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Xenophanes' concept of God


To: Samuel T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes' concept of God
Date: 30 June 2003

Dear Samuel,

I apologize for taking so long to respond to your e-mail of 5 June, with your new third essay towards the Associate Award, 'Xenophanes' Concept of God'.

In view of the fact that all we know about Xenophanes' views about the deity derive from just a few remarks, it would have been a good idea to display these remarks clearly, so a reader could judge for himself, and thus be in a better position to evaluate your interpretation.

I have a few comments, which will be dealt with under your four headings.

1. What general conclusion should we draw from Xenophanes' criticisms of the Greek Pantheon? Why shouldn't gods be immoral? According to Xenophanes, immoral 'gods' are not worthy of worship. Today, people worship film stars and pop 'idols'. What argument can be put forward that these are false 'gods', which does not simply assume the point in question? What is the connection between 'worship' or 'piety' and morality?

Granted that a god worthy of worship ought not to exhibit human weaknesses, that still does not establish that such a deity must be morally exemplary. A view which was possible at the time - and still today - is that god is 'above' morality, having no concern with what human beings think of as 'right' or 'wrong'.

A more general point - whatever views we take about the implications of 'worship' - is that anything that is a god ought, by definition, to be worthy of worship. It is in fact on this basis that Xenophanes argues for his 'one god'.

2. I agree that there is an element of limitation and narcissism in 'Ethiopians having gods with snub noses and black hair'. It shows a certain lack of imagination, to say the least. However, it is worth while comparing Xenophanes' criticism with the view that 'We are made in god's image'. How would you express the difference between these two radically opposed views?

There is, arguably, another aspect to the 'snub noses' objection, which connects with Xenophanes' contribution to epistemology. This is the first recorded example of a knowledge claim being attacked through an observation about the psychological roots of the belief in question.

3. To my knowledge, there is no direct evidence that Xenophanes thought of the one god as either spatially infinite, or, alternatively, non-spatial. Arguably, a being who meets all of Xenophanes' requirements could be finite, located at a point in space. Say, at the top of Mount Everest. Immovable, certainly. After all, if god has the power to 'shake all things by the power of his mind' then there is no need to move from one location to another.

Xenophanes' god is without doubt *like* the Judeo-Christian deity. But how 'like'? That is the question, to be decided on the basis of what Xenophanes actually says.

4. What about the other 'gods'? The textual evidence - which I don't think it is adequate to dismiss simply on the grounds that he lived a long time and could have changed his views, or that he was merely exercising his 'satirical wit' - suggests that Xenophanes did allow that there are 'many gods'. But why not? Perhaps Xenophanes was prepared to all that in addition to the one, all powerful god, there are other beings, much more powerful than us, who for good or ill have a great influence on the affairs of men.

- Not a bad essay, overall. A good choice of topic, which raises some interesting issues.

All the best,