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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

Plato. Philosophy

The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

Aristotle: Metaphysics

Aristotle: Physics

Aristotle: Psychology

Aristotle: Practical Philosophy

Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetic

Aristotle: Sources

Aristotle: Unity of Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle: result

The Peripatetic School

Three Leading Post-Aristotelian Schools

The Stoics and Stoicism

The Epicureans and Epicureanism

The Sceptics

The Common Ground of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics

Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 3 - The Eleatics

Nearly contemporaneous with the Pythagoreans was a school of thinkers known in the history of philosophy as the Eleatics, being so named from the city of Elea in Lower Italy, where they taught. The leaders of this school were Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, and Melissus.

Life of Xenophanes

Xenophanes, who was born about the year 570 B.C., was a native of Colophon, a town near the coast of Asia Minor, and not far from Miletus and Samos, the birth-places of Thales and his followers, and of Pythagoras. He was an elegiac and gnomic poet, a wandering rhapsodist, in whom the mystery of nature awakened a profound religious and speculative impulse.


  He was, it seems, very decidedly at variance with popular religious and ethical views, and, like many another intellectual radical, was obliged to suffer on account of his convictions, becoming a fugitive or an exile (it is uncertain which of the two) because of them. He settled at Elea, there founding the Eleatic school, distinguished and influential, as we shall have abundant occasion to note, in the history of Greek thought. He wrote a didactic poem, On Nature.

Philosophy of Xenophanes

Xenophanes took his start apparently from the Infinite of Anaximander. Instead, however, of attempting to supplement and perfect this conception by uniting it with its opposite, the Finite, as did the Pythagoreans, he lifted it above all opposition and held (more or less unconsciously perhaps) the real infinite to be not existent in or for anything other than itself, either as source of being or as ground of harmony, but existent simply in and for itself. He affirmed, says Aristotle, that the universe is one, and "looking wistfully at the whole heaven he declared that the One is God". In other words, he held that "the Many," multiplicity, is, as such, non-existent, and that all things are parts or forms or aspects of the One. The One, he held, is beyond human comprehension, and yet he called it God, saying, "God is all ear, all eye, all intellect; without effort he sways all things by the force of his thought." He combated the popular anthropomorphic dogmas concerning the gods by such arguments as the following: If oxen and lions had the requisite skill, they would picture their gods as animals, like themselves. He condemned Homer and Hesiod for representing the gods as doing those things which men would be treated as criminals for doing —as lying, stealing, committing adultery. Although Xenophanes did not, so far as we know, explicitly affirm the One to be either material or spiritual —the explicit and clear distinction, familiar to us, between the material and spiritual was probably of later origin in the history of thought— he held it to be essentially what we call spiritual. Without mentally separating mind and matter he declared reality to be one (the Many being phenomenal). The One as one is not a subject of generation or decay, of multiplicity or change: it is eternal, infinite, imperishable. Regarding the Many, i.e., the gods and the multitude of visible phenomena, Xenophanes seems to affirm that man's knowledge is mere opinion. Speaking hypothetically, he said that all things have as their elements earth and water; the earth extends indefinitely in space below us, the air indefinitely above; the stars are fiery clouds.


Compared with the speculations of earlier philosophers those of Xenophanes present two new features: first, they are not materialistic nor mathematico-idealistic but theistic, —Xenophanes, though a nature-philosopher, was a theological and rationalistic nature-philosopher; secondly, they contain an element of scepticism, —the mental attitude of Xenophanes towards phenomena, or the universe as immediately known to us, is negative.

Life of Parmenides

Of the life of Parmenides, the greatest of the Eleatics, who was born in the latter part of the sixth century B.C., very little is known. He was a man of striking appearance and impressive personally. Plato7 represents Socrates as having in his youth met Parmenides and as remembering him in later life as quite an old man, "with grey hair and a handsome and noble countenance". The Pythagorean views of culture were familiar to him and were in part adopted and practised by him, through the influence, it would appear, of intimate friends of his who were Pythagoreans. Like the Pythagoreans, he engaged actively in public affairs; and is said to have drafted for his native city, Elea, a code of laws to which the citizens, annually, for a considerable period of years, swore fidelity. He was, in all probability, a pupil of Xenophanes; it is certain that he adopted the latter's views and developed them, in writing and in public lectures and discussions. He wrote a philosophical poem, entitled On Nature, and having three parts: the first, which is merely introductory to the second and third, being an allegory representing the poet as being transported to the realm of the "goddess who knoweth all things"; the second, a logical exposition of the conception of Being, entitled On Truth; the third, a mythological representation of the generation of the world of sense, entitled On Opinion (1).

Philosophy of Parmenides

Parmenides begins the exposition of his theory by opposing to Opinion, as the mental correlate of Phenomena, Conviction, as the mental correlate of Being, —Conviction, upon whose "footsteps Truth closely follows". The One, which he denominates Being, is known by thought or reason. Thinking and Being are thus one (the One) and in such a way that it matters not with which you begin in thought, —you must always arrive at the same result, since all things are one. But Being is only of what is: there is no not-Being. Not-Being cannot even be conceived, for the very conception of it converts it into Being. The idea of not-Bieng (nothing) is a spurious conception, a mere fancy. Being, and Being only, is: it is

Whole and only begotten, and moveless and ever-enduring:
Never it was or shall be; but the All simultaneously now is
One continuous one (2).

It cannot have been generated, for, if so, it must have sprung from not-Being; but there could have been in not-Being (pure nothing) no power or necessity to cause its production. Being must be wholly or wholly must not be (3). Nor does anything absolutely other than itself spring from Being; for that so-called other must itself be, and so be identical with Being.

"Nor is there ought of distinct; for the all is self-similar alway;
Wherefore the all is unbroken, and Being approacheth to Being."

Such being the case, we return to our starting-point —

One and the same are thought, and that whereby there is thinking.
Never apart from existence wherein it receiveth expression
Shalt thou discover the action of thinking, for naught is or shall be
Other besides or beyond the existent".

Being is, therefore, self-determined. It is, moreover, not infinite, or indefinite, as Anaximander and Xenophanes had held: an inner necessity renders it self-contained and definitely thinkable. It is the knowing and the known One; self-caused and self-thought. It may be compared to a sphere, —it is perfect in its homogeneity and continuity and in the regularity and definiteness of its limit. Of the phenomenal universe, our knowledge of which is mere "opinion," the account given by Parmenides is that it was created by the "goddess that governeth all things," by the mixture of two entirely contrary elements, one of which is like light and fire, and the other is dark, dense, and cold. The first-created of the gods was Love. The mind of the individual man is such an organic entity as the body, with its members, is; and the character of the human individual's thought depends upon which of the two elements predominates in his bodily constitution —mind that is to say, is a function of body.


Comparing the philosophy of Parmenides with that of Xenophanes, we observe, first, that the thought theologically and poetically enunciated by the latter was, by the former, abstractly and logically propounded and developed. Instead of the term God, employed by Xenophanes, Parmenides employs the term Being; he does not dogmatically assert but reasons; he affirms the existence of, and employs, a method of knowledge. We observe, secondly, that although Parmenides acknowledges no absolute not-Being, he draws sharply a distinction not so drawn by Xenophanes, between reality and phenomena, Being and relative not-Being; between what is given by "reason," the organ of truth and conviction, and what is given in "opinion". By virtue of the fact that he was the first among the Greek thinkers to state and logically deduce the notion of absolute being, be is the first purely philosophical thinker among the Greeks; by virtue of the tact that he was the first to point out and demonstrate the unity of Thought and Being, he is the father of idealism. His statement of idealism is, however, we must note, incomplete, because Thought, though recognized by him as an essential moment of Being, is not distinctly recognized as the (for us, and, in fact, absolute) prius of Being.

Life of Zeno

In some respects the most remarkable of the Eleatics is Zeno. His birth may be placed at about the year 500 B.C. Plato represents him (4) as a fine-appearing man of forty when Socrates saw him with Parmenides, who was about twenty-five years his senior. He was a favorite pupil and, perhaps, the adopted son of Parmenides. Though a devotee of speculative science, he held not aloof from public affairs; was, indeed, a most enthusiastic patriot and a bitter hater of tyranny. There is a story that, when tried for conspiring with others against the tyrant of his native city, Elea, he showed his hatred and disdain of the tyrant by biting off his tongue and spitting it in his face. The brilliancy of his intellect, the genuineness of his moral fibre plainly, even now, mark him as one of the select spirits of Grecian antiquity. (5)

Philosophy of Zeno

Zeno's main thesis is, in substance, Not-Being is not; hence only Being is. Now as Being is one and unchanging, not-Being must be conceived as the many and changing. But the notion of the many is self-contradictory, and, therefore, false. The One, only, is, the Many are not, i.e., multiplicity and change are unreal, phenomenal. Against the notions multiplicity and change he advanced eight arguments, —four against the former, four against the latter (6). The substance of one of the arguments against multiplicity is as follows: If Being were absolute multiplicity, then it must be both infinitely great and infinitely small; for, first, it must have an infinite number of parts, and, secondly, each part must be infinitely small, i.e., without magnitude. Another of the arguments is, in substance, that, if a bushel of grain when shaken out produces a sound when it strikes the floor, each grain and part of a grain must produce a sound, which is not the fact. Against change (of place) one argument is the following: "Motion cannot begin because a body in motion cannot arrive at a new place without passing through an infinite number of intermediate places" —which is impossible. Another argument against motion is, "The flying arrow is at rest; for it is at every moment only in one place". It is always in one place, Zeno argues, because time is perfectly continuous —is not to be conceived as a series of distinct "nows"; but if we suppose movement through distinct spaces or places, we must suppose distinct times. There is, therefore, no motion; the flying arrow is at rest.


If mere multiplicity is the first principle of the universe, then there is nothing but an infinity of, so to say, particles or points of nothingness; for the principle of multiplicity, taken as absolute, is not satisfied if there be anything that is one and indivisible. But of such points of nothingness, infinite in number though they be, nothing can be constituted; continuity and identity, which are objects of reason, cannot spring from infinite discontinuity and multiplicity.  Multiplicity is, therefore, purely phenomenal: not-Being is not. As such, i.e., as a "fact," it is not denied by Zeno. Nor are the arguments against motion tantamount to the denial of motion as a fact presented to us by sense: it would have been no "answer" to Zeno to point to a moving object, for he simply denied motion as absolute. If motion were absolute, then (absolute) change in Being would be possible, which is absurd, because, as Parmenides declared, Being is

    "Whole and only-begotten, and moveless and ever enduring."

Translated into the language of modern theology or of modern science Zeno's argument would mean "God, only, is; He is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever," or "The laws of nature are unalterable". To treat the arguments of Zeno merely as word-puzzles or even as "fallacies," "material" or "formal," is to miss their point. The peculiar method employed by Zeno in the above-cited arguments —that of maintaining a position by the demonstration of the inherent absurdity of its opposite — was termed the dialectic method; and because of his peculiar mastery in it, he was called the inventor of dialectics, though the same method had been employed by Xenophanes (to some extent) and Parmenides. Zeno gave no account of this method (7). Zeno's position, compared with that of Parmenides, is indicated with sufficient accuracy by the statement that he holds the reverse side of the position of which Parmenides holds the obverse, the two being in substance the same, and that he had a fuller consciousness than Parmenides of the significance of method in and for itself. Zeno did not, so far as is now known, put forth a theory, mythological or other, of the visible universe.


Of Melissus, who flourished a little later than Zeno and wrote a treatise in prose entitled On Nature, it is sufficient to say that his position was that of Parmenides, qualified by the affirmation that Being is unlimited in space. This seems to be a relapse towards the quasi-materialism of the Hylicists; but Melissus, while holding this, affiimed the entire oneness of Being. Diogenes Laertius states that Melissus was "greatly occupied in political affairs," was "held in great esteem among his fellow-citizens," and, in consequence, elected admiral by them, and "was admired still more on account of his private virtues".

General Result

The Eleatic philosophy is twofold in character: it is a theory (though an elementary one) of knowledge as well as of Being. (It is the earliest theory of knowledge.) It is primarily, however, a theory of Being, Thought being treated as, primarily, dependent upon Being, not Being upon Thought, though the two are inseparable. It is, therefore, to be classed among the nature-philosophies, though the term nature is given in this philosophy what is, practically, a new interpretation, the Eleatic notion of nature verging on that of mind. The Eleatic doctrine of Being is, as has been said, that it is one; of knowledge, that it is a product or function of reason, Thought and Being being organically one. The Eleatic theory is, therefore, ostensibly monistic. Practically, however, it is not quite so. No intelligible account is given by it of phenomena, the relatively non-existent; a fact which, we may here properly surmise, we shall find to have been discovered and pointed out by contemporaneous or succeeding thinkers. And there is, of course, the same dualism in their theory of knowledge as in their account of Being, for they held reason to be trustworthy and sense to be illusory (8); a view which, also, must have had its consequences among contemporaneous or later thinkers.


(1) See the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. IV. No. I. (1870); also W. L. Courtney's Studies in Philosophy.

(2) Jour. Spec. Phil., Vol. IV., etc.; Courtney's Studies, etc.

(3) This seems to be the first enunciation in the history of Greek Philosophy of the so-called Law of Excluded Middle.

(4) Parmenides, p. 127.

(5) See the life of him by Diogenes Laertius (trans, in Bonn's Class. Lib.).

(6) See Mullach's Fragtmenta Philosophorum Graecorum, Vol. I. pp. 269 and 270; Zelle's Outlines of the Hist. of Greek Philos. (trans.), pp. 63 and 64; Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Vol. I. pp. 608-627.

(7) This mode of arguing should be carefully discriminated from that of overthrowing a position merely by adducing some fact that does not lie immediately in the given position but which tells against it nevertheless.

(8) It is important here to discriminate between a scepticism that denies, or gives up the belief in, the possibility of a knowledge of the real, and a scepticism that consists merely in distrusting the "reports of the senses".



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