Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

|Daily Tread

Meditation on Xenophanes and Knowledge

Xenophanes, poet philosopher

From Hippolytus, in Refutation of All Heresies:

Xenophanes thinks that the earth mixes with the sea and in time is dissolved by the moisture, offering as proof the fact that shells are found in the middle of the land and on mountains; and he says that in the quarries in Syracuse there was found an impression of a fish, on Paros the impression of a goby deep in the rock, and on Malta traces of all sea-creatures. He says that these were formed long ago when everything was turned into mud—the impressions dried in the mud. All men are destroyed when the earth is carried down into the sea and turns into mud; then they begin to be born again. And this is how all the worlds begin.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:

Imagine being the first person to figure out the cause of fossils—and to get it right. (Just think of all the wrong guesses that must have floated around.) We haven’t come much further in the intervening 2,500 years in our fossil origin knowledge. Like Xenophanes, we still use fossils as our proof of the earth’s stages of development.

I’d love to be like Xenophanes and discover something. The pace of modern life, the need for multitasking just to keep up, makes it difficult to truly observe anything, let alone make those observations more incisive. I’m trying to relearn that mindset. Turn observation into play, to look upon the world around me, which I know is filled with highly scientific and rational rationales and principles, and create my own scenario for its being the way it is. And when I’ve dreamed up my own theory, I can go and look it up and see just how far off I was, to see how I would have fared as a scientist in Xenophanes’ day.

It’s a much more entertaining use of brain power than the time I spend rehearsing the list of things I must not forget at the grocery store. I’d hope more productive, too, in the long run. Alas, it’s difficult to turn off the grocery lists in my head.

Granted, with all the knowledge we have gained since Xenophanes’ day, it would be difficult to look upon something all mankind has seen already and see something no one else has seen. To have something click in just my mind, then to not just push it aside to move on with my day, but instead to stop and take heed of my unique perspective, to recognize its uniqueness, to pursue that perspective and test it, and end up discovering some fantastic principle in something so ordinary. That’s numerous obstacles to overcome to get to the buried nugget of truth.

But surely these nuggets must exist all around us, awaiting close inspection. How could we possibly know everything about the world around us? And the truth of what we do think we know keeps shifting as new discoveries are made. How can we be sure of anything?

In Strobaeus’s Anthology I, he quoted Xenophanes as saying:

Not at first did the gods reveal all things to mortals,
but in time, by inquiring, they make better discoveries.

I take that to be similar to a previous discussion here in which I asked, what if man has all the knowledge of the world in him, but is still learning how to tune it in, able to see only a tiny bit of it right now?

Through mere observation and imagination, Xenophanes constructed an entire cycle of creation and destruction. He got it right in that parts of the world were once covered in water and created those sea fossils inland. As far as we now know, the earth is not simply mud in a continual rotation of dissolution and desiccation.

But to believe our knowledge is flawless, unimpeachable, in any age, is the height of arrogance. As Robin Waterfield writes in The First Philosophers, in paraphrasing Xenophanes’ philosophy of knowledge:

We cannot attain infallible knowledge, and we are limited by the experiences we happen to have encountered. Enquiry can improve matters [see Xenophanes quote above], but even so we will never attain certainty about the big questions of life. This thesis in turn depends on a thesis about the senses: Xenophanes is implicitly saying that the reason we will never attain certain knowledge is that the information we receive through our senses is incapable of taking us there.

Xenophanes could never be assured of the truth he found. We are still arguing over his theory, though not in the manner he intended it to be interpreted:

Xenophanes’ theory fits in well with the world flood tales that preceded him in the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew story of Noah (while omitting the religious implications and causes of those tales). But what if the universe gave him a hunch that flooding is a part of a pattern, not a one-time event? Do we have any proof that it’s impossible to occur again?

The Bible does promise it will not happen again. Al Gore and his band of global warming hoaxers claim it will. As for me, this is one instance I hope Xenophanes got it wrong.


Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q5. Xenophanes was (one of) the first to reject the then-popular Homeric conception of anthropomorphic gods. What form did Xenophanes say that god took?


The Daily Apologia:

Seems as if I’m always apologizing here, so today’s apology is: I’m sorry that I posted no meditations in the last two days. Try as I might to get something up daily, I’m finding it a bit of a struggle, as meditation requires unhurried focus, something of which some days are in short supply. Rest assured that I will not give up on my attempts. It just seems that I will experience more failure than I would like on that front.

On the bright side, failure is always superb fodder for mediation, so I expect it will work its way nicely into these posts. In the meantime, if I’ve nothing new for your reflection, then please do feel free to add to the discussion on the other postings. Or even, if you dare, submit something of your own for me to post on a Prudence Delinquency Day.


Tomorrow: Heraclitus

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