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Topic #A3 –
Xenophanes: poet and sage

14 September, 2001
Scribes: Kathryn Semogas and Suzanne Dhaliwal

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Xenophanes can be thought of as the Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas of his time. He was a sage traveling performer, performing both his own work and the popular works of the time. In particular he performed the works of Homer, Iliad and the Odyssey, being the popular choice of the rich and powerful that comprised his audiences in the Greek-speaking world. He did a great amount of traveling into his nineties, which allows us to believe that he had a high standard of living.
Xenophanes poetry differed greatly from the works that he performed. An excerpt from Homer’s Iliad lines 510-515 was referred to. Achilles was not given his due and therefore was angered. His mother turns to Zeus in the defense of her son. Zeus when making his decision bows his head, and the world shakes. The gods are depicted with human emotion in human situations with the God’s acting with divine intervention. The narrative attributes human attitudes and weaknesses to the Gods. There are mother/son quarrels, seeking advice from respected individuals, interactions that are noticeably human. All human weaknesses appear in the gods, corruption, adultery and deceit. A reference was made to F6 (DK 21 B11; KRS 116).
Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the Gods
Everything that men find shameful and reprehensible-
Stealing, adultery, and deceiving are another.
Homer attributes to the gods that which is shameful to men, and this is a reflection of that nature of religious belief. The gods appear as projections of all that is erroneous in man. Therefore, what is the origin of belief in these Gods? A reference was made to an extreme example of the origin of this belief with the Gods taking the form of animals in F8.
If cows and horses or lions had hands,
Or could draw with their hands and make things ass men can,
Horses would have drawn horse-like gods, cows cow-like gods,
And each species would have made the gods bodies just like their own.
This is to highlight the derivation of the forms of the Gods, as with the human example given in F9.
Ethiopians say that their gods are flat nosed and black,
And Thracians that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
All of these people, Thracians and Ethiopians, who were from the extreme North and South of the known world, think of God in t their own image, and not just in the image of man. According to Xenophanes this is erroneous and profoundly mistaken. Although man believes in God, their conception of God is wrong due to the anthropomorphism in religion. Xenophanes refers to one god in F5.
He remains forever in the same place, entirely motionless,
Nor is it proper for him to move from one place to another.
But effortlessly he shakes all things by thinking with his mind.
God for Xenophanes has the modality for affectivity, from his thoughts actions occur. This is similar to Gods in other texts, where the emphasis is upon the more than developed mental powers, such as the Jewish god. It is not the case that god is a super extension of human dimensions, but a whole alive being . God receives sensory information as a whole without organs, but is capable of complete hearing, seeing etc,.. This is similar to the God depicted by Anaximander, a whole divine force, as one God. Xenophanes writing is fragmented and therefore it is hard to understand and know the totality of his thought. The idea that there is one God animated by one being , with the world as this living god was an influential notion. We can understand our place in this system as living cells within this one God. This can be understood once one gets in touch with divine matters and the meaning of the individual in the whole, and the whole is understood as comprised of these individual cells.
The following question was then asked. “Is the soul separate from the body?”
The answer given was that one permeates the other, spiritual and material matter. The permeation of these two things is a struggle in the universe at large. Looking at the larger system as the same thing, although the living body is smaller, therefore the spiritual and material elements are connected in the totality of the person. The information received by the soul from the immortal divine is part of the soul governing the creature. The divine soul permeates each individual , as all things are connected through the material and the spiritual as expressed also in later Greek thought.
It was again stated that Xenophanes was a professional nomad, singer and poet, and his own poetry took the form of a philosophical challenge.
The next question asked was about the hierarchy of beings, the whole God and divine material beings. The answer was that the one God underlies the whole of being, as the ultimate spiritual and material being. The Gods are not parallel to man, although derivated from the material world, but he is less corruptible and more privileged.
The next question was, do the sun; moon and stars have the intelligence of God? The answer was, no, the sun, moon and stars share in the intellect of the body of the whole world, which is God. Xenophanes often uses the divine to explain the non-divine. For instance, he explains rainbows with reference to divine intervention in F 15.
And the one called Iris is also a cloud,
Purple, red and yellow to the sight.
Another example is the theory of fire, as explained by magnetic forces. St. Elmo’s fire though is explained as a symbol of God’s attitude, i.e. anxiety.
Xenophanes states that all things he says are approximations, theories in time, and not the truth. The truth is hard to get to, because the Gods do not channel knowledge to us, it comes gradually through our self-knowledge, experience teaches belief.
Knowledge depends on sensory experience and is therefore relative to other experience.
If the god had not made yellow honey, they would have said
That figs were much sweeter.
Pronouncements that seem natural are undermined as not necessary but as relativistic knowledge. Xenophanes was concerned with meteorology and cosmology as were the Milesans. He was a critic of religion and the first to draw skeptical lessons from reaching conclusions and to acknowledge the gradual process of acquiring knowledge. He is also credited with exploring the idea of unity theory, as a result of his monotheistic views on God. Due to the anthropomorphism being challenged by Xenophanes it points toward the source of the approximations of truth, as the attempt to escape finite terms, and the absence of knowledge through the self in favor of infinite deities.