Xenophanes was a Greek Presocratic philosopher, poet, rhapsode, and social and religious critic. Born circa 570 BC in the Ionian city of Colophon, Xenophanes spent a long life of “traveling counselor” and wanderer about the western Greek provinces, mainly in Sicily, once for a time associated with Elea on the Italian southwest coast, where he reputedly became the precursor or perhaps even the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy with his famous student Parmenides. He was then for decades a celebrated teacher in the Pythagorean school and died circa 478 BC in Syracuse. He wrote in verses and most of his philosophical poems, which have survived in a considerable body of fragments, present his satirical standpoint. He was critical of many traditional religious worldviews as presented by Homer and Hesiod, based on the teachings of the Milesian philosopher-scientists (Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes), whom he admired and sought to follow. Xenophanes himself was deeply involved in some natural science observations and speculations, mostly in meteorology. From here he derived his ontology, according to which the “clouds” (nephos) form the substance from which many natural phenomena come, and thus the explanatory principle analogous to water, air, or earth in other Milesian natural philosophers. The main targets of his poetic ridicule were polytheism and anthropocentrism of Greek mythology. His philosophical idea that there is a changeless, motionless, and eternal “One” has found its expression in the novel conception of divinity (the idea of «one greatest god”). Thus Xenophanes is one of the first monotheists and even pantheists, and a religious reformer who considered traditional mythology ethically corrupted and cognitively wrong. His was the remark that “humans have made gods according to their own image” but he urged humans to stop thinking of gods as humanlike, and of themselves and the Earth as the center of the universe. His famous argument was that if horses or oxen or lions had hands and could produce works of art, they too would represent the gods after their own fashion. Through and following the reforming of popular religious thinking, he aimed at reforming human social life in the name of its greater stability, well-being, and deeper ethical value (e.g., he opposed useless luxuries and honors paid to sportsmen, although he advocated the censorship of poets). Xenophanes also introduced several important epistemological ideas, such as that knowledge must be broader than what we actually perceive. We can hardly grasp that nature of things, which is beyond our direct observation. To act, however, human beings necessarily use their opinions as if they were the truth. This is traditionally interpreted as skepticism toward human abilities, both perceptual and conceptual, to know a real truth. Thus Xenophanes previewed Plato with the distinction between knowledge and opinion. Xenophanes represents one of the most important figures in the way of human and anthropological thought from mythos to logos.
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- Lesher, J. H. (1992). Xenophanes of colophon: Fragments—A text and translation with commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.