Zeno: “To grasp” means “to understand”

This Zeno is not the Zeno of the paradoxes fame who lived in the 5th century BCE, hailed from — according to Diogenes Laertius (9.25) who is writing in the 3rd century CE — Elea (in modern day Italy), and belonged to, well, the “Eleatic School” founded by Parmenides. The Zeno of this post is the Zeno who lived in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, hailed from Citium (in modern day Cyprus), and founded Stoicism.

I will be talking about the word “grasp” in the sense of, very roughly, “understand” or “comprehend”. Why is it that a word which primarily means “to clutch” also means something like “to understand” or “to comprehend”? It seems Zeno is responsible for this (imaginative) invention.

In the Academica (2.145), composed around 45 BCE, Cicero gives us the following report:

…et hoc quidem Zeno gestu conficiebat: nam cum extensis digitis adversam manum ostenderat, ‘visum’ inquiebat ‘huius modi est’; dein cum paulum digitos contraxerat, ‘adsensus huius modi’; tum cum plane compresserat pugnumque fecerat, comprensionem illam esse dicebat (qua ex similitudine etiam nomen ei rei, quod ante non fuerat, κατάληψιν imposuit).

Zeno would spread out the fingers of one hand and display its open palm, saying ‘An impression is like this’. Next he clenched his fingers a little and said, ‘Assent is like this’. Then, pressing his fingers quite together he made a fist, and said that this was comprehension (and from this illustration he gave that mental state the name of katalēpsis, which it had not had before).

In this celebrated metaphor, Zeno is showing the multi-stage process through which, according to him (and thus the Stoics), understanding or comprehension occurs. A discussion of the whole passage would become technical very quickly. So we will stay away from that.

Plutarch (Parallel Lives: Cicero 40.2), writing in the 2nd century CE, tells us that it was Cicero who first “who first, or principally, provided Latin names for ‘phantasia,’ ‘sunkatathesis,’ ‘epokhē,’ and ‘katalēpsis,’ as well as for ‘atomon,’ ‘ameres,’ ‘kenon,’ and many others like these, contriving partly by metaphors and partly by new and fitting terms to make them intelligible and familiar”.

Three of those mentioned by Plutarch can be found in the passage quoted. Visio translates phantasia [φαντασία], adsensio/assensio sunkatathesis [συγκατάθεσις], and comprehensio/comprensio katalēpsis [κατάληψις].

Let’s stick to term katalēpsis [κατάληψις]. Cicero tells us that Zeno gave this word a new meaning or sense which it did not have before. Katalēpsis in its common usage refers to seizing, holding, or even taking possession by force. This term in this sense survives in English as the word “catalepsy” which refers to a medical condition in which the body undergoes a “seizure” and becomes unconscious and rigid. (Why such a condition is said to be characterised by a “seizure” would require another post!) Cicero translates this Greek word quite literally using comprensio (comprehensio is the alternative spelling) which means “the action of taking hold, grasping”.

Anyway, Zeno clutches his fingers to form a fist, calls it katalēpsis (obviously enough), and compares it the state in which the mind has understood, comprehended, or indeed we can say now, thanks to Zeno, “grasped”… well, what? Technically, the phantasia, the visio, the impression. (More on this another time. Perhaps!)

What Zeno calls katalēpsis, Cicero translates with comprensio. Which is how, I think, “grasp” (despite its separate Teutonic etymology connected to grope and grip) via (and along with) Cicero’s comprensio came to have the sense of “understanding”.



A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, eds., The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol 1: Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, eds. The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol 2: Greek and Latin Texts with Notes and Bibliography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Cicero, Academica, translated by H. Rackham, in Cicero: Vol 19, Loeb Classical Library 268 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, translated by R. D. Hicks, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library 185 (London: William Heinemann, 1925).

A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott and revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).

J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and Oxford University Press, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed, 20 vols. (Oxford : Clarendon Press , 1989).

P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary, 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Plutarch, Demosthenes and Cicero, translated by Bernadotte Perrin, in Plutarch’s Lives: Volume 7, Loeb Classical Library 99 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).

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