Xenophanes of Colophon

Who was Xenophanes?

Xenophanes was a poet, sage, and pre-Socratic philosopher, born around 570 B.C. in the Greek city Colophon; he is estimated to have died aged over 90, around 460 BC.

Xenophanes, unlike the Milesians, wrote his work in verse, but few fragments remain of it.

He was a wandering philosopher, left his hometown at age 25 and went to the Italic colonies in Sicily and southern Italy. Even at a very advanced age, he continued his wanderings around the world, singing his poems as an aoidos.

Xenophanes’ philosophical concern was not only to determine the physical principle of the cosmos (arche) in the same way as Anaximenes or Heraclitus. The philosopher of Colophon was extremely dissatisfied with how the gods of Greek religion were described, so he devised a new theological conception.

Xenophanes’ criticism of Greek religion

Xenophanes was a great critic of the traditional religion and theology of his time, and this led him to raise criticism of the great poet Homer and Hesiod, who at that time was the main educator in Greece. His criticism of Homeric theology influenced thinkers such as Heraclitus.

Xenophanes criticized 2 aspects of the Greek gods:

  • the constant immorality;
  • the anthropomorphic nature of the gods;

Xenophanes did not approve at all of all those immoralities that were attributed to the gods in the works of Homer and Hesiod. Nor did he take kindly to the human form in which the gods were described.

For him, it was absurd to conceive that the gods had the same human psychological characteristics, such as passions, anger, envy, lying, etc.

Hesiod and Homer attributed to the gods shameful and objectionable characteristics and behavior, adultery, stealing, lying, etc.

Against anthropomorphism, Xenophanes claimed that if animals could create images of gods, they would create them in animal form. He concludes, therefore, that every attempt to represent the divine is subjective and worthless, the whole Homeric theology should be abandoned.

Undoubtedly, Xenophanes’ criticism was impactful on Greek society, as it challenged the traditional gods, as well as the poets and singers who were practically the masters of Greek education.

To further strengthen his criticism, Xenophanes refuted the mythical explanations of natural phenomena. The rainbow, for example, was not made by the goddess iris, it was “a cloud, purple, violet, green to be seen”.

Xenophanes on the concept of God

No doubt there was an innovation about the concept of God with Xenophanes. After him, thinkers hesitated to attribute to the gods those ancient conceptions and ideas.

For Xenophanes, God is identified with the cosmos, is One, ungenerated, immovable and eternal, superior among all gods and men; he has no form or psychological characteristics typically human. He says in one of the fragments:

One god, greatest among all gods and men, in nothing like men, either in physical form or in thought/ He sees all things, thinks all things, and hears all things/ He remains in the same place always, does not move; nor does he go in different places at different times, but effortlessly shakes everything with the thought of his spirit

What is the arche of Xenophanes of Colophon?

The arche, for Xenophanes, was the earth. He said:

“Everything proceeds from the earth and in the earth ends/All things that are born and grow are earth and water/We are all born of earth and water.”

However, his arche does not encompass the entire cosmos, but only our earth. For him, the cosmos is eternal and incorruptible.

Cite This Work

Vieira, S. (2021, September 05). Xenophanes of Colophon. Filosofia do Início. Retrieved from https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/xenophanes-of-colophon/.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Xenophanes of Colophon.” Filosofia do Início, September 5, 2021. https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/xenophanes-of-colophon/.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Xenophanes of Colophon.” Filosofia do Início, 5 Sep. 2021, https://filosofiadoinicio.com/en/xenophanes-of-colophon/.

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