Paradox sliced

Saturday 9th July 2011

ZENO of Elea is best remembered for his playful paradoxes. He no doubt influenced the thinking of a younger contemporary: Socrates. Here’s a poem about him:

Zeno the Greek of Elea
had a penchant for philosophy,
especially for the paradox
and looking at things impossibly.

For example,
if Achilles agreed to take part
in a race with a tortoise
and gave the tortoise a start,
then Achilles couldn’t possibly win…
for by the time Achilles reached the point
from which the tortoise did begin,
the tortoise would have moved on a further distance,
which Achilles would still have to cover…
and again (it was Zeno’s insistence)
by the time Achilles reached this second spot,
would he have overtaken the tortoise?

No, he would not…
and so on and so on ad infinitum,
which of course explains
why British Rail trains
take forever to get to Brighton.

Likewise an arrow, shot from a bow,
must first cover half the distance
of the distance it has to go,
then half again and half again and half again…
and so it never reaches its target.

In 1066 King Harold did not lose his sight,
but died of fright…
and thus, according to Zeno,
when a submarine, say, fires a torpedo
it’s only an act of bravado…
as Mrs Thatcher kept telling us:
she couldn’t possibly have sunk the Belgrano.

There’s a paradoxical twist
to Zeno’s own life story
(don’t listen if you’re squeamish
being Greek it’s rather gory).

Charged with conspiring against the ruling dictator,
Zeno was tortured,
but kept secret his data base
by biting off his own tongue
and spitting it out
into the tyrant’s face,
at which the tyrant no doubt hit the roof,
now knowing there was now no way
of knowing the truth.

Although this was an act decidedly heroic,
this was not the Zeno known as Zeno the Stoic,
who was another philosopher, as it happens,
and he taught in the school, which he founded in Athens,
that, because we have two ears but only one mouth,
we should listen more than we speak…
which I’ve discovered can be done
without biting off one’s tongue,
if one simply keeps it firmly in one’s cheek.

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