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PHIL 2100 - Ancient Philosophy

Question 12: Does Xenophanes argue for monotheism? What do the tales restriction (#1 B20)

and the critique of anthropomorphism (#8, #9, #10) tell about the nature of the one god (#13 #14,


This essay will primarily examine the works of Xenophanes to answer two key questions. Firstly,

is it reasonable to attribute monotheism to Xenophanes? In addition, what indications are present

in his work to illuminate the nature of the one god that he describes?

To begin with, Xenophanes work offers evidence that simultaneously invites, as well as rebuffs,

claims for monotheistic thought. In fragments B23-26, he puts forth a perspective on the divine

that at least, outwardly, has strong monotheistic connotations. In B23, he talks about one god

who is greatest among gods and men and that whole (he) sees, whole (he) thinks and whole

(he) hears (B24). In B25, this entity is accorded mighty telekinetic power over the scheme of

the cosmos and furthermore in B26, this god is said to always abide in the same place without

it being seemly for him to travel to different places at different times. On face value, these

fragments seem to indicate Xenophanes inclination towards the idea of a single, all-powerful

entity that has full control over worldly and divine matters. However, none of these fragments

suggest that the greatest god must be the only god. Quite to the contrary, in B23, Xenophanes

establishes the greatness of his one god over that of other gods and human beings. The fact that

Xenophanes mentions there is a greatest god, implies that he believes there are a plurality of

gods from which one is the greatest. That is, there are multiple gods, and while they may

differ in greatness, he implies that there may be more than one. Some Olympian gods may not

even deserve to be called deities, given that they sometimes fall victim to trickery. Putting both
sets of evidence together, there appears an ambiguity with regards to Xenophanes position on

monotheism. Said ambiguity is also reflected in B1, when he talks about how cheerful men

should sing hymns to the god while also stating at the end that it is good always to have high

regard for the gods. On the basis of this evidence, at least, it is quite difficult to attribute

monotheism to Xenophanes. At best, it can be argued the case for him being a monotheist is

suggestive, but not definitive. The same probative value can be assigned to the evidence that

suggests that he may not have been an exclusive monotheist.

Having dispensed with this inquiry, what do Xenophanes references to the one god reveal about

his nature, especially with reference to the questions of anthropomorphism and his usage of the

tales restriction? In F1, the tales restriction refers to Xenophanes prohibition regarding the

practice of telling tales about strife among gods (Aikin 2). This can be considered an extension

of Xenophanes program of critical theology and general religious reform. Attributing pointless

vices to gods was religiously objectionable because gods were supposed to embody perfection.

Telling tales that reflect these vices, therefore, would amount to not showing the gods the proper

consideration and regard their station deserves. This presumes that the station of the gods was

inherently different from the station of all human beings, and that a fundamental dichotomy

exists between the two. It is no surprise that Xenophanes also comes across as being critical of

anthropomorphic depictions of the gods. In B14, Xenophanes indicates that his views are

different from the ones he is describing when he says, But mortals suppose that gods are born,

have human clothing, and voice, and bodily form. The fact that gods at the time had been

fashioned in the image of their believers was to Xenophanes, a questionable proposition. In B16,

Xenophanes refers to how the Thracians or Ethiopians would describe their gods as they would

describe themselves. Moreover, this tendency seemed so universal that if animals like oxen,
horses and lions were to be bestowed with the same creative faculty as man and asked to draw

their gods, they would draw them as themselves. The absurdity does not lie in the possibility of

an oxen-god or a horse-god, but points to the larger idea that anthropomorphism leads to self-

indulgent depictions of the divine. The absurdity, according to Xenophanes, lies in rendering the

complexity of something so difficult to grasp into the vulgar simplicity of ones image (Aikin).

That being said, at one point, Xenophanes seems guilty of anthromorphising the gods as well. He

suggests that the divine have human attributes, such as seeing whole, hearing whole, and

thinking whole. However, I think that such an argument would contradict his previous views if

he were asserting that anthromorphisis is the only way to conceive the gods. According to his

account, gods must not necessarily be conceived as having human attributes. This analysis,

coupled with his explicit cautions against thinking of gods as one would think of him/her, and his

statement that gods are not at all like mortals, in body or thought, serves as a general critique

for anthropomorphism (B23)

Does this necessarily mean that Xenophanes can himself divine what traits god must possess? In

B34, he does remind us that there is a clear and certain truth no man has seen. This is important

because it shows that Xenophanes is best placed to attack the creditability of conventional

narratives about god during his time. Yet, even his understanding of god could never really

entirely grasp the divine. Such is the limited nature of human knowledge, especially with regards

to the affairs of the divine. From all of this analysis, one may, hence, surmise that Xenophanes

god is different from the fallible, anthropomorphic depictions of god at that point in time. Yet,

there can be no proper estimation of what this god may truly represent, except for everything but

what the status quo of the time represented.

(991 words)

Aikin, Scott F. Xenophanes the High Rationalist: The Case of F1:17-18. Epoch: A Journal

for the History of Philosophy, 27 Aug. 2014,


Aikin, Scott F. So What If Horses Would Draw Horse Gods? SpringerLink, Springer

Netherlands, 1 July 2015,