Empedocles Additional Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

0111200199-Empedocles.jpg Empedocles (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: 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 b.c.e. in Acragas, Sicily, Empedocles was a member of the aristocracy. Much of his life has become shrouded in legend; however, it is known that he spent some time with Greek philosophers 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, where he became a political figure. He eventually participated in a movement to depose a tyrant, despite his aristocratic background. Empedocles made enemies, however, and during one of his absences from Acragas, these enemies used their influence to banish him from his home. He would spend much of his life in exile.

Life’s Work

Empedocles’ two main works, On Nature and Purifications, exist only in fragments. On Nature, an essay on the ability of humans to experience the world, reveals Empedocles to be a cosmic philosopher and one of the earliest natural scientists. 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. In his view, reason is a better instrument for dealing with abstraction, and the physical senses are best suited for the phenomenological world.

Empedocles assumed that the universe is in motion and that it is composed of a multitude of separate parts, but unlike Parmenides, he believed that the nature of the parts 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 because 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 likened the blending of the elements to the creation of a painting: A few basic colors on the palette could be blended to produce all the colors of the rainbow.

Empedocles saw living things as only a matter of appearance. While alive, 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, 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 principles 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 Love nor Strife dominated were times of flux during which the power of one principle 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 is eventually completed. Empedocles may have meant his theory of Love and Strife to apply to human experience as well: These two forces, acting in the human world, 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 therefore, humans have consciousness, if only on a lower level, as well. Everything in the world constantly releases emanations consisting of the particles of which it is made into the atmosphere. As these particles pass through the air, humans absorb them through their pores, transmitting them throughout the body by the blood.

In addition, the four elements...

(The entire section is 2446 words.)