Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BC)

Zeno of Elea

Bust of Zeno from Villa dei papiri, Herculaneum. Photo credit: Marco Prins.

Zeno of Elea was a Greek philosopher and member of the Eleatic school. Zeno is most important for his four paradoxes (see Zeno's paradoxes), the best known of which are the "Achilles and tortoise" paradox (in a race, the tortoise is given a start: by the time Achilles reaches the point where the tortoise was, the tortoise has advanced – therefore Achilles can never overtake the tortoise) and the "arrow" paradox (at any instant in its flight an arrow is in only one place, and therefore at rest – therefore the arrow cannot move).


Zeno flourished in the fifth century BC at Elea, a town of Lucania, in Italy. A favorite disciple of Parmenides, he came with him to Athens, where Pericles became one of his pupils. According to the account usually given, on his return to Elea he joined an unsuccessful conspiracy to take his native town from the tyrant Nearchus, and was subsequently tortured to make him betray his accomplices. To ensure his silence he is said to have bitten off his tongue and spat it in the tyrant's face.


Zeno held the usual doctrines of the Eleatic school respecting the unity and the immutability of all things, distrust in knowledge acquired through the senses, and reliance on pure reason. He did not deny that there were phenomena or appearances, but he maintained that these had no real existence, in anticipation of the philosophy of Berkeley.


In addition to his four paradoxes, he is remembered for having been the first to employ the style of argument known as dialectics, in which error is refuted, and truth sought to be established, by reduction ad absurdum – a method used so skillfully afterwards by Socrates and Plato. He devoted his powers of argument to enforce doctrines first broached by Xenophanes, and more systematically by Parmenides.


His works were in prose, but only small fragments have been preserved.