Empedocles Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2222 words.)