Classics Xenophanes
by
Jenny Bryan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0298

Introduction

The poet-philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon (in Ionia, now western Turkey) was active in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. While his precise dates are uncertain, it is plausible that he was born toward the beginning of the 6th century (perhaps around 570–560 BCE), and he himself claimed to have lived into his nineties. The biographical tradition suggests that he traveled widely, and he is often associated with Elea, in southern Italy. On some accounts, he is named as the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy, and even as the teacher of its most prominent figure, Parmenides of Elea, but neither claim is certain. Xenophanes composed verse in both hexameter and elegiac meter, but only some forty-five fragments of his work survive. These fragments are preserved as quotations in the works of various later authors, and our understanding of Xenophanes relies on reading these in combination with the ancient testimonia (accounts given by other authors) on his life and thought. The elegiac fragments indicate a concern with proper behavior within the civic and sympotic contexts. Some of his hexameter fragments are critical, particularly of contemporary theology, and these came to be labelled Silloi (Satires). Xenophanes is often classed as part of the tradition of Ionian natural philosophy, and some of the fragments indicate an interest in providing rationalizing explanations of natural phenomena as well as a commitment to earth, water, and cloud as basic physical principles. Xenophanes is perhaps best known as a critic of contemporary anthropomorphic religion, which he appears to have rejected in favor of some sort of rational monotheism. His rejection of anthropomorphic religion is tied to criticism of Homer and Hesiod as its most prominent representatives. In addition to his interests in morality, theology, and natural philosophy, Xenophanes offers a couple of intriguing epistemological fragments, and there is a long-running debate over the nature and extent of his skepticism. Scholars have noted a possible connection between Xenophanes’ concerns with civic propriety and critique of the gods in poetry on ethical grounds and similar ideas found in Plato’s Republic. Xenophanes’ fragments do not present philosophical argument as such, tending instead toward assertion and critique. Scholarship on Xenophanes’ thought tends to rely on attempts to build up implications and connections within and between the fragments.

General Introductions

These works provide a good starting point for undergraduates or those without a background in ancient philosophy. In particular, they give a good idea of the kinds of interpretative questions that dominate scholarship on Xenophanes. Guthrie 1962 is an influential survey of Xenophanes’ thought that remains significant despite being rather dated. Hussey 1972, Graham 2014, and Warren 2007 all offer very accessible introductory discussions, although Warren has the most to say about Xenophanes specifically. Schofield 1997 presents a more nuanced but still relatively introductory explanation of Xenophanes’ place within the tradition of Greek natural philosophy. Barnes 1982 is a lively attempt to reconstruct Xenophanes’ arguments, although some readers may find its use of logical notation requires some extra effort. Kirk, et al. 1982 and McKirahan 2010 are compact introductions based on discussion of keys texts. Lesher 2014 is a detailed and useful resource that is regularly revised and includes a relatively up-to-date select bibliography.

  • Barnes, J. 1982. The Presocratic philosophers. Rev. ed. London and New York: Routledge.

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    An extensive history of Presocratic philosophy, with a focus on the construction and analysis of the Presocratics’ arguments. Chapter 5 (pp. 82–99) provides some general introduction but is primarily a reconstruction of Xenophanes’ systematic theological thought. Chapter 8 (pp. 136–151) attributes to Xenophanes a sophisticated but limited skepticism.

  • Graham, D. W. 2014. The early Ionian philosophers. In The Routledge companion to ancient philosophy. Edited by J. Warren and F. Sheffield, 18–33. London and New York: Routledge.

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    A very brief general introduction to Ionian natural philosophy, including Xenophanes, alongside the Milesians and Heraclitus. The section on Xenophanes provides a neat summary of the key issues in his natural philosophy, theology, and epistemology. Includes a useful introductory bibliography for Ionian natural philosophy.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1962. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The first volume of an influential and detailed history of Greek philosophy. Chapter 6 (pp. 360–402) treats Xenophanes’ life and thought in detail, including some interesting suggestions about his natural philosophy.

  • Hussey, E. 1972. The Presocratics. London: Duckworth.

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    An accessible introduction to Presocratic philosophy, of interest primarily for its brief characterization of Xenophanes as of little philosophical interest in his own right. Chapter 3 (pp. 32–59) presents Xenophanes as a useful point of comparison for discussion of Heraclitus.

  • Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. 1982. The Presocratic philosophers: A critical history with a selection of texts. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Textbook offering a detailed discussion of textual evidence for Presocratic philosophy (presented in Greek with translations). Chapter 5 (pp. 163–180) is on Xenophanes.

  • Lesher, J. H. 2014. Xenophanes. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

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    Offers a clear introduction to key themes and questions and a fairly comprehensive bibliography. A good starting point for undergraduates.

  • McKirahan, R. 2010. Philosophy before Socrates. 2d ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

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    A useful sourcebook for Presocratic philosophy. Chapter 7 (pp. 58–69) provides a clear and concise introduction to the most central aspects of Xenophanes’ thought, with helpful discussion of key texts.

  • Schofield, M. 1997. The Ionians. In Routledge history of philosophy. Vol. 1, From the beginning to Plato. Edited by C. C. W. Taylor, 47–87. London and New York: Routledge.

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    Chapter covering Ionian natural philosophers and including Xenophanes as only partially integrated into this tradition. The section on Xenophanes provides a brief but sophisticated account of Xenophanes’ thought as a significant development in the history of philosophy.

  • Warren, J. 2007. Presocratics. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen.

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    A very clear and accessible introductory work on the Presocratics. Chapter 3 (pp. 41–56) offers a very useful introduction to Xenophanes, with a focus on his theology and epistemology and the connection between the two. Particularly recommended for undergraduates.

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