Who Is Xenophanes?
Xenophanes was a native of Colophon, a city in Ionia (now western Turkey). Some say he was the son of Orthomenes, others the son of Dexius. He is said to have flourished during the 60th Olympiad (540-537 BC). His surviving work refers to Thales, Epimenides, and Pythagoras, and he himself is mentioned in the writings of Heraclitus and Epicharmus. In a fragment of his elegies, he describes the Median invasion as an event that took place in his time, possibly referring to the expedition of Harpagus against the Greek cities in Ionia (546/5 BC). He left his native land as a fugitive or exile and went to the Ionian colonies in Sicily, Zancle and Catana. He probably lived for some time in Elea (founded by the Phocaeans in the 61st Olympiad 536-533 BC), since he wrote about the foundation of that colony. According to an elegy reputedly composed when he was 92 years old, he left his native land at the age of 25 and then lived 67 years in other Greek lands.
According to biographer Diogenes Laërtius, Xenophanes wrote in hexameters and also composed elegies and iambics against Homer and Hesiod. Laertius also mentions two historical poems concerning the founding of Colophon and Elea, but of these, only the titles have been preserved. There is no good authority that says that Xenophanes wrote a philosophical poem. The Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius writes that he had never met with the verses about the earth stretching infinitely downwards (fr. 28), even though he had access to many philosophical works. Several of the philosophical fragments are derived from commentators on Homer. It is thus likely that the philosophical remarks of Xenophanes were expressed incidentally in his satires. The satires are called Silloi by late writers, and this name may go back to Xenophanes himself, but it may originate in the fact that Timon of Phlius, the “sillographer” (3rd century BC), put much of his own satire upon philosophers into the mouth of Xenophanes.
Xenophanes‘ surviving writings display a skepticism that became more commonly expressed during the fourth century BC. He satirized traditional religious views of his time as human projections. He aimed his critique at the polytheistic religious views of earlier Greek poets and of his own contemporaries: “Homer and Hesiod,” one fragment states, “have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.” Sextus Empiricus reported that such observations were appreciated by Christian apologists. Xenophanes is quoted, memorably, in Clement of Alexandria, arguing against the conception of gods as fundamentally anthropomorphic:
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed [σιμούς] and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.
An additional criticism of the gods is found in the quote
The gods have not, of course, revealed all things to mortals
- from the beginning;
but rather, seeking in the course of time, they discover
- what is better.
Other passages quoted by Clement of Alexandria that argue against the traditional Greek conception of gods include:
- “One god, greatest among gods and humans,
like mortals neither in form nor in thought.”
- “But mortals think that the gods are born
and have the mortals’ own clothes and voice and form”.
Regarding Xenophanes’ theology five key concepts about God can be formed. God is: beyond human morality, does not resemble human form, cannot die or be born (God is divine thus eternal), no divine hierarchy exists, and God does not intervene in human affairs. While Xenophanes is rejecting Homeric theology, he is not questioning the presence of a divine entity, rather his philosophy is a critique on Ancient Greek writers and their conception of divinity.
Xenophanes espoused a belief that “God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in mind.” He maintained there was one greatest God. God is one eternal being, spherical in form, comprehending all things within himself, is the absolute mind and thought, therefore is intelligent, and moves all things, but bears no resemblance to human nature either in body or mind. He is considered by some to be a precursor to Parmenides and Spinoza. Because of his development of the concept of a “one god greatest among gods and men” that is abstract, universal, unchanging, immobile and always present, Xenophanes is often seen as one of the first monotheists, in the Western philosophy of religion, although the quotation that seems to point to Xenophanes’s monotheism also refers to multiple “gods” who the supreme God is greater than. Physicist and philosopher Max Bernhard Weinstein specifically identified Xenophanes as one of the earliest pandeists.
Xenophanes wrote about two extremes predominating the world: wet and dry or water and earth. These two extreme states would alternate between one another, and with the alternation human life would become extinct, then regenerate (or vice versa depending on the dominant form). The idea of alternating states and human life perishing and coming back suggests he believed in the principle of causation, another distinguishing step that Xenophanes takes away from Ancient philosophical traditions to ones based more on scientific observation. The argument can be considered a rebuke to Anaximenes’ air theory. A detailed account of the wet and dry form theory is found in Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies.
He also holds that there is an infinite number of worlds, not overlapping in time.
Xenophanes concluded from his examination of fossils that water once must have covered all of the Earth’s surface. The use of evidence is an important step in advancing from simply stating an idea to backing it up by evidence and observation.
Xenophanes is credited with being one of the first philosophers to distinguish between true belief and knowledge, which he further developed into the prospect that you can know something but not really know it. Due to the lack of whole works by Xenophanes, a lot of meaning is lost and a large amount of guessing is at hand, so that the implication of knowing being something deeper (“a clearer truth”) may have special implications, or it may mean that you cannot know something just by looking at it. It is known that the most and widest variety of evidence was considered by Xenophanes to be the surest way to prove a theory.
His epistemology, which is still influential today, held that there actually exists a truth of reality, but that humans as mortals are unable to know it. Karl Popper read Xenophanes as saying that it is possible to act only on the basis of working hypotheses—we may act as if we knew the truth, as long as we know that this is extremely unlikely. Xenophanes’ views then might serve as a basis of Critical rationalism.
In today’s philosophical and classics discourse, Xenophanes is seen as one of the most important presocratic philosophers. It had also been common since antiquity to see him as the teacher of Zeno of Elea, the colleague of Parmenides, and generally associated with the Eleatic school, but common opinion today is likewise that this is false.
There is one fragment dealing with the management of a feast, another which denounces the exaggerated importance attached to athletic victories, and several which deny the humanized gods of Homer. Arguments such as these made Xenophanes infamous for his attacks on “conventional military and athletic virtues of the time” and well known to side with the intellectual instead.
- “Xenophanes” entry in Collins English Dictionary.
- Sound file
- “Xenophanes”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Charles H. Khan “Xenophanes” Who’s Who in the Classical World. Ed. Simon Hornblower and Tony Spawforth. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. 12 October 2011.
- “Xenophanes of Colophon”The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Simon Blackburn. Oxford University Press, 2008. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. 12 October 2011.
- Early Greek philosophy By Jonathan Barnes Page 40 ISBN0-14-044461-0
- See Dalby, Andrew (2006), Rediscovering Homer, New York, London: Norton, ISBN0-393-05788-7 p. 123.
- Diogenes Laertius, ix. 18
- Diogenes Laertius, ix. 20
- Diogenes Laertius, ix. 18, i. 23, 111. viii. 36
- Diogenes Laertius, ix. 1; Aristotle, Metaphysics4.1010a
- Diogenes Laertius, ix. 18, 20; comp. Aristotle, Rhetoric2.23.27
- Diogenes Laertius, ix. 19
- Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, 3rd edition (1920):
- Three fragments (27, 31, 33) come from the Homeric Allegories, two (30, 32) are from Homeric scholia.
- “Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, 3rd edition (1920)”. Classicpersuasion.org. Retrieved 2013-09-14.
- Johansen, Karsten Friis A history of ancient philosophy: from the beginnings to Augustine p.49
- Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, I.289, and IX.192f.
- Clement, Miscellanies V.110 and VII.22.
- Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Xenophanes frr. 15-16. Many other translations of this passage have Xenophanes state that the Thracians were “blond”.
- Stephen M. Trzaskoma, R. Scott Smith, Stephen Brunet, Thomas G. Palaima; Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation, p. 433.
- Osborne, Catherine. “Chapter 4”. Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP. 62. Print.
- McKirahan, Richard D. “Xenophanes of Colophon. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. 60-62. Print.
- McKirahan, Richard D. “Xenophanes of Colophon. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. 61. Print.
- Zeller, Vorsokrastische Philosophie, p. 530, n. 3.
- Max Bernhard Weinsten, Welt- und Lebensanschauungen, Hervorgegangen aus Religion, Philosophie und Naturerkenntnis (“World and Life Views, Emerging From Religion, Philosophy and Nature”) (1910), page 231:
- McKirahan, Richard D. “Xenophanes of Colophon. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. 65. Print.
- McKirahan, Richard D. “Xenophanes of Colophon. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. 66. Print.
- Osborne, Catherine. “Chapter 4”. Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP. 66-67. Print.
- Osborne, Catherine. “Chapter 4”. Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP. 67. Print.
- K. Popper, A. Friemuth Petersen, J. Mejer: The World of Parmenides, p. 46
- Lesher, p. 102.
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