Empedocles Essay - Critical Essays



Empedocles c. 493 b.c.-c. 433 b.c.

Greek poet, philosopher, physician, and scientist.

Empedocles is the author of two epic poems written in hexameters: Peri physeos (mid-5th century b.c.), also known as On Nature, and the Katharmoi (mid-5th century b.c.), also known as Purifications. In Peri physeos he denies Parmenides's idea of the unity of matter; instead he opts for pluralism and declares that everything in the world is made of four elements (or roots, in his terminology): fire, water, air, and earth. Although the four elements are eternal and indestructible, change is brought about by varying their relative proportions; the agents of change are the opposing forces of Love and Strife. He also postulated a theory of evolution, complete with natural selection, although the details were fanciful. Empedocles made numerous astronomical and scientific observations; his theory of sensation, which entails invisible particles of matter stimulating the sensory organs, fits in important ways with modern science. Empedocles contributed to the field of botany, recognizing that there is gender in plants; to physiology, contributing his observations as autopsy surgeon; and he founded the Italian school of medicine. His religious beliefs, Orphic and Pythagorean in character, are elucidated in the Katharmoi, which describes how souls transmigrate into bodies and how, after a series of purifications, they eventually return to the place of their origin with the gods. Matthew Arnold's poem Empedocles on Etna (1852) helped generate new interest in the philosopher in modern times, although the pessimistic and suicidal Empedocles Arnold describes does not match particularly well with scholarly views of him.

Biographical Information

Empedocles was born in Acragas, a Greek colony in southern Sicily. His affluent father was probably named Meton, and his grandfather, also named Empedocles, was an Olympic winner in chariot racing in the games held 493-96. He became interested in philosophy at an early age, especially that of Parmenides, and then politics. His most notable political achievement was in leading an overthrow of the oligarchy known as “the Thousand” which controlled Acragas, and establishing democratic rule. According to Aristotle, Empedocles was then offered the position of king, but he refused. Beyond that, accounts of his life are mostly colored by legend, some of which was likely self-promulgated. Claims were made that he could control the winds, perform miracles, and bring the dead to back to life. Indeed, these claims had a factual starting basis, for as a scientist and physician he twice recognized the means by which disease was spreading, and stemmed its progress, once by blocking the wind through a narrow channel with animal skins and another time by diverting the course of a river. As for restoring life, there is a story of a young woman named Pantheia who did not register a pulse or breathe for a month, with Empedocles staying by her bedside until she recovered. Modern scientists would explain the restoration as the natural result of coming out of catalepsy or a stroke, but those who witnessed it preferred to view Empedocles as a god, and his reputation as such spread. He founded no school but he did instruct Gorgias, probably in rhetoric. Legend has it that his sandal was found at the top of Mount Etna; those who found it believed that he threw himself into the volcano to prove that he was a god. Although no scholars believe it to be true, the tale intrigued Matthew Arnold, who popularized it in Empedocles on Etna. It is not known when he wrote his poems, although Peri physeos is assumed to have preceded the Katharmoi.

Major Works

Scholars have long argued whether the known fragments of Empedocles originally came from one poem or two. The two works, if they are two separate works, have different subjects: Peri physeos explains that the world is not made of water or moisture, as Thales thought; that it is not made of boundless air as Anaximenes thought; and that it is not made of fire, as Heraclitus thought; it is made of all three of these elements, plus earth. Although each of the four elements is eternal, change can and does result, depending on how much of the elements are present at any given time. The agents of these changes are Love, represented by Aphrodite, and Strife, represented by Ares. Love's tendency is to unite, whereas Strife's nature tends to dispersion and chaos. The Katharmoi, heavily influenced by mysticism, concerns itself with transmigration. The soul commences in a divine state, then falls. It is reincarnated for eons in a series of mortal bodies until finally, through purifications, it is joined again with the gods. Although the two works have a different focus, it is possible that they originally fit logically in a larger, single work, but that the link between them has been lost. Diogenes Laertius states the two poems consisted of 5000 lines, whereas the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia, reports its length as approximately 2000 lines. Until recently only 450 to 460 lines of Empedocles were known to still exist, and thus it is impossible to know precisely how the poem or poems were originally organized.

Critical Reception

Empedocles was extremely popular in his own time—reportedly impressing audiences with his recitations—and has been respected by critics ever since. Much scholarly effort has been expended on trying to explain Empedocles's writings. His texts are often confusing, were confusing even to the pre-Socratics, and the problem is made immensely more difficult due to so much of the work being lost. Exactly what Empedocles's theory of cosmic creation and evolution entails is particularly controversial, as Brad Inwood and others have described. Peter Kingsley explains that much of the problem in deciphering Empedocles stems from his choice of words and that the difficulty is compounded when scholars are influenced by ancient misinterpretations of his meanings. Although the majority of scholars believe there were two separate poems, strong arguments have been made that all the fragments, including contradictory elements, could reasonably have been part of one poem. Inwood has published the fragments as part of one poem and has demonstrated how weak the case is that there were two separate poems; David Sedley, Kingsley, and other scholars vociferously challenge this idea. A small but notable branch of Empedoclean studies concentrates on Arnold's Empedocles on Etna poem. Critics debate Arnold's interpretation of the philosopher, particularly whether he is reasonably represented. In 1999 a book entitled L'Empédocle de Strasbourg was published, containing some ninety papyrus fragments identified in 1992 as Empedocles's work. Although the poorly preserved fragments (some include no more than a single letter) include precious few lines hitherto completely unknown, the work added significantly to the knowledge base of scholars, particularly regarding the text's transmission, and confirmed various earlier theories and questionable attributions. John Pepple and N. Van Der Ben are among the scholars who have evaluated these fragments.

Principal Works

Katharmoi [Purifications] (epic poem) mid-5th century b.c.

Peri physeos [On Nature] (epic poem) mid-5th century b.c.

Empedocles: The Extant Fragments (translated by M. R. Wright) 1981

The Poem of Empedocles (translated by Brad Inwood) 1992

L’Empedocle de Strasbourg (edited by Alain Martin and Oliver Primavesi) 1999


Marshall McLuhan (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: McLuhan, Marshall. “Empedocles and T. S. Eliot.” In Empodocles, by Helle Lambridis, pp. vi-xv. University, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1975, McLuhan explores Empedocles's influence on poets T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, particularly in the preference for auditory imagery and “double truths.”]

The vision of Empedocles may have made its entrée into English literature via Lewis Carroll rather than Matthew Arnold, in the image of Humpty Dumpty (the Sphairos) rather than the haggard suicide of Mount Aetna (Empedocles on Aetna). Lewis Carroll, the non-Euclidean geometer, was a...

(The entire section is 2978 words.)

Helle Lambridis (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Lambridis, Helle. “Sensation and Knowledge” and “Poetry.” In Empodocles, pp. 73-91 and 136-45. University: The University of Alabama Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Lambridis considers Empedocles's theory of sensation, explains his limited trust in knowledge, and evaluates his work strictly on its poetic merit.]

Although both the theory of the four elements and the notion that the world is periodically destroyed and reborn were current in Empedocles' time, the way in which he envisaged them is original and exclusively his own.

Sensation. Empedocles believed knowledge to be conveyed to the human mind primarily by...

(The entire section is 9889 words.)

Stanley Lombardo (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Lombardo, Stanley. “Empedocles: Introduction.” In Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation, pp. 23-30. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Lombardo provides an overview of Empedocles's subject matter in his poetry.]

Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common except for their meter. If the one is to be called a poet, the other should be called a natural philosopher rather than a poet.

(Aristotle, Poetics 1447)

Aristotle is quibbling, dissembling, or both. In a less celebrated passage (On Poets, fr. 70) he gives credit to...

(The entire section is 1877 words.)

Linda Ray Pratt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Pratt, Linda Ray. “Empedocles, Suicide, and the Order of Things.” Victorian Poetry 50, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 1988): 75-90.

[In the following essay, Pratt examines Matthew Arnold's response to Empedocles's legendary suicide.]

A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)

from “Connoisseur of Chaos,” Wallace Stevens1

When Matthew Arnold wrote that he was “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born,” he referred to a lost world in which he imagined he would have felt at peace and to a new world in which he...

(The entire section is 7548 words.)

Brad Inwood (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Inwood, Brad. “Part I: Introduction.” In The Poem of Empedocles, translated by Brad Inwood, pp. 3-72. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Inwood examines controversies concerning Empedocles's life and works and offers a broad summary of his philosophy.]


The principal aim of this book is modest: to make available for students with a philosophical interest in Empedocles (whether they read ancient Greek or not) the texts necessary for an exploration of his thought. For no other Presocratic thinker is there so much evidence. The literal quotations of Empedocles' own poetry are...

(The entire section is 31046 words.)

Peter Kingsley (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Kingsley, Peter. “Empedocles's Sun.” Classical Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1994): 316-24.

[In the following essay, Kingsley explains Empedocles's views regarding astronomical matters and discusses why they were misunderstood by Theophrastus.]

Few things can be more confusing, or confused, than the ancient reports about Empedocles' astronomy. Attempts in the modern literature at resolving the difficulties invariably either add to the confusion, or end by urging the need to ‘acknowledge the insufficiency of our data and suspend judgment’.1 In fact, as we will see, it is possible not only to reconstruct Empedocles' own ideas but also to retrace the...

(The entire section is 5649 words.)

Peter Kingsley (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kingsley, Peter. Introduction to Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic, pp. 1-10. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Kingsley argues that prior evaluations of Empedocles, particularly those based on Aristotle or Theophrastus, should be discarded in favor of new, less problematic perspectives.]

This book covers a wide area in space and time, but takes as its starting-point one man who lived well over two thousand years ago. That man was called Empedocles.

Empedocles was probably born around the start of the fifth century bc.1 He was from the Greek colony of Acragas—modern Agrigento—on the...

(The entire section is 4221 words.)

David Sedley (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Sedley, David. “The Empedoclean Opening.” In Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom, pp. 1-34. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Sedley demonstrates that Lucretius based the proem of his De rerum natura on the work of Empedocles.]


Lucreti poemata ut scribis ita sunt, multis luminibus ingeni, multae tamen artis. sed cum veneris, virum te putabo si Sallusti Empedoclea legeris, hominem non putabo.

Writing to his brother in 54 bc, Cicero supplies two unique testimonies (Ad Q. fr. ii 9.4). In...

(The entire section is 15383 words.)

John Woolfold (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Woolford, John. “Arnold on Empedocles.” The Review of English Studies, n.s. 50, no. 197 (February 1999): 32-52.

[In the following essay, Woolford interprets Matthew Arnold's Empedocles on Etna as a philosophical debate between Arnold and Empedocles.]

Much of Empedocles on Etna is spent defining Empedocles' suicide as the outcome of what is represented as at once a personal and a philosophical crisis. Arnold's own gloss, in a note in the Yale Manuscript, stresses the personal element:

his friends are dead: the world is all against him, & incredulous of the truth: his mind is overtasked by the effort to...

(The entire section is 9777 words.)

N. Van Der Ben (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Van Der Ben, N. “The Strasbourg Papyrus of Empedocles: Some Preliminary Remarks.” Mnemosyne 52, no. 5 (October 1999): 525-44.

[In the following essay, Van Der Ben comments on certain aspects of a recently discovered Empedoclean papyrus and on how it may enable scholars to better resolve problematic areas of previously known Empedoclean texts.]

It was early 1994 when the announcement was made of “un nouveau texte d'Empédocle révélé par un papyrus de la Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire de Strasbourg” to be made public at the Strasbourg University Library April 14th 1994.1 As it turned out, the papyrus was ‘new’ in the sense of...

(The entire section is 5291 words.)

Further Reading


Finkelberg, Aryeh. “Xenophanes' Physics, Parmenides' Doxa and Empedocles' Theory of Cosmogonical Mixture.” Hermes 125, no. 1 (1997): 1-16.

Argues that Empedocles gained his physical theory from Parmenides.

Ketterer, David. “Empedocles in Eureka: Addenda.” Poe Studies: Dark Romanticism: History, Theory, Interpretation 18, no. 2 (December 1985): 24-25.

Itemizes specific points in Edgar Allen Poe's Eureka which were likely influenced by Empedocles.

Kingsley, Peter. “Notes on Air: Four Questions of Meaning in Empedocles and Anaxagoras.” Classical Quarterly...

(The entire section is 274 words.)