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date: 05 August 2020

Melissus, of Samos, Presocratic philosopher, mid- to late-5th cent. BCE

Melissus of Samos, the admiral who led the navy of his native island to a victory over the Athenian fleet commanded by Pericles in 441 bce (Plut. Per. 26–7), was also the author of a prose treatise entitled On Nature or On What Is, in which he advocated the strict monistic doctrine that there is just one thing. There is little other reliable information regarding his life. The chronographer Apollodorus of Athens, in placing his floruit during the 84th Olympiad (444–440 bce; D.L. 9.24), appears to have simply identified the peak of his life with the year of his naval victory, so that this dating of his peak is far from certain. The date of his treatise is also uncertain. Gorgias's On Nature or On What Is Not draws upon Melissus, and the author of the Hippocratic On the Nature of Man is also familiar with him. The extant remains of Melissus’s treatise are all preserved by Simplicius as quotations interspersed in his commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics and On the Heavens. There are also two lengthy paraphrases of Melissus’s arguments in the pseudo-Aristotelian On Melissus, Xenophanes, and Gorgias, and in Simplicius’s Physics commentary (103.13–104.17 Diels). This evidence, together with the echoes and discussion of Melissus in Aristotle and later authors, makes it possible to reconstruct the principal lines of his argumentation with a fair degree of confidence, though disagreement persists on the details. Although he is regarded by some scholars as the last important member of the Eleatic school of Presocratic philosophy, given that the arguments of his treatise are to some extent reminiscent of Parmenides, he is more properly regarded as an Eleaticizing eristic.

Melissus argues in On Nature or On What Is that what is is ungenerated, sempiternal or everlasting, spatially unlimited, unique, and homogeneous; that it is not subject to alteration, rearrangement, pain, or anguish; and that it is a motionless plenum without internal division or variation in density. He argues that “whatever was always was and will be,” that is, ungenerated and everlasting, by appeal to the principle of no generation ex nihilo (30B1–2 DK). He goes on to argue that, because it is temporally unlimited, it must be spatially unlimited as well, because only if it were temporally bounded would it be spatially bounded (B2–4). Aristotle would criticize Melissus’s reasoning here as fallacious (e.g., Arist. Soph. El. 5.167b12–18), and he would draw attention to Melissus’s clear departure from Parmenides (Arist. Ph. 3.6.207a15–17), who had described what is as bounded by a furthest limit everywhere equidistant from the middle so as to be spherical in shape (B8.42–4, 49). Since it is spatially unlimited, Melissus argued, what is must also be “one” or unique (B5–6 DK, cf. Simpl. in Ph. 103.28–30 Diels). His argument for the last of the primary attributes is that what is must be “everywhere alike,” that is, homogeneous, since being unlike would make it many instead of one (Arist. MXG 974a12–14). After an interim summary, this reasoning is redeployed in arguing that what is is not subject to any sort of change, since any change over time would likewise involve what is being not alike and not one: thus, what is undergoes neither alteration in magnitude nor internal rearrangement, nor does it experience pain or anguish (B7.1–6). Melissus concludes his main chain of reasoning by arguing that there is no emptiness or void within what is, since void is nothing and what is nothing could not exist (B7.7), that there is no movement within what is, since it is a plenum without the void that is necessary for motion (B7.7, 10), and that there is no variation of density within what is, since such variation would also require the presence of void (B.7.8–9). The apparent peculiarity of Melissus’s arguing here that what is experiences neither pain nor anguish is somewhat diminished by the evidence that he argued elsewhere that what is, being one, does not have a body, thereby rejecting any zoomorphic conception of what is (Simpl. in Ph. 87.5–7 and 109.34–110.2 Diels).

Melissus describes the chain of arguments outlined thus far as the greatest proof that one thing alone is (30B8.1 DK). But he proceeds to present a further argument to the effect that, if many things were, they would have to be in just the way he has shown the One to be (B8.2). After listing as examples of things people say are real—earth, water, air, fire, iron, gold, the living and the dead, and black and white—he reformulates this claim by saying that if these things are, then each must neither change nor become different but must always be just as it is and as it first appears to us (B8.2). Melissus means to deny that things subject to change can properly be said to be. He goes on to argue that, since we experience all such things as he has listed as undergoing all manner of alterations, we neither see nor apprehend things that are (B8.3). Melissus accordingly rejects the hypothesis that these things are real, concluding that none of the things we perceive are, because they would not change if they were real (B8.5). In arguing here that the objects of ordinary experience are not real because they are mutable, Melissus is not arguing that they do not exist. Nevertheless, if what is is such as he has argued it to be in the greatest proof, then its existence precludes the existence of any other entities. Melissus is properly understood as a strict monist because he argues that there exists just one thing, an everlasting, spatially unlimited, unchanging plenum absolutely devoid of internal differentiation. There is no good evidence that Melissus’s treatise included a cosmology. Since Melissus’s account of what is is deliberately and self-consciously incompatible with the existence of the world of our everyday experience, he apparently made no attempt to provide an account of it.

The sophist Gorgias made extensive use of Melissus in his treatise On Nature or On What Is Not. Gorgias draws upon Melissus to argue against those who had held that what is is plural, generated, and mutable, and he targets Melissus’s own conception of what is in arguing that what is is not one, ungenerated, and immutable. Gorgias’s pupil Isocrates regarded Melissus as an eristic paradox-monger (Orat. 10.1–3). Aristotle shared such a view, describing Melissus’s view that what is is one and unchanging as an eristic account propounded merely for the sake of argument (Ph. 185a5–12, cf. Top. 104b19–22). The doxographical classification of earlier views regarding what is that framed Gorgias’s treatment of his predecessors is likely the ultimate source of the association of Melissus with Parmenides under the label “what is is one” (hen to on) or “everything is one” (hen to pan). Although Gorgias’s classification influences the classification of views regarding the archē that frames Aristotle’s inquiry in Physics I, Aristotle takes pains in Physics I 2–3 to distinguish Parmenides’ more sophisticated view from Melissus’s. Although critical of both, Aristotle echoes Plato in labelling Melissus’s arguments as “crude” (Ar. Ph. 185a10–11, cf. Pl. Tht. 183e3–184a3). Although the modern tendency has been to view Melissus as a member of the Eleatic school who defended Parmenides’ monism even as he reworked it in some ways, Melissus is more properly understood along the lines Aristotle suggests, as an eristic whose arguments for strict monism aimed to confute common sense for no good purpose. His principal lasting influence was unintentionally due to his argument that void (the existence of which he denied) is a necessary condition of motion (the existence of which he also denied), for this idea would be adopted by the early Greek atomists, who posited void as one of the fundamental principles of their physical system.

Primary Texts

Diels, Hermann, and Walter Kranz. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Vol. 1, Chapter 30. Berlin: Weidmann, 1951.Find this resource:

Kirk, Geoffrey S., John E. Raven, and Malcolm Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed., chap. 14. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Laks, André, and Glenn Most. Early Greek Philosophy, Vol. 5. Western Greek Thinkers, Part 2, Chapter 21. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Reale, Giovanni. Melisso: Testimonianze e frammenti. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1970.Find this resource:

Vitali, Renzo. Melisso di Samo, “Sul mondo o sull'essere.” Urbino, Italy: Argalìa, 1973.Find this resource:

Bibliography

Calogero, Guido. Studi sull'Eleatismo. Rome: Tipografia del Senato, 1932.Find this resource:

Curd, Patricia K. The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Makin, Stephen. “Melissus and His Opponents: The Argument of DK 30B8.” Phronesis 50, no. 4 (2005): 263–288.Find this resource:

Mansfeld, Jaap, et al. Melissus between Miletus and Elea. Edited by Massimo Pulpito. Sankt Augustin, Germany: Academia Verlag, 2016.Find this resource:

Palmer, John A. “On The Alleged Incorporeality of What Is in Melissus.” Ancient Philosophy 23, no. 1 (2003): 1–10.Find this resource:

Palmer, John A. “Melissus and Parmenides.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 26 (2004): 19–54.Find this resource:

Sedley, David N. “Two Conceptions of Vacuum.” Phronesis 27, no. 2 (1982): 175–93.Find this resource:

Sedley, David N. “Parmenides and Melissus.” In The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. Edited by Anthony A. Long, 113–133. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Solmsen, Friedrich. “The Eleatic One in Melissus.” Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen 32 (1970): 221–233.Find this resource:

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