Words: Sceptic

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'EURO-SCEPTIC' seems a good word for those Tory MPs who want to keep the Continent at bay while not unduly antagonising the rest of the party, suggesting as it does a certain openness of mind on the matter. It is doubtful, however, whether the original Sceptic would have thought much of them.

This was the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who flourished in the fourth century BC - not to be confused with his contemporary King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose Pyrrhic victories against the Romans cost him so much and sent Epirus into a nasty recession.

Pyrrho believed that no one assertion was more valid than another: in the absence of perceived truth (sceptic comes from the Greek word for 'keeping watch') the only way to attain peace of mind was to suspend judgement. He therefore kept away from politics. The Athenians admired his imperturbability and gave him the freedom of their city.

Euro-sceptics don't quite fit this picture. The 18th-century sceptics, such as Hume and Kant, are probably better models. Take David Hume. His political notions were so ambivalent that he became unpopular with left and right. Unlike the blissfully tranquil Pyrrho, he was not always a happy man. He himself described his state of doubt as a malady, bringing on 'philosophical melancholy and delirium'. It might be as well to watch for the signs. Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that Immanuel Kant, after a long flirtation with scepticism, concluded that in itself it was 'not a permanent resting-place for human reason'.

Sceptic has acquired sour undertones through the centuries which the original sceptics would not have understood. It could be by unconscious association with its near-homonym septic, or putrid, and by sharing its first two consonants with scorn. But there must be more to it than that. The early cynics, with their positive belief in virtue, were also different from the sneering creature we think of today. It is all rather sad.