La Nouvelle Théologie c. 570 – c. 475 BCE

…it is plain that Xenophanes differed considerably from the Milesians or Heraclitus or Parmenides. He was a poet with thoughtful interests, especially about religion and the gods, which led him to react against the archetype of poets and the mainstay of contemporary education, Homer. His attacks on Homeric theology must have had a deep influence both on ordinary men who heard his poems and on other thinkers … *

That is certainly one way to make your name in history – that is if you can do it well, pithily, and survive the task. I’m speaking of the personal assault against the centre of your society’s and culture’s canonical authority. And that apparently is what Xenophon of Colophon managed to do. The Olympian gods as depicted by Homer and Hesiod were, he pointed out, immoral by man on the Clapham omnibus standards. Anthropomorphic deities are absurd in any case, he suggested. And comparative religious analysis demonstrates that different peoples and cultures ascribe to their gods their own characteristics. Shades of Durkheim, that, if these anthropomorphic gods are being accused of being mere hypostatisations of their originate cultures. And so, and so, Homer must go.

But instead, claimed Xenophon, there is:

One god, greatest among gods and men, in no way similar to mortals either in body or in thought. (Fragment 23, Clement Strom, V, 109, 1)

Always he remains in the same place, moving not at all; nor is it fitting for him to go to different places at different times, but without toil he shakes all things by the thought of his mind. (Fragment 26 = 25, Simplicius in Phys. 23, 11 + 23, 20)

All of him sees, all thinks, and all hears. (Fragment 24, Sextus adv. math. IX, 144)

…but with his [Xenophon’s] eye on the whole heaven he says that the One is god. (Aristotle Met. A5, 986b21) **

To clarify, he was not a pantheist, but rather conceived of the Deity as the great unseen “somehow permeating objects in the world and giving them life and movement.”*** In short, to grok Xenophon sing a soul-crushing-and-or-enthralling (depends on you I guess) hymn like Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise to yourself repeatedly. Then remind yourself that Anglicans, Lutherans, Free Church Types and Allsorts sing this hymn with zest and zeal and no trace of irony. Then laugh. Or cry. Or just google something else to read next. Which of these depends on you I guess.

* Kirk, Raven & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1983), 167.

** Translations from Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 169-171.

*** Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 172.


About J. Rhombohedral Hematite

Not a Theoblogger. Nota bene.
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7 Responses to La Nouvelle Théologie c. 570 – c. 475 BCE

  1. John H says:

    I like Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise, he said sulkily.


  2. Just as well since, like its subject matter, it is ubiquitous. It was unlikely to have been sung in the apostolic era if, on the evidence of Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan, Christians “were accustomed to gather on a fixed day before dawn to sing songs antiphonally to Christ as to a god.” But I digress since this blog is not at all about theology. 😉

  3. Or, to answer Hippolytus of Rome’s rhetorical question:
    Q: “Who does not know about all the hymns written from the beginning, which sing of the Christ as the Word of God and treat him as God?”
    A: Walter Chalmers Smith, apparently.
    But none of this commentary, much more suitable for a theological blog which this is not I might add, pertains to Xenophon of Colophon who is pretty awesome by pagan Ionian standards.

    • John H says:

      If this were a theological blog, which of course it isn’t, I might observe that I probably only like Immortal, Invisible because it isn’t the only hymn we sing. Just as Revelation 4:11 isn’t the only hymn sung in heaven. But it is sung. 🙂

  4. Too true. Well, if I were a theoblogger (which I’m not) I probably would have gone to a seminary somewhere to learn how to construct theological arguments that disparage the hymns whose tunes I don’t particularly like. Clearly, I’m not a theoblogger so my attitude towards that hymn is a different sort of prejudice altogether. 😉 It’s hard to change the estimation of many types of people about Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite hymn without resorting to reductio ad absurdum

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