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Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, 3rd edition (1920).

Melissus of Samos: Fragments

164. Life of Melissus

In his Life of Perikles, Plutarch tells us, on the authority of Aristotle, that the philosopher Melissos, son of Ithagenes,was the Samian general who defeated the Athenian fleet in 441/0 B.C.;44 and it was no doubt for this reason that Apollodoros fixed his floruit in Ol. LXXXIV. (444-41 B.C.).45 Beyond this, we really know nothing about his life. He is said to have been, like Zeno, a disciple of Parmenides;46 but, as he was a Samian, it is possible that he was originally a member of the Ionic school, and we shall see that certain features of his doctrine tend to bear out this view. On the other hand, he was certainly convinced by the Eleatic dialectic, and renounced the Ionic doctrine in so far as it was inconsistent with that. We note here the effect of the increased facility of intercourse between East and West, which was secured by the supremacy of Athens.

165. The Fragments

The fragments which we have come from Simplicius, and are given, with the exception of the first, from the text of Diels.47

(1a) If nothing is, what can be said of it as of something real?48

(1) What was was ever, and ever shall be. For, if it had come into being, it needs must have been nothing before it came into being. Now, if it were nothing, in no wise could anything have arisen out of nothing. R. P. 142.

(2) Since, then, it has not come into being, and since it is, was ever, and ever shall be, it has no beginning or end, but is without limit. For, if it had come into being, it would have had a beginning (for it would have begun to come into being at some time or other) and an end (for it would have ceased to come into being at some time or other); but, if it neither began nor ended, and ever was and ever shall be, it has no beginning or end; for it is not possible for anything to be ever without all being. R. P. 143.

(3) Further, just as it ever is, so it must ever be infinite in magnitude. R. P. 143.

(4) But nothing which has a beginning or end is either eternal or infinite. R. P. 143.

(5) If it were not one, it would be bounded by something else. R. P. 144 a.

(6) For if it is (infinite), it must be one; for if it were two, it could not be infinite; for then they would be bounded by one another.49.

(6a) (And, since it is one, it is alike throughout; for if it were unlike, it would be many and not one.50)

(7) So then it is eternal and infinite and one and all alike. And it cannot perish nor become greater, nor does it suffer pain or grief. For, if any of these things happened to it, it would no longer be one. For if it is altered, then the real must needs not be all alike, but what was before must pass away, and what was not must come into being. Now, if it changed by so much as a single hair in ten thousand years, it would all perish in the whole of time.

Further, it is not possible either that its order should be changed; for the order which it had before does not perish, nor does that which was not come into being. But, since nothing is either added to it or passes away or is altered, how can any real thing have had its order changed? For if anything became different, that would amount to a change in its order.

Nor does it suffer pain; for a thing in pain could not all be. For a thing in pain could not be ever, nor has it the same power as what is whole. Nor would it be alike, if it were in pain; for it is only from the addition or subtraction of something that it could feel pain, and then it would no longer be alike. Nor could what is whole feel pain; for then what was whole and what was real would pass away, and what was not would come into being. And the same argument applies to grief as to pain.

Nor is anything empty: For what is empty is nothing. What is nothing cannot be.

Nor does it move; for it has nowhere to betake itself to, but is full. For if there were aught empty, it would betake itself to the empty. But, since there is naught empty, it has nowhere to betake itself to.

And it cannot be dense and rare ; for it is not possible for what is rare to be as full as what is dense, but what is rare is at once emptier than what is dense.

This is the way in which we must distinguish between what is full and what is not full. If a thing has room for anything else, and takes it in, it is not full ; but if it has no room for anything and does not take it in, it is full.

Now, it must needs be full if there is naught empty, and if it is full, it does not move. R. P. 145.

(8) This argument, then, is the greatest proof that it is one alone; but the following are proofs of it also. If there were a many, these would have to be of the same kind as I say that the one is. For if there is earth and water, and air and iron, and gold and fire, and if one thing is living and another dead, and if things are black and white and all that men say they really are,–if that is so, and if we see and hear aright, each one of these must be such as we first decided, and they cannot be changed or altered, but each must be just as it is. But, as it is, we say that we see and hear and understand aright, and yet we believe that what is warm becomes cold, and what is cold warm; that what is hard turns soft, and what is soft hard; that what is living dies, and that things are born from what lives not; and that all those things are changed, and that what they were and what they are now are in no way alike. We think that iron, which is hard, is rubbed away by contact with the finger;51 and so with gold and stone and everything which we fancy to be strong, and that earth and stone are made out of water; so that it turns out that we neither see nor know realities. Now these things do not agree with one another. We said that there were many things that were eternal and had forms and strength of their own, and yet we fancy that they all suffer alteration, and that they change from what we see each time. It is clear, then, that we did not see aright after all, nor are we right in believing that all these things are many. They would not change if they were real, but each thing would be just what we believed it to be; for nothing is stronger than true reality. But if it has changed, what was has passed away, and what was not is come into being. So then, if there were many things, they would have to be just of the same nature as the one. R. P. 147.

(9) Now, if it were to exist, it must needs be one; but if it is one, it cannot have body; for, if it had body it would have parts, and would no longer be one. R. P. 146.52

(10) If what is real is divided, it moves; but if it moves, it cannot be. R. P. 144 a.53

166. Theory of Reality

It has been pointed out that Melissos was not perhaps originally a member of the Eleatic school; but he certainly adopted all the views of Parmenides as to the true nature of reality with one remarkable exception. He appears to have opened his treatise with a reassertion of the Parmenidean “Nothing is not” (fr. 1a), and the arguments by which he supported this view are those with which we are already familiar (fr. 1). Reality, as with Parmenides, is eternal, a point which Melissos expressed in a way of his own. He argued that since everything that has come into being has a beginning and an end, everything that has not come into being has no beginning or end. Aristotle is very hard on him for this simple conversion of a universal affirmative proposition;54 but, of course, his belief was not founded on that. His whole conception of reality made it necessary for him to regard it as eternal.55 It would be more serious if Aristotle were right in believing, as he seems to have done, that Melissos inferred that what is must be infinite in space, because it had neither beginning nor end in time.56 As, however, we have the fragment which Aristotle interprets in this way (fr. 2), we are quite entitled to understand it for ourselves, and I cannot see anything to justify Aristotle's assumption that the expression “without limit” means without limit in space.57

167. Reality Spatially Infinite

Melissos did indeed differ from Parmenides in holding that reality was spatially as well as temporally infinite; but he gave an excellent reason for this belief, and had no need to support it by such an extraordinary argument. What he said was that, if it were limited, it would be limited by empty space. This we know from Aristotle himself,58 and it marks a real advance upon Parmenides. He had thought it possible to regard reality as a finite sphere, but it would have been difficult for him to work out this view in detail. He would have had to say there was nothing outside the sphere; but no one knew better than he that there is no such thing as nothing. Melissos saw that you cannot imagine a finite sphere without regarding it as surrounded by an infinite empty space;59 and as, in common with the rest of the school, he denied the void (fr. 7), he was forced to say reality was spatially infinite (fr. 3). It is possible that he was influenced in this by his association with the Ionic school.

From the infinity of reality, it follows that it must be one; for, if it were not one, it would be bounded by something else (fr. 5). And, being one, it must be homogeneous throughout (fr. 6a), for that is what we mean by one. Reality, then, is a single, homogeneous, corporeal plenum, stretching out to infinity in space, and going backwards and forwards to infinity in time.

168. Opposition to Ionians

Eleaticism was always critical, and we are not without indications of the attitude taken up by Melissos towards contemporary systems. The flaw which he found in the Ionian theories was that they all assumed some want of homogeneity in the One, which was a real inconsistency. Further, they all allowed the possibility of change; but, if all things are one, change must be a form of coming into being and passing away. If you admit that a thing can change, you cannot maintain that it is eternal. Nor can the arrangement of the parts of reality alter, as Anaximander, for instance, had held; any such change necessarily involves a coming into being and passing away.

The next point made by Melissos is somewhat peculiar. Reality, he says, cannot feel sorrow or pain; for that is always due to the addition or subtraction of something, which is impossible. It is not easy to be sure what this refers to. Perhaps it is to the theory by which Anaxagoras explained perception.60

Motion in general61 and rarefaction and condensation in particular are impossible; for both imply the existence of empty space. Divisibility is excluded for the same reason. These are the same arguments as Parmenides employed.

169. Opposition to Pythagoreans

In nearly all accounts of the system of Melissos, we find it stated that he denied the corporeality of what is real,–an opinion which is supported by a reference to fr. 9, which is certainly quoted by Simplicius to prove this very point.62 If, however, our general view as to the character of early Greek philosophy is correct, the statement must seem incredible. And it will seem even more surprising when we find that in the Metaphysics Aristotle says that, while the unity of Parmenides seemed to be ideal, that of Melissos was material.63 Now the fragment, as it stands in the MSS. of Simplicius,64 puts a purely hypothetical case, and would most naturally be understood as a disproof of the existence of something on the ground that, if it existed, it would have to be both corporeal and one. This cannot refer to the Eleatic One, in which Melissos himself believed; and, as the argument is almost verbally the same as one of Zeno's,65 it is natural to suppose that it also was directed against the Pythagorean assumption of ultimate units. The only possible objection is that Simplicius, who twice quotes the fragment, certainly took it in the sense usually given to it.66 But it was very natural for him to make this mistake. “The One” was an expression that had two senses in the middle of the fifth century B.C.; it meant either the whole of reality or the point as a spatial unit. To maintain it in the first sense, the Eleatics were obliged to disprove it in the second; and so it sometimes seemed that they were speaking of their own “One” when they really meant the other. We have seen that the very same difficulty was felt about Zeno's denial of the “one.”67

170. Opposition to Anaxagoras

The most remarkable fragment of Melissos is, perhaps, the last (fr. 8). It seems to be directed against Anaxagoras; at least the language seems more applicable to him than any one else. Anaxagoras had admitted (§ 137, fin.) that, so far as our perceptions go, they do not agree with his theory, though he held this was due solely to their weakness. Melissos, taking advantage of this admission, urges that, if we give up the senses as the test of reality, we are not entitled to reject the Eleatic theory. With wonderful penetration he points out that if we are to say, with Anaxagoras, that things are a many, we are bound also to say that each one of them is such as the Eleatics declared the One to be. In other words, the only consistent pluralism is the atomic theory.

Melissos has been unduly depreciated owing to the criticisms of Aristotle; but these, we have seen, are based mainly on a somewhat pedantic objection to the false conversion in the early part of the argument. Melissos knew nothing about the rules of conversion; and he could easily have made his reasoning formally correct without modifying his system. His greatness consisted in this, that not only was he the real systematiser of Eleaticism, but he was also able to see, before the pluralists saw it themselves, the only way in which the theory that things are a many could be consistently worked out.68 It is significant that Polybos, the nephew of Hippokrates, reproaches those “sophists” who taught there was only one primary substance with “ putting the doctrine of Melissos on its feet.”69


44. Plut. Per. 26 (R. P. 141 b), from Aristotle's Σαμίων πολιτεία.

45. Diog. ix. 24 (R. P. 141). It is possible, of course, that Apollodoros meant the first and not the fourth year of the Olympiad. That is his usual era, the foundation of Thourioi. But, on the whole, it is more likely that he meant the fourth; for the date of the ναυαρχία would be given with precision. See Jacoby, p. 270.

46. Diog. ix. 24 (R. P. 141).

47. It is no longer necessary to discuss the passages which used to appear as frs. 1-5 of Melissos, as it has been proved by A. Pabst that they are merely a paraphrase of the genuine fragments (De Melissi Samii fragmentis, Bonn, 1889). Almost simultaneously I had independently come to the same conclusion (see the first edition, § 138). Zeller and Diels have both accepted Pabst's demonstration, and the supposed fragments have been relegated to the notes in the last edition of R. P. I still believe, however, that the fragment which I have numbered 1a is genuine. See next note.

48. This fragment is from the beginning of the paraphrase which was so long mistaken for the words of Melissos (Simpl. Phys. p. 103, 18; R. P. 142 a), and Diels has removed it along with the rest. I believe it to be genuine because Simplicius, who had access to the original, introduces it by the words ἄρχεται τοῦ συγγράμματος οὕτως, and because it is thoroughly Eleatic in character. It is quite natural that the first words of the book should be prefixed to the paraphrase.

49. This fragment is quoted by Simpl. De caelo, p. 557, 16 (R. P. 144). The insertion of the word “infinite” is justified by the paraphrase (R. P. 144 a) and by M.X.G. 974 a 11, πᾶν δὲ ἄπειρον ὂν … ἓν … εἶναι· εἰ γὰρ δύο ἢ πλείω εἴη, πέρατ' ἂν εἶναι ταῦτα πρὸς ἄλληλα.

50. I have ventured to insert this, though the actual words are nowhere quoted, and it is not in Diels. It is represented in the paraphrase (R. P. 145 a) and in M.X.G. 974 a 13 (R. P. 144 a).

51. Reading ὁμουρέων with Bergk. Diels keeps the MS. ὁμοῦ ῥεων; Zeller (p. 613, n. 1) conjectures ὑπ' ἰοῦ ῥέων.

52. I read εἰ μὲν οὖν εἴη with E F for the εἰ μὲν ὂν εἴη. The ἐὸν which still stands in R. P. is a piece of local colour due to the editors. Diels also now reads οὖν.

53. Diels now reads ἀλλὰ with E for the ἅμα of F, and attaches the word to the next sentence.

proposition.

54. Arist. Phys. A, 3. 186 a 7 (R. P. 143 a). The false conversion is also mentioned in Soph. El. 168 b 35 (R. P. ib.). So Eudemos ap. Simpl. Phys. p. 105, 24, οὐ γάρ, εἰ τὸ γενόμενον ἀρχὴν ἔχει, τὸ μὴ γενόμενον ἀρχὴν οὐκ ἔχει, μᾶλλον δὲ τὸ μὴ ἔχον ἀρχὴν οὐκ ἐγένετο..

55. The real reason is given in the paraphrase in Simpl. Phys. p. 103, 21 (R. P. 142 a), συγχωρεῖται γὰρ καὶ τοῦτο ὑπὸ τῶν φυσικῶν, though Melissos himself would not have put it in that way. He regarded himself as a φυσικός like the rest; but, from the time of Aristotle, it was a commonplace that the Eleatics were not φυσικοί, since they denied motion.

56. Cf. especially Soph. El. 168 b 39, ὡς ἄμφω ταὐτὰ ὄντα τῷ ἀρχὴν ἔχειν, τότε γεγονὸς καὶ τὸ πεπαρασμένον.. The same point is made in 167 b 13 and 181 a 27.

57. The words ἀλλ' ἄπειρόν ἐστι mean simply “but it is without limit,” and this is simply a repetition of the statement that it has no beginning or end. The nature of the limit can only be determined by the context, and accordingly, when Melissos does introduce the subject of spatial infinity, he is careful to say τὸ μέγεθος ἄπειρον (fr. 3).

58. Arist. Gen. Corr. A, 8. 325 a 14, ἓν καὶ ἀκίνητον τὸ πᾶν εἶναί φασι καὶ ἄπειρον ἔνιοι· τὸ γὰρ πέρας περαίνειν ἂν πρὸς τὸ κενόν.. That this refers to Mehssos has been shown by Zeller (p. 612, n. 2).

59. Note the disagreement with Zeno (§ 162).

60. See p. 273. It is clear that Anaxagoras made considerable use of pain (πόνος), and it is possible that his doctrine, summed up in the words ἀεὶ πονεῖ τὸ ζῷον (Arist. Eth. Nic. H, 15. 1154b 7) had a wider application than appears from his remains. Aristotle (De caelo, B, 1. 284 a 15) makes a point of the οὐρανός being ἄπονος.

61. The view of Bäumker that Melissos admitted ἀντιπερίστασις or motion in pleno (Jahrb. f. Kl. Phil., 1886, p. 541; Das Problem der Materie, p. 59) depends upon some words of Simplicius (Phys. p. 104, i3), οὐχ ὅτι μὴ δυνατὸν διὰ πλήρους κινεῖσθαι, ὡς ἐπὶ τῶν σωμάτων λέγομεν κτλ.. These words were formerly turned into Ionic and passed off as a fragment of Melissos. They are, however, part of Simplicius's own argument against Alexander, and have nothing to do with Melissos at all.

62. See, however, Bäumker, Das Problem der Materie, pp. 57 sqq., who remarks that ἐόν (or ὄν) in fr. 9 must be the predicate, as it has no article. In his fifth edition (p. 611, n. 2) Zeller adopted the view here taken. He rightly observes that the hypothetical form εἰ μὲν ὂν εἴη speaks for it, and that the subject to εἴη must be ἕκαστον τῶν πολλῶν, as with Zeno.

63. Met. A, 5. 986 b 18 (R. P. 101).

64. Brandis changed the εἴη to ἔστι, but there is no warrant for this.

65. Cf. Zeno, fr. 1, especially the words εἰ δὲ ἔστιν, ἀνάγκη ἕκαστον μέγεθός τι ἔχειν καὶ πάχος..

66. Simpl. Phys. pp. 87, 6, and 110, 1.

67. See above, § 159, p. 315, n. 3.

68. Bäumker, op. cit. p. 58, n. 3: “That Melissos was a weakling is a fable convenue that people repeat after Aristotle, who was unable to appreciate the Eleatics in general, and in particular misunderstood Melissos not inconsiderably.”

69. Περὶ φύσιος ἀνθρώπου, C. 1. ἀλλ' ἔμοιγε δοκέουσιν οἱ τοιοῦτοι ἄνθρωποι αὐτοὶ ἑωυτοὺς καταβάλλειν ἐν τοῖσιν ὀνόμασι τῶν λόγων αὐτῶν ὑπὸ ἀσυνεσίης, τὸν δὲ Μελίσσου λόγον ὀρθοῦν. The metaphors are taken from wrestling, and were current at this date (cf. the καταβάλλοντες of Protagoras). Plato implies a more generous appreciation of Melissos than Aristotle's. In Theaet. 180 e 2, he refers to the Eleatics as Μέλισσοί τε καὶ Παρμενίδαι, and in 183 e 4 he almost apologises for giving the pre-eminence to Parmenides.

text/melissus_fragments.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/15 11:58 (external edit)