(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Empedocles c. 493 b.c.-c. 433 b.c.

Greek poet, philosopher, physician, and scientist.

Empedocles is the author of two epic poems written in hexameters: Peri physeos (mid-5th century b.c.), also known as On Nature, and the Katharmoi (mid-5th century b.c.), also known as Purifications. In Peri physeos he denies Parmenides's idea of the unity of matter; instead he opts for pluralism and declares that everything in the world is made of four elements (or roots, in his terminology): fire, water, air, and earth. Although the four elements are eternal and indestructible, change is brought about by varying their relative proportions; the agents of change are the opposing forces of Love and Strife. He also postulated a theory of evolution, complete with natural selection, although the details were fanciful. Empedocles made numerous astronomical and scientific observations; his theory of sensation, which entails invisible particles of matter stimulating the sensory organs, fits in important ways with modern science. Empedocles contributed to the field of botany, recognizing that there is gender in plants; to physiology, contributing his observations as autopsy surgeon; and he founded the Italian school of medicine. His religious beliefs, Orphic and Pythagorean in character, are elucidated in the Katharmoi, which describes how souls transmigrate into bodies and how, after a series of purifications, they eventually return to the place of their origin with the gods. Matthew Arnold's poem Empedocles on Etna (1852) helped generate new interest in the philosopher in modern times, although the pessimistic and suicidal Empedocles Arnold describes does not match particularly well with scholarly views of him.

Biographical Information

Empedocles was born in Acragas, a Greek colony in southern Sicily. His affluent father was probably named Meton, and his grandfather, also named Empedocles, was an Olympic winner in chariot racing in the games held 493-96. He became interested in philosophy at an early age, especially that of Parmenides, and then politics. His most notable political achievement was in leading an overthrow of the oligarchy known as “the Thousand” which controlled Acragas, and establishing democratic rule. According to Aristotle, Empedocles was then offered the position of king, but he refused. Beyond that, accounts of his life are mostly colored by legend, some of which was likely self-promulgated. Claims were made that he could control the winds, perform miracles, and bring the dead to back to life. Indeed, these claims had a factual starting basis, for as a scientist and physician he twice recognized the means by which disease was spreading, and stemmed its progress, once by blocking the wind through a narrow channel with animal skins and another time by diverting the course of a river. As for restoring life, there is a story of a young woman named Pantheia who did not register a pulse or breathe for a month, with Empedocles staying by her bedside until she recovered. Modern scientists would explain the restoration as the natural result of coming out of catalepsy or a stroke, but those who witnessed it preferred to view Empedocles as a god, and his reputation as such spread. He founded no school but he did instruct Gorgias, probably in rhetoric. Legend has it that his sandal was found at the top of Mount Etna; those who found it believed that he threw himself into the volcano to prove that he was a god. Although no scholars believe it to be true, the tale intrigued Matthew Arnold, who popularized it in Empedocles on Etna. It is not known when he wrote his poems, although Peri physeos is assumed to have preceded the Katharmoi.

Major Works

Scholars have long argued whether the known fragments of Empedocles originally came from one poem or two. The two works, if they are two separate works, have different subjects: Peri physeos explains that the world is not made of water or moisture, as Thales thought; that it is not made of boundless air as Anaximenes thought; and that it is not made of fire, as Heraclitus thought; it is made of all three of these elements, plus earth. Although each of the four elements is eternal, change can and does result, depending on how much of the elements are present at any given time. The agents of these changes are Love, represented by Aphrodite, and Strife, represented by Ares. Love's tendency is to unite, whereas Strife's nature tends to dispersion and chaos. The Katharmoi, heavily influenced by mysticism, concerns itself with transmigration. The soul commences in a divine state, then falls. It is reincarnated for eons in a series of mortal bodies until finally, through purifications, it is joined again with the gods. Although the two works have a different focus, it is possible that they originally fit logically in a larger, single work, but that the link between them has been lost. Diogenes Laertius states the two poems consisted of 5000 lines, whereas the Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia, reports its length as approximately 2000 lines. Until recently only 450 to 460 lines of Empedocles were known to still exist, and thus it is impossible to know precisely how the poem or poems were originally organized.

Critical Reception

Empedocles was extremely popular in his own time—reportedly impressing audiences with his recitations—and has been respected by critics ever since. Much scholarly effort has been expended on trying to explain Empedocles's writings. His texts are often confusing, were confusing even to the pre-Socratics, and the problem is made immensely more difficult due to so much of the work being lost. Exactly what Empedocles's theory of cosmic creation and evolution entails is particularly controversial, as Brad Inwood and others have described. Peter Kingsley explains that much of the problem in deciphering Empedocles stems from his choice of words and that the difficulty is compounded when scholars are influenced by ancient misinterpretations of his meanings. Although the majority of scholars believe there were two separate poems, strong arguments have been made that all the fragments, including contradictory elements, could reasonably have been part of one poem. Inwood has published the fragments as part of one poem and has demonstrated how weak the case is that there were two separate poems; David Sedley, Kingsley, and other scholars vociferously challenge this idea. A small but notable branch of Empedoclean studies concentrates on Arnold's Empedocles on Etna poem. Critics debate Arnold's interpretation of the philosopher, particularly whether he is reasonably represented. In 1999 a book entitled L'Empédocle de Strasbourg was published, containing some ninety papyrus fragments identified in 1992 as Empedocles's work. Although the poorly preserved fragments (some include no more than a single letter) include precious few lines hitherto completely unknown, the work added significantly to the knowledge base of scholars, particularly regarding the text's transmission, and confirmed various earlier theories and questionable attributions. John Pepple and N. Van Der Ben are among the scholars who have evaluated these fragments.