back to PHL200Y home page
back to course outline

Topic #A3 –
Xenophanes: poet and sage

14 September, 2001
Scribes: Zoë Nudell and Gwen Bradford

these minutes were spoken on 17 September; to view the other minutes, go to the unspoken minutes

Xenophanes was a poet, sage and travelling performer who recited his own work as well as that of others. It is difficult to think of modern parallels to this role, but poet performers like Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas come close. Xenophanes' main gig was doing Homer: the Iliad and Odyssey were staples as entertainment for the wealthy. He must have been successful at his work and had a high quality of life, since it is possible he lived to be over 90.
However, certain ideas of Xenophanes are in direct contrast with Homer. In the following passage from the Iliad (Bk. I around line 510) Achilles is annoyed, having not been given his due, and his mother Thetis is asking Zeus to fix the problem.
“ ‘pay my dear son back,
building higher the honor he deserves!’

She paused
but Zeus who commands the storm clouds answered nothing.
The Father sat there, silent. It seemed an eternity
But Thetis, clasping his knees, held on, clinging,
pressing her question once again: ‘Grant my prayer,
once and for all, Father, bow your head in assent!
Or deny me outright. What have you to fear?
So I may know, too well, just how cruelly
I am the most dishonored goddess of them all.’

Filled with anger
Zeus who marshals the storm clouds answered her at last:
‘Disaster. You will drive me into war with Hera,
She will provoke me, she with her shrill abuse.
Even now in the face of all the immortal gods
she harries me perpetually, Hera charges me
that I always go to battle for the Trojans.
Away with you now. Hera might catch us here.
I will see to this. I will bring it all to pass.
Look, I will bow my head if that will satisfy you.’

So he decreed. And Zeus the son of Cronus bowed
his craggy dark brows and the deathless locks came pouring
down from the thunderhead of the great immortal king
and giant shock waves spread through all Olympus.”

Homer shows the gods as engaged in a very human narrative: there is a human situation in which the gods intervene, with there own human-like weaknesses of deception and infidelity. Xenophanes, on the other hand, disagrees with this conception of the gods (F 6). Instead, Xenophanes reflects that if we project our own weaknesses on our gods, then other beings would also project their own qualities on their gods as well. For example, “If cows and horses or lions had hands,/... Horses would have drawn horse-like gods, cows cow-like gods,/ and each species would have made the gods' bodies just like their own” (F 8). Similarly, humans conceive their gods as being like they are: “Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,/ And Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (F 9). Ethiopia was the southernmost part of the known world at that time, and Thrace was the northernmost -- Xenophanes is saying that people create gods in their own image.
Xenophanes believes that this conception of gods to be erroneous. Xenophanes portrays a still, unmoving God who shakes the world by thought alone (F 5). God does not need a body to affect the world. Further, information comes to him without the need of sensory organs (F 4). Rather, God's whole being is alive to information. This belief in one God whose
whole is involved in primitive spirituality is in common with Anaximander.
It appears that Xenophanes felt that the whole of nature participates in this God. The material aspect of the world is god's body and, more importantly, God's soul is the whole as well. This means that we humans are like tiny liver cells in God's body.
Does this mean the soul is separate from the body? Not exactly. Rather, the body is shot through with the soul. Similarly, the whole of nature is infused with the God's soul. The liver cell is a unit within the whole, but it still functions as an individual cell: My body is still my body, but it is also part of the greater totality of nature. So there are levels: the totality, the person, the single cell. Each is part of the greater whole, and all are infused with the God's soul. The hierarchy must stop at an ultimate level which is both material and spiritual.
However, Xenophanes does not completely discard the traditional gods. Instead he calls them lesser gods and they, like us humans, trees, etc., are all derivative of the one God. However, people are not derivative from the lesser gods because the gods are made from better material. Rather, the gods are parallel to people in the sense that they are like us: They are corrupt and have human narratives and conflicts. We will see this idea echoed in Plato's _Timaeus_. Overall, Xenophanes is saying that there is one underlying god, which is in contrast to the Homeric views of the time.
Xenophanes also attempts to explain natural phenomena in non-divine terms. For instance, he says that the rainbow, Iris, is really a cloud and not an expression of divine intervention (F 15). Although it is not in the selection in our text, Xenophanes also had a theory of St. Elmo's fire. This phenomenon, known to sailors as a kind of fire seen between two masts of a ship, was thought to be an expression of the gods' attitudes, but Xenophanes had a practical explanation for it.
Xenophanes can be credited as the first philosopher to draw skeptical lessons. He professed that knowledge is a gradual process and self-won, and is relative to other things we know (F 17, F 18, F 19). He suggested that it is difficult to reach concrete conclusions and that there is always room to doubt philosopher's ideas.
Xenophanes, as well as developing one of the first monist theories is also credited with the invention of the skeptical turn of mind, as well as being a singer and poet.