Zeno of Elea

Introduction: the beginnings of Greek philosophy

The lyric poet Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey in the seventh century, BC, at the dawn of the Classical period of Greek civilization. The city-states of Greece (Athens, Sparta, Troy, Delphi, Corinth, Thermopylae, and others) arose to provide its inhabitants with a model of self-goverment, managing their own political affairs, and in many cases, establishing rater sophisticated forms of democracy. They traded with economic partners around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, eventually establishing colonies in other locales, like Byzantium, Massalia (Marseilles), Syracuse, and Naples. They developed a rich artistic culture remembered today for its mosaic art, sculpture, and architecture. They imported and adapted an alphabet from their Semitic Phoenician neighbors to the east, and used this alphabet in the creation of important works of drama and poetry. And they left a legacy of disciplined inquiry about the world in which we live--the beginnings of philosophy in the Western world.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (530?-480? BCE), among the first of the Greek philosophers, considered the fundamental question of what it was that governed the essential nature of the universe. He taught that all things are in a constant state of flux, the striving of opposing forces one against the other: hot vs. cold, wet vs. dry. Fire consumes earth, transforming it into air or water, which solidifies into earth again. Nonethless, this multiplicity of opposites still forms a unified whole, which he called the logos, the Word or Truth (essentially the same concept appropriated by John the Evangelist in the prologue to his Gospel). The understanding of this logos, according to Heraclitus, is necessary for anyone to understand himself.

Parmenides of Elea (515?-450? BCE) was a younger contemporary of Heraclitus and an outspoken critic of his philosophy, but we do not know if the two ever met. We do know that Parmenides was a well-respected citizen of his hometown of Elea, in Lower Italy, and that as an old man he visited the young Socrates in Athens. Parmenides was a monist, believing that all things are one and that what appears to be in flux is merely an illusion. For him, the fundamental principles of existence were that "What is, is" and "What is not, is not". These seemingly self-evident statements led to profound conclusions. Since "What is not, is not", there is no such thing as nothing; consequently, no thing can ever be created, for it must have been created out of nothing; similarly, no thing can ever be utterly destroyed, for then it would enter into nothingness. But then, all things must be eternal and unchangeable.

What is most striking about this philosophy is its reliance on deductive logic as its underlying rhetorical force. Classical Greek philosophy was the first to realize the power of the rules of logic as a tool for common discourse; they understood that the passage of the mind from premise to conclusion by means of these rules was inescapably and inevitably true. The mind was compelled to assent to such deductions not because of the physical, political, or emotional power of the claimant over his audience, or even because of his oratory skill, but because of the universality and disinterested correctness of the logic of the argument.

Parmenides' finest student was Zeno (488-430? BCE), whose work is preserved in the writings of Aristotle  (384-322 BCE), perhaps the greatest of all Greek philosophers. Zeno committed himself to defending Parmenides' philosophy by constructing a number of paradoxes, logical arguments that take the form of proof by contradiction (also known by its Latin equivalent reductio ad absurdum). Proof by contradiction works as follows: to show that a certain claim is false, one first supposes it is true, then argues deductively from this premise to a conclusion that is clearly false. It must follow that the premise could not have been true, which was what was to be argued in the first place. While Parmenides argues positively for why all things are one, Zeno argues negatively. His paradoxes are directed to the aim of showing why the existence of motion or change is impossible.

The text we will read is taken from Aristotle's Physics and describes four of the paradoxes of Zeno. (It is said that he devised some forty paradoxes in the defense of monism, but no primary works of Zeno are extant today.) Be aware that these words are not Zeno's but Aristotle's, and that Aristotle is no ally of Zeno. Aristotle was an empiricist, one who believed that the strongest guide to truth was one's own sense perceptions, and while he valued the use of logic as a tool for understanding, he dismissed Zeno and the Monist school as empty and absurd because he felt that they were mistaken in their deductions, and worse, because they denied the clear perception of change in the world around them. As you read the following, try to see beyond Aristotle's words to what Zeno is really trying to say.

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last modified 8/28/02
Copyright (c) 2000. Daniel E. Otero