Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides

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Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Parmenides

Xenophanes of Colophon.

Xenophanes was one of the first philosophers to promote monotheism in Greece, and was the founder of Eleatic philosophy—the belief that above everything in the world there is an unchanging, everlasting "One." He did not define this "One" in his own writings, but many of his later followers, such as Plato and Aristotle, would attempt to steer this concept towards a belief in one God, contrary to the Greek belief of many different gods. Xenophanes was a native of Colophon, a city on the western fringe of Asia Minor, which he left when it was conquered by Persia about 546 b.c.e. He would spend the rest of his life traveling the Greek world. He had a close connection with Elea, modern Velia in southwest Italy, which was founded by Ionian Greeks fleeing the Persian conquest. Xenophanes was an accomplished writer whose influence was immense in the intellectual world of the western Greeks, among the Greek cities in Sicily and southern Italy. He criticized Homer and Hesiod for their portrayal of the gods. They were wrong, Xenophanes asserted, to show the gods in human form with human faults, though it was natural to do so; oxen and lions, if they had hands, would draw their gods as oxen and lions. Xenophanes taught instead that there was a single supreme divine being who, without moving, controlled the universe through his intellect. Xenophanes had a gift for observation that not all Greek intellectuals shared. He found seashells and fossilized sea-creatures in rocks and inferred that there was once a time when the sea covered the land, and hence the earth must have been subject to periods of flooding and drying out. He may even have written a treatise on the subject.

The Eternal Fire of Heraclitus.

Heraclitus of Ephesus was inspired by Xenophanes' idea of an everlasting unchanging "One," but like many philosophers of his time did not think this "One" was a being or a person, but was instead a basic material that was transformed in some way into other kinds of material. Thales of Miletus had pinpointed water as that basic material and Anaximenes had thought it was air; Heraclitus chose fire. Fire, he claimed, was an infinite mass which was eternal—no divine power created it—and it was kindled and extinguished according to fixed measures. The kindling and quenching of fire maintained the world order. Heraclitus came to this conclusion after observing how flames, flickering in constant motion, transformed wood into ashes and smoke, and yet the fire maintained its own identity as fire. Once it was quenched, it could be rekindled. Like fire, Heraclitus' universe was subject to constant change. Everything was in constant motion. One famous saying of Heraclitus was that a person cannot step twice into the same river, for new water is constantly being carried past him by the flow of the stream, and hence the river is never entirely the same from one minute to the next. Yet, like fire, the river itself continues to exist.


introduction: Heraclitus of Ephesus, famous as the site of the great Temple of Artemis which was considered one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," was famous for his disdain of the masses and his cryptic utterances about the nature of the universe. He was a descendant of Androcles, the founder of Ephesus and as such inherited the title basileus (king), which denoted a civic priesthood rather than a political office, but he rejected it. Diogenes Laertius, writing in the third century c.e., preserves stories about him which illustrate his contempt for his fellow Ephesians as well as the thinkers and the poets—including Homer—who were his predecessors or his contemporaries.

Heraclitus was possessed of a haughty and arrogant character, as is clear from his writings, where he says, "Great learning does not make for intelligence; if it did, it would have instructed Hesiod, and Pythagoras, and likewise Xenophanes and Hecataeus. For the only piece of real wisdom is to know the logos (the intelligence that sustains human laws) which will by itself govern everything on every occasion. He used to say, too, that Homer ought to be expelled from the contest (for wisdom) and Archilochus as well. He also used to say, "It is more necessary to extinguish arrogance than to put out fire." Another of his sayings was, "People should defend their law as much as their city walls." He also upbraided the Ephesians for having banished his companion, Hermodorus, saying, "The Ephesians deserve to have all their young men put to death and those who are adolescents exiled from the city, for they have banished Hermodorus, the best man among them, saying, 'Let no one of us be outstanding, and if there be such a person, let him go to another city and another person.'"

When he was requested to make laws for the Ephesians, he refused, because the city was already immersed in a thoroughly bad constitution. He withdrew to the temple of Artemis with his children and began to play dice, and when the Ephesians all flocked around him, he said, "You wretches! What are you gaping at? Isn't better to do this than to meddle in public affairs in your company?"

Finally he became a complete misanthrope, and spent his time roaming the mountainsides, living off plants and grasses, and as a result, he developed dropsy (a build-up of fluid in the cells of the body). So he returned to the city and asked the doctors a riddle: could they produce a dry season after wet weather? But they did not understand him, and so he shut himself up in a cow stable, and covered himself with manure, hoping to make the excess of fluid evaporate from him by the warmth this produced. But this treatment did him no good, and he died, having lived for seventy years.

source: Diogenes Laertius, "Heraclitus of Ephesus," in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Trans. C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853): 376–377.

The Unity of Opposites.

Heraclitus' teachings were notoriously obscure, but he was identified in the ancient world with a number of doctrines. One doctrine maintained that the world was in a state of continual flux; his saying, "Everything flows," made the universe akin to a moving stream. He also believed in the unity of opposites: things that seem to be opposites are actually aspects of the same thing. This unity is demonstrated in the seeming opposites of "heat" and "cold" which are interdependent: "cold" is the absence of "heat." Once the continual flux that never ceases in the world removes "heat," we have "cold." "What is cool becomes warm and what is warm becomes cool," Heraclitus wrote. So the young and the old are aspects of the same, and so are the living and the dead, for the one becomes the other. One of Heraclitus' axioms reads, "The road up and the road down are the same"—meaning there is a single road with two-way traffic. It is the tension between opposites that allows living things to exist, just as the string of a lyre will sound the correct note when it is placed under the right degree of tension by drawing it in opposite directions. This interaction of opposites, which Heraclitus identified as strife, is a creative force, and this belief probably explains one strange assertion of his: "War is the father of all and king of all." Everything is created and passes away through strife between opposing forces. The world is a mass of conflicting tensions but, at the same time, these contrary forces are bound together by a strict unity. The strife between them results in a sort of balance which Heraclitus identified as justice, and justice maintains order—hence Heraclitus asserted that the sun would keep its allotted course in the heavens, for otherwise the Furies, the agents of Justice, would punish it. The unity of opposites is the central feature of the logos that Heraclitus proclaimed.

The Logos.

Many of Heraclitus's views on the logos are attributed to his study of Xenophanes. Logos is a word with many meanings. It means "word"—not "word" in the strictly grammatical sense, but rather "word" as a vehicle expressing thought, and so it comes to mean the thought itself. It is the wisdom of the mind expressed in speech. For Heraclitus, the word logos seems to have expressed the Intelligence that directs the manifold changes in the world. It was both willing and unwilling to be called Zeus, according to one of Heraclitus' cryptic utterances. The logos that Heraclitus proclaimed would continue to haunt philosophy and theology as well. In the early Christian era, some thinkers considered Heraclitus a Christian before his time because of his emphasis on logos, a Christian synonym for Jesus Christ derived from the opening verse of the Gospel of St. John: "In the Beginning was the Logos (the Word) and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God." In the Roman period, the Stoic philosophers embraced Heraclitus because his doctrine of eternal fire that was alternatively kindled and quenched seemed to fit their belief that the world passed through cycles, each of which ended in fiery destruction. Yet Heraclitus was neither a proto-Stoic nor a proto-Christian, though his eccentric lifestyle and his oracular utterances mark him out as almost as much a religious teacher as a natural scientist.

Parmenides of Elea.

While Xenophanes and Heraclitus furthered the idea of the everlasting element that underrides all things, it was Parmenides, born in Elea about 515 b.c.e., who brought the line of speculation that began with Thales and Anaximander to its logical conclusion. All the Ionian philosophers who speculated about nature took for granted that there was a primary substance such as water, air, or fire that could take different forms. They left no place for nothingness. The Greeks had no symbol for "zero." "Nothing" was something that could not be defined or expressed; the opposite of "that which exists" is "that which does not exist." Parmenides pointed out the consequences of this line of thought. In the first place, "that which exists" cannot have been created for if it were, it would have to be created out of either something or nothing. Nothing does not exist and so "that which exists" cannot not have been created out of it. Nor can it have been created out of something, for the only "something" is "that which exists." Nor can anything else besides "what exists" be created, for there is no empty space where such creation could take place. Parmenides refuted all accounts of creation with a simple principle that could not be contradicted: "Out of nothing there is nothing created."

The Universe of Parmenides.

Thus for Parmenides "that which exists" is matter that is continuous and indivisible, and therefore the universe must be a continuous, indivisible plenum, that is, a space filled with matter. The plenum cannot move, for if it did, it would have to move into empty space—a vacuum, the opposite of a plenum—and empty space is "nothingness," which does not exist. The plenum must be finite, with definite boundaries, and spherical, for matter cannot have direction, and that can be true only in a sphere. Within the plenum there can be no movement, for if an object moves, then there must be some empty space into which it can move, and there is no empty space. So the evidence of our eyes that tells us that things in the world that we see do move must be an illusion. The messages that our senses send to our brain about the nature of the world must be wrong. The alternative would be to believe that the underlying assumption of all the philosophers from Thales to Heraclitus—that the world of the senses was made from some basic matter such as water, air, or even the "boundless" of Anaximander—had to be wrong.

Zeno's Riddles.

Zeno, born around 495 b.c.e. was a favorite of Parmenides, and he made it his business to drive home the logical conclusion of the Eleatic school of philosophy that motion was a mere illusion. The paradoxes by which he drove home the logic of the Eleatics were famous. One was the paradox of the arrow that is shot from a bow. The arrow must either be moving in the place where it is or where it is not, and it cannot be moving in the place where it is, or it would not be there. Nor can it be moving in a place where it is not, for it is not there. Therefore the moving arrow is stationary. To put it another way, the apparent motion of the arrow is like a moving picture, which is actually a succession of still pictures that are fed rapidly through a projector and produce the illusion of motion. In fact, at every point in its trajectory, the arrow is actually at rest and what is at rest at every point is not moving. Zeno used this deduction as proof that Parmenides was right: there is no motion. The Greek philosophers had no solution to this paradox, and the modern world had to wait until Sir Isaac Newton discovered differential calculus before Zeno's error could be discovered. Another famous paradox proposed by Zeno was that of Achilles, a legendary Greek hero, and the Tortoise. Achilles and a tortoise run a race, and the tortoise has a head start. Achilles cannot overtake the tortoise, for when he reaches the point where the tortoise started, it has already moved on to further point, and when Achilles reaches that point, the tortoise has already moved further on, and so on through an infinite series which has no end. There is no final term to this infinite series and so Achilles can never pass through the final term. Yet here, Zeno's logic ultimately proved itself faulty, for it is a fair question to ask why, if there is no final term, does Achilles need to pass through it? It cannot be necessary for Achilles to pass through a non-existent final term to overtake the tortoise. Yet the relentless logic of the Eleatic philosophers was hard to counter.

Melissus of Samos.

One of the major flaws in the universe of Parmenides was the idea of a plenum with a finite boundary. If there was nothing whatsoever beyond the boundary, what happened if a person went to the outer edge of the universe, kicked a hole through its skin, and thrust his foot into nothingness, which does not exist? Melissus of Samos, who lived in the mid-fifth century b.c.e. and was the last member of the Eleatic School, attempted an answer. He defended the basic doctrine of the Eleatics, but proposed a plenum without a finite boundary, so that the universe was infinite. So no one could kick a hole through the boundary of the universe, for there was no boundary. Yet there was still no place for movement. Melissus had to deny that the senses could yield us true knowledge, for the intelligence that our eyes report to our brains indicates that there are bodies in motion in the world about us. The Eleatics denied real existence to the "phenomena"—that is, to the objects that appear to us as actual—and any thinker who wanted to save the phenomena had to devise an argument that countered their uncompromising logic.


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Harold F. Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (New York: Octagon Books, 1964).

Patricia Curd, The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

Kathleen Freeman, Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1949).

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Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., Philosophy Before Socrates; An Introduction with Texts and Commentary (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1994).

—, "Zeno," in The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. Ed. A. A. Long (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 134–158.

T. M. Robinson, Heraclitus: Fragments (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1987).

Gregory Vlastos, "Zeno of Elea," in Studies in Greek Philosophy. Ed. Daniel W. Graham (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996): 241–263.

Philip Wheelwright, Heraclitus (New York: Atheneum, 1964).