Melissus of Samos (Fifth Century BCE)
MELISSUS OF SAMOS
(fifth century BCE)
Melissus of Samos, the Greek Eleatic philosopher, led the Samian fleet against the Athenians and defeated them (Plutarch, Pericles 26, quoting a lost work of Aristotle). The date of the battle was 441–440 BCE, and this is the only reliable date in the biography of Melissus. He was said to have been a pupil of Parmenides, but this may be an inference from his work, which gives ample evidence of dependence on Parmenides.
Portions of Melissus's book titled On Nature or What Exists, written in prose, were quoted and preserved by the Aristotelian commentator Simplicius. The total length of these fragments is a little under one thousand words—enough to provide evidence of the content and quality of Melissus's argument. No other fragments survive. The pseudo-Aristotelian treatise On Melissus, Xenophanes and Gorgias (c. first century CE) adds nothing useful.
Melissus's argument, as revealed by the fragments, was similar to Parmenides' in method and results, although it differed in some details. The starting point is the contradictoriness of descriptions of change. Any change ultimately implies the generation of something from nothing or its destruction into nothing, and Melissus, with Parmenides, held both of these to be impossible on the ground that "nothing" is absolutely nonexistent and unthinkable. Hence, what exists must have existed always and must continue to exist (Melissus seems to view eternity as a continual existence through time, whereas Parmenides thought of a timeless present).
From the eternity of what exists, Melissus deduced its spatial infinity. He argued that if what exists did not come into existence, it had no beginning or end, and being without beginning or end, it must be limitless or infinite. He seemed not to have noticed the ambiguity of "beginning" and "end" (or else his defense of the move from time to space has been lost); this is presumably the basis of Aristotle's criticism of the argument (De Sophisticis Elenchis 167b13 and 168b35), although he does not make it quite explicit.
From the spatial infinity of what exists, Melissus deduced its unity. If there are two things in existence, each must limit the extent of the other; there cannot be more than one limitless thing in existence. Thus, Melissus chose a different route to the monism of Parmenides—indeed, according to most interpreters of Parmenides, this route was closed to him since, unlike Melissus, he held that what exists is spatially limited. But this is a dubious interpretation of Parmenides.
Next, Melissus argued that if what exists is one, it cannot have parts and must therefore be incorporeal because any solid body has actual or imaginable parts. Moreover, what exists cannot vary in density since this, according to Melissus, could come about only if one area contained less of being—and hence more of nonbeing—than another, and nonbeing is absolutely nonexistent. For similar reasons there is no motion, since there is no "give" anywhere in the plenum (this is an argument against motion that may not have been used by Parmenides). Every form of change—whether of size, order, or quality—means the coming into existence of something that previously was nothing, or the annihilation of something that exists, and these are ruled out by the first stage of Melissus's argument.
In the eighth fragment Melissus applies his own criteria of existence to the plural beings of the sensible world. If these things, such as air and fire, exist, then they must be just what our senses tell us they are and nothing else. But our senses tell us that they do change into something else. Our senses must therefore be wrong about this; hence, we can conclude that they were wrong initially in telling us that things are many and not one. The sensible world is therefore illusion.
Melissus was the least important of the Eleatics. Zeno's arguments proved more influential than his, and Parmenides was the original genius who pioneered the way. If Melissus has any claim to special historical importance that is not shared by the other Eleatics, it is perhaps that by applying Eleatic criteria to the plural beings posited by his opponents, he produced a formula (in Fr. 8) that led Leucippus directly to the concept of atoms. In the absence of complete texts it is wiser to refrain from pronouncing on Melissus's originality. Aristotle criticized both Parmenides and Melissus for bad arguments (Physics 186a6) and was more severe on Melissus, but perhaps that was because Melissus's clear style made him an easier target.
See also Aristotle; Change; Eternity; Infinity in Mathematics and Logic; Leucippus and Democritus; Parmenides of Elea; Plutarch of Chaeronea; Space; Zeno of Elea.
Fragments of Melissus's writings in Greek with German translations have been published in Diels-Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 10th ed., Vol. I (Berlin, 1960); English translations, in J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed. (London: A. and C. Black, 1930).
Selected texts with English translation and commentary are in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957); the commentary should be treated with caution, especially on the subject of infinity and Melissus's relation with the Pythagoreans. The same is true of J. E. Raven, Pythagoreans and Eleatics (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1948).
See also Harold Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1935), and G. E. L. Owen, "Eleatic Questions," in Classical Quarterly 10 (1960).
Barnes, J. The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed., 180–185, 194–230, 298–302. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.
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Burnet, J. Greek Philosophy. Thales to Plato, 4th ed., 320–329. London, 1930.
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Curd, P. The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought, 202–204, 206–216, 224–227. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
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Furley, D. "Melissus of Samos." In Ionian Philosophy, edited by K. Boudouris, 114–122. Athens, 1989.
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Owen, G. E. L. "Plato and Parmenides on the Timeless Present." Monist 50 (1966): 317–340. Reprinted in The Pre-Socratics, edited by A.P. D. Mourelatos, 271–292, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974, and in G. E. L. Owen, Logic, Science and Dialectic. Collected Papers in Greek Philosophy, edited by M. Nussbaum, 27–44, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.
Reale, G. Melisso. Testimonianze e frammenti. Introduzione, traduzione e commento. Biblioteca di Studi Superiori. Filosofia antica, 50. Florence: Nuova Italia, 1970.
Sedley, D. "Parmenides and Melissus." In The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, edited by A. A. Long, 125–131. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
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David J. Furley (1967)
Bibliography updated by Richard D. McKirahan (2005)