The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XVIII

Xenophanes…

 His Critique of the Mythic Gods of Homer…

Of Religious Anthropomorphism…

Of the Immorality of the Gods of Myth…

 Of Regional Religious Forms as Cultural Projections…

His (and Greek) Monotheism…

Xenophanes as the Source of the Tradition of the Allegorical Interpretation of Myth…

Of Pagan Religious Universalism…

Of “Negative Theology”…

     The brilliant Pre-Socratic philosopher and poet Xenophanes was born c. 561 B.C. in Colophon, a city some forty miles north of Miletus; but when Colophon, along with many other Greek cities along the Ionian seaboard, fell to the Persians, Xenophanes fled westward, making his way eventually to Sicily.

The great innovation and importance of Xenophanes’ thought is not in cosmology or physics, but rather in theology, the understanding of the nature of the Divine.  But then the immediate relevance of theology to cosmology need hardly be stated, since for the Greeks, the essential problem was the relation between the Divine and the material world.

Xenophanes was in fact the first in a long line of reforming critics and expositors of traditional Greek religious and mythological idioms.  Here are two of his most famous dicta on this theme:

Mortals believe that the gods are begotten, and that they wear clothing like our own, and have a voice and a body.

The Ethiopians make their gods snub-nosed and black; the Thracians make theirs gray-eyed and red-haired.  And if oxen and horses and lions had  hands, and could draw…, horses would draw the gods in the shape of horses, and oxen in the shape of oxen, each giving the gods bodies similar to their own.

Xenophanes here states explicitly for the first time what intelligent Greeks must long have understood:  that the mythological gods, as described by poets such as Homer, are created in the image of their human worshipers; that they look and behave like men only because their worshipers have projected upon them their own form and habits; and that the incidental differences one observes amongst the various national and ethnic gods and their cults is the result of similar projections, each the consequence of the inability of men to conceive of the Divine except through images derived from their own immediate human and culturally specific experience.  Rather, as Xenophanes affirms, there is only

One god, …in no way similar to mortals either in body or mind.

 

The transcendent supremacy of Zeus, acknowledged from the beginning in Homer and Hesiod, suggests that the strict monotheism of Xenophanes is the development of a tendency in Greek thought already long underway:  a tendency, in fact, to define the Divine as a kind of Being that utterly negates and transcends all categories of human experience, understanding, and expression.

God, as Xenophanes insists, has no body or organs of sense, though by means of some super-sensual and super-intelligent mode of cognition, he “sees all, thinks all, and hears all”.  Having neither arms nor legs, he is motionless; yet he sets all in motion merely “by the thought of his own mind”.

Unlike men, in fact, the being of God is “totally of mind and thought”, and is eternal.  By contrast, above all, to the “innumerable world-orders”, which successively come into being and pass away, God is without beginning or end.

Spatially conceived, his being is “spherical”, but only in the sense in which it is co-extensive with the world-order, able to act everywhere in it without moving, because he suffuses it throughout as the active and living principle of order.

This cosmic order, or justice as Anaximander had called it, means that the world-order is once again a moral order, and that justice, therefore, must be of the nature of the Divine.  But if this is true, the stories told by the poets must be lies, since, as Xenophanes laments,

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things which in men are a matter for reproach and censure:  stealing, adultery, and mutual deception.

This is the most scandalous effect of the primitive propensity to project human traits upon the gods, whose moral behavior must surely be better than that of at least the worst of mankind, if the term “Divine” is to mean anything.

Xenophanes thus lays the foundation for a long tradition of moral criticism of artists and poets in general, and Homer in particular, in which, at one extreme, they are accused of being professional “liars” and blasphemers who should be banished forever from decent society (as Plato purports to banish them from his Republic).  Such a view was to fecundate throughout history periodic outbreaks of puritanism and iconoclasm.  Fortunately, however, it did not prevail; for the Greeks (as indeed for the Christians of Middle Ages and the Renaissance), the poets were to be defended as the writers of mythological allegories that were never intended to be read literally.

If their mythic narratives are “fictions”, it is because approximative images and provisional analogies are the only means by which the sensual and finite human imagination can approach the ineffable Divine; understood figuratively, however, the fictions of the poets conceal beneath their literal surface profound philosophical and theological truths.

 

Xenophanes was in any case the first Greek thinker to recognize the inherent problem of coming to know and represent a Godhead that is by definition beyond all human categories of apprehension and language.  The gods, he says, have hidden the knowledge of the Divine from mortals, who must apply themselves to discover it through assiduous study and effort.  Even so, no one man or sect will ever discover or reveal the final and exhaustive truths of religion, but at best a semblance of them.  As Plato (in the Timaeus) was to formulate this foundational principle of what was later to be called “negative theology”, “The Father and Maker of this universe is beyond knowing or expressing”.  For this reason, too, the various local myths and cults tended to be relativized in Greek thought, as merely partial and imperfect revelations of the Divine, just as their differences were understood as secondary regional inflections of a universal religion of the One Unknown God.

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