Fragments and Commentary
Arthur Fairbanks, ed. and trans.
The First Philosophers of Greece
(London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), 65-85.
Xenophanes of Kolophon, son of Dexias (Apollodoros says of
Orthomenes), was the founder of the Eleatic School. After a careful
review of the evidence, Zeller (Vorsokr. Phil. pp. 521-522)
concludes that be was born about 580 B.C. ; it is agreed by all
writers that he lived to a great age. The stories of his travels and
adventures are very numerous. He speaks of the war between the Ionic
colonies and the Persians as beginning in his youth. According to
Diogenes he sang the founding of Elea in 2,000 hexameter verses. The
reference to him by Herakleitos (Fr. 16) indicates the general
respect for his philosophy. He composed poetry of all varieties, and
is said to have recited his own poems. His philosophic views were
embodied in a poem which was early lost
- 1. God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like
mortals in body or in mind. [Zeller, Vorsokrastische
Philosophie, p. 530, n. 3.]
- 2. The whole [of god] sees, the whole perceives, the whole
hears. [Zeller, 526, n. 1. No author is given in the context;
Karsten follows Fabricius in accrediting it to Xenophanese.]
- 3. But without effort he sets in motion all things by mind and
- 4. It [i.e. being] always abides in the same place, not moved
at all, nor is it fitting that it should move from one place to
- 5. But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they
themselves are), and that they wear man's clothing and have
human voice and body. [Zeller, 524, n. 2. Cf Arist. Rhet. ii.
23; 1399 b 6.]
- 6. But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their
hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their
gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like
horses, cattle like cattle. [Zeller, 525, n. 2. Diog Laer. iii.
16; Cic. de nat. Deor. i. 27.]
- 7. Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which
are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men; and they
told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and
deception of each other. [Zeller, 525, n. 3. Cf. Diog Laer. ix.
18; Sext. Emp. Pyrrh. i. 224.]
- 8. For all things come from earth, and all things end by
becoming earth. [Cf. Stob. Ecl. Phys. ii. 282, which Karsten
does not assign to Xenophanes.]
- 9. For we are all sprung from earth and water. [Zeller, 541,
n. 1. Cf. Sext. Emp Pyrrh. ii. 30.]
- 10. All things that come into being and grow are earth and
- 11. The sea is the source of water and the source of wind; for
neither would blasts of wind arise in the clouds and blow out
from within them, except for the great sea, nor would the
streams of rivers nor the rain-water in the sky exist but for
the sea ; but the great sea is the begetter of clouds and winds
- 12. This upper limit, of earth at our feet is visible and
touches the air, but below it reaches to infinity. [Cf. Arist.
de Coelo ii. 13; 294 a 21.]
- 13. She whom men call Iris (rainbow), this also is by nature
cloud, violet and red and pale green to behold.
- 14. Accordingly there has not been a man, nor will there be,
who knows distinctly what I say about the gods or in regard to
all things, for even if one chances for the most part to say
what is true, still he would not know; but every one thinks he
knows. [Zeller, 549, n. 2. Burnett, 'All are free to guess.']
- 15. These things have seemed to me to resemble the truth.
- 16. In the beginning the gods did not at all reveal all things
clearly to mortals, but by searching men in the course of time
find them out better.
- 17. The following are fit topics for conversation for men
reclining on a soft couch by the fire in the winter season, when
after a meal they are drinking sweet wine and eating a little
pulse: Who are you, and what is your family ? What is your acre,
my friend? How old were you when the Medes invaded this land?
- 18. Now, however, I come to another topic, and I will show the
way. . . They say that once on a time when a hound was badly
treated a passer-by pitied him and said, 'Stop beating him, for
it is the soul of a dear friend; I recognised him on hearing his
- 19. But if one wins a victory by swiftness of foot, or in the
pentathlon, where the grove of Zeus lies by Pisas' stream at
Olympia, or as a wrestler, or in painful boxing or in that
severe contest called the pancration, he would be more glorious
in the eyes of the citizens, he would win a front seat at
assemblies, and would be entertained by the city at the public
table, and he would receive a gift which would be a keepsake for
him. If he won by means of horses he would get all these things
although he did not deserve them, as I deserve them, for our
wisdom is better than the strength of men or of horses. This is
indeed a very wrong custom, nor is it right to prefer strength
to excellent wisdom. For if there should be in the city a man
good at boxing, or in the pentathlon, or in wrestling, or in
swiftness of foot, which is honoured more than strength (among
the contests men enter into at the games), the city would not on
that account be any better governed. Small joy would it be to
any city in this case if a citizen conquers at the games on the
banks of the Pisas, for this does not fill with wealth its
- 20. Having learned profitless luxuries from the Lydians, while
as yet they had no experience of hateful tyranny, they proceeded
into the market-place, no less than a thousand in number all
told, with purple garments completely covering them, boastful,
proud of their comely locks, anointed with unguents of rich
- 21. For now the floor is clean, the hands of all and the cups
are clean; one puts on the woven garlands, another passes around
the fragrant ointment in a vase the mixing bowl stands full of
good cheer, and more wine, mild and of delicate bouquet, is at
hand in jars, which says it will never fail. In the midst
frankincense sends forth its sacred fragrance, and there is
water, cold, and sweet, and pure; the yellow loaves are near at
hand, and the table of honour is loaded with cheese and rich
honey. The altar in the midst is thickly covered with flowers on
every side ; singing and mirth fill the house. Men making merry
should first hymn the god with propitious stanzas and pure
words; and when they have poured out libations and prayed for
power to do the right (since this lies nearest at hand), then it
is no unfitting thing to drink as much as will not prevent your
walking home without a slave, if you are not very old. And one
ought to praise that man who, when he has drunk, unfolds noble
things as his memory and his toil for virtue suggest ; but there
is nothing praiseworthy in discussing battles of Titans or of
Giants or Centaurs, fictions of former ages, nor in plotting
violent revolutions. But it is good always to pay careful
respect to the gods.
- SOME FRAGMENTS THAT DON'T SEEM TO MAKE MUCH
- 22. For sending the thigh-bone of a goat, thou
didst receive the rich leg of a fatted bull, an honourable
present to a man, the fame whereof shall come to all Greece,
and shall not cease so long as there is a race of Greek
- 23. Nor would any one first pour the wine into
the cup to mix it, but water first and the wine above it.
- 24. Already now sixty-seven years my thoughts
have been tossed restlessly up and down Greece, but then it
was twenty and five years from my birth, if I know how to
speak the truth about these things. [Bergk interprets this
by carmen]P> 25. Nor is this (an oath) an equal demand to
make of an impious man as compared with a pious man.
- 26. Much more feeble than an aged man.
- 27. Bacchic wands of fir stand about the firmly
- 28. From the beginning, according to Homer,
since all have learned them. [Hiller, Deut. Litt. Zeitg.,
1886, Coll 474-475, suggests, '(Men know the wanderings of
Odysseus) from the beginning as Homer tells them, since all
have learned them.']
- 30. Holy water trickles down in thy grottoes.
- 31. As many things as they have made plain for
mortals to see!
- BUT THIS ONE IS IMPORTANT:
- 29. If the god had not made light-coloured honey, I should
have said that a fig was far sweeter.
Sayings of Xenophanes
Arist. Rhet. ii. 23 ; 1399 b 6 (Karsten, Fr. 34).
Xenophanes asserts that those who say the gods are born are as
impious as those who say that they die; for in both cases it
amounts to this, that the gods do not exist at all.
Ibid. 1400 b 5 (K, 35). When the inhabitants of Elea asked
Xenophanes whether they should sacrifice to Leukothea and sing a
dirge or not, he advised them not to sing a dirge if they
thought her divine, and if they thought her human not to
sacrifice to her. [Cf. Plutarch, Amat. p. 732 d; Is. et Os. p.
Plutarch, de vit. pud. p. 530 F (K. 36). When Lasos, son of
Hermiones, called that man a coward who was unwilling to play at
dice with him, Xenophanes answered that he was very cowardly and
without daring in regard to dishonourable things.
Diog. Laer. ix. 20 (K. 37). When Empedokles said to him
(Xenophanes) that the wise man was not to be found, he, answered
: Naturally, for it would take a wise man to recognise a wise
Plut. de comm. not. p. 1084 E (K. 38). Xenophanes, when some one
told him that he had seen eels living in hot water, said : Then
we will boil them in cold water.
Diog. Laer. ix. 19 (K. 39). 'Have intercourse with tyrants
either as little as possible, or as agreeably as possible.'
Clem. Al. Strom. vii. p. 841. And Greeks suppose the gods to be like
men in their passions as well as in their forms; and accordingly
they represent them, each race in forms like their own, in the words
of Xenophanes Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed,
Thracians red-haired and with blue eyes; so also they conceive the
spirits of the gods to be like themselves.[Cf. Theod. Graec. Aff.
Cur. iii. p. 49.] [Page 79] A. Gellius, Noct. Att. iii. 11 (K. 31).
Some writers have stated that Homer antedated Hesiod, and among
these were Philochoros and Xenophanes of Kolophon ; others assert
that he was later than Hesiod.
Passages relating to Xenophanes in Plato and Aristotle
Plato, Soph. 242D. And the Eleatic group of thinkers among us,
beginning with Xenophanes and even earlier, set forth in tales how what
men call all things is really one.
De Coelo, ii. 13 ; 294 a 21. On this account some assert that there
is no limit to the earth underneath us, saying that it is rooted in
infinity, as, for instance, Xenophanes of Kolophon; in order that
they may not have the trouble of seeking the cause. [Two passages
from the Rhet. ii 23 are translated above, p. 78. Extracts from the
book are ordinarily called De Xenophane, Zenone, Gorgia, and
ascribed to Aristotle, are in part translated below, p. 80, n. 2
ff., in connection with the fragment of Theophrastos which covers
exactly the same ground.]
De mirac. oscult. 38; 833 a 16. The fire at Lipara,
Xenophanes says, ceased once for sixteen years, and came back in
the seventeenth. And he says that the lavastream from Aetna is
neither of the nature of fire, nor is it continuous, but it
appears at intervals of many years.
Metaph. i. 5; 986 b 10. There are some who have expressed the
opinion about the All that it is one in its essential nature,
but they have not expressed this opinion after the same manner nor
in an orderly or natural way. 986 b 23. Xenophanes first taught the
unity of these things (Parmenides is said to have been his pupil),
but he did not make anything clear, nor did he seem to get at the
nature of either of these things, but looking up into the broad
heavens he said : The unity is god.
[Page 80] These, as we have said, are to be dismissed from
the present investigation, two of them entirely as being rather
more crude, Xenophanes and Melissos; but Parmenides seems to speak
in some places with greater care. [V. Zeller, Vorsokr. Phil. i.
513, n. 1; Diels' Dox. p. 110; Teichmuller, Studien, p. 607.]
Passages relating to Xenophanes in the Doxographists
Theophrastos, Fr. 5 ; Simpl. Phys. 5v : 22, 36 ; Dox. 480.
Theophrastos says that Xenophanes of Kolophon, teacher of
Parmenides, asserted that the first principle is one, and that being
is one and all-embracing, and is neither limited nor infinite,
neither moving nor at rest. Theophrastos admits, however, that the
record of his opinion is derived from some other source than the
investigation of nature. This all-embracing unity Xenophanes called
god; he shows that god is one because god is the most powerful of
all things; for, he says, if there be a multiplicity of things, it
is necessary that power should exist in them all alike; but the most
powerful and most excellent of all things is god. [Cf. Arist. Xen.
Zen. Gorg. 977 a 23. It is natural that god should be one; for if
there were two or more, he would not be the most powerful and most
excellent of all. . . .If, then, there were several beings, some
stronger, some weaker, they would not be gods; for it is not the
nature of god to be ruled. Nor would they have the nature of god if
they were equal, for god ought to be the most powerful; but that
which is equal is neither better nor worse than its equal.] And he
shows that god must have been without beginning, since whatever
comes into being must come either from what is like it or from what
is unlike it; but, he says, it is no more natural that like should
give birth to like, than that like should be born from like; but if
it had sprung from what is unlike it, then being would have [Page
81] sprung from not-being. [Cf. Arist. X.Z.G. 977 a 19. he adds: For
even if the stronger were to come from the weaker, the greater from
the less, or the better from the worse, or on the other hand the
worse from the better, still being could not come from not-being,
since this is impossible. Accordingly god is eternal] So he showed
that god is without beginning and eternal. Nor is it either infinite
or subject to limits ; for not-being is infinite, as having neither
beginning nor middle nor end; moreover limits arise through the
relation of a multiplicity of things to each other. [Cf. Arist.
X.Z.G. 977 b 6. The second part reads: But if there were several
parts, these would limit each other. The one is not like not-being
nor like a multiplicity of parts, since the one has nothing by which
it may be limited.] Similarly he denies to it both motion and rest;
for not-being is immovable, since neither could anything else come
into it nor could it itself come into anything else; motion, on the
one hand, arises among the several parts of the one, for one thing
changes its position with reference to another, so that when he says
that it abides in the same state and is not moved (Frag. 4.) 'And it
always abides in the same place, not moved at all, nor is it fitting
that it should move from one place to another he does not mean that
it abides in a rest that is the antithesis of motion, but rather in
a stillness that is out of the sphere of both motion and rest.
Nikolaos of Damascus in his book On the Gods mentions him as saying
that the first principle of things is infinite and immovable. [Cf.
Arist. X.Z.G. 977 b 13. He adds: Nothing, however can be moved into
not-being, for not-being does not exist anywhere. But if there is
change of place among several parts, there would be parts of the
one. Therefore the two or more parts of the one may be moved; but to
remain immovable and fixed is a characteristic of not-being. The one
is neither movable nor is it fixed; for it is neither like
not-being, nor like a multiplicity of being.] According to Alexander
he regards this principle as limited and spherical. But that
Xenophanes shows it to be neither limited nor infinite is clear from
the very words [Page 82] quoted,-Alexander says that he regarded it
as limited and spherical because it is homogeneous throughout; and
he holds that it perceives all things, saying (Frag. 3) 'But without
effort he sets in motion all things by mind and thought.' [Cf.
Arist. X.Z.G. 977. Since god is a unity, he is homogeneous in all
his parts, and sees and hears and has other sensations in all his
parts. Except for this some parts of god might rule and be ruled by
one another, a thing which is impossible. Being homogeneous
throughout he is a sphere in form; for it could not be spheroidal in
places but rather throughout.] Theophrast. Fr. 5a ; Galen, in Hipp.
d. n. h. xv. 35 K. Dox. 481. Several of the commentators have made
false statements about Xenophanes, as for instance Sabinos, who uses
almost these very words: 'I say that man is not air, as Anaximenes
taught, nor water, as Thales taught, nor earth, as Xenophanes says
in some book;' but no such opinion is found to be expressed by
Xenophanes anywhere. And it is clear from Sabinos's own words that
he made a false statement intentionally and did not fall into error
through ignorance. Else he would certainly have mentioned by name
the book in which Xenophanes expressed this opinion. On the contrary
he wrote 'as Xenophanes says in some book.' Theophrastos would have
recorded this opinion of Xenophanes in his abridgment of the
opinions of the physicists, if it were really true. And if you are
interested in the investigation of these things, you can read the
books of Theophrastos in which he made this abridgment of the
opinions of the physicists.
Hipp. Philos. i. 14; Dox. 565. Xenophanes of Kolophon, son of
Orthomenes, lived to the time of Cyrus. He was the first to say that
all things are incomprehensible, in the following verses: (Frag. 14)
'For even if one chances for the most part to say what is true,
still he would not know ; but every one thinks he [Page 83] knows.'
[Epiph. adv. Haer. iii. 9; Dox. 590] And he says that nothing comes
into being , nor is anything destroyed, nor moved; and that the
universe is one and is not subject to change. And he says that god
is eternal and one, homogeneous throughout, limited, spherical, with
power of sense- perception in all parts. The sun is formed each day
from small fiery particles which are gathered together: the earth is
infinite, and is not surrounded by air or by sky; an infinite number
of suns and moons exist, and all things come from earth. The sea, he
said, is salt because so many things flow together and become mixed
in it; but Metrodoros assigns as the reason for its saltness that it
has filtered through the earth. [Zeller, Vorsokr. Phil. 543, n. 1.]
And Xenophanes believes that once the earth was mingled with the
sea, but in the course of time it became freed from moisture; and
his proofs are such as these: that shells are found in the midst of
the land and among the mountains, that in the quarries of Syracuse
the imprints of a fish and of seals had been found, and in Paros the
imprint of an anchovy at some depth in the stone, and in Melite
shallow impressions of all sorts of sea products. He says that these
imprints were made when everything long ago was covered with mud,
and then the imprint dried in the mud. Farther he says that all men
will be destroyed when the earth sinks into the sea and becomes mud,
and that the race will begin anew from the beginning; and this
transformation takes place for all worlds.
Plut. Stronz,. 4 ; Dox. 580. Xenophanes of Kolophon, going his own
way and differing from all those that had gone before, did not admit
either genesis or destruction, but says that the all is always the
same. For if it came into being, it could not have existed before
this ; and not-being could not come into existence [Page 84] nor
could it accomplish anything, nor could anything come from
not-being. And he declares that sensations are deceptive, and
together with them he does away with the authority of reason itself.
And he declares that the earth is constantly sinking little by
little into the sea. He says that the sun is composed of numerous
fiery particles massed together. And with regard to the gods he
declares that there is no rule of one god over another, for it is
impious that any of the gods should be ruled ; and none of the gods
have need of anything at all, for a god hears and sees in all his
parts and not in some particular organs. [Zeller, Vorsokr. Phil. p.
526, n. 4; Arch f. d. Gesch. d. Phil. ii. 1889, pp. 1-5.] He
declares that the earth is infinite and is not surrounded on every
side by air; and all things arise from earth ; and he says that the
sun and the stars arise from clouds.
Galen, Hist. Phil. 3; Dox. 601. Xenophanes of Kolophon is said to be
the chief of this school, which is ordinarily considered aporetic
(skeptical) rather than dogmatic. 7 ; Dox. 604. To the class holding
eclectic views belongs Xenophanes, who has his doubts as to all
things, concept that he holds this one dogma: that all things are
one, and that this is god, who is limited, endowed with reason, and
Aet. Plac. i. 3; Dox. 284. Xenophanes held that the first principle
of all things is earth, for he wrote in his book on nature: 'All
things come from earth, and all things end by becoming
earth.'[Epiph. adv. Haer. iii. 9; Dox 590.]
Aet. ii. 4; Dox. 332. Xenophanes et al.: The world is without
beginning, eternal, imperishable. 13 ; 343. The stars are formed of
burning cloud ; these are extinguished each day, but they are
kindled again at night, like coals; for their risings and settings
are [Page 85] really kindlings and extinguishings. 18; 347. The
objects which appear to those on vessels like stars, and which some
call Dioscuri, are little clouds which have become luminous by a
certain kind of motion. 20; 348. The sun is composed of fiery
particles collected from the moist exhalation and massed together,
or of burning clouds. 24; 354. Eclipses occur by extinction of the
sun ; and the sun is born anew at its risings. Xenophanes recorded
an eclipse of the sun for a whole month, and another eclipse so
complete that the day seemed as night. 24; 355. Xenophanes held that
there are many suns and moons according to the different regions and
sections and zones of the earth; and that at some fitting time the
disk of the sun comes into a region of the earth not inhabited by
us, and so it suffers eclipse as though it had gone into a hole; he
adds that the sun goes on for an infinite distance, but it seems to
turn around by reason of the great distance. 25 ; 356. The moon is a
compressed cloud. 28 ; 358. It shines by its own light. 29 ; 360.
The moon disappears each month because it is extinguished. 30 ; 362.
The sun serves a purpose in the generation of the world and of the
animals on it, as well as in sustaining them, and it drags the moon
Aet. iii. 2 ; 367. Comets are groups or motions of burning clouds.
3; 368. Lightnings take place when clouds shine in motion. 4 ; 371.
The phenomena of the heavens come from the warmth of the sun as the
principal cause. For when the moisture is drawn up from the sea, the
sweet water separated by reason of its lightness becomes mist and
passes into clouds, and falls as rain when compressed, and the winds
scatter it; for he writes expressly (Frag. 11) : 'The sea is the
source of water.'
Aet. iv. 9; 396. Sensations are deceptive.
Aet. v. 1 ; 415. Xenophanes and Epikouros abolished the prophetic
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