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Xenophanes

Born: c. 560 BC
Birthplace: Colophon, Ionia, Greece
Died: c. 478 BC
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Poet, Philosopher

Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Pre-Socratic, early monotheist

Xenophanes of Colophon, the reputed founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, is supposed to have been born in the third or fourth decade of the 6th century BC. An exile from his Ionian home, he resided for a time in Sicily, at Zancle and at Catana, and afterwards established himself in southern Italy, at Elea, a Phocaean colony founded in the sixty-first Olympiad (536-533). In one of the extant fragments he speaks of himself as having begun his wanderings sixty-seven years before, when he was twenty-five years of age, so that he was not less than ninety-two when he died. His teaching found expression in poems, which he recited rhapsodically in the course of his travels. In the more considerable of the elegiac fragments which have survived, he ridicules the doctrine of the migration of souls, asserts the claims of wisdom against the prevalent athleticism, which seemed to him to conduce neither to the good government of states nor to their material prosperity, reprobates the introduction of Lydian luxury into Colophon, and recommends the reasonable enjoyment of social pleasures. Of the epic fragments, the more important are those in which he attacks the "anthropomorphic and anthropopathic polytheism" of his contemporaries. According to Aristotle, "the first of Eleatic unitarians was not careful to say whether the unity which he postulated was finite or infinite, but, contemplating the whole firmament, declared that the One is God." Whether Xenophanes was a monotheist, whose assertion of the unity of God suggested to Parmenides the doctrine of the unity of Being, or a pantheist, whose assertion of the unity of God was also a declaration of the unity of Being, so that he anticipated Parmenides -- in other words, whether Xenophanes's teaching was purely theological or had also a philosophical significance -- is a question about which authorities have differed and will probably continue to differ. The silence of the extant fragments, which have not one word about the unity of Being, favors the one view; the voice of antiquity, which proclaims Xenophanes the founder of Eleaticism, has been thought to favor the other.

Of Xenophanes's utterances about (1) God, (2) the world, (3) knowledge, the following survive: (1) "There is one God, greatest among gods and men, neither in shape nor in thought like unto mortals... He is all sight, all mind, all ear (i.e. not a composite organism)... Without an effort ruleth he all things by thought. He abideth ever in the same place motionless, and it befitteth him not to wander hither and thither... Yet men imagine gods to be born, and to have raiment and voice and body, like themselves... Even so the gods of the Ethiopians are swarthy and flat-nosed, the gods of the Thracians are fair-haired and blue-eyed... Even so Homer and Hesiod attributed to the god; all that is a shame and a reproach among men -- theft, adultery, deceit and other lawless acts... Even so oxen, lions and horses if they had hands wherewith to grave images, would fashion gods after their own shapes and make them bodies like to their own. (2) From earth all things are and to earth all things return... From earth and water come all of us... The sea is the well whence water springeth... Here at our feet is the end of the earth where it reacheth unto air, but, below, its foundations are without end... The rainbow, which men call Iris, is a cloud that is purple and red and yellow. (3) 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."

There is very little secondary evidence to record. "The Eleatic school", says the Stranger in Plato's Sophist, "beginning with Xenophanes, and even earlier, starts from the principle of the unity of all things." Aristotle, in a passage already cited from his Metaphysics, speaks of Xenophanes as the first of the Eleatic unitarians, adding that his monotheism was reached through contemplation. Theophrastus (in Simplicius's Ad Physica) sums up Xenophanes's teaching in the propositions, "The All is One and the One is God." Timon, ignoring Xenophanes's theology, makes him resolve all things into one and the same unity. The demonstrations of the unity and the attributes of God, with which the treatise De Melisso, Xenophane et Gorgia (now no longer ascribed to Aristotle or Theophrastus) accredits Xenophanes, are plainly framed on the model of Eleatic proofs of the unity and the attributes of the Ent, and must therefore be set aside. The epitomators of a later time add nothing to the testimonies already enumerated.

Thus, whereas in his writings, so far as they are known to us, Xenophanes appears as a theologian protesting against an anthropomorphic polytheism, the ancients seem to have regarded him as a philosopher asserting the unity of Being. How are we to understand these conflicting, though not irreconcilable, testimonies? According to Zeller, the discrepancy is only apparent. The Greek gods being the powers of nature personified, pantheism lay nearer to hand than monotheism. Xenophanes was, then, a pantheist. Accordingly his assertion of the unity of God was at the same time a declaration of the unity of Being, and in virtue of this declaration he is entitled to rank as the founder of Eleaticism, inasmuch as the philosophy of Parmenides was his forerunner's pantheism divested of its theistic element. This reconciliation of the internal and the external evidence, countenanced as it is by Theophrastus, one of the best informed of the ancient historians, and approved by Zeller, one of the most learned of the modern critics, is more than plausible; but there is something to be said on the contrary part. In the first place, it may be doubted whether to a Greek of the 6th century pantheism was nearer than monotheism. Secondly, the external evidence does not bear examination. The Platonic testimony, if it proved anything, would prove too much, namely, that the doctrine of the unity of Being originated, not with Xenophanes, but before him; and, in fact, the passage from the Sophist no more proves that Plato attributed to Xenophanes the philosophy of Parmenides than Theaetetus proves that Plato attributed to Homer the philosophy of Heraclitus. Again, Aristotle's description of Xenophanes as the first of the Eleatic unitarians does not necessarily imply that the unity asserted by Xenophanes was the unity asserted by Parmenides; the phrase, "contemplating the firmament, he declared that the One is God", leaves it doubtful whether Aristotle attributed to Xenophanes any philosophical theory whatever. Thirdly, when Xenophanes himself says that theories about gods and about things are not knowledge, that his own utterances are not verities but verisimilitudes, and that, so far from learning things by revelation, man must laboriously seek a better opinion, he plainly renounces the "disinterested pursuit of truth." If then he was indifferent to the problem, he can hardly be credited with the Eleatic solution. In one way of consideration, Xenophanes was neither a philosopher nor a skeptic. He was not a philosopher, for he despaired of knowledge. He was not a skeptic, if by "skeptic" is meant the misologist whose despair of knowledge is the consequence of disappointed endeavor, for he had never hoped. Rather he was a theologian who arrived at his theory of the unity of the Supreme Being by criticism of the contemporary mythology. But, while he thus stood aloof from philosophy, Xenophanes influenced its development in two ways: first, his theological henism led the way to the philosophical henism of Parmenides and Zeno; secondly, his assertion that so-called knowledge was in reality no more than opinion taught his successors to distinguish knowledge and opinion, and to assign to each a separate province.

Apart from the old controversy about Xenophanes's relations to philosophy, doubts have recently arisen about his theological position. In fragments I, XIV, XVI, XXI, etc., he recognizes, thinks Freudenthal, a plurality of deities; from which it is inferred that, besides the One God, most high, perfect, eternal, who, as immanent intelligent cause, unifies the plurality of things, there were also lesser divinities, who govern portions of the universe, being themselves eternal parts of the one all-embracing Godhead. While it can hardly be allowed that Xenophanes, so far from denying, actually affirms a plurality of gods, it must be conceded to Freudenthal that Xenophanes's polemic was directed against the anthropomorphic tendencies and the mythological details of the contemporary polytheism rather than against the polytheistic principle, and that, apart from the treatise De Melisso Xenophane et Gorgia, now generally discredited, there is no direct evidence to prove him a consistent monotheist. The wisdom of Xenophanes, like the wisdom of the Hebrew Preacher, showed itself, not in a theory of the universe, but in a sorrowful recognition of the nothingness of things and the futility of endeavor. His theism was a declaration not so much of the greatness of God as rather of the littleness of man. His cosmology was an assertion not so much of the immutability of the One as rather of the mutability of the Many. Like Socrates, he was not a philosopher, and did not pretend to be one; but, as the reasoned skepticism of Socrates cleared the way for the philosophy of Plato, so did Xenophanes's "abnormis sapientia" for the philosophy of Parmenides.

Father: Dexius (or possibly Orthomenes)

    Exiled from Greece, by Persia
    Slaveowners
    Lunar Crater Xenophanes (57.5N, 82.0W, 125km dia, 3150m height)



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