Tag Archives: proto-monotheism

Was Xenophanes a proto-monotheist?

This topic seems to have been in discussion lately and John Beckett published on it a few days since. I think it is a part of a larger topic of huge importance about early Greek philosophy (of the religious or secular form or indeed a mixture of both). I will stick to the man and also touch on the movement. Now, we have many fragments about Xenophanes, as well as a historical period to which he was contemporary, that allow us to form a clear view of the man’s ideas and let me add, motives. We know that he lived after Homer and Hesiod, and was very bold to criticize them: “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another.” Xenophanes belonged to a movement, anticipated a little by Hesiod, which criticized the old ideas and traditions (including mythology and anthropomorphism) while searching for a universal “Truth”. What surprises me is that Xenophanes doesn’t try to allow Homer and Hesiod much credit, or attempt at least (using the very “critical thinking” he seemingly wishes to distinguish himself by) to allegorize some myths and their import. Nor is there any constructive criticism; Xenophanes boldly attacks his renowned predecessors (somewhat like his contemporary and  Heraclitus, who said “Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped”) and without much reason. First of all, Homer and Hesiod were widely acclaimed throughout Greece, and deservedly so, because they wrote beautifully and wisely, including about the Gods. Very few doubted that they did anything wrong, either artistically or theologically, and if objections were raised, reverence was most likely shown. Secondly, Xenophanes’ movement owed part of its existence to some of Hesiod’s new ideas which were in opposition to Homer’s. Greece had already begun to change and it seems Xenophanes was a thorough individualist who sought to have his own ideas spread, in order to “reform” a Greece that had been “corrupted” in its religious thinking. We know from another fragment that he travelled throughout Greece for 67 years, most probably for that purpose. His main concern was anthropomorphism, which we can infer from three fragments on the topic:

“But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.”

“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.”*

“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.”

One cannot be exactly certain where this new idea against anthropomorphism first arose and why**, but it was undoubtedly damaging to polytheism in the long run. The traditional view of mythology and cultic practice was that the Gods were represented in a form similar to the people who worshipped them. This has universally been done throughout all polytheistic cultures. Indeed, it’s an obvious and necessary thing for ritual practice that wouldn’t have been questioned in the first place by someone who cared about ancestral and cultic continuity as well as the sanctity of religious tradition, rather than an individual opinion. That Xenophanes objected to such a common and strongly established cultural/theological/mythological norm inevitably gives the impression that he was either unduly confused or ambitious. It’s not wrong to suspect someone who objects to what everyone else does in an environment that was entirely original, that is to say, where there wasn’t anything previously lost in order to be restored (which we polytheists are doing today). Instead of enjoying his travels by expanding his knowledge of the distinctions in regional Greek practice, he sought to teach everyone how they were mistaken and needed improvement. In one fragment, he says “The Gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning, but by seeking they find in time what is better.” Well, how could Xenophanes be so sure he was “better” and everyone else was less so in regard to this point of anthropomorphism? Apparently he wasn’t better by his own admission, as we can see from another fragment:

“There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the Gods and about all the things I speak of. Even if he should chance to say the complete truth, yet he himself knows not that it is so. But all may have their fancy.”

I must say I commend the frankness of Xenophanes here, because unlike so many other philosophers, he conceded that the “Truth” in a universal sense was really unattainable. One ought to acknowledge that he was honest about the reality of where intellectual universalism always ends, i.e. uncertainty. Each culture has its own ideas and traditions, and therefore it would be impossible, not to mention unfair, to attempt to bring them all under one system, especially an arbitrary one derived from individual conception. This is why we have pluralism inherent in polytheism; just as there are many Gods, there are many traditions, and just as the Gods are venerated, the traditions should also be respected. The essence of polytheism is far more continuity of ancestral practice rather than refining conceptions about the divine in a universal manner. Xenophanes contradicts himself and undermines his validity when he simultaneously attacks Hesiod, Homer, as well as anthropomorphism, and in effect doubts what he is saying. This makes Xenophanes somewhat of a skeptic. But now let us move to the more relevant question of proto-monotheism. Xenophanes was far removed from the time of Akhenaten, an undisputed monotheist or proto-monotheist, depending on interpretation. Yet he was part of a new movement in Greece, originating in Ionia, the same region where the first philosophy of Thales and his Milesian school developed. It was a prosperous, commercial region where commodities and ideas were exchanged among Eastern Mediterranean cultures and somewhat beyond. Thales, like Xenophanes’ contemporary Pythagoras, is known to have travelled abroad. In encountering various cultures and their differences, he must have had the negative reaction of doubting his own beliefs because of plurality rather than the positive reaction of admiring that very plurality. From this doubt, which Xenophanes shared also from extensive travels (albeit Hellenic) he sought a greater “Truth” that explained this new, large world he experienced. Everything, he must have thought, was related and had a common origin, and therefore it was only prolonged isolation and merely popular tradition that led to differences, which “covered” this primal “Truth”, which was equated to natural elements. This anticipates the rise of monotheism (one could also say deism) in its second form, i.e. the intellectual form that differed from the earlier quasi-political & imperialistic form under Akhenaten**. Xenophanes gives a strong impression of this proto-monotheism, when he states the following in several fragments:

“One God, the greatest among Gods and men, neither in form like unto mortals nor in thought . . . .”

“He sees all over, thinks all over, and hears all over.

“But without toil he swayeth all things by the thought of his mind.”

“And he abideth ever in the selfsame place, moving not at all; nor doth it befit him to go about now hither now thither.”

Now this is not monotheism, but only an earlier anticipatory form of it. Xenophanes is still a “polytheist” but he is also making a transition unto something else. The phrase “One God, the greatest among Gods and men”, looks like ambiguous evidence, but it is the first term ‘One God’ that really holds almost all the weight, especially if we also consider the three latter fragments. Some philosophers, like the Orphics contemporary to them, accorded to the ruling God (in this case Zeus, but sometimes they held the God to be a natural element) greater powers than ever before, and although they did acknowledge other Gods, the status of those Gods now dwindled in the rising supremacy of the Head. The “Mind” was now absolutely supreme and pure in the order of things, and intellect, not ritual or prayer or festivals, was the way to reach it. As M.L. West explains in an article from the book Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity:

“Empedocles describes a God who does not have human form—no head, no arms, no feet, no knees, no hairy genitals—but consists simply of a marvelous holy mind, darting across the whole universe with its swift thoughts. This may remind us of Xenophanes’ and Heraclitus’ accounts of a disembodied intelligence; but they were speaking of a unique being, whereas Empedocles‘ description may have been applicable to any of the life-long Gods…The philosopher who first gives us a clear statement of the role of the controlling Mind in the material universe is Anaxagoras, who is a little older than Empedocles. Like Heraclitus [and most probably his contemporary Xenophanes also–my note], he emphasizes that Mind or Intellect is something separate from everything else. He says it is unlimited, unalloyed, homogeneous, eternal, autonomous, the finest and purest of all substances, with knowledge of everything and the greatest power, governing all living beings, and responsible for initiating the rotation of the cosmos, which led to the separation of all things from the original mixture and continues to be productive in the same way…Here we have a single power, uniquely responsible for shaping the world we know. There is no mention of other Gods. We might say that here at last is a clear case of a monotheistic system, except that it is difficult to justify treating Anaxagoras’ Nous [the Mind] as divine…Nevertheless, theistic or not, his system interestingly illustrates the tendency to look for a single, intelligent governing power in the world”.

Michael Frede adds the following in his article from the same book, when he speaks of the continued developments of Aristotle to the concept of the “one God” above:

“Given that it is clear that there is a substantial sense in which Aristotle believes in one God, though there are many other things he is prepared to call ‘divine’, let us consider these…It is part of the order of the universe which depends on the first unmoved mover [Nous/the Mind] that there be immaterial substances, pure unembodied minds who, being immortal, enjoy eternal bliss contemplating the first unmoved mover and the order which depends on him…[As for Plato’s position in Timaeus] So there is one God, but there are also other beings which are called ‘divine’, though they are created, because they are by Divine grace immortal and enjoy a good life. But they only exist as part of God’s creation and they are immortal and hence divine only due to God’s benevolence or grace, that is to say they owe their very divinity to God. So far, then, the Platonist account, in its essential features, is very much like that of Aristotle and that of the Stoics.”

What we see here is proto-monotheism through and through, where the status of the other Gods is reduced subserviently (one may say blasphemously) to that of “angels”, dwarfish beings in comparison with the absolute, supreme God. There are those who may object (and perhaps even quibble) in the defense of Xenophanes or others, by stating that this was merely another form of polytheism and not proto-monotheism at all. Such an objection is rather inane, because if that kind of reasoning is used, Christianity itself becomes a form of polytheism too, except for the thin partition of intolerance that divides them apart. This fluidity was actually present in Late Antiquity, when all what differed between a Neoplatonist and a Christian was really not so much the point of whether there is one or many Gods, but whether Jesus was the savior and intercessor. The Christian author Augustine points this out in The City of God:

“If the Platonists prefer to call these ‘gods’ [lower case ‘g’ for emphasizing lower status] rather than ‘daemons’ and to count them among those of whom their founder and master Plato writes that they are Gods created by the highest God, let them say what they wish. For one should not engage with them in a controversy of words. For if they say that they are not blessed by themselves, but by being attached to him who has created them, then they say precisely what we say, whichever word they may use for them”

For fear of falling into this trap of quibbling where evidence is otherwise strong, I must therefore state in conclusion that Xenophanes is certainly a polytheist, but at the same time he is undoubtedly a proto-monotheist or a proto-deist or both, depending on your interpretation.



*It’s easy to detect a satirical, overbearing tone here, and one that does our friend Xenophanes no credit at all, but rather weakens his case.

**Akhenaten’s defacing and prohibiting of divine images is known, but no connection has been established with Greece. Nevertheless, we know the Greek minds whose new ideas paved the way against anthropomorphism, i.e. Thales, the first philosopher who equated Gods with elements, and who was followed later widely by fellow philosophers. Even earlier than Thales, a problem with anthropomorphism was already anticipated from the Theogony of Hesiod, wherein he shows that traditional, anthropomorphic Gods that were worshipped, were preceded by earlier generations of non-anthropomorphic and non-cultic Gods, and in a few cases, allegorical Gods that represented the forces of nature. See Hack’s article on Hesiod in his work God in Greek philosophy.

***The two forms were later to combine very destructively under the Emperor Constantine and again under Mohammed.