Text #9165"Empedocles", in .
Empedocles (c. 490 – c. 430 BC) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher and a citizen of Agrigentum, a Greek city in Sicily. Empedocles’ philosophy is best known for being the originator of the cosmogenic theory of the four Classical elements. He also proposed powers called Love and Strife which would act as forces to bring about the mixture and separation of the elements. These physical speculations were part of a history of the universe which also dealt with the origin and development of life. Influenced by the Pythagoreans, he supported the doctrine of reincarnation. Empedocles is generally considered the last Greek philosopher to record his ideas in verse. Some of his work survives, more than in the case of any other Presocratic philosopher. Empedocles’ death was mythologized by ancient writers, and has been the subject of a number of literary treatments.
Empedocles was born, c. 490 BC, at Agrigentum (Acragas) in Sicily to a distinguished family. Very little is known about his life. His father Meto seems to have been instrumental in overthrowing the tyrant of Agrigentum, presumably Thrasydaeus in 470 BC. Empedocles continued this tradition by helping to overthrow the succeeding oligarchic government. He is said to have been magnanimous in his support of the poor; severe in persecuting the overbearing conduct of the oligarchs; and he even declined the sovereignty of the city when it was offered to him.
His brilliant oratory, his penetrating knowledge of nature, and the reputation of his marvellous powers, including the curing of diseases, and averting epidemics, produced many myths and stories surrounding his name. He was said to have been a magician and controller of storms, and he himself, in his famous poem Purifications seems to have promised miraculous powers, including the destruction of evil, the curing of old age, and the controlling of wind and rain.
Empedocles was acquainted or connected by friendship with the physicians Pausanias (his eromenos) and Acron; with various Pythagoreans; and even, it is said, with Parmenides and Anaxagoras. The only pupil of Empedocles who is mentioned is the sophist and rhetorician Gorgias.
Timaeus and Dicaearchus spoke of the journey of Empedocles to the Peloponnese, and of the admiration, which was paid to him there; others mentioned his stay at Athens, and in the newly founded colony of Thurii, 446 BC; there are also fanciful reports of him travelling far to the east to the lands of the Magi.
According to Aristotle, he died at the age of sixty (c. 430 BC), even though other writers have him living up to the age of one hundred and nine. Likewise, there are myths concerning his death: a tradition, which is traced to Heraclides Ponticus, represented him as having been removed from the Earth; whereas others had him perishing in the flames of Mount Etna.
We possess only about 100 lines of his Purifications. It seems to have given a mythical account of the world which may, nevertheless, have been part of Empedocles’ philosophical system. It was probably this work which contained a story about souls, where we are told that there were once spirits who lived in a state of bliss, but having committed a crime (the nature of which is unknown) they were punished by being forced to become mortal beings, reincarnated from body to body. Humans, animals, and even plants are such spirits. The moral conduct recommended in the poem may allow us to become like gods again.
There are about 450 lines of his poem On Nature extant, including 70 lines which have been reconstructed from some papyrus scraps known as the Strasbourg Papyrus. The poem originally consisted of 2000 lines of hexameter verse, and was addressed to Pausanias. It was this poem which outlined his philosophical system. In it, Empedocles explains not only the nature and history of the universe, including his theory of the four classical elements, but he describes theories on causation, perception, and thought, as well as explanations of terrestrial phenomena and biological processes.
Although acquainted with the theories of the Eleatics and the Pythagoreans, Empedocles did not belong to any one definite school. An eclectic in his thinking, he combined much that had been suggested by Parmenides, Pythagoras and the Ionian schools. He was a firm believer in Orphic mysteries, as well as a scientific thinker and a precursor of physical science. Aristotle mentions Empedocles among the Ionic philosophers, and he places him in very close relation to the atomist philosophers and to Anaxagoras.
Empedocles, like the Ionian philosophers and the atomists, continued the tradition of tragic thought which tried to find the basis of the relationship of the one and many. Each of the various philosophers, following Parmenides, derived from the Eleatics the conviction that an existence could not pass into non-existence, and vice versa. Yet, each one had his peculiar way of describing this relation of Divine and mortal thought and thus of the relation of the One and the Many. In order to account for change in the world, in accordance with the ontological requirements of the Eleatics, they viewed changes as the result of mixture and separation of unalterable fundamental realities. Empedocles held that the four elements (Water, Air, Earth, and Fire) were those unchangeable fundamental realities, which were themselves transfigured into successive worlds by the powers of Love and Strife (Heraclitus had explicated the Logos or the “unity of opposites”).
Empedocles established four ultimate elements which make all the structures in the world—fire, air, water, earth. Empedocles called these four elements “roots”, which he also identified with the mythical names of Zeus, Hera, Nestis, and Aidoneus.
The four elements, however, are simple, eternal, and unalterable, and as change is the consequence of their mixture and separation, it was also necessary to suppose the existence of moving powers to bring about mixture and separation. The four elements are both eternally brought into union and parted from one another by two divine powers, Love and Strife. Love (φιλότης) is responsible for the attraction of different forms of matter, and Strife (νεῖκος) is the cause for their separation.
As the best and original state, there was a time when the pure elements and the two powers co-existed in a condition of rest and inertness in the form of a sphere. The elements existed together in their purity, without mixture and separation, and the uniting power of Love predominated in the sphere: the separating power of Strife guarded the extreme edges of the sphere.[ Since that time, strife gained more sway and the bond which kept the pure elementary substances together in the sphere was dissolved. The elements became the world of phenomena we see today, full of contrasts and oppositions, operated on by both Love and Strife. The sphere being the embodiment of pure existence is the embodiment or representative of God. Empedocles assumed a cyclical universe whereby the elements return and prepare the formation of the sphere for the next period of the universe.
Empedocles is credited with the first comprehensive theory of light and vision. He put forward the idea that we see objects because light streams out of our eyes and touches them. While flawed in hindsight, this became the fundamental basis on which later Greek philosophers and mathematicians, such as Euclid, would construct some of the most important theories on light, vision and optics.
Knowledge is explained by the principle that the elements in the things outside us are perceived by the corresponding elements in ourselves. Like is known by like. The whole body is full of pores and hence respiration takes place over the whole frame. In the organs of sense these pores are specially adapted to receive the effluences which are continually rising from bodies around us; and in this way perception is explained. Thus in vision, certain particles go forth from the eye to meet similar particles given forth from the object, and the resultant contact constitutes vision. Perception is not merely a passive reflection of external objects.
Empedocles noted the limitation and narrowness of human perceptions. We see only a part, but fancy that we have grasped the whole. But the senses cannot lead to truth; thought and reflection must look at the thing on every side. It is the business of a philosopher, while laying bare the fundamental difference of elements, to display the identity that exists between what seem unconnected parts of the universe.
Like Pythagoras, Empedocles believed in the transmigration of the soul, that souls can be reincarnated between humans, animals and even plants. For Empedocles, all living things were on the same spiritual plane; plants and animals are links in a chain where humans are a link too. Empedocles urged a vegetarian lifestyle, since the bodies of animals are the dwelling places of punished souls. Wise people, who have learned the secret of life, are next to the divine, and their souls, free from the cycle of reincarnations, are able to rest in happiness for eternity.
Kingsley, Peter (1995). Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Kirk, G. S.; J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield (1983). The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Millerd, Clara Elizabeth (1908). On the interpretation of Empedocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wright, M. R. (1995). Empedocles: The Extant Fragments (new ed.). London: Bristol Classical Press.