From Ancient and Medieval Philosophy: Essential Selections, by James Fieser


Copyright 2016, updated 7/30/2018





Greek Mythological World View

Thales: Water

Anaximander: The Unbounded

Anaximenes: Air

Pythagoras: Mathematics

Heraclitus: Change and the Logos

Xenophanes: Against Anthropomorphism

Parmenides: The One

Zeno of Elea: Paradoxes that Prove the One

Melissus: Attributes of the One

Empedocles: Four Elements shaped by Love and Strife

Anaxagoras: Infinitely Divisible Plenum and Mind

Leucippus and Democritus: Atoms in the Void

Protagoras: Relativism

Gorgias: Radical Skepticism

Study Questions




Western Civilization’s philosophical tradition began in the sixth-century BCE in Greek speaking cities scattered across the northern Mediterranean Sea. These philosophers lived before Socrates, and are thus called “Presocratics.” Their views were innovative, and they attempted to explain the world in a non-mythological and more scientific way. As such they are as much early scientists as they are philosophers. The selections below are from 14 of the most important of these thinkers, who are often grouped together into four different schools of thought.

             Prior to the Presocratics, the ancient Greek worldview was shaped by mythology, and the opening selections below describe three important mythological themes that Presocratic philosophers were responding to. The first, by Hesiod, is a creation story where the cosmos began as chaos, which then gave birth to Earth, the Underworld, Love and Night, each personified as primordial gods. These, in turn, gave birth to other divine beings. The second, by Homer, states that the river Oceanus encircles the earth, and from its waters the sun, moon and stars rise and fall. The third, also by Homer, describes how the gods watch over human affairs, pass judgment on our conduct, and intervene as they see fit.

             Turning to the Presocratics, the first and earliest school is the “Ionians”, named after the geographical region of Ionia from which they came, which is on the coast of present-day Turkey. While these philosophers wrote on a variety of subjects, they all tried to explain what the single stuff was from which everything is made. Thales said it was water, Anaximander that it was a featureless substance that he called the “unbounded”, Anaximines that it was air, Pythagoras that it was numbers, and Heraclitus that it was fire organized by a cosmic ordering principle (or “logos”).

             The second school is the Eleatics, named after the city of Elea in what is now Italy from which these philosophers came. The underlying theme here is that the whole cosmos is unified in a single being called the One. The first philosopher of this school was Xenophanes, who held the pantheistic view that the entire cosmos is a single divine being who has no human features, contrary to the anthropomorphic views of the gods represented in Greek mythology. But the main proponent of the Eleatic school was Parmenides, who held that the only thing that exists is the One, that is, a single, eternal, unchanging, indivisible and round thing. This implies that there is no such thing as change and plurality in the world, contrary to what our common sense tells us. His student Zeno defended Parmenides’ view of the One by presenting a series of paradoxes that arise from the notions of change and plurality. Zeno’s point is that there are fewer difficulties with Parmenides conception of the One than there are with the common sense view of the world. Philosophers even in Parmenides time questioned whether his notion of the One is about the physical three-dimensional world, or merely the metaphysical nature of the world. His student Melissus, though, made this clear: these descriptions about the One are indeed about the physical world. Melissus argued further that the One is unlimited and extends in all directions.

             The third school is that of the Pluralists, that is, philosophers who believed that there is no single fundamental element, like water or air, but rather many elements that combine together to form what we have. While their theories radically differ, they all held that the cosmos is a swirling vortex, like a giant kitchen blender, where the elements of things combine. Empedocles held that there are four fundamental elements of earth, air, fire and water, which either clump together or break apart from each other in the presence of the two forces of love (attraction) and strife (repulsion). Anaxagoras held that the fundamental elements of the cosmos are infinitely divisible, and exist in a plenum of no empty space. Each physical thing, regardless of how small, contains portions (or seeds) of all the other elements. Further, he argued, the cosmic vortex is driven by a divine mind, which orders everything. Leucippus and Democritus defended the atomistic view that the only thing that exists are indestructible atoms and the void of space in which they move around. The atoms are of different shapes, and the manner in which they clump together determines the type of objects they form.

             The fourth school is that of the Sophists, who were traveling teachers of rhetoric and other subjects for upper class children in the Greek city states. They specialized in logical reasoning, and the selections from Protagoras and Gorgias display their technical skills in crafting convincing arguments, regardless of the truth of the conclusions.

             None of the writings of the Presocratic philosophers have survived in complete form, and all that remains are scattered passages quoted by later Greek and Roman writers from antiquity. The standard collection of these quotations in the original Greek language, is Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Fragments of the Presocratics), published in 1903 by the German scholars Herman Diels and Walther Kranz.  The selections below are based on this collection and follow its numbering system of quotations, such as “DKA10”. Also included below are brief biographical descriptions of the Presocratic philosophers taken from an important second-century CE work by Diogenes Laertius titled Lives of the Philosophers.




Chaos Creates the Primordial Gods (Hesiod, Theogony)

Praise to you, children of Zeus! Sing your lovely songs, and celebrate the holy race of the immortal gods who live forever, who were born of Earth (Gaia), of the starry Heaven (Uranus) and the gloomy Night (Erebus), and those that were raised by the salty Sea (Oceanus). Tell us how gods and earth first came to exist. So too the rivers, the boundless sea with its raging waves, the gleaming stars, and the wide heaven above. Tell how the gods, who were born of them and are the givers of good things, divided their wealth, and how they shared their honors among them. Tell us also how they first occupied Olympus, with its many valleys. Explain these things to me from the beginning, you Muses who live in the house of Olympus, and tell me which of them came first.

             First chaos came into being, then wide-chested Earth, the eternal unshaken foundation of the immortal gods who inhabit the snowy peaks of Olympus or the gloomy Tartarus within the depths of the wide-pathed earth. Love (Eros) then arose, the most beautiful among the immortal gods, who loosens the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and mortal men. From chaos came forth darkness and black Night (Erebus). From Night were born Upper Air (Aether) and Day (Herma), whom she conceived and produced from union in love with Night.

             Earth first created starry Heaven (Uranus), equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure dwelling place for the blessed gods. She brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who live among the valleys of the hills. She also created the lifeless deep Sea (Pontus) with his raging waves, without sweet union of love. But afterwards she lay with Heaven (Uranus) and gave birth to the deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty parent.


Celestial Objects Arise from the Oceanus River Encircling the World (Homer, Iliad)

             Oceanus, whose stream bends back in a circle. [8.399]

             The enormous strength of Oceanus, with his deep-running waters, Oceanus, from whom all rivers are and the entire sea and all springs and all deep wells have their waters of him." [21.194]

             Now the Sun (Helios) of a new day struck on the ploughlands, rising out of the quiet water and the deep stream of Oceanus to climb the sky. [7.422]

             The star [Sirius] of the fading summer, who beyond all stars, rises bathed in Oceanus to glitter with brilliance. [5.10]


The Gods decide Hector’s Fate (Homer, Iliad 22)

Just as thoroughbred horses run swiftly around the turning-points (to win a great prize such as a tripod or a woman, in honor of a dead warrior) Hector and Achilles ran three times around the city of Priam, while all the gods watched. 

             Then Zeus, the father of men and gods, spoke: “Look at this! I see Hector, whom I love, being chased around the wall. My heart feels sorrow for him, who has burned in offering to me many oxen thighs on the ridges of Mount Ida and atop the citadel. Now Achilles, the gallant and the great runner, is pursuing him around the city of Priam. Decide, all you gods, whether we will save him from death or, good man that he is, let him die by the hand of Achilles, son of Peleus.”

             The goddess Athena responded to him, “Father, Lord of the bright lightning and of the dark cloud, what a mouthful you have said! Here is a mortal man, doomed long ago by fate, that you wish to rescue again from tragic death? Do as you wish, but we other gods do not agree with you on this matter.”

             Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, answered her: “Calm down, Tritogeneia, dear child. I was not completely serious, and I will humor you. Do as you please but proceed quickly.”

             With this reassurance, Athena eagerly rushed down from the peaks of Olympus. . . . She disguised herself as [Hector’s brother], the tireless orator Deiphobus, and spoke to noble Hector: . . . “Dear brother, Achilles relentlessly chased you around the city of Priam. But come, let us stand together and defend ourselves against him.” . . . With these deceitful words, Athene led him on to meet Achilles.




Life of Thales of Miletus (c. 625-545 BCE)

Most writers represent him as a genuine Milesian and of a distinguished family. After engaging in politics he became a student of nature. According to some he left nothing in writing. . . . But according to others he wrote nothing but two treatises, one On the Solstice and one On the Equinox, regarding all other matters as unknowable. He seems by some accounts to have been the first to study astronomy, the first to predict eclipses of the sun and to fix the solstices; so Eudemus says in his History of Astronomy. It was this which gained for him the admiration of Xenophanes and Herodotus and the notice of Heraclitus and Democritus. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]

             He was criticized for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy was of no use. According to the story, he knew by his skill in the stars while it was still winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year. So, having a little money, he made deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were suddenly wanted all at, he loaned them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort. [Aristotle, Politics, 1.11 (DK A10)]

             A witty maid-servant, who saw Thales tumbling into a well, said of him that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven, that he could not see what was before his feet. [Plato, Theaetetus (DK A9)]


Water as the Basic Stuff

It is said that Thales of Miletus, one of the seven wise men, first attempted to frame a system of natural philosophy. This person said that some such thing as water is the generative principle of the universe and its end. For, out of it, solidified and again dissolved, all things consist, and all things are supported on it. Also, from it arise both earthquakes and changes of the winds and atmospheric movements. All things are both produced by it and are in a state of flux corresponding with the nature of the primary author of generation. Further, the Deity is that which has neither beginning nor end. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]

             Of the first philosophers, most thought that the principles which pertained to the qualities of matter were the only principles of all things…. Yet they did not all agree as to the number and the nature of these principles. Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, said the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water). Perhaps he got this notion from seeing that the nutrition of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). Perhaps he also got his notion from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things. [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.3 (DK A12)]

             Some hold that the soul is diffused through the universe. Perhaps this is what led Thales to say that all things are full of gods. [Aristotle, On the Soul, 1.5 (DK A22)]

             Judging from what is reported of him, Thales appears to have viewed the soul as something having the capacity to set up movement, if it is true that he said that the loadstone has a soul [i.e., the capacity to make things move] because it moves iron. [Aristotle, On the Soul, 1.2 (DK A22)]




Life of Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610-545 BCE)

Anaximander, the son of Praxiades, was a native of Miletus. He held that the principle and primary element of all things was the unbounded, giving no exact definition as to whether he meant air or water, or anything else. He said that while the parts were susceptible of change, the whole was unchangeable. He said that the earth, which is of spherical shape, lies in the midst, occupying the place of a center; that the moon, shining with borrowed light, derives its illumination from the sun; further, that the sun is as large as the earth and consists of the purest fire. He was the first inventor of the gnomon [i.e., the part of a sundial that casts a shadow] and set it up for a sundial in Lacedaemon, as is stated by Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History, in order to mark the solstices and the equinoxes; he also constructed clocks to tell the time. He was the first to draw on a map the outline of land and sea, and he constructed a globe as well. . . . There is a story that the boys laughed at his singing, and that, when he heard of it, he rejoined, "Then to please the boys I must improve my singing." [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 2]


The Unbounded as the Basic Stuff

Among those who say that the first principle is one and mobile and boundless is Anaximander of Miletus, son of Praxiades, a fellow-citizen and associate of Thales. He said that the material cause and first element of things was the boundless (apeiron), he being the first to introduce this name of the material cause. He says it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but a substance different from them which is indefinite, from which arise all the heavens and the worlds within them. Things that are pass away again into the things from which they originated, as destiny orders. For they are punished and give satisfaction to each other for their injustice in the ordering of time, as he puts it in rather poetical language. It is evident that, observing the way in which the four elements are transformed into one another, he thought fit to take for the substratum, not some one of them, but rather something else over and above them all. He did not attribute creation to any change in this element, but rather to the separating of the opposites occasioned by the eternal movement. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK A9, B1)]

             According to some [i.e., Anaximander], there is a body distinct from the elements, the infinite, which is not air or water, in order that the other things may not be destroyed by their infinity. The elements are in opposition to each other: air is cold, water moist, and fire hot. Therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time. Accordingly they said that what is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise. [Aristotle, Physics, 3.5]

             This man said that the originating principle of existing things is a certain constitution of the Infinite, out of which the heavens are generated, and the worlds therein; and that this principle is eternal and undecaying, and comprising all the worlds. He speaks of time as something of limited generation, and subsistence, and destruction. This person declared the Infinite to be an originating principle and element of existing things, being the first to employ such a denomination of the originating principle. But, further, he asserted that there is an eternal motion, by the agency of which it happens that the heavens are generated. . . that animals are produced (in moisture) by evaporation from the sun. That man was, originally, similar to a different animal, that is, a fish. That winds are caused by the separation of very thin exhalations of the atmosphere, and by their motion after they have been condensed. That rain arises from earth's giving back (the vapors which it receives) from the (clouds) under the sun. That there are flashes of lightning when the wind coming down severs the clouds. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]




Life of Anaximenes of Miletus (c. 585-525 BCE)

Anaximenes, the son of Eurystratus, a native of Miletus, was a pupil of Anaximander. According to some, he was also a pupil of Parmenides. He took for his first principle air or that which is unlimited. He held that the stars move around the earth but do not go under it. He writes simply and unaffectedly in the Ionic dialect. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 2]


Compressed and Expanded Air as the Basic Stuff

Anaximenes of Miletus, who had been an associate of Anaximander, said, like him, that the underlying substance was one and infinite. He did not, however, say it was indeterminate, like Anaximander, but determinate; for he said it was Air. It differs in different substances in virtue of its less dense or more dense. In its thinnest state it comes to be; being compressed and condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, and when still further compressed it becomes water, then earth, then stones, and the rest of things comes to be out of these. [Theophrastus in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK A5)]

             He affirmed that the originating principle is infinite air, out of which are generated things existing, those which have existed, and those that will be, as well as gods and divine (entities), and that the rest arise from the offspring of this. The form of the air is as follows. Where it is most even, it is invisible to our sight; but cold and heat, moisture and motion, make it visible. It is always in motion; for, if it were not, it would not change so much as it does. When it is dilated so as to be rarer, it becomes fire; while winds, on the other hand, are condensed Air. Cloud is formed from Air by felting [i.e., making something more dense through pressure, such as making felt out of wool]; and this, still further condensed or compressed, becomes water. Water, condensed still more, turns to earth; and when condensed as much as it can be, to stones. [Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies (DK A7)]

             Are we, as Anaximines maintained, to place neither hot nor cold in the realm of being, but treat them as states belonging equally to any matter and occurring as a result of changes within it? He affirms, in fact, that anything which undergoes a contracting and condensing of matter is cold, while anything that experiences an expanding and inflating (this comes close to his own phrasing) is hot. So there is no contradiction in the remark that the man blew both hot and cold, for breath grows cold when it is compressed and condensed by the lips; but when it is expelled from the mouth left slack, it becomes hot through becoming less dense. [Plutarch, The Principle of Cold (DK B1)]




Life of Pythagoras of Samos (c.570–c.497 BCE)

While still young, so eager was he for knowledge, he left his own country [of Samos] and had himself initiated into all the mysteries and rites not only of Greece but also of foreign countries. . . . After that he returned to Samos to find his country under the tyranny of Polycrates; so he sailed away to Croton in Italy, and there he laid down a constitution for the Italian Greeks, and he and his followers were held in great esteem. For, being nearly three hundred in number, so well did they govern the state that its constitution was in effect a true aristocracy (government by the best).

             The contents in general of the aforesaid three treatises of Pythagoras are as follows. He forbids us to pray for ourselves, because we do not know what will help us. Drinking he calls, in a word, a snare, and he rejects all excess, saying that no one should go beyond due proportion either in drinking or in eating. Of sexual indulgence, too, he says, "Keep to the winter for sexual pleasures, in summer abstain; they are less harmful in autumn and spring, but they are always harmful and not conducive to health." Asked once when a man should consort with a woman, he replied, "When you want to lose what strength you have."

             His appearance is said to have been dignified, and his disciples held the opinion about him that he was Apollo come down from the far north. There is a story that once, when he was disrobed, his thigh was seen to be of gold; and when he crossed the river Nessus, several people said they heard the river welcome him. . . . Pythagoras spent most of his time upon the arithmetical aspect of geometry; he also discovered the musical intervals on the monochord [i.e., a box with strings to study the mathematical properties of musical intervals]. Nor did he neglect even medicine. We are told by Apollodorus the mathematician that he offered a sacrifice of oxen on finding that in a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the squares on the sides containing the right angle. . . .

             Pythagoras met his death in this manner. As he sat one day among his acquaintances at the house of Milo, it happened that the house was set on fire out of jealousy by one of the people who were not accounted worthy of admittance to his presence, though some say it was the work of the inhabitants of Croton anxious to safeguard themselves against the setting-up of a tyranny. Pythagoras was caught as he tried to escape; he got as far as a certain field of beans, where he stopped, saying he would be captured rather than trample on the beans, and be killed rather than speak idly about his doctrines; and so his pursuers cut his throat. So also were murdered more than half of his disciples, to the number of forty or thereabouts. But a few escaped, including Archippus of Tarentum and Lysis, already mentioned. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]


Pythagoras’s Students

As he thus prepared his disciples for culture, he did not immediately receive as a followers any who came to him for that purpose until he had tested them and examined them judiciously. To begin with he inquired about their relation to their parents and kinsfolk. Next he surveyed their laughter, speech or silence, as to whether it was unreasonable; further, about their desires, their associates, their conversation, how they employed their leisure, and what were the subjects of their joy or grief. He observed their form, their gait, and the whole motions of their body. He considered their frame’s natural indications physiognomically, rating them as visible exponents of the invisible tendencies of the soul. After subjecting a candidate to such trials, he allowed him to be neglected for three years, still covertly observing his disposition towards stability, and genuine studiousness, and whether he was sufficiently averse to glory, and ready to despise popular honors.

             After this the candidate was compelled to observe silence for five years, so as to have made definite experiments in continence of speech, since the subjugation of the tongue is the most difficult of all victories, as has indeed been explained by those who have instituted the mysteries. During this probation, however, the property of each was disposed of in common, being committed to trustees, who were called politicians, economizers or legislators. Of these probationers, after the five-year silence, those who by modest dignity had won his approval as worthy to share in his doctrines, then became “esoterics”, and both heard and saw Pythagoras within the veil [that separated Pythagoras from others]. Prior to this they participated in his words through the hearing alone, without seeing him as he remained within the veil, and themselves offering to him a specimen of their manners. If rejected, they were given double of the wealth they had brought, but the “auditors” raised to him a tomb, as if they were dead; the disciples being generally called “auditors”. [Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras]


Symbolic Sayings

Pythagoras considered most necessary the use of parables in instruction. Most of the Greeks had adopted it, as the most ancient. It also had been both preferentially and in principle employed by the Egyptians, who had developed it in a varied manner. In harmony with this it will be found that Pythagoras attended to it diligently, if from the Pythagorean symbols we unfold their significance and concealed intentions, developing their content of rightness and truth, liberating them from their enigmatic form. When, according to straightforward and uniform tradition they are accommodated to the sublime intelligence of these philosophers, they deify beyond human conception. . . . To his intimates he was accustomed to utter symbolically oracular sentences, wherein the smallest number of words were filled with the most varied significance, not unlike certain oracles of the Pythian Apollo, or like nature herself in tiny seeds, the former exhibiting conceptions, and the latter effects innumerable in multitude, and difficult to understand. Such was Pythagoras’s own maxim, “The beginning is the half of the whole.” [Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras]

             The following were his watchwords or precepts: don't stir the fire with a knife, don't step over the beam of a balance, don't sit down on your bushel, don't eat your heart, don't help a man off with a load but help him on, always roll your bed-clothes up, don't put God's image on the circle of a ring, don't leave the pan's imprint on the ashes, don't wipe up a mess with a torch, don't urinate facing the sun, don't walk the highway, don't shake hands too eagerly, don't have swallows under your own roof, don't keep birds with hooked claws, don't urinate on or stand upon your nail-and hair-trimmings, turn the sharp blade away, when you go abroad don't turn around at the frontier.

             This is what these mean. Don't stir the fire with a knife: don't stir the passions or the swelling pride of the great. Don't step over the beam of a balance: don't overstep the bounds of equity and justice. Don't sit down on your bushel: have the same care for today and the future, a bushel being the day's ration. By not eating your heart he meant not wasting your life in troubles and pains. By saying do not turn around when you go abroad, he meant to advise those who are departing this life not to set their hearts' desire on living nor to be too much attracted by the pleasures of this life. The explanations of the rest are similar and would take too long to set out. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]


Dietary Rules

The most contemplative of the philosophers, who had arrived at the height of philosophical attainments, were forbidden unnecessary food such as wine, or unjustifiable food such as was from animals; and not to sacrifice animals to the Gods, nor by any means to injure animals, but to observe the kindest justice towards them. He himself lived after this manner, abstaining from animal food, and adoring altars undefiled with blood. He was likewise careful to prevent others from destroying animals of a nature like ours, and rather corrected and instructed savage animals, than injured them as punishment. Further, he ordered abstaining from animal food even to politicians; for as they desired to act justly to the highest degree, they must certainly not injure any kindred animals. How indeed could they persuade others to act justly, if they themselves were detected in an insatiable avidity in devouring animals allied to us. These are conjoined to us by a fraternal alliance through the communion of life, and the same elements, and the commingling of these. [Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras]

             Aristotle says, in his treatise on Beans, that Pythagoras instructed his disciples to abstain from beans, either because they resemble genitals, or they are like the gates of hell (for they are the only plants without parts), or they dry up other plants, or they are representatives of universal nature, or they are used in elections in oligarchical governments. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]


Numbers the First Principles of Everything

The so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics and were the first to advance this branch of knowledge. Spending all their time in these pursuits they came to think that the first principles of mathematics were the first principles of all things that exist. Since as numbers are what is naturally first in this field, and since they thought they discovered in numbers a great many more similarities with things that exist and that arise in the processes of nature than one could find in fire or earth or water, they consequently thought, for example, that such and such a property of numbers was justice, another the soul and reason, another opportunity, and in the same way of practically everything else. They saw in numbers the properties and proportions of the different kinds of harmonies, and since all other things so far as their entire nature is concerned were modelled upon numbers (whereas numbers are prior to anything else in nature). From all this they inferred that the first elements of numbers were the first elements of all things that exist, and that the whole heaven was a harmony and a number. So all the analogies they could point to between numbers and harmonies on the one hand, and the properties and divisions and the whole arrangement of the heavens on the other hand, these they would collect and piece together, and if any gap appeared anywhere they would greedily seek after something to fill it, in order that their entire system might be coherent. For example, since they thought that the number ten was a perfect thing and included all other numbers they affirmed that the heavenly bodies must also be ten in number, but since only nine are visible they invented a tenth, which they called the counter-earth.

             These philosophers evidently regard number as the first principle, both as being the material cause of things that exist and as describing their qualities and states as well. The elements of number they described as the odd and the even, the former being limited and the latter unlimited; and the number one they thought was composed of both of these elements (for it is both even and odd) and from the number one all other numbers spring, and the whole heavens are simply numbers. Others of the same school assume ten first principles which they arrange in parallel rows: (1) limit–unlimited, (2) odd–even, (3) one–many, (4) right–left, (5) masculine–feminine, (6) at rest–in motion, (7) straight–crooked, (8) light–darkness, (9) good–evil, (10) square–oblong. [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.5 (DK B4)]


The Tetractys

The tetractys is a certain number, which, comprised of the four first numbers, produces the most perfect number, namely, ten. For one and two and three and four make ten. This number is the first tetractys, and is called the source of everlasting nature. This is because, according to them, the entire universe is organized according to harmony, and harmony is a system of three intervals: the fourth, the fifth, and the octave. The proportions of these three intervals are found in the four numbers mentioned above, that is, one, three and four. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, 7]

             He even used single words, such as cosmos, or, adorned world, or, philosophy, or further, Tetractys. All these and many other similar inventions were by Pythagoras devised for the benefit and amendment of his associates; and by those that understood them they were considered to be so worthy of veneration, and so divinely inspired, that those who resided in the common auditorium adopted this oath: “I swear by the discoverer of the Tetractys, which is the spring of all our wisdom; The perennial fountains and root of Nature.” [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]


Monad and Dyad

[Pythagoras held] that the monad [or unity] was the beginning of everything. From the monad proceeds an indefinite dyad [or multiplicity] which is subordinate to the monad as to its cause. From the monad and the indefinite dyad proceed numbers, and from numbers signs. From number signs, lines of which plane figures consist. From plane figures are derived solid bodies. From solid bodies sensible bodies, of which last there are four elements of fire, water, earth, and air. The world, which is endued with life, and intellect, and which is of a spherical figure, having the earth, which is also spherical, and inhabited all over in its center, results from a combination of these elements, and derives its motion from them. Also, there are antipodes, and that what is below, as respects us, is above in respect of them. [Alexander, Successions, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]



He was the first, they say, to declare that the soul, bound first in this creature, later in that, thus goes on a round ordained of necessity. . . .

             Regarding Pythagoras having been different people at different times, Xenophanes adds his evidence in an elegiac poem which begins thus: They say that once, when passing by, Pythagoras saw a dog severely beaten. He pitied him and spoke as follows to the man who beat him: "Stop now, and do not beat him, since in his body lives the soul of a dear friend of mine, whose voice I recognized as he was crying." [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8 (DK 7)]

             What he told his audiences cannot be said with certainty, for he commanded silence upon his hearers. But the following is a matter of general information. He taught that the soul was immortal and that after death it transmigrated into other animated bodies. After certain specified periods, the same events occur again, and nothing was entirely new. Also, all animated beings were related, and should be considered as belonging to one great family. Pythagoras was the first one to introduce these teachings into Greece. [Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras (DK 8)]

             He would remind many of his intimates of the former life lived by their soul before it was bound to their body. He would demonstrate by indubitable arguments that he had once been Eiuphorbus, son of Panthus, conqueror of Patroclus. [Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras]




Life of Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 540–c. 480 BCE)

He was, more than any other person, proud and arrogant, as is plain from his writings, in which he says, "Abundant learning does not form the mind; for 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 that idea, which by itself will govern everything on every occasion. . . .

             Finally, becoming a complete hater of people, he lived spending his time walking around the mountains, and feeding on grasses and plants. As a result of these habits, he contracted edema [i.e., inflammation]. He then returned to the city and asked the physicians, in a riddle, whether they were able to produce a drought after heavy rain. When they did not understand him, he shut himself up in an oxen stable, and covered himself with dung, hoping to make the fluid evaporate within him, from the warmth that this produced. But this did him no good, and died having lived seventy years.

             There is an extant book of his, which is about nature generally, and it is divided into three discourses: one on the Universe, one on Politics, and one on Theology. He deposited this book in the temple of Diana, as some authors report, having written it intentionally in an obscure style, in order that only those who were skilled might comprehend it, and that it might not be exposed to ridicule at the hands of the common people. Timon attacks this man also, saying: "Among them came that cuckoo Heraclitus the enigmatical obscure critic of all the common people."

             Theophrastus asserts, that it was out of melancholy that he left some of his works half finished, and wrote several, in completely different styles. Antisthenes, in his Successions, gives as a proof of his loft spirit, the fact, that he yielded to his brother his claim to kingship. His book had so high a reputation that a sect arose as a result of it, who were called by his own name, Heracliteans. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]



Heraclitus, a natural philosopher of Ephesus, surrendered himself to universal grief, condemning the ignorance of the entire of life, and of all men. In fact, consoling the very existence of mortals, for he asserted that he himself knew everything, whereas the rest of mankind nothing. He also advanced statements very similar to Empedocles, saying that the originating principle of all things is discord and friendship, and that the Deity is a fire with the property of intelligence, and that all things are created one after another, and never are at a standstill. Like Empedocles, he affirmed that the entire area about us is full of evil things, and that these evil things reach as far as the moon, being extended from the quarter situated around the earth, and that they do not advance further, since the entire space above the moon is more pure. So also it seemed to Heraclitus. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]

             Here is a general summary of his doctrines. Everything is created from fire, and is dissolved again into fire; everything happens according to destiny, and all existing things are harmonized and made to agree together by opposite tendencies. All things are full of souls and daemons. He also discussed all the passions which exist in the world, and held that the sun was of exact size that it appears to be. One of his sayings was that no one, by whatever road he might travel, could ever possibly find the boundaries of the soul, since the principles that regulate it are so deeply hidden. He called opinion the falling sickness [i.e., epilepsy] and said that eyesight is a lying sense. Sometimes in his writings he expresses himself with great brilliance and clearness, so that even the most stupid person could easily understand him, and receive an elevation of soul from him. For brevity and dignity of his style, his compositions are incomparable.

             In particulars, his doctrines are as follows. Fire is an element, and it is by the changes of fire that all things exist, being produced sometimes by being less dense or decompressed, sometimes more dense or compressed. But he explains nothing clearly. He also says, that everything is produced by opposites, and that everything flows on like a river. The universe is finite, there is one world, which is produced from fire. The whole world is in its turn again consumed by fire at certain periods, and all this happens according to fate. Regarding the opposites, that which leads to creation, he calls war and strife, that which leads to the destruction by fire he calls harmony and peace.

             He calls change the road leading upwards and downwards, and the whole world exists according to it. Fire, when contracted, becomes moisture, and when condensed or compressed becomes water; water when compressed in turn becomes earth. This process is the road leading downwards. Again the earth itself becomes dispursed, from which water is produced, and from that everything else is produced. He explains almost everything as the result of evaporation which takes place from the sea. This process is the road which leads upwards. Also, there are evaporations, both from earth and sea, some of which are bright and clear, and some dark. The fire is increased by the dark ones, and the moisture by the others. But he does not explain what the space is that surrounds. He states, however, that there are bowls in it, turned with their hollow part towards us. In these the bright evaporations are collected, and form flames, which are the stars. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]


Everything Changes

Into the same river we step and do not step; we are and we are not. [Heraclitus Homericus, Homeric Questions 24]

             You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you. It scatters and it gathers; it advances and retires. [Plutarch, On the E at Delphi]

             There is a new sun every day. [Aristotle, Meteorology, 2.2]

             It rests by changing [Plotinus, Enneads 4.8.1]

             The straight and the crooked path of the fuller's comb is one and the same. [Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies]

             The way up and the way down is one and the same. [Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies]

             It is the cold things that become warm, the warm that become cold, the moist that become dry, and the dry that become moist.

             God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger. But he assumes various forms, just as fire when it is mingled with different kinds of incense is named according to the savor of each. [Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies]


The Logos and Fire

It is wise to listen, not to me, but to the Logos, and to agree that all things are one. [Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies (DK 50)]

             Though this Logos is always true, still people are as unable to understand it both when they hear it for the first time and when they have heard it at all again. For, though all things come into being in accordance with the Logos, people seem as if they had no experience of it, when they become acquainted with words and actions that I establish, dividing each thing according to its kind and showing how it truly is. As for the rest of the people, they do not know what they are doing when awake, just as they forget what they do once asleep. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (DK 1)]

             One ought to follow the lead of that which is common to all men. But although the Logos is common to all, yet most men live as if each had a private wisdom of his own. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (DK 2)]

             They have become separated from the Logos, the guide of all things, with which they are most continually associated; and things they meet with every day appear to them unfamiliar. [Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (DK 72)]

             The cosmos, which is the same for all, was not made by one of the gods or by humans. Rather, it always was, is now, and forever will be an ever-living fire, ignited in measure, and extinguished in measure. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK 30)]

The transformations of fire are, first of all, sea; and one-half of the sea is earth and half the stormy wind. . . The sea is dispersed and keeps its measure according to the same Word that prevailed before it became earth. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK 31)]

All things are exchanged for fire and fire for all things, just as wares are exchanged for gold and gold for wares. [Plutarch, On the E at Delphi (DK 90)]




Life of Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570–c.478 BCE)

He was a citizen of Colophon; and is praised by Timon, who says “Xenophanes, not much a slave to vanity, the wise critic of the tricks of Homer.” He was banished from his own country, and lived at Zande, in Sicily, and at Catana. According to the statements made by some people, he was a pupil of no one. He wrote poems in hexameter and in elegiac verse; and also he wrote iambic poems against Hesiod and Homer, attacking the things said in their poems about the Gods. He also would recite his own poems. It is said likewise, that he argued against the opinions of Thales and Pythagoras, and that he also attacked Epimenides. He lived to an extreme old age. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]



His doctrine was that there were four elements of existing things, and there are an infinite number of worlds, which were all unchangeable. He thought that the clouds were produced by the vapor which was borne upwards from the sun, and which lifted them up into the circumambient space. He held that the essence of God was of a spherical form, in no respect resembling man. He held that the universe could see and hear, but could not breathe, and it was in all its parts intellect, and wisdom, and eternity. He was the first person who asserted that everything which is produced is perishable, and that the soul is a spirit. He also said that the many was inferior to unity. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]

             He affirms that nothing is generated or perishes, or is moved, and the universe, being one, is beyond change. But he says that the deity is eternal, one, completely homogeneous, limited, and of a spherical form with perception in all parts. The sun exists during each day from a conglomeration of small sparks; the earth is infinite and surrounded neither by an atmosphere nor by the heaven. There are infinite suns and moons, and all things spring from earth. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]


Against Anthropomorphic Conceptions of God

Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are shameful and disgraceful among mortals, such as theft, adultery and the deception of each other. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (DK B11)]

             Mortals suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK B14)]

             If oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as people do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their various kinds. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK B15)]

             The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK B16)]



There are some who spoke of the universe as if it were one entity, though they were not all alike either in the excellence of their statement or in its conformity to the facts of nature. . . . but these thinkers say the universe is unchangeable. . . . Xenophanes, the first of these partisans of the One (for Parmenides is said to have been his pupil), gave no clear statement, nor does he seem to have grasped the nature of either of these causes, but with reference to the whole material universe he says the One is God. [Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.5 (DK 30)]

             There is one god, supreme among gods and men; resembling mortals neither in form nor in mind. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK B23)]

             He sees all over, thinks all over, and hears all over. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (DK B24)]

             Without toil he rules all things by the power of his mind. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B25)]

             He stays always in the same place, without moving at all, for it does not suit him to wander about here or there. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B26)]

             It is just as impious to say that the gods are born as to say that they die. For it follows from either view that at some time or other they do not exist. [Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.23 (DK A12)]

             There never was, nor ever will be, any man who knows with certainty the things about the gods and about all things which I say. For even if he does happen to get most things right, still he himself does not know it. But all may have their opinions. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (DK B34)]

             The gods did not reveal all things to men at the start; but, as time goes on, by searching, they discover more and more [Stobaeus, Selections (DK B18)].

             If god had not made brown honey, people would think that figs are far sweeter than they do think about them. [Herodian, On Peculiar Speech (DK B38)]




Life of Parmenides of Elea (fl. 450 BCE):

Parmenides, the son of Pyres, and a citizen of Elea, was a pupil of Xenophanes. Theophrastus, in his Abridgment, says that he was also a pupil of Anaximander. However, though he was a pupil of Xenophanes, he was not afterwards a follower of his; but he followed Aminias, and Diochartes the Pythagorean. . . . Parmenides philosophizes in his poems, just as Hesiod, Xenophanes, and Empedocles did. He would say that argument was the test of truth; and that the sensations were not trustworthy witnesses. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]



Parmenides supposes the universe to be one, both eternal and uncreated, and of a spherical form. Neither did he escape the opinion of the great number [of speculators], affirming fire and earth to be the originating principles of the universe— the earth as matter, but the fire as cause, even an efficient one. He asserted that the world would be destroyed, but in what way he does not mention. He, however, affirmed the universe to be eternal, and not generated, and of spherical form and homogeneous, but not having a figure in itself, and immoveable and limited. [Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies]

             There are some who have declared their opinions about the universe as though it were one Nature. But they have not all expressed this opinion in the same way: they differ in excellence of statement, and also as to what that natural body is. The account of them lies outside our present inquiry into causes; for they do not, like some of the physical philosophers, first assume that that which is a single body, and then produce things from this single body as from a material cause. They speak in a different fashion. The former add motion, in explaining the origin of the universe; whereas these say that it [i.e., the first principle] is immovable. Nevertheless, so much at least is relevant to our present inquiry: Parmenides seems to have grasped the unity as one in reason [i.e., definition and formal cause], Melissus as one in matter [i.e., material cause]. Accordingly, the former holds it to be bounded, the latter to be boundless. Xenophanes, the first of these men to assert this unity (Parmenides being generally spoken of as his disciple), made nothing very clear, and does not seem to have reached either of the above views of nature. Rather, gazing up into the broad heavens, he simply declared: The One is God. [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.5]


Part 1. Prologue: Parmenides Travels to the Goddess

The horses that bear me carried me as far as ever my heart desired, when it had brought me and set me on the glorious road to the goddess, which leads the knowing man through all the towns. On that road I was carried along; for on it the wise horses carried me, drawing my chariot, while maidens guided the way. The axle produced a sound like a pipe, glowing in its socket (for it was moved around by the whirling wheels at each end). Then the maidens, the daughters of the Sun, who convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the Palace of Night.

              There are the gates of the paths of Night and Day, enclosed above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone. The gates themselves, high in the air, contain mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that fit them. The maidens, pleading with gentle words, cunningly persuade Justice to unfasten the bolted bars from the gates without delay. Then, when the doors were thrown back, they revealed a wide opening, when their brazen posts fitted with rivets and nails swung back one after the other. Straight through them, on the broad road, the maidens guided the horses and chariot. The goddess greeted me kindly, took my right hand in hers, and spoke to me these words:

              Welcome, young man, you who come to my palace on the chariot that bears you, tended by immortal charioteers! It is not ill chance, but, rather, Right and Justice that has sent you to travel on this road. Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of people! It is good for you to learn all things, both the motionless heart of well-rounded truth, and also the opinions of mortals in which there is no true reliability at all. Yet, nevertheless, will you also learn these things, so that, passing right through all things, one may judge the things that seem to be. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians; Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens (DK B1)]


Part 2. On Truth: Two Paths of Inquiry and The One

Two Paths: What is, and What is Not

Come now, I will tell you, and when you hear it you will ponder. There are only two ways of inquiry that can be thought of. [Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus,1.345 (DK B2)]

             The first, namely, that it is (and that it is impossible for it not to be), is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other way of inquiry, namely, that it is not (and cannot be), is a path that none can learn at all. For you cannot know what is not, nor can you express it. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B2)]

             It is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. [Plotinus, Enneads, 5.1.8 (DK B3)]

             Look steadfastly with your mind at things though afar as if they were at hand. You cannot cut off what is from holding fast to what is, neither scattering itself abroad in order nor coming together. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK B4)]

             It is all one to me where I begin; for I will come back again there. [Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides (DK B5)]

             What can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it to be, but impossible for nothing to be. This is what I ask you to ponder. I [forbid] you from this latter way of inquiry [i.e., the path of “it is not”], but also from another, upon which mortals knowing nothing wander two-faced; for helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are carried along stupefied like people deaf and blind. Unreasonable crowds, who hold that it is and is not the same and not the same, all things travel in opposite directions! [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B6)]

             For this will never be proved, that the things that are not are; restrain your thought from this way of inquiry. [Plato, Sophist (DK B7)]


The One: No Beginning or End, Indivisible, Immovable, Round

One path only is left for us to speak of, namely, that it is. In this path are very many signs that “what is” is uncreated and indestructible; it is complete, immovable, and without end.

             Nor was it ever, nor will it be [i.e., has no beginning or end]; for now it is, all at once, a continuous one. For what kind of origin for it will you look for? In what way and from what source could it have drawn its increase? I will not let you say nor think that it came from what is not; for it can neither be thought nor uttered that anything is not. If it came from nothing, what need could have made it arise later rather than sooner? Therefore must it either be altogether or be not at all. Nor will the force of truth suffer anything to arise besides itself from that which is not. For this reason, justice does not loose her fetters and let anything come into being or pass away, but holds it fast. Our judgment thereon depends on this: "Is it or is it not?" Surely it is decided, as it must be, that we are to set aside the one way as unthinkable and nameless (for it is no true way), and that the other path is real and true. How, then, can what is be going to be in the future? Or how could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; nor is it if it is going to be in the future. Thus is becoming extinguished and passing away not to be heard of.

             Nor is it divisible, since it is all alike, and there is no more of it in one place than in another, to hinder it from holding together, nor less of it, but everything is full of what is. For this reason it is wholly continuous; for what is, is in contact with what is.

             Further, it is immovable in the bonds of mighty chains, without beginning and without end; since coming into being and passing away have been driven afar, and true belief has cast them away. It is the same, and it rests in the self-same place, enduring in itself. Thus it remains constant in its place; for hard necessity keeps it in the bonds of the limit that holds it fast on every side. For this reason it is not permitted to what is to be infinite; for it is in need of nothing; while, if it were infinite, it would stand in need of everything.

             The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered. There is not, and never will be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable. For this reason all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true-coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright color.

             Since, then, it has a furthest limit, it is complete on every side, like the mass of a rounded sphere, equally poised from the center in every direction; for it cannot be greater or smaller in one place than in another. For there is no nothing that could keep it from reaching out equally, nor can anything that is be more here and less there than what is, since it is all inviolable. For the point from which it is equal in every direction tends equally to the limits. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B8)]


Part 3. On Opinion: An Untrustworthy Theory of Cosmology

I thus conclude my trustworthy discussion and thoughts about the truth. From here on, you will learn the opinions of mortals, listening to the deceptive arrangement of my words.

             Mortals have made up their minds to name two forms, one of which they should not name, and that is where they stray from the truth. They have distinguished them as opposite in form, and have assigned to them marks distinct from each other. To the one they give out the fire of heaven, gentle, very light, in every direction the same as itself, but not the same as the other. The other is just the opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body. I will tell you the whole arrangement of these apparent systems, so that no opinion of mortals will ever ensnare you. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B8)]

Now that all things have been named light and night, and the names which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these things and to those, everything is immediately full of light and dark night, both equal, since neither has anything to do with the other. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B9)]

             You will know the substance of the sky, and all the signs in the sky, and the radiant works of the glowing sun's pure torch, and from where they arose. You will also learn about the wandering deeds of the round-faced moon, and of her substance. You will know, too, the heavens that surround us, from where they arose, and how Necessity took them and bound them to keep the limits of the stars. [Clement, Miscellanies (DK B10)]

             [You will learn] how the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the sky that is common to all, and the Milky Way, and the outermost Olympus, and the burning might of the stars arose. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens (DK B11)]

             The narrower bands were filled with unmixed fire, and those next them with night, and in the midst of these rushes their portion of fire. In the midst of these is the divinity that directs the course of all things; for she is the beginner of all painful birth and all propagation, driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B12)]

             First of all the gods, she contrived love. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B13)]

             Shining by night with borrowed light, wandering around the earth. [Plutarch, Against Colotes (DK B14)]

             Always looking to the beams of the sun. [Plutarch, On the Face in the Moon (DK 15)]

             For just as thought stands at any time to the mixture of its, erring organs, so does it come to people; for that which thinks is the same, namely, the substance of the limbs, in each and every person; for their thought is that of which there is more in them. [Theophrastus, On the Senses, 3]

             On the right boys; on the left girls. [Galen, Commentary on Book VI of Hippocrates’ Epidemics II (DK B17)]

             Thus, according to people's opinions, things came into being, and thus they are now. In time they will grow up and pass away. To each of these things people have assigned a fixed name. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens (DK B19)]




Life of Zeno of Elea (fl. 450 BCE)

Zeno had been a pupil of Parmenides, and had been on other accounts greatly associated with him. . . . He was a man of the greatest nobleness of spirit, both in philosophy and in politics. There are also many books extant, which are attributed to him, full of great learning and wisdom. Wishing to put an end to the power of Nearches, the tyrant, he was arrested. . . . He said that he wished to whisper something privately to the tyrant; and when he came near him he bit him, and would not leave his hold till he was stabbed. . . . He also said to the bystanders, "I marvel at your cowardice, if you submit to be slaves to the tyrant out of fear of such pains as I am now enduring." Eventually he bit off his tongue and spit it at him; and the citizens immediately rushed forward, and killed the tyrant with stones. This is the account that is given by almost everyone. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]


Context of the Paradoxes

Socrates: You [i.e., Parmenides], in your poems, say, “The All is one”, and of this you present excellent proofs. He [i.e., Zeno], on the other hand, says, “There is no many”; and on behalf of this he offers overwhelming evidence. You affirm unity, he denies plurality. So you deceive the world into believing that you are saying different things when really you are saying much the same. This is a strain of art beyond the reach of most of us.

             Zeno: Yes, Socrates. But although you are as keen as a Spartan hound in pursuing the track, you do not fully apprehend the true motive of the composition, which is not really such an artificial work as you imagine. For what you speak of was an accident; there was no presence of a great purpose, nor any serious intention of deceiving the world. The truth is, that these arguments of mine were meant to defend the arguments of Parmenides against those who make fun of him by seeking to show the many ridiculous and contradictory results which they suppose follow from the affirmation of the One. My answer is addressed to the supporters of the many, whose attack I return with interest by responding to them that their hypothesis “that there are many things,” if carried out, appears to be still more ridiculous than the hypothesis of the being of the One. Zeal for my master led me to write the book in the days of my youth. But someone stole the copy, and so I had no choice whether it should be published or not. The motive, however, of writing, was not the ambition of an elder man, but the combativeness of a young one. This you do not seem to see, Socrates; though in other respects, as I was saying, your notion is a very just one. [Plato, Parmenides (DK 11-12)]

             Zeno said if anyone could tell him what the One was, he would be able to say what things are. [Eudemus, Physics, in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK A16)]


Paradoxes of Plurality

If things are a many, they must be just as many as they are, and neither more nor less. Now, if they are as many as they are, they will be finite in number. If things are a many, they will be infinite in number; for there will always be other things between them, and others again between these. So things are infinite in number. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B3)]

             [That which has neither size, thickness, nor bulk could not be at all. Zeno says,] for, if it were it added to anything else that is it would not make it one bit larger, for it is impossible to increase the size of anything by adding that which has no size. This itself would be enough to show that what was added was nothing. But if, when it is taken away from another thing, that other will be no less, and when it is added to another thing that other will be no larger, it is clear that what was added was nothing and what was taken away was nothing. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B2)]

              [If that which is had no size, then it could not even be.] Everything that truly is must have size and thickness, and one part of it must be separated from another by a certain distance. The same may be said of what is in front of it; for it, too, will have size, and something will be in front of it. It is all the same to say this once and to say it always; for no such part of it will be the last, nor will one thing not be compared with another. So, if things are a many, they must be both small and large, so small as not to have any size at all, and so great as to be infinite. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B1)]


Paradoxes of Motion: The Runner, Achilles, the Arrow, the Stadium

Zeno’s arguments about motion, which cause so much annoyance to those who try to solve the problems that they present, are four in number.

             The first asserts the non-existence of motion on the ground that that which is in motion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal. This we have discussed above. [i.e., for a runner “It is always necessary to cross half the distance, but these are infinite, and it is impossible to get through things that are infinite.”]

             The second is the so-called “Achilles”, and it amounts to this, that in a race the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. This argument is the same in principle as that which depends on bisection [i.e., the first argument], though it differs from it in that the spaces with which we successively have to deal are not divided into halves. The result of the argument is that the slower is not overtaken. But it proceeds along the same lines as the bisection-argument (for in both a division of the space in a certain way leads to the result that the goal is not reached, though the “Achilles” goes further in that it affirms that even the quickest runner in legendary tradition must fail in his pursuit of the slowest), so that the solution must be the same. The axiom that that which holds a lead is never overtaken is false: it is not overtaken, it is true, while it holds a lead: but it is overtaken nevertheless if it is granted that it traverses the finite distance prescribed. These then are two of his arguments.

              The third is that already given above, to the effect that the flying arrow is at rest [i.e., “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.”]

             The fourth argument is that concerning the two rows of bodies, each row being composed of an equal number of bodies of equal size, passing each other on a stadium race-course as they proceed with equal velocity in opposite directions, the one row originally occupying the space between the goal and the middle point of the course and the other that between the middle point and the starting-post. This, he thinks, involves the conclusion that half a given time is equal to double that time. [Aristotle, Physics, 6 (DK A25-28)]


Paradox of Place

If place is something that exists, where will it be? The difficulty raised by Zeno requires some answer. For if everything that exists has a place, it is clear that place too will have a place, and so on without limit. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK A24)]


Paradox of Sound

“Tell me, Protagoras,” [Zeno said] “does a single millet seed, or the ten thousandth part of a seed, make a noise when they fall?” When Protagoras said they did not, he said: “Does the bushel then make a noise when it falls or not?” When Protagoras said this did, Zeno said: “Is there not then some ratio of the bushel to one seed, and to a ten-thousandth of a seed?” When Protagoras said there was, Zeno said: “But then must not the respective noises stand to each other in the same ratios? For as the sounding bodies are to each other, so must be the sounds they make. This being so, if the bushel of millet makes a noise, then the single millet seed must also make a noise, and so must the ten thousandth of a millet seed. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK A29)]




Life of Melissus of Samos (fl. 440 BCE)

Melissus was from Samos, and the son of Ithageses. He was a pupil of Parmenides; but he also had conversed with Heraclitus, when he recommended him to the Ephesians, who were unacquainted with him, as Hippocrates recommended Democritus to the people of Abdera. He was a man greatly occupied in political affairs, and held in great esteem among his fellow citizens, which reason he was elected admiral. He was admired still more because of his private virtues. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]



His doctrine was that the Universe is infinite, unsusceptible of change, immoveable, and one, being always like to itself, and complete; and that there was no such thing as real motion, but that there only appeared to be such. As respecting the Gods, too, he denied that there was any occasion to give a definition of them, for that there was no certain knowledge of them. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]

             Parmenides seems to have grasped the unity as one in reason, Melissus as one in matter. [Metaphysics 1.5]

             Melissus says that, if anything is, it is eternal, since it is impossible that anything can come into being from nothing. For suppose that either all things or some things have come into being, in either case they must be eternal; for otherwise, in coming into being, they would do so out of nothing. For if all things come into being, then nothing can pre-exist; while if some things were ever and others are added, that which is must have become more and greater, and that by which it is more and greater must have arisen out of nothing; for the more is not originally existent in the less, nor the greater in the smaller. Being, since it is eternal, is unlimited; for it has no beginning from which it has come into being, and no end in which, when it comes into being, it can ever terminate. Being all and unlimited it is one; for if it were two or more, these would be reciprocal limits. Being one it must be similar throughout; for if it were dissimilar, it would be several and therefore no longer one but many. Being eternal and unlimited and alike throughout, the One is without motion; for it could not move without passing somewhere else, and it can only pass either into that which is full or into that which is empty; but of these the former could not admit it, while the latter is nothing at all. Such being the nature of the One, it is unaffected by grief and pain, and is healthy and free from disease, and cannot change either by transposition or by change of form or by mixture with anything else; for under all these circumstances the One becomes many, and Not-being is necessarily generated and Being destroyed; but these are impossibilities. [Pseudo-Aristotle, On Melissus, Xenophanes, Gorgias]


Eternal, Infinitely Large, One

If nothing is, what can be said of it as of something real? [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics]

             What was was ever, and ever will be. For, if it had come into being, it needs must have been nothing before it came into being. Now, if it were nothing, in no way could anything have arisen out of nothing. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B1)]

             Since, then, it has not come into being, and since it is, was ever, and ever shall be, it has no beginning or end, but is without limit. For, if it had come into being, it would have had a beginning (for it would have begun to come into being at some time or other) and an end (for it would have ceased to come into being at some time or other); but, if it neither began nor ended, and ever was and ever will be, it has no beginning or end; for it is not possible for anything to be ever without all being. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B2)]

             Further, just as it ever is, so it must ever be infinite in size. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B3)]

             But nothing which has a beginning or end is either eternal or infinite. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B4)]

             If it were not one, it would be bounded by something else. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B5)]

             For if it is (infinite), it must be one; for if it were two, it could not be infinite; for then they would be bounded by each other. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B6)]


No Alteration, Pain, Emptiness

So then it is eternal and infinite and one and all alike. It cannot perish nor become greater, nor does it suffer pain or grief. For, if any of these things happened to it, it would no longer be one. For if it is altered, then the real must not be all alike, but what was before must pass away, and what was not must come into being. Now, if it changed by so much as a single hair in ten thousand years, it would all perish in the whole of time.

             Further, it is not possible either that its order should be changed; for the order which it had before does not perish, nor does that which was not come into being. But, since nothing is either added to it or passes away or is altered, how can any real thing have had its order changed? For if anything became different, that would amount to a change in its order.

             Nor does it suffer pain; for a thing in pain could not all be. For a thing in pain could not be ever, nor has it the same power as what is whole. Nor would it be alike, if it were in pain. For it is only from the addition or subtraction of something that it could feel pain, and then it would no longer be alike. Nor could what is whole feel pain; for then what was whole and what was real would pass away, and what was not would, come into being. The same argument applies to grief as to pain.

             Nor is anything empty. For what is empty is nothing. What is nothing cannot be.

             Nor does it move; for it has nowhere bring itself to, but is full. For if there were anything empty, it would bring itself to the empty. But, since there is nothing empty, it has nowhere to bring itself to.

             And it cannot be compressed and expanded; for it is not possible for what is expanded to be as full as what is compressed, but what is expanded is at once emptier than what is compressed.

             This is the way in which we must distinguish between what is full and what is not full. If a thing has room for anything else, and takes it in, it is not full; but if it has no room for anything and does not take it in, it is full.

             Now, it must be full if there is nothing empty, and if it is full, it-does not move. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B7)]


Multiplicity an Illusion

This argument, then, is the greatest proof that it is one alone; but the following are proofs of it also. If there were a many, these would have to be of the same kind as I say that the one is. Suppose that there is earth and water, and air and iron, and gold and fire, and if one thing is living and another dead, and if things are black and white and all that people say they really are. If all this is so, and if we see and hear correctly, then each one of these must be such as we first decided, and they cannot be changed or altered, but each must be just as it is. But, as it is, we say that we see and hear and understand correctly, and yet we believe that what is warm becomes cold, and what is cold warm; that what is hard turns soft, and what is soft hard; that what is living dies, and that things are born from what lives not; and that all those things are changed, and that what they were and what they are now are in no way alike. We think that iron, which is hard, is rubbed away by contact with the finger; and so with gold and stone and everything which we imagine to be strong, and that earth and stone are made out of water; so that it turns out that we neither see nor know realities. Now these things do not agree with each other. We said that there were many things that were eternal and had forms and strength of their own, and yet we imagine that they all undergo alteration, and that they change from what we see each time. It is clear, then, that we did not see correctly after all, nor are we right in believing that all these things are many. They would not change if they were real, but each thing would be just what we believed it to be; for nothing is stronger than true reality. But if it has changed, what was has passed away, and what was not is come into being. So then, if there were many things, they would have to be just of the same nature as the one. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens (DK B8)]

             Now, if it were to exist, it must needs be one; but if it is one, it cannot have body; for, if it had body it would have parts, and would no longer be one. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B10)]

             If what is real is divided, it moves; but if it moves, it cannot be. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B10)]




Life of Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495–435 BCE)

Neanthes relates, that till the time of Philolaus and Empedocles, the Pythagoreans had admitted all persons indiscriminately into their school; but when Empedocles made their doctrines public by means of his poems, they made a law to admit no Epic poet . . . Theophrastus says that he was an imitator and a rival of Parmenides, in his poems, for that he too had delivered his opinions on natural philosophy in epic verse. . . . Aristotle, in his Sophist, says that Empedocles was the first person who invented rhetoric, and . . . that Empedocles was a man of Homeric genius, and endowed with great power of language, and a great master of metaphor. . . . Timaeus, in his eighteenth book, says, that this man was held in great esteem on many accounts; for that once, when the etesian gales were blowing violently, so as to injure the crops, he ordered some donkeys to be flayed, and some bladders to be made of their hides, and these he placed on the hills and high places to catch the wind. So, when the wind ceased, he was called wind-stopper. . . . He wore a purple robe and a golden circlet on his hand, as Phavorinus relates in the first book of his Commentaries. He also wore slippers with bronze soles, and a Delphian garland. He let his hair grow very long, and had boys follow him; and he himself always preserved a solemn appearance, and a uniformly somber demeanor. He marched about in such style, that he seemed to all the citizens, who met him and who admired his demeanor, to exhibit a sort of likeness to kingly power. . . . Hippobotus says that he rose up and went away as if he were going to mount Aetna. When he arrived at the crater of fire, he jumped in and disappeared, wishing to establish a belief that he had become a God. But afterwards the truth was detected by one of his slippers having been dropped. For he would wear slippers with brazen soles. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]



He makes the material elements four in number; fire, air, earth, and water. These are eternal, but they change in size—are large or small—through composition and separation. But, accurately speaking, he makes the first principles love and strife, for by them the others are set in motion. For the elements must continually be set in motion by each of the two in its turn, first being united by love, and then separated by strife. Consequently there are according to him six first principles. Empedocles speaks in the same way of all the senses, and says that we perceive through [effluences] fitting into the pores of each sense. That is why one sense cannot pick out the objects of another, for the pores of some are too wide and of others too narrow with reference to the object of sense, so that the [effluences] either go through untouched or are unable to enter at all. [Theophrastus, in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics]


Love and Strife Uniting and Dividing the Four Elements

I will tell you a twofold tale. At one time it [i.e., the cosmos] grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. These things never cease, continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each carried in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more when the one is divided apart, so far they come into being and their life does not endure. But, since they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go around the circle of existence.

             But come, listen to my words, for it is learning that increases wisdom. As I said before, when I declared the heads of my discussion, I will tell you a twofold tale. At one time it grew together to be one only out of many, at another it parted to pieces so as to be many instead of one. Fire and Water and Earth and the mighty height of Air. Also, apart from these, dreaded Strife of equal weight to each, and Love in their midst, equal in length and breadth. Her do you contemplate with your mind, nor sit with dazed eyes. It is she that is known as being implanted in the frame of mortals. It is she that makes them have thoughts of love and work the works of peace. They call her by the names of joy and Aphrodite. Her has no mortal yet marked moving round among them, but do you attend to the undeceitful ordering of my discussion.

             For all these are equal and alike in age, yet each has a different prerogative and its own unique nature, but they gain the upper hand in turn when the time comes around. Nothing comes into being besides these, nor do they pass away; for, if they had been passing away continually, they would not be now, and what could increase this all and from where could it come? How, too, could it perish, since no place is empty of these things? There are these alone; but, running through each other, they become now this, now that, and like things always. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B17)]

             But now I will retrace my steps over the paths of song that I have traveled before, drawing from my saying a new saying. When Strife had fallen to the lowest depth of the vortex, and Love had reached to the center of the whirl, all things came together in it so as to be one only. This did not happen all at once, but they [i.e., the four elements] came together at their will each from different quarters. As they mingled, strife began to pass out to the furthest limit. Yet many things remained unmixed, alternating with the things that were being mixed, namely, all that Strife not fallen yet retained; for it had not yet altogether retired perfectly from them to the outermost boundaries of the circle. Some of it still remained within, and some had passed out from the limbs of the All. But in proportion as it kept rushing out, a soft, immortal stream of blameless Love kept running in, and immediately those things became mortal which had been immortal before, those things were mixed that had before been unmixed, each changing its path. As they mingled, countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to observe. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B35-36)]


Disfigurement from Too much Love or Strife

This [i.e., the contest of Love and Strife] is evident in the mass of mortal limbs. At one time all the limbs that are the body's portion are brought together by Love in blooming life's high season; at another, severed by cruel Strife, they wander each alone by the breakers of life's sea. It is the same with plants and the fish that make their homes in the waters, with the beasts that have their dens on the hills and the seabirds that sail on wings. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B20)]

             On it [the earth] many heads sprung up without necks and arms wandered bare and deprived of shoulders. Eyes strayed up and down in want of foreheads. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens (DK B57)]

             Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, (DK B58)]

             [There are creatures] with clumsy feet and undeveloped hands, bodied like ox and faced like man. [Plutarch, Against Colotes (DK B60)]

             Many creatures with faces and chests looking in different directions were born. Some offspring of oxen had faces of people, while others, again, arose as offspring of people with the heads of oxen. There were creatures in whom the nature of women and men was mingled, furnished with sterile parts. [Aelian, The Nature of Animals (DK B61)]


Nature Reflects the Love-Strife Cycle

Come now, look at the things that bear witness to my earlier discussion, if so be that there was any shortcoming as to their form in the earlier list. Observe the sun, everywhere bright and warm, and all the immortal things that are bathed in heat and bright radiance. Observe the rain, everywhere dark and cold; and from the earth issue things close-pressed and solid. When they are in strife all these are different in form and separated; but they come together in love, and are desired by each other.

             For out of these have sprung all things that were and are and will be, such as trees and men and women, beasts and birds and the fishes that live in the waters, yea, and the gods that live long lives and are highest ranking in honor.

             For there are these alone; but, running through each other, they take different shapes -- so much does mixture change them. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, (DK B21)]

             For all of these -- sun, earth, sky, and sea -- are at one with all their parts that are cast far and wide from them in mortal things. Even so all things that are more adapted for mixture are like to each other and united in love by Aphrodite. Those things, again, that differ most in origin, mixture and the forms imprinted on each, are most hostile, being altogether unaccustomed to unite and very sorry by the bidding of Strife, since it has wrought their birth. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B22)]


The Repeating Love-Strife Cycle

They dominate in turn as the cycle comes around, and pass into each other, and grow great in their appointed turn. There are these alone; but, running through each other, they become people and the tribes of beasts. At one time they are all brought together into one order by Love; at another, they are carried each in different directions by the repulsion of Strife, till they grow once more into one and are wholly subdued. Thus in so far as they are accustomed to grow into one out of many, and again divided become more than one, so far they come into being and their life is not lasting; but in so far as they never cease changing continually, so far are they always, unchanging in the cycle. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B26)]




Life of Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500–428 BCE)

Anaxagoras, the son of Hegesibulus, or Eubulus, was a citizen of Clazomenae. He was a pupil of Anaximenes, and was the first philosopher who attributed mind to matter, beginning his treatise on the subject in the following manner (and the whole treatise is written in a most beautiful and magnificent style): "All things were mixed up together; then Mind came and arranged them all in distinct order." For this reason he himself got the same name of Mind. Timon speaks thus of him in his Silli: “They say too that wise Anaxagoras deserves immortal fame; they call him Mind, because, as he teaches, Mind came in season, arranging all which was confused before.”

             Anaxagoras was eminent for his noble birth, for his riches, and still more so for his magnanimity, since he gave up all his inheretance to his relations. Being blamed by them for his neglect of his estate, "Why, then," said he, "do not you take care of it?" At last he abandoned it entirely, and devoted himself to the contemplation of subjects of natural philosophy, disregarding politics. So that once when some said to him, "You have no affection for your country," " Be silent," said he, " for I have the greatest affection for my country," pointing up to heaven.” . . .

             Of Anaxagoras’s trial there are different accounts given. Sotion, in his Succession of the Philosophers, says, that he was persecuted for impiety by Cleon, because he said that the sun was a fiery ball of iron. Though Pericles, who had been his pupil, defended him, he was, nevertheless, fined five talents and banished. But Satyrus, in his Lives, says that it was Thucydides by whom he was impeached, as Thucydides was of the opposite party to Pericles; and that he was prosecuted not only for impiety, but also for treason; and that he was condemned to death in his absence. News was brought him of two misfortunes, namely his condemnation and the death of his children. Concerning the condemnation, he said, "Nature has long since condemned to death both them and me.'' But about his children, he said, "I knew that I had become the father of mortals." . . .

             Finally, having gone to Lumpsacus, Anaxagoras died in that city. It is said, that when the governors of the city asked him what he would like to have done for him, he replied, "That they would allow the children to play every year during the month in which he died." This custom is kept up even now. When he was dead, the citizens of Lampsacus buried him with great honors, and wrote this epitaph on him: “Here Anaxagoras lies, who reached of truth The farthest bounds in heavenly speculations.” [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 2]



This person affirmed the originating principle of the universe to be mind and matter; mind being the efficient cause, whereas matter that which was being formed. For all things coming into existence simultaneously, mind supervening introduced order. Material principles, he says, are infinite; even the smaller of these are infinite. That all things partake of motion by being moved by mind, and that similar bodies coalesce. That celestial bodies were arranged by orbicular motion. That, therefore, what was thick and moist, and dark and cold, and all things heavy, came together into the center, from the solidification of which earth derived support; but that the things opposite to these— namely, heat and brilliancy, and dryness and lightness— hurried impetuously into the farther portion of the atmosphere. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]


Infinitely Small Seeds, Fractal Cosmology, Portions of Everything in Everything

All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite. When all things were together, none of them could be distinguished for their smallness. For air and aether prevailed over all things, being both of them infinite; for among all things these are the greatest both in quantity and size. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B1)]

             For air and aether are separated off from the mass that surrounds the world, and the surrounding mass is infinite in quantity. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B2)]

             Nor is there a least of what is small, but there is always a smaller; for it cannot be that what is should cease to be by being cut. But there is also always something, greater than what is great, and it is equal to the small in amount, and, compared with itself, each thing is both great and small. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B3)]

             Since these things are so, we must suppose that there are contained many things and of all sorts in the things that are uniting, seeds of all things, with all sorts of shapes and colors and tastes, and that people have been formed in them, and the other animals that have life, and that these people have inhabited cities and cultivated fields as with us; and that they have a sun and a moon and the rest as with us; and that their earth produces for them many things of all kinds of which they gather the best together into their dwellings, and use them. Thus much have I said with regard to separating off, to show that it will not be only with us that things are separated off, but elsewhere too. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B4)]

             But before, they were separated off, when all things were together, not even was any color distinguishable. For the mixture of all things prevented it -- of the moist and the dry, and the warm and the cold, and the light and the dark, and of much earth that was in it, and of a multitude of innumerable seeds in no way like each other. For none of the other things either is like any other. These things being so, we must hold that all things are in the whole.

             Those things having been thus decided, we must know that all of them are neither more nor less; for it is not possible for them to be more than all, and all are always equal. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B5)]

             Since the portions of the great and of the small are equal in amount, for this reason, too, all things will be in everything. Nor is it possible for them to be apart, but all things have a portion of everything. Since it is impossible for there to be a least thing, they cannot be separated, nor come to be by themselves; but they must be now, just as they were in the beginning, all together. In all things many things are contained, and an equal number both in the greater and in the smaller of the things that are separated off. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B6)]


Mind: Knowledge of Everything, the Source of Cosmic Revolving

In everything there is a portion of everything except Mind, and there are some things in which there is Mind also. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B11)]

             All other things partake in a portion of everything, while Mind is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. If it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any. For in everything there is a portion of everything, as I said earlier, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself. It is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength. Mind has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have life. Mind had power over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve in the beginning. It began to revolve first from a small beginning; but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger still. All the things that are mingled together and separated off and distinguished are all known by Mind. Mind set in order all things that were to be, and all things that were and are not now and that are, and this revolution in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon, and the air and the aether that are separated off. This revolution caused the separating off, and the rare is separated off from the dense, the warm from the cold, the light from the dark, and the dry from the moist. There are many portions in many things. But no thing is altogether separated off nor distinguished from anything else except Mind. All Nous is alike, both the greater and the smaller; while nothing else is like anything else, but each single thing is and was most manifestly those things of which it has most in it. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B12)]

             When Mind began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved, and so much as Mind set in motion was all separated. As things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B13)]

             Mind, whichever is, is certainly there, where everything else is, in the surrounding mass, and in what has been united with it and separated off from it. [Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics (DK B14)]




Summary of Leucippus (5th cn. BCE)

Leucippus was a native of Velia, but, as some say, of Abdera; and, as others report, of Melos. He was a pupil of Zeno. His principal doctrines were, that all things were infinite, and were interchanged with each other; and that the universe was a vacuum, and full of bodies; also that the worlds were produced by bodies falling into the vacuum, and becoming entangled with each other; and that the nature of the stars originated in motion, according to their increase; also, that the sun is borne round in a greater circle around the moon; that the earth is carried on revolving around the center. Its figure resembles a drum; he was the first philosopher who spoke of atoms as principles. These are his doctrines in general; in particular detail, they are as follow: he says that the universe is infinite, as I have already mentioned; that of it, one part is a plenum, and the other a vacuum. He also says that the elements, and the worlds which are derived from them, are infinite, and are dissolved again into them; and that the worlds are produced in this manner: That many bodies, of various kinds and shapes, are borne by amputation from the infinite, into a vast vacuum; and then, they being collected together, produce one vortex; according to which they, dashing against each other, and whirling about in every direction, are separated in such a way that like attaches itself to like. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9 (DK 1)]

             Both Epicurus and Hermarchus deny the very existence of Leucippus the philosopher, though by some and by Apollodorus the Epicurean he is said to have been the teacher of Democritus. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]

             Leucippus, an associate of Zeno, did not maintain the same opinion [as Parmenides], but affirms things to be infinite, and always in motion, and that generation and change exist continuously. He affirms plenum and vacuum to be elements. He asserts that worlds are produced when many bodies are congregated and flow together from the surrounding space to a common point, so that by mutual contact they made substances of the same figure and similar in form come into connection; and when thus intertwined, there are transmutations into other bodies, and that created things wax and wane through necessity. But what the nature of necessity is, he did not define. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]

             Leucippus of Elea or Miletus (for both accounts are given of him) had followed Parmenides in philosophy. He did not, however, follow the same path in his explanation of things as Parmenides and Xenophanes did, but, as is believed, the very opposite. They made the All one, immovable, uncreated, and finite, and did not even permit us to search for what is not; Leucippus assumed innumerable and ever-moving elements, namely, the atoms. He made their forms infinite in number, since there was no reason why they should be of one kind rather than another, and because he saw that there was unceasing becoming and change in things. He held, further, that what is is no more real than what is not and that both are alike causes of the things that come into being; for he laid down that the substance of the atoms was compact and full, and he called them what is, while they moved in the void which he called what is not, but affirmed to be just as real as what is. [Theophrastus, Physics (DK 8)]


Life of Democritus of Abdera (c. 460-350 BCE)

Democritus was a native of Abdera, or, as it is stated by some authors, a citizen of Miletus. . . . His father entrusted him to Leucippus, and to Anaxagoras, as some authors assert, who was forty years older than he. . . . He was one of three brothers who divided their patrimony among them. The most common story is, that he took the smaller portion, as it was in money, because he required money for the purpose of travelling; though his brothers suspected him of entertaining some treacherous design. Demetrius says, that his share amounted to more than a hundred talents, and that he spent all of it. Demetrius also says, that Democritus was so industrious a man, that he cut off for himself a small portion of the garden which surrounded his house, in which there was a small cottage, and shut himself up in it. On one occasion, when his father brought him an ox to sacrifice, and fastened it there, he for a long time did not discover it, until his father having roused him, on the pretext of the sacrifice, told him what he had done with the ox. Demetrius further asserts, that it is well known that Democritus went to Athens, and as he despised glory, he did not desire to be known; and that he became acquainted with Socrates, without Socrates knowing who he was. "For I came," says he, "to Athens, and no one knew me." . . .

             Antisthenes says, that Democritus would practice testing perceptions in various manners, sometimes retiring into solitary places, and spending his time even among tombs. He further adds, that when Democritus returned from his travels, he lived in a most humble manner; like a man who had spent all his property, and that on account of his poverty, he was supported by his brother Damasus. But when he had foretold some future event, which happened as he had predicted, and had in consequence become famous, he was for all the rest of his life thought worthy of almost divine honors by the generality of people. . . .

             Aristoxenus, in his Historic Commentaries, says that Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he was able to collect; but that Amyclas and Cleinias, the Pythagoreans, prevented him, as it would do no good; for that copies of his books were already in many hands. It is plain that that was the case; for Plato, who mentions nearly all the ancient philosophers, nowhere speaks of Democritus; not even in those passages where he has occasion to contradict his theories, evidently, because he said that if he did, he would be showing his disagreement with the best of all philosophers.

             Hermippus relates, that Democritus died in the following manner: he was exceedingly old, and appeared at the point of death; and his sister was lamenting that he would die during the festival of the Thesmophoria, and so prevent her from discharging her duties to the Goddess; and so he bade her be of good cheer, and desired her to bring him hot loaves every day. By applying these to his nostrils, he kept himself alive even over the festival. But when the days of the festival were passed (and it lasted three days), then he expired, without any pain, as Hipparchus assures us, having lived a hundred and nine years. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]

             Democritus is said never to have appeared in public without laughing; so little did men's serious occupations appear serious to him. [Seneca, Of Anger, 2]


Summary of Democritus

His opinions are these. The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space; everything else is merely thought to exist. The worlds are unlimited; they come into being and perish. Nothing can come into being from that which is not nor pass away into that which is not. Further, the atoms are unlimited in size and number, and they are borne along in the whole universe in a vortex, and thereby generate all composite things – fire, water, air, earth; for even these are conglomerations of given atoms. It is because of their solidity that these atoms are impassive and unalterable. The sun and the moon have been composed of such smooth and spherical masses [i.e. atoms], and so also the soul, which is identical with reason. We see by virtue of the impact of images upon our eyes. All things happen by virtue of necessity, the vortex being the cause of the creation of all things, and this he calls necessity. The end of action is tranquility, which is not identical with pleasure, as some by a false interpretation have understood, but a state in which the soul continues calm and strong, undisturbed by any fear or superstition or any other emotion. This he calls well-being and many other names. The qualities of things exist merely by convention; in nature there is nothing but atoms and void space. These, then, are his opinions. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9]

             He makes statements similar to Leucippus concerning elements, namely, plenitude and vacuum, denominating plenitude entity, and vacuum nonentity; and this he asserted, since existing things are continually moved in the vacuum. He maintained worlds to be infinite, and varying in bulk. In some there is neither sun nor moon, while in others they are larger than with us, and with others more numerous. Intervals between worlds are unequal; and that in one quarter of space (worlds) are more numerous, and in another less so; some of them increase in bulk, but that others attain their full size, while others dwindle away and that in one quarter they are coming into existence, while in another they are failing. They are destroyed by clashing one with another. Some worlds are destitute of animals and plants, and every species of moisture. [Hippolitus, Refutation of All Heresies]


The Cosmos: Necessity, Atoms in the Void

Nothing comes into being at random, but everything arises for a reason and driven by necessity. [Aetius (DK 2)]

             [Democritus]  says: By convention  sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention color is color. But in reality there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms are real. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, (DK 9)]

             For what is it that Democritus says? “There are substances, in number infinite, called atoms (because they cannot be divided), without difference, without quality, and impassible, which move, being dispersed here and there, in the infinite voidness; and that when they approach each other, or meet and are conjoined, of such masses thus heaped together, one appears water, another fire, another a plant, another a man; and that all things are thus really atoms (as he called them), and that there is nothing else; for there can be no generation from what is not; and of those things which are nothing can be generated, because these atoms are so firm, that they can neither change, alter, nor suffer; wherefore there cannot be made color of those things which are without color, nor nature or soul of those things which are without quality and impassible.” [Plutarch, Against Colotes (DK 57)]



Democritus and most of the natural philosophers who treat of sense-perception proceed quite irrationally, for they represent all objects of sense as objects of touch. [Aristotle, On Sense, 4]

             [Leucippus and Democritus] attributed sight to certain image-particles (eidola), of the same shape as the object, which were continually streaming off from the objects of sight and impacting the eye. [Alexander, On the Senses]

             Democritus explains sight by the visual image, which he describes in a unique way; the visual image does not arise directly in the pupil, but the air between the eye and the object of sight is contracted and stamped by the object seen and the seer; for from everything there is always a sort of effluence proceeding. [Theophrastus, On the Senses (DK A135)]

             Proof that [these sensory qualities] are not objectively real is found in the fact that they do not appear the same to all creatures: what is sweet to us is bitter to others, and to still others it is sour or pungent or astringent; and similarly of the other [sensory qualities]. Further, Democritus holds that  men vary in composition " according to their condition and age. From this it is evident that a man's physical state accounts for his inner presentation. So we must in general, according to him, hold this view regarding sensory objects. [Theophrastus, On the Senses]


The Gods

Democritus says that certain image-particles (eidola) of atoms approach humans, and of them some cause good and others evil… These are large and immense, and difficult to destroy though not indestructible. They indicate the future in advance to people when they are seen to emit voices. As a result people of ancient times, upon perceiving the appearances of these things, supposed that they are a god, though there is no other god aside from these having an indestructible nature. [Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians (DK B166)]

             They are the absurdities in which Democritus, or before him Leucippus, would indulge, saying, that there are certain light corpuscles, some smooth, some rough, some round, some square, some crooked and bent as bows; which by a chance meeting made heaven and earth, without the influence of any natural power. . . . At one time he thinks, that there are images endowed with divinity, inherent in the universality of things; at another, that the principles and minds contained in the universe are Gods; then he attributes divinity to animated images, employing themselves in doing us good or harm; and lastly, he speaks of certain images of such vast extent that they encompass the whole outside of the universe; all which opinions are more worthy of the country of Democritus [i.e., Abdera, which had a reputation for stupidity] than of Democritus himself. For who can frame in his mind any ideas of such images? Who can admire them? Who can think they merit a religious adoration? . . . We must either deny the existence of the Gods (as Democritus and Epicurus by their doctrine of images in some sort do), or, if we acknowledge that there are Gods, we must believe they are employed, and that, too, in something excellent. [Cicero, The Nature of the Gods 1, 2]




Life of Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490–420 BCE)

Protagoras of Abdera, the sophist, was a pupil of Democritus in the city of his birth, and he also associated with the Persian magi when Xerxes led his expedition against Greece. For his father was Maeander, who had amassed wealth beyond most men in Thrace; he even entertained Xerxes in his house, and, by giving him presents, obtained his permission for his son to study with the magi. For the Persian magi do not educate those that are not Persians, except by command of the Great King. When Protagoras says that he has no knowledge whether the gods exist or not, I think that he derived this heresy from his Persian education. For though the magi invoke the gods in their secret rites, they avoid any public profession of belief in a deity, because they do not wish it to be thought that their own powers are derived from that source. It was for this saying that Protagoras was outlawed from the whole earth by the Athenians, as some say after a trial, but others hold that the decree was voted against him without the form of a trial. He then passed from island to island and from continent to continent, and while trying to avoid the Athenian ships which were distributed over every sea, he was drowned when sailing in a small boat. He was the first to introduce the custom of charging a fee for lectures, and so was the first to hand down to the Greeks a practice which is not to be despised, since the pursuits on which we spend money we prize more than those for which no money is charged. Plato recognized that though Protagoras had a dignified style of eloquence, that dignity was a mask for his real indolence of mind, and that he was at times too long-winded and lacked a sense of proportion, and so, in a long myth, he hit off the main characteristics of the other's style. [Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists]



He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to each other. He would employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so. But he began something in this manner: " Man is the measure of all things: of those things which exist as he is; and of those things which do not exist as he is not." He would say that nothing else was soul except the senses, as Plato says, in the Theaetetus; and that everything was true. Another of his treatises he begins in this way: " Concerning the Gods, I am not able to know to a certainty whether they exist or whether they do not. For there are many things which prevent one from knowing, especially the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of the life of man." And on account of this beginning of his treatise, he was banished by the Athenians. They burnt his books in the market-place, calling them in by the public crier, and compelling all who possessed them to surrender them.

             He was the first person who demanded payment of his pupils; fixing his charge at a hundred nunse. He was also the first person who gave a precise definition of the parts of time; and who explained the value of opportunity, and who instituted contests of argument, and who armed the disputants with the weapon of sophism. He it was too who first left facts out of consideration, and fastened his arguments on words; and who was the parent of the present superficial and futile kinds of discussion. For this reason Timon says of him: “Protagoras, that slippery arguer, in disputatious contests fully skilled.”

             He too, it was, who first invented that sort of argument which is called the Socratic, and who first employed the reasonings of Antisthenes, which attempt to establish the point that they cannot be contradicted; as Plato tells us in his Euthydemus. He was also the first person who practiced regular discussions on set subjects, as Artemidorus, the dialectician, tells us in his treatise against Chrysippus. He was also the original inventor of the porter's pad for men to carry their burdens on, as we are assured by Aristotle, in his book on Education; for he himself was a porter, as Epicurus says somewhere or other. It was in this way that he became highly thought of by Democritus, who saw him as he was tying up some sticks.

             He was also the first person who divided discourse into four parts; entreaty, interrogation, answer, and injunction: though some writers make the parts seven; narration, interrogation, answer, injunction, promise, entreaty, and invocation; and these he called the foundations of discourse: but Allidomas says that there are four divisions of discourse; affirmation, denial, interrogation, and invocation. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives 9]


Relativism and Skepticism

             He said that the Man is the measure of all things, of existing things, that they exist, of non-existent things, that they do not exist: for as things appear to each person, such they also are; and of the rest we can affirm nothing positively. [Eusebius, Preparation of the Gospel]

             Protagoras made the weaker and stronger arguments, and taught his students to blame and praise the same person. [Stephanus of Byzantium (DK A21)]

             Whatever appears to a state to be just and fair, so long as it is regarded as such, is just and fair to it. [Plato, Theaetetus]

             As to Protagoras it is reported that he was called an atheist. In fact he, too, in writing about the gods used this sort of introduction: “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.” [Eusebius, Preparation of the Gospel (DK B4)]


Teacher of Rhetoric

Young man, if you associate with me, on the very first day you will return home a better man than you came, and better on the second day than on the first, and better every day than you were on the day before. [Plato, Protagoras]

             If Hippocrates comes to me he will not experience the sort of drudgery with which other Sophists are in the habit of insulting their pupils. When students have just escaped from the arts, they are taken and driven back into them by these teachers, and made to learn arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music (he gave a look at Hippias as he said this). But if he comes to me, he will learn that which he comes to learn, namely good judgment in both private and public matters. He will learn to order his own house in the best manner, and will be able to speak and act for the best in the affairs of the state. [Plato, Protagoras]

             I believe myself to be a teacher of this sort, and, more than anyone, to have the knowledge which makes a man noble and good. I give my pupils their money's-worth, and even more, as they themselves admit. Therefore I have introduced the following mode of payment. When a man has been my pupil, if he likes he pays my price, but there is no compulsion; and if he does not like, he has only to go into a temple and take an oath of the value of the instructions, and he pays no more than he declares to be their value. [Plato, Protagoras]


Protagoras’s Paradox [Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, 5.10]

Among fallacious arguments, by far the greatest are those which the Greeks call “reversal”.  Our [Roman] countrymen have properly enough named “reciprocal”. The fallacy takes place when a proposed argument can be turned back and inverted against him by whom it is used, and on both sides appear alike valid. A common example is that which Protagoras, the keenest of the sophists, is said to have applied against Euathlus, his disciple. The dispute and controversy between them, concerning a bargain they had made, was this. Euathlus, a young man of fortune, wished to learn rhetoric and arguing cases [in court]. Euathlus became a follower of Protagoras, and agreed to give him as payment a large sum of money, which Protagoras had specified. The one half he was to pay down when first beginning to learn, and he promised to give the remainder on the first day that he successfully argued a case before judges.

             Euathlus thus studied under Progatoras and made a considerable progress in rhetoric, but he refused to take on a case. A long period of time elapsed, that he appeared to do this so that he would not have to pay the remainder of the sum. Protagoras devised a plan, which at the time seemed crafty enough: he demanded the remainder of the sum agreed on, and brought a law suit against Euathlus. They then appeared before the judges to investigate and decide the matter. Protagoras began "I assure you, you most absurd young man, you must in either case pay what I demand, whether the decision is for or against you. If the decision is against you, the sentence will compel you to fulfil your agreement, because I won. If the decision is for you, the terms of the bargain will be due to me, because you won." Euathlus replied, "I could evade your subtle trickery if I did not reply a word, but instead hired a lawyer. Nevertheless, I will enjoy this victory even more if I beat you not only in the cause, but in the argument. Accordingly, wise master, in either case I will not pay what you demand, whether the decision is for or against me. If the judges rule in favor of me, according to their sentence I own you nothing [since I won], and, if they decide against me, according to our agreement, I owe you nothing since I did not win." The judges considered that the case was uncertain and indeed irresolvable on both sides, and believed that on whatever side they determined, it might be turned against itself. So, they left the question undecided, and postponed the case to an undetermined future time. Thus, a famous master or rhetoric was refuted with his own argument by his young student, thereby evading fallacy.




Life of Gorgias of Leontini (c. 475-375 BCE)

Gorgias, of Leontini, was a pupil of Empedocles. He was a man of the greatest eminence as a rhetorician, and one who left behind him a treatise containing a complete system of the art. We are told by Apollodorus, in his Chronicles, that he lived to the age of a hundred and nine years. [Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8]

             Sicily produced Goroias of Leontini, and we must consider that the art of the sophists carries back to him as though he were its father. . . . He set an example to the sophists with his virile and energetic style, his daring and unusual expressions, his inspired impressiveness, and his use of the grand style for great themes; and also with his habit of breaking off his clauses and making sudden transitions, by which devices a speech gains in sweetness and sublimity. He also clothed his style with poetic words for the sake of ornament and dignity. . . .  It was Gorgias who founded the art of extempore oratory. For when he appeared in the theatre at Athens he had the courage to say, "Do you propose a theme "; and he was the first to risk this bold announcement, whereby he as good as advertised that he was omniscient and would speak on any subject whatever, trusting to the inspiration of the moment. . . . Further, he played a distinguished part at the religious festivals of the Greeks, and delivered his Pythian Oration from the altar. For this his statue was dedicated in gold and was set up in the temple of the Pythian god. His Olympian Oration dealt with a theme of the highest importance to the state. For, seeing that Greece was divided against itself, he came forward as the advocate of reconciliation, and tried to turn their energies against the barbarians and to persuade them not to regard each other's cities as the prize to be won by their arms, but rather the land of the barbarians. The Funeral Oration, which he delivered at Athens, was spoken in honor of those who had fallen in the wars, to whom the Athenians awarded public funerals and panegyrics, and it is composed with extraordinary cleverness. . . . It is said that though Gorgias attained to the age of 108, his body was not weakened by old age, but to the end of his life he was in sound condition, and his senses were the senses of a young man. [Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists]


Defense of Helen’s Adulterous Seduction by Paris

I believe it is my duty in the interest of justice to refute the slanderers of Helen, the memory of whose misfortunes has been kept alive by the writings of the poets and the fame of her name. I propose, therefore, by argument to exonerate her from the charge of infamy, to convince her accusers of their error, and remove their ignorance by a revelation of the truth.

             Helen acted as she did either by command of the gods and a decree of fate, or she was carried off by force, or yielded to persuasion, or was led captive by love. If, then, her act was the effect of the first cause, she certainly ought not to be blamed. For human forethought and good judgment can never thwart the will of the gods. In fact it is a universal law, not that the stronger should yield to the weaker, but the weaker to the stronger; that the stronger should lead, and the weaker follow. Now the gods are mightier than men in strength and wisdom and all things else. Accordingly we must attribute the fault to fate and the gods, or clear Helen of infamy.

             But if she was unlawfully carried off by force and shamefully insulted, evidently it was the perpetrator of this outrage who did wrong; she, on the other hand, is to be pitied for the indignity and misfortune she was compelled to suffer. He alone, then, who attempted this barbarous deed, deserves to pay the penalty of dishonor and reproach, while she ought rather to be pitied than abused for being violently torn from her friends and her native land. Helen was not a sinner, but a sufferer, and our feeling for her should not be one of hatred, but of compassion.

             But if it was the power of speech that moved and beguiled her soul, it will not be difficult to free her of all blame on this score. For the power of speech is mighty. Insignificant in themselves, words accomplish the most remarkable ends. They have power to remove fear and ease pain. Further they can produce joy and increase pity. . . . Words have the same effect on the soul that drugs have on the body. For just as different drugs expel different diseases from the body, and some cure sickness and others end life, so words produce various effects on the soul. Some cause pain, and others pleasure. Some terrify, and others encourage, while still others drug and enchant the soul with evil persuasion. In yielding to persuasion, then, Helen did no wrong, but suffered great misfortune.

             Let us now consider the case from a fourth point of view; and if we find that Helen acted as she did through love, we must acquit her of all fault. For all things in the visible world are constituted, not as we would have them, but as nature has ordained. Through the sight this visible world affects the soul in various ways. When, for example, the eye catches sight of hostile bodies in conflict, of assault, and of defense, it is troubled and in turn troubles the soul, so that not infrequently people flee in terror when there is no impending danger. Many a man in the past has lost his presence of mind at some terrible sight; to such an extent does fear paralyze the mind. Many, too, through fear, become dreadfully sick or incurably mad; so powerful an impression does the eye make on the mind of the things it has seen. To enumerate instances of sights that inspire terror is unnecessary, since in all cases the effect on the soul is the same as in the example I have given. When, however, from many colors and many forms, a painter produces one perfect form and figure, he delights our eyes. The sight of beautiful images and statues affords us unspeakable pleasure. So, too, the sight of many things and many persons inspires us with love and longing.

             Since this is so, it is no wonder if Helen's eye was captivated by the charms of Paris, and transmitted the sensation of love to her soul? How, if he was a god and possessed of divine power, could she in her weakness repel his advances? But if this is human frailty we ought not to condemn it as a fault, but regard it as a misfortune. For it comes to us through captivation of the soul, and not by design of the intellect. It results from the necessity of love, and not the premeditation of art.

             How, then, can we justly censure Helen? For whether she acted through love, persuasion, force, or divine necessity, her conduct is equally defensible.

             I have now, by argument, removed all stain from Helen's reputation, and accomplished the task I set myself at the beginning, by discrediting unjust censure and ignorant opinion. My purpose has been to make this discourse an encomium of Helen and a pastime for myself. [Gorgias, Encomium on Helen]


On Nothing: Nothing Exists, or It is Unknowable, Or It Cannot be Communicated

Gorgias declares that nothing exists; and if anything exists it is unknowable; and if it exists and is knowable, yet it cannot be communicated to others. To prove that nothing exists he collects the statements of others, who in speaking about Being seem to assert contrary opinions (some trying to prove that existence is one and not many, others that it is many and not one, and some that existents are ungenerated, others that they have come to be), and draws a two-edged conclusion. For he argues that if anything exists, it must be either one or many, and either be ungenerated or have come to be. If therefore, it cannot be either one or many, ungenerated or having come to be, it would be nothing at all. For if anything were, it would be one of these alternatives. That Being, then, is neither one nor many, neither ungenerated nor having come to be, he attempts to prove by following partly Melissus and partly Zeno, after first stating his own special proof that it is not possible either to be or not to be. For, he says, if Not-to-Be is. Not-to-Be, then Not-being would be no less than Being. For Not-being is Not-being and Being is Being, so that things no more are than are not. But if Not-to-Be is, then, he argues, To-Be, its opposite, is not; for if Not-to-Be is, it follows that To-Be is not. So that on this showing, he says, nothing could be, unless To-Be and Not-to-Be are the same thing. If they are the same thing, even so nothing would be; for Not-being is not, nor yet Being, since it is the same as Not-being. Such, then, is his first argument.

             Now it does not at all follow from what he has said that nothing is. For the proof which he and others attempt is thus refuted: If Not-being is, it either ' is ' simply, or else it is in a similar sense because it is non-existent. But this is not self-evident, nor a necessary deduction; but if there are, so to speak, two things of which one is and the other is not, you can truly say of the former that it 'is', but not of the latter, because that which is, is existent, but that which is not is non-existent. Why, then, is it not possible either to be or not to be? And why should not both or either be possible? For, he says, Not-to-Be, if Not-to-Be were, as he thinks, something, would be just as much as To-Be, while at the same time he denies that Not-to-Be has any kind of existence. But even if Not- being is Not-being, yet it does not follow that Not-being 'is' in a similar way to Being; for the former is Not-being, while the latter actually is as well. But even if he could say of Not-being that it is simply (yet how strange it would be to say that ‘Not-being is!'), still granted that it were so, does it any more follow that everything is not rather than is? For the exact opposite seems then to become the consequent; since, if Not-being is Being and Being is Being, all things are; for both the things which are, and the things which are not, are. For it does not necessarily follow that if Not-being is, Being is not. Even if one were to concede the point and accept that Not-being is and Being is not, nevertheless, something would be; for the things which are not would be, according to his argument. But if To-Be and Not-to-Be are the same thing, even so it would not follow that nothing is, rather than that something is. For just as he argues that if Not-being and Being are the same thing, Being and Not-being alike are not, therefore nothing is; so, reversing the position, it is equally possible to argue that everything is; for Not-being is and Being is, therefore everything is.

             After this argument Gorgias declares that if anything is, it must either be ungenerated or else have come to be. If it is ungenerated, he adopts the tenet of Melissus that it is unlimited, and declares that the unlimited cannot exist anywhere. It cannot, he argues, exist in itself, or in anything else (for, on the latter supposition, there would be two unlimiteds, that which is in something else and the something else in which it is); and, being nowhere, it is nothing, according to the argument of Zeno about space. Being is not, therefore, ungenerated. Nor, again, has it come to be; for, surely, he argues, nothing could come to be out of either Being or Not-being. For if Being were to change, it would no longer be Being, just as also, if Not-being were to come to be, it would no longer be Not-being. Nor, again, could it come to be, save from Being; for if Not-being is not, nothing could come to be out of nothing; while on the other hand, if Not-being is, it could not come to be out of Not-being for the same reasons for which it could not come to be out of Being. So if anything that is, necessarily either is ungenerated or else has come to be, and these are impossibilities, it is impossible for anything to be.

             Further, if anything is, either one or more things must be; if neither one nor more, nothing is . . . . Nor, he says, can anything move. For if it were to move it would no longer be in the same condition, but Being would be Not-being, and Not-being would have come to be. Further, if it moves and is transferred to a different position, Being, being no longer continuous, is divided, and, where it is divided, it no longer exists; and so, if it moves in all its parts, it is divided in all its parts, and if this is so, it ceases to exist in all its parts. For where it is divided, he argues, there it lacks Being; he uses 'divided' to mean a void, as is written in the so-called 'Arguments of Leucippus '.

             These are the proofs which he employs to show that nothing exists. He next goes on to prove that if anything exists, it is unknowable. For otherwise, he argues, all objects of thought must exist, and what does not exist (if it really does not exist) could not be thought. But were this so, nothing could be false, not even if one should say that chariots are racing on the sea. For all things would be just the same. For the objects of sight and hearing exist for the reason that they are in each case thought of. But if this is not the reason — if just as what we see is not the more because we see it, so also what we think is not the more for that (and, were it otherwise, just as in the one case our objects of vision would often be just the same, so in the other our objects of thought would often be just the same). . . . But of which kind the true things are is uncertain. So that even if things are, they would be unknowable by us.

             But even if they are knowable by us, how, he asks, could anyone communicate them to another? For how, he says, could anyone communicate by word of mouth that which he has seen? And how could that which has been seen be communicated to a listener if he has not seen it? For just as the sight does not recognize sounds, so the hearing does not hear colors but sounds; and he who speaks, speaks, but does not speak a color or a thing. When, therefore, one has not a thing in the mind, how will he get it there from another person by word or any other token of the thing except by seeing it, if it is a color, or hearing it, if it is a noise? For he who speaks does not speak a noise at all, or a color, but a word; and so it is not possible to conceive a color, but only to see it, nor a noise, but only to hear it. But even if it is possible to know things, and to express whatever one knows in words, yet how can the hearer have in his mind the same thing as the speaker? For the same thing cannot be present simultaneously in several separate people; for. in that case the one would be two. But if, he argues, the same thing could be present in several persons, there is no reason why it should not appear dissimilar to them, if they are not themselves entirely similar and are not in the same place; for if they were in the same place they would be one and not two. But it appears that the objects which even one and the same man perceives at the same moment are not all similar, but he perceives different things by hearing and by sight, and differently now and on some former occasion; and so a man can scarcely perceive the same thing as someone else.

             Thus nothing exists; and if anything could exist, nothing is knowable; and even if anything were knowable, no one could communicate it to another, firstly because things are not words, and secondly because no one can have in his mind the same thing as someone else. This and all his other arguments are concerned with difficulties raised by earlier philosophers, so that in examining their views these questions have to be discussed. [Pseudo-Aristotle, Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias]




Please answer all of the following questions.


1. What are the three mythological themes that early philosophers were responding to?

2. What is Thales’ theory about water, and, according to Aristotle, what led him to that view?

3. What is Anaximander’s theory about the unbounded, and, according to Aristotle, what led him to that view?

4. What is Anaximenes’ theory about air, and in what order to basic things arise relative to how condensed they are?

5. What are some of the rules and sayings of the Pythagorean school?

6. What is Pythagoras’s theory about numbers and, according to Aristotle, what led him to that view?

7. What are the main features of Heraclitus’s theory about change and the logos?

8. According to Xenophanes, in what ways are the traditional depiction of the gods anthropomorphic, and in what is God actually like?

9. Explain Parmenides’s view of the two paths and how these lead to the principle features of the one.

10. What are the main features of Parmenides’ untrustworthy theory of cosmology in Part 3?

11. Pick two of Zeno’s paradoxes and summarize them in your own words.

12. What are the main features of the One according to Melissus?

13. Explain Empedocles’ view of how the two forces of love and strife interact with the four elements.

14. What are the main features of Anaxagoras’ theory about Mind and the infinite divisibility of matter?

15. What are the main features of Leucippus and Democritus’s theory of atoms in the void?

16. What is Democritus’s view of the gods?

17. What are the main features of Protagoras’s views of skepticism and rhetoric?

18. What is Protagoras’s paradox?

19. What are the main points of Gorgias’s essay on Hellen?

20. What are the main points of Gorgias’s essay on Nothing?

21. Short essay: please select one of the following and answer it in a minimum of 150 words.

             a. Bertrand Russell writes the following about Thales: “The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago, the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds of water” (History of Western Philosophy, 1945, 1.2). Discuss Russell’s assessment of Thales and whether you agree.

             b. Aristotle makes the following criticism of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes: “Of the first philosophers, then, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things. . . . From these facts one might think that the only cause is the so-called material cause; but as men thus advanced, the very facts opened the way for them, and joined in forcing them to investigate the subject” (Metaphysics 1.3). What is wrong with making matter the only cause of things? That is, is some extra metaphysical cause needed?

             c. Between water, the unbounded, air, numbers and fire, if you had to choose one of these as an ultimate principle, which would it be and why?

             d. Of Zeno’s four paradoxes of motion, the stadium paradox appears to be the weakest. Read the discussion of that paradox in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Zeno’s Paradoxes” and discuss its flaws (

             e. Aristotle makes the following distinction between Parmenides’ and Melissus’ view of the One: “Parmenides seems to have grasped the unity as one in reason [i.e., definition and formal cause], Melissus as one in matter [i.e., material cause]” (Metaphysics 1.5). On this view, the One for Parmenides is only a metaphysical principle, and the One for Melissus is the actual physical world. The bottom line is that, for Melissus, the physical world of multiplicity would be an illusion, but for Parmenides it would be not an illusion but would really is. Is Aristotle’s distinction between Parmenides and Melissus textually justified? Explain. (You might consult the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Parmenides” and do a word search for “Melissus”).

             f. Aristotle makes the following criticism of Anaxagoras: “When Anaxagoras cannot explain why something is necessarily as it is, he drags in Mind, but otherwise he will use anything rather than Mind to explain a particular phenomenon” (Metaphysics 1.3). Is Aristotle right? Explain.

             g. Between Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles and Democritus, if you had to pick one of their philosophies, which would it be and why?

             h. The Sophists gained a bad reputation for placing rhetorical ability about truth. Based on the selections above from Protagoras and Gorgias, is this reputation justified? Explain.