Xenophanes could be considered the roving vagabond of the Presocratic philosophers. Like the others discussed earlier, he came from Ionia.1 He was from the Ionian city of Colophon which was near Miletus, home of the Milesian Presocratic philosophers Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. There was something about Ionia that lent itself to producing great thinkers and Xenophanes was no exception. Thales would have said that whatever it was, it was probably in the water.
He left his homeland abruptly at the age of 25 after Cyrus, king of the Persians, invaded Ionia in 550 BC. King Cyrus had the Jews, the people of faith, under his dominion at this time, and now he had the philosophers as well – a prefiguration that one day faith and reason would be united under one head, Jesus Christ. King Cyrus is a prefiguration and a type of Christ, even being called the “messiah” in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
After leaving Ionia, along with other Greek compatriots, he made his way through the Greek colonies in Sicily. He did not settle in any one place for long, but spent his life moving from town to town.2
In his old age, he composed the following elegy:
“Already there are seven and sixty years tossing about my counsel throughout the land of Greece, and from my birth up till then there were twenty and five to add to these, if I know how to speak truly concerning these things.”3
If we do the math and add 67 to his age when he left Ionia, then he would have been 92 at the composition of this elegy. Not bad for a iterant philosopher!
Xenophanes is much overlooked as just another of the Presocratic philosophers, but as we will see, he was foundational in the development of philosophical as well as theological thought in the West. He was a poet philosopher and would travel around the countryside communicating his ideas through his poetry.
As mentioned in post 26, it was another poet, Hesiod, who started the ball rolling by trying to discover the first principle, or arche, of the universe. The arche is that which gives rise to everything else, the origin of all things. He declared the gods of mythology to be the arche of the universe, in particular the god Chaos.
After laying this groundwork, the Milesian Presocratic philosophers picked up the baton and carried it further. They pursued the concept of arche, but abandoned altogether the possibility of the gods being the arche. Instead, they looked for it in material objects like water, air, earth, and fire.4
Xenophanes and the gods
If the gods were reeling at this point, it was Xenophanes who dealt the knockout punch to them. He did not deny the existence of gods; he simply attacked Hesiod and Homer and their anthropomorphic characterization of them.5 Really, “attack” is putting it mildly. He excoriated Hesiod and Homer for their portrayal of the gods in such a crude and human manner. He thought it ridiculous that the gods would behave like spoiled overgrown children and yet possess superhero strength and immortality.
It was Greek practice, in their piety, to sing hymns to the gods. Xenophanes was morally outraged.6 He said that only a moron would sing a hymn to a god who was a liar or a rapist. (Tell us what you really think, Xenophanes.)
Casting the mythological gods aside, Xenophanes chose rather to expound on what he thought was the true divine nature. He was the first philosopher posit the existence of God and to give a systematic account of the divine nature.7 I like to think of him as the first systematic theologian. In one of his fragments, he states:
“Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.”8
After rejecting the gods of Homer and Hesiod, he states:
“One God is greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or thought.”9
Xenophanes on the Nature of God
Xenophanes declared that there is a being of extraordinary power and excellence that we are obligated to hold in highest regard. This God is good, unlike Homer and Hesiod’s gods that are corrupt. He was the first philosopher to equate goodness with God, something that is a given in Judeo-Christian tradition. And unlike the corrupt Greek gods, Xenophanes’s God does not have a body because He just is and has no need to go anywhere.
He also said that God is in need of nothing, not even the animal sacrifices that the mythological gods always demanded. By stating this, he formulated the doctrine of aseity that is also found in Christian theology. The doctrine of aseity says that God is completely self-sufficient, needing nothing outside of Himself for His existence. Many people trace this doctrine’s origin to Plato, but it really originates with Xenophanes. To expand on the above quote from Xenophanes, he states:
“There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or in mind. He sees as a whole, thinks as a whole, and hears as a whole. But without toil he sets everything in motion, by the thought of his mind. And he always remains in the same place, not moving at al, nor is it fitting for him to change his position at different times. For everything comes from earth and everything goes back to earth at last”10
Xenophanes said that God’s main function is to sit around and think and perceive. He can make things happen just by thinking them. He is omniscient which means he knows all things, and is omnipotent. God, then, is completely unlike us except in one crucial way – both God and humans think. Later, St. Thomas Aquinas would say something similar when he stated that the primary way in which we are like God, being created in his image, is our intellect.
Two Types of Knowledge
Even though Xenophanes made declarative statements about the nature of God, he paradoxically said that we cannot be dogmatic things about which we cannot be certain. He stated that there are two types of knowledge: that which we can gain empirically and that which is beyond human comprehension such as the nature of the divine.11 But nevertheless, he did declare that we can know this knowledge that is beyond human grasp:
“Let these things be believed as like the truth.”
By describing two types of knowledge, he laid the foundation for epistemological ideas that would be further developed by Plato and Aristotle as well as medieval Catholic theologians. Namely, he distinguished between knowledge gained through revelation and knowledge gained through empirical means – what we call faith and reason, the theme of this blog.
Was Xenophanes a Monotheist or a Polytheist?
The final question to consider is whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or a polytheist. People come down on both sides of the issue. Without getting too much into the weeds on the matter, I would say that the statement, “One God is greatest among gods and men,” is really a monotheistic one. The phrase “greatest among gods,” I think, is a figure of speech which signifies “greatest among gods as perceived by the human mind and not as actually exist.” It is similar to what St. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 8, “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father…”
Furthermore, according to Plato, Xenophanes was the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy in Elea, Italy. His main student was Parmenides, another of the Presocratic philosophers who played a very significant role in the development of the discipline.12 Parmenides was a monist; he believed that, contrary to experience, everything is one. This fits in well with Xenophanes’s idea that God is one. Xenophanes described God as the “one greatest, unmoving god” and Parmenides uses similar language when he describes a “motionless, eternal, and unitary being.” (We will talk about Parmenides in a later post.)
Was Xenophanes a Pantheist?
Aristotle, in Metaphysics, takes this a step further and interprets Xenophanes as saying,
“But Xenophanes, who was the first of these monists…was in no way clear, nor did he seem to grasp either of these natures. He merely looked up at the whole sky and pronounced that god was one.”13
“…with regard to the whole universe, he says that the one is the god.” This really turns the matter on its head, for now we are entering into the realm of pantheism, where everything is one and everything is God. According to Aristotle, Xenophanes believed that the entire universe was God.
In other fragments, Xenophanes stated that the arche of the universe was earth and water; he took a dualistic approach. But apparently, even though Xenophanes chose physical substances as the foundational principle of the universe, he – at the same time – must have equated these substances with God. Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher, posited something similar when he said that God is nature.
(What do you think? Was Xenophanes a polytheist, monotheist, or a pantheist? Please leave your comments below or in the chat window.)
In summary, Xenophanes made great strides in philosophy when he sought to understand the true nature of God and by distinguishing and validating two types of knowledge – that apprehended by faith and that comprehended by practical experience. His ideas reverberated among the other Presocratic philosophers as well as those who came later, especially Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He thus significantly contributed to the larger philosophical and theological conversation of Western Civilization.
“One god there is, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. He stays always motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that.”14
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.”15
What do you think? Rejecting polytheism leaves us with tow choices – monotheism or pantheism. Was Xenophanes a monotheist or a pantheist? Please leave a comment below. Thank you!
- Mark, Joshua J., “Xenophanes the Visionary Poet Philosopher,” World History Encyclopedia, 2012, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/171/xenophanes-the-visionary-poet-philosopher
- Taylor, C.C.W., From the Beginning to Plato: Routledge History of Philosophy, Volume 1, Routledge; 1st edition, Oxfordshire, England, January 29, 2016
- Curd, Patricia, “Presocratic Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/presocratics
- Lesher, James H. “Xenophanes’ Scepticism.” Phronesis, vol. 23, no. 1, 1978, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4182025
- Bowra, C. M. “Xenophanes, Fragment 1.” Classical Philology, vol. 33, no. 4, 1938, pp. 353–367. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/264565; Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/xenophanes
- Mark, Joshua J., “Xenophanes the Visionary Poet Philosopher”
- Xenophanes, “Fragments and Commentary,” Arthur Fairbanks, ed., and trans., The First Philosophers of Greece, pp. 65-85, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, London, 1898, http://www.uvm.edu/~jbailly/courses/11Presocratics/Xenophanes%20Fragments.html
- Mark, Joshua J., “Xenophanes the Visionary Poet Philosopher”
- Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), section 6 ‘Reflections on Knowledge,’ Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/xenophanes
- Patzia, Michael, “Xenophanes,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/xenoph
- Aristotle, The Metaphysics. 986b, p. 21, Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, New York, 2004
- Xenophanes, “Fragments and Commentary”
- Romans 1:19-20
Bibliography and Sources:
Aristotle, On the Soul, translated by Fred D. Miller, Jr., Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, England, 2018
Aristotle, The Metaphysics. Translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, New York, 2004
Aristotle, Physics, David Bostock, author, translated by Robin Waterfield, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2008
Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981
Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Adamson, Peter, Lecture 3 “Created in Our Image: Xenophanes Against Greek Religion,” History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, King’s College, London, Dec. 27, 2010, https://historyofphilosophy.net/xenophanes
Xenophanes, “Fragments and Commentary,” Arthur Fairbanks, ed., and trans., The First Philosophers of Greece, pp. 65-85, K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, London, 1898, http://www.uvm.edu/~jbailly/courses/11Presocratics/Xenophanes%20Fragments.html