(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

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...

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On Nature: The Four “Roots”

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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Love and Strife, and Evolution

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 495 words.)