Xenophanes


Muse tuning two kitharai. Tondo from a white-g...
Muse tuning two kitharai. Tondo from a white-ground Attic cup, 470–460 BC. From Eretria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Xenophanes (c. 570 BCE) was an incredibly advanced ancient Greek thinker, born in Colophon, an Ionian coastal city.

Xenophanes challenged the cosmology of other luminaries like Homer, Hesiod. And he critiqued the pre-Socratic view of religion and mythology, which was popular at the time.

From his surviving fragments – and from writers commenting on his work – it’s clear that Xenophanes satirized the anthropomorphic nature of the Greek pagan gods, arguing that God must be unmoving and changeless.

5. But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man’s clothing and have human voice and body. [Zeller, 524, n. 2. Cf Arist. Rhet. ii. 23; 1399 b 6.]

6. But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like horses, cattle like cattle. [Zeller, 525, n. 2. Diog Laer. iii. 16; Cic. de nat. Deor. i. 27.]¹

Likewise, the early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria (2nd – 3rd CE) wrote in his Miscellanies 5. 109:

Xenophanes of Colophon puts it well indeed in teaching that god is one and without a body (asomatos): “There is one god, greatest among gods and men, who is not like human beings either in form (demas) or in thought (noema).”²

Poseidon’s Wrath by GBrush via Tumblr and deviantART

With his piercing criticisms of the pre-Soctratic mindset, Xenophanes nevertheless believed that we cannot be certain about anything. As such, he said that his observations were necessarily conjecture.

E. L. Hussey says that Xenophanes made the “first known attempt at philosophical theology.”³ In a nutshell, he thought about faith instead of mindlessly reproducing its cultural and historical aspects, a practice that sometimes proves to be awkward, embarrassing or harmful.

In addition, Xenophanes was something of an ancient social critic. He saw through and beyond the Greek glorification of sports and warfare. How many of us can say the same thing today?

¹ Arthur Fairbanks, ed. and trans. “Xenophanes: Fragments and Commentary,” The First Philosophers of Greece (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), p. 67.

² “XENOPHANES of Colophon” http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/xenophanes.html

³ Ted Honderich, ed., Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995, p. 920.

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