Xenophanes Critique of Greek Religion

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Xenophanes was perhaps the first greek thinker who made a bold criticism of the conventional religion during his times. Unlike the Milesians who were engaged in the natural explanation of the world Xenophanes was more interested in what we can call as ‘constructive theology’ of his days. He was trying to explain the fallacies of the mythological poets like Homer and Hesiod who tried explain the world through their religious presuppositions and beliefs. As Richard Mckirihan puts “Greek, ‘barbarian’, and hypothetical bovine views of the gods are put on an even footing and cancel each other out, leaving no grounds to prefer one over the others. This brings them all equally into question.” Xenophanes questioning on the conventional religion was not to reject religion in its entirety rather he wanted to develop a new perspective of religion which is based on rationality unlike on traditional beliefs. 

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In his construction of positive theology Xenophanes was primarily concerned with the question of the way divine was conceived in the greek traditions. In doing this Xenophanes tries to present a rational criteria to determine the nature of divine. Some of the translators of his fragments have argued that Xenophanes was a monotheist because he conceived ‘god is one’ while others have argued against this attribution of monotheism to him. This follows from the phrase “among gods and men” which contradicts his monotheistic view point. This became a basis for others to argue that he was not a monotheist but believed that among the gods one is supreme than the others. Recently Guthrie after the analysis of the texts has stated that “for Xenophanes the cosmos was a spherical body, living, conscious, and divine, the cause of its own internal movements and change. He was in the Ionian tradition.” This has led some of the interpreters to equate the spherical with Parmenides one ‘Being’. The problem of translation within the doxographical tradition among the modern interpretations of Xenophanes Fragments has led to the distortion of his original views on various themes. 




Xenophanes critique of greek gods could be summed up in the following points: 

Firstly, his criticism arises from the immoral nature of them. Xenophanes claims that both Homer and Hesiod have ascribed all the deed to gods which are common among the men that are matters of reproach and blame. Secondly, the physical features attributed to the gods which follows from their anthropomorphic nature. For if gods resemble the same physical features as human beings then there would be a sort of chaos in the world. The world would be immoral and injustices would be common because of the innate propensity of evil that human beings carry within themselves. For Xenophanes the reason for the replacement of anthropomorphic deities with his own non-anthropomorphic theology was that most of the anthropomorphic religions are subjective and did not have much value. Therefore, the established picture of them as men and women as depicted in Homer and Hesiod must be abandoned. However, Xenophanes criticism was not directed towards the rejection of the very concept of divinity but it was against the stories of Homer and Hesiod about the immoral nature of the Olympian gods. The third criticism is regarding the birth and the death of gods. For Xenophanes the divine is not only immortal but is also eternal. Fourthly, there is no hierarchy among the gods. As Plutarch says: “It is unholy for any of the gods to have a master”. And lastly, the Gods do not meddle into human affairs. However, these criticisms of Olympian religion is a serious misreading of the Fragments. As Frankel has argued “If this were true, one would have to explain with some care why Xenophanes elsewhere in this poem approvinglydescribes such traditional religious practices as hymns, libations, worship at altars incenseand prayer”. Xenophanes criticism was simply this: stories of Homer and Hesiod set bad examples about divine immorality and must be abandoned. 

Xenophanes criticism of the conventional religion was also clear in his description of the natural phenomena and his cosmogony. However, Xenophanes did not have cosmogony like the Milesians. This follows from his attribution of eternity to the kosmos. Xenophanes only tried to describe how the world is, and not how it arose. Xenophanes in his fragments was trying to give a general understanding of the world. Unlike the Milesians who were concerned with systematic explanation of the world by their cosmogonies and the natural phenomena that maintains the world order. Xenophanes was interested in the cultural priorities of of the existing greek traditions. Although in his explanations of natural phenomenon he followed the Milesians, yet his criticism was deliberately on the traditional ways of explaining the world with reference to the gods. 

In his Poetica Aristotle describes him as a maker of images who imitates one or another of three categories of things: “either things as they were or are, or as they are said or believed to be, or as they ought to be” . Aristotle goes further by saying “If a poem is censured as not true, it may be justified as representing things as they should be”. And “finally, if the poem is censured as neither true nor as it should be, it may be justified as being in accord with ordinary opinion, as for example things said of the gods. For these are perhaps neither the better thing to say nor true but have turned out as in the view of Xenophanes; nevertheless men do say these things” . For Aristotle the rejection of the traditional poetry by Xenophanes is for the reason that they are immoral and not true. However, Aristotle does not claim that Xenophanes rejected the traditional poetry in its entirety but except those which are produces disharmony, immorality, and which cannot be justified in the possible world.

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