Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2517
The Death of Empedocles is a verse drama of Friedrich Hölderlin’s middle period (1793-1799), when his worldview of idealistic pantheism—that the human being is part of a cosmos in which all things express the nature of divinity—was called into question by issues raised in his intense study of the philosophical works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte asserts in his philosophy that it is the individual consciousness alone that gives meaning to the world. Such a view challenges the holistic aspect of pantheism. While in many respects The Death of Empedocles has been seen as Hölderlin’s dramatization of his inner conflict, it is also a representative work of the movement of many Romantics away from an interest in classical themes toward their struggle to express innovative perceptions of the relationship between humanity and nature and between humanity and divinity. The Death of Empedocles is one of the works that marks this transformation.
Like his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, Hölderlin considered the problem of what is proper to humankind and what is not: some abilities and some knowledge are not appropriate for the mortal state because, being primarily of the flesh and not solely of the spirit, people do not have the powers of perception to understand. Ironically, humanity desires to understand those very things that it cannot. Empedocles attempts to expose the secrets of the soul and of the workings of the universe to a humanity that cannot have the capacity to understand them.
The Death of Empedocles, which takes place at Agrigentum and at the foot of Mount Etna, is a version of the legend of the Greek philosopher, poet, and statesman, Empedocles. Empedocles, who lived c. 490 to 430 b.c.e., threw himself, according to legend, into the crater of Mount Etna to prove that he was a god. Empedocles was reputed to know many of the secrets of the gods, of the universe, and of life and death. In the play, Empedocles’ problem is that he aspires to be more than a man but will always be less than the gods. Critics have noted the similarity between Hölderlin’s Empedocles and Christ in many respects, the most significant being that they are both figures of matter and of spirit who overcame their states through death and transformation to another state—deification for Christ, reunion with elemental nature for Empedocles. Empedocles’ tragedy is that he becomes one with the divine spirit of the universe and thereby alienates the ruling powers of Agrigentum. He chooses to share his visions with the people, undermining the authority of the religious establishment. According to Hölderlin’s plan for his final version, Empedocles is a redeemer figure who must die in order for his civilization to flourish. Hölderlin’s vision of the universe is Romantic and cyclical; for him, death and life become part of the same process, harmony is broken and reestablished, and things form, decay, and reassemble themselves—even civilization is subject to decay and restoration.
The drama remains in three fragments, none of which Hölderlin finished. Versions 1 and 2 show Empedocles as a prophet with the tragic flaw of pride. Half tragic hero and half Christ figure, Empedocles has the powers of the magician to heal and to move the elements, but his desire to be reunited with the gods causes him to disregard the pleas of his followers that he return to them from his exile. In the second version, before the action of the play begins, Empedocles, “That tender soul . . . run to waste,” wishes to share his understanding with his people, but in this version, he is insolent and despotic. This tragic hero of the second version is a Romantic who not only falls but also bemoans his own fall. His first speech shows him imploring the gods and the forces of nature to consider him in his solitariness. His vision of the universe contributes to his fall; ultimately, he understands that his own powers of perception and his ability to control the elemental forces condemn him to solitude. By the third version, Hölderlin transcends his own self-imposed strictures of classical tragedy to create, in fragmentary form, a work in which Empedocles’ personal motive for suicide, that of reuniting with the gods, takes on the universal significance of the redemption of civilization.
In the first version, Kritias, the archon or ruler in Agrigentum, who represents government, remarks that Empedocles’ teachings so affect the people that they, in their belief that he ascended into heaven, are disaffected against the laws of the state. Hermocrates, who represents religion, counsels that Empedocles is abandoned by the gods, who formerly so favored him, because he comes to be on such familiar terms with them that he actually forgets that he can never be one of them, and forgets the “difference” between them. It is Hermocrates who will curse him and who plans to show the people that Empedocles, rather than having risen, is actually in his garden in a state of abject depression.
The second version omits this scene and opens instead with the interchange between the priest and the archon, Kritias, who is renamed in this version Mecades. As in the first version, in discussing the stature of Empedocles among the citizenry of Agrigentum, Mecades and Hermocrates say that Empedocles overreaches his own boundaries: Because of his familiarity with the gods, the people adulate him excessively, honoring him for stealing the “fire of life” from heaven, and cease honoring their laws and customs. Hermocrates describes the downfall of the noble-minded Empedocles, how he became like the “superstitious rabble with no soul,” which causes the loss of his power.
Empedocles’ meditative soliloquy, which in version 1 is the third scene, opens version 2. Empedocles reflects on his fallen state, on his previous state as a powerful seer to whom people applied for renovation of their spirits, and on the necessity of his being punished for his pride in presuming to be too much of the world of the gods. He calls out to the divinities of the earth and sky.
In dialogue with Pausanias, he reveals his pantheism: He recalls having heard the melodies of the powers of nature and her “ancient harmony,” and he regrets that nature’s powers deserted him, claiming that the greater one’s good fortune, the worse one’s downfall. Pausanias then asks of Empedocles one of the key questions of the drama: Can one control one’s own feelings, or can the forces of darkness reach even into the human heart? Another way to phrase the question: Do people have free will, or are they ruled by fate? He implores Empedocles to remember that he was and still is a person. Empedocles counters with the Romantic statement, “You do not know me, nor yourself, nor life, nor death.” In his bitterness, he says that the world is a “dead stringed instrument” without him to animate it with “a language and a soul”; nature is his serving girl, and the gods live for the people only insofar as he proclaims them. He informs Pausanias that the things for which Pausanias admires him are those things that destroy him: the vast extent of his powers of understanding the universe and his abilities to control the elements, often for the good of humanity. This scene breaks off as Empedocles begins a disquisition on the transformative power of the word.
In versions 1 and 2, Empedocles explains to Pausanias that his fall from grace is due to being too blessed by the gods, that ultimately he became too insolent in his pride. In the fragmentary conclusions to act 2 of the second version, there follows an interchange between Panthea and Delia. In the second version, in contrast to the first, the question of the morality of Empedocles’ contemplated suicide is emphasized through the discussion of Panthea, Delia, and Pausanias. Panthea is supportive of Empedocles, and Pausanias rather glorifies him in his decision, but Delia objects.
Panthea expresses the dichotomy between the gods and nature, proclaiming that it is nature rather than the gods who gave Empedocles his lofty soul. Delia comments on the death of Empedocles in lines that bemoan the transitory nature of existence. Panthea remarks upon the fact that living things fade, that “the best,/ Even they seek out their destroyers,” which are the “gods of death.” In anguish, she implores, “O Nature, why do you/ Make it so easy?/ For your hero to die?” With his death, Panthea moans, the hearts of humanity draw away from nature and from “the holy All”: She closes with the comment, “For we who are blind?/ Needed a miracle once.” The real problem is not only that Empedocles suffers a tragic fall through pride but also that in so doing, he creates a state of disharmony with nature, losing sight of the holiness of all living things. In Hölderlin’s Romantic philosophy, the drawing of human hearts away from “the holy All” constitutes communal spiritual cataclysm. It is in his third version that he tries dramatically to redeem this act through Empedocles.
Version 1 continues with the visit to Empedocles in his garden by several people, including Kritias and Hermocrates, who curses Empedocles in his wish to commit suicide and who spurs the crowd on to drive Empedocles into exile. The action builds to a turning point when, on Mount Etna, Empedocles and Pausanias see the crowd coming up the mountainside. Hermocrates declares to the people that Empedocles is forgiven, but Pausanias tells them that Empedocles intends to commit suicide. The people threaten to kill Hermocrates and proclaim their desire to make Empedocles their king. Empedocles, however, remarks that the era of democracy is arrived, and that although he will not go home with them, he will give them a message, that message being the holiest thing he has to give. He then speaks to them of death and life and of the transformative nature of civilization. He implores them to defy the old ways and to engage in a worship of nature, for only then will humanity attain true peace, the “life of the world.”
Critics have noted the Christological allusions. Empedocles becomes aware that the time of his own purification and transformation is at hand; he is one lent to life for only a short time; he fulfills his purpose to the people. Becoming too aware of the divine in the world, he knows he must pass on, and he bids Pausanias to arrange things, including a last supper. Version 2 concludes as, invoking Jupiter, Empedocles passes out of this state in an overwhelming cognizance of the divinity of the universe.
Although the third version consists of only three finished scenes, Hölderlin’s notes give a fairly good notion of the direction in which he intended to take the work. He intended to expand the first act and to include four more acts, in which the bewildered crowd comes to understand the implications of the death of Empedocles. While in versions 1 and 2 Empedocles’ fall from grace is a central issue, in version 3 the thematic focus shifts to the moral questions, including those that attend the contemplation of suicide by a leader who is a poet, prophet, magician, and healer.
Version 3 opens with Empedocles in exile, awakening, describing his position between “Father Etna and his close relative, the Thunderer.” High up in a place where he sings “natural songs” with the eagles, he is in harmony with nature as well as in proximity to the gods. Dramatic tension in this version is significantly heightened with the introduction of a new character, Strato, as king of Agrigentum, and brother of Empedocles. In soliloquy, Empedocles says that his brother exiled him, but that he nevertheless makes a new life for himself; he knows he sinned against humanity by serving them blindly as the elements like “fire or water” serve, but not as a human being with a human heart would serve. He therefore deserves to be driven out by his people, and it is this forced exile that reestablishes the bond between him and nature. He pronounces that “death is what I seek. It is my right,” and that his need for the human heart ends.
In the third scene of the third version, Hölderlin departs in a radically different direction, one that lifts this work out of the realm of imitative tragic classicism and into innovative Romanticism. In it, Manes, Empedocles’ former teacher, admonishes Empedocles for his decision to commit suicide and causes him to come to terms with this decision. Manes admits to Empedocles, however, that there is one situation in which suicide may be allowed, and that concerns a very specific individual in a very specific situation. While remaining doubtful throughout, he describes Empedocles as this kind of individual: one who partakes of both the human and the divine realms in a time of transformative social and political upheaval. This would be a person who can so absorb the conflicts in the world into himself that he serves as an example to humanity of what is possible: of the strength of the peace that is within their power to create. He must die, then, because he would himself be worshiped, and people would forget that their objective is not for them to worship him but to do as he does. Cosmically, his death heralds a new order, a new civilization. Hölderlin’s notes make clear that this is the direction the story would take. In the projected conclusion, Manes believes that Empedocles is actually the “historical redeemer,” “the chosen one who kills and gives life, in and through whom a world is at once dissolved and renewed.” Manes gives to the people the great secret of Empedocles, his last will, as the basis for the new civilization.
The historical Empedocles presumably attracted Hölderlin: Fundamentally a pantheist, Empedocles was adept at manipulating the forces of nature; essentially an idealist, he believed in political democracy. Empedocles’ theory of the cyclic nature of the universe may have attracted Hölderlin as well. Ultimately, however, The Death of Empedocles represents the influences of the German Romantics who preceded Hölderlin. Hölderlin was acutely aware that people are of the world of matter as well as of the world of spirit, and so people cannot really ever become part of the realm of pure spirit. In other words, people may strive for perfection, but human perfection is paradoxically imperfect: It can be only a shadow of true spiritual perfection. Not to recognize the vast difference between the ideal state and the real state is cosmically disastrous. Empedocles’ pride postpones his recognition of this difference.
It is unfortunate that Hölderlin never finished this play. Even as it stands, it is a major document in the history of European Romanticism. There is the curious circumstance of three versions, which, read together (and with Hölderlin’s notes) as one work, provide a substantial view of the progress of a poet’s mind in a time of artistic as well as social and political transformation.