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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


EMPEDOCLES

(c. 495 — 435? B.C.)

 

MATERIALISTIC PLURALISM

Empedocles came from Sicily. He was the author of two philosophical 'poems' which came to be known as On Nature and Purifications. He seems also to have been something of a 'character'; there are many stories about his exploits as a magician and 'miracle-worker'.

 

COSMOLOGY/ PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE

[1] In his On Nature [fr. 2] Empedocles said both that the universe could not have come into existence out of nothing and that it cannot be destroyed [a]. But he did not accept the view that it is an unchanging unity. Instead he argued that all the things of the universe are made out of four eternal material 'elements' or "roots of all", namely, earth, water, air, and fire (though he referred to them by the names of gods), and he tried to explain real change and plurality in terms of a coming together and arranging and rearranging of them. He did not think of this in terms of a real coming into existence or perishing of things. And he denied that there was any change of quality [b]. He attributed coming together and separating to what he called Love (Harmonia) and Strife (Neikos) [fr. 17] [c]. These causal 'principles' seem to have been regarded by Empedocles as being material and as having spatial properties such as position and magnitude, but also as being fundamental forces or agencies. He distinguished four successive stages in the eternal cosmic process or cycle: (1) Love is supreme; the One exists; the (unlike) elements are in perfect unity, the mixture being a perfect sphere: "the many come together in one". (2) Through the intervention of Strife the One changes into the many, as likes are attracted to likes. (3) Strife has become dominant; the elements are completely separated; plurality exists. (4) The many change back to the One. [See fr. 17, lines 1-13; fr. 35.]

 

KNOWLEDGE

[2] According to Theophrastus (3rd century B.C.) [On the Senses 7; see also Plato, Meno 76c], Empedocles tried to account for sense-perception by attributing 'effluences' to things. These are being given off all the time; and vision, for example, occurs when the effluences of external objects entering through the correctly sized pores of sense-organs meet the fiery effluence which come from inside the eye. Thus likes are attracted to like [a]:

We see earth by means of earth, water by means of water, divine air by means of air, and destructive fire by means of wretched Strife. [Fr. 109]

 

RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[3] Although there appears to be some overlapping of the two poems, Purifications tends to be concerned more with the nature of individual souls or 'divinities' (daimones) and their attempts, through living a life of purity, to avoid being reborn in other bodies — the doctrine of transmigration [a]and so to escape from the physical world altogether. He does not, however, explicitly say that they are actually immortal — only that they possess immensely long life [fr. 18, l. 5]. Empedocles' description of souls as 'divinities' suggests their identification with the One, the perfect sphere of Love, the Divine itself [b] (who is, "only mind, holy and indescribable, darting through the entire Kosmos with his swift thoughts" [fr. 134] ). The differention of the daimones occurs when the sphere, through the intervention of Strife, fragments once more into multiplicity.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Empedocles is significant in that he tried to explain the nature and changeability of things in terms of four fundamental 'elements' which combine in various ways through the agency of Love and Strife. (This may perhaps be seen as anticipating today's quantum physics which accounts for attractive and repulsive forces in terms of fundamental particles as being both material and manifestations of energy.) His 'effluence' theory of perception is original and important; and he also had some interesting ideas about what we would call chemical mixtures and about the evolution of animals and plants.

There are a number of problems of interpretation in his philosophy. Some commentators have argued for a three rather than a four phase cosmic cycle. It has also been argued [for example, by Hussey] that the attraction of like for like [fr. 109] suggests Empedocles invoked a third 'agency', but it is equally possible to view this as but an aspect of Strife itself. Perhaps the main problem with his thought, according to some writers, is that there seems to be a conflict between his two poems. In On Nature he sets out what is essentially a materialist cosmology, while Purifications is mainly concerned with religious and moral issues. Different solutions are proposed variously by Kahn , Hussey, and Barnes. But it has to be admitted that these two positions are not readily reconciled; his religious philosophy would seem to require a more 'spiritualistic' interpretation of Love and Strife.

 

READING

G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, & M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, ch. X.

R. D. McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates, ch. 14.

M. R. Wright, Empedocles: the Extant Fragments.

See also essays by A. A. Long and C. H. Kahn (in Mourelatos); and by F. Solmsen (in Furley and Allen).

 

CONNECTIONS

Empedocles

 

[1a] Being (One) eternal and indestructible

   Parmenides

Anaxagoras

   Plato

Aristotle

[1c]

[1a]

[5a]

[12c e]

 

[1b] 'Elements'/ 'roots' — real change and plurality (but not change of quality)

   Heraclitus

   Parmenides

Anaxagoras

Plato

Aristotle

[1a c g i]

[1a d]

[1a 1b]

[5c]

[10c 12d]

 

[1c] Coming together of elements through 'love' and 'strife'; material cause/ explanation

   Anaximander

   Heraclitus

Anaxagoras

Plato

Aristotle

   Peirce

[1b]

[1d e]

[2b]

[5d]

[6a 9b c]

[3a]

 

[2a] Perception theory

Anaxagoras

Democritus

Plato

Aristotle

[3a]

[2a]

[6b]

[16c]

 

[3a] Soul and transmigration

   Pythagoras

   Heraclitus

Plato

Aristotle

[2b]

[2b]

[9b sec. 10]

[15a]

 

[3b] Souls and the Divine One

   Heraclitus 

   Anaxagoras

Plato

[1f 2a]

[2c]

[5b]