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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


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.


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 basis for an exploration of the philosopher’s worldview. Perhaps the best short summary available on the thought and contribution of Xenophanes to Greek philosophy.

Freeman, Kathleen. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, “Fragmente der Vorsokratiker.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. The most convenient source of information for anyone who is interested in examining the surviving texts of the pre-Socratics. Freeman translates, without commentary or interpretation, all the fragments included in Diels’s exhaustive edition of the pre-Socratics.

Freeman, Kathleen. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. In this excellent survey, Freeman, taking each historical figure in turn, digests and summarizes all that is known about the philosophical views of the pre-Socratics. The fragments on which she has based her information are all listed in concise footnotes. A very thorough summary of the philosopher’s life begins each entry. At the end of the work is an invaluable list that presents, in a sentence or two, an encapsulated view of what is known about the authors who are the sources for the fragments.

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. 6 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978-1990.

Jaeger, Werner Wilhelm. “Xenophanes’ Doctrine of God.” In The...

(The entire section is 656 words.)