Ancient History & Civilisation


Xenophanes’ 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’ ‘what-is’. However, Plato’s 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—9) 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’ 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’s Zeus could shake mount Olympus with a nod of his head (Iliad 1.528–30), Xenophanes’ 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’s divine ‘boundless’;1this 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 ‘for ever’ 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 ‘gods and men’ (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’ ‘one god’ 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 ‘It is always good to hold the gods in high regard’, 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’ 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’ god might have been like the god of the Ioniansn—a divinization of their cosmogonic principle. But as we shall see, Xenophanes’ 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’ god is not as ‘advanced’ as the Ionian deities. Xenophanes’ 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, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ 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—two 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’s 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 ‘little pieces of fire’ (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’ 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—from earth and water, as F12 says.

Xenophanes’ 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’s 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’s; 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’ 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’ 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’ 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’s 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’s 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
9.19.1–4 Long)

F2 (DK 21B45)

I tossed myself about, travelling from city to city.

(Erotian, Notes on Hippocrates’ ‘On Epidemics’ 102.23–4 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 ‘all things’ are really one. (Plato, Sophist 242d4–7 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’s ‘Physics’, CAG IX, 23. 11–12, 20 Diels)

F6 (DK 21B11; KRS 166)

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods

Everything that men find shameful and reprehensible—

Stealing, adultery, and deceiving one another.

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.193.3–5 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,

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’ 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 1400b6–8 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 4.9–11 Diels)

T4 Xenophanes was the first of these monists (for he is said to have been Parmenides’ 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 986b21–5 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’s ‘Physics’, 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’ ‘Phaenomena’ 434.13–14 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,

Nor flowing rivers, nor rainfall from the aither.

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

And rivers.

(Crates of Mallus [fr. 32a Mette] in the Geneva Scholiast on Homer’s 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’s 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. (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 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 1.14.5–6 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–2 Marcovich)

F16 (DK 21B34; KRS 186)

Indeed, there never has been 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. 49.4–7 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:

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

I recognized it when I heard its voice.’

(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 8.36.12–15 Long)

S. Darcus, ‘The Phren of the Noos in Xenophanes’ God’, Symbolae Osloenses, 53 (1978), 25–39.

M. Eisenstadt, ‘Xenophanes’ Proposed Reform of Greek Religion’, Hermes, 102 (1974), 142–50.

A. Finkelberg, ‘Studies in Xenophanes’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 93 (1990), 104–67.

—— ‘Xenophanes’ Physis, Parmenides’ Doxa, and Empedocles’ Theory of Cosmogonical Mixture’, Hermes, 125 (1997), 1–16.

H. Fränkel, ‘Xenophanes’ Empiricism and his Critique of Knowledge’, in [30], 118–31.

P. Keyser, ‘Xenophanes’ Sun on Trojan Ida’, Mnemosyne, 45 (1992), 299–311.

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

A. P. D. Mourelatos, ‘“X is Really Y”: Ionian Origins of a Thought Pattern’, in [24], 280–90.

J. A. Palmer, ‘Xenophanes’ Ouranian God in the Fourth Century’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 16 (1998), 1–34.

D. Runia, ‘Xenophanes on the Moon: A Doxographicum in Aëtius’, Phronesis, 34 (1989), 245–69.

A. Tulin, ‘Xenophanes Fr. 18 DK and the Origins of the Idea of Progress’, Hermes, 121 (1993), 129–38.

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