Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Death Of Zeno

Diogenes Laertius, the late biographer whose namesake was the earlier Diogenes, famous in his search for an honest man, notes of Zeno, inventor of the famous paradoxes, that he was not only student of Parmenides, but the elder sage’s son by adoption.

Diogenes cites as his source Apollodorus’ Chronika.

There is nothing outlandish about the report.

Both Zeno and Parmenides were from Elea, and Zeno was a follower and companion of Parmenides.

Indeed, Zeno’s paradoxes are a systematic effort, still precisely unanswerable, supporting the validity of his master’s insight that all physical motion is an illusion and logically contradictory.

Plato mentions that Zeno was tall. Aristotle names him as the discoverer (heuretes) of dialectic. Diogenes Laertius also mentions that Zeno was distinguished both in philosophy and politics and cites Heraclides’ epitome of Satryus about Zeno’s end.

Zeno, the story goes, was implicated in a plot to overthrow the local tyrant. Some say the tyrant’s name was Nearchus, others Diomedon. Zeno seemingly was caught red-handed smuggling arms to Lipara as part of a plot. The dialectician was arrested and cross-examined under torture.

Unintimidated, he implicated all the tyrant’s own friends, aiming to strip him of support, then beckoned the tyrant himself to approach, as if to tell him something for his ears only.

Nearchus or Diomedon was fool enough to comply.

The tyrant likely had not read Zeno’s philosophical tracts and was unacquainted with his logic.

Zeno bit the tyrant’s ear and could not be removed until he had been thoroughly and definitively stabbed to death.

Also according to Diogenes, Demetrius in his Homonymoi says Zeno bit off Nearchus’ or Diomedon’s nose.

Another story is retailed by Antisthenes in his Diadochai, according to Diogenes.

Supposedly Nearchus or Diomedon asked Zeno who else was in the plot. Zeno shot back, “You, curse of the city!”

Zeno then addressed the bystanders and said he marveled at the cowardice of those who, for fear of enduring what he was going through in cross examination, were counted among the tyrant’s slaves.

Finally, according to Antisthenes though Diogenes, Zeno bit off his own tongue and spat it out in Nearchus’ or Diomedon’s face. At this point it is not clear whether Nearchus or Diomedon still had both ears and a nose. According to this last story Zeno’s fellow citizens were so exercised by his defiance they stoned the tyrant to death.

Does Zeno himself survive, tongueless, the story of his own execution?

It is worth noting that Diogenes Laertius retails this last version as that with which most of the authors he had read agreed.

Finally, Diogenes Laertius refers Hermippus, whose account is short and very unsweet: Zeno was cast into a mortar and beaten to death.

This establishes, not how small and inconsequential Zeno, but how large and formidable some ancient Greek mortars must have been.

Diogenes himself in his epitaph of Zeno accepts the story of the mortar:

Zeno, my man, you aimed at a noble deed
In trying to slay the tyrant and free Elea
He caught you and ground you up in a mortar, it is true,
But I say this: he pulverized body, not you.

For “body”. Diogenes Laertius uses soma, and the finish is fairly neat—“soma gar, ouchi de se”, more literally, “indeed body [he beat], but you not at all.”

Among moderns, it is not now fashionable to take Diogenes Laertius too seriously as stylist or critic, rather than as late and bustling collector of references about earlier, more seminal figures. This is true as far as it goes.

Interestingly, however, in this neat little play--soma gar, ouchi de se—Diogenes summarizes in five words the problem that became in another form the so-called body-mind dichotomy, most famously phrased in a much later age by Descartes.

The temptation for English speakers is perhaps to translate, “your body”.

The Greek bears this easily enough: the possessive pronoun need not be stated in regard to one’s own body parts to be understood.

On the other hand, the emphasis of ouchi and the particle de, which separates any emphatic pronoun “you” (su) from soma allow a more general “body” with person and personal possession left unstated.

Whatever it was the Nearchus or Diomedon pulverized, it was not Zeno in essence or anything included in his personhood, grammatical or otherwise.

Does the same apply to the tyrant’s ear or nose?

[copyright EAC 2010]

No comments: