Xenophanes of Colophon: Philosophy, Quotes & Biography

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Xenophanes of Colophon was a philosopher, theologian, and poet wrapped up into one. In this lesson, you will learn about this triple threat's biography, philosophy, and famous quotes.

The Early Years

Not too much is known about the life and times of Xenophanes of Colophon. He was born sometime around the year 560 B.C. in the city of Colophon. On a modern map, you'll find Colophon in the country of Turkey, but in Xenophanes' day, the city was located in a place called Ionia. While historians couldn't tell you his favorite food or the name of his father, they think he may have been exiled from Colophon after it was conquered by the Persians. Xenophanes spent his days traveling along the Mediterranean, especially in Italy. He lived in Sicily for a while and eventually wound up in the small southern town of Elea. He died sometime around 478 B.C. at the ripe old age of 92.

Xenophanes, the Poet

Much of what we know about Xenophanes comes from his poetry. No televisions, iPods, or computers existed in the 500's and 400's B.C., so the Greeks had to find entertainment in other places. Xenophanes was a rhapsode, or a guy who read epic poetry out loud. Bits and pieces of his poetry were preserved by three men: Athenaeus, Sextus Empiricus, and Simplicius.

Xenophanes' poetry was not the kind of poetry you read in school today. He didn't write haikus or limericks, and he definitely didn't care about rhyming. Instead, Xenophanes treated his poetry like long stories, or more accurately, long rants about what he didn't like about Greek religion and culture. You can think of him as that cranky uncle at all of your family's holiday parties . . . he liked to complain and tell people why they were wrong. His poetry became a platform for his philosophical and religious beliefs.

17th Century engraving of Xenophanes of Colophon
Xenophanes of Colophon

Xenophanes, the Theologian and Philosopher

Xenophanes is best known for philosophy about religion and knowledge. A few hundred years before Xenophanes broke onto the scene, the epic poet Homer was a Greek icon. His stories, The Odyssey and The Iliad, told fantastical stories about heroes, gods, and monsters. While most Ancient Greeks LOVED Homer and his stories, Xenophanes was full of criticism. First, Xenophanes thought the Greek gods that lived on Mount Olympus were immoral. To Xenophanes, the popular figures in Greek mythology like Zeus, Poseidon, and Hera were the embodiment of everything that was wrong with mankind. They weren't role models for mere mortals . . . instead they committed crimes and had illegitimate children. Xenophanes also had problems with Homer's use of anthropomorphism, or describing the Greek gods with human qualities and personalities.

For Xenophanes, only one God existed and that God definitely did not act or look like a human. At the time, Xenophanes' idea about one God was radical. He explained that this single God was made up of every living thing on earth. Another philosopher, Theophrastus, explained Xenophanes' big philosophical idea: 'The all is one and the one is God.' For Xenophanes, God was the thing that created everyone, but was not himself created.

Xenophanes took his views on religion a step further by explaining what human beings know. Think about what you know in your own life. You probably know your name, your home, your best friend, and your favorite food. Xenophanes, however, would tell you that this is all wrong. You don't know anything; in fact, no human on earth can ever know anything. Instead, Xenophanes claimed that human beings can only make assumptions or educated guesses about what they see, hear, and feel. Everything you think you know about the world is actually just an opinion. God, on the other hand, actually knows everything. This is a wild thought for people to grasp today, let alone in the 5th century B.C.!

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