On the Gods of Horses

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse 220px-Busto_Jenófanes

The Presocratic philosopher-poet Xenophanes famously noted that if horses could draw, they would draw their gods as horses. The same, he holds, goes for lions and oxen. What is the intended critical edge of such observations? Suppose it’s true that horses would draw their gods as horses. So what?

The famous Xenophanes fragment runs as follows:

If horses or oxen or lions had hands

or if they could draw with their hands and

produce works like men,

horses would draw the figures of the gods as

similar to horses, and oxen as similar to oxen,

and they would make the bodies

of the sort which each of them had.

The Christian apologist Clement of Alexandria is our source. He portrays Xenophanes as a religious reformer, one committed to criticizing anthropomorphism in religion. To construct a god in your own image, he holds, is a form of idolatry. Clement also provides another Xenophanes fragment, one that he takes to provide parallel support for this interpretation:

Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black;

Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.

The same lesson is said to follow: Humans make their gods look like themselves. But the question remains. What is the critical edge? They serve a critical religious program, but there is no overt argument in either. We hold it that the observations function as a reductio ad ridiculum.

To see this, we must make explicit what’s funny about horses drawing horse gods. In doing so, we’ll ruin the joke, for sure, but that’s philosophy. So what’s funny about horses and horse gods?

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