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.
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