ει χείρας είχον βόες <ίπποι τε> ηέ λέοντες, ή γράψαι χείρεσι και έργα τελείν άπερ άνδρες, ίπποι μεν ίπποισι βόες δε βουσίν ομοίας και θεών ιδέας έγραφον και σώματα εποίουν τοιαύθ’ οίον περ αυτοί δέμας είχον <έκαστοι> “But if cattle and horses and lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the works that men can do, horses would draw the form of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle”)

Xenophanes (570 BC - 480 BC) was a Greek philosopher, poet, and social and religious critic. Our knowledge of his views comes from his surviving poetry, all of which are fragments passed down as quotations by later Greek writers. His poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of ideas, including the belief in the pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and the Greeks' veneration of athleticism.

For instance, it was a saying of Xenophanes that to assert that the gods had birth is as impious as to say that they die; the consequence of both statements is that there is a time when the gods do not exist. Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book II

Some interesting explanation of atmospheric phenomena by Xenophanes who

says…the clouds are formed by the sun's vapor [i.e. vapor caused by the heat from the sun's rays] raising and lifting them to the surrounding air”
Diogenes Laertius (A1.24-5).

...(says that) things in the heavens occur through the heat of the sun as the initial cause; for when the moisture is drawn up from the sea, the sweet portion, separating because of its fineness and turning into mists, combines into clouds, trickled down in drops of rain due to compression, and vaporizes the winds.”
Aëtius (A46)

The sea is the source of water and of wind,
For without the great sea, there would be no wind
Nor streams of rivers, nor rainwater from on high
But the great sea is the begetter of clouds, winds, and rivers.”


Flashes of lightning come about through the shining of the clouds because of the movement” (A45).

His comments about the “Iris” or rainbow:

And she whom they call Iris, this too is by nature a cloud. Purple, red, and greenish-yellow to behold.”
Xenophanes B32

Xenophanes rejected the then standard belief in many gods, as well as the idea that the gods resembled humans in form. One famous passage ridiculed the idea by claiming that, if oxen were able to imagine gods, then those gods would be in the image of oxen. Because of his development of the concept of One God that is abstract, universal, unchanging, immobile and always present, Xenophanes is often seen as one of the first monotheists in occidental philosophy of religion.

He also wrote that poets should only tell stories about the gods which were socially uplifting, one of many views which foreshadowed the work of Plato. Xenophanes also concluded from his examination of fossils that water once must have covered all of Earth's surface. His epistemology, which is still influential today, held that there actually exists a truth of reality, but that humans as mortals are unable to cognize it. Therefore, it is possible to act only on the basis of working hypotheses - we may act as if we knew the truth, as long as we know that this is extremely unlikely. This aspect of Xenophanes was brought out again by the late Sir Karl Popper and is a basis of Critical Rationalism.

Until the 1950s, there was some controversy over many aspects of Xenophanes, including whether or not he could be properly characterized as a philosopher. In today's philosophical and classics discourse, Xenophanes is seen as one of the most important presocratic philosophers. It had also been common to see him as the teacher of Zeno of Elea, the colleague of Parmenides, and generally associated with the Eleatic school, but common opinion today is likewise that this is false.


Xenophanes Fragments and Commentary (Interesting ideas of Xenophanes from text fragments)



  • H. Diels and W. Kranz (eds.), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th edn. Zurich 1968 (standard work; much superior to Kirk/Raven)
  • B. Gentili and C. Prato (eds.), Poetarum Elegiacorum Testimonia et Fragmenta 1, Leipzig 1988 (best Greek text available)
  • J.H. Lesher (ed.), Xenophanes. Fragments, Toronto 1992 (best English edition and translation)

Secondary Literature

  • U. De Young, "The Homeric Gods and Xenophanes' Opposing Theory of the Divine", 2000 (http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/deyoung1.html)
  • W. Drechsler and R. Kattel, "Mensch und Gott bei Xenophanes", in: M. Witte, ed., Gott und Mensch im Dialog. Festschrift für Otto Kaiser zum 80. Geburtstag, Berlin – New York 2004, 111-129
  • H. Fränkel, "Xenophanesstudien", Hermes 60 (1925), 174-192
  • E. Heitsch, Xenophanes und die Anfänge kritischen Denkens. Mainzer Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Abh. d. Geistes- und Sozialwiss. Kl., 1994, H. 7
  • W. Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers, Gifford Lectures 1936, repr. Westport, Ct. 1980
  • K. Jaspers, The Great Philosophers 3, New York etc. 1993
  • R. Kattel, "The Political Philosophy of Xenophanes of Colophon", Trames 1(51/46) (1997), 125-142
  • O. Kaiser, "Der eine Gott und die Götter der Welt", in: Zwischen Athen und Jerursalem. Studien zur griechischen und biblischen Theologie, ihrer Eigenart und ihrem Verhältnis, Berlin - New York 2003, 135-152
  • K. Ziegler, "Xenophanes von Kolophon, ein Revolutionär des Geistes", Gymmasium 72 (1965), 289-302

Xenophanes of Colophon

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