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Gods vs Philosophers

Updated: 5 days ago

Get to grips with Greek Religion in five minutes in this blog series! If you’re an A Level Classics or Ancient History student, each of these blog posts are a five-minute summary of some of the main topics you will need for your exams. For university-level scholars or independent researchers, we’ve included clickable links to useful literature and canonical scholarship you need to be acquainted with to get started.


In this post, meet the Greek philosophers who dared to challenge the gods!

In recent posts, we’ve talked about the origins of Greek religion according to canonical thinkers like Hesiod, typical views of the relationship between gods and mortals and the gods as they appear in the epics of Homer.


However, not everyone in the Greek world shared these views. During the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., Socrates, Presocratic philosophers (philosophers who lived before Socrates) and Sophists (teachers of argument) began to question these accounts.




Xenophanes was a poet and philosopher who lived in and travelled around Greece during the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C.E. Unlike Homer, Xenophanes stresses the gods’ inaccessibility rather than their presence; he stresses the otherness of divinity rather than its humanity.


Xenophanes criticises Homer and Hesiod for depicting the gods as being like humans. Just because we wear clothes, and have voice and shape, Xenophanes thinks that we have no right to assume this to be true of the gods, of which we have no experience. In fact, this kind of reasoning can lead to grave distortions: as Xenophanes points out, horses would probably say that gods look like horses, if they were asked.


Xenophanes asks what claims we would make about the world if we had less experience, and finds that that they would be different to the claims that we make now: “If god had not made yellow honey, men would consider figs far sweeter.”


Nevertheless, Xenophanes does acknowledge the capacity of man’s rational faculties, but we must be tenacious. As he says, “Yet the gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning; but by seeking men find out better in time.”


Whereas Homer and Hesiod were polytheists, Xenophanes was possibly henotheistic, believing in many divine beings, but also the existence of “One god greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought.”



Protagoras was a Sophist, a teacher of rhetoric who came to Athens to teach young men how to win arguments in preparation for their political careers.


Protagoras is famously agnostic, denying knowledge of the gods’ existence and saying, “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist, nor whether they do not exist, nor of what kind they are in form.”


This does not stop Protagoras from including religious elements the Constitution at Thurii, which he is asked to write by the great Athenian statesman Pericles (click the link to read more about Protagoras’ political activities). 


Diogenes of Oenoanda, an Epicurean writing in the second century C.E., claims that Protagoras is an atheist, absolutely denying the existence of the gods. However, we have good reason to doubt the accuracy of this when reconstructing Classical Greek philosophy


The more likely interpretation is that Protagoras is genuinely agnostic: he does not know whether the gods exist. This would fit in with his argument that absolute knowledge is impossible, and his famous statement that “man is the measure of all things.”




Socrates is one of the most renowned thinkers in Western philosophy and the teacher of the great philosopher Plato. He was also famously put to death by the state of Athens, partly because of his religious views.


The exact charges against Socrates were both religious and political. The political charge was of corrupting the young. The religious charges were subdivided into “not duly acknowledging the gods whom the polis acknowledges” and “introducing other new divinities.”


At his trial, Socrates is careful to point out that he does respect the Greek gods. He distinguishes himself from philosophers who ignore the gods in favour of naturalistic explanations and appeals to Apollo for support. In some sources, Socrates is said to regularly acknowledge the gods through sacrifice.


We do have records of Socrates’ controversial ideas about religion. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates questions whether morality comes from the gods or whether it is something separate, saying “…that which is dear to the gods and that which is holy are not identical, but differ one from the other.”  In other ways, Socrates presents the gods as being typically Homeric: he acknowledges that the gods quarrel like humans, for the same kinds of reasons as humans.


Certainly, Socrates’ challenges to traditional religious ideas were controversial. As Paul Cartledge argues, some of his views “would have astonished an audience brought up on Homer.”


In terms of introducing new gods, Socrates does claim to have a daimonion, a divine voice that sometimes cautions him not to do certain things. As Cartledge argues, it is possible that Socrates’ prosecutor Meletus was able to convince the jury that this was dangerous, the kind of entity that could not be bargained with or controlled by the state (perhaps one of the entities that lurked around the Greek underworld).

These philosophers lived during what is known as the Greek Enlightenment, in which the development of mathematics and the beginnings of science meant that there was a growing faith that the universe was rational and knowable (click the link to read about how Presocratic philosopher Thales was a part of this trend). Rather than being at the mercy of the whims of the gods, people could take more control of their own lives, an exciting - but dangerous - possibility.


In our next post, take a closer look at religion in Athens!


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As we have no surviving works by earlier philosophers, it’s difficult to be sure of their exact views. With a little philosophical detective work, though, it is possible to reconstruct their arguments. Click the link to listen to my lecture on reconstructing Ancient sources in this period.


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