Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
57. The Fragments 59. Earth and Water

From Chapter II., Science and Religion

58. The Heavenly Bodies
Most of these fragments are not in any way philosophical and those that appear to be so are easily accounted for otherwise. The intention of one of them (fr. 32) is clear. "Iris too" is a cloud, and we may infer that the same thing had been said of the sun, moon, and stars; for the doxographers tell us that these were all explained as "clouds ignited by motion."136 To the same context clearly belongs the explanation of the St. Elmo's fire which Aetios has preserved. "The things like stars that appear on ships," we are told, "which some call the Dioskouroi, are little clouds made luminous by motion."137 In the doxographers the same explanation is repeated with trifling variations under the head of moon, stars, comets, lightning, shooting stars, and so forth, which gives the appearance of a systematic cosmology.138 But the system is due to the arrangement of the work of Theophrastos, and not to Xenophanes; for it is obvious that a very few additional hexameters would amply account for the whole doxography.

What we hear of the sun presents some difficulties. We are told that it is an ignited cloud; but this is not very consistent with the statement that the evaporation of the sea from which clouds arise is due to the sun's heat. Theophrastos stated that the sun, according to Xenophanes, was a collection of sparks from the moist exhalation; but even this leaves the exhalation itself unexplained.139 That, however, matters little, if the chief aim of Xenophanes was to discredit the anthropomorphic gods, rather than to give a scientific theory of the heavenly bodies. The important thing is that Helios too is a temporary phenomenon. The sun does not go round the earth, as Anaximander taught, but straight on, and the appearance of a circular path is solely due to its increasing distance. So it is not the same sun that rises next morning, but a new one altogether; while eclipses occur because the sun "tumbles into a hole" when it comes to certain uninhabited regions of the earth. An eclipse may last a month. Besides that, there are many suns and moons, one of each for every region of the earth.140

The vigorous expression "tumbling into a hole"141 seems clearly to come from the verses of Xenophanes himself, and there are others of a similar kind, which we must suppose were quoted by Theophrastos. The stars go out in the daytime, but glow again at night "like charcoal embers."142 The sun is of some use in producing the world and the living creatures in it, but the moon "does no work in the boat."143 Such expressions can only be meant to make the heavenly bodies appear ridiculous, and it will therefore be well to ask whether the other supposed cosmological fragments can be interpreted on the same principle.

Burnet's Notes


136. Cf. Diels ad loc. (P. Ph. Fr. p. 44), "ut Sol et cetera astra, quae cum in nebulas evanescerent, deorum simul opinio casura erat."

137. Aet. ii. 18, I (Dox. p. 347), Ξενοφάνης τοὺς ἐπὶ τῶν πλοίων φαινομένους οἷον ἀστέρας, οὓς καὶ Διοσκούρους καλοῦσί τινες, νεφέλια εἶναι κατὰ τὴν ποιὰν κίνησιν παραλάμποντα.

138. The passages from Aetios are collected in Diels, Vors. 11 A 38 sqq.

139. Aet. ii. 20, 3 (Dox. p. 348), Ξενοφάνης ἐκ νεφῶν πεπυρωμένων εἶναι τὸν ἥλιον. Θεόφραστος ἐν τοῖς Φυσικοῖς γέγραφεν ἐκ πυριδίων μὲν τῶν συναθροιζομένων ἐκ τῆς ὑγρᾶς ἀναθυμιάσεως, συναθροιζόντων δὲ τὸν ἥλιον. It seems likely from these words that Theophrastos pointed out the contradiction, as his manner was.

140. Aet. ii. 24, 9 (Dox. p. 355). πολλοὺς εἶναι ἡλίους καὶ σελήνας κατὰ κλίματα τῆς γῆς καὶ ἀποτομὰς καὶ ζώνας, κατὰ δέ τινα καιρὸν ἐμπίπτειν τὸν δίσκον εἴς τινα ἀποτομὴν τῆς γῆς οὐκ οἰκουμένην ὑφ' ἡμῶν καὶ οὕτως ὥσπερ κενεμβατοῦντα ἔκλειψιν ὑποφαίνειν· ὁ δ' αὐτὸς τὸν ἥλιον εἰς ἄπειρον μὲν προιέναι, δοκεῖν δὲ κυκλεῖσθαι διὰ τὴν ἀπόστασιν.

141. That this is the meaning of κενεμβατέω appears sufficiently from the passages referred to in Liddell and Scott, and it describes a total eclipse very well.

142. Aet. ii. 13, 14 (Dox. p. 343), ἀναζωπυρεῖν νύκτωρ καθάπερ τοὺς ἄνθρακας.

143. Aet. ii. 30, 8 (Dox. p. 362), τὸν μὲν ἥλιον χρήσιμον εἶναι πρὸς τὴν τοῦ κόσμου καὶ τὴν τῶν ἐν αὐτῷ ζῴων γένεσίν τε καὶ διοίκησιν, τὴν δὲ σελήνην παρέλκειν. The verb παρέλκειν means "to cork." (Cf. Aristophanes, Pax, 1306). In Hellenistic Greek the metaphor is no longer felt, and παρέλκει means "is redundant," "is superfluous."

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