One Good God or Many Devious Deities?

πάντα θεοῖσ’ ἀνέθηκαν ῞Ομηρός θ’ ῾Ησίοδός τε,
ὅσσα παρ’ ἀνθρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,
κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν

ὡς πλεῖστ’ ἐφθέγξαντο θεῶν ἀθεμίστια ἔργα,

Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all kinds of
actions that incur disgrace and reproach among humans:
thievery, adultery, mutual deception … for they articulated
a great many unlawful activities of the gods.

Xenophanes Fragments 11-12

The floruit of the long life (c. 570 – c.480 B.C.) of Xenophanes lay in the period immediately preceding the fifth century, the so-called Golden Age of classical Greek culture.  A philosopher and poet, as the latter he carped at Homer and as the former he was an eminent precursor of the Platonic Socrates.

Xenophanes’ views on deity fascinate.  The overpowering influence of Homer and, to a lesser extent, his younger contemporary, Hesiod, was something all later poets felt, both in Greece and Rome, and had somehow to come to terms with.  For all the delight that we, like the ancients, take in the epic presentations to us of the gods on Olympus, it must be admitted that these often irascible, treacherous and cruel characters are hardly moral paradigms for human behavior.  How then to justify the enormous status they enjoyed in the popular imagination?

The tack taken by Xenophanes, as today’s epigraph suggests, was to attack, and to attack in a terminology not entirely unlike that of contemporary critics of the unseemly and the unsuitable in (literary) art.  Indeed, Xenophanes may perhaps be said to have fired the opening arrow in antiquity’s vigorous tradition of allegory that means to sanitize, a tactic happily adopted much later by early Christian intellectuals who, in a strategy to legitimate the study of the pagan classics, in the process helped to preserve many of these texts from the annihilating fervor of early book-burners – yes, these kinds of people have been around a long, long time!

The point that Xenophanes seems to be making is that the Homeric divinities are not to be taken seriously, for in their anthropomorphic incarnations they are merely figments of human imagination.  He notes, interestingly, in a later fragment (15) that

εἰ χεῖρας ἔχον βόες <ἵπποι τ’> ἠὲ λέοντες / ἢ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τελεῖν ἅπερ ἄνδρες
ei cheiras echon boes hippoi t’ ēe leontes / ē grapsai cheiressi kai erga telein haper andres

 “if cattle or horses or lions had hands or could write and draw and accomplish the same things that men do” then they would represent the gods as horselike, cattlelike or lionlike.

This observation by Xenophanes does not, I believe, give early expression to an indulgent cultural relativism on religious matters (of the kind that we find in the Greek historian Herodotus a few generations later), but rather mocks by an attempted reductio ad risum (“reducing the matter to laughter”) what he saw as Homer’s shockingly misguided views about the nature of the divine.

It is not so much that Xenophanes rejected polytheism as that he proclaimed a belief in a single deity who far surpassed all others in importance: εἷς θεὸς ἔν τε θεοῖσι καὶ ἀνθρώποισι μέγιστος heis theos en te theois kai anthrōpoisi megistos “There is one god greatest among gods and humans.”  This god is further characterized as morally good and wholly unlike humans in either physical shape (δέμας demas) or mental capacities (νόημα noēma).  The operations of this deity are in no way based on the often frantic and irrational emotions and motions of the Olympian gods in Homer but by an immobile (frgs. 25-26) and apparently ubiquitous presence whose primary instrument is anaphorically noncorporeal: οὖλος ὁρᾶι, οὖλος δὲ νοεῖ, οὖλος δέ τ’ ἀκούει oulos de noei, oulos de t’ akouei  “In his entirety he sees, in his entirety he thinks and in his entirety he hears.”

If not exactly Platonic in its details, this radically altered (from the Homeric and Hesiodic model) conception of the modus operandi of divinity is certainly a huge stride in the direction of Plato’s thinking about similar matters.

Ancient Greek and Roman religious experience was essentially polytheistic, but this is not the whole picture.  Xenophanes, for example, while not exactly a monotheist, at the same time does single out an overriding numinous guide of the universe, a view at variance with the polytheistic constructs in Homeric and later poetry, and certainly with actual cult practice in both Greece and Rome.

But it is worth noting that just as Xenophanes on an intellectual and moral level had difficulties with the pluralistic anthropomorphism of Homer, similarly in the larger society so-called “mystery” cults (which tended to concentrate on the importance of a single deity rather than an entire pantheon) came to occupy increasingly central positions in the quotidian life of the average individual throughout later Greek and Roman antiquity.

[Incidentally, I do not believe that the ‘innovative’ and far earlier Egyptian monotheism of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (= Akhenaten) in the fourteenth century BCE involving the sun god Ra was in any way responsible for these monotheistic views of Xenophanes almost a millennium later.]

Xenophanes, then, is a kind of proto-guru of what we might call literary criticism, ranking among the first overtly to find fault with Homer and adumbrating a concept of deity that would replace, centuries later, polytheism with monotheism in the religious convictions of uncounted millions.

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2 Responses to One Good God or Many Devious Deities?

  1. heather says:

    Does it take things too far if we say that what people write about the gods is a reflection of how they think? Too simplisitic?

  2. Don Baldwin says:

    One might wonder that this idea of a single dominate God prepared the way for the acceptance of the Christian religion. Was Xenophanes widely read in his time?

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