Gods Among Men

A Novel of Pyrrho and Alexander the Great

by Peter Saint-Andre

This will be a novel about the Greek philosopher Pyrrho's journey to India with the army of Alexander the Great, combined with a murder mystery about Alexander's death in Babylon.

Although Pyrrho is often considered the founder of the skeptical tradition in Western philosophy, his was a gentle form of skepticism focused on achieving serenity (ἀταραξία). According to Pyrrho, one finds such peace by being without opinions (ἀδόξαστος), being uninclined (ἀκλινής) to one side or the other in disputes about human affairs (πράγματα), and being unwavering (ἀκράδαντος) in this neutral stance. The key insight is that human affairs are unstable and uncertain (ἀστάθμητα), indeterminate and undecidable (ἀνεπίκριτα), and undifferentiated and indefinable (ἀδιάφορα).

If nothing in human life is permanently stable and certain, then clinging to people and things causes a cycle of possession and loss, whereas letting go of attachment leads to authentic relatedness.

If nothing in human life is absolutely determinate and decidable, then craving causes a cycle of hope and disappointment, whereas letting go of desire leads to spontaneous enjoyment.

If nothing in human affairs is precisely differentiated and definable (including yourself), then self-assertion causes a cycle of pride and deflation, whereas letting go of ambition leads to natural mastery.

The contrast with Alexander the Great is stark: a man of unbridled passions, boundless attachments, and overweening ambitions who was considered a god among men. Yet Pyrrho, too, was considered a god among men for his extraordinary serenity. Pyrrho's authenticity, spontaneity, and naturalness came from immersing himself in the flowing stream of reality — not from grasping through attachment, reaching through desire, or pushing through self-assertion.

If this sounds similar to Buddhism and Taoism, it might be no accident. The ancient biographer Diogenes Laërtius claims that Pyrrho adopted his philosophy of ἀταραξία by interacting with "naked wise men" (γυμνοσόφοι), probably near Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan. The parallels are explored in depth by Christopher Beckwith in his book Greek Buddha. Beckwith might go too far in his extrapolations from the meagre evidence that remains — in true Pyrrhonian fashion, the matter is uncertain, undecidable, and indefinable — but that's why fiction is the appropriate literary form in which to search for the answers.

Because I'm actively writing an epitome of Aristotle's ethics, for now I'm performing background research for this novel by slowly working my way through a long reading list (taking notes as I go), and working on a rough outline; I also plan to newly translate the short biography of Pyrrho by Diogenes Laërtius and the relevant passage from the Praeparatio Evangelica of Eusebius, which together form the primary evidence for the philosophy expounded and lived by Pyrrho over 2,300 years ago.

Peter Saint-Andre > Writings > Pyrrho