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Samuel Thorpe

Xenophanes' Concept of God

Xenophanes of the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC should be credited, in opposition to his critics and misinterpreters, with an advanced contribution to the Western philosophy of religion, namely that there is one God. First, he exposes the weaknesses of the Greek pantheon. Then he satirically demonstrates the narcissistic limitations of human conceptions of the nature of the divine. Third, he logically structures a coherent concept of the nature of the only God. Then finally he reveals how his concept explains certain observable natural phenomena in an account of physical reality.

1. Xenophanes said "there is one god, among gods and men the greatest... "[1] but why would that idea be unusual for his culture, in its history? He explains that everyone in his culture had been taught by the famous poets and writers, including Homer, that a pantheon of multiple deities existed and affected the lives of humans in various ways. The nature of these gods, however, defies the whole notion of deity. Anaximander had earlier conceived of the underlying "stuff" of the universe as apeiron, an unexplainable something. But Xenophanes carries the notion much farther by attacking the mythology of his time and giving definition to the ineffable source of life. The famous writers "attributed to the gods all things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind: theft, adultery, and mutual deception" [2]. Illogically also, humans thought that gods were born and had clothing, voices, and bodies as well [3]. Surely, gods had to be more than glorified albeit often more immoral than humans, by the definition of "god."

Probably Xenophanes viewed God from two perspectives. First, the Homeric gods demonstrated behavior that simply resembled the behavior of humans. God, by definition, had to be someone greater, better than humans in some way(s). He said that the One God is "greatest among the gods, not like mortals in form or thought." Thus worship of this God implies that an all-encompassing greatness is a factor of worship, which means primarily submission to and reverence for a being greater than oneself. As well, morality seems to be recognized by all cultures in some form or another, but reveals a certain weakness or propensity in humans to behave badly at times, as opposed to behaving well at times. There is an inherent recognition that there are good and bad actions and God is "not like mortals in form or thought." Hence He must be better morally as well as greater in power. Moral goodness then becomes another criterion for worship.

2. Xenophanes indicated that humans are basically narcissistic and limited, making God in our own images. "Ethiopians have gods with snub noses and black hair, Thracians have gods with grey eyes and red hair" [4], and even animals, if they could draw, would draw gods that look like themselves. Finite, limited, contingent beings tend to conceive of gods like us; thus gods had become finite and limited, again contrary to a higher and clearer view of what a god is. By attacking the anthropomorphic ideas of deity, Xenophanes developed an idea that found "fertile ground two centuries later in Aristotle, and a millennia later in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. The idea was that the underlying substrata [of reality] is not a substance, or a material; it was pure causation" [5].

The concept of imago Dei is usually considered in a broader sense that mere specific physical appearances. The concept includes reason, emotion, spirituality, sense of morality, laughter, music, and other attributes unavailable to animals. There is, however, something to be said that human beings look the way we do because, somehow, we do resemble God. The term "image of God" first appears in Genesis 1:26 and 27, as "image" and "likeness," which clearly implies appearance. The very same phrase, "image and likeness" appears in Genesis 5:3, "And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image." Again, the phrase clearly indicates a being that resembles its sire. Xenophanes concern was that humans thought of gods as just another type of creatures like us, only immortal. He recognized that many people make God in their images, which for Xenophanes is a big mistake. This anthropomorphic view of God tends to do what Xenophanes opposed and bring the notion of deity down from heaven, as it were, to the human level of relative powerlessness and immorality. A more balanced view which credits Xenophanes' transcendent God as well as recognizes that humans do have some kind of a broad relationship with our Creator would be strongest.

3. God is the same as the One; He is the only deity, not like these imagined gods of the pantheon nor like humans in body or mind. "He sees as a whole, thinks as a whole, and hears as a whole. And he always remains in the same place, not moving at all, nor is it fitting for him to change his position at different times" [6]. Xenophanes defines god in majesty, omnipresence, and transcendence, a Being able to interact with the universe, similar to definitions from Hebrew, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic theologies. Indeed, Xenophanes did travel in his life to many places in the Mediterranean world and intentionally studied various religious ideas [7]. Perhaps contact with broader notions of deity added to his insight. "In fact, in his inconceivable power and infinite intellect, about which one cannot possibly jest, let alone deride, Xenophanes' god seems more like the later Judeo-Christian god than the human-like Homeric gods" [8].

The God of Xenophanes is like the Judeo-Christian God in several ways. First is the concept that God is greater than any other being. Second, that God is not begotten or created from something or someone else, thus He has always existed. Third, that though the Judeo-Christian God "speaks" (revelation) to His people, the anthropomorphic descriptions of Him are not really adequate to account for His nature. Fourth, He is One. Fifth, He is omniscient (all sight, all hearing, all thought). Sixth, God creates or acts "by the thought of His mind." Seventh, He is immutable.

4. Finally, Xenophanes indicates that motion, the notion of change in Greek thought [9], is initiated by God, "without toil... by the thought of his mind" [10]. The omnipotence of God, the capacity to create with only his mind, also mirrors other theologies but, more importantly for Greek thought, reveals a role for divinity in the explanation of the physical universe and anticipates Aristotle's Unmoved Mover. "God for Xenophanes has the modality for affectivity; from his thoughts actions occur [11]. Motion and change, so visible in the physical universe, are results of the unchanging god who affects how things act in the world we see.

Xenophanes may have viewed the "gods" that he mentions like several other religious groups in the world, either as manifestations of the One (Hinduism) or as lesser spirits that influence human life at times (American Indian religion or Shintoism). These kinds of lesser spirits exert some power greater than humans but are, of course, not the one true God. Xenophanes could have also believed that the notion of "gods," though faulty and false, was a frame of reference for the discussion of the One God with the culture of his day. A similar phrase is used in Exodus 15 in the Song of Moses, "Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods?" (Ex. 15:11). The song addresses Hebrews who had resided in a strongly polytheistic Egyptian culture, and the reference to "gods" likely refers to these Egyptian gods which were condemned and bested by Jehovah in the famous plagues of Egypt (Ex. 7-12).

There have been some who criticize the idea that Xenophanes' concept is monotheistic or even legitimate. Aristotle thought that Xenophanes was not clear and not a thinker of physical sciences [12]. Following Aristotle, Theophrastus "attributes to Xenophanes the view that Being is One, but admits that Xenophanes' views do not really belong to a record of scientific and metaphysical inquiry"[13]. Aristotle, I think, valued scientific thought along the lines of his own observational, material theories and had little patience with metaphysical, mystical ideas. That seems clear with Theophrastus' admission that Xenophanes' thought was not aimed at scientific inquiries. That does not mean, however, that the poet, the artist, the dreamer may not perceive the revelation of an ultimate power or being who affects all of the universe. Empirical knowledge is but one of the many ways human "know" things.

Owens, to Xenophanes' statement that there is one god, greatest among the gods, said that "this is hardly the utterance of one who today could be called a monotheist. It praises a god who is the greatest among a plurality of gods, a sort of primus inter pares. As it stands, it need be nothing more than the rhapsodist's hymn to a Zeus purged of Homeric anthropomorphism" [14]. Owens neglects the logic of Xenophanes' statement since the One God is greater than men and gods, hence He is greater than the concept of multiple deities and men alike.

Armstrong described Xenophanes as "a wandering religious teacher rather than a philosopher,... who attacked the traditional mythology and preached a sort of pan-animism; God for him is one, acting as a whole, immovable, governing all things by the power of his thought, and (as far as we can tell from the fragments of X which survive) an immanent all-pervading world-soul" [15]. However, there is nothing in Xenophanes' statements that suggests a world-soul idea. God is called by the personal pronouns "him" and "he"; He is a Being who thinks, sees, and hears as well as sets things in motion by thought, thus interacting with the universe for change; He remains in one place and does not change. The world-soul idea would require the deity to change with the universe, act with the universe, and exist because of the universe; this in not in Xenophanes. Guthrie agrees that pantheism in Xenophanes has been sufficiently denied by other scholars on several grounds. First, Xenophanes' concept focuses on the unity of God in Himself not in the world, and also that a God without change cannot be part of a changeable universe [16].

Some think Xenophanes was inconsistent in his concept of deity since he mentions in one fragment that men who enjoy themselves should "first of all praise God with decent stories and pure words" but then they should "always to have respect for the gods, that is good." Kroner said, "In spite of his criticism, he [Xenophanes] also paid homage to the gods of the national religion, as his word demonstrates: 'It is good always to pay careful respect to the gods.' But he especially blamed Homer and Hesiod for having 'ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and disgrace among men'"[17]. Concern here is for context, since Xenophanes was best known for his satirical wit. The context of his views in poems or satires may not give us a straight forward philosophical view every time. As well, his long life of nearly 100 years might make his views differ over time.

In contrast to the unworthy polytheistic deities who behaved poorly, even by human standards, exhibiting deception, adultery, theft, and the like, came Xenophanes' monotheism. Through the eyes and words of an itinerant poet/performer, emerged a vision of the universe that was broader and more comprehensive than those of previous philosophers of natural science. Xenophanes does a credible job to describe the possibility of the existence of only one deity, given most of his contemporaries' awareness of the weaknesses of the pantheon. He provides in his view of the unmoved transcendent deity a "rational and coherent" explanation which positively accounts for the role of the divine and the spiritual. Just the very notion of the "greatest and best" and its application to the concept of deities brings an inevitable identification of a single best. As well, Xenophanes posits only one God like this, unlike humans or finite immortals. From the nature of God's power, Xenophanes argues for one God, emphasizing the characteristic of holiness, a quality not possessed by the members of the pantheon. Something in humans, which biblical theologians identify as part of the imago Dei, allows us to recognize morality, the very notions of good and evil, and the desire, even demand for purity and holiness in God.

The concept of greatness, according to Xenophanes, means God is greater than any being or combination of beings, who act inconsistently or incongruently. God must be one to act in an unlimited way. Hence as in Hebrew theology, the LORD is one; there is no other, Xenophanes' one God provides an explanation for the creation of the universe, the existence of laws and morality, and the great benevolence bestowed by God on people in time and history. Kroner agrees that "Xenophanes did not yet announce the God of Genesis, but he had an intuition of the oneness and spirituality of the biblical Creator" [18]. The polytheists' conception of the gods brought nothing like Xenophanes' argument nor any sufficient explanation for what common observation and personal intuition recognizes as a vital aspect of life — the religious urge. God's power also directly implied his eternal existence since nothing greater could have created him, and thus he always was, and is, and is One. Aristotle said that "Xenophanes, who was the originator of this attempt to reduce things to a One... gave no clear account,... but directing his gaze to the whole heavens he says that God and the One are identical." [19].


1. Freeman, Ancilla, p. 23.

2. Freeman, Ancilla, p. 22.

3. Freeman, Ancilla, p. 22.

4. Freeman, Ancilla, p. 22.

5. Provost, p.1.

6. Freeman, Ancilla, p. 23.

7. Freeman, Pre-Socratics, pp. 88-89.

8. DeYoung, p. 2.

9. Guthrie, p. 381.

10. Freeman, Ancilla, p. 23.

11. Semogas and Dhaliwal, p. 2.

12. Guthrie, pp. 368-369.

13. Freeman, Pre-Socratics, p.93.

14. Owens, p.23.

15. Armstrong, p.12.

16. Guthrie, p. 381.

17. Kroner, p.62.

18. Kroner, p.61.

19. Freeman, Pre-Socratics, p. 93.


Armstrong, A.H. An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.

Chung, Jin. "The Creation and Destruction of God: The Interplay Between Greek Literature and Science in Creating and Destroying the Perception of God," Tufts University. 28 April 2003.

DeYoung, Ursula. "The Homeric Gods and Xenophanes' Opposing Theory of the Divine," Harvard University. Classics Technology Center. 2000.

Fox, James J. "Anthropomorphism, Anthropomorphites," Catholic Encyclopedia. 28 April 2003.

Freeman, Kathleen. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

_____________. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Companion to Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume I. Cambridge: The University Press, 1962.

Kroner, Richard. Speculation in Pre-Christian Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1957.

Owens, Joseph. A History of Ancient Western Philosophy. New York: Appleton, Century, and Crofts, Inc., 1959.

Provost, Wallace. "Xenophanes," excerpt from God, Science, and Reason. 28 April 2003.

Semogas, Kathryn and Suzanne Dhaliwal. "Xenophanes: Poet and Sage," University of Toronto. 14 September 2001.