Xenophanes the Visionary Poet Philosopher

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published on 18 January 2012

Xenophanes of Colophon traveled and wrote extensively. All we have of his work, however, are the fragments preserved in the writings of later philosophers and historians. Known chiefly as the first of the pre-Socratic philosophers to posit the existence of one God, unlike humans in any regard, Xenophanes also had the poet’s gift in his ability to capture the enormity of an experience or concept in simple images and few words. Most of the following fragments have to do with the subject of the gods as imagined by the contemporaries of Xenophanes and, in them, one recognizes a writer and philosopher of infinite common sense and clarity. Rejecting the popular ideas of the day that the immortal gods were as capable of rape and robbery as any of the basest humans, Xenophanes hoped to elevate the vision of his neighbors by introducing a God who was above all human things and, especially, superior to the worst impulses in human nature.

Leaving his native city of Colophon when he was 25, Xenophanes continued to travel and write past the age of 92. It is thought that he must have produced an impressive body of work in that time, not only because of his long life, but because he specifically states that his writing will endure down through future generations "and never die while the Greek kind of songs survives". Most of this work, as noted, as been lost but those pieces which remain extant are among the finest pieces of ancient Greek poetry. An example of this can be seen clearly in Fragment 22:

"In winter, on your soft couch by the fire, full of food, drinking sweet wine and cracking nuts, say this to the chance traveler at your door: `What is your name, my good friend? Where do you live? How many years can you number? How old were you when the Persians came?"

In these lines, Xenophanes crafts an expression concerning the most common of human experiences: intense suffering. Fragment 22 is thought to refer to the Median invasion of Ionia in 546/5 BCE (which displaced many and destroyed countless lives). The Persian invasion was a devastating and catastrophic event in the lives of the Ionian Greeks who lived through it but, rather than focus on the obvious or extol the virtues of the fallen, Xenophanes, in a single question, asks his readers to remember the event for themselves. As every generation, in any culture, has their own `Persian Invasion’, this fragment, like many of those of Xenophanes, still resonates today.

The following fragments from Xenophanes are from Kathleen Freeman’s Ancilla to The Pre-Socratic Philosophers:

It is proper for men who are enjoying themselves first of all to praise God with decent stories and pure words. But when they have poured a libation and prayed for the power to do what is just – for thus to pray is our foremost need – it is no outrage to drink as much as will enable you to reach home without a guide, unless you are very old. But the man whom one must praise is he who, after drinking, expresses thoughts that are noble, as well as his memory and his endeavor, concerning virtue, not treating of the battles of the Titans or of the Giants, figments of our predecessors, nor of violent civil war, in which tales there is nothing useful; but always to have respect for the gods, that is good (DK 1).

Since from the beginning all have learnt in accordance with Homer…Both Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind; theft, adultery and mutual deception. They have narrated every possible wicked story of the gods. Mortals believe the gods to be created by birth, and to have their own (mortal’s) raiment, voice and body. But if oxen (and horses) and lions had hands or could draw with hands and create works or art like those made by men, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses, and oxen of gods like oxen, and they would make the bodies of their gods in accordance with the form that each species itself possesses. Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair, Thracians have gods with grey eyes and red hair (DK 10-16).

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 (DK 23-27).

We all have our origin from earth and water (DK 33).

And as for certain truth, no man has seen it, nor will there ever be a man who knows about the gods and about all the things I mention. For if he succeeds to the full in saying what is completely true, he himself is nevertheless unaware of it; and opinion (seeming) is fixed by fate upon all things. Let these things be stated as conjecture only, similar to the reality (DK 34-35).



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