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Category Archives: Philosophers

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A New Way In to Plato’s Republic…

by July 23, 2021

By Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield
I grew up reading Ladybird books in the 1960s and 1970s, and feel a deep affection for them (and indeed still possess – and use – quite a few on British flora and fauna). So when I was asked if I wanted to write one for the new Ladybird Expert series, I leaped at the chance.
Choosing a topic was easy: in my role promoting the public (and my own!) understanding of philosophy, I have in recent years found myself turning more and more to Plato’s Republic to elucidate topics of urgent current concern. There is so much to learn from, for example, Plato’s brilliant and incisive analysis of how a democracy can be subverted to tyranny by a cynical and opportunistic demagogue, or his scathing exposé of sophists and their peddling of ‘alternative facts’. Deciding on the structure was also easy. The Ladybird Expert format is strict: precisely 24 pages of text (in a font which allows for ca. 270–290 words per page) and accompanying illustrations.
One of the UK’s classic Ladybird children’s books
Plato is a superb teacher. Starting with the fundamental questions, ‘Why should I be just? What’s in it for me?’, he guides us seamlessly through the ethical and political ramifications and shows how they can be answered only by exploring their roots in psychology, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics. All I had to do was trust the basic structure of The Republic itself, add a couple of introductory pages on Plato’s life, times and work, plus a conclusion on the abiding influence of The Republic in a wide variety of fields and its acute relevance for us today.
That was where the easy part ended. The Republic is an immensely rich, densely argued and in places very difficult dialogue, and I had to tick many boxes. My introduction needed to be clear, concise and engaging; I also wanted not just to summarize but also to raise questions for the reader to ponder – after all, Plato never writes in his own voice, but employs the dialogue form because he wants his readers to think for themselves. The summarizing was perhaps the hardest aspect of all. I once wrote a 90,000- word book on Plato called Plato and the Hero, and much of it was on The Republic. Condensing what I wanted to say to around 5,500 words was often painful: not just slicing away excess flesh but cutting into bone. I was counting not only words but characters and spaces, and was able to exceed the suggested word length simply by dint of using shorter words.
The 24 illustrations were also a challenge, although I loved collaborating with the immensely gifted and imaginative Angelo Rinaldi. I had to come up with the idea for each one, and I then worked closely with Angelo on details of design and colour. In fact, when being forced to cut out yet another metaphysical argument became too painful, I found solace in researching hairstyles or Pamphylian armour (for the Myth of Er) or what exact dyes were available in fifth-century Athens (when the dialogue is set, although Plato wrote it in the fourth century).
Another classic Ladybird book on Ancient Greece
I have always been interested in art, but coming up with ways to depict or suggest some of the philosophical subjects was not easy, particularly the perfect and eternal Forms (such as the Form of the Good), which cannot be apprehended by the senses. But I found that if I was cunning I could use the images not simply to convey atmosphere but to smuggle in additional information that there had not been room to include in the text.
I learned a lot. Although I have studied and written about The Republic for many years, I had not known much about how it was physically composed, copied and distributed around the Greek world (in the following century it appears in the great library in Alexandria); nor had I been fully aware of just how many individuals, disciplines and art forms it has influenced. The film The Matrix, for example, adapts the Simile of the Cave in its disturbing portrayal of humans unknowingly trapped in a fake reality.
All the evidence pointed to what I had long felt myself. Despite the fact that most of us find some of the proposals put forward by the character of Socrates too extreme – such as the abolition of the nuclear family amongst the Guardian class and, indeed, the totalitarian nature of the ideally just state in general – Plato nevertheless asks absolutely the right questions, and his devastating analysis of the moral and political ills of his day is still only too pertinent.
Furthermore, in moving away from a theory of justice conceived in terms of external actions towards a notion of justice as internal psychic harmony, he gives us one of the truly seminal turning-points in Western thought, and one which Freud acknowledges as fundamental to his own work. We may well profoundly disagree with some features of the ideal state that Socrates outlines, but The Republic remains a treasure trove and each new generation will be able to find much in it to illuminate the challenges it faces.
Originally published in ARGO: A Hellenic Review, Issue 10, 2019, Edited by Dr Daisy Dunn for the Hellenic Society https://www.hellenicsociety.org.uk/publications/argo/
Angie Hobbs can be heard on the BBC podcast, “In Our Time” discussing Marcus Aurelius HERE and will also be speaking at our Symposium in August

On God, An Extract from ‘How To Keep An Open Mind’

by June 8, 2021

Text by Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus (c. 160 – c. 210 AD) translated by Richard Bett, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Since most people have declared that god is a most active cause, let’s first examine god, with this preface—that following ordinary life without opinions, we say that there are gods and we worship gods and we say that they show providence; it’s against the rashness of the dogmatists that we say the following things.
[Note: ordinary Greek religion recognized a huge number of different gods, often at odds with one another. But philosophers, even if they recognized numerous distinct divine beings, tended to conceive of the divine as united in a single character and a single purpose. Hence it makes sense that Sextus uses the plural “gods” in speaking of his adherence to ordinary religion, but the singular when discussing dogmatic views.]
When we conceive objects, we ought to conceive their being—for example, whether they are bodies or incorporeal. But also their forms; no one could conceive a horse without first having learned the form of a horse. Also, what is conceived ought to be conceived as somewhere.
Well, since some of the dogmatists say that god is a body, others that he is incorporeal; and some that he is human in form, others not; and some that he is in a place, others not; and of those who say he is in a place, some say this is within the universe, some outside it; how are we going to be able to gain a conception of god, if we don’t have any agreement on his being, or his form, or a place he occupies?
God the Father, by Guercino
They should first agree on a common view, that god is such-and-such; only then, after giving us an outline of him, should they expect us to gain a conception of god. As long as they are in unresolved dispute, we don’t have from them any agreement on what we are to conceive.
But they say, once you have conceived something imperishable and blessed, consider that to be god. But this is silly. The person who doesn’t know Dion [note: often used as the name of an arbitrary person, like our Jane or John Doe] cannot conceive of his attributes, either, as those of Dion; in the same way, since we do not know the being of god, we also won’t be able to learn or conceive his attributes.
And aside from that, they should tell us what “blessed” is—is it what acts according to virtue and shows providence toward those things ranked below it, or is it what is inactive and neither has any trouble itself nor produces any for others? [Note: These are the Stoic and Epicurean conceptions of god respectively.] In fact, since they are in an unresolved dispute about this too, they have made us unable to conceive what’s blessed, and therefore also god.
But even allowing that god is conceived, it is necessary to suspend judgment on whether he exists or does not exist (as far as the dogmatists are concerned). That god exists is not clear on its face. If he came to our attention all by himself, the dogmatists would be of one voice on what he is, and of what kind, and where; but the unresolved dispute has made him seem to us to be unclear and in need of a demonstration.
Depiction of Sextus Empiricus.

Well, the person who demonstrates that there is a god demonstrates this either by means of something clear on its face or by means of something unclear. And there’s no way it can be by something clear on its face; for if what demonstrates that there is a god was clear on its face, then since what is demonstrated is conceived in relation to what does the demonstrating, and for that reason is grasped together with it, as we established, it will also be clear on its face that there is a god—that will be grasped together with what demonstrates it, which is clear on its face. [Note in reference to ‘as we have established’: this can be found in the discussion of demonstration in book II, which I have not included. But the very same point is made about signs at II.125; see n.5 in chapter 4. (The argument is just as fishy here.)]

But it is not clear on its face, as we mentioned; therefore it is not demonstrated by means of something clear on its face. But not by something unclear either. For the unclear thing that has the job of demonstrating that there is a god will be in need of demonstration. If it is said to be demonstrated by something clear on its face, it will no longer be unclear but clear on its face. The unclear thing that has the job of demonstrating it is therefore not demonstrated by something clear on its face.
But not by something unclear either; for the person who says this will fall into an infinite regress—we’ll always be asking for a demonstration of the unclear point brought up as a demonstration of the one offered the previous time.
Therefore it cannot be demonstrated that there is a god from something else. But if it’s neither clear on its face by itself, nor is it demonstrated by something else, we will not be in a position to grasp whether there is a god.
There is also this to be said. The person who says that there is a god says either that he has providence for the things in the universe, or that he does not; and if he does have providence, it’s either for everything or for just some things. But if he had providence for everything, there wouldn’t be anything bad or any flaw in the universe; yet they say that everything is full of flaws; therefore god won’t be said to have providence for everything.
Painting of god, author unknown
But if he has providence for just some things, why does he have providence for these things and not those? For either he both wants and is able to have providence for everything; or he wants to but is not able to; or he is able to but doesn’t want to; or he neither wants nor is able to. But if he both wanted to and was able to, he would have providence for everything; but he doesn’t have providence for everything, given what was just said; therefore it’s not that he both wants and is able to have providence for everything.
If he wants to but is not able to, he is weaker than what causes him to be unable to have providence for the things he doesn’t have providence for; but it goes against the conception of god for him to be weaker than anything. If he can have providence for everything, but doesn’t want to, he must be considered to be malicious. And if he neither wants to nor can, he is both malicious and weak; but people who say that about god are impious. Therefore god does not have providence for the things in the universe.
Source: Wikimedia
But if he doesn’t show providence for anything, and he doesn’t do any work or accomplish anything, one will not be able to say how it is grasped that there is a god, seeing that he is neither apparent by himself nor is grasped by means of some accomplishments. For these reasons too, therefore, we are not in a position to grasp whether there is a god.
From these points we reckon that those who say with full commitment that there is a god are probably forced into impiety. If they say that he has providence for everything, they will be saying that god is a cause of bad things, while if they say that he has providence for just some things, or even for nothing, they will be forced to say that god is either malicious or weak—and people who say these things are quite clearly impious.
This extract from the book “How to Keep An Open Mind” (Princeton University Press, 2021) was published with the permission of the author.

Hesiod and Anaximander In Comparison

by March 26, 2021

Written by Nicholaos Jones, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Ancient Greek philosophy begins in Miletus, an illustrious Greek colony along the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. Before the Milesian philosophers, however, there were the mythic poets. The history of ancient Greek philosophy is, in some sense, a history of breaking with the strategy these poets use to explain why things are they way they are.

Homer (c. 750 BCE) is the best known of the mythic poets. For purposes of comparison with the Milesians, however, Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) is more relevant. Hesiod’s Theogony offers an account for the origin of the gods—from the beginning of the world, through various battles among the gods, to the rise of Zeus and the birth of Zeus’ children. The explanatory strategy is genealogical.

First there is Chasm, a yawning gap or void space.

Chaos, by George Frederic Watts, around 1875

Earth appears as a flat disk within this gap, and the underworld appears beneath as an enclosed space to contain the roots of what might grow upon the surface. Love appears as well, a procreative force responsible for generating offspring from parents.

Bosch’s Creation of the World, by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz

Then Chasm and Earth undergo parthenogenesis, reproduction without fertilization. From Chasm come Gloom and Night. From Earth, at first, comes Sky; then, soon after, Hills and Sea. Love’s intervention prompts incestuous union between Chasm and Night, begetting Brightness and Day. Earth and Sky give birth to the encircling Ocean and the brute, uncontrollable titanic forces that shape the land contained therein.

Chaos, The Genesis, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1841

 The titans, in time, beget the gods and goddesses. The divinities, in turn, intervene within the realm of mortals, enacting their whimsical and capricious wills.

Hesiod’s account is not scientific, in our sense of scientific. But it is systematic, because each begotten individual has its own powers and its own domain of rule. It is also explanatory; these powers account for phenomena such as earthquakes (Poseidon shaking the earth below the sea) and storms (Zeus hurling thunderbolts).

Mythical depiction, artist unknown

The history of ancient Greek philosophy is, in some sense, a history of breaking with Hesiod’s explanatory strategy. The first Greek philosopher whose writing we actually have is the Milesian Anaximander (610 BCE – 546 BCE).

Anaximander offers an account of the origins of the world that illustrates a new style of explanation—a philosophical, and perhaps even scientific, style. Unlike Hesiod, Anaximander does not invoke interactions among divine entities. Instead, he restricts himself to interactions among natural processes.

Wood-inlay image representing chaos magnum, the “great gulf” (Luke 16:26), in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, Italy. By Giovan Francesco Capoferri, based on a design by Lorenzo Lotto.

Anaximander calls the original state of the world apeiron. This he defines as a primordial stuff that secretes, or separates out, polarities such as hot and cold. These powers, unlike the primordial stuff, are definite and bounded. Because each one has a definite identity that excludes its contrary, these powers are thereby bounded (or limited) by its opposite. The apeiron, in contrast, excludes nothing and therefore has no definite identity or function.

After the apeiron secretes the contraries, it steers (kubernein) them into a structured order—akin to the way a pilot steers a ship in a specific direction, or a leader steers a group into a team. The result is a muddy nucleus surrounded by a layer of air and, further out, a shell of fire. When this structured mass bursts, the fire separates into a series of concentric rings of flame. The outermost ring is the sun; the middle, the moon; the inner rings, stars. Air surrounds the rings, making them mostly invisible. But the air contains holes. Fire from the outermost ring of the sun passes through the largest of these holes, separating the muddy nucleus into earth and sea. The holes also move, and their motion explains the regular appearance and disappearance of the celestial bodies.

Anaximander’s cosmogony retains significant parallels with Hesiod’s. According to Hesiod, creation proceeds from Chasm to Gaia, then onward to opposing powers which beget the separation of the celestial and terrestrial realms, and from there the structures of the earth. Although Anaximander abandons Hesiod’s mythological posits, he retains the general structure of Hesiod’s explanatory sequence, conceptualizing creation as proceeding from the apeiron to the separation of air from earth, onward to rings of fire and their separation into heavenly bodies, and finally to the separation of air from sea.

Despite this general similarity, there are significant dissimilarities of detail. For example, according to Hesiod, Chasm is dark, surrounds its creation, and persists within the creation. By contrast, according to Anaximander, the apeiron is none of these. Hesiod also conceptualizes three basic forces—Chasm, Gaia, and Eros. By contrast, Anaximander replaces Chasm with boundless, yet orderly, erotic attraction (Eros).

Moreover, Hesiod presents his account as authoritative because it comes from the Muses. Anaximander’s account, by contrast, derives its authority from the capacity of others to follow his reasoning, to assent or demur from the intelligibility of his conclusions without regard for divine inspiration.

We are prone nowadays to treat scientific inquiry as radically different from mythology. Comparing Hesiod and Anaximander reveals intimations of these differences. Hesiod grounds his inquiries upon private inspiration, and his explanations appeal to divine action. Anaximander, by contrast, grounds his inquiries upon public reason, and his explanations appeal to impersonal forces. Yet comparing Hesiod and Anaximander also reveals that Anaximander’s scientific approach is continuous with Hesiod’s mythological approach. Anaximander’s explanatory concerns closely resemble Hesiod’s, and the structure of Anaximander’s explanations imitates the structure of Hesiod’s. This is, perhaps, some reason for treating scientific inquiry as mythology matured rather than mythology abandoned.

Melissus of Samos: Philosopher and Admiral

by February 24, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Too often, students of philosophy are only aware of the great names in ancient Greek philosophy. There are many lesser-known philosophers who developed remarkable arguments that are still relevant today. One of these is the somewhat mysterious figure of Melissus of Samos. Not only was he a great thinker he was also a successful military man who even reportedly defeated the Athenians.

Life of Melissus of Samos

The Isle of Samos

There are few details about the life of Melissus of Samos, but he was believed born on the Aegean Island of Samos about 500 BC. At the time of his birth, Samos was an important naval and trading power. It appears that Melissus was a student of philosophy and was also probably a member of the Samian elite. Sources indicate that he studied under the great Parmenides of Elea, founder of the Eleatic school. Melissus likely traveled to Elea (located in modern-day southern Italy) to study under Parmenides.

At some point he returned to Samos, where he became a military commander and is thought to have become active in local politics. In 440 AD, Samos was an independent state within the Delian League dominated by Athens. The Athenians had effectively turned the Delian League into an extension of their empire. That same year, the Athenians attempted to fully conquer the island. It appears that Melissus, presumably a member of the oligarchic party, was given command of the Samian navy.

He is reported to have inflicted at least one if not two defeats on the Athenians under Pericles. However, Athens ultimately triumphed. Samos was absorbed into the empire and a democratic government imposed on the island. It is not known if Melissus played a part in the failed oligarchic counter-revolution that, with Persian support, tried to oust the Athenians and their democratic allies.

It appears that Melissus also taught philosophy and among his students was the future atomist Leucippus. The date of the Samian philosopher’s death is not known. It appears that he was well-known in his own lifetime.

Philosophy of Melissus of Samos

Melissus wrote a short treatise called On Nature of which extensive fragments have survived. His theories were also referenced in works by other philosophers.

Melissus was regarded as the third member of the Eleatic School, alongside Parmenides and Zeno (best known for his paradoxes). This was a school of Pre-Socratic thought that was established in Elea in the fifth century BC in what is now Veila in southern Italy. Their ontological theory was that everything was one, a theory known as monism. The Eleatics, however, proposed a radical monism in which everything is considered part of a whole, including material, living things. For them, the one is eternal and indivisible. In a significant departure from other pre-Socratic philosophers, the Eleatics valued reason over observation.

By and large, Melissus followed Parmenides and the second great Eleatic, Zeno. Melissus’ philosophy was distinctive in that he believed his predecessors did not fully address the issue of motion or the distinction between being and non-being. Unlike Parmenides, he did not believe that the one was an unchanging present. Melissus held that the one was eternal, that it had always existed and was indestructible. He also argued that it was unlimited, stretching out in all directions and that void, or nothingness, did not exist.

Melissus was a pioneer in applying the deductive method of reasoning.  His arguments were very rigorous. At times he seems to suggest that the one is identical with the non-material, referring to it as incorporeal and disembodied.

Influence of Melissus

Ancient ruins of Elea, Italy.

Melissus’ work greatly contributed to the Eleatic School. However, some thinkers, such as Aristotle, ridiculed his claims. If it is true that Melissus taught Leucippus, this suggests he was influential in his own time, especially with the Atomists. The Atomists believed that the world was composed of tiny indivisible atoms and their arguments were clearly influenced by radical monism.

The Sophists were also inspired by Melisuss’ use of deductive reasoning; they used it to prove that nothing existed, as was typical of their nihilism. The Sceptics too were influenced by the deductions of the Samian and his distrust of empirical investigations. They used one of Melissus’ arguments to show that knowledge of the external world was unreliable.

Conclusion

Melisuss of Samos may not be a household name in Greek philosophy, but his contributions were real and substantial. He arguably presented the most logically rigorous version of radical monism. His method of reasoning was also important, influencing the theories of the Atomists, Sophists and Sceptics.

References:

Barnes, Jonathan (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers. New York: Routledge.

Russell, Bertrand (1990) The History of Western Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge

Philo of Alexandria, Jewish Philosopher

by February 23, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Many ancient societies were deeply influenced by Graeco-Roman Civilization, including early Judaic culture. The exchange between them produced important thinkers in Judaism, among them the philosopher Philo. He is perhaps the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism whose works had a decisive influence on later Christian thinkers.

The Life of Philo

A print of Philo of Alexandria from a 16th century French text

The exact date of Philo’s birth is not known, but it may have been about 20 BC. He was born into an influential family in Alexandria, Egypt, home at that time to one of the largest Jewish communities in the diaspora. His brother went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the city and even had connections with the imperial family during the reigns of Nero and Claudius.

Philo was brought up in a pious Jewish household and would have studied the Bible and Jewish scholarly works. Alexandria was, at the time, a cultural melting pot of Greeks, Jews and Egyptians. Thus, Philo was deeply influenced by Greek culture and was a student of Hellenic philosophy. He was also a Roman citizen and could speak and read Greek, as was the case with St. Paul, with whom he has some affinities. 

Philo was a devoted Jew and visited the Second Temple in Jerusalem at least once in his life. The only event that we know of in any detail is his role in an embassy to the infamous emperor Caligula. Rome’s Prefect in Egypt had ordered the Jews to worship Caligula as god, part of an empire-wide imperial cult. This, of course, was contrary to the strict monotheism of the Jews. The order also came at a time of conflict between the Greeks and the Jews in the city of Alexandria. In 38 AD, many Jews were killed in the city in what was possibly the first-known pogrom.

Caligula

The Alexandrine Jewish community elected Philo, who was very well-respected, to lead a delegation to Rome and to plead with the Emperor to rescind the Prefect’s orders. Miraculously, Philo was able to persuade Caligula not to force the Jews to worship him or to set up his image in their temples. It is believed that Philo died about 50 AD.

The Theology of Philo

Philo was deeply influenced by Plato and like Plato, he believed that a life of contemplation was superior. The Alexandrine thinker was also influenced by the Stoics, Aristotle and the Cynics. Philo was something of a mystic, believing that a transcendent god could be known by intuition.  He also believed that certain numbers, such as seven, had particular religious significance.

Philo believed the purpose of existence was to strive to know god. He held that a supreme being had implanted in humans an innate love of him, allowing humans to achieve a personal union with the divine.

Philo also believed that reason and religion were not incompatible. He used the concept of Logos, or reason, in a new way. It had long been argued that the Logos referred to the rational ordering of the universe. However, Philo argued that Logos, or reason, was begotten of god and was associated with him. In some of Philo’s works Logos is the mediator between the human mind and the divine. He believed that using reason to understand the world also allowed humans to comprehend the transcendent. The Alexandrine thinker also believed that fate could be suspended, allowing miracles to occur. Unfortunately, the philosopher was a poor writer, and his thoughts are often obscure.

Philo and the Bible

Philo was famous for his exegesis, or interpretation, of the Bible. He was very influenced by Greek philosophy—unlike many of his contemporary Jews, Philo did not reject it. He believed that the truths of Plato and the other philosophers were not incompatible with those of the Bible. He found an ingenious way to synthesize Greek thought with the Hebrew Bible, or Torah: allegory. Philo believed that interpreting the Torah and the Bible in an allegorical way allowed the deeper meaning of the texts to be discovered. His commentaries on the Jewish Patriarchs, such as Moses, were also widely read.

Philo’s Influence

A German woodcut showing Philo of Alexandria

Philo was highly respected by the early Christians. His ideas on Logos were especially influential in Christianity; many consider Philo’s works instrumental to the development of the doctrine of the holy spirit, who along with the god the father and son form the trinity in Christian belief. His views on miracles were also influential among Christians.

Philo also wrote an account called De Vita Contemplativa about groups of Egyptian ascetics known as the Therapeutae, whom some believe were Buddhists monks. This work is believed to have greatly influenced the subsequent development of Christian monasticism. Philo’s belief that reason and faith were not incompatible had a profound impact on the development of Christian theology.

While many Jews reject Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the sacred texts, he did influence the Midrash school of Jewish exegesis, which led to the development of a large body of Rabbinic commentaries.

Conclusion

Philo of Alexandria was a man of two worlds who sought to harmonize Judaism and Greek philosophy. This proved very important, even radical. His concepts and ideas greatly influenced early Christianity. Finally, Philo’s ideas on interpretation also had an impact on both Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Bible.

References:

Seland, T. (Ed.). (2014). Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

 

Xenophanes: The Most Scandalous Philosopher of Ancient Greece

by May 13, 2020

Written by Mariami Shanshashvili, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Plato’s Euthyphro is centered around Socrates’ attempts to examine and define the concept of piety. In the course of conversation, he develops a central and somewhat scandalous argument: what is holy is not the same as what the gods do or approve. In fact, the gods ‘sin’ and engage in immoral behavior a lot – they murder, steal, cheat, wage wars, and act out of spite.

Socrates often pointed out how Greece’s most beloved poets – Homer and Hesiod – depicted the gods as all too human, but the first ancient Greek thinker to make radical claims about this matter was Xenophanes of Colophon.

Although appearance of the first philosophers in ancient Greece was all about the emergence of unconventional and nontraditional ways of thinking, Xenophanes could still be justifiably viewed as one of the most – if not the most – unorthodox and even scandalous figure of his era.

There were two things an ancient Greek would never doubt: first, that the gods are in charge of everything and everyone, and second, that we know this because they themselves disclosed it to us. The sun, rainbows, and the very earth we are walking on were believed to be gods and goddesses. Every natural phenomenon was ascribed to some property of a deity; every historical event and fate of an individual race or man was explained as the result of the will of the Olympians.

assembly of the gods

Assembly of 20 gods in Olympus, a painting by Raphael

And how did they know? Muses told them so. Invocation of the Muses served as a traditional and commonplace poetic tool: when a poet wanted to authenticate the truth of his claims, he called on Muses so they would act as witnesses and provide assertion.

This is how Homer opens both of his epic poems: he addresses divine agency. It should not be hard to guess that the ancient Greeks were not very fond of people who dared to doubt their undoubtable beliefs – think of the trials of Socrates or Anaxagoras – and unfortunately, this is exactly what philosophers tend to do.

The first thing the first philosophers did was ask for well-grounded, sound arguments for every claim. Appealing to divine authority did not strike them as a very compelling argument. However, some of the early Greek philosophers still partly accepted conventional religious teachings and even referred to the divine authority.

Socrates' Death

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Anaximenes, for example, allegedly said that there are gods, exactly as Greek religion acknowledged, but that they come from air (his Cosmic principle) as well as the rest of the universe. And Parmenides, one of the most ahead-of-his-time thinkers, begins his poem by depicting a divine revelation.

So most of early philosophers did not entirely give up on the traditional gods and divination, but threw down a challenge to the conventional notion of the divine. As Cicero states, Xenophanes was the only one among the most ancient philosophers who, while basing his whole philosophy on the existence of the divine entity, launched a direct attack on the popular religion and “did away with divination from its very foundation.”

Xenophanes was an itinerant poet and philosopher from a small Ionian town of Colophon. He is reported to have had quite a storm-tossed life as he was banished from his homeland, was sold into slavery, and buried his sons with his own hands.

Xenophanes

Fictionalized portrait of Xenophanes from a 17th-century engraving

Despite his manifold interests, he is primarily remembered for his critique of traditional religious concepts, and as professor Peter Adamson aptly words it, “in doing so, he inaugurated a not-always-friendly rivalry between Greek religion and Greek philosophy that will persist right through Plato and Aristotle”.

Xenophanes found the traditional understanding of the divine to be inherently flawed and he chiefly blamed Homer and Hesiod for disseminating these widely accepted misconceptions. He writes,

“Both Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds which among men are matters of reproach and blame: thieving, adultery, and deceiving one another” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.193)

Homer Singing for the People

Homer Singing for the People

And indeed, it seems like the Greeks imagined their gods in their own image: the gods were born, wore clothes, ate, indulged themselves with sexual adventures, and looked like men, just much more beautiful and perfect. Realizing this, Xenophanes observes:

“If horses had hands, or oxen or lions, or if they could draw with their hands and produce works as men do, then horses would draw figures of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would render the bodies to be of the same frame that each of them have.” (Clement, Miscellanies 5.110;).

The point is that humans have a tendency to attribute their own characteristics to the divine entities; in other words, humans think of their gods as all too human. Xenophanes believed it was disrespectful to the gods to conceptualize them as being subject to human weaknesses and illicit acts. It is the same as ascribing imperfections to the perfect being – which, without doubt, does not make any sense.

Artemision Bronze

Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon from Artemision, Euboea. ca. 460 BC.

The writings of Xenophanes are not limited to such criticism, he also offered a pretty systematic account of divine nature, which attracts special interest for its unique and ground-breaking perspective. How likely is it of a man from 6th century BC to develop ideas highly similar to the monotheistic understanding of the Christian god? Amidst the classical polytheistic convictions of his society, whose gods are born, have bodies, and resemble men, Xenophanes formed the notion of a god

“greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought.” (Clement, Miscellanies, 5.109;).

Even though the reference to the “gods” in plural raises a question about whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or polytheist (some scholars even designate him as a pantheist), it is certain that Xenophanean image of the god is set apart from traditional polytheistic convictions and falls on the spectrum of the monotheistic paradigm.

Geometer god

God as architect of the world, folio 1 verso of a moralized Bible, from Paris, France, ca 1220-1230, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is more likely that he means lesser deities in the plural form of “gods”. Throughout the records of Xenophanes, only one god, a single divine entity, is presented as the perfect, almighty being who holds sway over the whole universe.

“. . whole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears. . . (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144;).

“Always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all, nor is it fitting that [he] come and go to different places at different times. . . but completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics 23.10; 23.19;).

All of the characteristics Xenophanes ascribes to the god – omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, immobility, incorporeality (spirituality) – are the typical attributes of a monotheistic deity. He prefigured the ideas which still lay centuries ahead.

Anselm

A late 16th-century engraving of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury. In his Proslogion (1078 AD), St. Anselm proposed the first ontological argument for the existence of God in the Western tradition.

Another key aspect of Xenophanes’ philosophy is his remarkable contribution to epistemology (the theory of knowledge). He opposes the traditional understanding of divination by claiming that,

“by no means did the gods intimate all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, inquiring, they discover better.” (Stobaeus, Selections 1.8.2;).

Xenophanes suggests that it is unreasonable of men to expect divine disclosure about the things they seek to know. Moreover, he raises questions about the nature and possibility of sure and certain knowledge. There he makes a fundamental distinction between knowledge and belief/opinion, a theme which will be later taken up, for instance, by Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle, and is one of the most important problems in philosophy as a whole.

“…and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen. Nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things. For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass, still he himself would not know. But opinion is allotted to all.” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 7.49.110;).

Plato's Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Plato’s allegory of the cave, told to us in the Republic, is a thought experiment that is used to this day to illustrate the limits of our knowledge about the world as it is in itself.

It is important to note that by this, Xenophanes does not necessarily reject the possibility of any kind of knowledge, but rather reproves dogmatism and acknowledges boundaries of the dimension of human knowledge. Even though our epistemic status is limited, we can still form opinions and inquire about things. As F.R. Pickering notes,

“Xenophanes is a natural epistemologist, who claims that statements concerning the non-evident realm of the divine as well as the far-reaching generalizations of natural sciences cannot be known with certainty but must remain the objects of opinion.”

Ancient Greeks, on the one hand, had poets who provided answers for all of their questions and, on the other hand, had a poet philosopher who tried to awaken them from their ´dogmatic slumber´ by casting doubts on their answers and asking questions, the relevance of which would persist for centuries to come.

Resources: 

  1. Adamson, Peter. A History of Philosophy Without any Gaps: Classical Philosophy.
  2. Cohen, Mark, Patricia Curd and C.D.C Reeve. Reading in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. NOTE: all the passages of Xenophanes are cited from this book.
  3. Tor, Shaul. Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology.
  4. Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/xenophanes/>
  5. Patzia, Michael, “Xenophanes”.