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A-Z of thought: Zeno

Alex Monro

Zeno of Elea (c. 490 - c. 430 BC?) is best remembered for his perplexing questions. For example, could Achilles ever outrun a tortoise who's been given a head start, when both are running at a constant speed? These are known as Zeno's paradoxes, and philosophers today still disagree over whether or not they have been solved.

Zeno was the pupil of Parmenides, whom many consider to be the 'first philosopher'. Together Parmenides and Zeno shifted the focus of philosophy to the technique of argumentation - especially to logic and the function of language. It is difficult to isolate which bits of philosophy belong to whom with any reliability: none of Zeno's writings survive intact so we are reliant upon later accounts from the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca.

The Greek thought Parmenides inherited was concerned with several themes: shifting away from mythological and supernatural explanations of the cosmos; a growing sense of discrepancy between appearance and reality; attempts to determine what 'elements' made up the world; an increasing emphasis on reason as the means to truth; etc. Put all these themes together and the result was a world ripe for the idea that the world as we 'know' it is not the world as it really is.

Parmenides' contribution to that world was the idea that there can be no such thing as change. Toying with the semantics of the verb 'to be' - still the subject of academic controversy today - Parmenides argued that nothing can come to be out of what is not, and whatever is already is. Furthermore, there can be no such thing as time - our sense of time passing is just an illusion, and space is an illusion too. What we blithely refer to as 'reality' is simply 'the deceitful ordering of words'.

This provoked diverse reactions. However, Zeno agreed with and defended Parmenides, and in so doing invented his ingenious arguments 'proving' that the notions of time and change were utter nonsense. The most famous of these are the paradoxes.

Take 'the arrow', for example. If the arrow moves from the bow to its target, it must cover some portion of its trajectory. But to do that, it must cover a smaller portion, and to do that a smaller portion, and so on ad infinitum - impossible.

Some respond to this more as an irritating brain-teaser than an overwhelming philosophical insight; in the mocking words of the philosophy professor in Tom Stoppard's play Jumpers, 'The arrow never arrives and Saint Sebastian died of fright'. But whatever the results of its application, Zeno's method inaugurated a shift in philosophy, enthroning logic as the arbiter of truth.

Kate Kirkpatrick