BMCR 1993.01.17

Xenophanes of Colophon

, Xenophanes of Colophon, Fragments A Text and Translation With a Commentary. Phoenix presocratics ; v. 4 = Les Pré-Socratiques Phoenix ; t. 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. xvi, 264 pages. ISBN 9780802059901. $45.00 (hb).

At DK22B40 Heraclitus castigates Xenophanes of Colophon (along with Hecataeus, Pythagoras, and Hesiod) for having much learning (πολυμαθίη) but no understanding (νόος). No one reading the fragments of Xenophanes can doubt that he had much learning. Yet the claim that Xenophanes had no (philosophical) understanding has continued into the present. If he is included in collections of the Presocratics at all, it is usually as a traveling poet, more interested in religion than in epistemology, a figure on the edges of the great Ionian philosophical developments rather than as an original philosopher in his own right. (See Kirk, Raven, and Schofield, for instance; J. Barnes is a welcome, if idiosyncratic, dissident from the tradition.)

With the welcome appearance of J. Lesher’s Xenophanes of Colophon it becomes evident that this interpretation of Xenophanes must be abandoned. This wonderful book makes it clear that Xenophanes had profound and interesting philosophical points to make, and that his views on religion cannot be separated from his views on cosmology and epistemology.

Part of the Phoenix series of texts, translations, and notes on the Presocratics, Xenophanes of Colophon is written for both the student and the professional, though perhaps more at the first group than the second. There are texts and translations given for all the recognized fragments. Short contexts, notes on the texts and commentary follow. Finally, the A fragments of DK are offered in translation. Lesher is to be praised for sticking to the DK numbering; he first gives the text and translations in the DK order, and then groups related fragments for the notes and commentary. This allows one to use the book without repeated references to concordances. (This ease of use will be appreciated by anyone who has, for instance, attempted to use DK, Kirk, Marcovich, and Kahn on Heraclitus all at once. The DK numberings may not tell a satisfactory philosophical story, but they are convenient reference points.) Lesher divides the fragments into four groups: “On Men and Morals,” “On the Divine,” “On Nature,” and “On Human Understanding.”

It is in those fragments that Lesher puts in the first group that there is least of Xenophanes the academic philosopher. His strictures on dinner parties, fancy dress, and luxuries; his complaints about paying too much attention to victorious athletes and too little to poets and thinkers, make him appear as a social critic rather than a moral philosopher. But as Lesher points out, Xenophanes’ criticisms are amplified by Plato in the Republic, and Xenophanes challenges his contemporaries to re-examine their customs and assumptions.

The real revelation of Xenophanes as philosopher comes in the accounts Lesher offers of Xenophanes’ religious thought, showing how they are connected with Xenophanes’ claims about human knowledge and his cosmology. Through Lesher’s commentary we can see how Xenophanes’ attacks on traditional religious thought are connected with his cosmology and his epistemology. Like Heraclitus, Xenophanes attacks Pythagoras. B7, in which Pythagoras is represented as recognizing a friend reincarnated as a puppy, is glossed as Xenophanes’ attack on Pythagoras’ claim to special insight and wisdom. Like Heraclitus, Xenophanes rejects the religious seer. This rejection of divine inspiration returns in B18: “Indeed not from the beginning did gods intimate all things to mortals, but as they search in time they discover better.”1 Lesher argues that the fragment is not a “Hymn to Progress,” but is rather a rejection of divine revelation altogether and a claim that it is better to search and examine for oneself rather than waiting for the gods to tell us anything: for they will not. 2 The reason is to be found in Xenophanes’ famous conception of god: “One god, greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought. Whole he sees, whole he thinks, and whole he hears … but completely without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind” (B23, 24, 25). Such a being is not going to send signs for humans to interpret by divination. Thus, Iris the rainbow is not the messenger of the gods, but simply colored cloud (B32); similarly the Dioscuroi too are cloud, “glimmering in virtue of the sort of motion (they have)” (A39). Lesher’s analysis of the treatment of Iris Rainbow, stressing Xenophanes’ attack on the traditional assumption that she is a divine sign, seems to me superior to that of A.P.D. Mourelatos, who treats ‘iris’ as simply the name of the rainbow without any particular supernatural connotation. 3 Lesher’s account connects Xenophanes’ rational theology with his cosmology and the epistemology. Iris is no deity or sign from the deity, for the gods do not communicate with us that way. Rather, by searching we discover better the true nature of the rainbow; it is cloud. That the rainbow is cloud is explained by a fairly complete cosmology in which everything is really earth and water, in which the earth is columnar, and, beginning at our feet, stretches “indefinitely” below, and in which the sun passes over the earth and goes on indefinitely, finally burning out. Thus, as Heraclitus says, apparently echoing Xenophanes, (B6) that the sun is new every day. 4

It is in the surviving fragments that deal with questions of knowledge that Xenophanes is a true innovator, I think. B18 urges humans to think, to search. But B34 cautions against extravagant claims to knowledge on the basis of that search: “and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things. For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass, still he himself would not know. But opinion (δόκος) is allotted to all.” Lesher rejects the view (adopted by readers ancient and modern) that this fragment is an early exercise in scepticism. Rather, here Xenophanes is claiming that clear and certain truth requires a breadth of evidence and justification that is simply not available to mortals. But, as Lesher points out, “What fragment 34 denies to men is not so much the truth (that, as line 3 concedes, they might succeed in saying), and not even a passionate conviction that they have said the truth, but rather σαφήνεια, a clear and therefore reliable vision of the truth. To lack σαφήνεια is therefore not to feel uncertain or doubtful, but rather not to have achieved incorrigible or unerring belief” (167). Xenophanes suggests that only what is directly experienced can be known; larger questions “about the gods and about all things” lie beyond the limits of certain knowledge. (Lesher gives a persuasive argument that “πάντα” in B34 should be understood as a semi-technical reference to the divine and to broad generalizations about the kosmos, rather than to “everything” [167-8].) δόκος, Lesher points out, is not inherently deceptive, approximate, or erroneous (169). It is simply not τὸ σαφές; the best we can do about πάντα is δόκος, but that is not to be scorned.

Lesher makes clear that Xenophanes was not merely a wandering bard on the periphery of Presocratic thought. Rather he was a practitioner of and propagandist for Ionian ἱστορίη influential on the later course of presocratic thought. It seems to me that Xenophanes’ claims about knowledge and opinion may have aroused the ire of Heraclitus (see DK22B28a) at the same time that Heraclitus was borrowing heavily from Xenophanes’ cosmology. Xenophanes’ epistemological challenge was certainly taken up by Parmenides, who wanted to show how truth could indeed be attained. Xenophanes may not have been the “Father of Eleaticism” as Plato claims in the Sophist, but he was an important philosopher in his own right. But Plato may not have been far wrong: the fragments on knowledge and the claims about a god for whom change is unfitting may have influenced Parmenides’ thoughts about the nature of knowledge and being.

As with all the Phoenix series volumes on the Presocratics, Xenophanes of Colophon is beautifully produced. Lesher strikes a judicious compromise on the Greek vs. transliteration question (non-readers of Greek can make good use of transliteration), and the commentary is clear and helpful for students of the Presocratics without ignoring the questions with which professionals will want to deal. Lesher writes with erudition and warmth for his subject, deals well with the secondary literature, and is generous in his comments about other scholars. All in all, an exemplary volume.

  • [1] All translations are Lesher’s. [2] Lesher’s complete account of the fragment is to be found in Ancient Philosophy 11 (1991) 229-248. [3] Iris is discussed in A.P.D. Mourelatos, “‘X is Really Y’ : Ionian Origins of a Thought Pattern,” in K. Boudouris, ed., Ionian Philosophy (Athens, 1989) 280-290. Lesher refers to a longer, regrettably as yet unpublished treatment of Xenophanes on clouds by Mourelatos. [4] One surprise in reading the cosmological fragments together is how much Heraclitus’ cosmology seems based on Xenophanes’.