‘Wherever you go in the world, said Xenophanes, you find gods who look exactly like the locals.’

Greek to me: Joseph Jones’ thought for the week

‘What might we still be missing?’ | Photo: Illustration of Xenophanes from The History of Philosophy (1655) by Thomas Stanley.

When we think of ancient Greece, two different pictures often come to mind. The first is a world of outlandish stories: Medusa and the Minotaur, Titans and a Trojan horse, golden fleeces and the gods. The second is more practical: men in white beards wrestling with science, philosophy and the right way to build a society.

Xenophanes of Colophon, however, straddled both these worlds. Only fragments of his work survive, but they contain poetry, philosophy, theology, science and social comment. He was a significant influence on Plato, Aristotle, and even the early church.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he is best remembered for his critique of anthropomorphism in religion. He attacked writers like Homer and Hesiod for making gods in their own image. Wherever you go in the world, he said, you find gods who look exactly like the locals. Greek gods in particular had humanity’s most shameful attributes: adultery, deceit and revenge – even rape and murder. According to Xenophanes this was deeply offensive to the divine, promoting negative behaviour and undermining the moral fabric of society.

In response, he sought to engender a more moral theology, outlining three principles for the nature of the divine. Firstly, he said, the divine is ‘other’ – not human in nature. Secondly, since it is other, humans cannot fully comprehend it. Therefore it must be greater than us and, it followed, morally superior. Thirdly, in a heavy nudge to monotheism, there is ‘One god greatest among gods and men / not at all like mortals in body or in thought.’ Years later, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac would ask (in the gendered language of his day) ‘Was Moses right, or Xenophanes? Did God make man in his image, or is it not rather man who has made God in his?’

But maybe for us the more addressable question is: why do our gods look the way they do? How local are they? Politically, at very least, this matters. We know that depictions of Jesus, for example, usually feature someone way too white for first-century Palestine. This tells us plenty about attitudes to race among those who commissioned them. We aspire to something more inclusive than that now, one hopes. But what might we still be missing? Does our freedom from creeds really make us free? How often is the lesser part of our humanity
louder than the Spirit? Whose image guides our agendas?

Scholars disagree now about Xenophanes’ metaphysics. But perhaps he should get the last word. ‘All things are from the earth,’ he wrote, ‘and to the earth all things come in the end’. That is, perhaps, where we might start.

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