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Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Empedocles} Empedocles was one of the earliest of the Greek philosophers to provide a unified theory of the nature of the world and the cosmos.

Early Life

Born c. 490 in Acragas, Empedocles (ehm-PEHD-uh-kleez) was a member of the aristocracy. Much of his life has become shrouded in legend; fact is more difficult to discover. It is known that he spent some time with Zeno and Parmenides in the city of Elea; some time after that, he studied with the school of Pythagoras. Later, he left the Pythagoreans for reasons that are not completely clear and returned to Acragas.

In Acragas, he became a political figure, eventually participating in a movement to depose a tyrant, despite his aristocratic background. He made enemies, however, and they used their influence, while he was absent from Acragas, to banish him from his home. He would spend much of his life in exile.

Life’s Work

Empedocles’ two main works, Peri physeōs (fifth century b.c.e.; On Nature, 1908) and Katharmoi (fifth century b.c.e.; Purifications, 1908), exist only in fragments. On Nature is an expression of Empedocles as a cosmic philosopher and as one of the earliest natural scientists. On Nature, an essay on the ability of humans to experience the world, in general describes Empedocles’ theory of the cosmology of the world. Parmenides believed that the world can be apprehended through the use of reason; Empedocles, however, believed that neither reason nor the senses can provide a clear picture of reality: Reason is a better instrument for dealing with abstraction, and the physical senses are best suited for the phenomenological world.

Unlike Parmenides, Empedocles assumed that the universe is in motion and that it is composed of a multitude of separate parts but that their nature is such that the senses can perceive neither the motion nor the great plurality of living and spiritual forms that inhabit the natural world. In his conception, the basic building blocks of true reality lie in the four archaic “roots”: earth, air, fire, and water. In the abstract, these four elements are also represented by spiritual beings: Aidoneus is associated with earth, Hera with air, Zeus with fire, and Nestis with water. The elements can neither be added to the natural world nor deleted from it: The universe is a closed system. The elements can be mixed with one another, however, and the mixture of these elements in various proportions constitutes the stuff of the perceived world.

Every physical entity is a composite of the four elements, in varying forms and degrees of mixture. Empedocles’ own analogy was that the blending of the elements could be likened to the creation of a painting: A few basic colors on the palette could be blended in such a manner that all the colors of the rainbow could be achieved.

He saw living things as only a matter of appearance: While they live, they have control over their corporeal forms and assume that the forms of life are as they perceive them. At the time of their death, when the bonds that hold together the elements of which they are composed are loosened, they die.

Empedocles believed that two opposing principles, Love and Strife (also variously called Love and Hate, Harmony and Disharmony, and Attraction and Repulsion), are engaged in a constant struggle in the universe, a process that gives rise to a continual mixing and shifting of the basic particles of earth, air, fire, and water. The two powers alternate in their dominance in a great cosmic cycle that involves the whole universe. When Love...

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dominates, the particles of matter are brought into a homogeneous mass. When Strife is in the ascendant, the effect is to separate the mixed elements into four separate and discrete masses. These alternating states form the poles of existence; the periods when neither dominated were times of flux during which the power of one gradually increased as the power of the other waned. The human world is one where Strife is in the process of slowly overcoming Love: a place of relative disintegration.

In the beginning of the cycle, the elements are separated, under the control of Strife. As the powers of Love manifest themselves, the integrative process creates from the earth random or unattached portions of animals. These combine in various haphazard ways, creating monsters. A similar integrative process creates unattached human parts: disembodied heads, shoulderless arms, unattached eyes. Through chance wanderings, the parts begin to join, creating human monsters, such as many-handed creatures with double faces, cattle with human faces, and people with the faces of oxen.

Nevertheless, some join in a manner that allows them to survive. As time and chance do their work, more and more improvements allow certain forms to prosper; eventually, human form, because of its relatively high survival value, becomes established and flourishes. The same process brings about the various orders of beasts.

After a relatively short period, the flux begins again. Strife becomes gradually more powerful, and the cycle eventually is completed. Empedocles may have meant his theory of Love and Strife to apply to human experience as well: These two forces, acting in the world of humans, are the causes of the harmony of friendship and the disharmony of hatred.

Empedocles thought that every entity in the universe was endowed with particular consciousness. In addition to being conscious of each other, Love and Strife are aware of their effect on the elements. The elements in turn are conscious of the workings of Love and Strife. Finally, the four elements—fire, air, earth, and water—are aware of one another, both pure and in their various mixtures, and thus humans have consciousness, if only on a lower level, as well. Everything in the world constantly gives off emanations into the atmosphere, consisting of the particles of which they are made. As these particles pass through the air, humans absorb them (through their pores), transmitting them through the body by the blood.

In addition, the four elements and their combinations are aware of themselves; for example, the water in the air is conscious of the water in a human body. A particle that enters the human body is eventually transported to the heart, which is a particularly sensitive organ: It is closely associated with the creation and perception of human thought. The blood is the prime medium for this transfer, because it contains equal proportions of the four elements. The operation of the senses also is based on the awareness of the elements: The particles in the air are perceived differentially by the particles in the sense organs.

After Empedocles had completed On Nature, he apparently changed many of his beliefs—probably after he had studied among the Pythagoreans. Especially attractive was the Pythagorean doctrine concerning the transmigration of the soul. Earlier, Empedocles seems to have thought that the human, having been formed from the four elements, died, both body and soul. In Purifications, however, Empedocles seems to have adopted the Pythagorean idea that an individual’s soul survives physically, going through a series of incarnations. Each soul has to pass through a cycle somewhat like the cosmic cycle of Love and Strife.

Sinfulness, as conceived in Christian thought, was not a factor in the Greek world. Nevertheless, Purifications reflects a concept of sin and atonement. The most likely source for such an abstraction would be the Buddhist Middle East, and Empedocles was probably aware of certain Buddhist doctrines.

Empedocles linked his cycle of incarnations with the concept of sin. The soul is initially in a state of sinlessness when it enters the world. In this stage, it is pure mind—a beatific state. As it resides in the world, the soul becomes tainted, especially, by the sin of shedding the blood of humans or animals. The sinful soul is condemned to undergo a series of physical incarnations for thirty thousand years (an indeterminate period of time; Empedocles never defined the length of a season). The soul is incarnated in bodily forms that are in turn derived from air (such as a cloud), water, earth, and fire. Empedocles recounted some of his own incarnations: He was a boy; in another life he was a girl; he was also a bird, a bush, and a fish at various times. Each successive incarnation allows the sincere soul an opportunity to better itself. Declaring that he had progressed to the company of such people as doctors, prophets, and princes, Empedocles hoped to be reborn among the gods.

One interesting facet of Empedocles’ greatness is his pioneering work in the field of biology. Implicit in his observations on anatomy is the assumption that he conducted experiments on the bodies of animals and humans. He conjectured that blood circulates throughout the body in a system powered by the heart, that respiration occurs through the pores of the skin, and that some of the organs of the human body are similar in function to the organs of animals. He also observed that the embryo is clearly human in form in the seventh week of pregnancy.

Most interesting of Empedocles’ theories is his concept of evolution. In On Nature, he assumed that the first creatures were monstrosities, crudely formed; some of these were, by chance, better adapted to survive than others. As the millennia passed, certain mutations (Empedocles did not use the word) made some forms more efficient in basic matters, such as eating and digesting and adapting their anatomy to catch and kill prey. In the passage of time, the successful body forms became nearly perfectly adapted to living in a particular environment.

Despite the great differences in the forms of various animals, Empedocles still saw unity in the whole of life. All organisms adapted safeguards against predation; all reproduced and took in sustenance; and all had a particular consciousness—they rejoiced in the act of living and grieved at physical death.

Empedocles seems to have been many-faceted. According to contemporary accounts, his wardrobe was idiosyncratic, and some of his actions were bizarre. In his own works, and according to other testimony, he claimed to be a god. This claim seems to have gained credence: He boasted that crowds of people followed him, entreating him to use his magical healing powers. He claimed to be able to resurrect the dead as well as to have some control over the weather.

Several versions of Empedocles’ death have survived: He hanged himself; he fell and broke his thigh; he fell from a ship and was drowned. From the second century b.c.e., one version superseded all others: He disappeared in a brilliant light when a voice called his name. The best-known version, however, is that made famous by Matthew Arnold in his poem Empedocles on Etna (1852), in which Empedocles jumped into the crater of the volcano, apparently to prove that he was immortal.


In many ways, Empedocles influenced medieval and Renaissance conceptions of science and anticipated modern theories. For example, despite some criticism, Plato and Aristotle adopted his biological theories; his conception of the four elements, probably derived from the work of Hippocrates, thus had influence until the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. Finally, his ideas on human and animal evolution foreshadow modern theories, and his conception of a universe in which elements maintained a constant though ever-changing presence presages the law of the conservation of energy.

His accomplishments were honored by his contemporaries, and his memory was revered. Aristotle called him the father of rhetoric, and Galen considered him the founder of the medical arts. According to Lucretius, Empedocles was a master poet, and the extant fragments of his works support this claim. His main contribution was philosophical, however, and his two works were an important influence on early Greek philosophy.

Further Reading:

Empedocles. Empedocles: The Extant Fragments. Edited by M. R. Wright. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1995. This modern critical work includes the Greek text of Empedocles’ works, a translation, an introduction, a concordance, a bibliography, and a closely written and copious set of notes.

Kirk, Geoffrey S., and John E. Raven. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Much of the material on pre-Socratic philosophers is subject to interpretation; this book presents both sides of dozens of equivocal topics. It has a useful chapter on Empedocles.

Lambridis, Helle. Empedocles: A Philosophical Investigation. University: University of Alabama Press, 1976. This book begins with a preface by Marshall McLuhan, titled “Empedocles and T. S. Eliot.” The book itself serves two useful purposes: It is a good and comprehensive survey, and it is the best analysis of the poetry of Empedocles. Both modern and ancient Greek criteria are brought to bear on the poetry.

Millerd, Clara E. On the Interpretation of Empedocles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908. Reprint. New York: Garland, 1980. This important study discusses a number of topics concerning the intellectual background and development of Empedocles’ ideas. The discussions are well written and knowledgeable. Though by no means obsolete, the book is somewhat dated.

O’Brien, D. Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. The most comprehensive and scholarly discussion of Empedocles’ On Nature. Contains a useful section of notes, following the text, in which relatively minor but interesting topics are discussed. Its exhaustive annotated bibliography is as valuable in itself as is the text.