In today’s Friday Philosophy post we’re looking at another presocratic thinker. Each week we look at one meaningful idea by a philosopher from history, and offer some reflections on that idea. This week the spotlight is on Xenophanes of Colophon and his thoughts about the divine.
Who Was He?
As with many of the presocratic thinkers, we don’t know exactly when Xenophanes lived. What we do know is that he is mentioned in works by Heraclitus, who says he was a contemporary and critic of Pythagoras, so we can assume that Xenophanes lived around the same time (c.570-475 BC). We only have fragments of his thought that have come down to us mainly via quotations from other ancient Greek philosophers.
Xenophanes was a poet and freethinker, perhaps influenced by Thales as he shared that philosopher’s disgruntlement concerning the human traits that were associated with the Homeric gods. Xenophanes wondered why anyone would want to worship gods who carried the immoral and disgraceful traits of flawed human beings.
What’s the Big Idea?
Rejecting the Homeric gods, Xenophanes had at least some concept of a single deity who was ‘in no way like men in shape or in thought’ but who was ‘causing all things by the thought of his mind’. He had the aim of propagating a religion that was more focused on rational thinking than on traditionally held beliefs.
Xenophanes presented theological contributions in favour of the notion of divine goodness, and some say he was the first monotheist in the Western intellectual tradition, although it’s difficult to decipher precisely what he believed from the fragmentary evidence. He showed some signs of being a pantheist (pantheism is the belief that God and nature are one and the same).
The ancient Greeks are well-known for their polytheistic beliefs, so if Xenophanes was among the first to posit the existence of a single deity causing all things then this is a significant departure. Monotheism is a belief that I have embraced as it makes sense to me that there is a single being with aseity (that is, self-existent being) who is omnipresent and the creator of all things.
Of course, most of us these days come to our understanding of God from the Holy Scriptures of our chosen religion, and certainly within some branches of Christianity there is a tendency to downplay rational thinking about God in favour of having a childlike faith in what is revealed in the Bible. Many Christians see rational thinking as a kind of idol and argue that simple faith and relationship with Jesus is true religion, and we don’t need to spend time pondering questions about the nature of God – we just need to be obedient. For others, Christianity is a combination of faith and reason.
In any case, Xenophanes seems to have opened a door for critical thinking about the nature of God among freethinking philosophers in Ancient Greece.
Next week we’ll be looking at a big idea by another presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus. If you’d like to receive an email for each new post, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!