15 September 2005

Once More with Xenophanes

There is a point to this. I don't want to be flogging a dead horse.

It's interesting that Hussey, in his admirably concise and elegant book, makes the same unjustified leap as regards Xenophanes that McKirahan does. After citing the four extant theological fragments, Hussey claims (on p. 14):

For the first time, a conscious and deliberate attempt had been made to set up a standard of what was and was not 'reasonable' or 'fitting' in theology.
This is undeniable; that such a thing has been attempted is clear. (And yet that this is the first time is not so clear. 'Second Isaiah', notably not a 'philosopher', attempts something similar, perhaps earlier than Xenophanes.)

But then Hussey says, in the next sentence:
Everything was to be judged in terms of this standard alone, and the authority of tradition, or of a general consensus, or of a great scholar, was to count for nothing.
But why should we go on to say this? What grounds do we have for saying that Xenophanes wanted to judge everything by this standard? Why should we say that authority, tradition, consensus, and scholarly judgment (even), for Xenophanes, were to count for nothing? (Quite outrageous, really. It makes Xenophanes into a lunatic.)

This looks to me like an Enlightenment polarity, imposed upon texts where it doubtfully belongs.

One might say, "Well, we interpret Xenophanes in the context of Ionian philosophy, and that is what the Ionians accepted." --And yet Hussey argues the other way round. He says that we can understand what the Milesians thought, by beginning with Xenophanes and using Xenophanes to represent or 'shed light' on them (see p. 13). It's a circle to say: 'We can be confident that Xenophanes rejected authority and tradition because he was like the Milesians in this regard; and we can infer what the Milesians are like by working back from what Xenophanes said.'

And yet that is how Hussey reasons.