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Zeno of Elea, 490 - 430 BCE

Elea was a Greek town in southern Italy. Zeno of Elea is not to be confused with Zeno of Citium, from Cyprus.

Zeno of Elea was a decade younger than Anaxagoras and 20 years or so older than Democritus, Hippocrates, and Thucydides. But his work does not rank with these thinkers. Some people who tried to contribute profundities to the world contributed little that was substantial.

Aristotle described him as the inventor of the dialectic – a form of argumentation that reduced an alternative point of view to an absurdity. There was nothing wrong with that except that Zeno's own arguments were absurdities.

Zeno is known for his paradoxes. A paradox is an absurdity. It is an apparent contradiction because of ignorance – sometimes not admitted by the person issuing the paradox, unless he is a scientist. A scientist admits to limited knowledge and looks forward to solving paradoxes by way of more discovery.

Zeno was opposed to the idea of change. In other words, he believed in permanence, that change was an illusion. And he did not believe there were many substances; he believed that reality was essentially a single substance. Aside from the questionable validity of these ideas, they would not be useful in the coming millennia in understanding the world that we know through our senses. But Zeno babbled on.

He argued that motion was unreal, pointing out that at any instance an object is still – something a modern person can understand as a single frame on a strip of movie film. Zeno created the paradox of something always being still and yet described as in motion. But there was no paradox: motion was a reality outside his head; his dividing motion into individual segments was imagination. There was a difference between imagination and reality – something some people in love with their own ideas failed to grasp. As for movie film, each frame captures and represents an instance of reality and the difference between the representation and the reality needs to be acknowledged.

Zeno played with numbers. If one adds 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16th, on and on adding small amounts, one gets closer and closer to 1 but never reaches it. It has been described as more perplexing to do this backward, subtracting from 1/2 rather than adding. Of course, one never reaches zero. Nothing strange about that. It is just imagination. Like the paradox about motion, it is not about reality external to imagination. But, into modern times, people have thought they were wrestling with something profound.

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