Xenophanes Biography


(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...

(The entire section is 656 words.)