Welcome to this week’s Friday Philosophy post! As promised, today we’ll be looking at another thinker from the Eleatic School of ancient Greek philosophy, a man named Zeno. This post naturally follows on from last Friday when we looked at the thought of Parmenides, as Zeno was a student of his.
Who Was He?
Zeno of Elea (not to be confused with Zeno of Citium, another Greek philosopher who came later) lived approximately between 490–430 BC, and was regarded by Aristotle as the inventor of the ‘dialectic’, a style of philosophising that is characteristic of many of the ancient Greek thinkers. The dialectic method is a type of conversational philosophy where reasoned arguments are exchanged with the intention of deducing certain truths.
What’s the Big Idea?
Zeno was a defender of Parmenides against the followers of Pythagoras, and he sought to discredit the arguments of the Pythagoreans via the use of a logical technique known as ‘reductio ad absurdum’ (or ‘reduction to absurdity’). This style of argumentation manifested in a series of paradoxes, for which Zeno is best known.
Zeno’s philosophical style is encapsulated in the following example. Any three-dimensional object can be separated into constituent parts. These can be further divided until we get to very small objects like atoms. But even these can be divided further, so that we find neutrons and protons. Logically, however small we go, any particle can be divided in half ‘ad infinitum’. The conclusion here is that matter is not composed of a collection of spatially extended units and that reality is not as tangible and stable as some materialists might suppose.
To postulate that matter is infinitely divisible is really quite an amazing thought. It’s no surprise that Zeno is remembered as the first philosopher to grapple with the idea of infinity, as this is perhaps the prime example of reductio ad absurdum. There are some things that it seems impossible for human beings to grasp, and the concept of the infinite is one of those things.
I think the idea that things can be infinitely small, and infinitely large, says something of the incredible power of our Creator. Simply gazing out into the cosmos at night, or looking at a small insect under a microscope, demonstrate that God’s power both in the macrocosm and the microcosm is truly spectacular.
While much more could be said about the paradoxes and other ideas that Zeno has passed down to us, I think for this post it’s sufficient to celebrate the fact that what fascinated Zeno about the infinite has brought the same sense of wonder to human minds for thousands of years. Such contemplation is a timeless part of the human experience, and in my view encapsulates an incredible truth – we are subjects of a God without boundaries.
Things will start to get really meaty next Friday as we’ll be looking at a big idea from one of the most famous names in the history of philosophy, Socrates. Please subscribe to ensure you never miss a post! Thank you for reading and God bless.