Greek Philosophy – Melissus


Melissus (500 BCE) was from the island of Samos, the birthplace of Pythagoras.  Not much is known about his life.  He may or may not have been a direct student of Parmenides.  One source says he commanded a naval fleet from Samos that supposedly defeated the Athenian fleet led by the Athenian general Pericles in 441 BCE.  Melissus wrote arguments supporting Parmenides and the Eleatic school, like Zeno.  He was a major source of Eleatic philosophy for later philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, though they considered his work to be inferior to that of Parmenides.  Melissus, in departing somewhat from Parmenides, also became an influence on later atomists we will study.

outer space

Melissus argues that the cosmos, all of being, is eternal, infinite, indivisible, and unchanging.  Unlike Parmenides, though difficult to discern, Melissus argued that being is eternal but not timeless, not a single static moment.  Being does not change or move, but it extends into the past and into the future endlessly.  Also, Melissus argues that the One is spatially unlimited, without explicitly saying that distance and difference is illusion.  If Melissus is arguing against time being an illusion, his position is quite similar to Xenophanes, but this would bring Melissus back from the problems of Parmenides’ position to the previous problems of Xenophanes’ position.  If the One, which is all, does not move, then how do things move in time?  If the One is indivisible, then how is it omnipresent in unlimited space?

As some ancient sources have suggested, Melissus may be arguing that the unity of the cosmos, the oneness of the One, is eternal, infinite, indivisible and unchanging but this does not make the many finite, divisible and changing things of the cosmos illusion.

Questions of King Milinda

In an early Buddhist text, the Questions of King Milinda (Milinda Panha), a Buddhist missionary is questioned by the king of a Greek trading colony in Northwest India.  Many of these colonies existed for centuries, and were sites of exchange between Greek, Persian and Indian culture, including Greek influence on early Buddhist stone carved statues.  The missionary and the king enter into a philosophical debate, both well versed in various schools of thought.

greek chariot pottery

Using the metaphor of a chariot, shared by earlier Indian thought and Plato alike, the missionary asks the king if the chariot is really its wheels, or any of its parts, or if it is the unity of the parts aside from the parts themselves, to each of which the king replies ‘no’.  The missionary says that this is true for the cosmos and the teachings of the Buddha, and the king is pleased with the answer.  The missionary, in accord with Buddhist thought, argues that reality is one, and that the oneness of reality is not found in a particular part (omnipresent and characterless) and that it is not found exclusively in the unity distinct from the parts.  The oneness is not mere oneness distinct from the many, but a oneness that is the unity of oneness and many-ness, what medieval European Neo-Platonists called ‘hyper-ousia’, a super One that can not even be characterized as unity in opposition to anything, not even multiplicity.

Heraclitus tear bust

Melissus similarly argues that the One that is reality is all oneness and many-ness, that it contains all characterization without opposition and so has no character, a ‘having-no-character’ which is ‘having-all-character’.  Exclusively, the One is nothing.  Inclusively, the One is everything.  This approaches the position of Xenophanes and Heraclitus (who was mistaken for the Buddha by some scholars).  While the One does not change, this is an encompassing of all change, not a denial of change as illusion.  Melissus argues that the One is full, not empty, and that it remains full without change.  This fullness can include all change, in an unchanging fashion.  He says the One has no parts, no thickness, and no body.  That which includes all parts, all spans of width and all bodies does not itself have distinct parts, has no distinct width and no distinct body.  Reality is not characteristically blue, or three inches thick, or has thirteen parts, or is found particularly in the American Southwest.  Melissus, as an Eleatic, is strangely Heraclitean in his attempt to resolve the thinking of Parmenides.

%d bloggers like this: