Xenophanes’ Conception of GodJune 28, 2021
Another thought that can guide us to understand Xenophanes is the understanding of god, which is dual and non-relative, which causes us to interpret his thoughts differently to a certain extent.
On the one hand, Xenophanes states that human knowledge is relative because it is limited in such a way that it cannot know divine truths, and local, relative approaches come to the fore especially in matters related to religion and gods, but on the other hand, he seems to be trying to overcome this relativity. He proposes an understanding of God that is not local in terms of its characteristics, instead of the understanding of God that shows local characteristics and therefore claims to be wrong. As a representation of Xenophanes’s vision of god, the above-mentioned Fr. 21B24: “He who sees the whole, thinks (understands) the whole, hears the whole.” and “He is a God (eis theos), supreme among both gods and men; It resembles man neither in body (demas) nor in understanding (neoma). (Xenophanes, Fr. 21B23. Cengiz Çakmak, 1996. p. 39.)
His proposal paints a picture in which he seems to contradict himself in certain respects. Because after all, he says that God does not teach people the truth and what is going on on earth, and that people only have an estimated knowledge of these matters. This is why Xenophanes stated that people cannot know the truth and have to be content with limited knowledge within their narrow interests. However, this effort of Xenophanes is still important in that it shows us something, what the meaning of the relative is, with the examples of god representation he gave from local cultures in order to criticize them.
Since human knowledge is limited to its living spaces, the biggest indicator of its relativeness is their understanding of God. People’s understanding of God is described by Xenophanes as being greatly influenced by the environment, skin color and body forms. He gives three different examples in this regard. Two of the examples are about the human species, while the other is about animals. The first example is related to the Ethiopians and the other Thracians’ conceptions of their gods. The trailer reads: “Ethiopians have low-nosed and black-haired gods, Thracians have blue-eyed and red-haired gods.” (Xenophanes, Fr. 21B16. Kathleen Freeman, 1948. p. 22.) The interpretation of this example, given that people’s conceptions of gods are relative, can also be interpreted with the example given by Xenophanes regarding animals. This example starts from a basic assumption and allows binary reading. He says: “If they had hands, oxen, horses, and lions would paint, if they could paint, they would paint by hand like humans, horses in the form of horses, oxen in the form of oxen, each of them in their own shape.” (Xenophanes, Fr. 21B15. Cengiz Çakmak, 1996. p. 48.) The first reading here can be made based on the emphasis on the hand. In the previous fragment, while the God-conceptions of the Abyssinians and Thracians were mentioned, it was stated that the God-conceptions of each of these cultures were described as similar to the people living in those cultures. This approach can be called cultural relativism, which argues that each culture’s conception of the world may differ from one another. (Similar to cultural relativity, generic relativity, that is, the understanding that a situation can be perceived in line with the capacities specific to that genre, was also handled by Plato in his dialogue The Statesman (Politikos). While Young Socrates and the Stranger in the dialogue focus on the distinction of human species from other living things, they say that if Cranes make a classification, they will include us in the class of animals, just as we do, by referring to themselves (Statesman, 263d-e).
As far as we understand from the second fragment, it is seen that these descriptions are mainly made on two subjects. These are about what the gods look like, in what form they are bodily, and what the gods have, the personality traits that guide their behavior. The character traits of the gods and the inappropriate traits that Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods, which we mentioned above, are the traits criticized by Xenophanes as disgrace (see Xenophanes, Fr. 21B11). When both fragments are read together, it can be said that what these cultures’ conceptions of god are can be understood from the pictures they have shaped by hand. These paintings are cultural assets that can only exist by a human hand making them, that is, they are not found in nature but are made by humans. In this respect, a painting, no matter what it is about, can only be created by a hand from a certain material, in a way that animals cannot.