Xenophanes of Colophon (Ancient Greek: Ξενοφάνης ὁ Κολοφώνιος IPA: /ksenophánɛːs ho kolophɔˊːnios/; c.570 – c.475 BCE) was a Greek philosopher, poet, and social and religious critic. Our knowledge of his views comes from fragments of his poetry, surviving as quotations by later Greek writers. To judge from these, his elegiac and iambic poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of ideas, including Homer and Hesiod, the belief in the pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and the Greeks' veneration of athleticism. He is the earliest Greek poet who claims explicitly to be writing for future generations, creating "fame that will reach all of Greece, and never die while the Greek kind of songs survives."
Xenophanes rejected the idea that the gods resembled humans in form strenuously enough that the idea must have been widely current in the sixth century. He is the first to express a skepticism that became current during the fourth century. He cleverly satirized the polytheistic beliefs 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, but such ideas were savored by Christian apologists. One famous, proto-sociological passage, repeated by Clement of Alexandria, ridiculed the idea by claiming that, if oxen were able to imagine gods, then those gods would be in the image of oxen:
The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,
While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.
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. This vision is not undisputed; while it seems clear that Xenophanes differed markedly from the commonly held cosmology of his contemporaries, it is less clear that his ideas were congruent with monotheism per se, as he seemed to admit the existence of other gods ("among gods and men"), albeit different gods than the ones represented in the works of Homer and Hesiod.
He also wrote that poets should only tell stories about the gods which were socially uplifting, one of many views which foreshadowed the work of Plato. Xenophanes also concluded from his examination of fossils that water once must have covered all of the Earth's surface. 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. Therefore, 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. This aspect of Xenophanes was brought out again by Karl Popper and is a basis of Critical rationalism.
Until the 1950s, there was some controversy over many aspects of Xenophanes, including whether or not he could be properly characterized as a philosopher. 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 (see Lesher, p. 102).
Xenophanes approached the question of science from the standpoint of the reformer rather than of the scientific investigator. If we look at the very considerable remains of his poetry that have come down to us, we see that they are all in the satirist's and social reformer's vein. There is one dealing with the management of a feast, another which denounces the exaggerated importance attached to athletic victories, and several which attack the humanized gods of Homer. The problem is, therefore, to find, if we can, a single point of view from which all these fragments can be interpreted, although it may be that no such point of view exists. Like the religious reformers of the day, Xenophanes turned his back on the anthropomorphic polytheism of Homer and Hesiod. This revolt is based on a conviction that the tales of the poets are directly responsible for the moral corruption of the time.
Xenophanes found the weapons he required for his attack on polytheism in the science of the time. There are traces of Anaximander's cosmology in the fragments, and Xenophanes may easily have been his disciple before he left Ionia. He seems to have taken the gods of mythology one by one and reduced them to meteorological phenomena, and especially to clouds. And he maintained there was only one god—namely, the world. God is one incorporeal eternal being, and, like the universe, spherical in form; that he is of the same nature with the universe, comprehending all things within himself; is intelligent, and pervades all things, but bears no resemblance to human nature either in body or mind.
He taught that if there had ever been a time when nothing existed, nothing could ever have existed. Whatever is, always has been from eternity, without deriving its existence from any prior principles. Nature, he believed, is one and without limit; that what is one is similar in all its parts, else it would be many; that the one infinite, eternal, and homogeneous universe is immutable and incapable of change. His position is often classified as pantheistic, although his use of the term 'god' simply follows the use characteristic of the early cosmologists generally. There is no evidence that Xenophanes regarded this 'god' with any religious feeling, and all we are told about him (or rather about it) is purely negative. He is quite unlike a man, and has no special organs of sense, but 'sees all over, thinks all over, hears all over' (fr. 24). Further, he does not go about from place to place (fr. 26), but does everything 'without toil (fr. 25).
Xenophanes of Colophon (Greek Ξενοφάνης ὁ Κολοφώνιος, Xenophánes; 570 – 480 BC) was a Greek philosopher, poet, and social and religious critic. Our knowledge of his views comes from his surviving poetry, all of which are fragments passed down as quotations by later Greek writers.
XENOPHANES of Colophon, the reputed founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, is supposed to have been born in the third or fourth decade of the 6th century B.C. An exile from his Ionian home, he resided for a time in Sicily, at Zancle and at Catana, and afterwards established himself in southern Italy, at Elea, a Phocaean colony founded in the sixty-first Olympiad (536-533). In one of the extant fragments he speaks of himself as having begun his wanderings sixty-seven years before, when he was twenty-five years of age, so that he was not less than ninety-two when he died. His teaching found expression in poems, which he recited rhapsodically in the course of his travels. In the more considerable of the elegiac fragments which have survived, he ridicules the doctrine of the migration of souls (xviii.), asserts the claims of wisdom against the prevalent athleticism, which seemed to him to conduce neither to the good government of states nor to their material prosperity (xix), reprobates the introduction of Lydian luxury into Colophon (xx.), and recommends the reasonable enjoyment of social pleasures (xxi.). Of the epic fragments, the more important are those in which he attacks the "anthropomorphic and anthropopathic polytheism" of his contemporaries. According to Aristotle, "the first of Eleatic unitarians was not careful to say whether the unity which he postulated was finite or infinite, but, contemplating the whole firmament, declared that the One is God." Whether Xenophanes was a monotheist, whose assertion of the unity of God suggested to Parmenides the doctrine of the unity of Being, or a pantheist, whose assertion of the unity of God was also a declaration of the unity of Being, so that he anticipated Parmenides - in other words, whether Xenophanes's teaching was purely theological or had also a philosophical significance - is a question about which authorities have differed and will probably continue to differ. The silence of the extant fragments, which have not one word about the unity of Being, favours the one view; the voice of antiquity, which proclaims Xenophanes the founder of Eleaticism, has been thought to favour the other.
Of Xenophanes's utterances about (1) God, (2) the world, (3) knowledge, the following survive: (1) "There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals.. .. He is all sight, all mind, all ear (i.e. not a composite organism).. Without an effort ruleth he all things by thought.
He abideth ever in the same place motionless, and it befitteth him not to wander hither and thither.. .. Yet men imagine gods to be born, and to have raiment and voice and body, like themselves.. Even so the gods of the Ethiopians are swarthy and flat-nosed, the gods of the Thracians are fair-haired and blue eyed.. Even so Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all that is a shame and a reproach among men - theft, adultery, deceit and other lawless acts.. .. Even so oxen, lions and horses, if they had hands wherewith to grave images, would fashion gods after their own shapes and make them bodies like to their own. (2) From earth all things are and to earth all things return. From earth and water come all of us.... The sea is the well whence water springeth.. .. Here at our feet is the end of the earth where it reacheth unto air, but, below, its foundations are without end.. .. The rainbow, which men call Iris, is a cloud that is purple and red and yellow. (3) No man hath certainly known, nor shall certainly know, that which he saith about the gods and about all things; for, be that which he saith ever so perfect, yet doth he not know it; all things are matters of opinion.
That which I say is opinion like unto truth.... The gods did not reveal all things to mortals in the beginning; long is the search ere man findeth that which is better." There is very little secondary evidence to record. "The Eleatic school," says the Stranger in Plato's Sophist, 242 D, "beginning with Xenophanes, and even earlier, starts from the principle of the unity of all things." Aristotle, in a passage already cited, Metaphysics, A5, speaks of Xenophanes as the first of the Eleatic unitarians, adding that his monotheism was reached through the contemplation of the oupavos. Theophrastus (in Simplicius's Ad Physica, 5) sums up Xenophanes's teaching in the propositions, "The All is One and the One is God." Timon (in Sext. Empir. Pyrrh. i. 224), ignoring Xenophanes's theology, makes him resolve all things into one and the same unity. The demonstrations of the unity and the attributes of God, with which the treatise De Melisso, Xenophane et Gorgia (now no longer ascribed to Aristotle or Theophrastus) accredits Xenophanes, are plainly framed on the model of Eleatic proofs of the unity and the attributes of the Ent, and must therefore be set aside. The epitomators of a later time add nothing to the testimonies already enumerated.
Thus, whereas in his writings, so far as they are known to us, Xenophanes appears as a theologian protesting against an anthropomorphic polytheism, the ancients seem to have regarded him as a philosopher asserting the unity of Being. How are we to understand these conflicting, though not irreconcilable, testimonies? According to Zeller, the discrepancy is only apparent. The Greek gods being the powers of nature personified, pantheism lay nearer to hand than monotheism. Xenophanes was, then, a pantheist. Accordingly his assertion of the unity of God was at the same time a declaration of the unity of Being, and in virtue of this declaration he is entitled to rank as the founder of Eleaticism, inasmuch as the philosophy of Parmenides was his forerunner's pantheism divested of its theistic element. This reconciliation of the internal and the external evidence, countenanced as it is by Theophrastus, one of the best informed of the ancient historians, and approved by Zeller, one of the most learned of the modern critics, is more than plausible; but there is something to be said on the contrary part. In the first place, it may be doubted whether to a Greek of the 6th century pantheism was nearer than monotheism. Secondly, the external evidence does not bear examination. The Platonic testimony, if it proved anything, would prove too much, namely, that the doctrine of the unity of Being originated, not with Xenophanes, but before him; and, in fact, the passage from the Sophist no more proves that Plato attributed to Xenophanes the philosophy of Parmenides than Theaetetus, 160 D, proves that Plato attributed to Homer the philosophy of Heraclitus. Again, Aristotle's description of Xenophanes as the first of the Eleatic unitarians does not necessarily imply that the unity asserted by Xenophanes was the unity asserted by Parmenides; the phrase, "contemplating the firmament, he declared that the One is God," leaves it doubtful whether Aristotle attributed to Xenophanes any philosophical theory whatever; and the epithet a ypoLKOTEpos discourages the belief that Aristotle regarded Xenophanes as the author of a new and important departure. Thirdly, when Xenophanes himself says that theories about gods and about things are not knowledge, that his own utterances are not verities but verisimilitudes, and that, so far from learning things by revelation, man must laboriously seek a better opinion, he plainly renounces the "disinterested pursuit of truth." If then he was indifferent to the problem, he can hardly be credited with the Eleatic solution. In the judgment of the present writer, Xenophanes was neither a philosopher nor a sceptic. He was not a philosopher, for he despaired of knowledge. He was not a sceptic, if by "sceptic" is meant the misologist whose despair of knowledge is the consequence of disappointed endeavour, for he had never hoped. Rather he was a theologian who arrived at his theory of the unity of the Supreme Being by criticism of the contemporary mythology. But, while he thus stood aloof from philosophy, Xenophanes influenced its development in two ways: first, his theological henism led the way to the philosophical henism of Parmenides and Zeno; secondly, his assertion that so-called knowledge was in reality no more than opinion taught his successors to distinguish knowledge and opinion, and to assign to each a separate province.
Apart from the old controversy about Xenophanes's relations to philosophy, doubts have recently arisen about his theological position. In fragments i., xiv., xvi., xxi., &c., he recognizes, thinks Freudenthal, a plurality of deities; whence it is inferred that, besides the One God, most high, perfect, eternal, who, as immanent intelligent cause, unifies the plurality of things, there were also lesser divinities, who govern portions of the universe, being themselves eternal parts of the one all-embracing Godhead. Whilst it can hardly be allowed that Xenophanes, so far from denying, actually affirms a plurality of gods, it must be conceded to Freudenthal that Xenophanes's polemic was directed against the anthropomorphic tendencies and the mythological details of the contemporary polytheism rather than against the polytheistic principle, and that, apart from the treatise De Melisso Xenophane et Gorgia, now generally discredited, there is no direct evidence to prove him a consistent monotheist. The wisdom of Xenophanes, like the wisdom of the Hebrew Preacher, showed itself, not in a theory of the universe, but in a sorrowful recognition of the nothingness of things and the futility of endeavour. His theism was a declaration not so much of the greatness of God as rather of the littleness of man. His cosmology was an assertion not so much of the immutability of the One as rather of the mutability of the Many. Like Socrates, he was not a philosopher, and did not pretend to be one; but, as the reasoned scepticism of Socrates cleared the way for the philosophy of Plato, so did Xenophanes's "abnormis sapientia" for the philosophy of Parmenides.
S. Karsten, Xenophanis Colophonii Carminum Reliquiae (Brussels, 1830); F. W. A. Mullach, Frag. Phil. Graec. (Paris, 1860), i. 99-108; G. Teichmuller, Studien z. Gesch. d. Begriffe (Berlin, 18 74), pp. 589-623; E. Zeller, Phil. d. Griechen (Leipzig, 1877), i. 486-507; J. Freudenthal, Ueber d. Theologie d. Xenophanes (Breslau, 1886), and "Zur Lehre d. Xen.," in Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philos. (Berlin, 1888), i. 3 22 -347; H. Diels, Poetarum Philosophorum Fragmenta (Berlin, 1901); and Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin, 1906). For fuller bibliography, including the controversy about the De Melisso Xen. et Gorgia, see Ueberweg, Grundriss d. Gesch. d. Philos. (Berlin, 1871), i. § 17. See also PARMENIDES. (H. JA.)
Species: X. tryxus
Our knowledge of his views comes from fragments of his poetry, surviving as quotations by later Greek writers. To judge from these, his poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of ideas. This included Homer and Hesiod, the belief in the pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and the Greeks' veneration of . He is the earliest Greek poet who claims explicitly to be writing for future generations, creating "fame that will reach all of Greece, and never die while the Greek kind of songs survives".
Xenophanes' surviving writings display a skepticism that became more commonly expressed during the 4th century BC. He satirized the polytheistic beliefs 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 ideas were savored 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 snubnosed and black
Thracians that they are pale and red-haired.