Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
59. Earth and Water 61. God and the World

From Chapter II., Science and Religion

60. Finite or Infinite
Aristotle tried without success to discover from the poems of Xenophanes whether he regarded the world as finite or infinite. "He made no clear pronouncement on the subject," he tells us.146 Theophrastos, on the other hand, decided that he regarded it as spherical and finite, because he said it was "equal every way."147 It really appears that Xenophanes did not feel the contradiction involved in calling the world "equal every way" and infinite. We have seen that he said the sun went right on to infinity, and that agrees with his view of the earth as an infinitely extended plain. He also held (fr. 28) that, while the earth has an upper limit which we see, it has no limit below. This is attested by Aristotle, who speaks of the earth being "infinitely rooted," and adds that Empedokles criticised Xenophanes for holding this view.148 It further appears from the fragment of Empedokles quoted by Aristotle that Xenophanes said the vast Air extended infinitely upwards.149 We are therefore bound to try to find room for an infinite earth and an infinite air in a spherical finite world! That comes of trying to find science in satire. If, on the other hand, we regard these statements from the same point of view as those about the heavenly bodies, we shall see what they probably mean. The story of Ouranos and Gaia was always the chief scandal of the Theogony, and the infinite air gets rid of Ouranos altogether. As to the earth stretching infinitely downwards, that gets rid of Tartaros, which Homer described as situated at the bottommost limit of earth and sea, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above the earth.150 This is pure conjecture, of course; but, if it is even possible, we are entitled to disbelieve that it was in a cosmological poem such startling contradictions occurred.

A more subtle explanation of the difficulty commended itself to the late Peripatetic who wrote an account of the Eleatic school, part of which is still extant in the Aristotelian corpus, and is generally known now as the treatise on Melissos, Xenophanes, and Gorgias.151 He said that Xenophanes declared the world to be neither finite nor infinite, and composed a series of arguments in support of this thesis, to which he added another like it, namely, that the world is neither in motion nor at rest. This has introduced endless confusion into our sources. Alexander used this treatise as well as the work of Theophrastos, and Simplicius supposed the quotations from it to be from Theophrastos too. Having no copy of the poems he was completely baffled, and until recently all accounts of Xenophanes were vitiated by the same confusion. It may be suggested that, but for this, we should never have heard of the "philosophy of Xenophanes," a way of speaking which is really a survival from the days before this scholastic exercise was recognised as having no authority.

Burnet's Notes


146. Arist. Met. A, 5. 986 b 23 (R. P. 101). οὐδὲν διεσαφήνισεν

147. This is given as an inference by Simpl. Phys. p. 23, 18 (R. P. 108 b), διὰ τὸ πανταχόθεν ὅμοιον. It does not merely come from M.X.G. (R. P. 108), πάντῃ δ' ὅμοιον ὄντα σφαιροειδῆ εἶναι. Hippolytos has it too (Ref. i. 14; R. P. 102 a), so it goes back to Theophrastos. Timon of Phleious understood Xenophanes in the same way; for he makes him call the One ἴσον ἁπάντῃ (fr. 60, Diels; R. P. 102 a).

148. Arist. De caelo, B, 13. 294 a 21 (R. P. 103 b).

149. I take δαψιλός as an attribute and ἀπείρονα as predicate to both subjects.

150. Il. viii.13-16, 478-481, especially the words οὐδ' εἴ κε τὰ νείατα πείραθ' ἵκηαι | γαίης καὶ πόντοιο κτλ. Iliad viii. must have seemed a particularly bad book to Xenophanes.

151. In Bekker's edition this treatise bears the title Περὶ Ξενοφάνους, περὶ Ζήνωνος, περὶ Γοργίου, but the best MS. gives as the titles of its three sections: (1) Περὶ Ζήνωνος, (2) Περὶ Ξενοφάνους, (3) Περὶ Γοργίου. The first section, however, plainly refers to Melissos, so the whole treatise is now entitled De Melisso, Xenophane, Gorgia (M.X.G.). It has been edited by Apelt in the Teubner Series, and more recently by Diels (Abh. der k. Preuss. Akad. 1900), who has also given the section dealing with Xenophanes in Vors. II A 28. He has now withdrawn the view maintained in Dox. p. 108 that the work belongs to the third century B.C., and holds that it was a Peripatetico eclectico (i.e. sceptica, platonica, stoica admiscente) circa Christi natalem conscriptum. The writer would have no first-hand knowledge of his poems, and the order in which the philosophers are discussed is that of the passage in the Metaphysics which suggested the whole thing. It is possible that a section on Parmenides preceded what we now have.

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