Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570 B.C.E.- c. 478 B.C.E.) was a pre-Socratic philosopher, poet, and social and religious critic. Xenophanes made a major breakthrough in the conception of God in the polytheistic cultural environment of ancient Greece. He criticized the concept of the gods depicted in the works of Homer and Hesiod, and presented God as morally good and ontologically transcendent, omnipresent, and as a immutable singular whole.
Gods in Greek mythology were like humans. They exhibited immorality in acts such as stealing, deception, and adultery. These gods were distinguished from humans only for their immortality. Xenophanes criticized that these misconducts were blameworthy even among humans and should not be ascribable to the divine. He found the origin of these misconceptions of gods in human anthropocentric projections of human images to the divine.
Xenophanes conceived God not as a finite being that exists within the realm of a spatially and temporally limited world as humans, animals, trees, and other things in the world do. He presented God in a realm beyond the world and characterized it as that which exists beyond the boundaries of space and time. His contribution to the advancement of monotheism was unique among pre-Socratics.
Both Plato and Aristotle characterized him as a founder of Eleatic philosophy whose major thinkers were Parmenides and Zeno of Elea. While Xenophanes’ concept of being can be seen as the foundation of concepts of being by Eleatics, the extent and nature of the actual connection among these philosophers is uncertain.
Life and Works
Xenophanes was born in Colophon of Ionia and traveled various cities, perhaps mainly in Sicily. Most of his life, however, is unknown.
Our knowledge of his views comes from his surviving poetry, all of which are fragments passed down as quotations by later Greek writers. His poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of ideas, including the belief in the pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and the Greeks' veneration of athleticism.
Xenophanes rejected the then-standard belief of polytheism, as well as the idea that the gods resembled humans in form. He ridiculed the idea by claiming that, if oxen were able to imagine gods, then those gods would be in the image of oxen. Stromateis by Celmens Alexandrinus, a second and third century Church father, reads:
But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves. (DK. 21. B15)
The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair. (DK. 21. B16)
Xenophanes found God, probably by his poetic intuition, in a realm that goes beyond sensible imagery and the tangible world. The same source recorded Xenophanes’ monotheistic view of God:
One god, greatest among gods and men, in no way similar to mortals in body or in thought. (DK. 21. B23)
While Xenophanes did not develop and describe anything about God beyond fragmentary implicit expressions in poetic form, his perception of God is unique and it is clearly distinguishable from that of his predecessors. His concept of being ascribed to God is also a major development in Greek ontology. Theophrastus, a fourth century B.C.E. philosopher and a student of Aristotle paraphrases Xenophanes’ concept of God in the line, “The all is one and the one is God.”
Because of his development of the concept of the one God that is abstract, universal, unchanging, immobile and always present, Xenophanes is often seen as one of the earliest monotheists in the Western philosophy.
He also wrote that poets should only tell stories about the gods that were socially uplifting, one of many views that prefigured the works of Plato. Xenophanes also concluded from his examination of fossils that water once must have covered all of the Earth's surface. His epistemology 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.
- Diels, H. and Kranz, W. (eds), Die Fragmente der Vorsocratiker (Berlin: Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1960) (This is the standard text for pre-Socratics; abbr. DK)
- Freeman, K. (ed), Ancilla to the pre-Socratic philosophers (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1983)( a complete translation of the fragments in Diels and Kranz.)
- Hicks, R. D., Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2 vols., The Loeb Classical Library, 1925)
- Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E. and Schofield, M. The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983). (Notes: quotes in the article are taken from this text.)
- Lesher, J.H. (ed.), Xenophanes of Colophon: Fragments, (Toronto: University of Toronto press, 1992)
- Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers (London: Routledge, 1979)
- Furley, David. and Allen, R. E. (ed), Studies in Presocratic Philosophy (New York: Humanities Press, 1970)
- Guthrie, W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy, 6 vol. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
- Hussey, E. “The beginning of epistemology: from Homer to Philolaus,” Companions to Ancient Thought: 1, Epistemology ed. S. Everson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)
- Jaeger, W., The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers: Gifford Lectures 1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968)
- Lesher, J.H. Xenophanes of Colophon: Fragments: A Text and Translation With a Commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992)
- Taylor, A.E. Aristotle on his predecessors (La Salle: Open Court, 1977)
All links retrieved October 11, 2020.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
- Xenophanes: Fragments and Commentary, Hanover Historical Texts Project
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Paideia Project Online
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Project Gutenberg
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