Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
54. The Heavenly Bodies 56. Poems

From Chapter II., Science and Religion


55. Life of Xenophanes
We have seen how Pythagoras gave a deeper meaning to the religious movement of his time; we have now to consider a very different manifestation of the reaction against the view of the gods which the poets had made familiar. Xenophanes denied the anthropomorphic gods altogether, but was quite unaffected by the revival of religion going on all round him. We still have a fragment of an elegy in which he ridiculed Pythagoras and the doctrine of transmigration.108 We are also told that he opposed the views of Thales and Pythagoras, and attacked Epimenides, which is likely enough, though no fragments of the kind have come down to us.109

It is not easy to determine the date of Xenophanes. Timaios, whose testimony in such matters carries weight, said he was a contemporary of Hieron and Epicharmos, and he certainly seems to have played a part in the anecdotical romance of Hieron's court which amused the Greeks of the fourth century as that of Croesus and the Seven Wise Men amused those of the fifth.110 As Hieron reigned from 478 to 467 B.C., that would make it impossible to date the birth of Xenophanes earlier than 570 B.C., even if we suppose him to have lived till the age of a hundred. On the other hand, Clement says that Apollodoros gave Ol. XL. (620-616 B.C ) as the date of his birth, and adds that his days were prolonged till the time of Dareios and Cyrus.111 Again, Diogenes, whose information on such matters mostly comes from Apollodoros, says he flourished in Ol. LX. (540-537 B.C.), and Diels holds that Apollodoros really said so.112 However that may be, it is evident that the date 540 B.C. is based on the assumption that he went to Elea in the year of its foundation, and is, therefore, a mere combination, which need not be taken into account .113

What we do know for certain is that Xenophanes had led a wandering life from the age of twenty-five, and that he was still alive and making poetry at the age of ninety-two. He says himself (fr. 8 = 24 Karst.; R. P. 97):

There are by this time threescore years and seven that have tossed my careworn soul114 up and down the land of Hellas; and there were then five-and-twenty years from my birth, if I can say aught truly about these matters.

It is tempting to suppose that in this passage Xenophanes was referring to the conquest of Ionia by Harpagos, and that he is, in fact, answering the question asked in another poem115 (fr. 22 = 17 Karst.; R. P. 95 a):

This is the sort of thing we should say by the fireside in the winter-time, as we lie on soft couches after a good meal, drinking sweet wine and crunching chickpeas: "Of what country are you, and how old are you, good sir? And how old were you when the Mede appeared?"

In that case, his birth would fall in 565 B.C., and his connexion with Hieron would be quite credible. We note also that he referred to Pythagoras in the past tense, and is in turn so referred to by Herakleitos.116

Theophrastos said that Xenophanes had "heard" Anaximander,117 and we shall see that he was acquainted with the Ionian cosmology. When driven from his native city, he lived in Sicily, chiefly, we are told, at Zankle and Katana.118 Like Archilochos before him, he unburdened his soul in elegies and satires, which he recited at the banquets where, we may suppose, the refugees tried to keep up the usages of good Ionian society. The statement that he was a rhapsode has no foundation at all.119 The singer of elegies was no professional like the rhapsode, but the social equal of his listeners. In his ninety-second year he was still, we have seen, leading a wandering life, which is hardly consistent with the statement that he settled at Elea and founded a school there, especially if we are to think of him as spending his last days at Hieron's court.120 It is very remarkable that no ancient writer expressly says he ever was at Elea,121 and all the evidence we have seems inconsistent with his having settled there at all.

Burnet's Notes


108. See fr. 7, below.

109. Diog. ix. 18 (R. P. 97). We know that Xenophanes referred to the prediction of an eclipse by Thales (Chap. I. p. 42, n. 1).

110. Timaios ap. Clem. Strom. i. p. 353 (R. P. 95). There is only one anecdote which actually represents Xenophanes in conversation with Hieron (Plut. Reg. apophth. 175 e), but it is natural to understand Arist. Met. Γ, 5. 1010 a 4 as an allusion to a remark made by Epicharmos to him. Aristotle's anecdotes about Xenophanes probably come from the romance of which Xenophon's Hieron is also an echo.

111. Clem. loc. cit. The mention of Cyrus is confirmed by Hipp. Ref. i. 94. Diels thinks Dareios was mentioned first for metrical reasons; but no one has satisfactorily explained why Cyrus should be mentioned at all, unless the early date was intended. On the whole subject, see Jacoby, pp. 204 sqq., who is certainly wrong in supposing that ἄχρι τῶν Δαρείου καὶ Κύρου χρόνων can mean "during the times of Dareios and Cyrus."

112. Rh. Mus. xxxi. p. 22. He adopts the suggestion of Ritter to read πεντηκόστην for τεσσαρακόστην in Clem. loc. cit. (N for M). But Apollodoros gave Athenian archons, not Olympiads.

113. As Elea was founded by the Phokaians six years after they left Phokaia (Herod. i. 164 sqq.) its date is just 540-39 B.C. Cf. the way in which Apollodoros dated Empedokles by the era of Thourioi (§ 98).

114. Bergk (Litteraturgesch. ii. p. 418, n. 23) took φροντίς here to mean the literary work of Xenophanes, but it is surely an anachronism to suppose that at this date it could be used like the Latin cura.

115. It was certainly another poem ; for it is in hexameters, while the preceding fragment is in elegiacs.

116. Xenophanes, fr. 7 ; Herakleitos, frs. 16, 17.

117. Diog. ix. 21 (R. P. 96 a).

118. Diog. ix. 18 (R. P. 96). The use of the old name Zankle, instead of the later Messene, points to an early source for this statement—probably the elegies of Xenophanes himself.

119. Diog. ix. 18 (R. P. 97) says αὐτὸς ἐρραψῴδει τὰ ἑαυτοῦ, which is a very different thing. Nothing is said anywhere of his reciting Homer. Gomperz's imaginative picture (Greek Thinkers, vol. i. p. 155) has no further support than this single word.

120. Diog. ix. 20 (R. P. 97) says he wrote a poem in 2000 hexameters on the colonisation of Elea. Even if true, this would not prove he lived there; for the foundation of Elea would be a subject of interest to all the Ionian émigrés. Moreover, the statement is very suspicious. The stichometric notices of the Seven Wise Men, Epimenides, etc., in Diogenes come from the forger Lobon, and this seems to be from the same source.

121. The only passage which brings him into connexion with Elea is Aristotle's anecdote about the answer he gave the Eleates when they asked him whether they should sacrifice to Leukothea. "If you think her a goddess," he said, "do not lament her; if you do not, do not sacrifice to her" (Rhet. B, 26. 1400 b 5 ; R.P. 98 a). Even this does not necessarily imply that he settled at Elea, and in any case such anecdotes are really anonymous. Plutarch tells the story more than once, but he makes it a remark of Xenophanes to the Egyptians (Diels, Vors. II A 13), while others tell it of Herakleitos.

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