Greek Philosophy – Xenophanes

xenophanes as king

Born in Colophon, (570 – 475 BCE) near Miletus, Xenophanes was well acquainted with Milesian thought.  The Persians conquered Colophon in 546 BCE, when Xenophanes was in his 20s.  He composed poetry like Homer and Hesiod to express his thought, not prose like Anaximander (and maybe Thales), and would have recited his poetry at various gatherings.  His poetry, of which we still have forty fragments, are famous for ridiculing his fellow poets and philosophers for their views.  While much of his surviving poetry does not have to do with philosophy or skepticism, it is for this that he is remembered and recorded by other philosophers and historians.  Xenophanes is said to have been a student of Anaximander, like Pythagoras, and that he taught Parmenides.  He refers to Thales, Pythagoras and Epimenides, and is referred to by Heraclitus (whose thinking is very similar to that of Xenophanes).

discus thrower statue

Xenophanes was critical of Greek culture valuing military might and athletic ability, a fan of inquiry and the endless pursuit of truth.  In the only written text we have from the brief period of Athenian democracy (as they did not keep records) speech of Pericles the general gives a speech to the assembly saying, “We have learned study like those from the East, without compromising our manliness”.  Clearly, the Athenians valued education but saw it as potentially effeminate compared to fighting with spears.  Xenophanes wrote that a city would not be well governed by a great boxer or sprinter, but could only prosper under a wise and knowing leader.

The Milesians, as shown previously, thought that the cosmos was divine and intelligent, but were concerned with the processes of nature and the elements rather than anthropomorphic gods.  While this is implicit in the Milesians, it is not explicitly said that the forces ruling the cosmos are non-anthropomorphic.  Similarly in India, logicians such as Kanada and Gotama, as well as the philosophers of the unorthodox schools such as Jainism and Buddhism, spoke of forces other than gods at work in the cosmos without explicitly calling the anthropomorphic gods of the Vedas and Epics into question.


Xenophanes openly ridicules the idea of anthropomorphic forces, calling it conceit.  He says it is foolish to see the cosmos ruled by human like chaotic and selfish beings rather than order itself.  Such gods are incapable of ruling the cosmos and giving it the order we see.  Our cosmos is rational and comprehensible.  This is early rational theology, also employed by Muslims who saw algebra as the reasoning and active ordering of the cosmos.  Mutazilites, a sect of Muslims who argued that God and the cosmos is order itself and so God is not free to contradict himself or be unreasonable, debated furiously with other Muslims who argued this view contradicts God’s omnipotence.  A being of pure order and necessity should not have to make choices.


Xenophanes said the Homeric Olympian gods are immoral and disorderly, lower in many acts than human beings, and that the stories of gods fighting Titans, giants and centaurs are “the forgeries of our fathers”.  This is not mindful of the gods.  Note that Xenophanes believes there are gods, but that Homer and Hesiod, the orthodox sources of the Olympic myths, are not pious enough, do not revere the gods enough.  Homer and Hesiod say the gods steal, rape, cheat on their spouses and deceive one another, all the things human beings despise in each other.  The gods are not causes of or responsible for evil.  Rather, it is falling away from the infinite and divine which is the cause of evil, chaos and suffering.


Do the gods have human form?  Xenophanes notes that the Ethiopians say gods are dark skinned and flat nosed, while the Thracians (like the slave girl who laughed at Thales falling into the well) are blue-eyed and red-haired.  Ethiopia was the southernmost nation of people (inhabited, according to Anaximander, Xenophanes’ supposed teacher, by fire people) and Thrace was the northernmost nation (inhabited, according to Anaximander, by snow people).  Xenophanes is drawing a comparison between the extremes, implying that for the Greeks and Egyptians, people who occupy the center of the world according to Anaximander’s map, are just as foolish as the extreme peoples on the outskirts in depicting the gods to look like themselves, or even to look like human-animal hybrids such as the Egyptian gods.  Xenophanes argues that even animals would fall for this sort of mistake if they were capable of doing so.  Thus comes the most quoted of lines from Xenophanes’ poetry:

“If oxen and horses had hands and were able to draw with their hands like humans, horses would draw the gods as horses, and oxen would draw the gods as oxen, and each would give them the same shape as themselves.”

Bruno Latour

Many have argued that in modern times, since the 1800s, the growth of technology has changed human thought such that we now understand our world and ourselves metaphorically in terms of mechanics rather than living spirits.  Rational is understood to be a series of operations rather than balance and justice, and truth is said to be objective, like an object without purpose or intention.  Some such as the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, have argued that it is our tribe, the Moderns, who are the most mythological and the least aware of our metaphors.  Because we increasingly view our reality through machines, much as we have always heard about it from the voices and writings of others, we forget that we construct our reality.  We believe that the ancients carved their beliefs in wood and stone, much as Xenophanes says oxen and horses would if they could, but that we Moderns find rather than build our beliefs.  As Xenophanes says, we give reality, truth and meaning the same shape as ourselves, as we are increasingly shaped by technology.


Xenophanes argued that those like Hesiod who claim that gods are born are just as impious, just as atheist, as those who say the gods are not immortal and can die, as both necessarily mean that there is a period of time without the gods, when they do not exist.  For Xenophanes, immortality means equally that one never dies and that one was never born.  Note that those who believe in the Homeric traditional culture and Hesiod’s Theogony would say that it is Xenophanes who is the atheist, ‘atheist’ here meaning one who does not believe in the gods the way that the speaker of the term does.


Xenophanes denied that there is any hierarchy of the gods, directly attacking the idea of Zeus as prime ruling father god.  If the gods are supreme, then they can have nothing above them, not even each other.  The immortal and infinite can not be constrained by anything.  This is similar to Anaximander, who argued that the primordial infinite apeiron could not be constrained in having a particular quality or character.

For Xenophanes, the gods do not meddle in human affairs, and they are not many at all.  Xenophanes is outspoken in his monotheism.  There is one infinite, similar to if not identical with Anaximander’s apeiron, and this thing does not move, is not more here rather than there at this time versus that time, and is not affected by anything.  Strangely, Xenophanes speaks of the (many) gods, and yet says there is only one god.  Xenophanes is in complete disagreement with Homer and Hesiod, as they said that the gods moved about and were the primary agents of human affairs, such as in Homer’s Iliad where they are on all sides of the siege of Troy.  Xenophanes argued that there is one divine god which is not at all like mortal humans in either body or mind.

“All of him sees, all of him thinks, all of him hears…But without effort he shakes all things by the thought of his mind.”

william blake great architect demiurge gnostic

This creates a problem Plato tries to solve with the Demiurge in his Timaeus, and it remained a problem for Neo-Platonism for centuries: how can the supreme One perceive and think without moving or having character, without being at one time this and at another that.  Can thought be effortless and unaffected?  Can there be thought or perception without motion?  If perception and thought are reactions to things that are then nourished or rebalanced, it would seem so.  The contradictions of Homer and Hesiod lead to further contradictions of Xenophanes, which lead to further contradictions of Plato and the Neo-Platonists.  This follows Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift, that a model has problems but is sufficient until those problems become apparent, which leads to a new model that solves the older problems but creates new ones in the process.


Xenophanes seems to remove the infinite categorically from particular things, which do move here and there and are affected by each other.  However, if all things are of this infinite in extension, are one and the same as it, the way that branches are extensions from the trunk of a tree, one and the same as it, the trunk can be said to not move or be affected by anything, the branches can be said to move and affect each other, and yet the trunk is one and the same thing as each individual branch.

Japanese Bline Men and the Elephant

Xenophanes agrees that the cosmos is ruled and ordered by the divine, but disagrees with the conceptions of the poets as well as the various traditional peoples of the known world.  This is coming about due to contact with multiple cultures, from which Xenophanes knows that all peoples believe in the divine but disagree as to its form and character.  Xenophanes says that this is because the infinite, as Anaximander argues, has no character, and so each people (such as the Greeks, the Ethiopians and Thracians) see the gods through their own cultural understanding just as, in the Indian story, each blind man feels a part of the elephant and thinks his part is characteristic of the whole.

Nietzsche 1882

Some have said Xenophanes is the father of skepticism, picked up and furthered later by Heraclitus and Pyrrho.  Dogmatists tend to put truth out in the world, while skeptics tend to put truth in the head.  This is also referred to as psychological skepticism: truth is shaped in the mind, not simply given in the world.  Nietzsche, who likes Xenophanes and Heraclitus, says we should distrust the falsification of the world by grammar and logic to achieve greater understanding of ourselves, our world, and our role in the world.  Xenophanes writes:

“No one has seen nor will know the truth about the gods or all the things I speak of, for even if one should say what is true, they do not know but rather place beliefs over all things.”

tool box

Superstition means standing something on top of something else.  Radical skepticism would say that all conceptions and knowledge are superstition, with some being quite useful and others quite useless.  In a softer form this is also known as pragmatism, the position that knowledge and truth are not absolute correspondences but useful tools.

If so, then why is Xenophanes telling us about what he knows about, which are things no one can ever know about?  In what may be the conclusion to Xenophanes’ book, he says, “Let these things be believed as resembling the truth.”  So Xenophanes does believe in correspondence, but only a relative and not absolute correspondence which he says is impossible.

heraclitus bust

Nevertheless, there is progress: “By no means did the gods reveal all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, by searching, they discover better.” This is optimistic skepticism, not pessimistic.  It is not that there is no truth, but because relatively more truth can always be discovered there is no absolute truth.  Xenophanes believes that his beliefs are relatively true compared to others, but that they are not absolute in and of themselves.  Displaying perspectival relativism like Heraclitus (and Daoists like Zhuangzi), Xenophanes says if there was no yellow honey people would say that figs are much sweeter than they do.  This means that figs are perceived to be less sweet only because we have something sweeter to compare it to.  For Xenophanes, the world within the cosmos is also eternal, never having been born and undying.  He argues the rainbow is not a goddess but a multicolored cloud.  All things, including rainbows, are made of earth and water.  Air comes from water, such as wind from the ocean.

fossils of sea creatures

The opposition of wet water and dry earth is the primary dynamic of elemental interactions, rather than the hot and cold for Anaximander or dense and rare for Anaximenes.  Xenophanes argues that sea shells and fossils of fish found in mountains showed that those lands were underwater previously, and that the earth had interacted with the water such that the water had been used up and the mud congealed into stone.  This is quite correct, other than the production of elements out of water and earth.

To explain this, Xenophanes says the world alternates between wet and dry periods, and humanity dies out in the wet periods and flourishes in the dry.  Heraclitus thinks wet is desire and dry is good for soul, making it wise.  It is also very similar to kalpas of Indian thought, in which there are cycles of the rise and setting of culture and ‘religion’ or systems of thought.  Xenophanes is attempting to explain the flood stories of Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia and Noah of the Judaic Old Testament, as a great flood wiped out civilization that then grew back when the waters receded.  The seasons would be micro-cycles within the larger cycle, dryness in the summer before the fall harvest, wetness in the winter before the rebirth of spring.  Anaximander also held that the world is in a drying period, but many believe that he saw the drying as a final phase before the world is absorbed back into the infinite.

greeks drinking

As a final note, on drinking Xenophanes says it is not wrong to drink as much as an elderly person could such that they can get home without the assistance of servants (clearly a problem of the time) and a great person speaks of virtue and noble deeds when they drink, unlike others who speak of bawdy and base subjects.  Clearly, it is not drinking but topic of conversation that can be evil.

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