Xenophanes of Colophon

Xenophanes of Colophon


Xenophanes&rsquo place in this book is somewhat precarious. He was primarily a prolific (and very long-lived: F1) poet, writing in various metres and various genres, a travelling bard who wandered the Greek world after leaving his native Ionia after the Median invasion of 546 (F2). We have over 100 lines of his poetry, only a few of which certainly reflect philosophical interests. The idea that he was either a Pythagorean or the founder of Eleatic monism is mistaken. It is hard to see the grounds for the former claim, and the latter (as in T1) is an erroneous inference based on the superficial similarity of his god with Parmenides&rsquo &lsquowhat-is&rsquo. However, Plato&rsquos light-hearted claim irredeemably influenced the later doxographic tradition, which frequently attributes to Xenophanes views lifted from Parmenides.

He is best known as the first critical theologian. Where the Milesians had implicitly undermined Homeric religion, Xenophanes made a full frontal assault. The relevant theological fragments (F3&mdash9) are mostly self-explanatory. It is clear that he unequivocally rejected Homeric anthropomorphism, and replaced this with a conception of a god whose attributes seem to make him little more than a mind writ large. (I should say that although F4 and F5 have no subject, the contexts in which they are preserved guarantee that the subject is this god.) However, it is clear from F3 that Xenophanes&rsquo god is imagined as having a body it is just that it is not humanoid (see also F8 in this context). In any case, his god is motionless (F5), not just because it would be blasphemous to attribute motion to him, but also because he has no need of movement, since he can move everything else with the power of his mind. Although Homer&rsquos Zeus could shake mount Olympus with a nod of his head (Iliad 1.528&ndash30), Xenophanes&rsquo god has no need to move at all to shake the whole world. He should probably be envisaged as being situated on the periphery of the universe, all around the world, like Anaximander&rsquos divine &lsquoboundless&rsquo 1 this seems more in keeping with archaic thought than the idea that the god is to be identified with the world however, it is possible that Xenophanes imagined the world as being imbued with the mind of the god, so that it can direct all things. The rejection of Homeric tales about adultery and so on among the gods presumably means that Xenophanes conceives his god to be good, as well as a being of great power. Finally, given that the god remains &lsquofor ever&rsquo in the same place, it is likely that he is conceived as eternal: T2, one of a number of pithy sayings that later became attached to Xenophanes as a well-known sage, is a neat way of expressing the same idea.

What is not so clear, however, is whether Xenophanes was a fully fledged monotheist. Although the mention of &lsquogods and men&rsquo (F3) is a formulaic way of expressing emphasis, it would at the very least be extremely casual of Xenophanes to choose this way of expressing emphasis in a context where he was arguing for what would to the Greeks have been the extraordinary concept of monotheism. It seems more reasonable to conclude that Xenophanes&rsquo &lsquoone god&rsquo is not the only god, but the main god in a pantheon. So, for instance, when he says at the end of one of his non-philosophical fragments (DK 21B1) that &lsquoIt is always good to hold the gods in high regard&rsquo, we have no need to accuse him of hypocrisy, or to suppose that he changed his mind at some point and became a monotheist. He may, like Plato later, have gone no further than decrying the immorality of the gods as traditionally portrayed. In this context, it is interesting that at T3 ps.-Plutarch applies to all the gods the attributes of F4, which most scholars believe apply only to the one supreme god. 2

Nevertheless, Xenophanes&rsquo theology must have seemed extremely shocking to most of his contemporaries, and some aspects of it proved influential, at least on other thinkers, as we shall see in the case of Heraclitus. But his abstract picture of god remained an isolated phenomenon, even among the free-thinking Presocratics. It is tempting to think that Xenophanes&rsquo god might have been like the god of the Ioniansn&mdasha divinization of their cosmogonic principle. But as we shall see, Xenophanes&rsquo cosmogonic principle is, or includes, earth, and that his god is not the same as the earth (as Aristotle seems to have thought, to judge by T4) is shown by the fact that he moves the earth with his mind. In this sense Xenophanes&rsquo god is not as &lsquoadvanced&rsquo as the Ionian deities. Xenophanes&rsquo god is more like a super-abstraction of the Homeric Zeus: he has a location, but it does not seem to be as localized as mount Olympus he has a body, but it is not anthropomorphic and he has infinitely more power than Zeus.

Personally, I am not convinced that Xenophanes had a developed cosmogony. It has commonly been argued that he took as his originative substances earth and water (F11), but this statement in itself scarcely constitutes an Ionian cosmogony, rather than an expression of the fact that, Xenophanes believed (see below), things emerge from a primordial swamp. As for the alternative statement, F10, that everything comes from and returns to earth, this may not be a scientific fragment at all, but simply a variation on the English saying, &lsquoAshes to ashes, dust to dust.&rsquo In any case, there is a clash between F11 and F12: one says that things come from earth and water, the other that they are made of earth and water&mdashtwo quite different propositions. Moreover, if earth and/or water were cosmogonic principles in the Ionian mould, that would leave us with the strange gap of not knowing how he expected to explain the existence of air and fire F14 is not a cosmogonic fragment about the origin of air, but a meteorological fragment about how winds arise (see also T6).

Even if he was no cosmogonist, however, Xenophanes did remark on other meteorological phenomena, such as the rainbow (Iris in F15), and with less sophistication or imagination than Anaximander and Anaximenes explained the earth&rsquos stability by stating that it extends infinitely down below us (F13). This raises the question how he would have explained the disappearance of the sun and stars, which were usually thought to rotate under the earth. Here testimonia come to the rescue: Xenophanes apparently believed that the sun (and presumably the other heavenly bodies) is made new each day. This belief in a plurality of suns and moons led, in the doxographical tradition, to the delightful misconception that Xenophanes believed that different regions of the earth had different suns and moons.

However, the constitution of the heavenly bodies remains unclear: are they gathered together from clouds or from &lsquolittle pieces of fire&rsquo (T5)? It has recently been securely established that according to Xenophanes the moon, at any rate, is made out of ignited cloud, 3 and in all likelihood the same goes for the other heavenly bodies. But perhaps the two views found in T5 are not contradictory perhaps Xenophanes said that evaporation from the earth causes clouds or mist, that somehow parts of this vapour ignite, and then that the ignited parts gather together and form the sun (and the other heavenly bodies).

T7 records one of the most interesting features of Xenophanes&rsquo cosmology. Reflecting on the existence of marine fossils inland, he was led to believe that the earth had once been covered with mud, and had then dried out, but was at the moment gradually becoming soaked again. He seems to imagine that the gradual saturation of the earth causes it to dissolve and slide down into the sea (which may incidentally cause the salinity of the sea: T8), until everything is covered by the muddy mixture of earth and sea. Then the process of drying out begins again, and life begins again&mdashfrom earth and water, as F12 says.

Xenophanes&rsquo most remarkable contribution to philosophy is contained in the fragments with which I end the sequence, in which he reflects on the limitations of human knowledge. Xenophanes was probably led to these remarks by reflection on his theology: having conceived of the divine as super-intelligent, the traditional contrast between the powers of gods and those of men will have led him to belittle men&rsquos knowledge and intelligence (cf. F3: god is completely different from man): all we can have is belief, not knowledge (F16 l. 4). This applies explicitly to his own views as well as anyone else&rsquos in fact it is possible that F17 came close to the end of a philosophical poem (supposing there to have been one), and was therefore a comment on everything that had gone before. Above all, we are limited by the fact that our experience is limited (F18). Nevertheless, by diligent research we can improve our epistemic situation (F19), so that there is gradual overall progress but research is what it takes, not wild speculation. In F20he lampoons Pythagoras (that it is a lampoon is guaranteed by the context: Diogenes Laertius preserves this fragment among those of other satirists who poked fun at Pythagoras), either for his theory of metempsychosis or for his claim to be able to recognize a human soul in the yelping of a puppy, but in either case for making unverifiable claims. This is in keeping with Xenophanes&rsquo more cautious approach to cosmogony and cosmology.

Undoubtedly the most important reason why Xenophanes pointed out the limitations of human knowledge is the one enunciated in the first two lines of F16 indeed, many of his theological comments can also be seen as having the same purport. All the usual ways in which the Greeks assumed they could obtain knowledge about the gods are criticized: the gods do not visit us in human guise (as often in Homer), because they do not have human bodies the gods&rsquo will is not made manifest through portents like rainbows, because these are purely natural phenomena the gods are not as the poets or other experts have described and in any case no one can know if an inspired utterance is accurate. In short, as F3 insists, the main god, at least, is so unlike us humans that we cannot really lay claim to any reliable knowledge about him.

Xenophanes&rsquo ideas are based more on common sense and observation (e.g. of fossils) than his Ionian predecessors. His vision is less splendid, but more solidly based. This aspect of his character may also be glimpsed in his non-philosophical fragments, where in a cosy fashion he praises the conventional virtues of piety, duty towards one&rsquos native city, and a life of moderation. But this caution also gave rise to a degree of scepticism, particularly about matters relating to the gods. Xenophanes was no thoroughgoing sceptic: he was as concerned as any of his opponents to give an accurate description of phenomena and the gods, and he was certain that honey tasted sweet but he was aware of the limitations of human knowledge of the most important and remote things. We cannot attain infallible knowledge, and we are limited by the experiences we happen to have encountered. Enquiry can improve matters (F19), but even so we will never attain certainty about the big questions of life. This thesis in turn depends on a thesis about the senses: Xenophanes is implicitly saying that the reason we will never attain certain knowledge is that the information we receive through our senses is incapable of taking us there. And so his philosophical successors took up various positions on the reliability of the senses, some (Parmenides, Melissus) claiming that the senses are useless, while intelligence or divinely granted insight gives them a fast track to the truth which Xenophanes found so elusive, others (e.g. Heraclitus, Empedocles) arguing for cautious use of the senses.

F1 (DK 21B8 KRS 161)

Already my thoughts have been tossed here and there in Greece

For sixty-seven years and that&rsquos not all:

From my birth till then there were twenty-five more,

If I know how to speak truly about these things.

(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers
9.19.1&ndash4 Long)

F2 (DK 21B45)

I tossed myself about, travelling from city to city.

(Erotian, Notes on Hippocrates&rsquo &lsquoOn Epidemics&rsquo 102.23&ndash4 Nachmanson)

T1 (DK 21A29 KRS 163)[A visitor from Elea is speaking] And our Eleatic tribe, beginning with Xenophanes or even earlier, tell us tales in their stories on the assumption that what people call &lsquoall things&rsquo are really one. (Plato, Sophist 242d4&ndash7 Duke et al.)

F3 (DK 21B23 KRS 170)

One god, greatest among gods and men,

In no way similar to mortal men in body or in thought.

(Clement, Miscellanies 5.109.1 Stählin/Früchtel)

F4 (DK 21B24 KRS 172)

Complete he sees, complete he thinks, complete he hears.

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.144.4 Bury)

F5 (DK 21B26, B25 KRS 171)

He remains for ever in the same place, entirely motionless,

Nor is it proper for him to move from one place to another.

But effortlessly he shakes all things by thinking with his mind.

(Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle&rsquos &lsquoPhysics&rsquo, CAG IX, 23. 11&ndash12, 20 Diels)

F6 (DK 21B11 KRS 166)

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods

Everything that men find shameful and reprehensible&mdash

Stealing, adultery, and deceiving one another.

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.193.3&ndash5 Bury)

F7 (DK 21B14 KRS 167)

But mortals think that the gods are born,

Wear their own clothes, have voices and bodies.

(Clement, Miscellanies 5.109.2 Stählin/Früchtel)

F8 (DK 21B15 KRS 169)

If cows and horses or lions had hands,&dagger

Or could draw with their hands and make things as men can,

Horses would have drawn horse-like gods, cows cow-like gods,

And each species would have made the gods&rsquo bodies just like their own.

(Clement, Miscellanies 5.109.3 Stählin/Früchtel)

F9 (DK 21B16 KRS 168)

Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,

And Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.*

(Clement, Miscellanies 7.22.1 Stählin/Früchtel)

T2 (DK 21A13) The people of Elea asked Xenophanes whether or not they should sacrifice to Leucothea and mourn for her. The advice he gave them was not to mourn for her if they took her to be divine, and not to sacrifice to her if they took her to be human. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1400 b 6&ndash8 Ross)

T3 (DK 21A32) Concerning the gods, he declared that there is no hierarchy among them, since it is sacrilege for any of the gods to have a master and none of them is in the slightest need of anything and they see and hear as a whole, rather than partially. (Ps.-Plutarch, Miscellanies 4.9&ndash11 Diels)

T4 Xenophanes was the first of these monists (for he is said to have been Parmenides&rsquo teacher), but he did not express himself clearly and in fact seems not to have grasped either of these concepts [either what Aristotle sees as the formal monism of Parmenides or the material monism of Melissus]. Rather, gazing up at heaven as a whole, he declared that the One is God. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 986 b 21&ndash5 Ross)

F10 (DK 21B27)

Earth is the source of all things, and all things end in earth.

(Aëtius, Opinions 1.3.12 Diels)

F11 (DK 21B29 KRS 181)

All that is created and grows is no more than earth and water.

(Philoponus, Commentary on Aristotle&rsquos &lsquoPhysics&rsquo, CAG XVI, 125.30 Vitelli)

F12 (DK 21B33 KRS 182)

For we are all created from earth and water.

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 10.314.8 Bury)

F13 (DK 21B28 KRS 10, 180)

Plainly, the upper limit of the earth, here at our feet,

Abuts the aither but below it stretches on without limit.

(Achilles, Introduction to Aratus&rsquo &lsquoPhaenomena&rsquo 434.13&ndash14 Maass)

F14 (DK 21B30 KRS 183)

The sea is the source of water and the source of wind

For there would be no wind without the great sea, &dagger

Nor flowing rivers, nor rainfall from the aither.

No, the great sea is the creator of clouds, winds,

(Crates of Mallus [fr. 32a Mette] in the Geneva Scholiast on Homer&rsquos Iliad 21.196)

F15 (DK 21B32 KRS 178)

And the one called Iris is also a cloud,

Purple, red, and yellow to the sight.

(Scholiast BLT on Homer&rsquos Iliad 11.27, Dindorf 3.457)

T5 (DK 21A40 KRS 177) Xenophanes says that the sun is made up of ignited clouds. In his The Opinions of the Natural Scientists Theophrastus writes that it is made up of little pieces of fire which are assembled out of the moist exhalation and assemble the sun. (Theophrastus [fr. 232 Fortenbaugh et al.] in Aëtius, Opinions 2.20.3 Diels)

T6 (DK 21A46) Xenophanes says that meteorological phenomena are caused in the first instance by the warmth of the sun. For when moisture is drawn up from the sea, the sweet part of it separates off as mist because of its fineness, forms clouds, and falls as rain when it is subjected to felting and winds are caused by the evaporation.&dagger (Aëtius, Opinions 3.4.4 Diels)

T7 (DK 21A33 KRS 184) Xenophanes believes that the earth is becoming mixed with the sea and that it will eventually be dissolved by the moist. He adduces the following evidence: shells are found inland and in the mountains in the quarries at Syracuse the impression of a fish and seaweeds&dagger has been found on Paros the impression of a bay-leaf has been found buried in stone and on Malta there are slabs of rock made up of all kinds of sea-creatures. He says that these came about a long time ago, when everything was covered with mud, and that the impression became dried in the mud. He claims that the human race is wiped out whenever the earth is carried down into the sea and becomes mud, that then there is a fresh creation, and that this is how all the worlds have their beginning. (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 1.14.5&ndash6 Marcovich)

T8 (DK 21A33) He says that the sea is salty because of all the various ingredients that flow together in it. (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies Marcovich)

F16 (DK 21B34 KRS 186)

Indeed, there never has been&dagger nor will there ever be a man

Who knows the truth about the gods and all the matters of which I speak.

For even if one should happen to speak what is the case especially well,

Still he himself would not know it. But belief occurs in all matters. (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 7. 49.4&ndash7 Bury)

F17 (DK 21B35 KRS 187)

Let these things be believed as approximations to the truth.

(Plutarch, Table Talk 746b7 Sandbach)

F18 (DK 21B38 KRS 189)

If the god had not made yellow honey, they would have said That figs were much sweeter.

(Herodian, On Peculiar Speech 41.5 Lentz)

F19 (DK 21B18 KRS 188)

The gods did not intimate all things to men straight away,

But in time, through seeking, their discoveries improve.*

(John of Stobi, Anthology 1.8.2 Wachsmuth/Hense)

F20 (DK 21B7 KRS 260)[about Pythagoras]

Once, they say, he was passing by when a puppy was being thrashed,

And he took pity on it and spoke the following words:

&lsquoStop! Do not beat the dog! It is, in fact, the soul of a friend of mine.

I recognized it when I heard its voice.&rsquo

(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.36.12&ndash15 Long)

S. Darcus, &lsquoThe Phren of the Noos in Xenophanes&rsquo God&rsquo, Symbolae Osloenses, 53 (1978), 25&ndash39.

M. Eisenstadt, &lsquoXenophanes&rsquo Proposed Reform of Greek Religion&rsquo, Hermes, 102 (1974), 142&ndash50.

A. Finkelberg, &lsquoStudies in Xenophanes&rsquo, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 93 (1990), 104&ndash67.

&mdash&mdash &lsquoXenophanes&rsquo Physis, Parmenides&rsquo Doxa, and Empedocles&rsquo Theory of Cosmogonical Mixture&rsquo, Hermes, 125 (1997), 1&ndash16.

H. Fränkel, &lsquoXenophanes&rsquo Empiricism and his Critique of Knowledge&rsquo, in [30], 118&ndash31.

P. Keyser, &lsquoXenophanes&rsquo Sun on Trojan Ida&rsquo, Mnemosyne, 45 (1992), 299&ndash311.

J. H. Lesher, Xenophanes: Fragments (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992).

A. P. D. Mourelatos, &lsquo&ldquoX is Really Y&rdquo: Ionian Origins of a Thought Pattern&rsquo, in [24], 280&ndash90.

J. A. Palmer, &lsquoXenophanes&rsquo Ouranian God in the Fourth Century&rsquo, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 16 (1998), 1&ndash34.

D. Runia, &lsquoXenophanes on the Moon: A Doxographicum in Aëtius&rsquo, Phronesis, 34 (1989), 245&ndash69.

A. Tulin, &lsquoXenophanes Fr. 18 DK and the Origins of the Idea of Progress&rsquo, Hermes, 121 (1993), 129&ndash38.

Xenophanes of Colophon - History

Xenophanes of Colophon was a traveling poet and philosopher who preceded Socrates by over a century. As is common with many pre-Socratic philosophers, there is little to go on when it comes to understanding Xenophanes. If he had written any extensive texts, they have not survived to this day. We instead must rely on a series of fragments attributed to the philosopher in order to understand his conception of God, which was a bit controversial for the time. So Xenophanes, in rather bold fashion, takes to task the scripture of his day and openly criticizes the Greeks for their tendency to present their deities in such a negative and erroneous fashion. While Xenophones is indeed examining our tendency to anthropomorphize God, he also appears to be criticizing religiously minded people who triumph their belief system over others for no sound reason. This critique would have been especially true amongst the ancient Greeks who often championed their Olympians over the other, “barbarian” religions.


According to biographer Diogenes Laërtius, Xenophanes wrote in hexameters and also composed elegies and iambics against Homer and Hesiod. [8] Laertius also mentions two historical poems concerning the founding of Colophon and Elea, but of these, only the titles have been preserved. [9] There is no good authority that says that Xenophanes wrote a philosophical poem. [14] The Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius tells us 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. [15] It is thus likely that the philosophical remarks of Xenophanes were expressed incidentally in his satires. [16] 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. [16]

The arche of Xenophanes is God, within a unique universe, immobile, inalienable and also infinite. For him, there was only one God who was at the same time intelligent and who governed all things in the universe through his spirit.

In reality, we do not have the complete works written by Xenophanes, but we do have fragments of them compiled by authors such as Aulo Gelio, Simplicio, Ateneo of Naucratis, Clemente of Alexandria and others. Approximately 120 verses have been preserved in this way.

The Elegies were works written from the metric point of view, they are written in Ionic language and their main theme is the traditional elegy, criticism of rich people’s greed, true virtue and some autobiographical features.

Satires were texts written against poets and philosophers.

The Colophon Foundation and the Colonization of Elea in Italy are epic poems.

He wrote the didactic poem ” About nature “.

31. Xenophanes of Colophon

Xenophanes could be considered the roving vagabond of the Presocratic philosophers. Like the others discussed earlier, he came from Ionia.1 He was from the Ionian city of Colophon which was near Miletus, home of the Milesian Presocratic philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. There was something about Ionia that lent itself to producing great thinkers and Xenophanes was no exception. Thales would have said that whatever it was, it was probably in the water.

He left his homeland abruptly at the age of 25 after Cyrus, king of the Persians, invaded Ionia in 550 BC. King Cyrus had the Jews, the people of faith, under his dominion at this time, and now he had the philosophers as well – a prefiguration that one day faith and reason would be united under one head, Jesus Christ. King Cyrus is a prefiguration and a type of Christ, even being called the “messiah” in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

After leaving Ionia, along with other Greek compatriots, he made his way through the Greek colonies in Sicily. He did not settle in any one place for long, but spent his life moving from town to town.2

In his old age, he composed the following elegy:

“Already there are seven and sixty years tossing about my counsel throughout the land of Greece, and from my birth up till then there were twenty and five to add to these, if I know how to speak truly concerning these things.”3

If we do the math and add 67 to his age when he left Ionia, then he would have been 92 at the composition of this elegy. Not bad for a iterant philosopher!

Xenophanes is much overlooked as just another of the Presocratic philosophers, but as we will see, he was foundational in the development of philosophical as well as theological thought in the West. He was a poet philosopher and would travel around the countryside communicating his ideas through his poetry.

As mentioned in post 26, it was another poet, Hesiod, who started the ball rolling by trying to discover the first principle, or arche, of the universe. The arche is that which gives rise to everything else, the origin of all things. He declared the gods of mythology to be the arche of the universe, in particular the god Chaos.

After laying this groundwork, the Milesian Presocratic philosophers picked up the baton and carried it further. They pursued the concept of arche, but abandoned altogether the possibility of the gods being the arche. Instead, they looked for it in material objects like water, air, earth, and fire.4

Xenophanes and the gods

If the gods were reeling at this point, it was Xenophanes who dealt the knockout punch to them. He did not deny the existence of gods he simply attacked Hesiod and Homer and their anthropomorphic characterization of them.5 Really, “attack” is putting it mildly. He excoriated Hesiod and Homer for their portrayal of the gods in such a crude and human manner. He thought it ridiculous that the gods would behave like spoiled overgrown children and yet possess superhero strength and immortality.

It was Greek practice, in their piety, to sing hymns to the gods. Xenophanes was morally outraged.6 He said that only a moron would sing a hymn to a god who was a liar or a rapist. (Tell us what you really think, Xenophanes.)

Casting the mythological gods aside, Xenophanes chose rather to expound on what he thought was the true divine nature. He was the first philosopher posit the existence of God and to give a systematic account of the divine nature.7 I like to think of him as the first systematic theologian. In one of his fragments, he states:

“Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.”

After rejecting the gods of Homer and Hesiod, he states:

“One God is greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or thought.”

Xenophanes on the Nature of God

Xenophanes declared that there is a being of extraordinary power and excellence that we are obligated to hold in highest regard. This God is good, unlike Homer and Hesiod’s gods that are corrupt. He was the first philosopher to equate goodness with God, something that is a given in Judeo-Christian tradition. And unlike the corrupt Greek gods, Xenophanes’s God does not have a body because He just is and has no need to go anywhere.

He also said that God is in need of nothing, not even the animal sacrifices that the mythological gods always demanded. By stating this, he formulated the doctrine of aseity that is also found in Christian theology. The doctrine of aseity says that God is completely self-sufficient, needing nothing outside of Himself for His existence. Many people trace this doctrine’s origin to Plato, but it really originates with Xenophanes.

Xenophanes said that God’s main function is to sit around and think and perceive. He can make things happen just by thinking them. He is omniscient which means he knows all things, and is omnipotent. God, then, is completely unlike us except in one crucial way – both God and humans think. Later, St. Thomas Aquinas would say something similar when he stated that the primary way in which we are like God, being created in his image, is our intellect.

Two Types of Knowledge

Even though Xenophanes made declarative statements about the nature of God, he paradoxically said that we cannot be dogmatic things about which we cannot be certain. He stated that there are two types of knowledge: that which we can gain empirically and that which is beyond human comprehension such as the nature of the divine. But nevertheless, he did declare that we can know this knowledge that is beyond human grasp:

“Let these things be believed as like the truth.”

By describing two types of knowledge, he laid the foundation for epistemological ideas that would be further developed by Plato and Aristotle as well as medieval Catholic theologians. Namely, he distinguished between knowledge gained through revelation and knowledge gained through empirical means – what we call faith and reason, the theme of this blog.

Was Xenophanes a Monotheist or a Polytheist?

The final question to consider is whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or a polytheist. People come down on both sides of the issue. Without getting too much into the weeds on the matter, I would say that the statement, “One God is greatest among gods and men,” is really a monotheistic one. The phrase “greatest among gods,” I think, is a figure of speech which signifies “greatest among gods as perceived by the human mind and not as actually exist.

Furthermore, according to Plato, Xenophanes was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy in Elea, Italy. His main student was Parmenides, another of the Presocratic philosophers who played a very significant role in the development of the discipline. Parmenides was a monist he believed that, contrary to experience, everything is one. This fits in well with Xenophanes’s idea that God is one. Xenophanes described God as the “one greatest, unmoving god” and Parmenides uses similar language when he describes a “motionless, eternal, and unitary being.” (We will talk about Parmenides in a later post.)

Was Xenophanes a Pantheist?

Aristotle, in Metaphysics, takes this a step further and interprets Xenophanes as saying, “…with regard to the whole universe, he says that the one is the god.” This really turns the matter on its head, for now we are entering into the realm of pantheism, where everything is one and everything is God. According to Aristotle, Xenophanes believed that the entire universe was God.

In other fragments, Xenophanes stated that the arche of the universe was earth and water he took a dualistic approach. But apparently, even though Xenophanes chose physical substances as the foundational principle of the universe, he – at the same time – must have equated these substances with God. Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher, posited something similar when he said that God is nature.

(What do you think? Was Xenophanes a polytheist, monotheist, or a pantheist? Please leave your comments below or in the chat window.)

In summ ary, Xenophanes made great strides in philosophy when he sought to understand the true nature of God and by distinguishing and validating two types of knowledge – that apprehended by faith and that comprehended by practical experience. His ideas reverberated among the other Presocratic philosophers as well as those who came later, especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He thus significantly contributed to the larger philosophical and theological conversation of Western Civilization.

“One god there is, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. He stays always motionless in the same place it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that.”

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.”

  1. Mark, Joshua J., “Xenophanes the Visionary Poet Philosopher,” World History Encyclopedia, 2012, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/171/xenophanes-the-visionary-poet-philosopher
  2. Ibid.
  3. Taylor, C.C.W., From the Beginning to Plato: Routledge History of Philosophy, Volume 1, Routledge 1st edition, Oxfordshire, England, January 29, 2016
  4. Curd, Patricia, “Presocratic Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/presocratics
  5. Lesher, James H. “Xenophanes’ Scepticism.” Phronesis, vol. 23, no. 1, 1978, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4182025
  6. Bowra, C. M. “Xenophanes, Fragment 1.” Classical Philology, vol. 33, no. 4, 1938, pp. 353–367. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/264565 Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/xenophanes
  7. Mark, Joshua J., “Xenophanes the Visionary Poet Philosopher”

Bibliography and Sources:

Aristotle, The Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, New York, 2004

Aristotle, Physics, David Bostock, author, translated by Robin Waterfield, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2008

Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981

Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019

Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941

Internet Sources:

Adamson, Peter, Lecture 3 “Created in Our Image: Xenophanes Against Greek Religion,” History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, King’s College, London, Dec. 27, 2010, https://historyofphilosophy.net/xenophanes

Xenophanes, “Fragments and Commentary,” Arthur Fairbanks, ed., and trans., The First Philosophers of Greece, pp. 65-85, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, London, 1898, http://www.uvm.edu/

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Quotes attributed to Xenophanes

Here are some interesting quotes by Xenophanes accompanied with some of my own thoughts/comments to either clarify or add some colour.

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is blameworthy and disgraceful among humans ­theft and adultery and mutual trickery.

Here Xenophanes criticizes the most influential poets of the ancient Greek world, no doubt a bold move.

But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.

Everything born and growing is earth and water. For all things are from earth and into earth all things come to their end. We all are generated from earth and water.

This statement by Xenophanes gives us a feel of his metaphysical and natural beliefs about the world. Similar to other pre-socratic philosophers, the element(s) of nature are proposed as the substrate of all things.

One god, greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or mind. As a whole he sees, as a whole he thinks and as a whole he hears. And always he stays in the same place, not moving at all, nor is it fitting for him to travel in different directions at different times… But with no effort at all he keeps everything moving by the thinking of his mind.

Xenophanes is coming of as a mystic similar to the likes of Plotinus with the words said above. How does Xenophanes know this absolute fact of existence and where lies his evidence? He either heard these words from other philosophers or he actually had the experience of this supreme deity himself. We’ll never know but its safe to say that countless mystics in history have expressed very similar if not the very same sentiment.

But mortals suppose that gods are born, wear their own clothes and have a voice and body. Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. But if horses or oxen or lions had hands or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen, and they would make the bodies of the sort which each of them had.

Most likely the most famous words by Xenophanes where he unsparingly criticizes the anthropomorphic religious tendencies in humans. To express this in more modern terms, we humans are all conditioned beings operating under a certain operating system dependent on culture, language, geography and history etc.


&ldquoNo human being will ever know the Truth. For even if they happen to say it unintentionally, they would be unaware they had done so,&rdquo said Xenophanes, a revered, ancient Athenian thinker credited as a pioneer on human psychology about knowledge. His writings are debated to date for their relevance to psychology. Modern day thinkers believe Xenophanes, with these words, made the first attempt to characterize what we commonly call &lsquoopinion&rsquo. Humans possess an inherent trait of expressing their views about a variety of topics, despite lacking the required knowledge. Occasionally, such opinions could be true but since they are not founded on any true knowledge, those expressing such views remain blissfully unaware they had stumbled upon the reality.

Although more acclaimed as a bard with philosophical and scientific inclinations, Xenophanes contributions to psychology remain unparalleled if viewed with the perspective of technological and other constraints during his era.

Ancient Greek chronicler and historian, Diogenes Laertius, in his epic &lsquoLives and Works of Eminent Ancient Philosophers&rsquo depends on antique records to piece together Xenophanes&rsquo life. He states, Xenophanes was born in Colophon, a minor town in Ionia and was the son of Dexius. The date of his birth is not known. Other historians aver, Xenophanes was born around 525BC, based on a corollary between his works and conditions prevailing in ancient Greece during his era.

Diogenes Laertius further states, Xenophanes was a Grecian who went into self exile, wrongly believing he would be persecuted after Harpagus of Medea invaded Ionia in 545BC. Harpagus, on the contrary was reputed for his passion for learning and treasured scholars. Yet, several communities committed suicide falsely fearing a tyrannical rule under Harpagus. Xenophanes&rsquo family, including his wife and two sons also committed suicide and were buried by the thinker who dug their graves with bare hands, claim some historians. He fled to Sicily and found refuge in Zanlces and Catana, the two Greek hubs on the island.

Laertius admits that some records about Xenophanes are unverifiable such as being tried in a Grecian court for deriding Homer and Hesiod- two unparalleled litterateurs of ancient Greece or his capture by some obscure military who sold him as a slave. However, Xenophanes, states Laertius, in his own words claims he was &ldquotossed around Greece from his age of 25 to 67 years similar to flotsam by tidal waves.&rdquo

These travails shaped Xenophanes&rsquo skills as poet, scientist, astronomer and thinker since they provided him opportunities to dabble with myriad subjects- each more perplexing than the other. And these dexterous achievements eventually shot him to fame and remain recognized to date over 2,500 years later.

Xenophanes continued preaching his axioms till he was well over 90 years old. He was also a much sought after bard among the newer breed of Athenian aristocrats who preferred more sober eulogies as compared to their older counterparts who favoured mawkish ones. Historian and chronicler Diogenes Laertius states, Xenophanes died of old age in or around 475BC in Athens.

Xenophanes continued preaching his axioms till he was well over 90 years old. He was also a much sought after bard among the newer breed of Athenian aristocrats who preferred more sober eulogies as compared to their older counterparts who favoured mawkish ones. Historian and chronicler Diogenes Laertius states, Xenophanes died of old age in or around 475BC in Athens.

Among the first works that propelled Xenophanes to eminence were his tacit poems on Greek more on religion. He subtly chastised Homer, Hesiod and other ancient Greek poets and writers for their depiction of God saying:

&ldquoIf cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their limbs like men, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle. They would embody divine beings in their own likenesses.&rdquo

Xenophanes, says historian Diogenes Laertius, also flayed the depiction of gods as humans saying these were mere opinions. He elucidated this by saying, animals, if they could, would depict gods as their likenesses. He also draws a simile between ancient gods of Africa, which natives of that continent showed as possessing African features including a pug nose and dark skin as compared to Grecians, who portrayed their divine beings as possessing blonde hair and fair skin.

Xenophanes, through these differences, amply proved that humans express opinions without true knowledge- a pioneering work on human psychology. He further stated that the Africans and Grecians could be correct in their own limns of god but it is impossible to verify the same, given the innate limitations of mortals.

Several extant religions and cults explicitly prohibit idolatry or depiction of gods to prevent any contentious arguments.

Xenophanes vehemently belied Homer&rsquos and Hesiod&rsquos claims, enshrined through their poems and writings that Gods embodied &ldquodivine traits&rdquo that permitted theft, adultery, deception and other more scandalous behaviour, gruesome punishments, sodomy, and sarcastically, every other trait for which humans would stand accused of impiety.

Au contraire, Xenophanes propounded that gods possess great qualities that are exactly opposite to those attributed by Homer and Hesiod. His hypothesis was based on a simple fact: To be distinguished from humans and be revered as a supernatural, all pervading power, gods should be an epitome of unparalleled goodness and piety. &ldquoGod is one, greatest of gods and men, not like mortals in body or thought,&rdquo he preached. Hence, in several circles of thought, Xenophanes is also considered as the Father of Monotheism, though his right to this title remains much debated, since many others have proposed the theory of a single god rather than multiple deities.

Xenophanes thus laid a solid foundation for several extant religions which, in various words state that god is an omnipresent, omnipotent force- the quintessence of goodness. This theory continues to help humans who are psychologically inclined to turn to a higher power to seek answers to questions that cannot be addressed by modern science. It helps humans find solace in times of great mental distress- a fact attested by every psychologist.

Since times immemorial, alcohol related problems and alcoholism are a bane to every society, regardless of its development. Alcohol, ubiquitous at most parties since ancient times, is consumed with gusto. But often, drinkers violate the decorum or indulge in other abominable acts under the influence of this potent intoxicant.

Xenophanes is the first known thinker who attributed this to psychology and formulated a code of conduct for people attending raucous parties. He attributed improper behaviour at drinking parties to various shortcomings in the human nature- a fact proven by modern psychology. Xenophanes, perhaps to instil fear among drinkers, drew a parallel between misbehaviour under the influence of alcohol and sacrilege.

Xenophanes further said those who imbibe large volumes of alcohol and get inebriated violate the decorum, fail to honour gods and hence, pose a grave threat to the stability of their family, society and nation. Interestingly, this fact is conclusively proved by modern psychology and is used to treat alcoholics undergoing rehabilitation.

Another first of the era, Xenophanes also holds the dubious distinction as the first thinker to propose censorship of poems and other literature- a practice that assumed diabolical proportions over centuries and continues to date in countries with oppressive regimes that persecute writers.

Xenophanes derided poets and authors who wrote grossly exaggerated encomiums on rulers, athletes, soldiers and gods, saying such panegyrics were fallacious and lacked wisdom or virtue and hence, they misled the masses. He rightly pointed out that humans depict deities in their own form, as highlighted by his writings about the differences in opinions of Africans &ndash who believed god was dark skinned and Greeks, who portrayed god having a fair complexion.

Disgusted by poets and writers falsely approbating humans and gods, Xenophanes called for censorship of such works. Xenophanes was a poet and a litterateur himself and believed in free speech: He disliked only the grotesque exaggerations made by bards and authors while writing about heroes and gods.

Xenophanes call for censorship is a paradigm of what was to later become a grossly abused tool at the hands of dictators and oppressive regimes, since restricting information or using propaganda has a psychological impact and helps sway public opinion. It is unlikely that Xenophanes call for censorship went unheeded during his era when nobles paid bards to pen hackneyed adulations for self aggrandizement.

Xenophanes was the first to question in his own way: &ldquoHow much knowledge can humans imbibe over their lifetime?&rdquo This question, despite the best efforts of modern science and well equipped, highly skilled psychologists, remains unanswered to date. Research into extant works reveal, Xenophanes believed that all human senses are deceptive and hence, &ldquoknowledge&rdquo obtained through sensory organs is at best, useless since it depends largely upon a plethora of benchmarks. He annotates, if humans never tasted honey, they would believe figs were the sweetest food on Earth.

Xenophanes said, opinions are also prone to a wide range of vagaries since circumstances or bellicose debates may sway them. Hence, opinions should be considered as &ldquosecond knowledge&rdquo since it may portray a reality but lacks erudite basis.


Xenophanes of Colophon (570 - 480 BCE) was a philosopher and poet who lived in various parts of the Greek world. Only fragments of his work survive, but they include lots of criticism and satire. He slammed hero-worship of successful athletes, something as common in ancient Greece as in the present day, and he was very critical of religion:

  • Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men and they told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and deception of each other.
  • But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man's clothing and have human voice and body.
  • And Greeks suppose the gods to be like men in their passions as well as in their forms and accordingly they represent them, each race in forms like their own, in the words of Xenophanes Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, Thracians red-haired and with blue eyes so also they conceive the spirits of the gods to be like themselves.
  • But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like horses, cattle like cattle.

In other words, people create gods in their likeness, whatever that likeness might be.

About Pythagoras's belief in reincarnation, he stated:

  • Now, however, I come to another topic, and I will show the way. . . They say that once on a time when a hound was badly treated a passer-by pitied him and said, 'Stop beating him, for it is the soul of a dear friend I recognised him on hearing his voice.'

For his part, he thought that there was a single supreme god that is very unlike humanity, and that may be a pantheist world-soul:

  • God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in mind.
  • But without effort he sets in motion all things by mind and thought.
  • For all things come from earth, and all things end by becoming earth.
  • All things that come into being and grow are earth and water.
  • For we are all sprung from earth and water.
  • Accordingly there has not been a man, nor will there be, who knows distinctly what I say about the gods or in regard to all things, for even if one chances for the most part to say what is true, still he would not know but every one thinks he knows.

This article was originally at the Beacon Library (now defunct).


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. Β] Xenophanes is quoted, memorably, in Clement of Alexandria, Γ] arguing against the conception of gods as fundamentally anthropomorphic:

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