Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 BC? – ca. 430 BC?) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher of southern Italy and a member of the Eleatic School founded by Parmenides. Called by Aristotle the inventor of the dialectic, he is best known for his paradoxes.

Life Edit

Little is known for certain about Zeno's life. Although written nearly a century after Zeno's death, the primary source of biographical information about Zeno is the dialogue of Plato called the Parmenides [1]. In the dialogue, Plato describes a visit to Athens by Zeno and Parmenides, at a time when Parmenides is "about 65," Zeno is "nearly 40" and Socrates is "a very young man" (Parmenides 127). Assuming an age for Socrates of around 20, and taking the date of Socrates' birth as 470 BC, gives an approximate date of birth for Zeno of 490 BC.

Plato says that Zeno was "tall and fair to look upon" and was "in the days of his youth … reported to have been beloved by Parmenides" (Parmenides 127).

Other perhaps less reliable details of Zeno's life are given in Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers [2], where it is reported that he was the son of Teleutagoras, but the adopted son of Parmenides, was "skilled to argue both sides of any question, the universal critic," and further that he was arrested and perhaps killed at the hands of a tyrant of Elea.


Although several ancient writers refer to the writings of Zeno, none of his writings survive intact.

Plato says that Zeno's writings were "brought to Athens for the first time on the occasion of" the visit of Zeno and Parmenides (Parmenides 127). Plato also has Zeno say that this work, "meant to protect the arguments of Parmenides," was written in Zeno's youth, stolen, and published without his consent (Parmenides 128). Plato has Socrates paraphrase the "first thesis of the first argument" of Zeno's work as follows: "if being is many, it must be both like and unlike, and this is impossible, for neither can the like be unlike, nor the unlike like" (Parmenides 127).

According to Proclus in his Commentary on Plato's Parmenides, Zeno produced "not less than forty arguments revealing contradictions[.]" (p. 29)

Zeno's arguments are perhaps the first examples of a method of proof called reductio ad absurdum, also known as proof by contradiction.

Zeno's paradoxes Edit

Zeno's paradoxes have puzzled, challenged, influenced, inspired, infuriated, and amused philosophers, mathematicians, physicists and school children for over two millennia. The most famous are the so-called "arguments against motion" described by Aristotle in his Physics [1]. For presentation of these paradoxes, and some discussion of possible solutions, see Zeno's paradoxes.

References Edit

Further reading Edit

External links Edit

External links to online texts Edit

  1. Plato's Parmenides.
  2. Aristotle's Physics.
  3. Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers.

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