Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

17

The Recovery of Greek Thought

1. 'RATIONALIZING THE GODS': DISPUTING XENOPHANES

Realization that it was the ancient Greeks, not the Mesopotamians or Egyptians, who invented philosophy lent Greek thought and culture a wholly new status in the history of Man. Humanists had granted the Greeks and Romans a unique status as regards rhetoric, eloquence, and literary achievement but not as regards Man's spiritual and intellectual development. Whether one viewed the matter from a neo-Eclectic perspective like Heumann, or accepted Bayle's sweeping claims about the achievements of the Greek philosophers, these new perspectives now assumed a critical importance in intellectual life. For Bayle's conception, in particular, imparted a potentially crucial significance to a Greek 'revolution' perceived by some as being Man's first great 'enlightenment'—the Presocratics' discovery of philosophical argument and criticism.

Among the most vigorously debated of the Presocratics before 1750 was Xenophanes of Colophon (c.570–c.478 BC), the Ionian poet-philosopher born, it is thought, around 560 BC but who seemingly lived down to the 470s. Most of Xenophanes' literary and intellectual output was produced probably towards the end of the sixth century, or soon after, but survived only in a few fragments and brief reports by later authors. For the Early Enlightenment the question what precisely he had thought developed, for the first time since the Hellenistic age, thanks especially to the historico-philosophical enquiries of Bayle, into a full-scale controversy.1 Whether one classes Xenophanes, as a few modern scholars have, among the more influential, as well as earliest, representatives of the Presocratic 'Enlightenment', or believes his role has been exaggerated, the Enlightenment turned him into one of the most important precursors of the esprit philosophique of the eighteenth century as well as most active in transferring the centre of gravity in human knowledge, following the Persian conquest of Anatolia, to the Greek fringes of Italy and Sicily.

From both the moderate and radical perspectives, Xenophanes became a key exemplum. His native Colophon, about the founding of which he reportedly composed a poem, stood near Ephesus not far from the then thriving maritime city

1 Cantelli, Teologia, 232–3, 239.

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