appearance of the phantasy or imagination in the “Sceptick” manifests the importance of that faculty in sixteenth and seventeenth century expressions of skepticism. While not a major focus in Sextus’ expression of classical, pyrrhonian skepticism, in the early modern period, the phantasy was a key player in expressions of skepticism because of its importance in explanations of the relationship of perception and cognition.

Works Cited

(Empiricus.), Sextus, and Robert Gregg Bury. Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Harvard University Press, 2000.

Raleigh, Walter, Sir, 1552?-1618. Sir Walter Raleigh’s Sceptick, or Speculations and Observations of the Magnificency and Opulency of Cities, His Seat of Government, and Letters to the Kings Majestie, and Others of Qualitie : Also, His Demeanor before His Execution. London : Printed by W. Bentley, and are to be sold by W. Shears, 1651. Early English Books, 1641-1700 / 224:27.

Sidney, Philip, Thomas Newman, and Thomas Nash. Syr P.S. His Astrophel and Stella Wherein the Excellence of Sweete Poesie Is Concluded. To the End of Which Are Added, Sundry Other Rare Sonnets of Diuers Noble Men and Gentlemen. At London : Printed [by John Charlewood] for Thomas Newman, 1591.

  1. For more on Mede, see my previous post on him here.  (back)
  2. While clearly marked as Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Sceptick,” it is possible that a publisher attached his name to sell more copies.  (back)
  3. For more discussion of what I am calling paramaterial, please see my other digital essays. Look at either my previously mentioned post on Mede, this one on Shakespeare, or this one on Hamlet in particular.  (back)
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