Xenophanes: ancient negative theologian?

As a general overview, Xenophanes of Colophon contributed predominately to the areas of theology and epistemology. Most significant of all, he observed that the depictions of gods varied from culture to culture. However, given this descriptive performance of comparative cultures, Xenophanes is in no way a relativist. Although he agrees that gods are a product or projection of culture he is in no way skeptical about the existence of gods. Or, what amounts to the same, he assumes that they exist and proceeds to consider what they are like. The disagreement is simply in the details, not in the existence. Rejecting a potential relativist move, Xenophanes offers a solution to what god or the gods are like. In this sense, he is looking for the most accurate depiction of god; and only one can and must be true.

To begin with, Xenophanes posits that it would be ridiculous to assert that one single culture’s conception of the divine is correct and that all other gods are in toto inferior. This, after all, was the position of most Greek contemporaries of Xenophanes. Rather, the reasonable path, according to Xenophanes, is one in which we recognize that no prior view is absolutely correct. Moreover, we should enquire “into the nature of gods, this time trying to avoid letting [our] view be colored by the peculiarities of [our] own particular cultural circumstances” (James Warren, Presocratics, p. 45). We can, in short, curtain our anthropomorphic tendencies.

Doubtless, this paves the way for skepticism and indeed skeptics begin much as Xenophanes did by pointing out disagreements and contradictions inherent to beliefs, ultimately concluding that there is no more reason to prefer one side of a conflict to another. In other words, according to skepticism, we should suspend judgment and keep the matter unresolved. Xenophanes, on the other hand, proposes that we continue to search rather than merely lead a life of inner tranquility in response to unsettled opinions. As will be shown, he utilizes a positive and rational theology, even if that means we must accept conclusions that are inconclusive and provisional.

The poets Homer and Hesiod were “generally considered to be authorities” on religious matters in ancient Greek society (p. 46). According to them, the gods act in egregious ways much as humans do and, incidentally, to even greater extents (e.g., quarreling, jealousy, murder, incest, lust, ambitions, etc.). Xenophanes observes this and turns this into an argument concerning what gods should be like. As Xenophanes reasons, the gods should not resemble us in appearance or thought but are superior to human beings. Surely the gods do not think or behave in the same way mortals do. On the other hand, they are not wholly unlike mortals either because the gods still think in some fashion.

In other places Xenophanes seems to suggest that there is one god superior to other gods. However, he stands in contradistinction to Western theology because he never considers god to be omniscient, omnipresent, or benevolent. “The overall picture of Xenophanes’ god reveals what Xenophanes takes to be the essential attributes of any divinity: effortless power and superior cognitive and causal abilities” (p. 49). What is worth mentioning is that Xenophanes is chiefly interested in highlighting the differences between gods and humans. In extension, he shows the limit of humanity’s understanding and knowledge (epistemology). Likewise, we are always embedded in a particular cultural context and individual circumstances that distort our perspective of the divine.

There exists, most of all, a vast gulf between human and divine understanding. Although we must settle with faith given our mortal limitations, Xenophanes argues we can approximate towards clear and true knowledge. As anticipated above, we can therefore have better and worse beliefs. But, then again, how are we to classify “better or worse likeness to truth”? (p. 52). While Xenophanes carries with him a notion that progress is possible, he does not “specify how we go about this enquiry” (p. 53). As he seems to suggest in particular fragments, we will never know if we hit on the right answer. What we might ask of Xenopahnes is: is internal consistency or correspondence with data considered steps in the right direction? We know that Xenophanes attempted to explain natural phenomena by meterological and cosmological reasoning elsewhere without recourse to divine agency, which might suggest an affinity with our aforementioned question. But in all things, “our beliefs are affected by surrounding circumstances” (p. 56).


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