What is “Empedocles” ?



Empedocles was born, c. 490 BC, at Agrigentum 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 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.

According to Aristotle, he died at the age of sixty, 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.

A contemporary Life of Empedocles by Xanthus has been lost.

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 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 didn’t 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 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 1st 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 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 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 1st 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,. 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 isn’t 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.

In a famous fragment, Empedocles attempted to explain the phenomena of respiration by means of an elaborate analogy with the clepsydra or water clock, an ancient device for transmitting liquids from one vessel to another. This fragment has sometimes been connected to a passage in Aristotle’s Physics where Aristotle refers to people who twisted wineskins and captured air in clepsydras to demonstrate that void does not exist. There is however, no evidence that Empedocles performed any experiment with clepsydras. The fragment certainly implies that Empedocles knew about the corporeality of air, but he says nothing whatever about the void. The clepsydra was a common utensil and everyone who used it must have known, in some sense, that the invisible air could resist liquid.

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.

In Icaro-Menippus, a comedic dialogue written by the 2nd century satirist Lucian of Samosata, Empedocles’ 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.

In 2006, a massive underwater volcano off the coast of Sicily was named Empedocles.

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