1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eleatic School

6058591911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 9 — Eleatic School

ELEATIC SCHOOL, a Greek school of philosophy which came into existence towards the end of the 6th century B.C., and ended with Melissus of Samos (fl. c. 450 B.C.). It took its name from Elea, a Greek city of lower Italy, the home of its chief exponents, Parmenides and Zeno. Its foundation is often attributed to Xenophanes of Colophon, but, although there is much in his speculations which formed part of the later Eleatic doctrine, it is probably more correct to regard Parmenides as the founder of the school. At all events, it was Parmenides who gave it its fullest development. The main doctrines of the Eleatics were evolved in opposition, on the one hand, to the physical theories of the early physical philosophers who explained all existence in terms of primary matter (see Ionian School), and, on the other hand, to the theory of Heraclitus that all existence may be summed up as perpetual change. As against these theories the Eleatics maintained that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being. The senses with their changing and inconsistent reports cannot cognize this unity; it is by thought alone that we can pass beyond the false appearances of sense and arrive at the knowledge of being, at the fundamental truth that “the All is One.” There can be no creation, for being cannot come from not-being; a thing cannot arise from that which is different from it. The errors of common opinion arise to a great extent from the ambiguous use of the verb “to be,” which may imply existence or be merely the copula which connects subject and predicate.

In these main contentions the Eleatic school achieved a real advance, and paved the way to the modern conception of metaphysics. Xenophanes in the middle of the 6th century had made the first great attack on the crude mythology of early Greece, including in his onslaught the whole anthropomorphic system enshrined in the poems of Homer and Hesiod. In the hands of Parmenides this spirit of free thought developed on metaphysical lines. Subsequently, whether from the fact that such bold speculations were obnoxious to the general sense of propriety in Elea, or from the inferiority of its leaders, the school degenerated into verbal disputes as to the possibility of motion, and similar academic trifling. The best work of the school was absorbed in the Platonic metaphysic (see E. Caird, Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, 1904).

See further the articles on Xenophanes; Parmenides; Zeno (of Elea); Melissus, with the works there quoted; also the histories of philosophy by Zeller, Gomperz, Windelband, &c.