The Presocratics Part II: Xenophanes and Pythagoras

by melanchologist

Xenophanes was born in Colophon, an ancient city in the region of Lydia, not far from Miletus, in approximately 570 b.c.e. He is said to have lived to a very old age, as he describes himself thus in his writings. Like the Milesians, very little is actually known about Xenophanes, save for the few remaining extant accounts. He wrote in verse rather than prose. Xenophanes is also said to have possibly been a teacher of Parmenides, a later Presocratic. Though many of the accounts of his work show Xenophanes concerning himself with matters of theology and ancient Greek religion, he rejected the previous generally accepted accounts of the gods found in the work of Homer and Hesiod, and advocated a less anthropomorphic view of them. He says that the Thracians believed that the gods were blue-eyed and red-haired, and that the Ethiopians ascribed dark skin to their gods. He faults mortal men for describing the gods as wearing clothes, squabbling, fighting amongst one another, and exhibiting generally unsavory human weaknesses. Xenophanes believed that the early accounts were merely “forgeries,” and fabrications of the forefathers of the ancient Greeks. Interestingly, Xenophanes believed that there may have been but a single god—an entity wholly unlike mortals “in body or thought,” and that no man can even begin to understand the gods. He is supposed to have said that god is an all-seeing, all-thinking, all-hearing, unmoving entity, who can shake all things simply by thinking. Xenophanes’ advocacy of a sort of monotheism was an interesting development in ancient Greek thought.

Though most of the writings attributed to Xenophanes deal with religion, he did concern himself with science and metaphysical issues. He is thought to have said that “all things that come into being are earth and water.” This is a curious remark that could indicate that he thought that earth and water are the two “stuffs” of the cosmos. In terms of science, Xenophanes also postulated about the origins of fossils, noting that fossils of shells have been found great distances from the sea, and that fossils of objects, such as laurel leaves, have been found buried in rock, deep underground.

An important distinction made by Xenophanes was the difference between knowing something to be absolutely true, and believing it. He asserted that mortal men simply have “belief” to rely on, and that belief merely “resembles the truth.”

Pythagoras was also born in approximately 570 b.c.e. in Samos, in the eastern Aegean Sea, but he eventually settled in Croton in southern Italy. Pythagoras is one of the least-known figures in ancient Western philosophy; in fact, he is said to have become more myth than man, so to speak, throughout the ages. While he probably did not invent the Pythagorean theorem, Pythagoras and his followers were highly concerned with numbers and order. Pythagoras was also an early proponent of the theory of transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation. He was mocked by contemporaries, notably Xenophanes, for this belief. It has been suggested, however, that Pythagoras’ belief in reincarnation was in fact crucial to his philosophy, and that of his followers, in that it introduced the concept of dualism, which implies a distinction between the body and the soul.

Pythagoras’ followers, the Pythagoreans, eventually split into two groups, the akousmatikoi and the mathematikoi. This split probably occurred after Pythagoras’ death. The akousmatikoi were the branch of the Pythagoreans more concerned with ethics and religion, while the mathematekoi were more concerned with Pythagoras’ philosophical teachings and scientific endeavors, particularly mathematics and astronomy. Pythagoras supposedly spent some time in Egypt in his early years where he may have accumulated some knowledge of mathematics, for which he eventually found many applications—such as the relationship of notes in musical composition. By and large, the Pythagoreans emphasized numbers and mathematics as a way of finding and creating order in the universe and everyday life. Rather than trying to discern what substance comprised the stuff of the cosmos, which drove the ideas of the Milesians, the Pythagoreans were primarily concerned with the structure, order, and form of the world, and perhaps the greater cosmos.


Adamson, Peter.  History of Philosophy podcasts

Cohen, S. M., Curd, P., & Reeve, C. D. C. (1995). Readings in ancient Greek philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.