Empedocles (5th Century BCE–After 444 BCE)

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(5th century BCEafter 444 BCE)

Empedocles, the Greek poet, prophet, and natural philosopher, was the originator of the doctrine of four elements that dominated Western cosmology and medical thought down to the Renaissance. Empedocles was born in Acragas (Agrigento), Sicily, in the early fifth century BCE and died sometime after 444 BCE. He played a political role in his native city, apparently as a democratic leader, was later exiled, and traveled through other Greek colonies in southern Italy. In one of his poems he describes himself as a "deathless god, no longer a mortal," surrounded wherever he goes by admiring crowds asking for advice, for prophecy, and for a "healing word" to cure them from disease (Fr. 112). A number of anecdotes illustrate his reputation for supernatural powers (including the raising of the dead), and the legend that he died by throwing himself into the crater of Etna gives us an idea of the charismatic impression he left behind in the popular imagination. Modern scholars have often found it difficult to reconcile the scientific and the religious sides of Empedocles' thought. He expounded his views in powerful hexameters, of which considerable fragments are preserved from two distinct poems, On the Nature of Things (Peri Physeōs ) and Purifications (Katharmoi ).

Natural Philosophy

Theophrastus said that Empedocles was much influenced by Parmenides and even more by the Pythagoreans. Pythagorean influence must be seen in his religious teaching and probably also in the role that he assigns to numerical proportion in the natural combination of the elements. From Parmenides he accepted the fundamental principle that nothing can arise out of nothing, nor can anything perish into nonentity. But whereas for Parmenides this meant that all motion and change must be illusory, Empedocles admits that there is real process in nature: "the mixture and separation of things mixed."

By accepting four distinct elements, or "roots of all things," in place of Parmenides' monolithic Being, Empedocles is able to explain natural change as a result of the combination, separation, and regrouping of indestructible entities. There remains, of course, something illusory about the kaleidoscopic appearance of change. Since there can be no generation or annihilation of anything real, Empedocles insists that to describe natural processes in terms of birth and becoming or death and destruction is to follow a linguistic usage which is systematically misleading (Frs. 812). In reality there is only the mixing, unmixing, and remixing of permanent entities.

One generation later a similar view of the discrepancy between the appearance of continual change and the reality of unchanging entities led Democritus to distinguish between primary (or true) and secondary (or conventional) sense qualities. However, there is no reason to believe that Empedocles envisaged any such distinction. He assigns the qualities of color, heat, and moisture to the elements themselves and describes the formation of compounds by analogy with the action of a painter mixing his colors. He seems not to have faced the difficult question posed by such analogies: In what does the indestructibility of the elements consist if their essential properties are those that are seen to change?

Nevertheless, the simplicity of this tetradic scheme and its direct application to the great cosmic masses of land, sea, atmosphere, and celestial fire (that is, sun, stars, and lightning) led Plato, Aristotle, and most of their successors to adopt the doctrine of four elements in variously modified forms. Empedocles himself developed the doctrine in a grandiose cosmology that can be reconstructed only in part. The four elements interact under the influence of two cosmic powers, Love (or Aphrodite), on the one hand, and Strife (or Quarrel), on the other. These powers function respectively as forces of attraction and repulsion, but they are also conceived of concretely as ingredients in the mixture. They operate as a kind of dynamic fluid, comparable in some respects to the concept of phlogiston in early modern science. The power of Love or attraction acts first by bringing like together with likefor instance, earth to earth, fire to firebut it also assimilates the elements to one another, so that what were originally unlikes become like and are united in a new, homogeneous compound (Fr. 22). Love thus represents the power of organic unity and creative combination.

The process of world formation occurs in a cycle that may be said to begin with a totally homogeneous fusion of the elements in a primordial sphere under the exclusive influence of Love. The process of differentiation is set off when Strife makes its entry into the sphere, in accordance with some fixed periodic scheme. It would seem that the cosmic sphere is always saturated with one or the other of these powers or, more frequently, with both of them in a variable ratio; the quantity of Love present in the world varies inversely to that of Strife (Frs. 35 and 16). The life cycle of the universe thus oscillates between the poles of unity and diversity: "Now there grows to be one thing alone out of many; now again many things separate out of one; there is a double generation of mortal beings, a double disappearance" (Fr. 17). This has generally been taken to imply that the creation of things occurs twice, first in the passage from unity under Love to complete diversity under Strife and again in the reverse process from separation of all things to total fusion. (The standard interpretation has recently been challenged by Jean Bollack, who denies that Empedocles intended a double cosmogony. See bibliography.) The present phase of the world cycle is apparently regarded as one of the increasing prevalence of Strife.

Empedocles gave some account of the structure of the heavens and also of the phenomena of earth, sea, and atmosphere which the Greeks studied under the title of meteorology, but the remains of his physical poem show an equal or greater concern with zoology and botany. In the microcosm of plants and animals he discovered the same principles of elemental mixture, harmony, and separation at work. Following up an idea of Anaximander's, he imagined several phases in the emergence of living things from the earth (in combination with other elements), plants preceding animals, and he describes earlier, monstrous forms of animal life. As in Anaximander sexual reproduction appears only in the latest phase of the development. But the details of his doctrine are obscure, and it is difficult to say how far there is any significant anticipation of the theory of evolution.

physiology and psychology

Empedocles shows a keen interest in embryology and physiology, explaining the structure of the eye by analogy with that of a lantern (Fr. 84) and comparing the process of respiration (including the movement of the blood) with the siphon effect of the clepsydra or water pipe, which retains or releases fluid by means of air pressure (Fr. 100). The notion of elemental combination is specified in numerical terms for certain living tissues. Bones are formed by earth, water, and fire in the ratio 2:2:4. The blend of the elements is most equal in flesh, especially in blood (Fr. 98).

Physiology passes over into psychology without a break. (It is clear that as a doctor Empedocles would have practiced psychosomatic medicine.) Blood is the primary seat of thought and perception (Fr. 105) precisely because it is here that the elements are most equably blended. Fundamental in Empedocles' psychology, as in his physics, is the principle of like to like. We see earth with the earth that is in us, water with water, love with love, strife with strife (Fr. 109). This and other passages in Empedocles suggest a one-to-one correspondence between the corporeal elements as such and our conscious experience of them. More precisely, his view seems to be that of a radical panpsychism in which, on the one hand, all elemental bodies are endowed with thought and sensation (Frs. 102103) and, on the other hand, knowledge itself is treated like a physical thing obeying the laws of combination, attraction, and repulsion. Thus, Empedocles announces that his own teachings, if carefully assimilated, will form part of the character and elemental composition of the student, whereas, if neglected, "they will leave you in the course of time, yearning to return to their own dear kind; for you must know that all things have intelligence and a share in thought" (Fr. 110). Hence, all our conscious thought and feeling has its direct counterpart in the elemental blend within us (Frs. 107108), which is itself continually being altered by the stream of incoming and outgoing material (Frs. 89, 106).

Religious Teaching

The religious views stated in the Purifications are so strange and so dogmatically presented that some scholarsH. Diels and Ulrich von Wilamowitz, for instancehave supposed that this poem dates from a later, less scientific period in Empedocles' life, reflecting some religious conversion after the bitter experience of exile. Now, the Purifications may, in fact, have been composed later than the physical poem, but no biographical development can resolve the alleged contradiction between the scientist and the mystic in Empedocles, for the physical work also presupposes a religious point of view.

In particular, On Nature proclaims the immortality and preexistence of the soul (or life principle) as a special case of ex nihilo nihil. In Empedocles' view the Parmenidean law of conservation for all real entities guarantees the indestructibility of life in exactly the same way as it guarantees the imperishability of the elements. Hence, only fools can "imagine that men exist merely during what we call life, but that they are nothing at all before being composed or after they are dissolved" (Fr. 15; compare with Fr. 11). Since it is precisely the doctrine of immortality that is supposed to contradict the psychophysics of Empedocles, this contradiction, if it exists, must be located within the physical poem. Furthermore, the same poem implies a developed theology in the description of the primordial cosmic sphere as a "god" (theos, Fr. 31), in the reference to the four elements as immortal deities (daimones, Fr. 59; compare with Fr. 6), and in the apocalyptic pronouncement of the power of Love-Aphrodite (Fr. 17). Some readers might be inclined to discount such expressions as mere features of poetic style, but such a literary interpretation of theological language, which may be appropriate in the case of Lucretius, seems unconvincing for Empedocles, who appeals to principles of piety and purity throughout the poem (Frs. 35, 110, and so on).

The religious views thus alluded to in the physical poem receive emphatic statement in the Purifications. Here Empedocles proclaims his own divinity and traces his career as an immortal daimōn, banished from the company of the other gods for some prenatal crime; passing through a series of vegetable, animal, and human incarnations; at last attaining the purified life of "prophets, poets, doctors, and leaders"; and now ready to escape from human misery altogether and return once more to the blessed fellowship of the gods. Part of the process of purification consists in the ritual abstinence from meat and certain other foods, such as beans and laurel leaves. This joining of the belief in transmigration with the religious practice of vegetarianism is distinctly Pythagorean. If one adds Empedocles' notion that birth in human form means that the daimōn is clothed in an alien garment of flesh (Fr. 126) as a result of a lamentable fall from bliss (Fr. 118), one has a particularly striking example of that otherworldly tendency in Greek religion that is generally known as Orphic and that exercised such a profound influence on Plato as well as on the religious thought of late antiquity.

Remote as this view may seem from the biology and physics of the poem On Nature, Empedocles has taken care to preserve a sense of continuity between his religious teaching and his cosmology by a number of parallels, in particular by identifying the primeval sin of the daimōn (for which it is punished by incarnation in the cycle of rebirth) as "reliance on Strife." The fellowship of the purified spirits is conceived by contrast as a realm of Love and affection. Thus, the precosmic sphere of the physical poem is paralleled in the Purifications by an account of a bygone golden age in which war and bloodshed were unknown, affection prevailed between man and beast, and Aphrodite was queen (Frs. 128129). Although both poems (which are addressed to different audiences) probably cannot be fitted together at every point, Empedocles clearly thought of the two as compatible, perhaps as complementary views of the world of nature (or physical transformation) and the world of spirit (or divine life). As a result of his panpsychism, Empedocles was able to conceive of nature and spirit as forming two aspects of a single whole rather than as constituting two entirely distinct realms. In any case the essential structure of both worlds is characterized by the same, almost Manichaean rivalry between the beneficent force of Love and the destructive power of Strife. If one sees Love in the physical poem as the cosmic counterpart of the immortal daimōn and his extramundane homeland, Empedocles' whole cosmology will appear as a construction designed to find a place for the Pythagorean doctrine of the transmigrating soul within the shifting and unstable world of elemental strife that had been described by the Ionian natural philosophers.

This reconciliation of the two poems is possible only if one admits the identification of the transmigrating daimōn with the element of divine Lovethat is, with the unifying principle of intelligent organization present within each one of us but also present throughout nature. This identification has been accepted by Francis Macdonald Cornford and by others, and there is much to be said for it. But it is only fair to add that the identification cannot be proved from the extant texts and that some responsible scholars have denied that there is any possibility of reconciling the doctrine of immortality with the physical psychology of On Nature.

One should note Empedocles' clear statementthe first by any Greekof the notion of an invisible, incorporeal, nonanthropomorphic deity, characterized as a "holy mind [phrēn ] alone, darting through the whole cosmos with rapid thoughts" (Frs. 133134). Before Empedocles, Xenophanes had insisted that the "greatest god" must be nonanthropomorphic, but he did not specify its incorporeality. On the other hand, Anaxagoras' principle of mind is clearly noncorporeal, but it is not described as a deity. Empedocles seems to have worked the Anaxagorean principle into his own theology. The phrasing of his account of the spiritual deity recalls the verses concerning Aphrodite as well as the description of the divine sphere. All three principlesthe sphere in which the elements are joined, the attractive force of Aphrodite, and the "holy mind" of the cosmosmust somehow have been related in Empedocles' theology, perhaps as three different expressions of the universal power of Love. If so, Empedocles' theology forms the direct continuation of his psychology, since (on the interpretation offered above) it is this same power of Love that figures in the human microcosm as the transmigrating daimōn.

See also Anaximander; Leucippus and Democritus; Parmenides of Elea; Psychology; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Theophrastus.


Remains of the poems and other ancient evidence are in H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Vol. I, 6th ed. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1951), Ch. 31.

There are two major studies of Empedocles: Ettore Bignone, Empedocle (Turin, 1916), and Jean Bollack, Empédocle, 3 vols. (Paris: Les ditions de Minuit, 1965).

See also Eduard Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, edited by Wilhelm Nestle, Vol. I, 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1920), Part 2; John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed. (London, 1930); F. M. Cornford, "Mystery Religions and Pre-Socratic Philosophy," in Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. IV (Cambridge, U.K., 1939), Ch. 15; W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. II (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962); Werner Jaeger, Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947); and G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1957).

Special studies include J. Bidez, La biographie d'Empédocle (Gand, 1894); Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, "Die Katharmoi des Empedokles," in Berlin Sitzungsberichte (1929): 626661; Friedrich Solmsen, "Tissues and the Soul," in Philosophical Review 59 (1950): 435441; D. J. Furley, "Empedocles and the Clepsydra," in Journal of Hellenic Studies 77 (1957): 3134; Charles H. Kahn, "Religion and Natural Philosophy in Empedocles' Doctrine of the Soul," in Archiv für Geschicte der Philosophie 42 (1960): 335; and E. L. Minar Jr., "Cosmic Periods in the Philosophy of Empedocles," in Phronesis 8 (1963): 127145.

Charles H. Kahn (1967)