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The Break with the Myth

The Break With The Myth

Our picture of Greek intellectual history is still substantially in­fluenced by historiographic conventions of the Hellenistic period. The development of philosophical schools in the fourth century b.c. induced the later historians, who themselves were members of schools, to project the institution into the earlier times and to construct the famous “Successions.” The result was a linear devel­opment of Greek thought from the Milesian “school” to Socrates, and a bi- or tri-furcation of schools in his succession.

The picture that results from a critical study of history shows entirely different traits. Hellenic civilization was far-flung from Sicily to Anatolia, and from the Macedonian to the North African outposts. The political and intellectual development in that wide area was neither uniform nor continuous; and it was carried not only by the philosophers but first in order by the poets. [Of the carriers, we have studied Homer and Hesiod, the poets of the eighth century; and we have touched incidentally on the Ionian lyric of the seventh, as well as on the Milesian speculation of the sixth centuries.]

The Milesian speculation, now, did not find immediate successors. The conquest by the Persians in 546 b.c. apparently had disturbed the internal development of the Anatolian poleis deeply. Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 565-470) emigrated to Italy; and in 494 Miletus was destroyed. In the sixth century, then, the Orphic movement with its mystery of the purification of the soul spread through Greece, while in Italy arose the related Pythagorean move­ment; and both of these movements enriched with their experience of the soul the work of the philosophers at the turn of the sixth to the fifth century B.C.

The Orphic knowledge of the soul was pervasively present in the work of Xenophanes and Heraclitus (c. 535-475). Both of the great philosophers spoke with the authority of the mystic and represented the order of the soul in opposition to the order of the polis.

The Small Polis Nurtured Inidviduality

By the middle of the fifth century, finally, the philosophical scene shifted from the Italy of Parmenides and Zeno to the Athens of Anaxagoras and Democritus. Most important, however, is the point that there were no “schools” in any conceivable sense of the word. The style of Hel­lenic civilization is indelibly characterized by the absence of temporal and ecclesiastic bureaucracies. Through a miracle of history the geographic area of Hellenic civilization remained undisturbed by foreign invasions from the Doric migration to the Persian Wars, that is, roughly from 1100-500 B.C.

During six hundred years, while in the Near and Far East the imperial civilizations with their inevitable bureaucracies were founded, overthrown, and re­established, the geopolitical paradise around the Aegean could de­velop the “free” civilizations, first, of local clans and aristocracies, and later, of poleis that were so small that no bureaucratic admin­istration of formidable size was needed.

Under these historically unique circumstances the transition from archaic to classic Hellas could assume the form of intellectual adventures by individuals, unhampered by the pressure of hierarchies, which tend to preserve traditions. The earliest recorded adventure of this type, the Homeric epic, revealed the free manipulation of a stock of myths. The mythical form was transformed into the image of an aristocratic, courtly society of gods and men, into a world of masterly drawn, intelligible personalities of the “Olympian” clearness that is due to the radical elimination of chthonic horrors.

Here was born and molded the Ionian component of Greek religiousness, that peculiar freedom from horror as well as from the tremendum of a “dread God.” Man faced the immortals, not with a shudder at his own nothingness, but with a sense of wretchedness, as “the creature of the day,” before the splendor of such heightened life, or with the Homeric aston­ishment, shading off into admiration, when Achilles turns around and sees Athena standing behind him, counseling restraint with a courteous “if you will obey me.”

From the respectful intimacy of such astonishment (thambos) stems the wondering admiration, the Ionian thaumazein, before the spectacle of the cosmos, which Aristotle still recognized as the origin of philosophical inquiry.

Hesiod: The First Great Speculation

The next adventure, the Hesiodian, brought the inrush of pri­mordial, chthonic divinities into the material of speculation. That inrush was characteristic of the Greek mainland, where the conti­nuity of the myth was less broken than in the Ionian cities of the refugees who had been separated from the divinities of their rivers and hills and of the earth under their feet. While the basis of the myth, thus, was broader for Hesiod than for Homer, his work was nevertheless the first great document of both the awakening and the effects of speculation.

The materials of the people’s myth were submitted, with an almost incredible freedom and insouciance, to the exigencies of the speculative quest for the origins of being and order. Moreover, at the dynamic center of the mythopoetic and speculative effort the personality of a great poet and thinker did not have to be surmised, as in the case of Homer; the creator of the work presented himself in person, fully conscious of what he was doing when he opposed the principle of his new Aletheia to the untruth of older pseudo-inspirations.

With the victorious emergence of Jovian Dike over the cosmic and telluric gods, there emerged the self-consciousness of the thinker as the carrier of a new truth in history. The personality of the man who can distinguish verities of order and create the symbols to express them became with Hesiod a new element in the structure of reality.

The Great Milesians Reject Myth

The same style of intellectual adventure characterized the phi­losophizing of the great Milesians, of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, when they replaced the divine figures of the myth, in their search of origins, with symbols drawn from objects and sub­stances of the world of sense perception.

Unfortunately we know entirely too little about their work because the Persian conquest, as we have indicated, apparently interrupted the formation of a tradi­tion. The memory of Thales was preserved through anecdotes; his works were so thoroughly lost that one cannot be quite sure he ever wrote a treatise.

Anaximander and Anaximenes were completely forgotten. Their names came to light again when Aristotle and his school undertook a search for predecessors; practically all that we know about their work stems from the excerpts that Aristotle and Theophrastus made from a manuscript they must have obtained.

That is not to say that the work of the Milesians remained without effect. For the elimination of the mythical personnel from specula­tion proper was established. Neither the attack of Xenophanes on the myth, nor the Heraclitean analysis of the soul, nor even the speculation of Parmenides in spite of the fact that it is embedded in a mythos, can well be imagined without the Milesian background.

The Pythagoreans as a Political Association

A “school,” in the sense of successive generations of thinkers who draw on a common substance provided by the “founder,” is possible only when the substance is spiritually and intellectually rich enough to become an effective center for the organization of human souls in rivalry with the common stock of traditions, or when it is a specific, intense variant within the tradition.

Before the foundation of the Academy under the impact of Socrates on Plato, only two men can be considered, with appropriate qualifications, as founders of “schools,” that is, Pythagoras and Parmenides. The Pythagorean association was a religious community, with a distinct “way of life,” resting on doctrines concerning the fate of the soul, and with a discipline required for securing its purifi­cation and immortalization.

The instance of Pythagoreanism as a school, however, must be qualified by the political character of the association. As far as the insufficient sources allow a judgment, the Pythagoreans were a political organization or club, similar in type to the hetaireia, which evolved, from the free formation of bands of no­bles for various purposes of war, plunder, and peaceful banqueting in the pre-polis time, to the small aristocratic clubs in the democratic polis of the fifth century.

The Pythagoreans were distinguished from the ordinary hetaireia through the considerable size of the association, as well as by the internal, hierarchical organization into initiates and novices. The opinion that Pythagoreanism was sociologically an aristocratic (or oligarchic) branch of the move­ment of mystery religions, which on the populist side expressed itself in Orphic cult communities, has much to recommend itself.1

Parmenides as an Originator

In the case of Parmenides, on the other hand, there were no traces of formal organization at all. The effect of a “school” resulted from the nature of his didactic poem, which, for the first time in the history of philosophy, provided a coherent, argumentative piece of ontological speculation. Here was a mine of metaphysical, epistemological, and logical problems, fit for elaboration by successors who, even without social formalities, would be a “school” through the theoretical intentions derived from their common source.

Hellas did not rise above the level of the city-state, as did the Mesopotamian civilizations, through imperial unification and the development of a political summodeism, of the same symbolic type as the myth of the single city-states, but through the efforts of individuals who discovered the order of the human psyche beyond the order of the polis and articulated their discovery in the symbolic form that they called philosophy. Hence, philosophy was more than an intellectual endeavor in which certain Greek individuals excelled; it was a symbolic form that expressed definite experiences of order in opposition to the polis.

The tension between the Hellas of the poets and philosophers, and the polis to which they were in opposition, was the very form of Hellenic civilization. Never­theless, this form had something elusive in comparison with the Near Eastern empires, because the personal order of a soul through orientation toward transcendent reality could not be institution­alized but had to rely on its autonomous formation by individual human beings.

Philosophy and the Polis

And since this elusiveness of the form is the cause of the error that philosophy is an “intellectual” or “cultural” activity conducted in a vacuum, without relation to the problems of human existence in society, it becomes all the more important to stress the roots of philosophy in the order of the polis. This problem can be clarified best by a comparison between the Hellenic and the Israelite mortgage of society on the symbolic form.

The leap in being had different results in Israel and Hellas. In Israel it assumed the form of historical existence of a people un­der God; in Hellas it assumed the form of personal existence of individual human beings under God. If the issue be formulated in this manner, it will be apparent that the “perpetual mortgage of the world-immanent, concrete event on the transcendent truth that on its occasion was revealed,” of which we had to speak in the case of Israel, would be less of a burden on Hellenic philosophy than on Is­raelite revelation.2

The universal validity of transcendent truth, the universality of the one God over the one mankind, could be more easily disengaged from an individual’s discovery of the existence of his psyche under the gods than from the Sinaitic revelation of a people’s existence under God. Nevertheless, as Israel had to carry the burden of Canaan, so philosophy had to carry the burden of the polis. For the discoveries, although made by individuals, were made by citizens of a polis; and the new order of the soul, when communicated by its discoverers and creators, inevitably was in opposition to the public order, with the implied or explicit appeal to the fellow citizens to reform their personal conduct, the mores of society, and ultimately the institutions in conformity with the new order.

Hellenic philosophy became, therefore, to a considerable extent the articulation of true order of existence within the institu­tional framework of an Hellenic polis. That is not necessarily the great defect that moderns frequently believe it to be. For, after all, philosophy grew within the polis; and true philosophical existence is perhaps possible only in an environment resembling the culture and institutions of the polis. That, however, is a complicated ques­tion; it will occupy us at length in later volumes of this study, when we have to deal with the problems of a specifically “Christian” and “modern” philosophy; for the moment it will be sufficient to say that the question is far from settled.

At any rate, the institutions of the polis were distinctly a limiting factor in the Hellenic ex­ploration of order, down to the great constructions of paradigmatic poleis by Plato and Aristotle.

Philosophy as a Distinct Symbolic Form and Source of Order

The preceding reflections, in spite of their brevity and simplifica­tions, will be sufficient as a preliminary orientation. For philosophy as a symbolic form is distinguished from myth and history by its reflective self-consciousness. What philosophy is, need not be ascer­tained by talking about philosophy discursively; it can, and must, be determined by entering into the speculative process in which the thinker explicates his experience of order.

The philosophers’ conscious break with the form of the myth occurred about 500 b.c. The individual steps taken toward a differentiated experience of the psyche, during the two centuries after Hesiod, had the cumulative result of letting the self-conscious soul emerge as the tentative source of order in competition with the myth, as well as with the aristocratic culture of the archaic polis.

Ionian lyric and Milesian speculation, the revision of political aretai through Tyrtaeus and Solon, tyranny and democratization, the Orphic movement, the Pythagoreans, and the public recognition of Dionysian cults–they all had contributed to the experience of the soul and its order that now became the motivating force in the work of Xenophanes (c. 565-470), Parmenides (fl. c. 475), and Heraclitus (c. 535-475).

With the exception of a few longer passages from the didactic poems of Parmenides, the work of the three mystic-philosophers is preserved only in small fragments. A reconstruction so that the single sentences could be understood in their context is impossi­ble.

We shall proceed, therefore, by selecting groups of fragments that bear upon the basic issues in the revolt against the myth and consequently illuminate the meaning of the new order. The first such group will consist of a number of fragments from Xenophanes. He was the first thinker to challenge the authority of Homer and Hesiod on principle on the ground that they accepted the myth, as well as the anthropomorphic conception of the gods, in their work.3

Xenophanes’ Attack on the Myth

The myth had received its panhellenic form through the poets: “From the beginning [ex arches] all have learned from Homer.”4 Hence the assertion of a truth in opposition to the myth had of ne­cessity to assume the form of an attack on its creators.

Xenophanes was the first to dare it. And his attack became the paradigmatic expression of the tension between the mystic-philosopher and the poet, which still, in the fourth century, motivated Plato’s attack on Homer in the Republic. The tension did not originate in a banausic aversion to poetry–although even today critics of Plato indulge in that wild assump­tion–but was caused by the authority that the poet had acquired in Hellas.

Homer and Hesiod had transformed the primitive and local myths into the intermediate form of a speculative myth with panhellenic validity. For the area of Hellenic civilization they had acquired a public authority with regard to the right understanding of the order of human existence that corresponded to the royal and sacerdotal authorities of the Near Eastern empires. The attack of Xenophanes was directed, not against poetry (which in that bourgeois abstraction did not exist in Hellas), but against the form of the myth as an obstacle to the adequate understanding of the order of the soul.

The poetic form itself he did not question at all, but accepted it as the adequate instrument for expressing his own truth. Xenophanes primarily used the form of the silloi, of short satirical poems. Even a truth opposed to the myth still had to be couched in verse in order to appear in authoritative garb before the public; prose was not yet a vehicle of authoritative communication.

The Improper Representations vs. the Invisible Unknowable God

We arrange the pertinent fragments in three groups:

1. The attack itself was directed against the improper presen­tation of the gods. “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and disgrace among men, such as steal­ing, adultery and cheating each other” (B II). The reason for such misrepresentation Xenophanes apparently sought and found in the naïvete of the early poets. “Mortals suppose that gods are born, and have clothes, voices and bodily forms like theirs” (B 14). Men create gods in their image, down to racial differences: “Ethiopians make their gods flat-nosed and black, the Thracians let theirs have blue eyes and red hair” (B 16). And if horses and oxen and lions could make works of art like men “they would form their gods horse-like and oxen-like, each after its own kind” (B 15).

2. To such fancies Xenophanes opposed his own conception of God: “One God is greatest among gods and men, not like mortals in body or thought [noema] (B 23). The divine is a living being (zoon) though not of articulated form, for “all through it sees, all through it thinks, all through it hears” (B 24). Without effort it sways all things through its thought (B 15). “It ever abides in the self-same place and never moves; nor is it seemly [epiprepei] for it to go now hither now thither” (B 16).

3. Concerning source and certainty of his knowledge Xenophanes raised no specific claims: “The gods did not grant knowledge of all things to mortals from the beginning, but by seeking they find in time what is better” (B 18); and “there never was nor will be a man who knows about the gods and all the things I speak of. Even if by chance he should say the full truth, yet he would not know that he does so; there is fancy in all things” (B 34).

The Seemliness of Symbols

We know nothing about the larger context of these fragments; each of them must stand for itself. The arrangement in three groups does not reflect an intention of their author. The key to the understanding of the fragments lies in the word epiprepei, which means “it is seemly.” What Homer and Hesiod have to say about the gods is unseemly; what Xenophanes has to say in his turn presumably is seemly.

No criteria of seemliness, however, are given, and Fragments 18 and 34 indicate that they are in historical evolution. There is an element of fancy (dokos) in assertions concerning gods and other things whereof Xenophanes speaks; and since there are no objective criteria the full truth will not be recognized as such even if attained. Xenophanes himself might even be exposed to charges similar to the ones that he levels against Homer and Hesiod if the notions about seemliness should change. That is exactly what happened to Xenophanes in the next genera­tion at the hands of Heraclitus. For the Ephesian said: “Much learn­ing (polymathie) does not teach u nderstanding (noon); else it would have taught Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus” (B 40).

On this occasion, however, it became clear that the criteria of seemliness, although changing, were not arbitrary. For Heraclitus gave, if not a definition of criteria, at least an indication of the region of experience that authorized the notion of seemliness; in one of the fragments (B 45) he said: “You will not find the boundaries of the soul though travelling every path; so deep is its logos.” Heraclitus had discovered the soul and its dimension in depth; he could oppose “deep-knowing” (bathys) to “much-knowing” (polys). The depth of the soul revealed itself as the new source of knowledge. We shall return to this problem in the chapter on Heraclitus.

While the notion of epiprepei required considerable further elab­oration, it was, nevertheless, Xenophanes who conceived it for the first time. With his opposition to the myth of Homer and Hesiod began the conscious distinction between various types of symbolic forms that unfolded in the following centuries until it culminated in the Varronic classification of the genera theologiae as mythical, civil, and physical theology.

From Varro’s De rebus divinis and Cicero’s De natura Deorum it entered the Christian literature and developed into the Augustinian distinction between a theologia naturalis (the former physical or philosophical) and a theologia civilis (to which Saint Augustine was inclined to subordinate also the poetic or mythical theology); to both of these latter categories was then opposed the Christian theologia supranaturalis .5 

The classification of symbolic forms, thus, has a long history, beginning with Xenophanes.

The First Appearance of “Theology”

An epoch in that history was marked by Plato’s treatment of the problem in Republic 2, since it involved the creation of the term theology. In discussing the education of children who will grow into the guardians of his Politeia, Plato raised the question which kind of stories should be told to the young in order to inculcate in their souls the proper traits of character. Again the fables of Homer and Hesiod were attacked as unsuitable, and now the unsuitability was specifically characterized by the term “lie” (pseudos) (377D-E). The term pseudos continued the Hesiodian procedure (Theogony 27) of designating the older myths as falsehood (pseudea).

As examples of lies Plato gave instances of immoral conduct, violation of filial piety, wars between the gods, Gigantomachia and Titanomachia. Such lies should be replaced, in the education of the young, by stories following a more fitting pattern. And on that occasion Plato introduced the term “types of theology” (typoi peri theologias) (379A) as a technical term for such patterns. The rest of book 2 then was concerned with an exposition of the true “types.”

Plato’s exposition culminated in the notion of the “true lie” (alethes pseudos), the lie in the heart of the soul where we know about the true nature of the gods. Misconception about the gods is not an ordinary lie for which may be found extenuating cir­cumstances. It is the supreme lie that consists in an “ignorance within the soul” (en te psyche agnoia) (382A-B). The ignorance of the soul is the source of mythopoetic figments.

To the phantasmata or plasmata of the myth Plato opposed the truth of the Idea. Insofar as his own “types of theology” were concerned with goodness, changelessness, and truthfulness, Plato offered in this section of the Republic the most explicit self-interpretation of philosophy as the new theology in opposition to the types of the older myth.

Xenophanes’ Anthropomorphism

The conscious differentiation of the new theology from the myth begins with the Xenophanic epiprepei. Before we can examine the seemly and unseemly features themselves, however, we must re­move a further problem that from Xenophanes onward has agitated the philosophy of symbolic forms. Xenophanes does not simply berate the poets because they at­tribute disgraceful actions to the gods, but also develops a theory concerning the motives of such unseemly attributions, as well as a theory concerning the fallacy involved in them.

The gods, he opines, are endowed with improper attributes because man cre­ates gods in his image. This is the fallacy that modern sociolo­gists call “anthropomorphism.” According to Comte the history of human thought moves from anthropomorphic theology, through metaphysics, to positive science.

Xenophanes must be credited with the formulation of the theory that the myth is an anthro­pomorphic representation of divinity, to be superseded with the advance of insight by more appropriate symbols. Since the theory has had far-reaching consequences, we must briefly examine the nature of the problem. The characterization [by Xenophanes] of mythical symbolization as anthropomor­phic is a theoretical mistake. In the first place, the theory would require certain elementary emendations in order to be debatable at all.

Obviously, in the Greek myth the gods never were really rep­resented as human beings. The gods were distinguished from men through their immortality; they were physiologically distinguished through their living on a special diet; and they were endowed with a variety of nonhuman qualities such as superior knowledge and strength, the ability to be invisible and to change their form; and so forth. To speak of anthropomorphic representation of gods without such qualifications is as inapposite as to find angels in a Renais­sance painting represented “realistically,” overlooking the minor point that the representation of human-shaped creatures floating on clouds is in itself unrealistic.

As soon, however, as such emenda­tions are made, and the meaning of anthropomorphism is properly restricted to the representation of gods as beings who on occasion assume human shape, and talk and act like men, we become aware of the fundamental theoretical problem that such partial transfer of human qualities (which does not affect the essential divinity of the gods) may have something to do with the idea that man has of himself.

Is it not probable, we may ask, that human qualities are transferred to gods only as long as the spheres of the divine and human are not quite clearly set off against each other? That “anthropomorphism” is possible only as long as the idea of man is not too clearly differentiated? That “anthropomorphism” occurs only when it cannot occur at all because an idea of man that could be transferred to the gods has not yet developed? And that it tends to disappear precisely when a transferable idea of man has been formed at last?

The Emergence of the Psyche and its Order

As a matter of historical fact the problem of anthropomorphism becomes visible, as in the case of Xenophanes, when the psyche and its self-consciousness begins to emerge. That is the occasion on which thinkers discover that something is wrong with the rep­resentation of gods, even if they do not know precisely what is “unseemly.”

To be sure, part of the unseemliness is found in the attribution of human shape, voice, and dress to the gods; but to a much more important part, it is found in the attribution of conduct that is considered a “disgrace and reproach” among men. A new, differentiated sensitiveness of man recognizes as improper among gods what is improper among men.

With the discovery of the psyche and its order as the specifically human characteristic, the gods must live up to the new standards of man. This is the problem even of Hesiod, although in his work it does not yet break through to the level of critical discussion. The story of the Theogony is, after all, the story of the elimination of the “unseemly” gods through the Titanomachia, and of the advent of the more seemly order of Zeus and his Dike.

Xenophanes, through his very attack on Hesiod, continues the purifying operation on the myth that was begun by the earlier poet. Hence we may say that anthropomor­phic representation of gods is experienced as embarrassing when the gods do not act as a more differentiated, sensitive man would act.

Anthropomorphism appears in retrospect as a symbolization of gods that corresponds to a past phase in the self-understanding of man. The problem does not arise within any given phase of self-understanding, because in every present the symbolization of gods is in harmony with the degree of differentiation that man has reached.

The Differentiating Idea of Man and the Anima Animi

Xenophanes for instance, while criticizing Hesiod for his anthropomorphism, is not at all troubled by his own symbolization of god as a being that hears, sees, and thinks, and always abides in the same place. Behind the term anthropomorphism, which has become a scientistic cliché, hides both the process in which the idea of man differentiates and, correlatively with it, the symbolization of transcendence.

Obviously, this process has a limit. It reaches its climax when the differentiation of man has advanced to the point where the nucleus of the spiritual soul, the anima animi in the Augustinian sense, is discovered. At this ineffable point of openness toward transcendent reality, at this heart of the soul where the infusion of grace is experienced, the divinity becomes ineffable, too.

The god of the mystic is nameless, beyond dogmatic symbolization. At this climax of the process the problem of anthropomorphism dissolves into the new problem of the nomina Dei as analogical predicates of the ineffable ens perfectissimum. Insofar as this problem has through Saint Thomas received the technical name of analogia entis, the Xenophanic criticism of the myth, as well as the postulate of seemliness, is the first conscious, though still primitive, attempt at dealing with the analogy of being.6

The fallacy of interpreting an earlier complex of symbols as a ra­tional construction that would presuppose a later degree of dif­ferentiation, as we find it for the first time in Xenophanes, has remained a pattern of historical misinterpretation to this day. We must briefly consider a modern variant of the fallacy, the Animism of Tylor, because it has become a source of misunderstandings of the Hellenic history of order through the mediation of Rohde’s Psyche .7

A Modern Subversion of Transcendence

Tylor has developed the Xenophanic fallacy into a principle of historiography. “As to the religious doctrines and practices exam­ined, these are treated as belonging to theological systems devised by human reason, without supernatural aid or revelation; in other words, as being developments of Natural Religion.”The laudable resolve to treat symbols as historical phenomena, without regard to a transcendental source of inspiration, derailed (through a com­plicated chain of misunderstandings that we cannot unravel on this occasion) into the assumption that the symbolization of tran­scendence is a “system devised by human reason.”

Consistently Tylor created the figure of the “ancient savage philosopher”9 who performed the most astonishing feats of ratiocination, culminating in the doctrine of “spiritual beings.” “I purpose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spir­itual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic philosophy.”10 It is hardly necessary today to elaborate on the anachronism of projecting such concepts into primitive cultures.

Let us mention only that the “savage philosopher” speculates on the “difference between a living body and a dead one,”11 while even in Homer the idea of a living body does not yet exist; or, that the “Personal soul or spirit” possesses “the personal consciousness and volition of its corporeal owner,” 12 while again the Homeric figures have no personal soul or consciousness, and while even in Plato the meaning of volition (the Greek language, incidentally, has no word for it) is yet so undeveloped that the problems of ethics can become conscious only on occasion of concrete decisions (prohairesis).13

The Universality of the Divine

The criticism of anthropomorphic representation will appear under a new aspect if one considers the Xenophanic alternative to the Homeric and Hesiodian myth. As long as men create gods in their own image on the comparatively undifferentiated level described and criticized by Xenophanes, there will be as many different gods as there are men who indulge in such creations. Only when this primitive symbolization is abandoned will it be possible to recog­nize the “one god who is greatest” as a common god for all men, correlative to the identical humanity in all human beings.

Behind the critique of anthropomorphism there appears the experience of divine and human universality as the motivating force. Primi­tive symbolizations particularize and parochialize divinity along with humanity; a universal god for all men requires a different “type” of symbolization. When we speak of God analogically, as we must, not all analogies are equally suitable to the universality of his nature, nor to the universality of human nature. The concern about seemliness, thus, reveals itself as the concern about adequate representation of a universal god.

In the pursuit of this problem Xenophanes opposed himself to Homer and Hesiod, while actually he continued the work of the earlier poets; for the Homeric and Hesiodian creation superseded the local myths by a Panhellenic myth, while Xenophanes took the next step toward the creation of a universal divinity.

I have stressed the universalism in Xenophanes’ theology more strongly than is usually done because it seems to be an independent factor in the new type of symbolization, of equal rank with the oneness of divinity. The point is of importance for two reasons. In the first place, while Xenophanes himself does not have a spe­cial term for predicating the universality of his divinity, the problem achieves terminological differentiation already in the work of his younger contemporary, Heraclitus.

In Heraclitus’ speculation on social order the factor in the divine-one that constitutes community among men is terminologically distinguished as the xynon, as that which is “common.” The less articulate presence of the factor in Xenophanes should be noted as a matter of tracing the continuity of the problem.

Not a Debate of Theoretical Systems

The awareness of universality as an independent motif in the thought of Xenophanes will, secondly, aid us in understanding a problem that must remain puzzling as long as we fix our attention exclusively on the oneness of Xenophanes’ god. The evocation of the One God who is greatest among gods and men (B 13) is an important event in the religious history of mankind, and as such it has occasioned a debate among scholars concerning the ques­tion whether Xenophanes was a monotheistic thinker.

Some are inclined to answer the question in the affirmative. Others point to the fact that Xenophanes speaks of gods in the plural more than once and that, therefore, he should be considered a polytheist after all. Still others point to fragments like “She whom we call Iris, she too is a cloud, purple and scarlet and yellow to view” (B 32), and are ready to settle for pantheism.

The debate on this question is, in our opinion, inapposite because it misconceives the symbolization of divinity as a matter of theoretical systems. It rests on the assump­tion that “religion” consists in adherence to a “system” of proposi­tions concerning existence and nature of god.

Moreover, it assumes that a thinker is obliged to make up his mind about his adherence to one or the other of the mutually exclusive systems–for, obviously, if one assumes the existence of many gods one cannot logically assume the existence of only one god at the same time; and if one assumes the existence of one personal, transcendental god, one cannot simultaneously assume one impersonal, world-immanent divinity.

In opposition to this rationalistic attitude I should like to recall a dictum of Goethe: “As a moralist I am a monotheist; as an artist I am a polytheist; as a naturalist I am a pantheist.”

The Divine as Universal but not as One

Centuries of rational thought and secularized speculation have atrophied our awareness for the pre-speculative complexity of the experiences in which transcendence is apprehended by man. The di­vine can be experienced as universal (or common in the Heraclitian sense) without necessarily being experienced as one; Xenophanes could evoke the One God as a universal god without attaching systematic importance to the attribute of oneness. He was a re­ligious genius who discovered participation in a nameless realissimum as the essence of his humanity.

Moreover, he understood the essentiality of his discovery at least to the extent that he could express it in the symbol of a “greatest god” for all men–with the implication that the realissimum was correlative to the experienced transcendence of existence common to all human beings. It was the universality of the realissimum that made all idiosyncratic rep­resentations of particular gods appear “unseemly.”

Nevertheless, the gods who were unseemly represented were still the gods; the unseemliness concerned their representation, it did not concern their divinity. Xenophanes could well accept for himself the saying attributed to Thales: “The world is full of gods.” The universality of transcendence discovered by him did not abolish the old gods; it only improved their understanding.

We get a glimpse of this new religiousness in practice in the beautiful banquet elegy that begins:

Now that the floor is clean and the hands of all and the cups . . .

When the preparations for the banquet are made and the altar is decked with flowers, first “joyful men must hymn the God with holy tales and pure words.”

And when the banquet is in progress, and the time has come for the men to show their memory of myths, then let them not tell

. . . the battles of Titans or Giants, nor of Centaurs, these fictions [plasmata] of the men of old, nor of vehement discords, for in these things there is no worth; but ever to hold in reverence [prometheia] the gods, that is good (B 1).14

The Divinity of the One: Aristotle on Xenophanes

We have isolated one of the experiential components that went into the symbol of the “greatest god.” But there is more expressed in it than the mere experience of transcendence. For the new god is unborn, he did not come into being like the Hesiodian gods (B 14), he always stays in the same place and does not move hither and thither (B 26), and from his unmoved position he sways all things through his mind (noou phreni) (B 25).

In brief: He already bears a remarkable resemblance to the Aristotelian prime mover. The debate about a Xenophanic monotheism, while resting on erroneous assumptions, certainly is motivated by a real problem. Fortunately we are informed about the nature of the problem through some observations of Aristotle. In Metaphysics I Aristotle surveys the variants of monistic philosophy.

Parmenides under­stood the One “according to the logos”; Melissus understood it “according to matter” (hyle); Xenophanes, however, did not make any clear assertion and seemed not to have grasped the nature of either of these causes. Nevertheless, Xenophanes was the first of the thinkers about the One (henizontes), for “looking up at the expanse of the Heaven (ton holon ouranon), The One,’ he said, ‘is the God.’ “I5

According to Aristotle, thus, Xenophanes is the first of a group of monistic thinkers. As distinguished from the later Eleatics he has not yet advanced speculation to the point of inter­preting the One either as Logos or Hyle. His genius has a peculiar spiritual directness that can be sensed in the glance at the Heaven, followed by the assurance that the One is God. The most important part of this account is for us the formulation of the assurance. God is perhaps not one, but the One is the God. The experience is concerned with the One, and of this One divinity is predicated.

Speculation on the Boundless

The attribution of divinity to the One suggests that the Milesian speculation on nature (physis) has influenced the thought of Xeno­phanes; and more specifically, one can sense the influence of certain ideas of Anaximander. The Milesians had divested the problem of origin of the mythical costume that it still wore in the Hesiodian Theogony. Hesiod had carefully distinguished his archaic trinity (Chaos, Gaea, Eros) from the generations of the gods; but his pri­mordial divinities themselves still “came into being” because this was the “type” for the gods of the myth.

In the Milesian speculation on becoming (physis) the medium of the myth was abandoned, and as a consequence, one of the things or substances that were given in sense experience could be posited as the something from which the world of experienced things originated. In this sense, Thales had posited water as the origin of things. Anaximander then took the decisive step to divest the originating something of all qualities that were given in finite experience, and to posit an infinite something as the origin of the qualitatively differentiated content of the world. He called this something the Boundless, the apeiron.

It is again Aristotle who informs us about the speculation con­cerning the Apeiron:

“Everything either is a beginning or is from a beginning; of the Boundless [apeiron], however, there is no be­ginning because otherwise it would have a boundary [peras]. In so far as it is a beginning [arche] it is imperishable. For what has come into being must of necessity come to an end; and there is also an end of all that is perishable. Therefore, as we say, it [the Boundless] has no beginning [arche], but is itself the beginning of all things.”

This Apeiron “encompasses and governs all things, as say those who do not posit other causes besides the Apeiron,” as for instance the Nous of Anaxagoras or the Philia of Empedocles. And then Aristotle closes with the formulation that seems to have been the inspiration of Xenophanes: “And this is the Divine [to theion], for it is immortal and imperishable, as Anaximander and most of the natural philosophers [physiologoi] maintain.”14

Physis: Speculation on Origins

The meaning of the passage is clear enough, provided one avoids modernistic misconstructions. The physis of the Milesians is still close to the meaning of the verb phynai (to grow, to emerge); physis can, therefore, be synonymous with genesis.15 Since nature is some­thing that has grown, an inquiry into nature can attend to either the process or its result. And if the inquiry turns to the process, the problem of the beginning, as well as its dialectics, will come into view. The resulting speculation on physis will, then, be a sym­bolism intermediate between the Hesiodian theogony and the later speculation on time and creation as we find it, for instance, in Saint Augustine.

For the Milesians speculated on the origin in the manner of Hesiod, while their philosophizing was no longer bound by the form of the myth. They had achieved one of the great differentiating insights in the history of mankind when they discovered nature, as it is given in sense experience, as an autonomous realm; and their speculation moved in this new medium.

Nevertheless, while the Milesians had differentiated the realm and process of nature, even they had not yet differentiated dialectics as a logic of process and the infinite; hence, their dialectics of the Apeiron could not sepa­rate from the specific speculation on the process of nature. In this intermediate situation, on the occasion of the Milesian discovery, emerged the experience of the process of nature as infinite.

The openness of man toward nature, when it was experienced as a new type of transcendence into the boundlessness of the world, found its fit symbol in Anaximander’s Apeiron. The Milesian transcendence into nature must be ranked as an independent experience by the side of the Xenophanic universal transcendence.

The “physiologist” in the Aristotelian sense is a philosopher of transcendence in his own right, by the side of the “theologian.” The two experiences of tran­scendence, represented in the fourth century by Aristotle and Plato respectively, have remained the motivating forces of two types of philosophizing to this day.

The Unborn and Unperishable is the “Divine”

As soon, however, as the new type of transcendence was discov­ered, its relation to the transcendence of the gods became prob­lematic. The Aristotelian report is revealing with regard to this question. The “boundless” that was experienced as the beginning (arche) of all things had to be “unborn and unperishable”; it was something that “encompassed all and governed all things.” These, however, were the attributes of divinity. Hence Anaximander, rea­soning that the something was “immortal and imperishable,” en­dowed it with the predicate “the Divine.”

It is the first occasion on which the abstract to theion appeared. In Anaximander’s formula­tion the “physiological” and “theological” experiences of transcen­dence converged toward the point where the One would become the God of the “monists.” In the immanent logic of this process, there is no reason why the blending of the experiences should result in “monotheism” rather than in “pantheism.” On the contrary, the analysis shows that a fixation of theological systems was improba­ble as long as the originating experiences were alive. Moreover, the experiences were capable of variations that do not fit into any theo­logical “system”; and that was true in particular of the Xenophanic variety.

For Xenophanes’ “glance at the expanse of the Heaven” by which he recognized the One as the God was neither a speculation on physis, nor the experience of universal transcendence, but an experience sui generis in which is prefigured the religiousness of the late Plato and of Philippus of Opus, and even of the Aristotelian bios theoretikos.16



1. On the political aspects of Pythagoreanism cf. Kurt von Fritz, Pythagorean Politics in Southern Italy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), and Edwin L. Minar Jr., Early Pythagorean Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1942).

2. Order and History, I:164, 180.

3. In the following chapters all quotations from pre-Socratic thinkers, unless other sources are mentioned, refer to Hermann Diels and Walther Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 7th ed. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1954), hereafter cited as Diels-Kranz. A complete English translation of the B Fragments is available in Kathleen Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1948). Valuable as an aid is the same author’s The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946). Most of the fragments are accessible in English translation in John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed. (London: Black, 1948).

The fragments of Xenophanes are also available in the English translation of John M. Edmonds in Elegy and Iambus, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1912-1931), vol- I. The works of interpretation most frequently used are Jaeger, Paideia, vol. I; Olof Gigon, Der Ursprung der griechischen Philosophie; Jaeger, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers; and Snell, Die Entdeckung des Geistes. Basic is still Eduard Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, 6th and 7th eds. (Leipzig: Fues, 1920-1923), 1:1-2.

4.  Diels-Kranz, Xenophanes B 10.

5.  Jaeger, Theology, 1 ff., 49 ff.

6.  For the appearance of the problem of the analogia entis within the compact form of the cosmological myth cf. Order and History, 1:87.

7.   Sir Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (New York: Harper, 1871); references are to the 3d American Edition, 1889. Erwin Rohde, Psyche: Seelenkult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen (Freiburg: Wagner, 1891-1894).

8.  Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1:427.

9.  Ibid., 428.

10. Ibid., 429.

11. Ibid..

12. Ibid., 429.

13.  The criticisms should not detract from the merit that Tylor’s theory had in its time.Tylor’s Animism, as a theory of religion, was a distinct improvement over the crude assumptions entertained by anthropologists in the middle of the nineteenth century. It must be seen against the background of such views as revealed in Lang’s assertion that the aborigines of Australia have “nothing whatever of the character of religion, or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish” (Tylor, ibid., 418). The principles underlying our criticism do not substantially differ from those of Cassirer, Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen, vol. 2, Das Mythische Denken (Berlin: B. Cassirer, 1925), 191 ff. The neo-Kantian terminology, as well as the peculiar vagueness of Cassirer’s philosophical style, unfortunately deprive his argument of much of the effectiveness which in substance it has. I want to stress all the more that Cassirer’s work is still the most serious attempt to deal with the problem of the myth on principle.

14. Aristotle, Physics 3.4.203b6 ff.; Diels-Kranz, Anaximander A 15. The reliabil­ity of the passage as a correct rendering of Anaximander’s idea has been questioned. For the argument in its favor cf. Jaeger, Theology, chap. 3, especially the notes.

15. Jaeger, Theology, 20 ff.

16. Through the mediation of Aristotle this complex of experiences and specu­lations has continued as a “type” of theologizing into Western Christianity. The Xenophanic formula “the One is the God” is still recognizable in the Thomistic primum ens quod Deum dicimus (Summa Contra Gentiles 1.14). The reader should compare our analysis in the text with Saint Thomas, Contra Gentiles 1.10-14, i.e., with the classic example of the transposition of the pre-Socratic complex of experiences into the Christian medium of theologizing.


This excerpt is from Order and History (Volume II): The World of Polis (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 15) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000)

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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