Eleatic School of Philosophy: Parmenides, Xenophanes, Zeno and Melissus

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ruins of ancient Elea, home of the Eleatic school, in present-day southern Italy

The Eleatics were a pre-Socratic school of philosophy founded by Parmenides in the early fifth century B.C. in the ancient town of Elea. Other members of the school included Zeno of Elea and Melissus of Samos. Xenophanes is sometimes included in the list, though there is some dispute over this. Elea, whose modern-day appellation is Velia, was a Greek colony located in present-day Campania in southern Italy. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Parmenides (5th century B.C.) and Zeno of Elea (5th century B.C.) , sometimes considered the founding fathers of philosophy, were the first people to be recorded as questioning the nature of being. Parmenides argued that permanence was the guiding force in the universe and change was impossible. Some scholars have suggested that Zeno of Elea was gay.

Eleatic school took its name from Elea, a Greek city of lower Italy, the home of its chief exponents, Parmenides and Zeno. Its foundation is often attributed to Xenophanes of Colophon, but, although there is much in his speculations which formed part of the later Eleatic doctrine, it is probably more correct to regard Parmenides as the founder of the school. Parmenides developed some of Xenophanes's metaphysical ideas. Subsequently, the school debated the possibility of motion and other such fundamental questions. The work of the school was influential upon Platonic metaphysics. +

The Eleatics rejected the epistemological validity of sense experience, and instead took logical standards of clarity and necessity to be the criteria of truth. Of the members, Parmenides and Melissus built arguments starting from sound premises. Zeno, on the other hand, primarily employed the reductio ad absurdum, attempting to destroy the arguments of others by showing that their premises led to contradictions (Zeno's paradoxes).

The main doctrines of the Eleatics were evolved in opposition to the theories of the early physicalist philosophers, who explained all existence in terms of primary matter, and to the theory of Heraclitus, which declared that all existence may be summed up as perpetual change. The Eleatics maintained that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being. According to their doctrine, the senses cannot cognize this unity, because their reports are inconsistent; it is by thought alone that we can pass beyond the false appearances of sense and arrive at the knowledge of being, at the fundamental truth that the "All is One". Furthermore, there can be no creation, for being cannot come from non-being, because a thing cannot arise from that which is different from it. They argued that errors on this point commonly arise from the ambiguous use of the verb to be, which may imply actual physical existence or be merely the linguistic copula which connects subject and predicate.

Though the conclusions of the Eleatics were rejected by the later Presocratics and Aristotle, their arguments were taken seriously, and they are generally credited with improving the standards of discourse and argument in their time. Their influence was likewise long-lasting; Gorgias, a Sophist, argued in the style of the Eleatics in On Nature or What Is Not, and Plato acknowledged them in the Parmenides, the Sophist and the Statesman. Furthermore, much of the later philosophy of the ancient period borrowed from the methods and principles of the Eleatics.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com


Parmenides of Elea

Parmenides of Elea (fl. late sixth or early fifth century BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Elea in Magna Graecia (Greater Greece, included Southern Italy). He was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. The single known work of Parmenides is a poem, “On Nature,” which has survived only in fragmentary form. In this poem, Parmenides describes two views of reality. In "the way of truth" (a part of the poem), he explains how reality (coined as "what-is") is one, change is impossible, and existence is timeless, uniform, necessary, and unchanging. In "the way of opinion", he explains the world of appearances, in which one's sensory faculties lead to conceptions which are false and deceitful. He has been considered to be the founder of metaphysics or ontology. [Source: Wikipedia]

“Parmenides, the son of Pyres (or Pyrrhes), of Elea, was likely born about 515 B.C. Even though his family was of noble rank and rich, Parmenides devoted himself to philosophy. He was associated with members of the Pythagorean society, and is himself called a Pythagorean by some writers. In the formation of his philosophic system however he was most influenced by his aged fellow-townsman, Xenophanes. [Source: Arthur Fairbanks, “The First Philosophers of Greece” (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), Hanover]

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “As the first philosopher to inquire into the nature of existence itself, he is incontrovertibly credited as the “Father of Metaphysics.” As the first to employ deductive, a priori arguments to justify his claims, he competes with Aristotle for the title “Father of Logic.” He is also commonly thought of as the founder of the “Eleatic School” of thought—a philosophical label ascribed to Presocratics who purportedly argued that reality is in some sense a unified and unchanging singular entity. This has often been understood to mean there is just one thing in all of existence. In light of this questionable interpretation, Parmenides has traditionally been viewed as a pivotal figure in the history of philosophy: one who challenged the physical systems of his predecessors and set forth for his successors the metaphysical criteria any successful system must meet. Other thinkers, also commonly thought of as Eleatics, include: Zeno of Elea, Melissus of Samos, and (more controversially) Xenophanes of Colophon.

“Parmenides’ only written work is a poem entitled, supposedly, but likely erroneously, On Nature. Only a limited number of “fragments” (more precisely, quotations by later authors) of his poem are still in existence, which have traditionally been assigned to three main sections—Proem, Reality (Alétheia), and Opinion (Doxa). The Proem (prelude) features a young man on a cosmic (perhaps spiritual) journey in search of enlightenment, expressed in traditional Greek religious motifs and geography. This is followed by the central, most philosophically-oriented section (Reality). Here, Parmenides positively endorses certain epistemic guidelines for inquiry, which he then uses to argue for his famous metaphysical claims—that “what is” (whatever is referred to by the word “this”) cannot be in motion, change, come-to-be, perish, lack uniformity, and so forth. The final section (Opinion) concludes the poem with a theogonical and cosmogonical account of the world, which paradoxically employs the very phenomena (motion, change, and so forth) that Reality seems to have denied. Furthermore, despite making apparently true claims (for example, the moon gets its light from the sun), the account offered in Opinion is supposed to be representative of the mistaken “opinions of mortals,” and thus is to be rejected on some level.

“All three sections of the poem seem particularly contrived to yield a cohesive and unified thesis. However, discerning exactly what that thesis is supposed to be has proven a vexing, perennial problem since ancient times. Even Plato expressed reservations as to whether Parmenides’ “noble depth” could be understood at all—and Plato possessed Parmenides’ entire poem, a blessing denied to modern scholars. Although there are many important philological and philosophical questions surrounding Parmenides’ poem, the central question for Parmenidean studies is addressing how the positively-endorsed, radical conclusions of Reality can be adequately reconciled with the seemingly contradictory cosmological account Parmenides rejects in Opinion. The primary focus of this article is to provide the reader with sufficient background to appreciate this interpretative problem and the difficulties with its proposed solutions.

Parmenides Life

Parmenides in Raphael's School of Athens

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “As with other ancient figures, little can be said about Parmenides’ life with much confidence. It is certain that his hometown was Elea (Latin: Velia)—a Greek settlement along the Tyrrhenian coast of the Appenine Peninsula, just south of the Bay of Salerno, now located in the modern municipality (comune) of Ascea, Italy. Herodotus reports that members of the Phocaean tribe established this settlement ca. 540-535 B.C.E., and thus Parmenides was of Ionian stock (1.167.3). Parmenides’ father, a wealthy aristocrat named Pyres, was probably one of the original colonizers (Coxon Test. 40-41a, 96, 106). [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) ]

“When exactly Parmenides was born is far more controversial. There are two competing methods for dating Parmenides’ birth, to either 540 (Diogenes Laertius) or 515 (Plato) B.C.E. Neither account is clearly convincing in-itself, and scholars are divided on their reliability and veracity.

“Choosing between these accounts can have significant historical implications regarding Parmenides’ possible relationship to other thinkers, particularly Heraclitus. For instance, if one accepts Plato’s later date, this would seem to require denying that Parmenides influenced Heraclitus (540-480 B.C.E., also based upon Diogenes’ reports) as Plato suggests (Sophist 242d-e). On the other hand, if one accepts the earlier dating by Diogenes, it makes it very unlikely Heraclitus’ work could have influenced Parmenides, as there would not have been sufficient time for his writings to become known and travel across the Greek world from Ephesus, Ionia.

“Whenever Parmenides was born, he must have remained a lifelong citizen and permanent resident of Elea—even if he traveled late in life, as Plato’s accounts in Parmenides and Theatetus suggest. This is first indicated by the evident notoriety he gained for contributions to his community. Several sources attest that he established a set of laws for Elea, which remained in effect and sworn to for centuries after his death (Coxon Test. 16, 116). A 1st cn. C.E. pedestal discovered in Elea is dedicated to him, with an inscription crediting him not only as a “natural philosopher,” but as a member (“priest”) of a local healing cult/school (Coxon 41; Test. 106). Thus, he likely contributed to the healing arts as a patron and/or practitioner. Finally, if Parmenides really was a personal teacher of Zeno of Elea (490-430 B.C.E)., Parmenides must have been present in Elea well into the mid-fourth century B.C.E. Ultimately, however, when and where Parmenides died is entirely unattested.

Parmenides’ Poem

“Parmenides was the first philosopher to expound his system in metrical language. His predecessors, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus, wrote in prose, and the only Greeks who ever wrote philosophy in verse at all were just these two, Parmenides and Empedocles; for Xenophanes was not a philosopher any more than Epicharmus. Empedocles copied Parmenides; and he, no doubt, was influenced by the Orphics. But the thing was an innovation, and one that did not maintain itself. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Ancient tradition holds that Parmenides produced only one written work, which was supposedly entitled On Nature (Coxon Test. 136). This title is suspect, as it had become common even by Sextus’ time to attribute this generic title to all Presocratic works (Coxon 269-70; Test. 126). No copy of the original work has survived, in any part. Instead, scholars have collected purported quotations (or testimonia) from a number of ancient authors and attempted to reconstruct the poem by arranging these fragments according to internal and external (testimonia) evidence. The result is a rather fragmentary text, constituted by approximately 154 dactylic-hexameter lines (some are only partial lines, or even only one word). This reconstructed arrangement has then been traditionally divided into three distinct parts: an introductory section known as the Proem; a central section of epistemological guidelines and metaphysical arguments (Aletheia, Reality); and a concluding “cosmology,” (Doxa, or Opinion). [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP)]

“The fragments of Parmenides are preserved for the most part by Simplicius, who fortunately inserted them in his commentary, because in his time the original work was already rare. “1) The car that bears me carried me as far as ever my heart desired, when it had brought me and set me on the renowned way of the goddess, which leads the man who knows through all the towns. On that way was I bome along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, and maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket — for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each end — gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the abode of Night.

“There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that fit them. Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and cunningly persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates. Then, when the doors were thrown back, they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen posts fitted with rivets and nails swung back one after the other. Straight through them, on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car, and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spake to me these words:

“Welcome, O youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers! It is no ill chance, but right and justice that has sent thee forth to travel on this way. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men! Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all. Yet nonetheless shalt thou learn these things also, — how passing right through all things one should judge the things that seem to be.

Parmenides cosmology

“But do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry, nor let habit by its much experience force thee to cast upon this way a wandering eye or sounding ear or tongue; but judge by argument the much disputed proof uttered by me. There is only one way left that can be spoken of.... R. P. 113.

Parmenides, “It Is” and Materialism

“In the First Part of his poem, we find Parmenides chiefly interested to prove that it is; but it is not quite obvious at first sight what it is precisely that is. He says simply, What is, is. There can be no real doubt that this is what we call body. It is certainly regarded as spatially extended; for it is quite seriously spoken of as a sphere (fr. 8). Moreover, Aristotle tells us that Parmenides believed in none but a sensible reality. Parmenides does not say a word about "Being" anywhere, and it is remarkable that he avoids the term "god," which was so freely used by earlier and later thinkers. The assertion that it is amounts just to this, that the universe is a plenum; and that there is no such thing as empty space, either inside or outside the world. From this it follows that there can be no such thing as motion. Instead of endowing the One with an impulse to change, as Heraclitus had done, and thus making it capable of explaining the world, Parmenides dismissed change as an illusion. He showed once for all that if you take the One seriously you are bound to deny everything else. All previous solutions of the question, therefore, had missed the point. Anaximenes, who thought to save the unity of the primary substance by his theory of rarefaction and condensation, did not observe that, by assuming there was less of what is in one place than another, he virtually affirmed the existence of what is not (fr. 8). The Pythagorean explanation implied that empty space or air existed outside the world, and that it entered into it to separate the units (§ 53). It, too, assumes the existence of what is not. Nor is the theory of Heraclitus any more satisfactory; for it is based on the contradiction that fire both is and is not (fr. 6).

“The allusion to Heraclitus in the verses last referred to has been doubted, though upon insufficient grounds. Zeller points out quite rightly that Heraclitus never says Being and not-Being are the same (the old translation of fr. 6); and, were there nothing more than this, the reference might well seem doubtful. The statement, however, that, according to the view in question, "all things travel in opposite directions," can hardly be understood of anything but the "upward and downward path" of Heraclitus (§ 71). And, as we have seen, Parmenides does not attribute the view that Being and not-Being are the same to the philosopher whom he is attacking; he only says that it is and is not the same and not the same. That is the natural meaning of the words; and it furnishes a very accurate description of the theory of Heraclitus.

“To sum up. What is, is a finite, spherical, motionless corporeal plenum, and there is nothing beyond it. The appearances of multiplicity and motion, empty space and time, are illusions. We see from this that the primary substance of which the early cosmologists were in search has now become a sort of "thing in itself." It never quite lost this character again. What appears later as the elements of Empedocles, the so-called "homoeomeries" of Anaxagoras and the atoms of Leucippus and Democritus, is just the Parmenidean "being." Parmenides is not, as some have said, the "father of idealism"; on the contrary, all materialism depends on his view of reality. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]


Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570 – c. 475 BC) was a Greek philosopher, theologian, poet, and social and religious critic. Although it is difficult to determine the time of his birth and death it is thought Xenophanes lived a life of travel, leaving Ionia at the age of 25 and traveling throughout the Greek world until he was 92. Some scholars say he lived in exile in Sicily. One his life as a wanderer he is quoted as saying, ‘There are by this time threescore years and seven that have tossed my careworn soul up and down the land of Hellas; and there were then five-and-twenty years from my birth, if I can say aught truly about these matters.’


“Theophrastus said that Xenophanes had "heard" Anaximander, and we shall see that he was acquainted with the Ionian cosmology. When driven from his native city, he lived in Sicily, chiefly, we are told, at Zankle and Catana. Like Archilochus before him, he unburdened his soul in elegies and satires, which he recited at the banquets where, we may suppose, the refugees tried to keep up the usages of good Ionian society. The statement that he was a rhapsode has no foundation at all. The singer of elegies was no professional like the rhapsode, but the social equal of his listeners. In his ninety-second year he was still, we have seen, leading a wandering life, which is hardly consistent with the statement that he settled at Elea and founded a school there, especially if we are to think of him as spending his last days at Hieron's court. It is very remarkable that no ancient writer expressly says he ever was at Elea, and all the evidence we have seems inconsistent with his having settled there at all. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

Knowledge of his views comes from fragments of his poetry, surviving as quotations by later Greek writers. Based on these, his elegiac and iambic poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of subjects including Homer and Hesiod, Greek gods and the Olympics. He is the earliest Greek poet who claims explicitly to be writing for future generations, creating "fame that will reach all of Greece, and never die while the Greek kind of songs survives." [Source: Wikipedia +]

“Xenophanes denied the anthropomorphic gods altogether, but was quite unaffected by the revival of religion going on all round him. We still have a fragment of an elegy in which he ridiculed Pythagoras and the doctrine of transmigration. We are also told that he opposed the views of Thales and Pythagoras, and attacked Epimenides, which is likely enough, though no fragments of the kind have come down to us.

“According to Diogenes, Xenophanes wrote in hexameters and also composed elegies and iambics against Homer and Hesiod. No good authority says anything of his having written a philosophical poem. Simplicius tells us he had never met with the verses about the earth stretching infinitely downwards (fr. 28), and this means that the Academy possessed no copy of such a poem, which would be very strange if it had ever existed. Simplicius was able to find the complete works of much smaller men. Nor does internal evidence lend any support to the view that Xenophanes wrote a philosophical poem. Diels refers about twenty-eight lines to it, but they would all come in quite as naturally in his attacks on Homer and Hesiod, as I have endeavored to show. It is also significant that a number of them are derived from commentators on Homer. It is more probable, then, that Xenophanes expressed such scientific opinions as he had incidentally in his satires. That would be in the manner of the time, as we can see from the remains of Epicharmus.

Xenophanes Elegies

Xenphanes wrote: “1) Now is the floor clean, and the hands and cups of all; one sets twisted garlands on our heads, another hands us fragrant ointment on a salver. The mixing bowl stands ready, full of gladness, and there is more wine at hand that promises never to leave us in the lurch, soft and smelling of flowers in the jars. In the midst the frankincense sends up its holy scent, and there is cold water, sweet and clean. Brown loaves are set before us and a lordly table laden with cheese and rich honey. The altar in the midst is clustered round with flowers; song and revel fill the halls. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

“But first it is meet that men should hymn the god with joy, with holy tales and pure words; then after libation and prayer made that we may have strength to do right — for that is in truth the first thing to do — no sin is it to drink as much as a man can take and get home without an attendant, so he be not stricken in years. And of all men is he to be praised who after drinking gives goodly proof of himself in the trial of skill as memory and strength will serve him. Let him not sing of Titans and Giants — those fictions of the men of old — nor of turbulent civil broils in which is no good thing at all; but to give heedful reverence to the gods is ever good.

“2) What if a man win victory in swiftness of foot, or in the pentathlon, at Olympia, where is the precinct of Zeus by Pisa's springs, or in wrestling, — what if by cruel boxing or that fearful sport men call pankration he become more glorious in the citizens' eyes, and win a place of honor in the sight of all at the games, his food at the public cost from the State, and a gift to be an heirloom for him, — what if he conquer in the chariot-race, — he will not deserve all this for his portion so much as I do. Far better is our art than the strength of men and of horses! These are but thoughtless judgements, nor is it fitting to set strength before goodly art. Even if there arise a mighty boxer among a people, or one great in the pentathlon or at wrestling, or one excelling in swiftness of foot — and that stands in honor before all tasks of men at the games — the city would be none the better governed for that. It is but little joy a city gets of it if a man conquer at the games by Pisa's banks; it is not this that makes fat the store-houses of a city.

“3) They learnt dainty and unprofitable ways from the Lydians, so long as they were free from hateful tyranny; they went to the market-place with cloaks of purple dye, not less than a thousand of them all told, vainglorious and proud of their comely tresses, reeking with fragrance from cunning salves. 4) Nor would a man mix wine in a cup by pouring out the wine first, but water first and wine on the top of it. 5) Thou didst send the thigh-bone of a kid and get for it the fat leg of a fatted bull, a worthy guerdon for a man to get, whose glory is to reach every part of Hellas and never to pass away, so long as Greek songs last.

“7) And now I will turn to another tale and point the way.... Once they say that he Pythagoras) was passing by when a dog was being beaten and spoke this word: "Stop! don't beat it! For it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard its voice." 8) There are by this time threescore years and seven that have tossed my careworn soul up and down the land of Hellas; and there were then five-and-twenty years from my birth, if I can say aught truly about these matters. 9) Much weaker than an aged man.

Xenophanes Satires

Xenophanes in the Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

Xenphanes wrote: “10) Since all at first have learnt according to Homer....
11) Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another. R. P. 99.
12) Since they have uttered many lawless deeds of the gods, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another. R. P. ib.
14) But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form. R. P. 100.
15) Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds. R. P. ib. [Source: John Burnet 1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

“16) The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair. R. P. 100 b.
18) The gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning, but by seeking they find in time what is better. R. P. 104 b.
23) One god, the greatest among gods and men, neither in form like unto mortals nor in thought.... R. P. 100.
24) He sees all over, thinks all over, and hears all over. R. P. 102.
25) But without toil he swayeth all things by the thought of his mind. R. P. 108 b.
26) And he abideth ever in the selfsame place, moving not at all; nor doth it befit him to go about now hither now thither. R. P. 110 a.
27) All things come from the earth, and in earth all things end. R. P. 103 a.
28) This limit of the earth above is seen at our feet in contact with the air; below it reaches down without a limit. R. P. 103.
29) All things are earth and water that come into being and grow. R. P. 103.

30) The sea is the source of water and the source of wind; for neither in the clouds would there be any blasts of wind blowing forth) from within without the mighty sea, nor rivers' streams nor rain-water from the sky. The mighty sea is father of clouds and of winds and of rivers. R. P. 103.
31) The sun swinging over the earth and warming it. . . .
32) She that they call Iris is a cloud likewise, purple, scarlet and green to behold. R. P. 103.
33) For we all are born of earth and water. R. P. ib.
34) There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the gods and about all the things I speak of. Even if he should chance to say the complete truth, yet he himself knows not that it is so. But all may have their fancy. R. P. 104.
35) Let these be taken as fancies something like the truth. R. P. 104 a.
36) All of them that are visible for mortals to behold.
37) And in some caves water drips....
38) If god had not made brown honey, men would think figs far sweeter than they do.

Xenophanes’ Views on Earth, Water, Monotheism and Atheism

Most of aforementioned fragments are not in any way philosophical, and those that appear to be so are easily accounted for otherwise. “In fr. 29 Xenophanes says that "all things are earth and water," and Hippolytus has preserved the account given by Theophrastus of the context in which this occurred. It was as follows: “Xenophanes said that a mixture of the earth with the sea is taking place, and that it is being gradually dissolved by the moisture. He says that he has the following proofs of this. Shells are found in midland districts and on hills, and he says that in the quarries at Syracuse has been found the imprint of a fish and of seaweed, at Paros the form of a bayleaf in the depth of the stone, and at Malta flat impressions of all marine animals. These, he says, were produced when all things were formerly mud, and the outlines were dried in the mud. All human beings are destroyed when the earth has been carried down into the sea and turned to mud. This change takes place for all the worlds. — Hipp. Ref. i. 14 (R. P. 103 a). [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

“This is, of course, the theory of Anaximander, and we may perhaps credit him rather than Xenophanes with the observations of fossils. Most remarkable of all, however, is the statement that this change applies to "all the worlds." It seems impossible to doubt that Theophrastus attributed a belief in "innumerable worlds" to Xenophanes. As we have seen, Aetius includes him in his list of those who held this doctrine, and Diogenes ascribes it to him also, while Hippolytus seems to take it for granted. We shall find, however, that in another connection he said the World or God was one. If our interpretation of him is correct, there is no great difficulty here. The point is that, so far from being "a sure seat for all things ever," Gaia too is a passing appearance. That belongs to the attack on Hesiod, and if in this connection Xenophanes spoke, with Anaximander, of "innumerable worlds," while elsewhere he said that God or the World was one, that may be connected with a still better attested contradiction which we have now to examine.

Fragments that can be interpreted as supporting a belief in a single unknowable, supreme god include: “1) God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in mind. 2) The whole [of god] sees, the whole perceives, the whole hears. 3) But without effort he sets in motion all things by mind and thought. 4) It [i.e. being] always abides in the same place, not moved at all, nor is it fitting that it should move from one place to another. 5) But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man's clothing and have human voice and body. 6) But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own—horses like horses, cattle like cattle. [Source: Zeller, Vorsokratische Philosophie, p. 530, n. 3]

Fragments that can be interpreted as atheistic, or at least anti-Greek god include: “11) Both Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind: theft, adultery and mutual deception. 12. They have narrated every possible wicked story of the gods: theft, adultery, and mutual deception. 14) But mortals believe the gods to be created by birth, and to have their own (mortals') raiment, voice and body. [Source: Drew A. Hyland, “The Origins of Philosophy: From Myth to Meaning” (New York; G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1973), p. 92.]

“15) But if oxen (and horses) and lions had hands or could draw with hands and create works of art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen gods like oxen, and they would make the bodies (of their gods) in accordance with the form that each species itself possesses. 16) Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair, Thracians have gods with gray eyes and red hair. 18) Truly the gods have not revealed to mortals all things from the beginning; but mortals by long seeking discover what is better.

Zeno of Elea

Zeno of Elea

Zeno of Elea (c. 490 – c. 430 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher of Magna Graecia in presnt-day Italy and a member of the Eleatic School founded by Parmenides. Aristotle called him the inventor of the dialectic. He is best known for his paradoxes, which Bertrand Russell has described as "immeasurably subtle and profound". [Source: Wikipedia=]

“Like Parmenides, Zeno played a part in the politics of his native city. Strabo, no doubt on the authority of Timaeus, ascribes to him some share of the credit for the good government of Elea, and says that he was a Pythagorean. This statement can easily be explained. Parmenides, we have seen, was originally a Pythagorean, and the school of Elea was naturally regarded as a mere branch of the larger society. We hear also that Zeno conspired against a tyrant, whose name is differently given, and the story of his courage under torture is often repeated, though with varying details. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

According to Diogenes Laertius, Zeno conspired to overthrow Nearchus the tyrant. Eventually, Zeno was arrested and tortured. According to Valerius Maximus, when he was tortured to reveal the name of his colleagues in conspiracy, Zeno refused to reveal their names, although he said he did have a secret that would be advantageous for Nearchus to hear. When Nearchus leaned in to listen to the secret, Zeno bit his ear. He "did not let go until he lost his life and the tyrant lost that part of his body." Within Men of the Same Name, Demetrius said it was the nose that was bit off instead. +

In “Life of Zeno, the Eleatic,” Diogenes Laertius wrote:
Your noble wish, O Zeno, was to slay
A cruel tyrant, freeing Elea
From the harsh bonds of shameful slavery,
But you were disappointed; for the tyrant
Pounded you in a mortar. I say wrong,
He only crushed your body, and not you.

Zeno’s Dialectic and Views on Space

Zeno paradoz of Achilles and the turtle

“Aristotle in his Sophist called Zeno the inventor of dialectic, and that, no doubt, is substantially true, though the beginnings at least of this method of arguing were contemporary with the foundation of the Eleatic school. Plato gives us a spirited account of the style and purpose of Zeno's book, which he puts into his own mouth: “In reality, this writing is a sort of reinforcement for the argument of Parmenides against those who try to turn it into ridicule on the ground that, if reality is one, the argument becomes involved in many absurdities and contradictions. This writing argues against those who uphold a Many, and gives them back as good and better than they gave; its aim is to show that their assumption of multiplicity will be involved in still more absurdities than the assumption of unity, if it is sufficiently worked out. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

“The method of Zeno was, in fact, to take one of his adversaries' fundamental postulates and deduce from it two contradictory conclusions. This is what Aristotle meant by calling him the inventor of dialectic, which is just the art of arguing, not from true premisses, but from premisses admitted by the other side. The theory of Parmenides had led to conclusions which contradicted the evidence of the senses, and Zeno's object was not to bring fresh proofs of the theory itself, but simply to show that his opponents' view led to contradictions of a precisely similar nature.

“Aristotle refers to an argument which seems to be directed against the Pythagorean doctrine of space, and Simplicius quotes it in this form:“If there is space, it will be in something; for all that is is in something, and what is in something is in space. So space will be in space, and this goes on ad infinitum, therefore there is no space.” What Zeno is really arguing against here is the attempt to distinguish space from the body that occupies it. If we insist that body must be in space, then we must go on to ask what space itself is in. This is a "reinforcement" of the Parmenidean denial of the void. Possibly the argument that everything must be "in" something, or must have something beyond it, had been used against the Parmenidean theory of a finite sphere with nothing outside it.

Zeno’s Paradoxes

Zeno Paradoxes found in the fragments of his writing include: Space: “If there is such a thing as space, it will be in something, for all being is in something, and that which is in something is in some space. So this space will be in a space, and so on ad infinitum. Accordingly, there is no such thing as space. [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

Motion: A) The Arrow in Flight: If, Zeno says, everything is at rest when it is in a space equal to itself, and the moving body is always in the present moment in a space equal to itself, then the moving arrow is still. Therefore the arrow in flight is stationary. B) The Race Course: Motion does not exist because the moving body must go half the distance before it goes the whole distance.

Achilles and the Tortoise: “The slow runner will never be overtaken by the swiftest, for it is necessary that the pursuer should first reach the point from which the pursued started, so that necessarily the slower is always somewhat in advance. This argument is the same as the preceding, the only difference being that the distance is not divided each time into halves.

The Stadium: “With reference to equal bodies moving in opposite directions past equal bodies in the stadium with equal speed, some form the end of the stadium, others from the middle, Zeno thinks half the time equal to twice the time.”


Melissus of Samos (470-430 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher of the Eleatic School. According to Diogenes Lartius, ix. 24, he was not only a thinker, but also a political leader in his native town, and was in command of the fleet which defeated the Athenians in 442. The same authority says he was a pupil of Parmenides and of Heraclitus, but the statement is improbable, owing to discrepancy in dates. [Source: Crystal Links]

“In his Life of Pericles, Plutarch tells us, on the authority of Aristotle, that the philosopher Melissus, son of Ithagenes, was the Samian general who defeated the Athenian fleet in 441/0 B.C., and it was no doubt for this reason that Apollodorus fixed his floruit in 444-41 B.C. Beyond this, we really know nothing about his life. He is said to have been, like Zeno, a disciple of Parmenides; but, as he was a Samian, it is possible that he was originally a member of the Ionic school, and we shall see that certain features of his doctrine tend to bear out this view. On the other hand, he was certainly convinced by the Eleatic dialectic, and renounced the Ionic doctrine insofar as it was inconsistent with that. We note here the effect of the increased facility of intercourse between East and West, which was secured by the supremacy of Athens. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

Melissus from the Nuremberg Chronicle

According to Crystal Links: Melissus’s “works, fragments of which are preserved by Simplicius and attested by the evidence of Aristotle, are devoted to the defence of Parmenides' doctrine. They were written in Ionic and consist of long series of argument. Being, he says, is eternal. It cannot have had a beginning because it cannot have begun from not-being (cf. ex nihilo nihil), nor from being. It cannot suffer destruction; it is impossible for being to become not being, and if it became another being, there would be no destruction.

“According to Simplicius (Physika, f. 22b), he differed here from Parmenides in distinguishing being and absolute being. He goes on to show that eternal being must also be unlimited in magnitude, and, therefore, one and unchangeable. Any change whether from internal or external source, he says, is unthinkable; the One is unvarying in quantity and in kind. There can be no division inside this unity, for any such division implies space or void; but void is nothing, and, therefore, is not. It follows further that being is incorporeal, inasmuch as all body has size and parts.

“The fundamental difficulty underlying this logic is the paradox more clearly expressed by Zeno of Elea and to a large extent represented in almost all modern discussion, namely that the evidence of the senses contradicts the intellect. Abstract argument has shown that change in the unity is impossible; yet the senses tell us that hot becomes cold, hard becomes soft, the living dies, and so on. From a comparison of Melissus with Zeno, it appears that the spirit of dialectic was already tentatively at work, though it was not conscious of its own power.

“Neither Melissus nor Zeno seems to have observed that the application of these destructive methods struck at the root not only of multiplicity but also of the One whose existence they maintained. The weapons which they forged in the interests of Parmenides were to be used with equal effect against themselves.”

Melissus’s Theory of Spatially Infinite Reality

Zeno's moving rows paradox

“It has been pointed out that Melissus was not perhaps originally a member of the Eleatic school; but he certainly adopted all the views of Parmenides as to the true nature of reality with one remarkable exception. He appears to have opened his treatise with a reassertion of the Parmenidean "Nothing is not" (fr. 1a), and the arguments by which he supported this view are those with which we are already familiar (fr. 1). Reality, as With Parmenides, is eternal, a point which Melissus expressed in a way of his own. He argued that since everything that has come into being has a beginning and an end, everything that has not come into being has no beginning or end. Aristotle is very hard on him for this simple conversion of a universal affirmative proposition; but, of course, his belief was not founded on that. His whole conception of reality made it necessary for him to regard it as eternal. It would be more serious if Aristotle were right in believing, as he seems to have done, that Melissus inferred that what is must be infinite in space, because it had neither beginning nor end in time. As, however, we have the fragment which Aristotle interprets in this way (fr. 2), we are quite entitled to understand it for ourselves, and I cannot see anything to justify Aristotle's assumption that the expression "without limit" means without limit in space. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University ]

“Melissus did indeed differ from Parmenides in holding that reality was spatially as well as temporally infinite; but he gave an excellent reason for this belief, and had no need to support it by such an extraordinary argument. What he said was that, if it were limited, it would be limited by empty space. This we know from Aristotle himself, and it marks a real advance upon Parmenides. He had thought it possible to regard reality as a finite sphere, but it would have been difficult for him to work out this view in detail. He would have had to say there was nothing outside the sphere; but no one knew better than he that there is no such thing as nothing. Melissus saw that you cannot imagine a finite sphere without regarding it as surrounded by an infinite empty space; and as, in common with the rest of the school, he denied the void (fr. 7), he was forced to say reality was spatially infinite (fr. 3). It is possible that he was influenced in this by his association with the Ionic school.

“From the infinity of reality, it follows that it must be one; for, if it were not one, it would be bounded by something else (fr. 5). And, being one, it must be homogeneous throughout (fr. 6a), for that is what we mean by one. Reality, then, is a single, homogeneous, corporeal plenum, stretching out to infinity in space, and going backwards and forwards to infinity in time.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy /plato.stanford.edu, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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