Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570 BCE—c.475 BCE)

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(c. 570 BCEc.475 BCE)

Like the other founders of Greek philosophy, Xenophanes lived in Ionia and investigated natural phenomena such as the basic substances, the history and structure of the cosmos, and weather phenomena. He is best known for his criticisms of religious beliefs and practices, for his own conception of the divine, and for being the earliest philosopher to discuss epistemological questions. A poet who traveled widely in Greek lands, he composed his philosophical work in verse, presumably for performance, which suggests that his radical theological views were not abhorrent to his audiences. Some forty fragments of his writings survive, more than one hundred lines, far more than what remains from any earlier philosopher.

His theological fragments consist in statements that seemingly criticize the anthropomorphic polytheism of Greek tradition and in pronouncements on the true nature of god. He claims that (just like the Greeks) Ethiopians and Thracians believe their gods look like themselves (frag. 16) and that if animals could draw, horses would depict their gods as horses, oxen as oxen, etc. (frag. 15). He reproaches the revered poets Homer and Hesiod for ascribing to the gods actions humans consider immoral (frag. 11). He does not argue that these diverse accounts of the divine are false or even contradictory, but the remark about animals seems intended to ridicule the differing human (including Greek) beliefs about the gods. Nor is the reproach about the gods' behavior an argument, but it further undermines tradition: Greeks not only think the gods are like humans, they think they are immoral too!

Abandoning the Olympian gods led Xenophanes not to atheism but to new opinions on the nature of the divine and a new way of apprehending it. God "always remains in the same place, moving not at all" (frag. 26); "not at all like mortals in body or thought" (frag. 23); "is one, greatest among gods and men, all of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears" (frag. 24); "without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind" (frag. 25). Fragments 24 and 25 probably assert omniscience and omnipotence. Xenophanes presents a nonanthropomorphic god possessing cognitive abilities corresponding to human ones but far exceeding humans in power. It is a theistic account since "shakes all things" seems to mean that god controls and causes all events in the cosmos. Xenophanes may also have been a monotheist. If so, he was the first Greek to adopt this revolutionary view. The relevant text is fragment 23, whose opening words can be translated either "god is one" or "one god." The next phrase, "greatest among gods and men," suggests a plurality of gods, so the god Xenophanes describes would be the supreme god but not the only one. But it can be objected that his criticisms of the traditional anthropomorphic gods and his belief in a supreme god that governs everything tell against polytheism. This objection is reinforced by the report that he said it is unholy for any god to have a master and that no god is deficient in anything at all (Testimony 32), claims hard to square with a belief that combines polytheism with a single supreme deity. These are strong motives for taking "among gods and men" not to imply polytheism. One way is to take it as a polar expression, as if an atheist said that there is no god in heaven or earth, using "in heaven or earth" (ironically) to mean simply "anywhere." But many are dissatisfied by this solution, and there is no consensus on the question of Xenophanes's monotheism.

Xenophanes gives no argument for the existence or the nature of his supreme deity. He seems not to have questioned the existence of the divine. The only reason given for any of its attributes is that "it is not fitting for him to go to different places at different times" (frag. 26). Not tradition or other authority, but Xenophanes' sense of what befits the divine, is his criterion for determining god's nature. In this limited sense we find in Xenophanes the beginnings of rational theology.

Three fragments introduce important issues in epistemology although their meaning is disputed. "By no means did the gods intimate all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, by searching, they discover better" (frag. 18) may refer specifically to the intellectual progress being made by Xenophanes and his fellow early philosophers and emphasize the importance of empirical work for making advances. Certainly, some of Xenophanes's new ideas on natural phenomena were based in observation and investigation, as opposed to mere theorizing. "No man has seen nor will anyone know the clear truth about the gods and all the things I speak of. For even if someone were to say exactly what has been brought to pass, he still does not know, but belief is fashioned over all things" (frag. 34) distinguishes truth, knowledge, and belief and denies that true beliefs and assertions amount to knowledge. It may indicate a skepticism about the possibility of acquiring knowledge of the subjects studied by the early philosophers. If so, the progress heralded in fragment 18 must fall short of certain knowledge. We must remain with beliefs, which may be better or worse: They may be better or worse supported by investigations, which themselves may be more or less thorough and careful. Fragment 35, which may be the conclusion of Xenophanes's discussion of these topics, advises, with modesty uncharacteristic of the Presocratics: "Let these things be believed as like the truth." Xenophanes's views remain on the level of beliefs; if he has searched well, his views will be better possibly true or closer to the truth than conflicting views. But even if they are, they cannot be known to be more like the truth, only believed to be so.

See also Epistemology; Homer; Philosophy of Religion.



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Fränkel, Hermann. "Xenophanesstudien," Hermes 60, 1925, p. 174192. Reprinted in Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens. 3rd ed. Munich: Beck, 1968. Translation of part of this paper by M. R. Cosgrove under the title "Xenophanes' Empiricism and his Critique of Knowledge" in The PreSocratics: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974, p. 118131.

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Kirk, Geoffrey S., John E. Raven, and Malcolm Schofield, eds. The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Collection of Texts. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 163180.

Richard McKirahan (2005)