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Xenophanes of Colophon - Biography

Xenophanes of Colophon was born around 560 and 570 BCE in Colophon, Ionia. He died in 478 BCE yet his place of death is unknown. He was a Greek poet and philosopher.

Little is known about the life of Xenophanes. After having been exiled from Ionia he went to Sicily for a short time and then, it is believed, led a nomadic lifestyle for a long time. During this period it is understood that he lived nomadically throughout Greece until eventually settling in Elea, Italy. Unusual for his time, many fragments of his work have survived. This is mainly due to Athenaeus, Simplicius and Sextus Empiricus, who preserved and quoted his poems.

Throughout his life Xenophanes, propagating a moderate lifestyle devoid of luxury, led a rather ascetic life. He covered many different topics such as religion, nature, and knowledge. Even in light of all his work, whether or not Xenophanes is actually considered a “real” philosopher is still up for debate.

Xenophanes had neither a big impact on other philosophers nor any followers or pupils. Yet, and despite the fact that his work arguably lacks abstraction (focusing instead on popular concepts and ideas), Xenophanes is, without a doubt, the first Greek scholar to provide elaborated theological propositions. In this context, he first and foremost gained a reputation for his critique of the common held anthropomorphic conception of the gods, attributing human characteristics to gods:

But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work 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.”His perhaps most famous saying stems from his critique of Homer and Hesiod, who “have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealing and adulteries and deceiving on one another.

Whether or not Xenophanes was the first monotheist among Greek philosophers or remained a polytheist is still highly controversial. What is sure is that he rejected the traditional deities. He conceived of God as one, unchanging and motionless. Omnipresent, “He is all sight, all mind, all ear.” For Xenophanes, God creates everything but is himself not created, for He is eternal. He eludes our limited human understanding as he is beyond description. Therefore, God cannot be modelled after humans: "There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals …”

Theophrastus is said to have influenced further interpretations of the above lines by coining the saying “The all is one and the one is God.” The phrase “among gods,” however, could lead to the interpretation that it might very well be possible that Xenophanes recognizes a plurality of gods, which are “inferior” deities.

Generally it is Xenophanes’ ideas and views on the nature of knowledge that are considered to be his main (or only) philosophical contribution. His main question was whether it is actually possible to obtain knowledge of the world. Fairly unorthodox and radical for his time, Xenophanes distinguishes between divine knowledge and human opinion, with the former being objective and true, and the latter being relative and subjective. His main thesis is that we, as humans, cannot actually know things, but only assume them. Of this he gives evidence by stressing the personal and highly subjective nature of our experiences, and by emphasizing that our observations are strictly limited.

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.

He also applies this to his own assumptions about God and, consequently, challenges dogmatism in any shape or form¾simply because final truths cannot be obtained by mankind:

No human being will ever know the Truth, for even if they happen to say it by chance, they would not even known they had done so.

Unlike his theories on theology and epistemology, Xenophanes’ physical theories did not attract much attention by other philosophers, largely owed to Plato’s and Aristotle’s lack of interest. Especially the latter, who conceived of Xenophanes as being first and foremost a theological thinker.

In contrast to these precursors, namely the Milesian philosophers, who had each determined a different archē as being the first and last principle, Xenophanes intended to expand their theories by basing his cosmology one two archai: earth and water. From these everything can be deduced: “From earth all things are and to earth all things return... From earth and water come all of us....” He considers the sea as the beginning of everything (“The sea is the well whence water springeth”), as it also creates the clouds. Neither fluid nor solid, they are essential to most meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Not only does he conceive of stars or comets as clouds, but also of, “she whom they call Iris,” the Greek goddess of the rainbow--“purple, red and greenish-yellow to behold.” Xenophanes here offers a material description of a deity instead of a mythological one, which is very characteristic for his materialist Weltanschauung.

Another major part of his cosmology is the notion of infinity. Everything that exists must have always existed, or it would have never existed. For Xenophanes the earth itself is infinite, just as it reaches to infinity, “Here at our feet is the end of the earth where it reacheth unto air, but, below, its foundations are without end...” Everything, thus, has neither end nor has it a beginning. With this he anticipates the Eleatic school with its rejection of creation. Also in view of his perception of God as “One,” instead of many, it is not surprising that Xenophanes is often regarded as predecessor of the Eleatic school. And, it is still widely believed that he most certainly influenced and, some say anticipated, the philosophy of Parmenides.

Xenophanes was a Greek poet and philosopher. (560 BCE - 478 BCE).