Zeno of Elea

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(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Although Zeno cannot be said to have succeeded in defending Paramenides’ doctrine of the one, his paradoxes are still remembered, and his method of argument influenced all later philosophy.

Early Life

Little is known of the life of Zeno (ZEE-noh). In the early fifth century, when he was young, Greek philosophy was still in its cruder, experimental form, sometimes mythological, even borrowing from Oriental lore, sometimes resembling primitive science by trying to explain the physical world and basing its conclusions on observation if not on experiment. One tendency was to try to explain all material phenomena as variations on one particular element. Thus, Thales of Miletus taught that all material things were derived from water; Anaximenes of Miletus taught that all things were derived from air; and Heraclitus of Ephesus, though his philosophy was by no means as simple as those of his predecessors, thought that all things were derived from fire. Empedocles, on the other hand, rejected the idea of any single element as the source of all and saw the material world as the result of the mixture and separation of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.

Zeno’s master, Parmenides, rejected this notion of multiplicity in favor of a fundamental unity. His arguments, which were placed in a mythological setting and expressed in hexameter verse, have survived only in fragments; they are exceedingly involved and hard to follow but perhaps can best be summarized as saying that multiplicity is illogical, self-contradictory, or merely unthinkable. This leaves the one, which is not water or air or fire but simply is “being”—“individual, changeless, featureless, motionless, rock-solid being.” Multiplicity, however, if contrary to logic, is nevertheless a fact of experience, and Parmenides apparently undertook to give a systematic account of it. A modern thinker might say that the world of reason and the world of experience were mutually exclusive and could never be reconciled.

Life’s Work

Despite the paucity of biographical information about Zeno, Plato’s dialogue Parmenides (c. 360 b.c.e.) reports the conversation of Socrates—then a young man—and the visiting Parmenides and Zeno. In that account, Zeno is described as “nearly forty years of age, tall and fair to look upon; in the days of his youth he was reported to have been beloved by Parmenides.” In the dialogue, having finished reading aloud from his works, written in his youth, Zeno frankly explains their origin and his motive:

The truth is, that these writings of mine were meant to protect the arguments of Parmenides against those who make fun of him and seek to show the many ridiculous and contradictory results which they suppose to follow from the affirmation of the one. My answer is addressed to partisans of the many, whose attack I return with interest by retorting on them that their hypothesis of the being of many, if carried out, appears to be still more ridiculous than the hypothesis of the being of one.

After Zeno confesses that his arguments were motivated not by “the ambition of an older man, but the pugnacity of a young one,” Socrates endeavors to summarize Zeno’s arguments:

Do you maintain that if being is many, it must be both like and unlike, and that this is impossible, for neither can the like be unlike, nor the unlike like. . . . And if the unlike cannot be like, or the like unlike, then according to you, being could not be many, for this would involve an impossibility. In all that you say have you any other purpose except to disprove the being of the many? And is not each division of your treatise intended to furnish a separate proof of this, there being as many proofs of the not-being of the many, as you have composed arguments?

In the dialogue, Zeno acknowledges that Socrates has correctly understood him. Zeno’s defense of Parmenides thus consists not of evidence supporting Parmenides’ position nor even of positive...

(The entire section is 1,605 words.)