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XENOPHANES (c. 580470 bce), Ionian poet, satirist, philosopher, and theologian, was born in Colophon, a wealthy city of Ionia under the influence of the Lydian kingdom. Because of Persians' invasion of the city, he had to flee to South Italy. He spent much of his life wandering through Sicily and Greece until he joined a Phokaian colony sent to Elea in Lucania, and he taught there, founding the Eleatic school. His pupil Parmenides was the founder of Western metaphysics. A friend of Empedocles, Xenophanes attacked Pythagoras and was attacked by Heraclitus. He has been considered both an amateur thinker and "a paradigm of the [pre-Socratic] genius" (Barnes, 1982, p. 82). In fact, he was a significant thinker and an innovator in many fields of research, such as natural sciences, morality, and gnosiology. His approach to the problems of human knowledge is so particular (and somewhat contradictory) that he can be defined as a sceptic, an empiricist, a rationalist, a fallibilist, a critical philosopheror, more accurately, a natural epistemologist. A precise definition of his epistemological attitude clearly influences any evaluation of his theology (see fragment 34: "No man has seen, or ever will see, the exact truth about the gods").

As a religious thinker, Xenophanes has been identified as the founder of the Greek enlightenment, prior to Heraclitus and Hecataeus. From the complex of his polymath oeuvre (of which only 43 fragments and 52 controversial testimonia have been preserved) he emerges as a critical thinker, sceptical about any claims to knowledge in religious matters. As a consequence of the elusiveness and versatility of his thought in these matters, an ample variety of opinions has risen about his religious positions. If one emphasizes single facets of his teaching, it is possible to consider him a traditional polytheist, a revolutionary monotheist, a pantheist, or even an atheist or precursor of negative theology. What is clear is that with him there emerged in Greece the first form of scientific inquiry into indigenous and alien religious realities.

Xenophanes' first concern was God and the divine. He wrote: "One god is greatest among gods and men" (fragment 23). This does not mean that he was a monotheist. The fragments warrant attributing to Xenophanes the novel idea of a single god of unusual power (henotheism ), but not the stronger view that beyond this one god there could be nothing else worthy of the name. God is a body (testimonium 28), spherical in form, being alike and perceptive in all his parts (testimonia 1, 28, 33, and 34) and in a way coextensive with the whole universe (testimonium 31), and identical with the One (testimonia 30, 34 and 35). God is ungenerated and eternal (testimonia 28 and 31), motionless (fragment 26), and at the same time "shaking all things by the thought of his mind" (fragment 25). Apparently, this view anticipates Anaxagoras's Nous (intellect, mindthe intellectual principle that is separate from the mass that it governs), which is the ultimate source of movement, and the Aristotelian doctrine of the prime unmoved mover. Xenophanes was the first to regard the soul (psuchē) as "breath" (pneuma ), that is, moving air, full of vital energy (testimonium 1). His concept of time is cyclic: there is an unlimited number of worlds existing successively without overlapping one another, and a new generation begins again after each cosmic catastrophe (testimonia 1, 33, and 37)the first manifestation of the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, later adopted by the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900). Earth (Gaia) is the root and the ultimate destination of all things (fragments 27, 28, 29, 33)perhaps a survival of ancient pre-Olympian religiosity.

From the theological reflection combined with the scientific speculation, Xenophanes moved to scathing criticisms of the most objectionable aspects of Greek religion. He attacked poets (including Homer and Hesiod) for saying false and immoral things about the gods in their tales of divine warfare with Titans, giants, and centaurs (fragment 1); as well as in their attributions to the gods of things that are matters of reproach even among mentheft, adultery, and mutual deceit (fragments 11 and 12). Further, he repudiated the whole enterprise of divination through natural signs (testimonium 52) and the connected popular belief in the godship of celestial bodies (fragment 32 and testimonia 32 and 3846). Subjects of stern rebuke are also the contemporary outbreaks of ecstatic religion such as the naturalism of the Bacchic cult (fragment 17) and the Pythagorean belief in the reincarnation of the human soul in any animal form (fragment 7). Had Xenophanes limited himself to these assertions, he would have emerged only as an innovative theologian, albeit one less insightful and less audacious than his near contemporary and fellow Ionian, Heraclitus of Ephesus. Nor would he have found a place among the pioneers of the comparative study of religion. As can be inferred from Aristotle's and Plutarch's testimonies (testimonium 13), the Ionian thinker perceived a marked affinity between the cult of the Greek Leucothea, worshipped with funeral dirges (threnoi ) although considered a deity (ergo, immortal for the Greeks), and the cult of the Egyptian Osiris, who was ritually mourned by his worshippers (as befitted a dead god) but was at the same time honored as a very high-ranking god. Thus, Xenophanes seems to have virtually highlightedtwo and a half millennia before James Frazer (18541941)the typological category of the dying/rising gods present on both sides of the Mediterranean. This ability for critical perception, which earned Xenophanes the mantle of "precursor of comparative ethnology" (Pettazzoni, 1954, p. 134), is certainly connected with his experience as an Ionian citizen who since birth had been familiar with the beliefs and customs of the other peoples of Anatolia: the Lydians, the Carians, and the Median-Persian invaders. Xenophanes could autoptically realize that the routes through which humans (and, by paradoxical analogy, the other animals) reach the representation of the divine are numberless. Starting with his criticism of the anthropomorphism typical of the Greek conception of divinity (fragment 14), Xenophanes came to make two famous assessments: "The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired"(fragment 16); and "But if horses or oxen or lions had hands or could draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves"(fragment 15). This can be viewed as the first application of a comparative perspective to the study of religion.

See Also

Atheism; Images; Knowledge and Ignorance; Monotheism; Parmenides; Plato; Pythagoras; Sociology; Stoicism; Transmigration.


All the fragments (21 B: 145) and the testimonia on Xenophanes' life and teaching (21 A: 152) are collected in Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, vol. 1, edited by Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz (6th ed., Berlin, 1951), which has an indispensable critical apparatus and German translation of the text. Diels's and Kranz's numeration is still the standard system of reference. A personal selection, in English translation and with substantial interpretation, is provided by Geoffrey S. Kirk in The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, 2d edition, edited by Geoffrey S. Kirk, John E. Raven, and M. Schofield (Cambridge, U.K., 1983), pp. 163181. A complete edition with Greek text and Italian translation is given by Mario Untersteiner, Senofane's Testimonianze e frammenti (Firenze, Italy, 1956). The commentary and the introduction (especially "Senofane di fronte alla religiosità preellenica. Il politeismo" and "Il dio di Senofane," pp. 134212) are important from the religiohistorical point of view. James H. Lesher, in Xenophanes of Colophon: Fragments: A Text and Translation (Toronto, 1992), provides a very informative and perceptive commentary on most of the fragments (Greek text of all the fragments, with critical annotations) and the testimonia (English translation only). The interest of this work is philosophical but the main theological questions are examined with subtlety. Extensive bibliographies are provided by Untersteiner and Lesher.

Among the numerous general interpretations, Hermann Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy (Oxford, 1975), pp. 325337, and Jonathan Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers (London, 1982), pp. 8299, are representative of two divergent approaches: for the German scholar, even as a theologian, Xenophanes was "a staunch empiricist"; for the British philosopher, he was "the initiator of natural theology." Relevant themes of Xenophanes' religious thought are examined in various recent contributions. Michael Eisenstadt, in "Xenophanes' Proposed Reform of Greek Religion," Hermes 102 (1974): 142150, argues for Xenophanes' approval of the worship of the Olympian gods in spite of the philosophical inadequacy of traditional religion. In "The Xenophanean Religious Thought: A Field of Various Interpretations," Kernos 2 (1989): 8996, Aikaterini Lefka outlines the main approaches to the philosopher's teaching about god. Mark J. Edwards, in "Xenophanes' Christianus?," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 32 (1991): 219228, seeks to demonstrate (somewhat unconvincingly) that the three crucial fragments cited by of Alexandria in the Stromateis (fragments 14, 15, 23) are attributable to a Christian or Jewish forger. Massimo Di Marco, in Sapienza italica. Studi su Senofane, Empedocle, Ippone (Rome, 1998), pp. 931, contributes a useful discussion on the controversial issue of Xenophanes' relationship with the Eleatic school. In a series of insightful articles"Elea, Senofane e Leucothea," Annali Istituto Universitario Orientale Napoli 16 (1994): 137155; "Senofane ed Elea," Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica 95 (2000): 3149; and "Il frammento Lebedev di Senofane," Quaderni urbinati di cultura classica 98 (2001): 2534Giovanni Cerri reconstructs the polytheistic background (Leucothea, Persefone) against which Xenophanes built his characteristic theology.

Xenophanes is acknowledged as the founder of religious criticism by Raffaele Pettazzoni, in La religione nella Grecia antica fino ad Alessandro, Bologna, 1922, 2d ed. Turin, 1954, pp. 133-134, and in two standard histories of the comparative study of religion: Jan de Vries, Perspectives in the History of Religions (New York, 1967; 2d ed., Berkeley, Calif., 1977), pp. 35; and Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion. A History (London, 1975; 2d ed., 1986), pp. 34.

Giovanni Casadio (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


(b. Colophon, Ionia, ca. 580–570 b.c.; d. ca. 478 b.c.)

theology, epistemology.

It is generally believed that Xenophanes was born about 570 b.c. in Colophon, a Greek city in Asia Minor. He left Ionia after 545, the time of the Persian conquest, in order to live in the western part of the Greek world, in southern Italy and Sicily. He died after 478. If it is true, as has recently been suggested,1 that Xenophanes did not leave Colophon at the time he left Asia but, rather, ten years earlier, then the date of his birth can be years earlierm, then the date of his birth can be pushed back bushed in accordance with the ancient chronology (580–577). On this hypothesis, he was banished from Colophon in 555, when the city came under a tyrannical regime (at that time it was still under the control of the kingdom of Lydia).

Xenophanes seems to have opposed this regime openly and to have been known after 555 as a poet fighting for the restoration of his native city’s ancient civil liberties. It was probably toward this end that he devoted an epic to the origins of Colophon and wrote a poem in honor of Elea. He may have joined the Phocaeans who founded the latter city on the coast of southern Italy (540–535).

Xenophanes’ deep personal involvement in political matters is inseparable from his intellectual activities. He profoundly influenced Greek thought in at least two respects, through his criticism of the anthropomorphic beliefs upheld by traditional religion and through his “monist” definition of God. The principal surviving fragments of his elegies clearly show that the intellectual and moral reform to which he dedicated himself had a political objective. He believed that the thinker, through his statements, should clear the way for a strengthening of communal life within the framework of the city–state.

To further this goal, Xenophanes extended his critique of anthropomorphism to all the attitudes and activities attributed to the gods, judging these incompatible with a just conception of divine reality. He rejected the picture of the divine world and its organization propagated by Homer and Hesiod; he objected to certain ritual practices; and he denied that the gods intervene physically either in divination or in meteorological phenomena. To this refutation of accepted views which he elaborated in his Satires(Σίλλоι) Xenophanes joined a description of the attributes of God. These are such, he asserted, as reason conceives them when it has cast off the hold of mythology and popular beliefs. Thus, starting from the notion of omnipotence, Xenophanes derived the concepts of God’s unity (that is, unicity or wholeness) and eternity. God, he stated, is present everywhere and acts without intermediary and without displacement or movement, solely by means of His mind’s will.

Did Xenophanes apply his ideas concerning the attributes of divine reality to the universe? Did he identify God with the cosmos, as has often been supposed?2 It does not seem that he did. This pantheistic interpretation (given by Theophrastus and already proposed by Aristotle) appears incompatible–despite the opposing views of certain authors3–with the wording of the existing fragments. Still, these attributes endow Xenophanes’ God with an ontological status remarkably similar to that later enunciated in certain propositions of Eleatic logic. According to tradition, Xenophanes was the teacher of Parmenides; and the latter could indeed have found in the conception of a unique, eternal, and omnipotent God the starting point for his deduction of the properties of being.

Xenophanes’ monotheism did not entail a denigration of man. On the contrary, he affirmed man’s autonomy in material progress and civilization. But he did make a distinction of great epistemological significance: God alone possesses complete knowledge, whereas man can attain genuine knowledge only within the limits assigned to the combined activity of his senses. That is, he can really know only particular objects or partial aspects of the world. With regard to the totality of things, the universe (and God himself), man must be satisfied with a probable knowledge, which is incapable of verifying the truth of what it grasps. Thsi restriction has given rise to much discussion. Some atthors, including a few modern ones, have claimed that Xenophanes meant to apply it to empirical knowlege itself, thus portraying him as an advocate of radical skepticism.4 This view is incorrect. He thought that human knowledge was limited, not with respect to things but relative to God’s omniscience.

Xenophanes did not conceive or set forth a complete doctrine of the physical world,5 although he occasionally touched on physical questions in his polemical writings–alluding, for example, to Thales, Anaximander, and Pythagoras. He was neither a philosopher of nature nor a “sage” in the primary sense of the word. Highly independent and curious about everything (something for which he was reporached by Heraclitus), Xenophanes was poet and a thinker who played a major role in the intellectual adventure of his age. He stimulated the emancipation of reason in Greek ethical and religious discourse and thus contributed, although indirectly, to the triuimph of systematic thinking in science and philosophical religious discourse and thus contributed, although indirectly, to the triumph of systematic thinking in science and philosophical reflection


1. See P. Steinmetx, “Xenphanesstudien,” see, entitled “Zur Datierung.”

2. Most recently, by M.U. Untersteiner, Senofane, clxxxix–cciii; and W.K.C. guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, 381–383. Those who disagree or reserve opinion include W.Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers,43 and n. 23; H. Frankel, Dichtung und Philosophie des friihen Griechentums, 378; A. Lumpe, Die Philosophie des Xenopanes von Kolophon, 22–26; and G. S. Kirk. in Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers,171–172.

3. Especially Guthrie,loc. cit.,

4. Particularly E. Heitsch, who opposes Franke. . Compare K. von Fritz. “Xenophanes,” cols. 1557-1559.

5. Summaries of the controversy over the De natura attributed to him are in Untersteiner, op. cit., ccxliiccl; and in Reale’s note in E. Zeller and R. Mondolfo, Lafilosofia dei Greci…69–71. There are some perceptive remarks in Stein metz. op. cit., 54–68(“Ein Lehrgedicht des Xenophanes?”).


Fragments and testimonia are in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., I (Berlin, 1951), 113–139; the fragments alone are in E. Diehl, Anthologia lyrica Graeca, fasc. 1, Poetae elegiaci, 3rd ed. (Leipzig, 1949), 64–76; and M. L. West, lambi et Elegi Graeci ante Alexandrum cantati, II (Oxford, 1972), 163–170. There is abundant information in M. Untersteiner, Senofane, testimonianze e framenti (Florence, 1955); and E. Zeller and R. Mondolfo, La filosofia dei Greci nel suo sviluppo storico pt. 1, l Presocratici, III, Eleati, G. Reale, ed. (Florence, 1967), 1–164.

Recent writings include H. Frankel, Dichtung und philosophie des frϋhen Griechentums (New York, 1951; 2nd ed., Munich, Pauly–Wissowa,Real–Encyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, 2nd ser., IX (1967), cols. 1541-1562; W. K. C. Guthric, A History of Greek Philosophy, I (Cambridge, 1962), 360–402; E. Heitsch. “Das Wissen des Xenophanes,” in Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie109 (1966), 193–235; H. Herter, “Das Symposion des Xenophanes,” in Wiener Studien, 69 (1956), 33–48; W. Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek philoosophers (Oxford, 1947), 38–54; G. S. Kirk, in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic philosophers(Cambridge, 1957), 163–181; A Lumpe,Die Philosophie des Xéenophanes von Kolophon(Munich, 1952); A. Rivier,” Remarques sur les fragments 34 et 35de Xenophane,” in Revue de philologie, 3rd ser. 30 (1956), 37–61; P. Steinmetz, “Xenophanesstudien” in Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie,109 (1966), 13–73; and M. Untersteiner, intro and commentart to his Senofane (see above).

AndrÉ Rivier

Xenophanes of Colophon

views updated May 11 2018

Xenophanes of Colophon (c.560–478 bc) Travelling Greek poet and philosopher. Xenophanes proposed a version of pantheism, holding that all living creatures have a common natural origin. His work survives only in fragmentary form.