Xenophanes Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Life

Xenophanes (zih-NAHF-uh-neez), a son of Dexius (Orthomenus), lived an extraordinarily long life, reaching the age of ninety-two. He was driven to Sicily by the Persian invasion of Colophon in 545 b.c.e. and spent the rest of his life traveling around the Greek colonies of Zancle (Messina), Catana (Catania), Elea (Velia), and Syracuse. He condemned the luxury and degeneration of his contemporaries in the silloi, the first ancient Greek collection of satirical verses. Traditionally, he is said to have written epic poems dedicated to Colophon and Elea, and the poem “On Nature” (fragment, published in English in 1898), which presents his philosophical views on nature: All things come from earth and water, and water is the primary constituent of the Sun, clouds, winds, and rivers.

Influence

Rejecting the conventional beliefs of Homer and Hesiod that gods resemble men in body and character, Xenophanes proclaimed that there is one supreme divine being governing the universe with “the shaking of his thought.” Distinguishing true knowledge from speculative opinion, he foreshadowed Parmenides’ monism and the theory of knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Skeptics.

Further Reading:

Fraenkel, H. “Xenophanes’ Empiricism and His Critique of Knowledge.” In The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1974. Fraenkel uses Xenophanes’ theory of knowledge, and his rejection of early beliefs about the gods, as the...

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Xenophanes Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Xenophanes} Xenophanes’ critique of the Homeric gods marks the beginning of both systematic theology and the rational interpretation of myth in ancient Greek society.

Early Life

The childhood of Xenophanes (zeh-NOF-uh-neez), like that of most early Greek philosophers, is shrouded in mystery. By the time that Xenophanes himself appears in the literary record of ancient Greece, he is already a grown man, traveling from town to town as a professional poet. Scholars cannot even be certain of his father’s name, since several ancient authorities have listed it as Dexius, others as Dexinus, and still others as Orthomenes. Scholars are certain, however, that Xenophanes was born in the city of Colophon (near the coast of Asia Minor) sometime during the middle of the sixth century b.c.e. Moreover, it is likely that he left this area in his youth, probably as the result of Persia’s policy of imperial expansion. It was, then, during the very period of Xenophanes’ youth that the Persian conquest of new territories began to lead, inevitably, to war between Persia and Greece.

Xenophanes himself would later allude to this stage of his life with these ambiguous words, taken from what is known as fragment 8:

Already there have been seven and sixty years tossing my thoughts up and down the land of Greece. And from my birth there were another twenty-five in addition to these, if indeed I know how to speak truly of such things.

Since in another fragment Xenophanes had mentioned “the coming of the Mede,” it seems probable that he left Colophon at about the time that this city fell to Harpagus the Mede in 546. For the rest of his life, Xenophanes would support himself through his poetry. He became a traveling rhapsodist, composing songs on various topics as he journeyed throughout the Greek world. Unlike many other archaic rhapsodists, however, Xenophanes used only his own compositions in his performances. It is probably from these works that the extant fragments are derived.

Diogenes Laertius states that Xenophanes spent much of his life in Sicily. Other authorities support this view, maintaining that Xenophanes had participated in founding the city of Elea, in what is modern Italy. Xenophanes, according to these scholars, is thus the spiritual forebear of the philosophers known as the Eleatics and one of the actual founders of Elea itself. The accuracy of this claim seems questionable, however, and the belief that Xenophanes was instrumental in founding Elea may have arisen solely because the philosopher had written a poem commemorating the event. In fact, Xenophanes seems unlikely to have had any permanent residence; he must have spent most of his life traveling extensively throughout Greece and Sicily, pausing in each community only for brief periods.

Xenophanes’ lifelong travels had a profound influence on his thought. For example, after he had observed fossils in a quarry near Syracuse, Xenophanes developed the theory that life on earth is cyclic: Those creatures who had lived in earlier eras, he believed, were repeatedly “dissolved” by the encroaching seas, and life had to develop all over again. Yet even more important than what Xenophanes observed during these travels was his contact with the intellectual revolution in Greek philosophy, which, by this time, was well under way. For example, Thales of Miletus, whose views about the composition of matter are regarded as the origin of Greek philosophy, had by then been active for more than forty years. Anaximander, who was Thales’ successor and who had originated the notion of the apeiron (the “unbounded” or “unlimited” as the source of all creation), died in about the same year that Colophon fell. Anaximenes of Miletus, who had believed that all matter was composed of rarefied or contracted air, is also likely to have lived in roughly the same period as Xenophanes.

The ideas of these philosophers were of great importance in the Greek world where Xenophanes traveled, lived, and wrote his poetry. The young philosopher seems to have listened to the theories of his predecessors, considered them, and then combined their views with his own thought to create the subjects of his songs. Unlike many other pre-Socratics, however, Xenophanes has left the modern world substantial portions of his poetry, written down either by himself or by those who studied with him. It is from these surviving words of Xenophanes—about 120 lines in all—that modern readers are able to form their clearest picture of the philosopher and of his life’s work.

Life’s Work

As was common among the pre-Socratic philosophers, Xenophanes devoted a substantial portion of his thought to considering the nature of the physical universe. Although it is uncertain...

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