Thomas Elyot’s The Defence of Good VVomen came off press first in 1540 and belongs thematically to writings which are “humanist in character and apologetic in purpose.” The book treats the issue of women in a conversational form, which provides dramatic tension, gives the impression of a lively discussion, opposes viewpoints. The objective of the dramatized argumentation is to refute the insinuating thesis that women in general are inferior to men, which reasoning deploys arguments for and against this thesis drawn from philosophy, literature or popular clichés. The discussion takes place first between two gentlemen, Caninius representing the low opinion about women, and Candidus refuting Caninius’ views. As a final “argument” there appears a good woman, queen Zenobia, whose very life proves the value of good women, and her appearance gives her some independence from the discourse of male perspective.
Before the debate would take place between the two gentlemen, Caninus attempts to secure the rationality and utility of the discussion. Until Candidus promises that he does not belong to a particular school of philosophy, Caninius refuses starting the debate.
Cananius: Nay fyrst I praye you tell me one thynge that I wyl aske of you. Be not ye of that sect of Philosophers called Pirhonici?
Candidus. What meane ye therby? I know not that secte: yet haue I sene a good part of philosohye.
Cani. It is the sect which affirmeth, that nothing is in dede as it seemeth to be, sayinge, that snowe is blacke and not whyte, the erthe is not stable bute euer mouinge, & many another frowarde affection, contrary to truth and al common reason. (B2v)
The significance of this reference to Pyrrhonean scepticism is twofold.
First and foremost, this is one of the first references to Pyrrhonean scepticism in
Second, this reference to Pyrrhonean scepticism contributes to the complexity of character-drawing in this dialogue. The measure of close-endedness of this work is shrewdly counterbalanced for some time via the reference to Pyrrhonean scepticism by creating dynamic ambiguity around the character of Caninius. [
I. Caninius on the positive side of the scale
Caninius is surprisingly presented as a positive character on two accounts at the beginning of the main text of The Defence of Good Women. It is surprising that he acquires positive characteristic features because in the Dedicatory address, preceding the main text, he is identified as a malevolent character opposed to Candidus' purely positive characteristics. Right after the dedication, at the beginning of the dialogue, however, the kaleidoscopic perspective changes First, Caninius becomes temporarily the champion of the discussion in his claim that there is no room for the discussion if Candidus is one of the Pirrhonici. i.e. he is a sectarian, who holds mad opinions, and challenges scientific truths. Secondly, in comparision to Candidus, Caninius gains intellectual superiority via revealing that Candidus' judgement cannot be trusted for his being half educated and biased.
Caninius’ representation through the reference to Pyrrhonean scepticism as a positive character may take the reader by surprise, as in the dedication to Queen Anne, the hierarchy of the two opponents is defined for Caninius’ disadvantage. Caninius is associated with the animal world, as his name connotes the Latin “canis,” i.e. “a dog,” or “caninus,” namely “doggishe, or of a dogge” according to Elyot’s own Dictionary. This association is corroborated by the imagery that defines his character and attitude to women: “lyke a curre, at womennes condicions is alwaye barkynge: […]” (A3r). Caninius thus becomes a malevolent character, who continuously criticizes women in a loud, frightening manner, which criticism does not lie in rational argumentation but in overcoming the opponent with the force of the voice. To undermine his credit he is not even given the honour of being a dog—an animal that can connote positive ideas—but he is labelled as a “cur” invoking the atmosphere of unfriendliness and lack of pedigree. The denial of decent origins further connotes illegal and lustful origins, if rendered to human society. Thus his malevolence is intelligible as a bastard, an outcast of decent humanity, whose making is linked to good sports. Besides the embarrassing animal imagery, he is also associated with the lower classes, as Caninius was a plebeian family name in ancient
In contrast with Caninius, Candidus is presented in a diametrically opposite way. His name is defined in Elyot’s Dictionary in a rather positive manner: “Candidus, da, dum, whyte. It is sometymes taken for gentyll or easye: as Candidus lector, a gentyll reder, whiche dothe not openly reproue that which he redeth, Candidus index, A gentyll, or easy iuge [judge—A.Zs.].” As far as the definition goes, Candidus is associated with a colour “white” representing innocence, with gentility in terms of birth and manners, furthermore he is identified with reading, i.e. absolutely human activity especially in a humanist environment as opposed to the subhuman qualities of Caninius. The activity is further qualified with being a gentle reader, who demonstrates his gentility by not attacking the author openly, maybe silently. Furthermore, there is another entry for the same term which reads “Candidus, sometyme sygnifyeth fortunate, and it sygnifyeth more than Albus, as oryente whyte,” which entry further qualifies Candidus’ purity and innocence. After all these qualifications the reader of The Defence is not surprised that within the book Candidus is interpreted as “benygne and gentill” and he “iudgeth euer wel, and reproueth but seldome” who during the debate “(as reason is) hathe the preeminence” (A3r). He is a gentleman as far as his manners (kind and gentle) and his birth (gentle as aristocratic) are concerned. Moreover he is a man of mental abilities as far as his judgment is appropriate, his objective is not to attack somebody through criticism, and in the debate he is more powerful than Caninius as impersonated reason.
After this presentation it is all the more unexpected that Caninius appears as a seemingly positive figure at the beginning of the debate, owing to his attempt to secure the rational ground of the discussion. He decides to base the discussion about the value of women on truth and common reason. He opposes truth and common reason to the Pirhonici who he labels as sectarians and as thinkers sticking to opinions that go against theoretical truths and common sense.
The classification of Pirhonici as a sect of philosophers discredits that school. Truthful and reasonable debate cannot be sustained if somebody belongs to a sect, at least this seems to follow from Elyot’s own definition of “Secta” in his Dictionary which reads “a dyuers consent in sondrye wylfulle opinion, secte of philosophers, a sect of heretikes.” What is important in this definition is that it is clearly a negative term for a school of thought, as this mental disposition includes childishly following principles that are based on absolutely subjective considerations even though they are known or suspected to be wrong, i.e. “sondrye wylfulle.” It also casts negative light on sectarians that they give their consent to “opinion,” i.e. something which is opposed to knowledge, or wisdom, something that is the result of rash arbitrariness in classical antiquity. Furthermore the low classification of this set of thinkers is negatively contextualized by identifying this not only with certain philosophers, but also with “heretikes,” who by definition are mistaken in their religious opinions from the perspective of community of the bona fide believers.
It is not surprising then that such childishly obstinate, rashly arbitrary, clearly mistaken gathering of thinkers will end up making insane statements. For Caninius their sectarian intellectual disposition—as opposed to common sense—lies in questioning sense perception and evident cosmological principles. It is thus not unexpected if such a sectarian claims that the snow is black, and that the Earth is moving. The two statements presuppose two different types of insanity, which require methodologically different treatments.
The blackness of the snow rests on two sceptic arguments: either on the flaws of sense perception, or on the arbitrariness of linguistic signs. The statement “The snow is black” either means that the speaker knows that the snow in reality is black, while the rest of the people are mistaken seeing the snow white, which mistake is due to the unreliability of human sense perception. Sense perception often deceives human beings, and no one can prove that senses do not deceive the beholders in this case either. Or the same statement may also claim that linguistic signs, such as the words of a language, originate only from arbitrary choices and the consent of the linguistic community. If this is the case, it is all the same whether the word “white” or the word “black” is used to designate some extra-mental reality, say a colour, because the choice depends on the agreement of the community, and the community may well agree otherwise.
Actually the statement that “the snow is black” can be found in
The second statement, namely the one concerning the movement of the Earth could sound in the early 1540’s as untrue as the first one. The claim of the statement depends on the astronomical expectations of the readership. In the Ptolemaic astronomical universe the Earth was in the centre of the universe and the rest of the planets revolved around it. This theory was in harmony with experience, as if one stands for a long time, what this person will experience is that the Earth stands still, while some of the planets move up and down on the horizon as if around the planet. The problem with this astronomical system was that after a while the calendar represented some anomaly, so there was a need for reform. It is linked to Copernicus’ name that his reform consisted in removing the Earth from the centre of the universe, and replacing it with the Sun. With this change, what followed was that the Earth lost its stationary position, and was supposed to revolve around the Sun. So Caninius seems to claim that the movement of the Earth is madness, or at least few could be convinced of it. This was so, for it was only in 1543 that Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was published—though—posthumously. Furthermore in
The second reason why positive light is cast on his character is that he seems to be more educated in philosophy than Candidus. To Caninius’ question if Candidus is one of the Pirhonici, Candidus, though he maintains that he knows much about philosophy, admits that has never heard of this particular school. Caninius thus plays the role of a man of learning and education. In a humanist writing the man who is well-versed in philosophy, in ancient schools on the margin, cosmological theories of the most up-to-date sort, should be in the centre of attention.
So the initial positioning of these two characters is clear: the two interlocutors are not on the same level. First there is Candidus: a man loving women, thus his judgement is far from being reliable, and he is half-educated. Second, there is Caninius, who does everything to create an intellectual situation in which there is an opportunity to have a beneficial discussion, and someone who seems to display wider and more beneficial education in philosophical schools and problems than Candidus. Caninius is furthermore acts as the defender of rational debate, rational communication on the double grounds of truth and common reason, and the one without whom the discussion would turn into mere vanity instead of honest research.
II. Caninius’ insecure position on the scale
The hierarchy of the characters delineated so far receives a twist if one stops to ponder about Caninius’ definition of the Pirrhonici. Candidus, provided he was more educated in the sects of philosophers, could have said that there were 3 problems with the definition. First, though Pyrrhonian scepticism is related to “affirmation,” it is related to it in a dramatically different way than the affirmation of the discrepancy between appearances and reality. Two, they did not only, as it is suggested by Caninius, suspect sense perception but other means of arriving at the truth as well. Three, in a way common sense—something that Caninius opposes to the sceptic attitude—has its place in the intellectual life of a Pyrrhonean sceptic.
1. First Candidus should have claimed that Pyrrhonean scepticism could be defined otherwise.
Sextus Empiricus, the main source of our knowledge about Pyrrhonean philosophy, when meditating about the difference between philosophies writes:
When people search for something, the likely outcome is that either they find it, or not finding it, they accept that it cannot be found, or they continue to search. So also in the case of what is sought in philosophy, I think, some people have claimed to have found the truth [the Dogmatics—Zs.A.], others have asserted that it cannot be apprehended [The Academics—Zs.A.], and others are still searching [The Sceptics—Zs.A.].  (89)
What follows from this definition of philosophies is that what Caninius claimed about the Phirronici is rather true about the Academic type of scepticism than about the Pirronici proper. This peculiar philosophical scepticism lies in the constant search for arguments for and against the same thesis. The sceptic thinker is able to find contrary positions for the same statement, and, realising that is it impossible to decide upon any question, gives up the idea of choice on rational grounds. And once he is able not to decide, i.e. he suspends judgement, he finds himself in an untroubled state of mind, a)taraci/a, the true goal of sceptic philosophy.
The very practice of the Pyrrhonean can be described in a more passive way as well. Myles Burnyeat emphasises less the ability than the fact that after a while the sceptic is unable to decide. This is not because he can gather further arguments for and against but because he lives according to “appearances.” Appearances, however, conflict each other, and as the sceptic does not have a criterion to decide which is the true one, or at least which is truer than the other, he arrives at a dead end. It is a dead end because he has to give up the belief that he can decide: he should accept all appearances, but being conflicting, he cannot accept any of them, so he finds himself in the state of suspension of judgement.
Whether passively or actively, but a sceptic cannot do anything but end up in the suspension of judgement. He does not only make use of the conventional arguments taken from the flaws of sense perception, but anything that comes in handy for the listing of for and against arguments. As Sextus claims: “Scepticism is an ability to set out oppositions between things that appear, or are thought of in any way at all” (90). More precisely, he goes on saying “Those who say that the Sceptic reject what is apparent have not, I think, listened to what we say” (94.)
Being a Pyrrhonean sceptic, suspending judgement constantly, struggling for the inability to decide is not an intellectual device, but a way of life. The sceptic way does not only concern philosophical truths, but every aspect of life that requires a decision. Nevertheless, if it were a way of life, it would be impossible for a sceptic to live. Without making certain simple decisions, the sceptic could not survive. If he is hungry, and yet cannot decide on consuming something, he cannot enjoy a)taraci/a for a very long time.
As it is impossible to be wholly inactive, Sextus Empiricus handed down four principles that can save the sceptic from too early a death. These four guidelines are the following: “guidance of nature” (e)n ufhgh/sei fu/sewj), “the compulsion of pa/qh” (e)n a)na/gkv paqw=n), “laws and customs” (e)n parado/sei no/mwn te kai\ e)qw=n), and finally “instructions of arts” (e)n didaskali/a texnw=n). By the guidance of nature, he means sense perception; by the compulsion of pa/qh, natural necessities; by laws and customs, the written and unwritten rules of a community; and by instruction in arts and crafts he means survival through practising an art or craft. Once one follows these principles, one will lead an ordinary life, which loosely may be termed as a life of common sense, or at least, so it seems.
What differentiates the sceptic from an ordinary man is his attitude towards his activities. An ordinary man identifies himself with his activities. He believes that he is doing something, he believes that his activity will bring about some change. He also believes that there is something that he may change, or without his interaction, it would remain the same. The attitude of the sceptic is, however, just the opposite. He does whatever he does without attachment to his activities. Hankinson clarifying the distinction between ordinary behaviour and the sceptic way emphasises the difference between “a pragmatic rule” and “a metaphysical truth:” “I may hence choose to behave as if I believed while remaining agnostic on the matter.” The sceptic follow the religious rituals of the community they belong to, they can even argue or prove the existence of the gods, but concerning their existence he suspends judgement. This very detachment differentiates an ordinary man and the sceptic.
According to this definition of scepticism Caninius misunderstood scepticism on three ground. First, as we have seen, the Pyrrhonean Sceptic does not affirm anything, which is different from affirming the discrepancy between appearance and reality, thus mixing Academic scepticism with Pyrrhonean scepticism. Two, the Sceptic do not only use the weaponry of arguments taken from the problems with sense perception, but use anything that comes in handy for setting out oppositions. Three, common sense as far as the four principles of survival are concerned, has its place in the sceptic way of life, in contrast with Caninius’ complete denial of this.
Having elucidated the problems with Caninius’ understanding of Pyrrhonean scepticism one should ask how come that Caninius develops this erroneous definition? What could Caninius say for defending himself for mixing Academic scepticism with Pyrrhonean, laying too much emphasis on the difference between appearance and reality, and his misplacement of common sense. He should defend himself against these charges especially because
First, he could claim that he is the child of his own age, fictitiously lived in the so called Pre-textual phase of the reception history of Sextus Empiricis’ books. As there is a dividing line in the reception history of Pyrrhonian scepticism, which dividing line distinguishes between two radically different phases of this history. This dividing line is the publication of the first Latin translation of Sextus Empiricus’ PURRWNEIOI UPOTUPWSEIS (Outlines of Pyrrhonism) translated by Henri Estienne, and published in 1562. And then Sexti Empirici Adversus mathematicos trans. Gentian Hervet (
Furthermore Caninius could continue his apologetic argumentation with claiming that during the pre-textual phase of the reception history of Pyrrhonean tenets, though there were three sources of information about scepticism, yet one could hardly be well informed. First, as Popkin demonstrates, there was a manuscript tradition at hand. Two, there was a massive bulk of printed material before 1562 of secondary sources from Cicero‘s Academica (representing Academic scepticism), Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola’s Examen Vanitatis Doctrinae Gentium, published in 1520, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim’s De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum (1526). Aggrippa is all the more interesting here, because he had a similar work about women to that of Elyot, which came off press by the same printer, Thomas Berthelet two years later than Elyot’s treatise, which work also mentions queen Zenobia. The third source of information for scepticism was the fashionable genre of encyclopaedias, dictionaries and thesauri . These numerous but many-faced sources resulted in rather strange relativity. As Naya puts it:
Thus, Renaissance scepticism was not a unified intellectual movement; there was not only one kind of scepticism in the sixteenth century, but a kind of Pyrrhonism for each decade, and even for each reader; founded on connections between scattered texts, it was little more than a jigsaw puzzle, of which the configuration depended on each reader’s ability to find the pieces and to organise them.
So Caninius may claim that his jigsaw puzzle resulted in this definition, which may not live up to 21st-Century definitions, but why should it, if we are in the 1540’s only.
Following Caninius’s arguments Candidus may claim that the problem has been solved only partially, as their creator, Thomas Elyot could have been invited into the discussion. In the Governour which might give the reader a clue whether Caninius should be blamed or not, neither Pyrrho, nor scepticism are mentioned. This is not surprising, as none of these terms or names appear in contemporary collections of philosophical thoughts. John Larke’s The Boke of Wysdome does not mention anything that could have helped Elyot or Caninius. Moreover, although there are many Greek thinkers accounted for in Richard Taverner’s The Garden of Wysdom 1-3 neither Pyrrhonean sceptics, nor scepticism appears. But if dictionaries are important sources of information, we may be in a good position, for Elyot himself composed a Dictionary, “the first full-scale Latin—English lexicon.”
In Elyot’s Dictionary, which came off press two years before The Defence, there is no entry for Pyrrho, or Pyrrhonici with any spelling, not even in the Additions part. There is, however, an entry for Sceptici which reads: “Sceptici, were a secte of philosophers, whiche affirmed nothynge: the chiefe of that secte was Pirrhus and Berillus” (Y6r). This definition is different from that of Caninius on two accounts. First, it is much shorter, and in this definition there surfaces one of the key concepts of Pyrrhonean scepticism, i.e. the lack of affirmation, as a most striking feature of this school as it is there in Sextus Empiricus, or in Raleigh’s The Sceptic as well.
It is also interesting that while in The Defence we have roughly the same phrases, but in the Dictionary the lack of a comma before nothing, and lack of the explicatory continuation of the definition do not propose the tenets of an Academic type of scepticism. So seemingly briefness does good to definitions. This is, however, half of the truth, as in the Dictionary the entry does not end here, but instead of exploring the tenets, two names are given as exemplary sceptics: Pyrrho and Beryllus. The appearance of the name of Pyrrho, is appropriate, as his name sufficiently signals the type of scepticism at hand, and also it indirectly implies that the source is not Sextus Empiricus. This seems to be true, even though there is a reference to a certain “Empiricus,” who is identified as “a phisition that parcticeth” (G4r), as Sextus Empiricus belonged to the medical school of sceptics, but it is not necessary that the entry is about him, especially as he is not defined as a sceptic. Beryllus, however, is “mote in the eye” in this definition, because he is not mentioned in sceptic treatises. The only Beryllus about whom I have found something is a 3rd Century bishop, who for some time denied the eternal existence of Christ, but was reoriented to the more orthodox view by the logic and eloquence of Origen. So Caninius could defend himself asserting that although their Creator could define Pyrrhonean scepticism with some precision, his insertion of Beryllus’ name justifies his somewhat liberal jigsaw-puzzle definition.
Caninius’s last argument could have been that whether he mixed Academic scepticism with Pyrrhonean or not, is irrelevant compared to the threat Pyrrhonean scepticism meant for an honest discussion. This threat followed from the sceptic way of living. If the sceptic lived and acted without conviction, they could represent moral threat to society, to debates, to everything. As Striker puts it:
It is also understandable that dogmatic philosophers—and probably also some ordinary people—found the Skeptic’s stance morally suspicious. It is true that ordinary non-Skeptics might also succumb to dire threats in such situations, but at least one must assume that the Skeptic will feel no regret if he ends up doing something that his community considers as wrong, and that might be an uncomfortable thought for those who live around him. Tranquillity, then, separates the Pyrrhonist not just from philosophers who make dogmatic assertions, but also from ordinary people who take their beliefs seriously.
The lack of regret for one’s bad deeds can entail the privation of moral responsibility. Without moral responsibility every act is only vanity. So by chance, although Caninius’ premises were wrong according to modern standards, his conclusion is valid. It is useless to debate something without conviction, so Candidus’ oath is needed, if he really intends to start the discussion.
As a conclusion, I must admit my fascination over the complex dynamism of the hierarchical relationship between Caninius, the negative character and Candidus, the good one, when Caninius secures the rationality and fruitfulness of the debate via removing a possible obstacle, i.e. one of them being a member of the sect of Pirrhonici. On the one hand we have seen Caninius being seemingly a more learned character than Candidus, but at the same time having a shallow type of superficial learning, knowing many things, not knowing anything in merit, a child of his own age. All these characteristics are revealed in his attempt to remove the threat to communication. Once, however, he could reach his aim, Candidus and Caninius can start their debate about the value of women, because Candidus promises that his is not Pyrrhonean, I have also reached my aim, so I must stop.
 Thomas Elyot, The Defence of Good VVomen (
 Constance Jordan, “Feminism and the Humanists: The Case of Sir Thomas Elyot's Defence of Good Women” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer, 1983): 181.
 Witness Jill Kraye, “The Revival of Hellenistic Philosophies” in The
 Cathy Shrank, “Thomas Elyot and the Bonds of Community”
 Shrank, 168.
 In the second edition of the book, in 1545 the same sentences can be found with a slightly different spelling, but as the dedication was cut because of reasons of policy, in “The argument” (A1v). Thomas Elyot, The Defence of Good Women (
 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, (
 Witness http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=Caninius&la=la#lexicon. Last accessed 14/01/2010.
 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, (
 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, (
 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght, (
 Cicero, Lucullus (Academica Book 2) in
 Robert Recorde, The
 John Field, Ephemeris anni 1557 currentis iuxta …, Adjecta Epistola Ioannis Dee (
 Thomas Digges, A Perfit Description of the Coelestiall Orbes in Leonard Digges, A Prognostication euerlasting of righte good effecte … (
 John Balgarve, Astrolabium vranicum generale (
 For the reception of Copernicus in Tudor England see John L. Russel, “The Copernican System in Great Britain” in The Reception of Copernicus’ Heliocentric Theory, ed. Jerzy Bobrzycki (Warsaw-Dordrecht: Ossolineum-D. Riedel Publishing Company, 1972) 189-239.
 All the Greek quotations pertain to the following edition: Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, (Book I) Trans. and Introd. R. G. Bury (London: William Heinemann LTD, Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard University Press, 1961). The English translation is from The
 cf. p.
 M. F. Burnyeat, “Can the Skeptic Live His Skepticism?” 24 Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, Ed. Malcolm Schofield, Myles Burnyeat and Jonathan Barnes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) 20-53.
 cf. p.
 R.J. Hankinson, The Skeptics (London – New York: Routledge 1995) 277.
 cf. M.F. Burnyeat, “Can the Skeptic Live His Skepticism?” 32, fn, 40-41. For another illuminating illustration see Hankinson, The Skeptics 294.
 Sexti Philosophi pyrrhoniarum hypotyposeon libri III: quibus in tres philosphiae partes seuerissime inquiritur. Libri magno ingenii acumine scripti, uariaque doctrina refert: Graece nunquam, Latine nunc primum editi, interprete Henrici Stephano (Genevae, Excudebat idem Henricus Stephanus, illistri uiri Hvldrice Fuggeri Typographus, 1562).
 Richard H. Popkin. The History of Scepticism: from Savonarola to Bayle, Revised and Expanded edition(
 Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, trans. James Sanford (
 Cornelius Henri Agrippa, A treatise of the nobilitie and excellencie of womankynde, trans. David Clapam (
 Emmanuel Naya, “Renaissance Pyrrhonism: A Relative Phenomenon”
 Emmanuel Naya, “Renaissance Pyrrhonism: A Relative Phenomenon” 23-
 Stephen Merriam Foley, “Coming to terms: Thomas Elyot’s Definitions and the Particularity of Human Letters” ELH vol 61. No. 2 (Summer, 1994): 211.
 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght,
 The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght,
 Gisela Striker, “Historical reflections on Classical Pyrrhonism and Neo-Pyrrhonism” 20-