Xenophanes as Monotheist

Xenophanes (570 BC-480 BC) was a Greek theologian, philosopher, poet, as well as a religious and social critic. He had a passion for travelling that made him leave Ionia at a tender age of twenty-five years and travel all over Greece for the next 67 years (Jaeger, 1968). It is believed that Xenophanes went to exile in Sicily. His vast knowledge emanated from his poetry, which criticized various ideas such as the veneration of athleticism by the Greeks and the ideas of Homer and Hesiod among others. Xenophanes was strongly against the belief and worship of numerous gods (polytheism), and the fact that gods looked similar to human beings. His development of the concept of a single god who is universal, omnipresent, abstract and unchanging made him recognized amongst the first monotheists within the Western philosophy of religion (Jaeger, 1968).

The surviving writings of Xenophanes display criticisms of the traditional religious views, especially the polytheistic views of the previous Greek poets. For instance, Xenophanes’s fragment 23 stated: “One god is greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought” (Lesher, 1992, B23). The opening line of the fragment could be interpreted as a declaration of monotheism. The phrase: “One god is the greatest among gods and men” (Lesher, 1992, B23) has, however, been viewed by critics as a contradiction of monotheism, but not all scholars involved in the debate share the same view. Some scholars argue that the phrase should be viewed as a polar expression, i.e. a poetic device is employed to put emphasis to a point, and it does not entail the existence of things at both poles. In other words, the phrase can be considered in the context of a nonbeliever saying that no god exists in heaven or earth, where the phrase “in heaven or earth” is used ironically to simply imply “anywhere” (Jaeger, 1968). Consequently, there has been no agreement concerning Xenophanes’ monotheism among different scholars. This paper presents a discussion on whether or not Xenophanes was a monotheist, the considerations for and against Xenophanes’ monotheism, as well as my opinion on Xenophanes’ conception of the divine.

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Whether Xenophanes was a Monotheist

The Greek religion consisted of worshipping numerous gods, and Xenophanes was one of the philosophers of his time who stood to oppose the religion. Perhaps this is the main reason why he was recognized as the first monotheist within the Western philosophy of Religion. Some people have argued that Xenophanes was not only the first monotheist, but also the initial advocate of radical reform of monotheism that insists on a single god that is pure in spirit and is totally distinct from the world (Van Baarern, 2006). In the past few years, Jonathan Barnes stood out as the staunchest advocate of monotheism interpretation. In describing Xenophanes, he said: “Xenophanes, I conclude, was a monotheist, as the long tradition has it; and he was an a priori monotheist; like later Christian theologians, he argued on purely logical grounds that there could not be a plurality of gods.” (Barnes, 1979, p. 92). From his interpretations, Barnes argued that the opening line of Xenophanes’ fragment 23 ought to be paraphrased to state that there is only a single god, given that (by description) a god is superior to everything else, both gods and men (Barnes, 1979). On the other hand, other scholars have linked Xenophanes to a softer form of monotheism, maintaining that even if he did not give the impression to totally abandon polytheism explicitly, Xenophanes did so implicitly.

According to Van Baarern (2006), crediting Xenophanes with monotheism involves three key bodies of evidence presented in: 1) his view of the divine in fragments B23 to B26, 2) his opinions regarding god and nature as implied in his poems, and 3) a series of prehistoric testimonials that credit Xenophanes with the idea that there is only one god. It is vital to mention that determination of the probative value of these materials necessitates an evaluation of the relevant evidence, in addition to some specification of the monotheism type in consideration (Van Baarern, 2006). From the evidence presented in his fragments and other scholars’ accreditation of him as a monotheist, it can, therefore, be said that Xenophanes was a monotheist.

Considerations in Favor of Xenophanes as a Monotheist

Xenophanes monotheism is evident in a number of his writings. For instance, fragments B23 to B26 talk clearly about Xenophanes monotheism: “One god is the greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought …whole he sees, whole he thinks, and whole he hears …but completely without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind… always he abides in the same place, not moving at all, nor is it seemly for him to travel to different places at different times (Lesher, 1992, B23-B26).”

These remarks suggest Xenophanes’ declaration of the existence of a god who was the greatest, with the ability to think and perceive without the benefits of the organs of the body, as well as effect alterations on a cosmic scale just by the exercise of his mind. According to Xenophanes, there is only one God, who is the greatest being amongst gods and mankind (Stokes, 1971). He is perfect and not similar in any way to a man, both in the body and thought; an implication that the physical form of God is incomprehensible to humans (Curd & McKirahan, 2011). God is stationary, meaning that he is motionless, but at the same time, He shakes everything in the universe via His mind. In addition, Xenophanes suggested a god that is good constantly and is unable to do wrong. In describing God’s omnipresence, he said: “Complete he sees, complete he thinks, and complete he hears” (Curd & McKirahan, 2011, p. 25). All in all, God is divine and worthy of worship. In addition, numerous ancient writers, equally, exhibited no reluctance in linking Xenophanes with the belief in the existence of one utmost being of some description. For instance, Pseudo-Galen wrote that Xenophanes believed only that everything was one and that it was god, while Hippolytus wrote about Xenophanes saying that he believed God was one and eternal (Van Baarern, 2006). Xenophanes’ fragments, in addition to what others thought of him, clearly indicate his belief in one God who was above everything else, thus confirming his monotheistic religious views.

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Considerations against Xenophanes as a Monotheist

Despite being accredited to early monotheism, the question remains whether Xenophanes was an exclusive monotheist or not, i.e. did he hold that a single god exists and that no other gods of some description or kind are there beside him? While fragments B23 to B26 of Xenophanes’ writings point out to his belief in the existence of a single god, who is the greatest of all in numerous aspects, they, however, do not rule out the fact that other gods also exist beside the single supreme god.

It is crucial to mention that Xenophanes strongly opposed the Greek religion, especially the polytheistic views of the previous Greek poets, such as Homer and Hesiod. One of his fragment writings stated: “Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things which are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery and mutual deceit” (Lesher, 1992, 11B). In this statement, Xenophanes took to task Homer and Hesiod for ascribing to the unacceptable traits of Greek gods. According to them, it was not an issue for the gods to kill, steal, cheat, or even rape women, but such behaviors were against the ideal purposes of religion, which was to provide divine authority and moral standards for human beings. Xenophanes believed in one God who was perfect, and that is why he strongly condemned Homer and Hesiod’s works because the behaviors of their gods were not worthy of being emulated by people (Van Baarern, 2006). To Xenophanes, the description of the morally deficient gods justified the Greeks’ moral behaviors.

However, it is extremely suspicious that while he criticized Homer and Hesiod for their depiction of the nature of gods, he did not bother to remark on the number of those gods. In addition, a true monotheist would not possibly be so inconsiderate with regards to his utilization of the plural, “gods”, within a society that was exceedingly polytheistic such as the Greek society. His repeated use of the word “gods” is evident in several fragments of his works, such as “Mortals suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own” (Lesher, 1992, B14). In this argument, he mocked at the people who thought that gods had clothes and voices like them. Another illustration is seen when he said: “But if oxen, horses, and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and fashion works as men do, horses would paint horse-like images of gods and oxen ox-like ones, and each would fashion bodies like their own” (Lesher, 1992, B15). In this phrase, Xenophanes argued that even animals would fashion gods in their own images if they had an idea about god and how to express those ideas. If he was truly a monotheist, he would have stood by what he believed in, and used the word god instead of gods. Perhaps this indicates his uncertainty with regards to his monotheistic belief, or fear that he would be criticisized by polytheists in the Greek society.

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From the above evidences, it is not easy to tell whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or not because some evidence shows his monotheistic beliefs while others criticize them. This complexity is summarized in Lesher’s statement, when he said: “The fragments warrant attributing to Xenophanes the novel idea of a single god of unusual power, consciousness, and cosmic influence, but not the stronger view that, beyond this one god, there could be nothing else worthy of the name.” (Lesher, 1992, p. 99). Consequently, there are various interpretations concerning Xenophanes’ stance on monotheism. For instance, he may be considered a henotheist for commenting on the attributes of a single special god, but at the same time appearing to recognize that other gods also exist, or an exclusive monotheist for maintaining that a single god exists and that no other gods of some description or kind are there beside him. This later description of Xenophanes becomes right when only the initial line of Xenophanes’ fragment 23 is considered, i.e. “One god is greatest…” (Lesher, 1992, B23).

In my opinion, the evidences in favor of Xenophanes’ monotheism beliefs outweigh those against them, making him considered to be a monotheist. In addition, if he was a polytheist like other Greeks during his time, he would not have bothered to come out strongly to oppose the polytheism that existed in the Greek society, as well as to develop the concept of a single god who is universal, omnipresent and unchanging. This clearly shows that he was a true monotheist.

My Opinion Regarding How People Should Understand Xenophanes’ Conception of the Divine

According to Xenophanes, god is divine and worthy of worship. He is perfect and not similar in any way to a man both in body and thought; an indication that God’s physical form is incomprehensible to humans (Curd & McKirahan, 2011). His belief in God’s perfection made him strongly condemn Homer and Hesiod’s teachings, because the behaviors of their gods were not worthy of being emulated by people. To Xenophanes, the description of the morally deficient gods justified the Greeks’ moral behaviors. He believed that anthropomorphic gods of the Greeks were not only immoral, but the fact that they had human traits reduced God’s dignity and compromised his worthiness and status as the one and only true God who deserves to be worshipped. Besides, Xenophanes believed in a single god who is universal, omnipresent, abstract, unchanging, good at all times, and unable to do wrong (Curd & McKirahan, 2011). In my opinion, most of Xenophanes concepts of divinity are right and should be believed by people because they are in line with the Bible teachings. However, I disagree with his argument that god is stationary.

Xenophanes was a Greek theologian, philosopher, poet, as well as a religious and social critic. He was strongly against polytheism and the belief that gods looked similar to human beings. His development of the concept of a single God who is universal, omnipresent, and unchanging made him recognized amongst the first monotheists within the Western philosophy of religion. Though there are various evidences supporting his monotheism beliefs, others, however, show that Xenophanes was not exclusively monotheistic. The arguments against Xenophanes monotheism, in my opinion, do not make him less of a monotheist, considering his strong opposition to the Greek polytheistic religion. Xenophanes’ life and activism remain a challenge to us today to be bold enough to criticize the vices that take place in the society without fear of criticism.

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