Empedocles, 17th century engraving
|Full name||Empedocles (Ἐμπεδοκλῆς)|
|Main interests||cosmogenesis and ontology|
|Notable ideas||All matter is made up of four elements: water, earth, air and fire.|
Empedocles (Ancient Greek: Ἐμπεδοκλῆς; ca. 490–430 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 origin 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 still survives today, more so 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 the democratic tradition of his house 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 aristocrats; 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 Acron and Pausanias, who was his eromenos; 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.
Empedocles is considered the last Greek philosopher to write in verse and the surviving fragments of his teaching are from two poems, Purifications and On Nature. Empedocles was undoubtedly acquainted with the didactic poems of Xenophanes and Parmenides - allusions to the latter can be found in the fragments, - but he seems to have surpassed them in the animation and richness of his style, and in the clearness of his descriptions and diction. Aristotle called him the father of rhetoric, and, although he acknowledged only the meter as a point of comparison between the poems of Empedocles and the epics of Homer, he described Empedocles as Homeric and powerful in his diction. Lucretius speaks of him with enthusiasm, and evidently viewed him as his model. The two poems together comprised 5000 lines. About 550 lines of his poetry survive, although because ancient writers rarely mentioned which poem they were quoting, it is not always certain to which poem the quotes belong. Some scholars now believe that there was only one poem, and that the Purifications merely formed the beginning of On Nature.
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. The first lines of the poem are preserved by Diogenes Laërtius:
Friends who inhabit the mighty town by tawny Acragas
which crowns the citadel, caring for good deeds,
greetings; I, an immortal God, no longer mortal,
wander among you, honoured by all,
adorned with holy diadems and blooming garlands.
To whatever illustrious towns I go,
I am praised by men and women, and accompanied
by thousands, who thirst for deliverance,
some ask for prophecies, and some entreat,
for remedies against all kinds of disease.
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 both 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, tried to find the basis of all change. They did not, like Heraclitus, consider coming into existence and motion as the existence of things, and rest and tranquillity as the non-existence. This is because they had derived from the Eleatics the conviction that an existence could not pass into non-existence, and vice versa. In order to allow change to occur in the world, against the views of the Eleatics, they viewed changes as the result of mixture and separation of unalterable substances. Thus Empedocles said that a coming into existence from a non-existence, as well as a complete death and annihilation, are impossible; what we call coming into existence and death is only mixture and separation of what was mixed.
It was Empedocles who established four ultimate elements which make all the structures in the world - fire, air, water, earth. Empedocles called these four elements "roots", which, in typical fashion, he also identified with the mythical names of Zeus, Hera, Nestis, and Aidoneus. Empedocles never used the term "element" (Greek: στοιχεῖον) (stoicheion), which seems to have been first used by Plato. According to the different proportions in which these four indestructible and unchangeable elements are combined with each other the difference of the structure is produced. It is in the aggregation and segregation of elements thus arising, that Empedocles, like the atomists, found the real process which corresponds to what is popularly termed growth, increase or decrease. Nothing new comes or can come into being; the only change that can occur is a change in the juxtaposition of element with element. This theory of the four elements became the standard dogma for the next two thousand years.
The four elements are, however, 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 eternally brought into union, and eternally parted from each other, by two divine powers, Love and Strife. Love (Greek: φιλία) explains the attraction of different forms of matter, and Strife (Greek: νεῖκος) accounts for their separation. If the elements are the content of the universe, then Love and Strife explain their variation and harmony. Love and Strife are attractive and repulsive forces which the ordinary eye can see working amongst people, but which really pervade the universe. They alternately hold empire over things, - neither, however, being ever quite absent.
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 phænomena 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.
Since the time of the sphere, Strife has gained more sway; and the actual world is full of contrasts and oppositions, due to the combined action of both principles. Empedocles attempted to explain the separation of elements, the formation of earth and sea, of sun and moon, of atmosphere. He also dealt with the first origin of plants and animals, and with the physiology of humans. As the elements entered into combinations, there appeared strange results - heads without necks, arms without shoulders. Then as these fragmentary structures met, there were seen horned heads on human bodies, bodies of oxen with human heads, and figures of double sex. But most of these products of natural forces disappeared as suddenly as they arose; only in those rare cases where the parts were found to be adapted to each other, did the complex structures last. Thus the organic universe sprang from spontaneous aggregations, which suited each other as if this had been intended. Soon various influences reduced the creatures of double sex to a male and a female, and the world was replenished with organic life. It is possible (although anachronistic) to see this theory as a crude anticipation of Darwin's theory of natural selection.
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.
Diogenes Laërtius records the legend that he died by throwing himself into an active volcano (Mount Etna in Sicily), so that people would believe his body had vanished and he had turned into an immortal god; however, the volcano threw back one of his bronze sandals, revealing the deceit. Another legend has it that he threw himself in the volcano to prove to his disciples that he was immortal; he believed he would come back as a god among man after being devoured by the fire.
In Icaro-Menippus, a comedic dialogue written by the second century satirist Lucian of Samosata, Empedocles’s final fate is re-evaluated. Rather than being incinerated in the fires of Mount Etna, he was carried up into the heavens by a volcanic eruption. Although a bit singed by the ordeal, Empedocles survives and continues his life on the moon, surviving by feeding on dew.
Empedocles' death has inspired two major modern literary treatments. Empedocles's death is the subject of Friedrich Hölderlin's play Tod des Empedokles (Death of Empedocles), two versions of which were written between the years 1798 and 1800. A third version was made public in 1826. In Matthew Arnold's poem Empedocles on Etna, a narrative of the philosopher's last hours before he jumps to his death in the crater first published in 1852, Empedocles predicts:
Quotations are cited from Arthur Fairbanks (ed. and trans.) The First Philosophers of Greece (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1898).
EMPEDOCLES (c. 490-430 B.C.), Greek philosopher and statesman, was born at Agrigentum (Acragas, Girgenti) in Sicily of a distinguished family, then at the height of its glory. His grandfather Empedocles was victorious in the Olympian chariot race in 496; in 4 70 his father Meto was largely instrumental in the overthrow of the tyrant Thrasydaeus. We know almost nothing of his life. The numerous legends which have grown up round his name yield very little that can fairly be regarded as authentic. It seems that he carried on the democratic tradition of his house by helping to overthrow an oligarchic government which succeeded the tyranny in Agrigentum, and was invited by the citizens to become their king. That he refused the honour may have been due to a real enthusiasm for free institutions or to the prudential recognition of the peril which in those turbulent times surrounded the royal dignity. Ultimately a change in the balance of parties compelled him to leave the city, and he died in the Peloponnese of the results of an accident in 430.
Of his poem on nature (ct)uvns) there are left about 4 00 lines in unequal fragments out of the original 5000; of the hymns of purification (KaOap,uoi) less than loo verses remain; of the other works, improbably assigned to him, nothing is known. His grand but obscure hexameters, after the example of Parmenides, delighted Lucretius. Aristotle, it is said, called him the father of rhetoric. But it was as at once statesman, prophet, physicist, physician and reformer that he most impressed the popular imagination. To his contemporaries, as to himself, he seemed more than a mere man. The Sicilians honoured his august aspect as he moved amongst them with purple robes and golden girdle, with long hair bound by a Delphic garland, and brazen sandals on his feet, and with a retinue of slaves behind him. Stories were told of the ingenuity and generosity by which he had made the marshes round Selinus salubrious, of the grotesque device by which he laid the winds that ruined the harvests of Agrigentum, and of the almost miraculous restoration to life of a woman who had long lain in a death-like trance. Legends stranger still told of his disappearance from among men. Empedocles, according to one story, was one midnight, after a feast held in his honour, called away in a blaze of glory to the gods; according to another, he had only thrown himself into the crater of Etna, in the hope that men, finding no traces of his end, would suppose him translated to heaven. But his hopes were cheated by the volcano, which cast forth his brazen sandals and betrayed his secret (Diog. Laert. viii. 67). The people of A.grigentum have never ceased to honour his name, and even in modern times he has been celebrated by followers of Mazzini as the democrat of antiquity par excellence. As his history is uncertain, so his doctrines are hard to put together. He does not belong to any one definite school. While, on one hand, he combines much that had been suggested by Parmenides, Pythagoras and the Ionic schools, he has germs of truth that Plato and Aristotle afterwards developed; he is at once a firm believer in Orphic mysteries, and a scientific thinker, precursor of the physical scientists. There are, according to Empedocles, four ultimate elements, four primal divinities, of which are made all structures in the world - fire, air, water, earth. These four elements are eternally brought into union, and eternally parted from each other, by two divine beings or powers, love and hatred - an attractive and a repulsive force which the ordinary eye can see working amongst men, but which really pervade the whole world. According to the different proportions in which these four indestructible and unchangeable matters are combined with each other is the difference of the organic structure produced; e.g. flesh and blood are made of equal (in weight but not in volume) parts of all four elements, whereas bones are one-half fire, one-fourth earth, and one-fourth water. It is in the aggregation and segregation of elements thus arising that Empedocles, like the atomists, finds the real process which corresponds to what is popularly termed growth, increase or decrease. Nothing new comes or can come into being; the only change that can occur is a change in the juxtaposition of element with element.
Empedocles apparently regarded love (4 tX6r s) and discord (veixos) as alternately holding the empire over things, - neither, however, being ever quite absent. As the best and original state, he seems to have conceived a period when love was predominant, and all the elements formed one great sphere or globe. Since that period discord had gained more sway; and the actual world was full of contrasts and oppositions, due to the combined action of both principles. His theory attempted to explain the separation of elements, the formation of earth and sea, of sun and moon, of atmosphere. But the most interesting and most matured part of his views dealt with the first origin of plants and animals, and with the physiology of man. As the elements (his deities) entered into combinations, there appeared quaint results - heads without necks, arms without shoulders. Then as these fragmentary structures met, there were seen horned heads on human bodies, bodies of oxen with men's heads, and figures of double sex. But most of these products of natural forces disappeared as suddenly as they arose; only in those rare cases where the several parts were found adapted to each other, and casual member fitted into casual member, did the complex structures thus formed last. Thus from spontaneous aggregations of casual aggregates, which suited each other as if this had been intended, did the organic universe originally spring. Soon various influences reduced the creatures of double sex to a male and a female, and the world was replenished with organic life. It is impossible not to see in this theory a crude anticipation of the "survival of the fittest" theory of modern evolutionists.
As man, animal and plant are composed of the same elements in different proportions, there is an identity of nature in them all. They all have sense and understanding; in man, however, and especially in the blood at his heart, mind has its peculiar seat. But mind is always dependent upon the body, and varies with its changing constitution. Hence the precepts of morality are with Empedocles largely dietetic.
Knowledge is explained by the principle that the several elements in the things outside us are perceived by the corresponding elements in ourselves. We know only in so far as we have within us a nature cognate to the object of knowledge. Like is known by like. The whole body is full of pores, and hence respiration takes place over the whole frame. But in the organs of sense these pores are specially adapted to receive the effluxes which are continually rising from bodies around us; and in this way perception is somewhat obscurely explained. The theory, however unsatisfactory as an explanation, has one great merit, that it recognizes between the eye, for instance, and the object seen an intermediate something. Certain particles go forth from the eye to meet similar particles given forth from the object, and the resultant contact constitutes vision. This idea contains within it the germ of the modern idea of the subjectivity of sense-given data; perception is not merely a passive reflection of external objects.
It is not easy to harmonize these quasi-scientific theories with the theory of transmigration of souls which Empedocles seems to expound. Probably the doctrine that the divinity (5ait.cwv) passes from element to element, nowhere finding a home, is a mystical way of teaching the continued identity of the principles which are at the bottom of every phase of development from inorganic nature to man. At the top of the scale are the prophet and the physician, those who have best learned the secret of life; they are next to the divine. One law, an identity of elements, pervades all nature; existence is one from end to end; the plant and the animal are links in a chain where man is a link too; and even the distinction between male and female is transcended. The beasts are kindred with man; he who eats their flesh is not much better than a cannibal.
Looking at the opposition between these and the ordinary opinions, we are not surprised that Empedocles notes the limitation and narrowness of human perceptions. We see, he says, but a part, and 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 he lays bare the fundamental difference of elements, to display the identity that subsists between what seem unconnected parts of the universe.
See Diog. Laert. viii. 51 -77; Sext. Empiric. Adv. math. vii. 123; Simplicius, Phys. f. 24, f. 76. For text Simon Karsten, "Empedoclis Agrigenti carminum reliquiae," in Reliq. phil. vet. (Amsterdam, 1838); F. W. A. Mullach, Fragmenta philosophorum Graecorum, vol. i.; H. Stein, Empedoclis Agrigenti fragmenta (Bonn, 1882); H. Ritter and L. Preller, Historia philosophiae (4th ed., Gotha, 1869), chap. iii. ad fin.; A. Fairbanks, The First Philosophers of Greece (1898). Verse translation, W. E. Leonard (1908). For criticism E. Zeller, Phil. der Griechen (Eng. trans. S. F. Alleyne, 2 vols., London, 1881); A. W. Benn, Greek Philosophers (1882); J. A. Symonds, Studies of the Greek Poets (3rd ed., 1893), vol. i. chap. 7; C. B. Renouvier, Manuel de philosophie ancienne (Paris, 1 844); T. Gomperz, Greek Thinkers, vol. i. (Eng. trans. L. Magnus, 1901); W. Windelband, Hist. of Phil. (Eng. trans. 1895); many articles in periodicals (see Baldwin's Did. of Philos. vol. iii. p. 190).
(W. W.; X.)
|Full name||Empedocles (Έμπεδοκλής)|
|Main interests||cosmogenesis and ontology|
|Notable ideas||All matter is made up of four elements: water, earth, air and fire.|
Empedocles' philosophy is best known for being the origin 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 still survives today, more so 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.