Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570 – c. 478 BC), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570 – c. 478 BC), A Perspective

Who was he? Just like many pre-Socratic thinkers who’re known to us through other major philosophers, exact dates for Xenophanes are not certain. Heraclitus makes a reference to him as a contemporary and critic of Pythagoras. So he must have been living around the same time. He was exiled to southern Italy during the Persian wars in Ionia. He deviated from the polities of Ancient Greece as a poet and philosopher. He followed the footsteps of Thales and heavily criticized the Homerian idea of anthropomorphic gods. He was critical of Homer’s gods complaining that all of them possessed the immoral and disgraceful characteristics of imperfect human beings and ought not to be respected. By way of cultural relativism he maintained that Homer’s gods were merely a reflection of his culture. Ethiopians, for example, create their Gods with black color and are snub-nosed; Thracians believe their Gods have blue eyes and red hair. ‘If horses could draw, they would draw their gods like horses’. If oxen had hands to paint, they would draw the gods just like the way they’re themselves. Even an ant thinks God has two antennas on its head. ( Not an exact quote, Qur’an)

He also criticized Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul. He thought this meant a human soul could occupy another animal. Of course, this is based on total misunderstanding of the Hindu and Buddhist notion of rebirth. Let us remember Plato also believed in rebirth. Xenophanes had an obscure concept of a single deity which was unlike human beings in shape or in thought. This deity was causing all things through the thought of his mind. If this were what he said, then he would be contradicting himself, because he was against anthropomorphism but he is now talking of the mind of a deity.

The underlying principle of the natural phenomenon, unlike Thales, was mud for him. He had observed that the fossil remains of sea-creatures fixed firmly in the earth and thought the world periodically dried up and went back to its original muddy state. The world trapped and preserved the earth’s creatures before it began everything all over again.

Xenophanes was also the first known philosopher to anticipate what Socrates warned us concerning claims of certain knowledge. What was that? He argued that philosophical unquestionable nesses or indubitablenesses couldn’t be achieved, because even if we take a chance to hit the target, namely the truth, there’s no guarantee in knowing for sure that things are as we perceive them to be. But nonetheless, it doesn’t mean philosophical investigations are useless, because detecting mistakes in our thinking can  tell us at least what for sure is not the case, even if it is unable to tell us what certainly the truth is. Perhaps this is what Jesus said the truth shall make you free. Once Truth is discovered, we’re then truly free. I personally don’t think Christ was talking about logical truth. This idea of Xenophanes reminds us of modern thinker Karl Popper whose falsification methodology conveys almost the same message.

Let us not forget that there’s little coherency or underlying structure in his philosophy, because all what we have of him are fragments, which have reached us through history. Given the fact that he was a victim of the political tumultuous in Asia Minor, he had expressed his ideas and speculations by in large in the form of oral poems and narrations.

Nonetheless, his criticism of Homeric gods, which was respected and paid attention to throughout the Hellenic world and long after he was gone, makes him a remarkable thinker with great depth in philosophical inquiry.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)