Ancient History & Civilisation


Melissus is something of an oddity in the history of philosophy. A convinced Eleatic, who came up with some powerful arguments in defence of Parmenidean monism, he also served as the military commander of his island home, Samos, in which capacity he even managed to defeat the great Athenian leader Pericles in a battle in 441. One cannot help thinking that he must have temporarily shelved the changelessness of the Parmenidean ‘what-is’ in order to engage in politics and warfare, and so that by his very life he demonstrates that Parmenidean monism was epistemological—a state of mind, rather than an ontological statement about the world.

In his short treatise, Melissus started with the assumption that there is something that exists (F1), and then deduced the consequences of this assumption in a rigorous fashion. The deductive nature of his work enables us to order the few fragments we possess with some confidence. From the premiss that there is something that exists, he deduced, in order, that this existent thing is not liable to generation and destruction (F2), is of unlimited magnitude (F3), eternal (F4), single (F5), homogeneous (though the text where he proved this is missing), unchanging, and motionless (F6). It is tempting to see the assertion that it is of unlimited magnitude as a response to Zeno’s argument that anything of no magnitude cannot exist.

Melissus reached substantially the same position as Parmenides, but by a somewhat different route. Despite the raft of properties of what-is in respect of which Melissus straightforwardly agrees with Parmenides—that it is eternal, single, homogeneous, ungenerated and unperishing, changeless, and motionless—there is arguably some disagreement between them. Consider his denial of void: not only can there be no internal void, and so no change, there can be no emptiness beyond what-is either. Whereas Parmenides had said (F8 ll. 26–33, 49 on p. 60) that what-is was constrained within limits, for Melissus what-is has no limits. Not only is it everlasting in time, but it is of unlimited magnitude (F3). It is beginning to look as though, on Melissus’ version (whatever we are to make of Parmenides in this respect), what-is is corporeal; and this seems to be confirmed by the idea that what-is is full, and can have no emptiness in it. In other words, it is apparently a solid body. But what, then, are we to make of F7, which plainly says that what-is is incorporeal? Many scholars are inclined to think that in this case Simplicius (who preserves all these fragments of Melissus) has made a mistake and attributed some words to him that were not his. However, (1) when Melissus talks of the ‘fullness’ of what-is, he is using a metaphor (much as Parmenides had talked of what-is being like a sphere) to express its homogeneous intensity. Similarly, the idea (even though denied by Melissus) that what-is could feel pain and suffer loss (F6) is clearly a metaphor to express its endurance (since anything in pain is not as strong as something healthy) and lack of parts. (2) In Melissus’ day, something could be called ‘incorporeal’ or ‘bodiless’ simply because it lacked a body in the sense of lacking definite boundaries and of being inaccessible to the senses. In other words, in calling what-is ‘incorporeal’ Melissus may have meant, again, that it is boundless.

There is no difficulty, then, in thinking that for Melissus what-is is both full and ‘incorporeal’. However, in F6 he uses the lack of emptiness of what-is to explain its motionlessness: there is no void or empty space for any part of it to move into. This is clearly not a metaphor, but a straightforward argument, and one which presupposes the physicality of what-is. But it only presupposes the corporeality of what-is in a counterfactual fashion. The only way to explain movement, Melissus is saying, is to assume the existence of void and matter to move into the void; but in fact there is no such thing as void, nor as movement, and so we have no need to think of what-is as corporeal.

In F8 Melissus comes up with an interesting argument designed to undermine our naÏve reliance on the senses. In effect, he offers us a dilemma: either we believe the argument he has provided that what is real or true is unchanging, or we go along with the evidence of our senses that things change. If we were to see anything as it really is, we would see that it is unchanging; but our senses show us change; therefore our senses are not reliable. Either there is no reality to the changing things of this world, and what-is is one, unchanging, etc., or there is no validity to Melissus’ reasoning. The polar opposition between reason and the senses, implicit in Zeno and Parmenides, is here brought out into the open. And we can again see why the denial of the corporeality of what-is is central to Melissus’ thought, and should not be eliminated as a mistake by Simplicius: corporeality is what our senses perceive; what-is, on the other hand, has no sensible qualities. It has no shape, because it is of unlimited magnitude in all directions; it has no colour, taste, etc., because all these things change, and there can be no change in what-is.

Melissus’ strengths lie not so much in original thinking as in (usually) clear arguing—at least, the intention of his arguments is clear, even if their logical validity is often doubtful or worse. Given the obscurity of a great deal of Parmenides’ own words, it was invariably to Melissus that later thinkers turned for clarity about the Eleatic position. But his main contribution was in formulating (apparently for the first time) the notion that movement requires the existence of matter and void. This idea was to flourish in atomist thought, and then for many centuries afterwards.

F1 (DK 30B1; KRS 525) It always was what it was and always will be. For if it had come into existence, there was necessarily nothing before it came into existence. Now, if there was nothing, there is no way that anything could have come into existence from nothing. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 162. 24–6 Diels)

F2 (DK 30B2; KRS 526) Now, since it did not come into existence, it not only is, but always was and always will be, and it has no beginning and no end, but is without limits. For if it had come into existence, it would have had a beginning (since its coming-into-existence would have begun at some time) and it would have had an end (since its coming-into-existence would have ended at some time). But since it had no beginning and no end, it always was and always will be and has no beginning nor end, since anything that is not complete cannot always exist. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 109.20–5 Diels)

F3 (DK 30B3; KRS 527) But as it always exists, so too it must always be unlimited in magnitude. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 109.31–2 Diels)

F4 (DK 30B4; KRS 528) Nothing with a beginning and an end is either eternal or unlimited. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 110.3–4 Diels)

F5 (DK 30B6; KRS 531) If it is unlimited, only one thing can exist; for if there were two things, they could not be unlimited, but would have limits in relation to each other. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘On the Heavens’, CAG VII, 557.16–17 Heiberg)

F6 (DK 30B7; KRS 533, 534) And so it is eternal, unlimited, single, and homogeneous. And it can neither be destroyed, nor become larger, nor change in organization, nor feel pain, nor suffer loss, because if it were susceptible to any of these things it would no longer be one. If it were to alter, what-is would necessarily not be homogeneous, but what-was-before would perish and what-was-not would come into existence. So if it were to alter by a single hair in 10,000 years, it would perish utterly in time as a whole.

Nor can its organization be changed, because the organization that existed before does not perish, nor does an organization that did not exist come into existence. And since nothing is either added or destroyed or altered, how can anything that exists have its organization changed? For if it underwent alteration in any respect it would thereby have had its organization changed as well.

Nor does it feel pain, because it it were in pain it would not be complete. After all, something in pain could not always exist, nor is it as strong as something healthy, nor would it be homogeneous, if were in pain, because the pain it was feeling would be a result of something being taken away or something being added, so that it would no longer be homogeneous. Nor could what is healthy feel pain, since the health—that is, what existed—would perish and what did not exist would come into existence. The same argument holds for its suffering loss as for its feeling pain.

Nor is it empty in any respect, for emptiness is nothing, and what is nothing cannot exist. Nor does it move, because, since it is full, there is nowhere for it to give way. If there were emptiness, it would give way into the emptiness, but since it is not empty there is nowhere for it to give way. It cannot be dense and rare, because anything that is rare cannot be as full as something that is dense; anything that is rare is thereby emptier than something that is dense. The way to come to a verdict about what is full or not full must be as follows: if it gives way at all or is receptive, it is not full; if it does not give way and is not receptive, it is full. Now, if it is not empty, it is bound to be full; and if it is full, it does not move. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 111.19–112.15 Diels)

F7 (DK 30B9; KRS 538) So if it exists, it must be one; and being one it must be incorporeal; but if it had solidity, it would have parts, and then it would no longer be one. (pieced together from Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 110.1–2 and 87.6–7 Diels)

F8 (DK 3OB8; KRS 537) The greatest indication that there is only one thing is this argument, but there are the following indications too. If there were many things, they would have to be no different from how I am describing the one thing to be. For if there were earth, water, air, fire, iron, and gold; if one thing is alive while another is dead; if there is blackness and whiteness and all the other things that people take to be true; if this is so, and we see things and hear things correctly, then each thing has to be just as it first appeared to us: things cannot change or alter, but must be for ever as they are. In fact, though, we say we see and hear and grasp things correctly, but it seems to us that something warm becomes cold and something cold becomes warm; that something hard becomes soft and something soft becomes hard; that something alive dies and comes into existence from a state of not being alive. In other words, it seems to us that all these things alter, and that what was the case and what is now the case are quite different. It seems to us that iron, which is hard, is rubbed away by contact with our fingers, and that the same goes for gold and stone and everything else that we take to be strong, and that earth and stone are made up of water. Now, there is inconsistency here, because although we are saying that there are many things which are eternal and have particular characteristics and endurance, we also think that they all alter and change from what we see on any given occasion. Clearly, then, we did not see things correctly and we are wrong in taking these many things to exist. If they were true, things would not change, but everything would be just as we take it to be; for there is nothing stronger than something which is true. But if something has changed, what-is has perished and what-was-not has come into existence. And so, if there were many things, they would have to be just like the one. (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s ‘On the Heavens’, CAG VII, 558.21–559.12 Heiberg)

N. B. Booth, ‘Did Melissus Believe in Incorporeal Being?’, American Journal of Philology, 79 (1958), 61–5.

D. J. Furley, ‘Melissus of Samos’, in [24], 114–22.

F. Solmsen, ‘The “Eleatic One” in Melissus’, Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 32.8 (1969), 221–33.

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