Xenophanes of Colophon was a traveling poet and philosopher who preceded Socrates by over a century. As is common with many pre-Socratic philosophers, there is little to go on when it comes to understanding Xenophanes. If he had written any extensive texts, they have not survived to this day. We instead must rely on a series of fragments attributed to the philosopher in order to understand his conception of God, which was a bit controversial for the time.
What was it that Xenophanes proposed that was so revolutionary? Well, keep in mind that he lived in the times of classical Greece. The gods of Olympus were the accepted and venerated deities of the land. Zeus and his pantheon of gods weren’t just characters in mythology, they were the central figures in a religion that would have been practiced with a level of sincerity similar to that found among devout Christians today.
If you are familiar with any Greek mythology, you will know that the Olympians were not paradigms for virtue. Zeus was notoriously promiscuous, going so far as to transform into animals in order to carry out extra marital affairs with mortal women. Poseidon was wrathful; his anger prompted him to bat Odysseus back and forth across the seas for years after the hero blinded his Cyclops son, Polyphemus.
The gods were known for, perhaps celebrated for their imperfections, temper tantrums, proclivity for bloody vengeance and all around questionable behavior. This understanding of the divine, however, is a grave injustice according to Xenophanes.
“Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men; and they told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and deception of each other.” -Xenophanes (fragment 7)
It is not just the bad behavior of the gods that Xenophanes believes to be inconsistent with the divine. He objects to the general anthropomorphizing of God and the belief that deities would, in any way, resemble mortals.
“But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man’s clothing and have human voice and body. But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own—horses like horses, cattle like cattle.” –Xenophanes (Fragments 5-6)
So Xenophanes, in rather bold fashion, takes to task the scripture of his day and openly criticizes the Greeks for their tendency to present their deities in such a negative and erroneous fashion. While Xenophones is indeed examining our tendency to anthropomorphize God, he also appears to be criticizing religiously minded people who triumph their belief system over others for no sound reason. This critique would have been especially true amongst the ancient Greeks who often championed their Olympians over the other, “barbarian” religions.
Xenophanes critique of the popular religion of the day no doubt had an influence on Socrates, a man who continued to question the plausibility of Olympian gods within Plato’s dialogue, The Euthyphro. It is within this dialogue that Socrates raises the question, “Do the gods love that which is pious because it is pious? Or is that which is pious, pious because the gods love it?” It’s a classic “chicken or egg” question that is never properly answered. It is a question that, once again, pokes holes in the dominant religion of the age.
While Xenophanes was indeed critical of popular religion, we must not assume that he believed all religions to be equally plausible. Moreover, we must not label Xenophanes an atheist; the man was anything but.
“God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in mind.The whole [of god] sees, the whole perceives, the whole hears. But without effort he sets in motion all things by mind and thought.” –Xenophanes (fragments 1-3)
Xenophonanes’ conception of God seems to be one that is more familiar to us. Rather than appealing to the Olympian deities, he proposes a God that is singular, all-knowing, all-powerful, and is responsible for the creation and continued existence of reality. Essentialy, Xenophanes is ticking off all the boxes that modern theologists use when examining God. That is to say that God, insofar as he or she is God, must be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
When it comes down to it, God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever present. In theology, these are known as “the three ‘O’s’”. Occasionally, theologists will add a fourth “O” and declare that God must also be omnibenevolent.
I hope this is all making sense.
Xenophanes’ conception of God has led some to consider him the first monotheist in the Western intellectual tradition. His critiques of popular religion have similarly won him the honor of being known as one of the first theologists in the history of Western philosophy.
However, we must come to the conclusion that what he was, truly, was a devout man who wished to lead others toward a spirituality based on reason and away from a religion cemented in tradition and superstition.