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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.

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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...

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