Zeno of Elea Dies

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. 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" (Parmenides 127b) and Socrates is "a very young man" (Parmenides 127c). 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.

Zeno of Elea, 5th c. B.C. thinker, is known exclusively for propounding a number of ingenious paradoxes. The most famous of these purport to show that motion is impossible by bringing to light apparent or latent contradictions in ordinary assumptions regarding its occurrence. Zeno also argued against the commonsense assumption that there are many things by showing in various ways how it, too, leads to contradiction. We may never know just what led Zeno to develop his famous paradoxes. While it is typically said that he aimed to defend the paradoxical monism of his Eleatic mentor, Parmenides, the Platonic evidence on which this view has resided ultimately fails to support it. Since Zeno's arguments in fact tend to problematize the application of quantitative conceptions to physical bodies and to spatial expanses as ordinarily conceived, the paradoxes may have originated in reflection upon Pythagorean efforts to apply mathematical notions to the natural world. Zeno's paradoxes have had a lasting impact through the attempts, from Aristotle down to the present day, to respond to the problems they raise. Since the subject of this article is Zeno himself, it undertakes to provide an historically accurate overview of his own thought, rather than an account of how philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists have responded to his provocative arguments.