Xenophanes

Xenophanes was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Coliphon in the 6th century BC. He is best known for having traveled around Greece reciting poetry, as a social critic concerned with how the Greeks conducted themselves, and for being critical of traditional anthropomorphic (“human like”) understandings of the Gods. Instead, he put forth his own view of God as a divine goodness in the world.

Traveling around ancient Greece, Xenophanes was critical of the Greek’s priorities. He believed they were wasteful and didn’t have their priorities in order. For example, he notes how quick they are to get drunk, meanwhile an elderly person must walk home without anyone to assist him. Also, he complained that athletes were overpaid, and the learned and poets were underpaid.

He was critical of popular religion and people who believed in the traditional Greek mythologies of the Olympic Gods that had been given by Homer and the other poets. He noticed that people make gods in their own image. For example, black people’s gods were black while white people’s god’s were white. He stated that, “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.” He didn’t like the way the Greek’s contrasted their own religious beliefs with other’s whom they considered “barbarians.”

Xenophanes believed there was one supreme God who “shakes all things by the thought of his mind.” His understanding of God was one who didn’t need to walk to get places. His God represented the divine goodness which the Greeks had believed was held by the Olympic Gods. But unlike the Olympic Gods, this god didn’t commit adultery or murder. In this way, he sought a more rational theology (“study of the divine”).

He was critical of people’s claims to know things about the divine and the cosmos. He thought people should have humility, striving not to fall into dogmatism (i.e. being close minded about what you believe). He encouraged taking a skeptical approach towards such claims, believing that about such things people held opinion, but not knowledge.

He also sought to replace the Greek’s mythological understandings of the physical world. The traditional understanding, as given by the poets Homer and Hesiod, is that each part of the physical world (the Oceans, the Sun, Earth) are different Gods or ruled over by different Gods. Xenophanes instead tries to explain the world in naturalistic terms. For example, he considered the rainbow not the Greek Goddess Iris, but rather a special type of cloud. He considered the sea to produce clouds and wind. He saw the sun as coming into being newly each day, as either fiery cloud or earth (this will be similar to Heraclitus’s understanding).

The early Milesian philosophers believed that there is a fundamental principle (arche) of the world. They disagreed whether it was water, air, or something without elemental properties (the apeiron). For Xenophanes, he saw two substances working together: earth and water. He saw the interplay of wet and dry capable of explaining all the events of the natural world. He used fossils to show how the earth has gone through stages of wetness and drying. In this way he used empirical (sense-based) evidence and deduction to develop his theory, beginnings of what will become the scientific method.

Xenophanes drew attention to new philosophical issues which later philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle would address. He pointed out the limitations in human knowledge (epistemology), asked questions about the nature of the divine, and through his social criticisms encouraged the Greeks to think about how they treated their fellow citizens.