Here is a fairly fresh essay I composed for my Ancient Philosophy class. This essay is the intellectual property of myself and if you like any of my ideas/arguments, please let me know before you quote anything from it. This is just a class paper, so don’t jump on it too harshly either. I’m proud of my first paper being back in college. So here ya go!
Xenophanes against the Notions of Hellenic Deity (Word Count 998)
Xenophanes’s many contributions to early philosophy must include his critic of the Homeric gods, primarily sung and written by Homer and Hesiod. While some analyses of the critic may approach from a softer angle, the fragments seem to indicate a clear notion of the rejection of the Hellenic gods in both physical manifestation and essential identity traits fundamental to their role in Hellenic worship. His views are far more monotheistic instead of either polytheistic, as most Hellenic worshipers were, or even henotheism, which could be a possible alternative for a monotheistic viewpoint; however, his clear rejection of the Hellenic gods rules out the possibility of anything other than a monotheistic deity.
As the birth is the beginning of the human cycle, it is appropriate to begin discussion of Xenophanes’s rejection of Hesiod and Homer’s gods and their principle essence at their origins. The gods of the classical Hellenists were not always present. The Olympians and lesser deities all have origin stories associated with them, the beginning of the world usually associated with Chaos and Gaia (Hesiod, Theogony, ll.116-138). Yet, both of these entities came into being; they were not automatically assumed to always have existed. It is from these two forces, Chaos and Earth, that then spawned Eros (love), Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night). From these five gods were almost all others born, with few exceptions (the exceptions including imported gods whose origin stories were later created to fit into the origin of the Hellenic Gods). It is an essential quality of all Hellenistic deities to be born from something, as everyone has their place in the origin, even if the stories differ.
This origin is essential to their identity- what would Zeus be without usurping his father and his father usurping his before that? For many of the gods, part of their ‘portfolio’ or reigning realms of rule, derive from their place in the origins of the cosmology. This idea of origin is where Xenophanes has a fundamental disagreement with the popular Homeric gods of the time. Within fragment B14, he argues that while ‘mortals suppose that gods are born’ that the supreme god ‘always remains in the same, changing not at all…” From here, we see that Xenophanes is clearly opposed to those who believe that the god changes in form, and since that birth itself is a form of change, he is opposed to the origin of gods. Aristotle quotes Xenophanes stating that “those who say that the gods are born are just as impious as those who say that they die” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.23 1399b6-9). Clearly, Xenophanes assumes that, regardless of whether or not the gods can actually die, the Hellenic gods are flawed in this respect.
Xenophanes also indicates a clear problem with the anthropomorphisation of deity, in both body and in moral identification. In fragments B11 and B12, he specifically points out the gods of Hesiod and Homer (the general conception of Hellenic gods) and criticizes their ideas on the gods committing acts of adultery, thieving, and other vices performed by humanity. In fragment B14, we see Xenophanes also criticizing not only the birth of deity, as previously mentioned, but of how people suppose the gods “have human clothing, and voice, and bodily form.” We know that this clearly violates how Xenophanes feels deity is, in truth (or at least in human conception) by fragment B23- “One god, greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in form or thought.” It is here that he rejects both the form and the human qualities of the Hellenic deities. If one considers the mythos of the Hellenic gods, it is seen that an intrinsic property of the deities belong in their human-like qualities. This not only relates to their domains (Hera as wife, Hermes as shepherd) but to their personalities and degree of relation to their worshippers. In most polytheistic pantheons, individuals are drawn towards worship based on how they relate to the gods. A soldier would worship Ares before battle, as to be granted prowess in the fight, honor and glory. If these properties that relate the gods to their worshippers were removed, then there would be no reason to consider these to be gods of the Hellenic people, but simply a mass of abstract forms with no use to a culture with a plethora of facets in life. It is because of this that, in order to accept Xenophanes’s cosmology and idea of divinity, one must completely reject the Hellenic pantheon, not only in identity (the individual gods within it) but in essence (the system as a whole must be discarded).
While there may be some argument whether Xenophanes is a strict monotheist or possibly a henotheist (one god supreme over others, worshipping this god while still acknowledging the existence of others), his views come off overwhelmingly similar to monotheism, particularly as it is known in the current era. In fragments B23, B24 and B25, we see Xenophanes establishing this supremacy of the ‘one’ god. Yet, it is interesting to note that while he establishes this supremacy, he does so using the whole universe and not while speaking about other specific deities. Given Xenophanes rejection of the Hellenic notion of deity, why would he maintain the existence of gods he invalidates? This is a simple answer in that he would not, and therefore is a monotheist and cannot believe in the existence of the Hellenic pantheon.
Xenophanes, being one of the most revolutionary and radical thinkers, particularly in the scope of religion and philosophy in his era, is an invaluable contribution towards the Presocratic philosophies. The clear rejection of the origin of gods and anthropomorphic traits require that to fully understand his path of thinking, one must discard the Hellenic notion of deity and focus on the all-knowing, all-seeing deity he claims as his god. This view, lending to an early model of monotheism, keeps Xenophanes as one of the most controversial and unique of the Presocratics for all time.