Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Eleatic School

From volume VIII of the work.
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ELEATIC SCHOOL, a Greek school of philosophy, so called because Elea was the birth-place or residence of its chief representatives. Parmenides, who was born at Elea probably about the year 515, was the first completely to develop the Eleatic doctrines; but his philosophy has a very close connection with that of Xenophanes, who was born more than a century earlier. Xenophanes, indeed, has been described as the founder of the school, and though that title is with more strictness to be given to Parmenides, it may not incorrectly be applied to him. The philosophy of Xenophanes took its rise in a strong antagonism to the popular anthropomorphic mythology ; and, though it con- tains part, it is far from containing the whole, of the Eleatic doctrine as maintained by Parmenides and his followers. Its chief doctrines were that “ the One is God,” and that God is self-existent, eternal, unchangeable, immovable, of the same substance throughout, and in every respect incomparable to man.

The Eleatic philosophy is founded upon the doctrine of

a complete severance and opposition of thought and sense. Truth is in no degree attainable by sense ; sense gives only false appearances, non-being: it is by thought alone that we arrive at the knowledge of being, at the great truth that “ the All is One,” eternal, unchangeable, or rather, as Hegel rightly interprets the Eleatics, thought is being. No distinction is drawn by Parmenides between thought and material being; the “ One and All,” indeed, is described materially as a perfect and immovable sphere. The notions of creation, change and destruction, diversity and multipli- city, time and space, and the various sensations, are all mere false appearances of sense, which thought shows to be contradictory and false. Upon a very common con- fusion of the word exist with the verb to be, which does not necessarily imply existence, he founded his argument against the possibility of creation : creation cannot be, .for being cannot arise out of non-being; nor can non-being be. Again, there can be no difference or change except in appearance, for a thing cannot arise from what is different from it. But this side of the Eleatic argument was more completely developed by Zeno. In the second part of his poem, Parmenides, notwithstanding his assertion of their falseness, does offer an explanation of the facts of consc10us- ness. Of this part of his theory, however, we have only very incomplete knowledge. It stands altogether distinct from his main doctrine. It is materialistic, like nearly all the other early Greek explanations of the universe. The universe (that is, the apparent universe) is, he says, made up of two elements, one of which he describes as heat and light, the other as cold and darkness. Of these elements all men are composed, and their thinking varies‘aprghe proportions in which these elements are mixed in their composition.

Even the dead body feels cold and darkness.

Zeno, born in the beginning of the 5th century b.c., the fellow-townsman, disciple, and adopted son of Parmenides, is famous for his attempts to prove that the notions of time, space, motion, multiplicity, sight, sound, &c., are self- contradictory and unthinkable. His paradoxes were stated with a subtlety which has forced thinkers even of distinc- tion, who were opposed to his main position, for instance, Sir William Hamilton, to admit some of them to be un- answerable. Against motion Zeno directed several argu- ments, the most celebrated being that of Achilles and the tortoise, which are founded upon the confusion of that which is infinitely divisible with that which is infinite. Against space Zeno argued that any Space, however large, must be in a larger space, this larger space again in a still larger, and so on ad infinitum. Against the manifold he argued (1) that the manifold, being divisible into the infinitely small, i.e., into that which has no magnitude, can itself have none, as divisions that have no magnitude must make up a whole without magnitude ; and (2) that, being divisible into an infinite number of parts, it must be infinitely large. Against sound he argued—and he applied similar reasoning to sight—that, as you cannot hear a single grain of corn fall, you cannot hear the sound of a number of grains falling, the sound of the falling of the number of grains being made up of the sounds of the falling of each grain. Thus Zeno sought to prove that thought and sense are opposed, and that the latter, contradicting itself, proves itself unworthy of the consideration of the philosopher.

The last of the Eleatic teachers was Melissus of Samos, the friend of Heraclitus, who was probably born somewhat later than Zeno. \Ve only possess fragments of his works, preserved by Simplicius and collected by Brandis. His modifications of the doctrines of his master, Parmenides, are not important, with the exception of his assertion of the infinity, the unlimitedness, of “ the One and All,” and his distinct insistance upon the doctrine that the “ One and All” is immaterial, unextended, without parts.

See the separate articles Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Zeno.