Jacques Maritain Center : History of Philosophy / by William Turner


The members of this school were concerned not so much with the origin of things as with the principles of the world of things as it now is. Their inquiries centered round the problem of change, and in their solution of this problem they introduced the notions of Being and Becoming, thus carrying speculation into regions strictly metaphysical. The chief representatives of the school are Xenophanes the theologian, Parmenides the metaphysician, Zeno the dialectician, and Melissus, who shows a tendency to return to the views of the Earlier Ionian students of nature.

Sources. The work entitled Concerning the Opinions, or Concerning Xenphanes, Zeno, and Gorgias, which contains an account of the doctrines of Xenophanes, Zeno, and others, and which was at one time included among Aristotle's works, is now known to have been written neither by Aristotle nor by Theophrastus, but by a later writer of the Aristotelian school.{1} Our knowledge of the Eleatic philosophy is derived from some fragments of the writings of the Eleatics themselves, from Aristotle's account of them in his Metaphysics, and from the works of Simplicius, who had access to a more complete Eleatic literature than we now possess.


Life. Xenophanes was born at Colophon, in Asia Minor, about the year 570 B.C. According to Theophrastus, he was a disciple of Anaximander. After wandering through Greece as a rhapsodist, he settled at Elea in southern Italy; from this city is derived the name of the school which he founded. The date of his death is unknown.

Sources. It is important to distinguish here (1) the fragments of Xenophanes' didactic poem, and (2) the accounts given by our secondary authorities. In the former we find merely a set of theological opinions; in the latter Xenophanes is represented as holding certain views on general metaphysical problems.


In his Didactic Poem Xenophanes opposes to the polytheistic belief of the time the doctrine of the unity, eternity, unchangeableness, sublimity, and spirituality of God. With the enthusiasm and fine frenzy of a prophet, he inveighs against the notions commonly held concerning the gods. "Each man," he says, "represents the gods as he himself is: the negro as black and flat-nosed, the Thracian as red-haired and blue-eyed; and if horses and oxen could paint, they, no doubt, would depict the gods as horses and oxen" (frag. 6). So, also, he continues, men ascribe to the gods mental characteristics which are human; they do not understand that God is "all eye, all ear, all intellect."

According to our Authorities, -- and we have no right to challenge their unanimous verdict in this matter, -- all that is said in the sacred poem of Xenophanes is to be referred to the unity and eternity of the totality of being. Plato{2} and Aristotle{3} describe Xenophanes as teaching the unity of all things. If this pantheism appears to us to be irreconcilable with the monotheism of the poem, we must not conclude that the contradiction was apparent to Xenophanes, who, though he could rise above the popular concept of the gods, could not wholly free himself from the notion, so deeply rooted in the Greek mind, that nature is imbued with the divine.

1. In his metaphysical inquiry Xenophanes seems, according to the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise above mentioned, to have started with the principle that "Nothing comes from nothing," whence he concluded that there is no Becoming. Now, plurality depends on Becoming; if, then, there is no Becoming, there is no plurality: "All is one, and one is all." The authority, however, of this portion of the treatise is doubtful, though it may with safety be said that if Xenophanes did not develop this line of reasoning as Parmenides his disciple afterwards did, the premises of these conclusions are implicitly contained in the theological poem. For the same reason, it is uncertain whether Xenophanes maintained the infinity or the finite nature of the Deity, or whether he endowed the Deity with a certain spherical shape.

2. In physics, Xenophanes, in common with others of his school, forgets the unity of being which, as a metaphysician, he had established, and proceeds to an investigation of the plurality which he had denied. He advocates empirical knowledge, though he holds it to be unworthy of entire confidence, teaching (frag. 16) that truth is to be discovered by degrees. According to some of our authorities he held that the primitive substance was earth; according to others he held that it was water and earth. A few attribute to him the doctrine of four primitive elements. There is better foundation for the opinion that he supposed the earth to have passed from a fluid to its present solid condition,{4} basing his belief, according to Hippolytus, on the fact that petrified marine animals are found on land and even on mountains. Thus, although the one total is eternal, the world in its present form is not eternal.

Historical Position. Xenophanes' system is, so far, the boldest attempt to synthesize the phenomena of the universe. In fact, it is one instance among many in which the desire to find the one in the manifold -- a desire which is the inspiration of all philosophical speculation -- is carried to the excess of monism. For, if we are to accept any theory that will reconcile Xenophanes' metaphysics with his theology, we must hold that he identified nature, the one, immutable, eternal, with God, who likewise possesses these attributes.


Life. Parmenides, who was, perhaps, the greatest of all the pre-Socratic philosophers, was born at Elea about 540 B.C. According to Aristotle, he was a disciple of Xenophanes, whose doctrines he took up and carried to their idealistic consequences. He had a more definite grasp of principles than Xenophanes had, and developed them with greater thoroughness than his master had done.

Sources. The didactic poem peri phuseôs, composed by Parmenides and preserved by Sextus, Proclus, and others, consists of three parts. The first is a sublimely conceived introduction, in which the goddess of truth points out to the philosopher two paths of knowledge, the one leading to a knowledge of truth, the other to a knowledge of the opinions of men. The second part of the poem describes the journey to truth, and contains the metaphysical doctrines of the author. The third part, dealing with the opinions of men, contains a hypothetical physics, a cosmology of the apparent.


Metaphysical Doctrines. Truth consists in the knowledge that Being is, and that not-Being can neither exist nor be conceived to exist. The greatest error lies in treating Being and not-Being as the same.{5} From this fundamental error arise the opinions of men. Truth lies in thought, for "nothing can be but what can be thought." The senses lead to error. Being, therefore, is, and since not-Being is not, Being is one. It is consequently unchangeable and unproduced, despite the testimony of the senses to the contrary. For how could Being be produced? Either from not-Being, which does not exist, or from Being, in which case it was before it began to be. Therefore it is unproduced, unchangeable, undivided, whole, homogeneous, equally balanced on all sides, like a perfect sphere.{6}

From the comparison of Being to a sphere it appears that Being is not incorporeal.{7} Ideas do not appear in philosophy ex abrupto. They are gradually developed in the course of speculation. Thus, Parmenides' idea of reality is not that of the Ionians, who spoke of a crude material substratum of existence. Neither is it the highly abstract notion of Being which we find in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. It is a something intermediate between these extremes, and is by some likened to our notion of space.

Physical Doctrines. Though right reason (logos) maintains that Being is one and immutable, the senses and common opinion (doxa) are convinced of the plurality and change which apparently exist around us. Placing himself, therefore, at this point of view, Parmenides proceeds{8} to give us

1. A cosmology of the apparent. Here he is evidently influenced by the Pythagorean doctrine of opposites. He maintains that all things are composed of light, or warmth, and darkness, or cold; of these, the former, according to Aristotle,{9} corresponds to Being, the latter to not-Being. They are united by a Deity (daimôn, he panta kuberna). They are symbolically described as male and female, and their union is said to be effected by Eros, the first creation of the Deity.{10}

2. An anthropology of the apparent. The life of the soul, perception and reflection, depend on the blending of the lightwarm and the dark-cold principles, each principle standing, as we should say, in psychical relation to a corresponding principle in the physical world.

In his cosmology, as well as in his anthropology, Parmenides did not abandon the metaphysical doctrine that Being is one and that change is an illusion. The views just described are those which Parmenides would have held had he believed in plurality and change.

Historical Position. Parmenides is the first Greek philosopher to place reason in opposition to opinion. Though he makes no attempt at determining the conditions of knowledge, he prepares the way for subsequent thinkers and formulates the problem which Socrates was to solve by his doctrine of concepts.

The doctrine of the unity of Being could not be further developed. It was left for Zeno, the disciple of Parmenides, to give a more thorough dialectical demonstration of the monistic idea.


Life. Zeno of Elea, born about 490 B.C., was, according to Plato,{11} the favorite pupil of Parmenides. He defended the doctrines of his master, and showed, by the use of dialectics, the absurdity of common opinion.

Sources. Plato speaks of a work (apparently the only work) of Zeno, which was a polemic against the common view that plurality and change are realities. It consisted of several discourses (logoi), in each of which were hupotheseis or suppositions, made with the intention of reducing them ad absurdum. The method is, therefore, indirect, and it is because of the skill with which Zeno applied this method that Aristotle, if we are to believe Diogenes and Sextus, regarded him as the founder of dialectic.

The work, with the exception of a few extracts preserved by Simplicius, is lost. We are obliged, consequently, to rely almost entirely on secondary sources. Chief among these is the Physics of Aristotle, in which we find Zeno's arguments against the reality of motion.{12}


The Arguments against Motion are as follows. First argument : A body, in order to move from one point to another, must move tbrough an infinite number of spaces; for magnitude is divisible ad infinitum. But the infinite cannot be traversed; therefore motion is impossible. Second argument: The problem of Achilles and the tortoise. Third argument: A body which is in one place is certainly at rest. Now, the arrow in its flight is at each successive moment in one place; therefore it is at rest. Fourth argument: This is based on the fact that two bodies of equal size move past each other twice as fast (if they move with equal velocities in opposite directions) as one would move past the other if this latter were stationary. Motion, therefore, is an illusion, because one of its fundamental laws -- that bodies with equal velocities traverse a certain space in equal times -- is not true.

Aristotle{13} meets these arguments by defining the true nature of time, and by pointing out the difference between actual and potential infinity.

Similarly, Zeno, according to our secondary sources, argued against Plurality and Space. (1) Zeno argued directly against the testimony of the senses: If a measure of corn produces a sound, each grain ought to produce a sound.{14} (2) Against space: if Being exists in space, space itself must exist in space, and so ad infinitum. This argument is contained in one of the extracts preserved by Simplicius. (3) If the manifold exists, it must be at once infinitely great and infinitesimally small, because it has an infinitude of parts which are indivisible. Therefore the existence of the manifold involves a contradiction.{15}

Historical Position. Zeno's contribution to the philosophy of the Eleatic school consists in what must have been considered an irrefutable indirect proof of the twofold principle on which the school was founded, namely, that Being is one and that change is an illusion.


Life. Melissus was, according to Diogenes Laertius, a native of Samos. We have no reason for doubting that he was, as Plutarch says, the commander of the Samian fleet which defeated the Athenians off the coast of Samos in the year 442 B.C.{16} He was, therefore, a younger contemporary of Zeno, and it is possible that, like Zeno, he was a pupil of Parmenides. He wrote a work, peri tou ontos or peri phuseôs.

Sources. Of the work just mentioned, Simplicius has preserved some fragments. These fragments agree with the accounts given of the doctrines of Melissus in the first part of the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise Concerning Xenophanes, etc.


Method. Melissus undertook, as Zeno had done, to defend the doctrines of Parmenides. But while Zeno's method of argumentation was indirect, Melissus employed the direct method. He took up the principles of the Ionians and tried to show points of union between the Ionian and Eleatic schools.

Metaphysical Doctrine. All that we know of Melissus' doctrine concerning Being may be summed up in the four propositions: (1) Being is eternal; (2) Being is infinite; (3) Being is one; (4) Being is unchangeable. His metaphysical doctrine is, therefore, identical with that of Parmenides, save in one respect. Parmenides did not pronounce Being infinite, while according to Melissus infinity is one of the attributes of Being. But, as appears from frag. 5, Melissus must not be understood to maintain the true infinity of Being. Evidently he had in mind infinite magnitude. Again, when he says{17} sôma mê echei, we must not imagine that Melissus had attained a precise notion of the incorporeal. His metaphysics was a blending of the Ionian with the Eleatic doctrines, and we may suppose that there were many points of contradiction.

The Physical Doctrines attributed to Melissus by Stobaeus and Philoponus cannot safely be said to have been held by him.

Historical Position. Melissus does not represent a development of Eleatic philosophy. His task was one of synthesis, or reconciliation, and in accomplishing this task he did not wholly escape the danger to which such an undertaking is always exposed: he admitted into Eleatic doctrines notions and definitions which were antagonistic to Eleatic principles.

Retrospect. With Melissus the Eleatic school ends. What was left of Eleaticism drifted into Sophism, for which Zeno had prepared the way by his abuse of dialectical reasoning. But, though the school disappeared, its influence continued, and may be traced through Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, and the Atomists down to Plato and Aristotle. The Eleatics were the first to formulate the problems of Being and Becoming -- problems which are always the center of metaphysical speculation. These were the problems that Plato and Aristotle were to solve by the theory of Ideas and the doctrine of matter and form.

Pre-Socratic philosophy is throughout objective in spirit and aim; it is a philosophy of nature. To this, Eleatic philosophy forms no exception. It is true that the Eleatics give to physics merely a hynothetical value, and that they decry sense-received knowledge, contrasting it with reason. Yet on closer examination it will be seen that all their inquiry is concerned with the origin and explanation of nature, and that the Being which they maintain to be the only reality is a something extended in space, or, as Aristotle{18} describes it, the substrate of sensible things. Zeno, indeed, introduced dialectic into philosophy, but he treated it merely as an instrument of proof, unaccompanied by any inquiry into the nature and conditions of knowledge. The founder of the philosophy of the concept is Socrates, and Aristotle{19} is right when he looks for the germ of Socratic philosophy, not in the Eleatic doctrine, but in the teachings of Democritus and the Pythagoreans.

{1} Cf. Ritter and Preller, op. cit., p. 81.

{2} Sophis., 242 D.

{3} Met., I, 5, 986b, 21.

{4} Cf. frags. 9 and 10.

{5} Poem, lines 43 ff.

{6} Lines 97 ff.

{7} Cf. Burnet, of. cit., p. 594.

{8} Lines 110 ff.

{9} Met., I, 5, 986 b, 31. {10} Line 130.

{11} Parm., 127 B.

{12} Phys., VI, 9, 239b, 9ff.

{13} Loc. cit., 241 a.

{14} Simpl., Phys., 255 r; Arist., Phys., VII, 5, 250 a, 20.

{15} Cf. Fairbanks, op. cit., p. 113.

{16} Percl., Chap. 26.

{17} Frag. 16.

{18} Cf. Met., IV, 5, 1010 a, and De Coelo, III, 298 b, 21.

{19} Met., XIII, 4, 1078.

<< History of Philosophy >>