Xenophanes (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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In his Lives of the Philosophers (Diels-Kranz,
testimonium A1) Diogenes Laertius reports that Xenophanes son
of Dexius (or according to some, Orthomenes) was born in the small
Ionian town of Colophon and flourished during the sixtieth Olympiad
(540–537 BCE). Laertius adds that Xenophanes “was driven out of
his homeland” when Harpagus the Mede invaded Ionia in 546/5 BCE,
“spent time” in Zancle and Catana (two Greek communities in
Sicily), “criticised Homer and Hesiod”, “recited his
own works”, and “composed poems on the founding of Colophon
and Elea”. Later writers add that “he buried his sons with
his own hands”, was sold into slavery, and later released from
it. By Xenophanes’ own account (B8) he “tossed about the Greek
land” for sixty-seven years, starting at the age of
twenty-five.

Diels-Kranz (DK) provides 45 fragments of his poetry (although B4,
13, 19, 20, 21 and 41 would be more accurately classified as
testimonia), ranging from the 24 lines of B1 to the
single-word fragments of B21a, 39, and 40. A number of the
‘sympotic poems’ (poems for drinking parties) (B1–3, 5, 6,
22, and the imitation in C2) were preserved by Athenaeus, while the
remarks on the nature of the divine were quoted by Clement (B14–16 and
23), Sextus Empiricus (B11, 12, and 24), and Simplicius (B25 and 26).
Other snippets survive in the accounts by Diogenes Laertius and
Aëtius, or as marginal notes in our manuscripts of various
authors, or as entries in later rhetorical summaries and dictionaries.
Seventy-four selections, of which the most extensive is the
pseudo-Aristotelian treatise On Melissus, Xenophanes, Gorgias
(MXG), make up the collection of testimonia in DK.
Laertius’ statement (A1) that Xenophanes “wrote in epic meter,
also elegiacs, and iambics” is confirmed by extant poems in
hexameters and elegiac meter, with one couplet (B14) a combination of
hexameter and iambic trimeter. Ancient writers referred to a number of
his compositions as silloi—‘squints’ or
satires, and a critical tone pervades many of the surviving fragments.
Three late sources credit Xenophanes with a didactic poem under the
title Peri Phuseôs (“On Nature”) but not
every allusion to an earlier author’s views “on nature” represented a
reference to a single work on that subject.

Fragments B11 and B12 describe, and implicitly criticize, the
stories about the gods told by Homer and Hesiod.

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods
all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:
theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)

…as they sang of numerous illicit divine deeds:
theft, adultery, and mutual deceit. (B12)

The basis for Xenophanes’ unhappiness with the poets’ accounts is
not explained, but we may infer from the concluding call to pay due
honor to the gods in Xenophanes’ B1 that an attribution of scandalous
conduct would be incompatible with the goodness or perfection any
divine being must be assumed to possess (cf. Aristotle Meta.
1072b; Plato, Rep. 379b.)

In the well-known fragments B14-16, Xenophanes comments on the
general tendency of human beings to conceive of divine beings in human
form:

But mortals suppose that gods are born,
wear their own clothers and have a voice and body. (B14)

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black;
Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired. (B16)

B15 adds, probably in a satirical vein, that if horses and oxen had
hands and could draw pictures, their gods would look remarkably like
horses and oxen. B17, “…and bacchants of pine stand round
the well-built house” may represent a criticism of the common
ancient belief that a god could assume possession of a physical object
so as to offer protection to its possessor. The ridiculing of
Pythagoras’ claim to have recognized the soul of a departed friend in
the voice of a barking dog (B7), together with the attacks on
divination credited to Xenophanes in A52, reflect the broader denial of
knowledge of divine attributes and operations set out in B34.
Xenophanes is prepared to offer a positive account of the nature of the
deity (see the following section) but his position appears to be that
while no mortal being will ever know about the gods with any degree of
certainty, we can at least avoid adopting beliefs and practices clearly
at odds with the special nature any divine being must be assumed to
possess.

So far as is known, Xenophanes was the first Greek thinker to offer
a complex and at least partially systematic account of the divine
nature. We have already noted how an implicit assumption of divine
perfection may underlie his criticisms of Homer, Hesiod, and the
tendency to imagine the gods in human form. Of the positive
characterizations of the divine made in B23–26, perhaps the most
fundamental is B23:

One god greatest among gods and men,
not at all like mortals in body or in thought.

Although the remark has often been read as a pioneering expression
of monotheism, this reading is made problematic by the nearby reference
to ‘gods’ in the plural in the first line and the
possibility that Xenophanes sought to highlight not the one
god but rather the one greatest god (cf. Homer, Iliad
12, 243 for the use of ‘one’ (Greek heis)
reinforcing a superlative). The relevant measures of divine
‘greatness’ are not specified, but the two most obvious
choices would be greatness in honor and power, with honor perhaps the
more basic of the two (cf. Iliad 2, 350; 2, 412; 4, 515;
Od. 3, 378; 5,4; Hesiod, Theogony 49, 534, 538,
etc.). Greatness in power would in turn explain the characterizations
of the divine as perceptive and conscious in all its parts (B24), able
to shake all things by the exercise of his thought (B25), and able to
accomplish everything while remaining forever in the same place or
condition (B26). It is unclear, however, how far Xenophanes himself
realized the interconnections among the different divine attributes or
sought to exploit those connections for didactic purposes. At least as
they have come down to us, none of the remarks on the divine nature
(B23–26) contains any of the inferential particles (gar, epei, oun,
hoti
, etc.) one would normally expect to find in a piece of
reasoned discourse.

Some later writers (A28.6, 31.2, 34–36) report that Xenophanes
identified his ‘one greatest god’ with the entire physical
universe—often termed ‘the whole’ or ‘all
things’, and some modern accounts portray Xenophanes as a
pantheist. But this understanding of Xenophanes’ doctrines seems
inconsistent with his assertion that “god shakes all
things” (B25) that “all things are from the earth and to
the earth all things come in the end” (B27), and that “all
things which come into being and grow, are earth and water”
(B29). On the whole, Xenophanes’ remarks on the divine nature are
perhaps best read as an expression of a traditional Greek piety: there
exists a being of extraordinary power and excellence, and it is
incumbent on each of us to hold it in high regard.

Five fragments touch on traditional subjects of Greek sympotic
verse—on proper conduct at symposia (drinking parties), the
measures of personal excellence, and the existence of various human
foibles or failures. Xenophanes appears to have been particularly
interested in identifying and discouraging conduct that failed to pay
due honor to the gods or posed a risk to the stability and well-being
of the city (or perhaps both). Although these passages may be
insufficiently abstract and demonstrative in character to count as
‘philosophical teachings’, they do represent an important
bridge between Greek poetry of the archaic period and the kind of
moral theorizing practiced by many 5th and 4th-century
thinkers. Xenophanes’ disparagement of the honors accorded to athletes
(B2), his call to censor the stories the poets tell about the gods
(B1), and counsel to live a life of moderation (B3 and 5, and perhaps
B21) all anticipate views expressed in Plato’s Republic
(cf. 607a, 378b, 372b.) His criticism of the pursuit of useless
luxuries (B3) also anticipates Socrates’ rebuke of his fellow citizens
for caring more about wealth and power than about virtue
(cf. Apology 30b.) His cautionary remarks about knowledge
(B34) and reminder of the subjectivity of human taste (B38: “If
god had not made yellow honey, they would think that figs were far
sweeter”) also reflect a traditional view of human judgment as
limited and conditioned by personal experience. In each of these
areas, Xenophanes’ social commentary represents a continuation of the
Greek poetic tradition as well as a step toward explicit philosophical
theorizing.

We may reasonably conclude from several surviving fragments and a
large number of testimonia that Xenophanes was well aware of
the teachings of the Milesian philosopher-scientists (Thales,
Anaximander, and Anaximenes), and sought to improve on them. While many
of the details of his own ‘scientific’ views remain
obscure, the range and interconnectedness of his interests make him an
important figure in the development of Ionian scientific theory.
Theodoretus, Stobaeus, and Olympiodorus (all in A 36) credit him with a
view of earth as the archê or “first
principle” of all things. Yet Galen (also in A36) rejects this
attribution, and B29 equates “all things which come into being
and grow” with “earth and water”. A
two-substance archê would, moreover, be compatible with
the many references to physical mixtures. A33 credits Xenophanes with a
view of the sea as containing many mixtures, while B37 notes the
presence of water in rocky caves, and A50 reports a view of the soul as
earth and water. Insofar as some natural bodies are described as
consisting entirely of water (or of a part of water, as in A46 where
“the sweet portion” of the water is drawn up from the sea
and separated off), it would be best to understand Xenophanes’
“two-substance theory” in a distributed sense: all things
are either earth, or water, or earth combined with water.

Xenophanes appears to have explored many of the same phenomena
studied at an earlier date by the Milesians. B28 presents a view of the
nature and extent of the earth’s depths; B30 identifies the sea as the
source of clouds, wind, and rain; B32 comments on the nature of Iris
(rainbow); B37 notes the presence of water in caves; B39 and 40 mention
“cherry trees” and “frogs”; A38–45 discuss
various astronomical phenomena, and A48 indicates an interest in
periodic volcanic eruptions in Sicily. Hippolytus (A33) credits
Xenophanes with a theory of alternating periods of world-wide flood and
drought that was inspired, at least in part, by the discovery of
fossilized remains of sea creatures at inland locations. Whether or not
Xenophanes himself traveled to Syracuse, Paros, and Malta where these
remains were found, his use of this information as the basis for a
broad explanation of phenomena is an implicit testimonial to the
heuristic value of information gained through travel and
observation.

Many testimonia credit Xenophanes with an interest in
meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Not only are these comments
of interest in their own right, they also present us what was arguably
his single most important scientific contribution–his contention that
clouds or cloud-like substances play a basic role in a great many
natural phenomena. The term nephos (“cloud”)
appears only twice in the fragments of his work (in B30 and 32) but
many testimonia either bear directly on the nature of clouds
or make use of clouds in order to explain the nature of other
phenomena. To cite an example of the first type, according to Diogenes
Laertius “he says…the clouds are formed by the sun’s vapor
[i.e. vapor caused by the heat from the sun’s rays] raising and lifting
them to the surrounding air” (A1.24–5). Aëtius (A46)
provides a similar account:

Xenophanes (says that) things in the heavens occur through
the heat of the sun as the initial cause; for when the moisture is
drawn up from the sea, the sweet portion, separating because of its
fineness and turning into mists, combines into clouds, trickled down in
drops of rain due to compression, and vaporizes the winds.

B30 gives us essentially the same view in Xenophanes’ own words:

The sea is the source of water and of wind,
For without the great sea, there would be no wind
Nor streams of rivers, nor rainwater from on high
But the great sea is the begetter of clouds, winds, and rivers.

Having accounted for the formation of clouds in mechanistic terms
through processes of vaporization and compression Xenophanes proceeds
to make use of clouds to explain a large number of meteorlogical and
astronomical phenomena. The general claim appears in the
pseudo-Plutarch Miscellanies: “he says that the sun and
the stars come into being from the clouds” (A32), and Aëtius
gives us many specific applications:

The stars come into being from burning clouds (A38).

The sort of fires that appear on ships–whom some call the Dioscuri
[St. Elmo’s fire]–are tiny clouds glimmering in virtue of the sort of
motion they have (A39).

The sun consists of burning clouds…a mass of little fires,
themselves constructed from the massing together of the moist
exhalation (A40).

The moon is compressed cloud (A43).

All things of this sort [comets, shooting stars, meteors] are either
groups or movements of clouds (A44).

Flashes of lightning come about through the shining of the clouds
because of the movement (A45).

As it happens, clouds are natural candidates for the
explanans in a scientific account. Since they are midway in
form between a solid and gaseous state they are easily linked with
solids, liquids, and gases of various kinds. And since they occupy a
region midway between the surface of the earth and the upper regions of
the heavens, they are well positioned to link the two basic substances
of earth and water with many astronomical phenomena.

Another important feature of Xenophanes’ cloud-based approach to
understanding natural phenomena is the application of this theory to a
set of phenomena closely linked with traditional religious belief. We
have already seen this in the thoroughly naturalistic accounts given of
the “great sea”, sun, moon, and stars, but nowhere is the
contrast of the old and new ways of thinking more evident than in his
comments on “Iris”–rainbow:

And she whom they call Iris, this too is by nature a cloud.
Purple, red, and greenish-yellow to behold. (B32)

For the members of Xenophanes’ audience “Iris” referred
to the messenger goddess of Homer’s Iliad (2, 686) and
Hesiod’s Theogony (780) and a set of atmospheric phenomena
(halos, coronae, and cloud iridescence) commonly considered portents or
signs of the intentions of divine beings. As the daughter of Thaumas
(“marvel”) Iris was the natural marvel par
excellence. Yet for Xenophanes, ‘she’ is really an
‘it’ and a ‘this’ (the Greek neuter
demonstrative touto), by nature a purple, red, and
greenish-yellow cloud. It is, moreover, something that is there for us
‘to behold’ or ‘to look at’
(idesthai). Perhaps nowhere in presocratic philosophy can we
find a clearer expression of the character of the Ionian
‘intellectual revolution’—a decision to put aside an
older way of thinking about events grounded in a belief in divine
beings in favor of an approach to understanding the world that employs
wide-ranging inquiry and direct observation and resorts to strictly
physical causes and forces. Having deprived the gods of human form and
clothing and removed the divine to some permanent and distant location,
Xenophanes proceeds to strip a wide range of natural phenomena of all
vestiges of religious or spiritual significance. His de-mythologized
account of natural phenomena is, in short, the logical complement to
his thoroughly de-naturalized account of the divine nature.

Despite its several virtues, Xenophanes’ physical theory appears to
have had little impact on later thinkers. Anaxagoras followed his lead
on the nature of the rainbow (cf. DK 59 B19) and Empedocles knew (but
repudiated) his claim of the earth’s indefinitely extended depths (DK
31 B39). But both Plato and Aristotle appear to have ignored
Xenophanes’ scientific views or assigned them little importance. One
factor that may have contributed to this chilly reception was the
absence of any expression by Xenophanes of the kind of commitment to
teleology that both Plato and Aristotle regarded as essential to a
proper understanding of the cosmos. Xenophanes’ universe is controlled
by a set of forces, but it is never described as “heading toward
the best” nor is it directed toward some best result by a
controlling intelligence. (Xenophanes’ divine does “shake all
things” by the thought of his mind (alone), but he is never
described as in any way directing or controlling particular events.) It
is also obvious that Xenophanes’ heavenly bodies would have fallen far
short of the level of perfection that, with Aristotle, became a
hallmark of classical astronomical theory. Not only are Xenophanes’
heavenly bodies not divine beings, they undergo creation and
destruction at regular intervals. Only from the perspective of a much
later period can the merits of Xenophanes’ scientific views be fairly
appreciated. Many centuries would have to pass before an emphasis on
direct observation and the use of entirely natural causes and forces
would become the scientific orthodoxy.

Five surviving fragments and roughly a dozen testimonia
address what might be termed ‘epistemological
questions’—“How much can any mortal being hope to
know?”, “Does truth come to us through our own efforts or
by divine revelation?”, and “What role do our sense
faculties play in the acquisition of knowledge?” Unfortunately,
the picture that emerges from many of the testimonia largely
contradicts what appear to be the views Xenophanes himself
expressed. According to the summary in the
pseudo-Plutarch Miscellanies, Xenophanes “declares that
the senses are deceptive and generally rejects reason along with
them” (A32.) Similarly, in his Concerning Philosophy
Aristocles reports that “…since they think that sense
perceptions and appearances must be rejected and trust only
reason. For at one earlier time Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, and
Melissus said something of this sort” (A49). Similarly,
Aëtius declares that “Pythagoras, Empedocles, and
Xenophanes (say that) sense perceptions are deceptive”
(A49). Yet, as we have noted, B28 refers without qualification to
“the upper limit of the earth that is seen (horatai)
here at our feet” and B32 appears to encourage those in
Xenophanes’ audience to ‘look at’ or ‘observe’
(idesthai) the multi-colored cloud that is the rainbow. The
realistic description of the sumptuous banquet in B1 and the wide
range of Xenophanes’ reported geographical and geological interests
all sit poorly with an Eleatic “rationalism” that would
dismiss all information gained through our faculties of sense and
construct on the basis of reason alone a view of “what is”
as a motionless, changeless and eternal unity.

Xenophanes’ most extended comment on knowledge is B34:

…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 is allotted to all.

Portions of these remarks were quoted, and thereby preserved for
posterity, by the ancient skeptics who hailed Xenophanes as the founder
of their particular variety of philosophical skepticism. Recent
interpretations of B34 reject the skeptical interpretation in favor of
other less extreme readings. On some accounts, B34 is concerned to deny
only a direct perceptual awareness. Others find in his comments a
distinction between natural science, where only probabilities can be
achieved, and theology, where certainty is possible. Still others read
Xenophanes’ remarks as a blanket endorsement of
“fallibilism”—the view that while each individual is
free to express his or her opinion, the possibility of error can never
be completely excluded.

Since B34 opens with the phrase “and indeed…” it
is likely that we do not have the whole of the remark, or all the
premises from which its main conclusion was intended to follow.
However, the use of the term saphes (“clear”, in
the first line of the fragment) by Xenophanes’ Ionian contemporary, the
historian Herodotus, provides a helpful clue to the logic of the
argument. At several points in his History Herodotus speaks of
what is saphes, or what can be known in a
sapheôs manner, as what can be confirmed to be the case
on the basis of first-hand observation:

And wishing to gain sure knowledge of these things
(thelôn de toutôn peri saphes ti eidenai) from a
point where this was possible, I took ship to Tyre in Phoenicia, where
I heard there was a very holy temple of Heracles. There I saw it
(eidon) richly equipped… Then I went to Thasos where I
also found a temple of Heracles…Therefore what I have discovered
by inquiry clearly shows (ta men nun historêmena dêloi
sapheôs
) that Heracles is an ancient god. (History
II, 44)

Since the gods were believed to inhabit a realm far removed from that of
mortal beings, it would be natural for Xenophanes to hold that no
account of their nature and activities could possibly be confirmed on
the basis of first-hand observation, hence known for certain to be
correct. And since the pioneering cosmological accounts put forward by
his Milesian predecessors held that a single material substance
underlay phenomena in all places and times it would be equally
impossible for any individual to confirm such a universal claim on the
basis of first-hand observation, hence know for certain that it was
true—even if in fact it was true. The sentiments expressed in lines
three and four can be read as reinforcing this cautionary sentiment.
Their point would be that no one (moreover) should be credited with
knowledge (of the certain truth concerning the gods or the nature of
all things) simply on the basis of having correctly described, perhaps
even predicted, individual events as they take place (perhaps a
reference to self-styled paragons of wisdom and predictors of events
such as Epimenides and Pythagoras). The overall message of B34, from
its opening reference to “no man” to its concluding phrase
“fashioned for all” would have been that there never has
been nor ever will be anyone who has the capacity to achieve certainty
with respect to these important matters.

Xenophanes’ reference to a second-best level of comprehension or
awareness—‘opinion’ or ‘conjecture’
(dokos) should not be read as inherently negative or
dismissive. By Platonic standards, opinion—even when
correct—would be an inferior possession, unstable and subject to
removal through persuasion. But we have no reason to assume that
Xenophanes shared Plato’s view on this topic. And in fact B35, quoted
by Plutarch in connection with encouraging a bashful speaker to
express his views, appears to present what one ‘opines’ or
believes in a fairly positive light:

…Let these things be believed (dedoxasthô) as like the realities…

The similarity between the verbal dedoxasthô of B35
and the nominative dokos of B34 permits us to combine the two
fragmentary remarks into a single coherent view: of course there can be
no knowledge of the certain truth concerning the gods and the basic
principles governing the cosmos, but dokos—opinion or
conjecture—is available and should be accepted when it corresponds
with how things really are.

The full sense of B36, however, may never be determined. Neither its
context (a grammatical treatise of Herodian) nor its wording
(“…however many they have made evident for mortals to look
upon”) provides definitive guidance. Perhaps Xenophanes was
seeking to set an upper limit to the range of things that can be known
by human beings (i.e. to caution others that they could know only as
many as things as the gods had made available to them to experience).
But it is equally possible that the remark was intended (as B32 above)
to encourage the members of his audience to explore and inquire on
their own (i.e. to encourage them to investigate “however many
things” the gods have made available to them to experience).

B18 has often been hailed as an expression of an optimistic outlook
or “faith in human progress”—the conviction that
humankind has made and will continue to make improvements in the arts
and conditions of life generally. Yet none of the other surviving
fragments reflects such an optimism and several (e.g. B2 and 3) suggest
that Xenophanes was not at all optimistic about his city’s prospects
for survival. In the light of his reported repudiation of divination
(A52), de-mythologizing of various natural phenomena (B30 and 32), and
evident enthusiasm for inquiry into a wide range of subjects, B18 is
perhaps best read as an expression of faith in the value of
‘inquiry’ or ‘seeking’ as the preferred
approach to gaining knowledge of ‘all things’.

To sum up: Xenophanes’ attitude toward knowledge appears to have
been the product of two distinct impulses. While he believed that
inquiry in the form of travel and direct observation was capable of
yielding useful information about the nature of things, he remained
sufficiently under the influence of an older piety to want to caution
others against seeking to understand matters that lay beyond the limits
of all human experience. Here, as in other aspects of his thought,
Xenophanes stands with one foot in the world of the archaic poet and
the other in the “new science” of the late 6th and early
5th centuries BCE

Many later writers identified Xenophanes as the teacher of
Parmenides and the founder of the Eleatic “school of
philosophy”—the view that, despite appearances, what there is
is a motionless, changeless, and eternal ‘One’. This view
of Xenophanes is based largely on Plato’s reference to “our
Eleatic tribe, beginning from Xenophanes as well as even earlier”
(Sophist 242d) and Aristotle’s remark that “…with
regard to the whole universe, he says that the one is the god”
(Meta. A5, 986b18), along with some verbal similarities
between Xenophanes’ description of the “one greatest, unmoving
god” and Parmenides’ account of a “motionless, eternal, and
unitary being”. But the Xenophanes who speaks to us in the
surviving fragments is a combination of rhapsode, social critic,
religious teacher, and keen student of nature. Euripides’
Heracles 1341 ff. echoes his attack on the stories told about
the gods by Homer and Hesiod (B11–12) and a passage of Euripides’
Autolycus quoted by Athenaeus (C2) repeats portions of the
attack on the honors accorded to athletes delivered in B2. In the
Republic, Plato shows himself the spiritual heir of
Xenophanes when he states that the guardians of his ideal state are
more deserving of honors and public support than the victors at
Olympia, criticizes the stories told about the gods by the poets, and
calls for a life of moderate desire and action. A pronounced ethic of
moderation, sometimes bordering on asceticism, runs through much of
ancient Greek ethical thought, beginning with Solon and Xenophanes and
continuing through Socrates and Plato to the Epicureans and
Cynics. Xenophanes’ conception of a “one greatest
god” who “shakes all things by the thought (or will) of
his mind” (noou phreni) may have helped to encourage
Heraclitus’ belief in an ‘intelligence’
(gnômê) that steers all things (B41),
Anaxagoras’ account of the nous that orders and
arranges all things (B12), and Aristotle’s account of a
divine nous that inspires a movement toward perfection
without actually doing anything toward bringing it about
(Metaphysics Lambda.)

In his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) Pierre Bayle began
the modern philosophical discussion of the problem of evil by quoting
Xenophanes’ remark (as reported in Diogenes Laertius 9.19) that
“most things give way to mind” (ta polla
hêssô nou
). Accepting the conjecture proposed by the
classical scholar Méric Casaubon, Bayle took Xenophanes to be
asserting that God was unable to make all things conform to his
benevolent will. Bayle then assembled a set of texts in support of the
view that in fact the amount of evil in the universe far exceeds the
amount of good. Bayle’s article sparked a reply from Leibniz (in
his Théodicée of 1710). In his Candide (1759), Voltaire
supported Bayle’s view by ridiculing Leibniz’s contention
that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Although there may be no direct line of influence, we may also
consider Feuerbach’s critique of religious belief as a
‘projection’ of human attributes, and Freud’s analysis of
religious belief as an instance of ‘wish-fulfillment’, as
two modern successors to Xenophanes’ observation of the general
tendency of human beings to conceive of divine beings in terms of their
own attributes and capacities.

Xenophanes’ most enduring philosophical contribution was arguably
his pioneering exploration of the conditions under which human beings
can achieve knowledge of the certain truth. The distinction between
knowledge and true opinion set out in B34 quickly became an axiom of
ancient Greek accounts of knowledge and survives in modern garb as the
‘belief’ and ‘truth’ conditions of the
‘standard’ or ‘tripartite analysis’ of
knowledge. It can be plausibly argued that every later Greek thinker,
at least until the time of Aristotle, undertook to respond to the basic
challenge posed in Xenophanes’ B34—how, given the severely limited
character of human experience, anyone can plausibly claim to have
discovered the truth about matters lying beyond anyone’s capacity to
observe first-hand. Xenophanes may also be credited with expanding the
range of topics considered appropriate for philosophical inquiry and
discussion. His Ionian predecessors had initiated the study of
phenomena “above the heavens and below the earth” but, so
far as we know, they did not turn their critical fire against the
leading poets of ancient Greece nor did they seek through their
teachings to correct or improve the conduct of their fellow citizens.
Although many aspects of his thought remain the subject of scholarly
debate, Xenophanes was clearly a multi-dimensional thinker who left his
mark on many aspects of later Greek thought.

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