COMMENTARIES CONCERNING ARISTOTLE'S MINOR WORKS RELATING TO MELISSUS, XENOPHANES AND GORGIAS
One of the works falling under the purview of Aristotle is the minor work entitled On Melissus, Xenophanes and Gorgias (De Melisso, Xenophane, Gorgia). It is generally agreed that Aristotle was not the author of this work. Some have attributed it to Theophrastus who succeeded Aristotle. However, doubt has also been cast that Theophrastus was the author of On Melissus, Xenophanes and Gorgias. Therefore, the author of this work is essentially unknown. Nevertheless, it has been considered to be part of the corpus of Aristotle because it seems to follow the Aristotelian School of thought. Even though the author is unknown for this work, reference in this essay will still be made to Aristotle.
THE ELEATICS AND THE SOPHISTS
Melissus of Samos, Xenophanes of Colophon and Gorgias were all Pre-Socratic philosophers. Melissus and Xenophanes were of the Eleatic School and Gorgias was a Sophist. "The members of[the Eleatic School] were concerned not so much with the origin of things as with the principles of the world of things as it now is. Their inquiries centered round the problem of change, and in their solution of this problem they introduced the notions of Being and Becoming, thus carrying speculation into regions strictly metaphysical". In addition, the Eleatics believed that it was thought that gave the knowledge of being. Furthermore,
The Eleatics rejected the epistemological validity of sense experience, and instead took logical standards of clarity and necessity to be the criteria of truth... The main doctrines of the Eleatics were evolved in opposition to the theories of the early physicalist philosophers, who explained all existence in terms of primary matter, and to the theory of Heraclitus, which declared that all existence may be summed up as perpetual change.
The Sophists, on the other hand, were the opposite of the Eleatics in that the Sophists accepted experience in obtaining knowledge. Sophism was interested in the individual and the culture created by the individual. In fact,
The Sophists made no attempt to penetrate to the first causes of things. They took up their stand on experience and sought to amass the greatest amount of knowledge in all departments of life, from which they then drew certain conclusions, partly of a theoretical nature, like those on the possibility or impossibility of knowledge, on the beginning and progress of human civilization, on the origin and structure of language; and partly of a practical nature such as on the appropriate and efficient arrangement of the life of the individual and society. Its method then was empirico-inductive.
Even though the Sophists were called Polymaths and Encyclopedists, they "... were not meant to establish objective norms, founded on necessary truth... The Sophists... were not primarily intent on objective truth: their end was practical and speculative. And so the Sophists became instruments of instruction and training in the Greek cities, aiming at teaching the art and control of life".
The Sophists were traveling professional teachers of rhetoric who were paid a fee for their instructions. They also accomplished their objectives by giving public lectures.
Melissus (5th century B.C.) believed in a reality that is One, that is, he equated Being with One. He has attributed certain qualities that made the Being One. These include that The One is eternal and unlimited, the same, is changeless and motionless, and is incorporeal. More specifically, Melissus argues that The One does not have a beginning and does not have an end which makes The One both eternal and unlimited. In fact, he clarifies that The One is not limited temporally or spatially. In addition, Melissus attributes to The One as being whole with no parts. Consequently, The One cannot change and cannot have a body. Finally, Melissus argues that The One is motionless. He makes the following arguments for his claim:
1. To be empty is to be nothing.
2. What is nothing does not exist.
3. The One exists.
4. Therefore, The One is not empty.
5. What is not empty must be full.
6. Therefore, The One is full.
1. Whatever has motion is not full.
2. Whatever is full (i.e., has no empty spaces) must be motionless.
3. The One is full.
4. Therefore, The One is motionless.
The basic underlying assumption of Melissus is that "... if anything is, it is eternal, since it is impossible that anything can come into being from nothing". However, Aristotle disagrees with Melissus concerning the arguments he presents. In fact, Aristotle warns against hastily accepting opinions since they could contain false assumptions. He states: "In the first place, one must not begin by adopting any opinion, but only those which have the soundest foundations. So that if all apparent truths are not correctly assumed, perhaps we have no right to subscribe to this theory, that nothing can arise out of nothing".
Aristotle continues by pointing out that Melissus presents two contradictory opinions that essentially refute each other:
For if there were two contradictory opinions, as he thinks (for he says that if there are many things, coming into existence must take place from what does not exist; but if this is impossible, then the things existing cannot be plural; for as it does not come into existence, that which is must be infinite; but if this is so it is also a unity), in the same way if we admit both contentions, there is not more proof that it is one than that it is many... We chance then to be confronted with two propositions — (a) that nothing can come into existence from nothing, and (b) that what exists is plural and moving — and of the two the latter is more credible; everyone would rather reject the former view than the latter. If, then, it is true that the statements are contradictory, and that "growing out of the non-existent," and "the present existence of many things" cannot both be true, then these views would be refuted by each other.
Aristotle also questions Melissus' premise. Specifically, Aristotle states that Melissus has not proven that his original premise is correct. Aristotle continues by raising doubt as to whether the conclusions that Melissus reaches follow from his premises. For example, "Admitting his first assumption that nothing can come into existence from what does not exist, does it follow that everything has not come into existence? Or is there anything to prevent one thing arising out of another, and this from being an infinite process?".
In addition, Aristotle brings up an important factor that Melissus seems to ignore. This concerns distinguishing the potential from the actual. Specifically, this relates to Melissus claiming that anything that exists must be eternal. However, Aristotle counters with the argument that "In fact it is very commonly said that things which do not exist do come into existence... ". This clearly implies that things which do not yet exist (potential) can come into existence (actual).
Aristotle disputes Melissus' argument concerning being motionless. Aristotle points out:
... with the change of form which takes place in a thing remaining in the same spot, which others as well as he call change of state, there is nothing from what has been said to prevent things from being moved, when a change takes place from white to black or from bitter to sweet. For the non-existence of an empty space or the fact that a full one can admit nothing else does not prevent a change of state.
Aristotle concludes by stating "... that it is not essential that either everything should be eternal, or that the one should be infinite, but many are infinite. Nor is the one either homogeneous or immovable, neither if there is only one, nor if there is many. But when once this is admitted, there is nothing in his[Melissus] statements to prevent what exists from changing and becoming different... ".
Xenophanes (c. 570-c. 480 B.C.), in spite of being criticized for his views, has expressed his interests in three main areas: religion, science and knowledge. He is one of the most important of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. In fact, Xenophanes can best be described as:
Thus the historian became the philosopher of history, the ethnologist the philosopher of religion and the observer of nature the philosopher of nature. All this he regarded as a uniform whole; through the manifold of phenomena his eye perceived the spiritual unity of the Cosmos... in a poem "On Nature" he embodied his personal convictions on the nature of the world. The basic idea of this philosophy was the unity of everything, that is of the All-One....
Interestingly Xenophanes' "unity of everything" has a contemporary counterpart. Specifically, science today is seeking a "theory of everything." However, the approach of science is different from the theological concepts approach of Xenophanes. Nevertheless, the objective of both is the same, that is, finding a unity. Even though Xenophanes has presented ideas in other areas such as science and knowledge, this section will focus on Xenophanes' theological concepts as they relate to Aristotle's Minor Works.
Xenophanes is probably better known for his philosophy of religion (theological concepts). For example, Xenophanes had no problem in criticizing both Homer and Hesiod (two popular poets) when he stated that "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is blameworthy and disgraceful among humans theft and adultery and mutual trickery".
Xenophanes has also criticized humans for making gods in their own image. He states:
... but humans suppose that gods have been born and wear clothes like theirs and have voice and body. But if <horses> or cows or lions had hands to draw with their hands and produce works of art as men do, horses would draw the figures of gods like horses and cows like cows, and they would make their bodies just as the form which they each have themselves.
Xenophanes continues on this same theme when he states that "Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, and Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair". Obviously, Xenophanes was opposed to anthropomorphism.
Aristotle has been critical of Xenophanes. In fact, Aristotle in his Minor Works has focused his criticisms on Xenophanes' theological concepts. For example, Aristotle states that "In the first place... Xenophanes... assumes that what comes into being does so from that which already is. Yet why should not that which comes into being do so not from something either similar or dissimilar but from what is not?". On the other hand, Aristotle points out that "Xenophanes declares that if anything is, it cannot possibly have come into being, and he argues this with reference to God, for that which has come into being must necessarily have done so either from that which is similar or from that which is dissimilar; and neither alternative is possible". Between these two statements it seems that Aristotle is really missing Xenophanes' point. Specifically, Xenophanes is distinguishing between an eternal God ("if anything is it cannot possibly have come into being") and everything else ("what comes into being does so from that which already is").
Another criticism that Aristotle brings out against Xenophanes relates to the ideas of "ungenerated" and "supremacy." Aristotle states:
... God is no more ungenerated than anything else, even if we suppose that all things have come into being from something similar or dissimilar, which is impossible... Further, he assumes God is supreme, meaning by this that he is most powerful and best. This does not seem to agree with the customary opinion, which holds that some gods are in many respects superior to others... But even if there were more gods than one, nothing would prevent their being of this nature, all possessing the greatest possible excellence and being superior to all else, but not to one another.
Here Aristotle misses two important points. First, by saying that "God is no more ungenerated than anything else" would make God not God because it would take away the quality of God being eternal. Xenophanes specifically states God is eternal which is the essence of his statement. Second, Aristotle refers to "more gods than one[where] nothing would prevent their... being superior to all else, but not to one another." This goes contrary to what Xenophanes has stated: "One god, greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or mind". If Aristotle's criticism was to be accepted, then this would deny Xenophanes' idea of one God superior over everything.
Another criticism that Aristotle charges against Xenophanes concerns Xenophanes' belief that God is one, spherical, neither unlimited nor limited, and neither moved nor unmoved. Aristotle provides the following justifications for criticizing Xenophanes:
... why should he[God] be spherical, and why should he have that shape rather than any other, just because he hears in every part and is supreme in every part?... Further, how is it possible that, being a body and having magnitude, God can be neither unlimited nor limited?... limit occurs in magnitude and multitude and any kind of quantity... Again, if God is spherical, he must have a limit; for he has extremities, if he has a centre within himself from which they are at the greatest distance. But anything which is spherical has a centre; for that is spherical in which the extremities are equidistant from the centre.
Aristotle concludes with the following:
For he himself[Xenophanes] asserts that God is a body, whether he calls it the universe or by some other name; for if he were incorporeal, how could he be spherical? Again, it would only be possible for him neither to move nor to be at rest if he were nowhere; but since he is a body, what would prevent this body from moving... ?.
One possible explanation has been proposed as to why Xenophanes considered God to be spherical which is what Aristotle's question was: "Why should God have the shape of a sphere?" It is believed that Xenophanes considered the cosmos to be a conscious, living and divine spherical body which was responsible for its own change and movement. In other words, the cosmos and God were considered to be one and the same.
On the other hand, Patzia disagrees with the spherical interpretation. He believes that Xenophanes' concept of God has been confused with Parmenides' concept of the one Being which has led to a misinterpretation of Xenophanes' original idea.
However, Xenophanes' concept of God has some similarities to the Judeo-Christian God. Specifically, both agree that God is the greatest being, eternal, One, omniscient, and unchangeable.
Gorgias (c. 480-c. 375 B.C.) was a rhetorician, philosopher and orator. His works included On Nature (On the Nonexistent), Encomium of Helen, Defense of Palamedes and Epitaphios. Aristotle's commentaries in his Minor Works were focused on Gorgias' On Nature. The reason was probably that this particular work dealt with ontology (being), epistemology and language. Therefore, since this was philosophical in nature, Aristotle would probably have been more interested in this work.
Aristotle in his Minor Works begins by presenting the arguments that Gorgias proposes. In summary these arguments state that nothing exists; or if anything does exist, it cannot be known; and if anything does exist and can be known, it cannot be communicated to others.
Aristotle presents Gorgias' arguments as follows:
For he says, if anything exists, it is either one or many, and either has not come into existence or it has. If then, it happens that it is neither one nor many, neither born nor unborn, it would be nothing. If, then, there were anything, it would be one of these two things. To prove that it is neither one nor many, neither unborn nor born... he says that neither Being nor not-Being can exist... For Not-Being IS Not-being, and Being IS also Being... If Not-Being exists, then Being, which is its opposite, does not. For if Not-Being exists, then Being and Not-Being seem to be the same. On these grounds, he says, nothing could exist unless Being and Not-Being are the same thing. And if they were the same thing, on these grounds too nothing would exist; for Not-Being does not exist, and the same applies to Being, since it is the same thing as Not-Being.
Aristotle refutes the above argument by stating that Gorgias has not proven that nothing exists. In other words, Aristotle claims that Gorgias' conclusion that nothing exists does not follow from his premises. Aristotle continues by questioning why neither Not-Being nor Being should not exist. In fact, Aristotle says that both Being and Not-Being are possible. "For if Not-Being can be said to exist, and Being also exists, then all things exist, for both things which are and those which are not exist. For it does not follow that if Not-Being exists Being does not exist". Aristotle continues his refutation of Gorgias' claim that nothing exists by reversing the argument . Specifically, Aristotle says "... if Not-Being and Being are identical[according to Gorgias], then neither Being nor Not-Being has any existence, so that nothing exists, and changing the argument round it is just as true to say that everything exists".
The next argument that Aristotle presents concerning Gorgias' "nothing exists" claim involves the idea that anything that exists is either born or unborn. In fact, this argument brings out two points: infinity and change. According to this argument, if anything that exists is unborn, then it is infinite which means that it is nowhere. On the other hand, Gorgias claims that anything that exists could not be born from either Being or Not-Being. The reason is as follows: "... it could not be born from Being, for, if Not-Being does not exist, clearly nothing could be born out of nothing; but if Not-Being does exist, it could not be born from Not-Being, for the same reason as it could not be born from Being". To clarify this argument Gorgias implies that since Being is the opposite of Not-being and if Not-Being does not exist, then Being cannot exist.
Aristotle presents further arguments that Gorgias uses to support his claim that "nothing exists." These involve the "one and many," and "movement." The argument claims that if anything exists, it must be one or many. However, Gorgias says that it cannot be one since the one is not corporeal; and since it is not one, then neither can it be many. The other part of the argument concerning movement claims that nothing can be moved because this would involve changing something from its original status. In other words, Being would become Not-Being. Furthermore, Gorgias claims that if Being has movement, it is no longer continuous but divided and where it becomes divided, it is non-existent.
Now Gorgias changes direction from claiming that nothing exists to assuming if anything exists, then it cannot be known. Aristotle points out Gorgias' claim of the unknowable as follows:
For if it could be known, then all subjects of thought must exist and Not-Being, since it does not exist, could not be thought of. But, if this is so, no one, he says, could say anything false, not even if he said that chariots compete in the sea. For everything would be in the same category.
Aristotle now concludes by stating that Gorgias' claims that even if things exist and are known, they cannot be communicated to others. Gorgias contends that basically words are representations (at least this is implied) but they are not the things themselves. For example, if a person says "the rose is red," the receiver of this statement would not understand what a rose is or what the color red is unless that person has actually perceived through sight what a rose looks like or what the color red looks like.
Another example of what cannot be communicated through words involves hearing. If a person, for example, makes the statement that "bells ring," then the one who hears this statement would not know what "ringing" is unless that person has actually heard it.
Therefore, what Gorgias is pointing out is that colors, for example, cannot be heard and sounds cannot be recognized through sight. In addition, as stated in Aristotle's Minor Works Gorgias also proclaims that things cannot be communicated because different people can perceive the same things differently.
Consequently, Gorgias' views can be summarized as that nothing exists and "... if anything exists, it cannot be known, and if it is known, no one could show it to another; because things are not words, and because no one thinks the same things as another". As a result of these ideas, Gorgias has been viewed as proposing a philosophy of Nihilism.
It is interesting that in Aristotle's Minor Works a treatise (On Melissus, Xenophanes and Gorgias) was written on the three philosophers Melissus, Xenophanes (both Eleatics) and Gorgias (a Sophist). This treatise has been more critical of Melissus and Xenophanes than of Gorgias. The reason is that Aristotle considered Gorgias more of a philosopher than Melissus and Xenophanes. In fact, in the concluding sentence of this treatise it was stated that "This and all his[Gorgias] other arguments are concerned with difficulties raised by earlier philosophers, so that in examining their views these questions have to be discussed". This implies that Gorgias was viewed to be more important and to be taken more seriously than Melissus and Xenophanes. Even Plato considered Gorgias important enough by naming one of his dialogues Gorgias.
1. Turner, p. 1.
2. Wikipedia, "Eleatics," p. 1.
3. Zeller, p. 77.
4. Copleston, S.J., pp. 82 and 83.
5. Wikipedia, "Melissus of Samos," p. 5.
6. Aristotle, p. 1539.
7. Goold, p. 465.
8. ibid., p. 467.
9. ibid., p. 469.
11. ibid., p. 481.
13. Zeller, p. 42.
14. Wright, p. 2, frag. 11.
15. ibid., p. 2, frags. 14-15.
16. ibid., p. 2, frag. 16.
17. Aristotle, p. 1546.
18. ibid., p. 1545.
19. ibid., p. 1546.
20. Wright, p. 2, frag. 23.
21. Aristotle, pp. 1546-1547.
22. ibid., p. 1548.
23. Patzia, p. 8, referenced in W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
24. "Xenophanes," p. 2.
25. Patzia, pp. 8-9.
26. "Xenophanes' Concept of God," pp. 2-3.
27. Goold, pp. 497 and 499.
28. ibid., p. 499.
29. ibid., p. 501.
31. ibid., p. 503.
32. ibid., p. 507.
33. Aristotle, p. 1551.
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