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Xenophanes' Skepticism

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The character of Xenophanes’ skepticism was the subject of dispute as early as the 4th century BC and the central statement of his position, fragment 34, has been variously interpreted ever since. In this paper I argue that Xenophanes’ remarks about knowledge are best understood in connection with his distinctive, austere conception of the divine (B 23-26) and related rejection of the claims of seers and diviners to gain access to divine matters (A 52). When Xenophanes denies that there ever was or will be anyone who “knows about the gods and such things as I say about all things,” he adds that "even if one were to succeed better than others in speaking what is brought to pass (ei gar kai ta malista tuchoi tetelesmenon eipôn), he still he would not know.” Since it is clear from many passages in the Homeric poems that “speaking of what is brought to pass” was typically the province of seers and diviners, we may infer that Xenophanes was here specifically rejecting the idea that seers and diviners are able to bridge the gap between the human and divine realms. And once we add what Guthrie termed the commonplace of early Greek poetry that mankind has no sure knowledge unless the gods choose to reveal it, the logic underlying Xenophanes’ ’skeptical’ outlook becomes obvious.


James H. Lesher presented “Xenophanes’ Skepticism” to the Society at its meeting with the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in New York in 1975. A revised version was published in Phronesis 23 (1978) 1-21, and reprinted in John P. Anton & Anthony Preus, eds.1983. Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy, vol. 2. SUNY, 20-40. The Phronesis version available online at his web site.

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