Empedocles of Acragas

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Acragas [now Agrigento, Sicily], c. 492 BCE;

d. c. 432 BCE), natural philosophy. For the original article on Empedocles of Acragas see DSB, vol. 4.

The early Greek poet, natural scientist, and philosopher Empedocles is the author of two (or perhaps one) lost didactic epics, the On Nature and The Purifications. Empedocles is best known as the oldest exponent of the four-element theory of matter—earth, air (or aether), fire, and water—which endured until the advent of modern chemistry, although with some serious modifications by later thinkers and despite strong criticisms from the ancient atomists. Writing in the wake of Parmenides’ critique of earlier philosophers, Empedocles posited four eternally stable and indestructible elements, which he sometimes also referred to by using the names of the Olympian gods. In addition to the four elements, he also advanced two motive forces, the quasi-psychological powers Love and Strife. Intuitively enough, Love is a force of attraction, combining the elements into mixtures, while Strife separates them. These six “first principles” underlie all phenomena. Further, while Love and Strife are equals, their sway over the elements rises and falls in alternation, each giving way before the other. The result of this alternation is that the world as a whole, including its inhabitants, is periodically dissolved and recombined. This alternation is known as his doctrine of the cosmic cycle. Along with his physical teachings, Empedocles was also a firm believer in reincarnation, along Pythagorean lines, and even makes personal claims to divine status as a fallen god. In accordance with these beliefs, he abhorred meat-eating and proposed to do away with the sacrificial slaughter of animals, a main source of meat in his day and the central ritual practice of Greek religion. How this side of his thought relates to his physical teachings, if at all, is one of the central problems in the interpretation of his thought.

Biography and Biographical Tradition . The biographical tradition on Empedocles is rich and rather fanciful, as one might expect for someone who claimed to be god, but also includes some reliable information. Our only source is Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Empedocles,” chapters 51–77 of book eight in his Lives of the Philosophers. Writing probably in the early third century CE, Diogenes is a mere compiler of earlier material. The most famous story of all, which took on a life of its own as the great example of philosophical megalomania, told how Empedocles cast himself into the volcanic flames of Mount Aetna in order to prove himself a god (book eight, chapter 69). But Diogenes also records other variants on his death and further tales of wonder-working. Since it is unlikely that much biographical detail can have survived beyond the work itself, it is probably safest to see in these stories a biographical extrapolation from the work (see Lefkowitz in bibliography). Further, some of these tales are known to have circulated in nonhistorical works, so that they need not have been originally written with a biographical intent and were only employed as such much later. For instance, the oldest known mention of the leap into Aetna occurs in a philosophical dialogue by Heraclides Ponticus, an older contemporary of Aristotle. It seems that Heraclides, known for his fabulous afterlife myths, only related it so as to refute it with an equally fanciful apotheosis of his own invention (see Diogenes 8.69). From less spectacular material we are told that Empedocles’s family was prominent at Acragas, and wealthy enough to equip and win the chariot race at the Olympic games. Aristotle (fragment 66,

Rose ed.) and the historian Timaeus (Fragmente der Griechischen Historiker [ed. F. Jacoby] no. 566, fragment 2) relate his efforts to sustain the fledgling democracy after the fall of the previous tyranny, and Timaeus remarks that his democratic leanings seem to clash with the conceited and pretentious tone he strikes in his poetry. The latter, precisely because of this contrast, seems to indicate some independent authority.

Works: On Nature and/or The Purifications . Empedocles presented his doctrines in the traditional poetic medium of hexameter verse, the format used by Homer and Hesiod two centuries earlier. This choice had precedents in Xenophanes (c. 570–c. 468 BCE) and Parmenides (fl. c. 490), who also used poetry to convey their ideas. As a philosophical didactic poet, he was the champion of the genre and was the model for the first-century BCE Latin poet Lucretius, who emulated him in his own poem On The Nature of Things, devoted to Epicurean, atomistic physics.

Empedocles’ poetry has not survived entire but is known to readers mostly through fragments, that is, ancient citations, especially from Aristotle and Simplicius, the sixth-century CE Aristotelian commentator. In 1999 a papyrus was published, PStrasb. Gr. 1665–1666, from the first or second century CE, containing about seventy-four full or partial original lines, twenty of which overlap with previously known passages. This new text, from an ancient copy of Empedocles’ poetry, was assembled from numerous smaller scraps by its editors and contains four longer continuous sections named a, b, c, and d (discounting a few remainders). It raised the total number of surviving verses to a little over five hundred, plus or minus some half-lines. In addition to these fragments we have a substantial number of testimonies in the form of ancient reports and discussions of Empedoclean doctrine, which also add to our understanding.

The reconstruction of Empedocles’ literary output is controversial because the evidence is conflicting. The fundamental question is whether he wrote one or two main philosophical poems. Diogenes Laertius, at 8.77 of his “Life of Empedocles,” gives a single verse total of five thousand lines along with two apparent titles, the On Nature and The Purifications. This is the only ancient passage that mentions both titles together. Otherwise, the majority of the fragments are given without a title, which might incline people to think that Empedocles was known for only one work. But then again, a small number of citations do mention one or the other title, which counterbalances that inference. After some hesitations in the first half of the nineteenth century, scholarly opinion thereafter opted strongly for the assumption of two works and sought to classify the unidentified fragments according to their thematic link with each title. Thus, the On Nature was given all the physical, cosmological, and biological fragments, while to The Purifications were attributed the teachings on reincarnation and religious reform. The most influential edition of this type remains that found in Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, volume 1 (Berlin, 1903; 5th ed., 1934, with numerous reprints). Over the last twenty years, however, a number of challenges have been made to this older consensus, in favor of the assumption of a single original work. No new consensus has yet emerged. More recently, since 1999, the papyrus, while it does not contain a title, has contributed some new evidence to the debate. Although sections a, b, and c show overlap with fragments that Simplicius gives from the On Nature, section d overlaps in part with a passage linked by its source to “purifications.” Even more significantly, section d contains a transition from a discussion of reincarnation to cosmological material. At a minimum, then, it seems that the On Nature must also have discussed reincarnation; or perhaps there was only one work, which went under alternative titles.

Doctrines . If the number of Empedoclean works remains an open question, this is no longer the case for the reconstruction of his thought. Section d implies very clearly that however problematic people may find the unity of his thought, Empedocles nevertheless presented it as a unity. Accordingly, perhaps the best way to approach Empedocles is as an early philosophical system builder. The components from which he constructed his system include the Ionian tradition of natural philosophy, Pythagorean beliefs about the soul, and Parmenides’ critique of earlier philosophy. His debt to the Ionian tradition of natural science is reflected in his continued commitment to its scientific project of explaining the world, especially in the form of a cosmology, which had been put into question by Parmenides’ critique of change. As for his response to Parmenides, there is general agreement that it is to be found in his doctrine of the cosmic cycle, but less agreement as to the precise form of the doctrine or how well it succeeds in responding to Parmenides’ critique. However exactly it be understood, it seems that the main motivation of the theory is a commitment to nonemergence, that is, the goal is to show how changes in the world, properly understood, do not involve anything coming “from nothing.”

Scholarly opinion on the cosmic cycle is divided between two main types of reconstruction. Different labels have been applied to them, but there is no consistent usage. Here they will be called the symmetrical view and the hierarchical interpretation.

The symmetrical view is characterized in the main by an emphasis on the equality of Love and Strife. This equality entails that both powers achieve, in alternation, complete domination over the elements. Under Love, the elements become harmoniously fused into a cosmic super-organism, which Empedocles calls the Sphairos god; under Strife, the four are completely separated, so that no mixture can endure. (It is unclear whether the elements under Strife simply descend into chaos or whether they form some kind of structured pattern.) Worlds like ours occur in the middle periods, when both powers temper each other’s rule. According to Aristotle in On Coming-To-Be and Passing-Away(De generatione et corruptione or GC) 334a5–7, Empedocles held that the current world was a “world of Strife”; this appears confirmed by extant passages describing how Strife shattered the Sphairos and thereby brought the world into being.

Provided such a reconstruction is correct, there are at least two ways in which it might provide a response to Parmenides. One is through the notion of elemental stability, the degree to which the individual elements, while retaining their separate properties, seem separately to inherit the permanency of Parmenides’ unique eternal “being.” This approach can invoke in its support Parmenides’ own cosmology in the Way of Appearance. Another possibility is to stress the permanent status of the whole cosmic cycle, especially the two-directional process of becoming. This way, neither the elements nor the Sphairos is recognized as more fundamental or ontologically prior to the other, while the cycle itself is shown to be invariant within limits. Some support for this interpretation is given by Aristotle, when he wonders at GC 315a19–20, if the Sphairos does not deserve also to be considered a principle, alongside the four elements. Against the symmetrical interpretation of the cycle, there is no dominant alternative reconstruction. By and large, however, the alternatives tend to negate the full equality of the powers and place Love above Strife in a more hierarchical relation. It is in fact easier to characterize this approach negatively, in terms of the objections made to the alternative. One objection is that the symmetrical view commits Empedocles to an unheard-of double cosmogony: one world of Love and one of Strife. A second objection is that both powers would, on the symmetrical view, prove profoundly ambivalent factors in human life, since both would be creative as well as destructive. Yet extant fragments show Empedocles as a consistent devotee of Love. Potent objections though these are, one strong consideration against them is that, while the asymmetrical reading seems more intuitive, it is much more difficult to see how it can be framed as a response to Parmenides.

Another notable feature of his work is that, within the framework of his four-element and two-power theory, it appears that Empedocles sought to be as encyclopedic as possible. The extant fragments cover numerous topics, including cosmology, geology, botany, physiology, reproduction, and embryology as well as sense perception (Empedocles is the oldest known theorist of the senses as captors of “emissions” from bodies). Particularly noteworthy in this respect is his use of elaborate poetic analogies from crafts and technology to explain natural structures and processes, for example fragment 84 Diels-Kranz on the eye, which is compared to a storm lantern.

Finally, there remains the problem of relating Empedocles’ views on reincarnation to his physics. Since the nineteenth century, scholars have often denied, sometimes vehemently, any possible reconciliation between an immortal reincarnated soul and elemental physics. Strictly, however, an important distinction should be made, which is often simply ignored, namely that Empedocles’ reincarnated soul need not be understood as an immaterial, immortal Platonic soul. That doctrine was Plato’s achievement in the Phaedo, two full philosophical generations later. As for Empedocles’ own view, despite the obvious difficulties, a number of fragments attest to his belief in some kind of postmortem survival. This is bizarre, but based on the physiological knowledge of the day, hardly to be excluded as a strict impossibility, and had strong local Pythagorean precedent. Moreover, this survival need not be equated with a claim of complete immortality, which the cyclical destruction of the world in any case denies. From other fragments we also know that Empedocles postulated the existence of what he calls “long-lived gods.” He mentions these more than once, in the context of a list of all the varied products of the combined elements, alongside fishes, birds, land animals, and men and women. If the epithet “long-lived” seems to imply their status as mortals or animals of some kind, the word “gods” nevertheless implies that they rank above humans in the natural world. Perhaps, but this remains highly conjectural, this is what he meant when he claimed to be a fallen god: he had once been of their number, and entertained hopes of imminent return.



Bollack, Jean, ed. Empédocle. 3 vols. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969. Reprinted, Paris: Gallimard, 1992. In French. Very full commentary, but idiosyncratic and now out of date.

Wright, M. R, ed. Empedocles: The Extant Fragments. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981; 2nd ed., London: Duckworth, 1995. Reliable text, translation and commentary.

Inwood, Brad, ed. The Poem of Empedocles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992; 2nd ed., 2001. Edition with translation based on single-work approach.

Martin, Alain, and Oliver Primavesi, eds. L’Empédocle de Strasbourg (P. Strasb. gr. 1665–1666): Introduction, édition et commentaire. Berlin, New York, and Strasbourg: Walter de Gruyter, 1999. High-quality first edition of the papyrus.

Vítek, Tomás, ed. Empedoklés. 3 vols. Prague: Herrmann & Synové, 2006. In Czech. Fullest, completely up-to-date edition, commentary, and bibliography. For specialists.


Curd, Patricia. The Legacy of Parmenides: Eleatic Monism and Later Presocratic Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Furley, David J. The Greek Cosmologists. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Goulet, Richard. “Empédocle.” In Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques. Vol. 3, pp. 66–88. Paris: Presses du CNRS, 2000.

Graham, Daniel W. “Symmetry in the Empedoclean Cycle.” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988): 297–312.

Kingsley, Peter. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Scholfield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. Lives of the Greek Poets. London: Duckworth, 1981.

Long, Anthony, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Mourelatos, Alexander P. D. “Quality, Structure, and Emergence in Later Pre-Socratic Philosopy.” Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy2 (1986): 127–194.

O’Brien, Denis. Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle: A Reconstruction from the Fragments and Secondary Sources. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Osborne, Catherine. “Empedocles Recycled.” Classical Quarterly 37 (1987): 24–50.

Pierris, Apostolos, ed. The Empedoclean Kosmos: Structure, Process, and the Question of Cyclicity. Patras, Greece: Institute for Philosophical Research, 2005. Multiple articles on new papyrological material and other questions. For specialists.

Sedley, David. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. See chapter 1, “The Empedoclean Opening.”

Trépanier, Simon. Empedocles: An Interpretation. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Simon Trépanier


views updated Jun 08 2018


EMPEDOCLES of Acragas (Sicily), a Greek philosopher and sage who lived in the first half of the fifth century bce (c. 495435 bce) and who ended his life, according to a widespread but apocryphal tradition, by jumping into the crater of the volcano Etna. The ancient biographical tradition made him a pupil both of Pythagoras and of Parmenides of Elea and ascribed to him several texts, among others a prose treatise titled "Medical Discourses" (Iatrikoi logoi ), the hexametrical "On Nature" (Peri physeos ), and "Purifications" (Katharmoi ) (which has been preserved in fragments). Both sets of information reflect what the ancient tradition, from Aristotle onwards, already regarded as the somewhat disconcerting double character of Empedocles' workthe extant hexametrical fragments combine "modern" ontology and physics inspired by Parmenides with an anthropology and eschatology that derived in large part from Pythagoras's doctrine of reincarnation (groups of Pythagoreans were active in many places in Southern Italy and Sicily during Empedocles' lifetime).

Modern interpreters usually attributed Empedocles' physical and ontological fragments to the "modern" "On Nature," and the religious teachings to "Purifications" (see the standard edition of the pre-Socratic philosphers by Herman Diels of 1903 that has been many times since reedited). Such a reading was helped by the simplistic evolutionary model "from mythos to logos " that Wilhelm Nestle's 1940 book, Vom Mythos zum Logos, popularized. The discovery, in 1994, of new fragments in a Strasbourg Papyrus, however, makes it more likely that all extant fragments belong to one hexametrical poem only, whose two titles are later alternatives. Neither title is likely to go back to Empedocles' epoch. It goes without saying that this discovery challenges the traditional, Aristotelian way of understanding the development of Greek thought that has survived despite growing criticism. The consequences for Empedocles' poem have yet to be determined.

Empedocles' Physics

In his physics, Empedocles reacts to Parmenides' radical separation between being and nonbeing and its concomitant rejection of the reliance on sense perception; Empedocles reasserts the validity of sense perception as a guide to humankind's understanding of nature. In a revolutionary move, he posits four "roots" of being, which he alternately calls Zeus, Here, Aidoneus, and Nestis (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 6), or, as later interpreters clarify (with disagreement in detail) fire, air, earth, and water. The divine names underline the fundamental nature of these elements. The existence of cosmos is dominated by the forces of "Friendship" (Philotes ) and "Strife" (Neikos )under their influence, the elements either congregate into bodies or disintegrate again in an eternal cycle, "and these things never cease their interchange" (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 17).

Due to its impact on later philosophers, especially on Plato and Aristotle, the theory of the four elements became fundamental in ancient, medieval, and early modern physics well beyond the revival of atomism among German doctors of the seventeenth century. Leucippus and Democritus, in turn, developed their atomism partly in reaction to Empedocles.

Empedocles' Anthropology

In his anthropology, Empedocles posits the divine nature of the soul; however, it does not seem to imply immortality (this would contradict his cosmology) but only a long duration of the soul's existence (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 115.5). In its original state, the soul was a theios or daimōn, "a divine being." Incarnation into a human body is an exile of the soul, due to some crime committed among the gods (Empedocles seems to draw a grim picture of human existence; Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 120, 121). The aim of incarnation is punishment and purification in order to be able to return to its former divine abode. According to each life, the soul is reincarnated in a new terrestrian body that might be either a human, a plant, or an animalthe most noble plant is Apollo's laurel and the most noble animal is the lion (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 127).

A virtuous life is rewarded by a better reincarnation, the final one being that of a "seer or singer or doctor or prince among humans" (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 146). Given the range of possible incarnations, vegetarism is an inevitable consequence, as it was with the Pythagoreans, on whose doctrine Empedocles dependshe even bans the eating of some plants such as beans (again a Pythagorean prohibition) or laurel leaves (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 140). This anthropology led him to construct an evolutionary history of humanity that began in total harmony, under the reign of Aphrodite, in which humans refrained from bloodshed and from animal sacrifice (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 128). In Olympia, as is written in one anecdote, Empedocles is said to have offered an ox made of different spices.


The autobiographical statements preserved in his fragments confirm Empedocles' status as a charismatic. In a famous address to the inhabitants of Acragas, he understands himself as nearly being released from the cycle of reincarnations, as an "immortal god, no more mortal" (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 112.4). He describes how, on his arrival in the city, the people flock together and ask him for oracles and healing. He claims not only to know drugs that help fight diseaseand even old agebut he also claims that he can command the weatherthe wind, and the rainand that he has an ability to call back the dead from Hades (Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 B 111). The later biographical tradition agrees with these statements, although its reliability has always been a problem. Empedocles' pupil Gorgias claimed, however, to have seen him perform magic (goēteuein, Diogenes Laertius 8.59). Gorgias himself was the first highly influential teacher of rhetoric that Empedocles was said to have invented, and which some believe he may even have invented (Aristotle, in Diels and Kranz, 1934, 31 A 1.57). This ties in with other scholarship and materials that make Empedocles, against all odds, a staunch democrat, and once again underlines the complexity of his life and thought, defying easy assumptions about the development of Greek philosophy and religion.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Greek and Roman Concepts; Demons, overview article; Dualism; Orpheus; Parmenides; Pythagoras; Reincarnation; Transmigration.


Burkert, Walter. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr. Cambridge, Mass., 1972. Diels, Hermann, ed. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 5th ed., chp. 31 (DK 31). Revised by Walter Kranz. Berlin, 1934. Inwood, Brad. The Poem of Empedocles: A Text and Translation with an Introduction. Toronto, 1992. Kingsley, Peter. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Oxford, 1995. Martin, Alain, and Oliver Primavesi. L'Empédocle de Strasbourg (P. Strasb. Gr. Inv. 16651666). Introduction, Édition et Commentaire. Strasbourg and Berlin, 1999. Zuntz, Günther. Persephone: Three Essays in Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia, pt. 3. Oxford, 1971.

Fritz Graf (2005)

Empedocles of Acragas

views updated May 21 2018

Empedocles of Acragas

(b. Acragas [now Agrigento, Sicily], ca. 492 B.C.; d. ca. 432 B.C.)

natural philosophy.

The originator of the four-element theory of matter, Empedocles was the author of two hexameter poems, a physical-cosmological one traditionally entitled “On Nature” (estimated to have been 2,000–3,000 lines in length) and a religious-mystical one, “Purifications,” on themes of personal salvation (including lists of taboos), metempsychosis, and eschatology. A total of 450 lines from the two poems, the largest amount of text available to us from any of the pre-Socratics, have been preserved in the form of quotations by later authors (Simplicius, Aristotle, Plutarch, and others). Also attributed to him in antiquity were a treatise on medicine, tragedies, and other works, but the sources tell us nothing about the contents of any of these, and modern scholars are generally of the opinion that the attributions were spurious or confused. It is noteworthy, nevertheless, that Empedocles is often mentioned as a physician by the medical writers (Galen refers to him as founder of the Sicilian school of medicine) and that Aristotle called him the inventor of rhetoric.

The ancient biographical tradition concerning Empedocles is overlaid with legend. Most of the stories told about him can be seen to be fanciful elaborations of personal remarks made in his poems. He is supposed to have stopped an epidemic by diverting and mixing river streams, to have improved climate by erecting a windbreak across a gorge, to have moderated the etesian winds by drawing them into sacks, and to have revived a woman who had had neither breath nor pulse for thirty days. Of his death it was said that, convinced of his immortality, he jumped into one of the craters of Etna. An alternative version (this one not tinted with sarcasm) has him ascending to the sky. An ancient tradition, enthusiastically revived by the Sicilians in the days of Garibaldi, was that Empedocles, although born an aristocrat, became a champion and hero of democratic politics.

The contents and style of his poetry reveal a man of fervid imagination, versatility, and eloquence, with a touch of theatricality. Perhaps some of the traits of the historical Empedocles have indeed been captured in the colorful portrait of the biographical tradition. The legend-making has continued in modern times: Empedocles has been the hero of Romantic tragedy-poems by Holderlin and Matthew Arnold, and of other literary works (a French play as recently as 1950).

While the religious poem betrays the influence of Pythagoreanism and kindred strands of what has been called Orphism by some scholars and the Greek “puritan psychology” by others, the cosmological poem is unmistakably a development, with crucial modifications, of Parmenidean metaphysics. Parmenides of Elea had deduced that the real must be (a) unborn and imperishable, (b) one and indivisible, (c) immobile, (d) a complete actuality. Since familiar entities of the world of sense fail to conform to these criteria, these entities are a man-made illusion.

Empedocles moderates the extreme transcendent rationalism of the Parmenidean deduction. He postulates four eternal and unchanging elements, earth, water, air, and fire (he actually calls them “roots of all things” and also refers to them by mythological names) and two forces, Love and Hate. Viewed distributively, all six conform, in some sense that Empedocles considers appropriate, to the Parmenidean criteria. The familiar entities of the manifest world (animals, plants, minerals) result from the mixture, in various degrees of combination and according to various proportions of components, of the four elements (“So much does the mixing alter their [the elements’] look,” fragment 21.14). Generation and destruction—change in general—are nothing but aggregation and dispersal of the elements by the two cosmic forces acting externally upon them.

Parmenides’ requirement for unity and total integration of the real, expressed by him in a comparison with a “sphere well-rounded from all sides,” is also fulfilled in a collective sense in Empedocles’ system. The latter postulates a cosmic cycle involving four phases: (1) complete mixture of the four elements in a homogeneous sphere; (2) partial and increasing separation owing to the ascendancy of Hate; (3) an interval of total separation; (4) partial and increasing integration owing to the ascendancy of Love. A cosmos like ours can exist, it would seem, only in phases 2 and 4. (What is given here is the traditional interpretation, most recently defended by O’Brien. Bollack and others have argued that the ancient evidence does not support the ascription of a cycle, in the sense of chronological repetition of these phases.)

To explain the origins of animals in phase 4, Empedocles invokes chance and natural selection. From random combinations of stray limbs and organs, monsters emerge at the early stages. Since these are not adapted for survival and reproduction, they perish. Eventually viable organisms come to be assembled; they succeed in producing offspring, and they proliferate. Darwin mentions this Empedoclean theory (indirectly, by citing a passage from Aristotle in which the views of Empedocles are being discussed) in the first note of the historical preface to The Origin of Species. But it should be stressed that in Empedocles the mechanism of selection ceases to function precisely where Darwinian evolution starts: when the mechanism of heredity begins to play a role.

Closely related to the cosmic cycle that culminates in the sphere is the Empedoclean picture of our universe as a spherical (or perhaps egg-shaped) plenum, with an encompassing crystalline firmament. Both fixed stars and planets are islands or pockets of fire, the former rigidly attached to the firmament. Empedocles may well have been the first Greek to articulate this influential picture. (Some scholars credit this to Anaxagoras, on the assumption that his date is earlier; others to Parmenides, or to the Pythagoreans, or to even older thinkers, but on evidence that is less firm than what we possess for Empedocles.) That he regarded the earth as spherical is open to doubt, since he explained the inclination of the celestial axis as the result of “tilting” caused by air pressure. Three more doctrines of his astronomy are worth mention. He adopted Parmenides’ account of moonlight as a reflection from the sun and gave the correct explanation of solar eclipses. But he was not content to limit the hypothesis of reflection to the moon; he considered the sun itself to be an image of the whole daytime sky as the latter is reflected from the earth’s surface.

The macrocosmic cycle reverberates at all levels of the universe. In fragment 100 Empedocles explains respiration and the movement of blood in terms of ebbing and flowing, and gives as illustration the movement of a liquid in the clepsydra, “the water snatcher”—essentially our pipette but wider and with multiple holes at the lower end, suitable for drawing and serving wine from a deep jar. The illustration has often been extravagantly hailed by modern scholars as an experiment. More significantly, the passage represents the earliest statement of the tidal theory of blood movement that remained standard until the time of William Harvey (1628).

The theory of the four elements was adopted by Plato and Aristotle, although both postulated subelemental principles and allowed for transmutation. The Empedoclean theory also inspired or influenced the similar doctrine of four elements and four humors in the Hippocratic school of medicine. Through these three avenues of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and the medical tradition, Empedocles’ theory of matter remained the dominant one until the revival of atomism (by Gassendi and Boyle) in the seventeenth century.

While critical of the four-element theory and of Empedocles’ conception of the world as a plenum, the ancient atomists nevertheless drew heavily on him. As can be seen very clearly in Lucretius, they adapted Empedoclean ideas not only in the areas of cosmology and zoogony but also in explanations of the phenomena of perception. Empedocles’ theory of filmlike “effluences” that are emitted by all things and of corresponding “pores” that serve as selective receptors for these emissions was especially influential.

To trace the various types of Love-Hate metaphysics, speculative physics, and Naturphilosophie to Empedocles would be gratuitous, of course, since that particular pair of forces has the universality of a psychological archetype. Freud, who was struck by the resemblance of his later theory of Eros-Destructiveness to the Empedoclean scheme, mused that his own theory might be a case of cryptomnesia of his early readings in pre-Socratic philosophy (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, trans. [London, 1964], XXIII, 244–246).

Many of Empedocles’ ideas that did not have historical influence turned out to have been prophetically right. Most often mentioned in this connection is his evolutionary paleontology—a prime example, according to Hans Reichenbach, of how “a good idea stated within an insufficient theoretical frame loses its explanatory power and is forgotten” (The Rise of Scientific Philosophy [Berkeley, 1957], p. 197). The same holds for Empedocles’ distinction between matter and mechanical force, his ultimate dualism of attractive and repulsive forces, his postulate of the conservation of energy and matter, his doctrine of constant proportions in chemical reactions, and his assumption that light is corporeal and has finite velocity. If one of the two presently competing theories of cosmology (the “big bang” theory) turns out to be right, even his vision of the universe under the influence of Strife will have found a counterpart in modern physics.

The question of the relation between “On Nature” and “Purifications” remains an enigma. The contrast is not only one of mood; the doctrines of personal salvation and metempsychosis cannot easily be reconciled with the essentially materialist metaphysics of the physical poem. Most modern interpreters have despaired of finding more than a psychological or biographical solution. They see the antinomy implicit in the extant fragments as significantly connected with Empedocles’ dual reputation as philosopher-scientist and miracle worker. “The last of the Greek shamans,” “a Faust,” “a Greek Paracelsus” are some of the more suggestive characterizations that have been proposed.


For the fragments and ancient reports, see Hermann Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Walther Kranz, ed., 6th ed., 3 vols. (Zurich-Berlin, 1951), ch. 31. Selections with English translation and commentary are in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge, 1957), pp. 320–361. The most recent lengthy accounts are Jean Bollack, Empédocle: I, Introduction a l’ancienne physique (Paris, 1965); II and III, Les origines (Paris, 1969); W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, II (Cambridge, 1965), 122–265; and D. O’Brien, Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle (Cambridge, 1969), which includes an annotated bibliography of all publications on Empedocles from 1805 to 1965.

Alexander P. D. Mourelatos


views updated May 08 2018


Empedocles was a Greek philosopher born of an aristocratic family in the Dorian city-state of Akragas on the southern coast of Sicily. The exact dates of his lifetime are a matter of conjecture. It has been argued that he was born c. 521 b.c. and died c. 461 b.c., but he is usually said to have flourished c. 444 b.c. There is little reliable information about his life, but we know that he was banished from his native city. Although Diogenes Laertius reports that he ended his life by leaping into the crater of Mt. Etna, the historian Timaeus tells us that he left Sicily for the Peloponnesus and that the manner of his death is unknown. He was actively engaged in politics, religion, and medicine, and his name was surrounded with an aura of mystic wisdom. He wrote in verse and fairly extensive fragments of two of his poems, one on nature (Περφύσεως), the other on purifications (Καθαρμοί), are extant.

Theory of the Elements. Empedocles's cosmological theory was developed as a response to the Parmenidean insistence on the immutability of being. He agreed with parmenides that whatever exists cannot have come into being nor can it go out of being; yet change is a fact that must be explained. Empedocles's solution rested on a denial of Parmenidean monism. He held that whatever exists is reducible to four basic elements or "roots": earth, air, fire, and water. Each minimal unit of these four roots is immutable in its being, and change is the aggregation of these roots into the familiar objects of experience and their subsequent dissolution. In this way Empedocles felt that he could agree with Parmenides that being is immutable and also find room for change in the world of experience.

Furthermore he looked upon the four roots as passive, requiring the imposition of an external force to bring about the combinations and dissolutions of the world of change. Hence he posited the force of love, which is attractive, and the force of hate, which is separative. According to Aristotle (Meta. 1075b 17), Empedocles assigns to love the dual role of being a material and an efficient cause, since, despite the metaphorical implications of these terms, love and hate were postulated as material forces. Hence Empedoclean cosmology was thoroughly materialistic.

Empedocles envisioned the history of the universe as an eternally recurring cyclic process involving the following four stages: (1) love predominates, and all the elements are thoroughly mixed together; (2) hate progressively expresses itself, and the elements begin to separate out into distinguishable objects; (3) hate predominates, and the four elements are completely separated from each other; and (4) love progressively reasserts itself, and the elements begin to combine into distinguishable objects. This theory of cosmic process enabled him to develop an evolutionary theory of life.

Psychology. He taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, a view also found in the Pythagorean school and in the Dialogues of Plato. Yet it is not clear how the implication of personal immortality can be made consistent with his doctrine of the cyclic aggregation and separation of the elements. His explanation of perception is, however, a direct consequence of the materialistic commitments of his cosmology. According to Aristotle (Anim. 427a 22), Empedocles made no distinction between thought and sense perception. Rather all knowledge is the result of material effluences given off by external objects entering into the pores of the sensory organs. If these effluences are neither too small nor too large in relation to the pores of the sensory organs, then they properly enter into the organs and produce sensation. Empedocles saw that a purely mechanistic theory of knowledge and consciousness is demanded by his materialistic cosmology, and he did not shrink from drawing the consequences.

See Also: greek philosophy; materialism; mechanism.

Bibliography: For the extant fragments, see h. diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker: Griechisch und Deutsch, (10 ed. Berlin 196061). English. k. freeman, tr., Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Cambridge, Mass. 1957). empedocles, The Fragments of Empedocles, tr. w. e. leonard (Chicago 1908). Secondary studies. f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminster, Md. 1946) 1:6165. j. burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (4th ed. London 1930). w. kranz, Empedokles (Zurich 1949). e. bignone, Empedocle (Turin 1916). h. long, "The Unity of Empedocles' Thought," American Journal of Philology 70 (1949) 142158.

[r. j. blackwell]

Empedocles of Acragas, (CA. 492 B.C.-CA. 432 B.C.)

views updated May 29 2018

Empedocles of Acragas, (ca. 492 b.c.-ca. 432 b.c.)

Greek philosopher, poet, and politician

A philosopher, poet, politician, and visionary, Empedocles of Acragas developed radical new ideas about the nature of the universe. His philosophy of the four elements in the universe and the definition of matter as the various ratios of these elements foreshadowed later developments in atomic theory by philosophers such as Democritus of Abdera (c. 460c. 370 b.c.).

Empedocles was born in Acragas, Sicily. His father, Meto, was wealthy, and his grandfather, also named Empedocles, was renowned for winning a horse race in the Olympia. Empedocles is believed to have travelled to Thourioi shortly after it was established approximately 444 b.c. Empedocles's keen intellect enabled him to combine talents in philosophy, natural history, poetry, and politics, and to achieve superstar status in his day. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.), Empedocles was the inventor of rhetoric, a talent Empedocles often utilized as a statesman. He became popular among his fellow citizens through his support of democracy.

Empedocles's scientific inquiries usually included mysticism. However, his philosophies contained early insight into basic laws of physics , including atomic theory. Although sometimes labeled a Pythagorean, Empedocles followed the Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 515c. 445 b.c.) in the belief that matter (or, "what is") is indestructible. Empedocles claimed that matter was the only principle of all things and that four elements in the universeair, fire, earth, and watermade up all things according to various ratios of these elements. Empedocles further stated that two forces, which he called love and hate, or eros and strife, controlled how the four elements come together or move apart. In addition to creating a philosophy that closely resembles modern atomic theory, Empedocles also studied the nature of change in the universe. Empedocles asserted that the cyclical nature of the universe introduces the possibility of reincarnation because nothing that comes into being can be destroyed but only transformed. Empedocles later wrote a poetic treatise On Nature containing the ideas of evolution , the circulation of the blood, and atmospheric pressure . He stated that the Moon shone by reflected light and estimated that the Moon was one-third the distance from the earth to the Sun .

The object of admiration, Empedocles, according to Aristotle, was offered a kingship but refused to be considered king. Nevertheless, some scholars claim that Empedocles assumed royal status and went so far as to claim himself a deity. Viewed by some as a demi-god and by others as a char-latan, Empedocles made important contributions to the philosophy of science in his day. Galen (c. 130c. 200), the physician to several Roman emperors, also credits Empedocles with founding the Italian school of medicine. In addition, Empedocles was an accomplished poet. However, little remains of his writings except for segments of his poems On Nature (Peri Physeos ) and Purifications (Katharmoi ).

That Empedocles had a flair for self-promotion and public relations is evident in scholarly writings. Empedocles was reported to have leapt into the crater of the Mt. Etna volcano so he would have a death befitting a god. The English poet, Mathew Arnold, wrote a poem about the episode entitled Empedocles on Etna. Some scholars dispute the story of Empedocles' fiery death. According to the writings of Aristotle, Empedocles died at the age of 60.


views updated May 29 2018


The Greek philosopher, poet, and scientist Empedocles (ca. 493-ca. 444 B.C.) propounded a pluralist cosmological scheme in which fire, air, water, and earth mingled and separated under the compulsion of love and strife.

Empedocles was born of a noble family in the Sicilian city of Acragas (modern Agrigento). He is said to have studied under Xenophanes or Parmenides. His work shows familiarity with Pythagoreanism, although stories about his banishment from the sect, like many of the legends that grew up around him, may be discounted as misinterpretations of statements in his writings. It is certain that he had a profound interest in natural science and in certain religious ideas, and although there is no hint in the surviving portion of his writings that he took an interest in political affairs, the Sicilian historian Timaeus tells of his efforts to establish a democracy in Acragas. Aristotle says that Empedocles was offered the kingship but refused it. Accounts of his death are so confused as to make it impossible to determine either the date or the place, although Aristotle noted that he did not live past the age of 60.

Of his two poems, On Nature and Purifications, which totaled some 5,000 verses, fewer than 500 lines survive. On Nature presents Empedocles's philosophical system. Fire, air, water, and earth, the four roots or elements of which everything is made, are eternal and move through the cosmos with a swirling motion. The problem of change is solved by positing the existence of love and strife as the two forces which affect the four basic elements. Depending on which of these two principles holds sway at a given moment, the universe is either in a state of happy unity or of warring disunity, with possible gradations between the extremes.

Purifications was an extended poem dealing with the human soul and espousing the Orphic and Pythagorean tenets of immortality and metempsychosis, which were widespread in the Greek West in the 5th century B.C. Empedocles asserted that he had been boy, girl, bush, fowl, and fish in earlier lives, and he speaks of his present life as punishment for past sins.

Empedocles is less well known as the father of Sicilian rhetoric (Aristotle called him the inventor of rhetoric) and as an important contributor to medical science.

Further Reading

Selected fragments of Empedocles's two poems, with English translation and full analysis, are found in G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts (1962). Useful discussions are found in John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy (1892; 4th ed. 1930), and Kathleen Freeman, The Presocratic Philosophers: A Companion to Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1946; 2d ed. 1959). □


views updated May 23 2018


Circa 490-430 b.c.e.

Philosopher, statesman, poet


Beginnings . Like Pythagoras, the charismatic Empedocles was a magnet for legends; unlike Pythagoras, though, he might well himself have actively done all he could to encourage them. Born into an aristocratic family in Acragas, Sicily, around 490 b.c.e., he seems to have vigorously supported the democratic faction in the politics of his home city. The proximity of Acragas to Croton and Elea in southern Italy brought him into contact with both Parmenides and the Pythagoreans, and strong traces of their influence are evident in his own work.

Showman. A flashy and flamboyant showman, Empedocles is said to have traveled extensively through the western Mediterranean, dressed in expensive purple robes, bronze boots, and a golden crown. He professed extraordinary power over the natural world, as well as the means to perform miraculous cures. While Aristotle hailed him as the inventor of rhetoric, Galen regarded him as the founder of Italian medicine. Nothing remains of his writings except for brief sections from two poems, On Nature and Purifications.

Four Elements. Empedocles maintained that all matter is composed of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, and these four ingredients, in turn, are governed by Love and Strife. In addition, Empedocles believed in the transmigration of souls, declaring that those who have sinned must wander the earth in various mortal bodies for thirty thousand seasons and perform purifying acts such as abstaining from eating animal flesh. According to legend, Empedocles died after jumping into the volcanic crater atop Mount Etna in an attempt to convince others of his divinity.


Jonathan Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, volume 2 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979).

Helle Lambridis, Empedocles: A Philosophical Investigation (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Empedocles (c.493–c.433 bc), Greek philosopher, born in Sicily. He taught that the universe is composed of fire, air, water, and earth, which mingle and separate under the influence of the opposing principles of Love and Strife. According to legend he leapt into the crater of Mount Etna in order that he might be thought a god.


views updated May 14 2018

Empedocles (c.490–c.430 bc) Greek scientist and philosopher. He taught the doctrine of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) and, anticipating modern physics, he explained change as alterations in the proportions of these four elements.