Pre-Socratic Philosophy Part 2: Xenophanes
Religious critics are a mainstay of today's intellectual world, but as you can imagine, they were not so popular in the ancient world. Religion was paramount in people's public and personal lives, even in relatively secular Ancient Greece, and to criticise it was to ask for trouble. Xenophanes is the first person we know of who took on the commonly accepted religion of his time, lashing out against the concept of anthropomorphic gods who had human flaws. That is not to say that he was an atheist or an agnostic; rather, he was an early monotheist who believed that god was a perfect omnipotent force. His religious criticisms are what he is best known for today, but he was also important for his work in the field of epistemology, the study of knowledge. In this field, he was an early empiricist, claiming that knowledge must come from the senses. But before we get into all that, let's begin with the scant details we have about his life.
Xenophanes, son of Dexius, was born in Colophon, a small Ionian town (Ionia being the coast of Western Turkey where early philosophy flourished) in circa 570 BC. He lived there until the Median invasion of Ionia by Harpagus in 546 BC, after which he spent time in Sicily. He died in circa 475 BC. That's basically all we know of his life, and it all comes from Diogenes Laertius, a Greek historian writing 750 years afterwards. Such is the problem with studying the Pre-Socratics: biographical information is hard to come by and of dubious authenticity.
Now, on to his theology. In Ancient Greece, poets were revered as divinely inspired messengers from the muses, and none were more highly regarded than Homer and Hesiod. Homer, if he existed at all, probably lived in the 9th Century BC. His greatest works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both epic poems about the Trojan War, are the founding texts of all Western literature, and have had an enormous influence on all Western civilization. The Iliad in particular was practically the Ancient Greeks' bible. Hesiod is less well known, although he was regarded almost as highly by the Greeks. His greatest work concerning the Gods was the Theogeny, a poem that traced the genealogy of the immortals. In both their works, the Greek Gods are jealous, needy, vain, paranoid, vindictive, and of course, they look like us. Xenophanes refused these descriptions of the Gods, saying:
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods |
all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:
theft, adultery, and mutual deception.
He saw that the Gods were clearly thought up by humans and given human characteristics. He says:
But mortals suppose that gods are born, |
wear their own clothes and have a voice and body.
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; |
Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired.
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands |
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
Instead of these anthropomorphised gods, Xenophanes argues for a god totally unlike us:
One god greatest among gods and men, |
not at all like mortals in body or in thought.
This appears to be a form of monotheism, or at least a belief system in which one being is absolutely paramount. Some later authors claim that Xenophanes thought that his God was identified with "the whole" or "all things", leading some to suggest that he was an early pantheist (the belief that God is in everything). However, this conflicts with other pieces of evidence we have in which he says that "all things which come into being and grow, are earth and water".
This religious criticism is what he is best known for, but his epistemological views are also important. Xenophanes seems to have thought that there were absolute truths, but that we human beings lack the ability to access these truths, so must make do with the sense-data we take in through sensory organs. He says:
…and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen |
nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things.
For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass,
still he himself would not know. But opinion is allotted to all.
From this and other quotes, we can see that Xenophanes thought that while we cannot access absolute truths, practical knowledge gained from the senses gives us enough information to get by in life.
Xenophanes was a great influence on the skeptics, Spinoza (an early modern pantheist), and Parmenides, the founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy who I'll get to in a few essays.
Thanks for reading!