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Xenophanes
Xenophanes of Colophon (Ancient Greek: IPA: [ksenophánɛːs ho kolophɔˊːnios]; 570 – 480 BCE) was a Greekmarker philosopher, poet, and social and religious critic. Our knowledge of his views comes from fragments of his poetry, surviving as quotations by later Greek writers. To judge from these, his elegiac and iambic poetry criticized and satirized a wide range of ideas, including Homer and Hesiod, the belief in the pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and the Greeks' veneration of athleticism. He is the earliest Greek poet who claims explicitly to be writing for future generations, creating "fame that will reach all of Greece, and never die while the Greek kind of songs survives."

Philosophy

Xenophanes rejected the idea that the gods resembled humans in form strenuously enough that the idea must have been widely current in the sixth century. He is the first to express a skepticism that became current during the fourth century. He cleverly satirized the polytheistic beliefs of earlier Greek poets and of his own contemporaries. One famous, proto-sociological passage ridiculed the idea by claiming that, if oxen were able to imagine gods, then those gods would be in the image of oxen:
The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,
While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,



And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods

Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape

Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.Because of his development of the concept of a "one god greatest among gods and men" that is abstract, universal, unchanging, immobile and always present, Xenophanes is often seen as one of the first monotheists, in the Western philosophy of religion. This vision is not undisputed; while it seems clear that Xenophanes differed markedly from the commonly held cosmology of his contemporaries, it is less clear that his ideas were congruent with monotheism per se, as he seemed to admit the existence of other gods ("among gods and men"), albeit different gods than the ones represented in the works of Homer and Hesiod.

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 the 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 know 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 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 since antiquity 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 (see Lesher, p. 102).

Xenophanes approached the question of science from the standpoint of the reformer rather than of the scientific investigator. If we look at the very considerable remains of his poetry that have come down to us, we see that they are all in the satirist's and social reformer's vein. There is one dealing with the management of a feast, another which denounces the exaggerated importance attached to athletic victories, and several which attack the humanized gods of Homer. The problem is, therefore, to find, if we can, a single point of view from which all these fragments can be interpreted, although it may be that no such point of view exists. Like the religious reformers of the day, Xenophanes turned his back on the anthropomorphic polytheism of Homer and Hesiod. This revolt is based on a conviction that the tales of the poets are directly responsible for the moral corruption of the time.

Xenophanes found the weapons he required for his attack on polytheism in the science of the time. There are traces of Anaximander's cosmology in the fragments, and Xenophanes may easily have been his disciple before he left Ionia. He seems to have taken the gods of mythology one by one and reduced them to meteorological phenomena, and especially to clouds. And he maintained there was only one god—namely, the world. God is one incorporeal eternal being, and, like the universe, spherical in form; that he is of the same nature with the universe, comprehending all things within himself; is intelligent, and pervades all things, but bears no resemblance to human nature either in body or mind.

He taught that if there had ever been a time when nothing existed, nothing could ever have existed. Whatever is, always has been from eternity, without deriving its existence from any prior principles. Nature, he believed, is one and without limit; that what is one is similar in all its parts, else it would be many; that the one infinite, eternal, and homogeneous universe is immutable and incapable of change. His position is often classified as pantheistic, although his use of the term 'god' simply follows the use characteristic of the early cosmologists generally. There is no evidence that Xenophanes regarded this 'god' with any religious feeling, and all we are told about him (or rather about it) is purely negative. He is quite unlike a man, and has no special organs of sense, but 'sees all over, thinks all over, hears all over' (fr. 24). Further, he does not go about from place to place (fr. 26), but does everything 'without toil (fr. 25).

Notes

  1. Early Greek philosophy By Jonathan Barnes Page 40 ISBN 0140444610
  2. See p. 123.
  3. Or "blond" in other translations.
  4. Diels-Kranz, B, 16, 15
  5. K. Popper, A. Friemuth Petersen, J. Mejer: The World of Parmenides, p. 46


Bibliography

Editions



Further reading

  • J. Lesher, Presocratic Contributions to the Theory of Knowledge, 1998
  • U. De Young, "The Homeric Gods and Xenophanes' Opposing Theory of the Divine", 2000
  • 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


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