Xenophanes from Colophon – a Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher (ca. 540 BCE)

In my last article on the exploration of the historical context of the time around 130 years before Socrates, we discovered the events of roughly 50 years of the 6th century BCE. It was the time when most known philosophical activity of the Greeks was still taking place in their Ionian city-states, on the coast of what we now call Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. In that half century Greek cities lost their autonomy and became a part of the vast Persian Empire. A tiny Western province, in fact. You can read more about it here. What about our friends philosophers around that time and place? This is where Xenophanes comes in. Let’s hear what he has to say.

Image source: Wikimedia(1)

Xenophanes was a pre-Socratic philosopher from the Ionian city of Colophon, which is a little further north from Miletus, where the ‘Milesian trio’ thinkers lived. Exact dates are difficult to state, as there is a general lack of data about the pre-Socratics, but there is evidence that he lived a long life – more than 90 years. Some sources claim that ”“he buried his sons with his own hands”, was sold into slavery, and later released from it.”(2) That means, he must have had the first-hand experience of much that was going on in the Greek Ionia (Asia Minor) during the 6th century BCE.

The approximate time of his work’s flourishing falls around the period when Ionian city-states were incorporated into the vast Persian empire. Being himself a poet, he probably performed at public events with his philosophical verse: ”Ancient writers referred to a number of his compositions as silloi—‘squints’ or satires, and a critical tone pervades many of the surviving fragments.”(2)

”He was a travelling rhapsode who criticised the stories about the gods told by the poets, and he defended a novel conception of the divine nature. But he was also a reflective observer of the human condition, a practitioner of the special form of ‘inquiry’ (historiê) introduced by the Milesian philosopher-scientists, and a civic counsellor who encouraged his fellow citizens to respect the gods and work to safeguard the well-being of their city.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(2)

Since Xenophanes openly attacked the popular Ancient Greek cultural and moral authority represented by the great epic poets Homer and Hesiod, it might come as a surprise that he managed to live a long life. In a fragment of his work, he tells us:

”Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods
all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:
theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(2)

It is safe to assume that Xenophanes’ popularity among his fellow citizens fluctuated during his lifetime. Allegedly, he was banished from his native city, and, according to his own account, ”he “tossed about the Greek land” for sixty-seven years, starting at the age of twenty-five.”(2) Attacking the authority of Homer and Hesiod in Ancient Greece was akin to attacking the authority of the Bible in medieval Europe.

Xenophanes spent the majority of his most active years living under the rule of Persian-appointed local tyrants. Since these rulers were backed by the immense Persian Empire and its army, they didn’t really need (or care for) the support of the citizens of the city they governed. Therefore, Xenophanes’ relationship with the ‘government’ was probably changing along with the political wind that prevailed at the time of any given tyrant. However, given the vastness of the Persian Empire with its political center being far to the East from the tiny provinces that these Ionian city-states were, I can imagine that as long as Xenophanes did not undermine or disrupt the Persian rule in any way, they simply did not care about his ideas.

What were the main philosophical ideas of Xenophanes? I have summarized them under three points, but, of course, there is a connection between them.

1. Traditional gods are just a projection of our own nature. Xenophanes thought that the gods that Greeks traditionally believed in (and whose strong cultural influence rested on the authority of the great epic poets) are our own creation. These ‘gods’ are so very ‘human’ that they are nothing more than a projection of our nature. For Xenophanes, the real God/divine is nothing like us humans. It is a universal, eternal, and unchanging deity that is totally incomprehensible and incomparable to us. In his own words:

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

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(2)

It doesn’t seem Xenophanes held purely monotheistic views, but there is for him the one ‘greatest god’ among all, and it is ‘not at all’ like us. The only trait we might share with it is the ability to think. Yet also here God is absolutely incomparable to us.

For example, Xenophanes suggests that such a God sees, thinks, and hears in its entirety, with all is parts, so to speak. It has absolutely no need to move (probably because it is also present universally and in its entirety), and can shake all things shake just by the power of its mind. Any other view of God, especially one that makes God/gods all too human-like, is utterly disrespectful and purely self-serving.

It is in our nature, Xenophanes thinks, to explain anything that is beyond our comprehension based on our own example, or as we would nowadays say – we tend to take a very anthropomorphic view on things we cannot understand.


2. There is a difference between knowledge and belief. Xenophanes is highly skeptical about what humans can truly know and what we can merely hold as a truth-like belief. In his view, we should approach our powers of understanding with a degree of modesty.

None of us really knows what the fundamental truth is, and – what’s more – our capacities are limited in such a way that we can gain some degree of knowledge only about certain equally limited areas in our lives. However, any higher capacity of absolute knowledge is available only to his ‘greatest god’. We humans can operate on our much more mundane level of opinions and beliefs, and observations.

According to Xenophanes, perhaps the best thing we can achieve is to use our ability to think to determine the most plausible beliefs and stick to them as something that is like the truth. In other words, take advantage of our reason to get as close to truth as possible, but accept and realize that it is ultimately forever out of our reach due to our limitations dictated by being mortal humans.  

Interestingly, for all his non-traditional views on the gods, it is this line of thought where Xenophanes is closest to the traditional Greek wisdom ”nothing to excess”. By drawing the line between our capacity to know and our capacity to form opinions or hold beliefs, Xenophanes reminds us of this core Greek value. Humans should realize their limitations, their ‘natural place’ in the cosmos, and not fall into hubris by striving to exceed these limits, thinking they can themselves become ‘gods’ and know the fundamental truth about everything. I can imagine he would very much frown upon the overly optimistic attitude towards scientific endeavors of the Enlightenment ‘project’. Perhaps now we are slowly cooling off from this initial enthusiasm and becoming more realistic about what scientific progress really can bring us. Surely, Xenophanes would have his strong opinion about it.

3. Observe the natural world and explain it on its own terms. After the previous point, this one might come as a surprise. We cannot know the ultimate truth, yet we should still strive to observe and understand nature on its own terms? Yes, indeed, says Xenophanes.

Following the Milesian philosophers’ tradition, he too tries to look at the natural world and explain it based on the observations. In doing so, he invites to remove the supernatural entity from the explanation of purely natural phenomena. In addition, being limited in our capacity to know does not mean we should stop using what abilities we have. In this regard, at least, Xenophanes does not seem to be the ‘all-or-nothing’ type.

Since it is his view that divinity is nothing like what humans could ever comprehend or compare to, he removes the traditionally divine explanation of natural phenomena. For example, ancient Greeks considered rainbow to be the goddess, Iris. Xenophanes sees it differently:

”And she whom they call Iris, this too is by nature a cloud.
Purple, red, and greenish-yellow to behold.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(2)

Far from being atheistic, Xenophanes considers that the divine is far greater and far beyond anything that we mortals can observe (and we can see the cloud, it is there ”to behold”). In other words, this phenomenon is within our ‘limits’, within our reach of understanding. By definition then, it cannot be any kind of god. Therefore, to think that a mere natural phenomenon – a rainbow, a cloud – is a god is to hold false beliefs and to be disrespectful toward the divine. 

I imagine that Xenophanes could have many friendly discussions with medical practitioners who, in my experience, tend to be very down-to-earth in their focus on looking for a natural root of an illness and its respective cure, and not meddling in the ‘divine affairs’ beyond their reach.

If we look at his ideas as a combined whole, we see that Xenophanes can continue to build on the Milesians’ new, more scientific way of thinking about the world, keep faith in and respect for the divine by divorcing it from ‘worldly matters’ unfit for its greatness, and acknowledge that no matter how close to any particular truth humans might get in their pursuit of knowledge, we will always be limited in what we can claim as our observation, which means that the ultimate knowledge remains out of our reach, reserved for the divine that has no mortal human limitations.

It is arguably this latter point about the limits of our knowledge that is the most lasting legacy of Xenophanes’ philosophy, enduring and preoccupying the minds of many thinkers for centuries to come. As far as his ‘allocation’ to the pre-Socratics is concerned, it is worth highlighting that Xenophanes seems to have been the first in this ‘group’ to start expanding philosophy’s focus from what we could call metaphysics to include also the difficult questions concerning human nature/psychology and behavior. It will take roughly another century before Socrates will make it the main focus of his philosophical work. But before that, we still have several pre-Socratic philosophers to catch up with.

keep exploring!

Resources used for this article:

(1)Image source: By Unknown author – Thomas Stanley, 1655, The history of philosophy, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21160605

(2)Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/xenophanes/>

Peter Adamson “Classical Philosophy”, the first volume in his series “A history of philosophy without any gaps”, Oxford University Press 2014

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