Lives of the Eminent Philosophers – Parmenides, Melissus, Zeno of Elea

From Paradoxical Poetry

Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius


21. Parmenides, a native of Elea, son of Pyres, was a pupil of Xenophanes. (Theophrastus in his Epitome makes him a pupil of Anaximander). Parmenides, however, though he was instructed by Xenophanes, was no follower of his. According to Sotion he also associated with Ameinias the Pythagorean, who was the son of Diochaetas and a worthy gentleman though poor. This Ameinias he was more inclined to follow, and on his death he built a shrine to him, being himself of illustrious birth and possessed of great wealth; moreover it was Ameinias and not Xenophanes who led him to adopt the peaceful life of a student.
He was the first to declare that the earth is spherical and is situated in the centre of the universe. He held that there were two elements, fire and earth, and that the former discharged the function of a craftsman, the latter of his material. 22. The generation of man proceeded from the sun as first cause; heat and cold, of which all things consist, surpass the sun itself. Again he held that soul and mind are one and the same, as Theophrastus mentions in his Physics, where he is setting forth the tenets of almost all the schools. He divided his philosophy into two parts dealing the one with truth, the other with opinion. Hence he somewhere says:

Thou must needs learn all things, as well the unshakeable heart of well-rounded truth as the opinions of mortals in which there is no sure trust.

Our philosopher too commits his doctrines to verse just as did Hesiod, Xenophanes and Empedocles. He made reason the standard and pronounced sensations to be inexact. At all events his words are:

And let not long-practised wont force thee to tread this path, to be governed by an aimless eye, an echoing ear and a tongue, but do thou with understanding bring the much-contested issue to decision.

23. Hence Timon says of him:

And the strength of high-souled Parmenides, of no diverse opinions, who introduced thought instead of imagination’s deceit.

It was about him that Plato wrote a dialogue with the title Parmenides or Concerning Ideas.
He flourished in the 69th Olympiad. He is believed to have been the first to detect the identity of Hesperus, the evening-star, and Phosphorus, the morning-star; so Favorinus in the fifth book of his Memorabilia; but others attribute this to Pythagoras, whereas Callimachus holds that the poem in question was not the work of Pythagoras. Parmenides is said to have served his native city as a legislator: so we learn from Speusippus in his book On Philosophers. Also to have been the first to use the argument known as “Achilles [and the tortoise]”: so Favorinus tells us in his Miscellaneous History.
There was also another Parmenides, a rhetorician who wrote a treatise on his art.


24. Melissus, the son of Ithaegenes, was a native of Samos. He was a pupil of Parmenides. Moreover he came into relations with Heraclitus, on which occasion the latter was introduced by him to the Ephesians, who did not know him, as Democritus was to the citizens of Abdera by Hippocrates. He took part also in politics and won the approval of his countrymen, and for this reason he was elected admiral and won more admiration than ever through his own merit.

In his view the universe was unlimited, unchangeable and immovable, and was one, uniform and full of matter. There was no real, but only apparent, motion. Moreover he said that we ought not to make any statements about the gods, for it was impossible to have knowledge of them.

According to Apollodorus, he flourished in the 84th Olympiad.

Zeno of Elea

25. Zeno was a citizen of Elea. Apollodorus in his Chronology says that he was the son of Teleutagoras by birth, but of Parmenides by adoption, while Parmenides was the son of Pyres. Of Zeno and Melissus, Timon speaks thus:

Great Zeno’s strength which, never known to fail,
On each side urged, on each side could prevail.
In marshalling arguments Melissus too,
More skilled than many a one, and matched by few.

Zeno, then, was all through a pupil of Parmenides and his bosom friend. He was tall in stature, as Plato says in his Parmenides. The same philosopher [mentions him] in his Sophist, and Phaedrus, and calls him the Eleatic Palamedes. Aristotle says that Zeno was the inventor of dialectic, as Empedocles was of rhetoric.

26. He was a truly noble character both as philosopher and as politician; at all events, his extant books are brimful of intellect. Again, he plotted to overthrow Nearchus the tyrant (or, according to others, Diomedon) but was arrested: so Heraclides in his epitome of Satyrus. On that occasion he was cross-examined as to his accomplices and about the arms which he was conveying to Lipara; he denounced all the tyrant’s own friends, wishing to make him destitute of supporters. Then, saying that he had something to tell him about certain people in his private ear, he laid hold of it with his teeth and did not let go until stabbed to death, meeting the same fate as Aristogiton the tyrannicide.

27. Demetrius in his work on Men of the Same Name says that he bit off, not the ear, but the nose. According to Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers, after informing against the tyrant’s friends, he was asked by the tyrant whether there was anyone else in the plot; whereupon he replied, “Yes, you, the curse of the city!?; and to the bystanders he said, “I marvel at your cowardice, that, for fear of any of those things which I am now enduring, you should be the tyrant’s slaves.” And at last he bit off his tongue and spat it at him; and his fellow-citizens were so worked upon that they forthwith stoned the tyrant to death. In this version of the story most authors nearly agree, but Hermippus says he was cast into a mortar and beaten to death.

28. Of him also I have written as follows:

You wished, Zeno, and noble was your wish, to slay the tyrant and set Elea free from bondage. But you were crushed; for, as all know, the tyrant caught you and beat you in a mortar. But what is this that I say? It was your body that he beat, and not you.

In all other respects Zeno was a gallant man; and in particular he despised the great no less than Heraclitus. For example, his native place, the Phocaean colony, once known as Hyele and afterwards as Elea, a city of moderate size, skilled in nothing but to rear brave men, he preferred before all the splendour of Athens, hardly paying the Athenians a visit, but living all his life at home.

29. He was the first to propound the argument of the “Achilles,” which Favorinus attributes to Parmenides, and many other arguments. His views are as follows. There are worlds, but there is no empty space. The substance of all things came from hot and cold, and dry and moist, which change into one another. The generation of man proceeds from earth, and the soul is formed by a union of all the foregoing, so blended that no one element predominates.

We are told that once when he was reviled he lost his temper, and, in reply to some one who blamed him for this, he said, “If when I am abused I pretend that I am not, then neither shall I be aware of it if I am praised.”

The fact that there were eight men of the name of Zeno we have already mentioned under Zeno of Citium. Our philosopher flourished in the 79th Olympiad.

The complete text of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers