30 October 2008

Gods As We See Them

I've been thinking about some sayings attributed to Xenophanes in connection with a passage from NE VI.  I'll say what the connection is tomorrow, but for now the sayings, which you know, and some comments:

 Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men:  theft, adultery, and mutual deception. (B11)

Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired. (B16)

But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own-horses like horses, cattle like cattle. (B17)


1.  Wikipedia expresses a common view in saying that Xenophanes is ridiculing what he describes.  But what in the Greek (see below) suggests ridicule?   I've heard Jim Lesher in a lecture point out how hard it is to judge whether a remark in an early Greek writer is meant to be a joke.  In fact Lesher remarks,  conservatively, in his SEP article, merely that "Xenophanes comments on the general tendency of human beings to conceive of divine beings in human form".

2.  What is the argument which leads from "oxen and lions would draw the gods as like themselves" to "gods lack bodies" (or to whatever the conclusion is supposed to be)?

3. I don't think it is sufficiently appreciated by commentators how what is ascribed to gods (in these passages) are shapes and appearances conceived of as good (beautiful).  Isn't the thought that Ethiopians find black skin and the snub noses lovely--that's why they represent the gods in that way.   Presumably they are right to take the gods to be beautiful.  And perhaps that's also why it's a mistake to ascribe adultery, theft, and fraud to the gods, as Xenophanes says elsewhere.  (Lesher says that Xenophanes is supposing that "an attribution of scandalous conduct would be incompatible with the goodness or perfection any divine being must be assumed to possess" -- yes, if you are using 'goodness' in the sense of what gives appeal, not for what we might call 'moral' goodness.)

πάντα θεοῖσ' ἀνέθηκαν Ὅμηρός θ' Ἡσίοδός τε,  

ὅσσα παρ' ἀνθρώποισιν ὀνείδεα καὶ ψόγος ἐστίν,

κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.

ὡς πλεῖστ' ἐφθέγξαντο θεῶν ἀθεμίστια ἔργα,

κλέπτειν μοιχεύειν τε καὶ ἀλλήλους ἀπατεύειν.


ἀλλ' εἰ χεῖρας ἔχον βόες [ἵπποι τ'] ἠὲ λέοντες

ἢ γράψαι χείρεσσι καὶ ἔργα τελεῖν ἅπερ ἄνδρες,

ἵπποι μέν θ' ἵπποισι, βόες δέ τε βουσὶν ὁμοίας

καί <κε> θεῶν ἰδέας ἔγραφον καὶ σώματ' ἐποίουν

τοιαῦθ', οἷόν περ καὐτοὶ δέμας εἶχον <ἕκαστοι>.  


Αἰθίοπές τε <θεοὺς σφετέρους> σιμοὺς μέλανάς τε

Θρῆικές τε γλαυκοὺς καὶ πυρρούς <φασι πέλεσθαι>. 


James Warren said...

This may not help with all your questions, but I think the following premises are needed but are not explicitly offered in the extant fragments (perhaps because X. felt them obvious or otherwise in no need of defence).

1. There are gods.

By this I mean there is one set of gods. The Ethiopians are trying to depict 'the' gods (not just 'their' gods) as are the Thracians. They disagree about what they look like. This would let us say only that they cannot both be right. The thought experiment about cows' gods is meant to incline us to an explanation of why the Thracians depict the gods as they do and the Ethopians as they do (groups depict the gods as they themselves appear), and therefore to the thought that 'the' gods are neither as the Thracians nor the Egyptians depict them.

2. Gods are superior to humans.

This superiority is both ethical (gods would not do things that would bring censure if even a mortal did it) and of other kinds (god should accomplish what he accomplishes without effort, his cognitive apparatus is not hampered by his anatomy so 'all of him sees etc.').

I don't by the way, see where it might be shown that X.'s gods lack bodies.

Best, James

Michael Pakaluk said...

I like your no. 1 -- this seems an assumption of objectivity, 'we are all talking about the same thing', and thus we can contradict each other. Relativism (Gandhi's "all religions are true") is rejected.

That some optimizing principle is at work (your no. 2) is plausible, to be sure.

I agree that it's hard to see how incorporeality would follow (although one might have other grounds for ascribing it to X.).

Anonymous said...

I don't see the idea that people ascribe certain features to the gods because they consider those features beautiful in the fragments. It's true that Xenophanes would probably agree that they consider those features beautiful, but nothing in the text suggests that he thinks that that does any explanatory work. If anything, the cattle and lions fragments suggests that it is the similarity to themselves that is explanatory.

Whether or not Xenophanes is 'ridiculing' these ideas, the assumption that he is criticizing them (i.e., trying to supply reasons to reject them) falls pretty naturally out of the fact that he clearly disagrees with them. Though it's true that the fragments don't explicitly make Xenophanes' god(s) incorporeal, 'not at all like mortals in body or in thought' sounds about as anti-anthropomorphic as one could get without explicitly rejecting corporeality or intelligence.

For what it's worth, X's rejection of ascribing immoral behavior to the gods may not presuppose that the divine is morally excellent -- it may simply presuppose that applying moral predicates to the divine is a kind of category mistake, just like imagining that they have noses.

Anonymous said...

Furthermore, ascription of immoral behavior to the gods tells in favor of taking similarity, and not beauty or approval, as the factor that explains why people make the ascriptions that they make. Of course, if X. believes that people actually approve of immoral behavior and find it beautiful, then the idea might make sense -- but we have no reason to think that Xenophanes believed that.