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Besides being a philosopher, Empedocles was a democratic statesman, the founder of an important school of medicine, and a religious leader and reformer. He also claimed to be a god.

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Empedocles was the first thinker to try seriously to reply to the Greek philosopher Parmenides. Parmenides, a great genius and the founder of logic, claimed that all that really exists is a solid sphere within which there is no differentiation, no change, and no motion. He showed that three assumptions, taken as self-evident by all investigators up to and including himself, logically entailed his worldview. The first of these assumptions was that nothing can come from nothing or disappear into nothing. Nothing just pops up or vanishes without a trace. The second was that there is fundamentally just one reality, one stuff of which particular things are modifications. The third was that whatever really exists is identical with whatever properties it really has. This last assumption was so taken for granted that no one had ever stated it explicitly, and it is doubtful whether anyone at the time could have done so, as no alternative had yet been conceived. Modern thinkers distinguish between water itself and its properties of being wet and cold, but to the early Greeks, water was simply “the cold and wet.”

Once the nature of this last assumption is grasped, it becomes obvious that Parmenides was right, for if there is only one kind of stuff, then that stuff, being identical with its properties (whatever they are), cannot possibly change. Suppose the stuff is hot—that is, it is, or equals, “the hot.” Then the stuff cannot get cold, for if it did, “the hot” would have to disappear into nothing and “the cold” would have to come out of nothing. Previous thinkers had supposed, naturally enough, that one particular thing might get cold without violating the rule of nothing from nothing as long as something else got hot to compensate for it. However, Parmenides pointed out, this was shoddy reasoning. If there is just one reality, and it is, or equals, hot, then it is contradictory to say that it is also cold.

Probably because of a propensity for religious mysticism, Parmenides’ conclusions were quite agreeable to him. The fact that they were utterly opposed to experience did not bother him. If logic tells people one thing and the senses tell them something else, so much the worse for the senses. “Keep your thinking clear of this way of inquiry,” he warned, “nor let much-experienced habit force you down this road, where the unseeing eye and the noisy ear and the tongue rule. However, decide by logic the much-disputed proof that I utter.” Empedocles, however, was not prepared to abandon his senses. In an “empiricist” vein he wrote: “Come now, consider with all your powers in what way each thing is clear. Hold not your sight in greater credit as compared with your hearing, nor value your resounding ear above the clear instructions of your tongue; and do not withhold confidence in any of the other parts of your body in which there is an opening for understanding, but consider everything in the way it is clear.”

On Nature: The Four “Roots”

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Empedocles also did not abandon logic. He realized that Parmenides’ conclusion was validly drawn; therefore, if it was to be rejected, at least one of the premises leading to it would have to be discarded. Empedocles could not throw out the third for the simple reason that he did not realize that it was a premise of the argument. (This fact in due time dawned on atomists Leucippus and Democritus; the distinction that they drew between thing and quality eventually made modern physics possible.) The first premise also could not be discarded. Parmenides had said: “Nor will forceful credibility ever allow that anything besides itself can arise from nonbeing. . . . Thus is generation extinguished and destruction not to be heard of.” Empedocles repeated this thought: “Fools!—for they have no far-reaching thoughts—who deem that what before did not exist comes into being, or that aught can perish and be utterly destroyed. For it cannot be that aught can arise from what in no way exists, and it is impossible and unheard of that Being should perish.” Both Parmenides and Empedocles were fighting straw men, for no Greek ever questioned the maxim of nothing from nothing.

By elimination, only the second assumption, monism, could be questioned. Empedocles declared that stuff was not singular but made of four parts: the great world-masses of earth, air, fire, and water. Greek philosopher Aristotle later called these “the elements” but Empedocles called them “roots”: “Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus [air], life-bringing Hera [earth], Aidoneus [fire], and Nestis [water] whose teardrops are a wellspring to mortals.” These roots, like Parmenides’ Being, are ungenerated, indestructible, and unchanging. Particular perishing things are temporary combinations of them: “There is no nature [phusis, essential being] of any of all the things that perish nor any cessation for them of baneful death. They are only a mingling and interchange of what has been mingled. Nature’ is but a name given to these things by men.”

The Possibility of Motion

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However, before he could successfully assert a theory of change as a mixing of the unchanging, Empedocles had another Parmenidean hurdle to get over: the denial of the possibility of motion. Parmenides had argued (independently of his main doctrine) that if anything moves, there must be empty space for it to move into. However, empty space, or void, would be mere “nothing,” or “that which is not,” and because it would be logically contradictory to say that “that which is not” exists, there can be no void, hence no motion. Empedocles agreed that there is no void: “In the All there is naught empty and naught too full.” He had an empirical reason for this view. He was probably the first person to realize that where there seems to be only empty space, there is really matter—namely, air. Empedocles’ discovery of air, as distinguished from wind and mist, was his principal contribution to science. He illustrated the existence of air by means of the klepsydra, a Greek kitchen gadget. The tool, a metal tube with a perforated bottom and an open top small enough to be stopped by holding a finger on it, was used to remove small quantities of liquid from narrow-mouthed jars too heavy to be poured conveniently. Empedocles explained its working.When a girl, playing with a klepsydra of shining brass, puts the orifice of the pipe upon her comely hand, and dips the klepsydra into the yielding mass of silvery water—the stream does not then flow into the vessel, but the bulk of the air inside, pressing upon the close-packed perforations, keeps it out till she uncovers the compressed stream; but then air escapes and an equal volume of water runs in. In the same way, when water occupies the depths of the brazen vessel and the opening and passage is stopped up by the human hand, the air outside, striving to get in, holds the water back at the gates of the gurgling neck, pressing upon its surface, till she lets go with her hand. Then, on the contrary, just in the opposite way to what happened before, the wind rushes in and an equal volume of water runs out to make room.

Motion could nevertheless occur without a void and without flouting logic, Empedocles maintained, as long as the obstacle in front of the moving object could be displaced, as the water could not move into the klepsydra unless an exit was provided for the air. In general, one thing could mix with another, he held, if there were tiny pores, like the tube of the klepsydra, for the substance to penetrate. He thought that when people inhale, air rushes into their bodies through the pores of the skin, the blood retiring to the center of the body; when they exhale, the blood comes back to the surface, forcing the air out.

Love and Strife, and Evolution

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Besides “Fire and Water and Earth and the boundless height of Air,” there exist “dread Strife, too, apart from these, of equal weight to each, and Love in their midst, equal in length and breadth. . . . It is she that is believed to be implanted in the frame of mortals. It is she that makes them have thoughts of love and work the works of peace. They call her by the names of Joy and Aphrodite.” Love and Strife are the forces that cause motion, though Empedocles at the same time seems to regard them as kinds of matter. However, they are not conscious beings: “Aphrodite” is just whatever it is inside people that impels them to form unions. Cosmically, it causes unlike to mix with unlike. Strife, the opposite force of repulsion, causes separation and, as a result, union of like with like. The four roots, plus Love and Strife, are all that exists.Behold the sun, everywhere bright and warm, and all the immortal things that are bathed in heat and bright radiance. Behold the rain, everywhere dark and cold; and from the earth issue forth things close-pressed and solid. When they are in strife, all these are different in form and separated; but they come together in love and are desired by one another. For out of these have sprung all things that were and are and shall be—trees and men and women, beasts and birds and the fishes that dwell in the waters, yea, and the gods that live long lives and are exalted in honor. For there are these alone; but running through one another, they take different shapes—so much does mixture change them.

Empedocles believed that the universe is eternal, but it is not always arranged in the same pattern. Love and Strife alternate in dominance. There is a time when Love unites all the roots; in this condition, the universe is a sphere, a homogeneous mixture of the roots and Love, with Strife separate and outside the universe. Then Strife enters the sphere and begins its work of separation, which, when complete, leaves each of the four roots gathered together in unmixed purity. Then Love begins a process of mingling, eventuating in the sphere, and the cycle repeats.

Particular things exist in the two intermediate stages of the cycle when neither Love nor Strife has attained supremacy. There are two kinds of “evolution” of living things corresponding to these two periods. When Love is coming in and displacing Strife, “on the earth many heads spring up without necks and arms wander bare and bereft of shoulders. Eyes stray up and down in want of brows.” These various unattached parts are united by Love, for the most part into monsters: “Many creatures with faces and breasts looking in different directions arise; some, offspring of oxen with faces of men, while others, again, arise as offspring of men with the heads of oxen, and creatures in whom the nature of women and men is mingled, furnished with sterile organs.” Only the few that happen to be capable of nourishing themselves and reproducing their kind survive. This concept contains the germ of the idea of evolution by adaptation and survival of the fittest. However, it is inferior both in form and in underlying reasoning to the older theory of Greek astronomer Anaximander.

In the period when Strife is gaining ascendancy over Love (which, according to Empedocles, was the present stage of the world), “Fire as it was separated caused the night-born shoots of men and tearful women to arise. . . . Whole-natured forms first arose from the earth. . . . These showed as yet neither the charming form of the limbs, nor yet the voice and organ that are proper to men.” That is, they were bisexual creatures, later separated further by Strife into men and women.


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The poem Purifications begins with a curiously charming proem in which Empedocles describes his own divinity.Friends, that inhabit the great town looking down on the yellow rock of Acragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbors of honor for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, hail. I go about among you an immortal god, no mortal now, honored among all as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Whenever I come to men and women, in the flourishing towns, straightway is reverence done me; they go after me in thousands asking of me what is the way to gain; some desiring oracles, while some, who for many a weary day have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing. . . . But why do I harp on these things, as if it were any great matter that I should surpass mortal, perishable men?

Empedocles literally believed himself to be a god, though a fallen one:There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient ordinance of the gods, eternal and sealed fast by broad oaths, that whenever one of the divinities . . . has sinfully polluted his hands with blood, or followed strife and forsworn himself, he must wander thrice ten thousand seasons [an indeterminate time; Empedocles never defined the length of a season] from the abodes of the blessed, being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms, changing one toilsome path of life for another. For the mighty Air drives him into the Sea, and the Sea spews him forth on the dry Earth; Earth tosses him into the beams of the blazing Sun, and he flings him back to the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and all reject him. One of these I now am, an exile and a wanderer from the gods, for that I put my trust in raving Strife.

During this time, he says, he has been incarnated as a boy, girl, bush, bird, and fish. His original sin, it appears, was meat eating, for all living creatures are akin. However, deliverance is in sight:At the last, they appear among earth-dwelling men as prophets, song-writers, physicians, and princes; and thence they rise up as gods exalted in honor, sharing the hearth of the other gods and the same table, free from human woes, safe from destiny, and incapable of being hurt.

The principal problem posed by Purifications is its evident inconsistency, in teaching transmigration of souls, with On Nature, according to which there is “no cessation of baneful death” for particular things. The only possibility of reconciling the works seems to lie in supposing that the soul that transmigrates is a piece of Love. The soul cannot be a mixture, for all mixtures are perishable, and it is not plausible to identify it with any of the roots. Nor could it be Strife, for its sin consisted in “putting trust in raving Strife.” It might be thought that if the soul is Love, then Love is conscious, contrary to the express statement of Empedocles that “the blood round the heart is the thought of men.” However, according to a very ancient tradition of the Greeks, a person has two “souls,” a blood-soul that is the seat of consciousness and a breath-soul that is the vivifying principle. It seems possible that Empedocles identified the latter with the Love that admittedly is in the human body; and a particular piece of Love might somehow retain its identity even through thirty thousand seasons. However, this is speculation, for which there is no explicit warrant either in the fragments of Empedocles’ poems or in the ancient commentaries.


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Additional Reading

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962-1981. Volume 2 of this set contains a 143-page chapter on Empedocles. Guthrie’s writing is clear and his scholarship is superb, making this the best place for a nonspecialist to begin studying Empedocles.

Inwood, Brad. The Poem of Empedocles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. This excellent work proceeds on the unorthodox thesis that the extant fragments come from a single poem rather than from two very different poems. It contains a long introduction in which the author presents his interpretation of Empedocles’ philosophy as well as the fragments in Greek with Inwood’s translations and textual notes. It is clear and accessible to students.

Kingsley, Peter. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. This book examines important aspects of ancient Greek philosophy.

Kirk, Geoffrey S., John E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: 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 Philosophic Investigation. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1976. This book begins with a preface by Marshall McLuhan entitled “Empedocles and T. S. Eliot.” The book is both a good and comprehensive survey and 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 Publishing, 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.

Mourelatos, Alexander P. D., ed. The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. This collection contains two papers on specific aspects of Empedocles’ philosophy and one on the concept of mind (nous) in pre-Socratic philosophy in general, including a substantial section on Empedocles. Written by eminent ancient scholars, these papers represent serious detailed scholarship.

O’Brien, D. Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle. Cambridge, England: University of Cambridge 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. Contains an exhaustive annotated bibliography.

Sedley, D. N. Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. This book shows how Lucretius used the literary example of Empedocles to write his great poem, De Rerum Natura.

Wright, M. R. Empedocles: The Extant Fragments. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. This modern critical work includes the Greek text of Empedocles’ works, a translation, and a closely written and copious set of notes. Wright’s detailed commentary on the fragments is valuable, though students will be put off by frequent lapses into untranslated Greek.

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