Well of Night – “Pyrrhonist”

Greek philosophy in the Hellenistic world developed in response to the new world order violently ushered in by Alexander and his squabbling Macedonian successors who carved his global empire into vast multinational kingdoms, where semi-divine monarchs commanded massive professional armies. The days of the polis city-state, where one’s identity and moral obligations were tied to the city of their birth, gave way to a greater cosmopolis commanded by forces well beyond the control of individual citizens, especially those not in the privilege and influence of royal courts, where fled Greek science and literary criticism. Philosophy, on the other hand, no longer restricted itself to aristocratic enclaves, but came into the marketplace (by Socrates’ example!), where it offered everyday people the means to find inner peace within the chaos of a brave new world.

The concept of inner peace coveted by these Hellenistic schools was called ‘ataraxia’ –literally ‘un-tossed-about-ness’–that despite the apparent chaos of the material world, one’s psyche remains undisturbed, a ship that remains steady in stormy waters. Epicureans believed ataraxia could be achieved by reducing reality to the mechanics of atoms and void, and that there is no morality beyond responses to pleasure and pain. Stoics were the opposite, thinking that the universe was governed by reason, and everything had a purpose, including oneself.

And then along came a man from Elis named Pyrrho. He believed ataraxia came not from confiding in a fixed set of beliefs about life, the universe, and everything. On the contrary, he based freedom from anxiety on freedom from belief, i.e. assuming that knowledge of any truth cannot possibly be attained, since any claim can be refuted. The modern term ‘skepticism’ comes from the Greek word that came to describe Pyrrho’s school of thought, from the verb that means “to search”. Skeptics are always ‘searching’ for the truth since they are never satisfied with any positive arguments for the truth of anything. This school thrived through the rest of antiquity until it died out by the Middle Ages, but the rediscovery of Skeptical texts in the Renaissance helped spark the development of modern philosophy and science: the notion that one must clear away all assumptions of what is true, start with a blank slate, and devise a new method for determining what is true, owes a debt to what at the time came to be called Pyrrhonism, certainly an influence on Descartes and Hume.

Pyrrho’s legacy is for the most part transformed into the scientific notion that all knowledge created by science is not absolute but provisional, and may be rejected by new discoveries. But some, like the black metal band from Dayton, Ohio named Well of Night, return to Pyrrhonism as a philosophy of life, the rejection of all moral codes as a matter of principle as the key to enlightenment. In this song from their 2016 EP The Crimson Hexagon, Well of Night compare the skeptical rejection of bodies of knowledge to the amputation of limbs from a physical body. They view the rotting limbs cast on the ground as “testaments to apathy and weakness,” i.e. things accepted by those without the strength or will to think for themselves. The consequences of this negative worldview are the acceptance of a cosmos without meaning, one that is indifferent to our existence.

Perspectives discarded in constant abscission, though the rotted limbs remain
Gnarled testaments to apathy and weakness, inertia solidifying the bonds of their endurance
Expunge – amputate this encumbrance, let me see with eyes undimmed
Discharge – drown this albatross beneath the waves and with it, descend

The horizon falls into shadow
The perpetual weight of cosmic indifference
Breath deep these waters and descend
Iniquitous – discord has been sown
Still beyond this dream you will not find true freedom
Breath deep these waters and descend 

Perspectives discarded in constant abscission, though the rotted limbs remain
The perpetual weight of cosmic indifference
Breath deep these waters and descend

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