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First published Fri Mar 4, 2005; substantive revision Tue Sep 11, 2012 In antiquity, Empedocles (ca. 495–435 BCE) was characterized as active on the democratic side in the politics of his native city of Acragas in Sicily, and as a physician, as well as a philosopher and poet. His philosophical and scientific theories are mentioned and discussed in several dialogues of Plato, and they figure prominently in Aristotle's writings on physics and biology and, as a result, also in the later Greek commentaries on Aristotle's works. Diogenes Laertius devotes one of his Lives of Eminent Philosophers to him (VIII, 51–77). His writings, which are poetical in form, have come down to us mostly in fragments preserved as quotations in the works of these and other ancient authors. Extensive fragments, some of them not previously known, were recently found preserved on a papyrus roll from Egypt in the Strasbourg University library (see Martin and Primavesi 1999). The numbering of the fragments in this article follows that of the Diels-Kranz edition; the translations are from Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983. Traditionally, Empedocles' writings were held to consist of two poems, in hexameter verse, entitled On Nature and Purifications. However, some modern commentators have argued that the two were originally one work—a position re-energized by the recently edited fragments of the Strasbourg manuscript. In any event, the papyrus does show the two to be thematically more closely related than previously thought. Nevertheless, the themes of the two parts (if they did belong to a single poem) are sufficiently distinct that separate treatment is appropriate here. Even if there is not a strict separation of the two themes, the first primarily concerns the formation, structure, and history of the physical world as a whole, and the formation of the animals and plants within it; the second concerns moral topics. For convenience, this article uses the traditional names for the two collections of fragments.
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1. On Nature 2. Purifications Bibliography Academic Tools Other Internet Resources Related Entries
1. On Nature
On Nature is a bold and ambitious work. It is based on the claim that everything is composed of four material elements (“roots”); these elements are moved by two opposing forces. The elements are fire, air, earth, and water; the forces are Love and Strife. “Air” refers to aither, the upper, atmospheric air, rather than the air that we
at another again it grew apart to be many out of one. sometimes widely. These elements and forces are eternal and equally balanced. In fragment 17. which endlessly repeats itself. In the second half. In the traditional sort of interpretation (see O'Brien 1969. We can trace the history of one cycle. under the increasing influence of Strife. air. (B 17. A4. In the first halfcycle. apparently speaking of the physical world as a whole. traditional in Greek physical theory (Aristotle. a cosmos and then animals come to be.breathe here on earth. they are completely intermingled and another cycle begins. He posits a stage in which Love is totally dominant and all things are unified into a Sphere (B 27).1–13) [translation modified] Immediately one is struck by the comprehensive symmetry of this scheme. Love begins to unite the elements until. although the influence of Love and of Strife waxes and wanes (B6 and B17. Aristotle credits Empedocles with being the first to distinguish clearly these four elements. again a cosmos and animals come to be. At this point. beginning with the point at which all the elements are united. but insofar as they never cease their continual interchange. While all commentators take this passage as fundamental. earth and water. The Sphere is the initial stage in the formation of the cosmos. there is a cosmogony (generation of a cosmos or ordered world) and a zoogony (generation of animals). their interpretations vary.26–35). once again. in a continual alternation. Empedocles seems to describe such a cosmogony in other passages. thus far they exist always changeless in the cycle. So insofar as it has learned to grow one from many. and again as the one grows apart [there] grow many. now again each carried apart by the hatred of Strife. now through Love all coming together into one. completely intermingled and motionless under the total domination of Love. air. In each half of the cycle. and they are driven apart by Strife. until finally all the elements are completely separated into distinct. Empedocles states his fundamental thesis about the relation of elements and forces: A twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be one alone out of many. and fire (B 38). Then Strife enters and begins to separate the elements out. Wright 1981) this passage tells about a two-part symmetrical cosmic cycle. thus far do they come into being and have no stable life. the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. Everything else comes to be and passes away because each is composed of elements that successively combine to form them and separate at their destruction (B 17. and it does so with an elegant balance. . lines 14–20). under the increasing influence of Love. The many elements (four in number) come together and blend under the agency of Love. as the separation or unification proceeds. they are presumably thoroughly intermingled with one another. 985a31–3). Since this spherical unity includes the elements. Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing. birth and death. water. self-contained masses of fire. even though there might still be some (much diminished) presence of each element within each of the four masses. The latter requires a separation of elements into identifiable masses of earth. Met. for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things. Empedocles seems to have Parmenides' arguments in mind when he denies that these elements or forces come to be or pass away. And these things never cease their continual exchange. It seems to address coming-to-be and passing-away. it is not itself a cosmos.
This somewhat mysterious description suggests that the means by which Strife separates the elements from the beginning is a vortex. this would be a condition in which some portions of each of the other elements are found intermingled within the separate masses of earth. the elements are so thoroughly separated into their respective places. water. Once the cosmos is formed (consisting of a world-order with continental land-masses. From fire at the periphery. stars. planets. the continuing influence of Strife gradually increases the separation. From the mixture of elements in due proportions. Bollack 1965–1969). Love then begins to join together what Strife had separated. when Strife is totally dominant. Thus. each constituting a mass totally on its own. As described above. 301a14). Love comes to be in the middle of the whirl. both animals and cosmos perish as Love totally reunifies the elements. finally. In fact. that we do not find one does not mean that it did not exist. This reference to the vortex also implies that dominance by Strife is characterized by the whirling motion of the cosmos as we know it. seasons. On Generation and Corruption II 7. Heavier elements like earth settle in the middle and lighter ones like fire are pushed to the periphery. with no presence in it of any portion of any of the other elements. as described above. acosmic separation of elements. that the cosmos and all its movements are destroyed. they hold that there is only one cosmogony and zoogony. These interpretations then hold that there is another cosmogony in the reverse progress from complete separation to complete unity. Eventually. However. Certainly. 295a29. we do not find in the remains of Empedocles' poem a description of another cosmogony. Of course. Such issues lend weight to a second strain of interpretation (see Long 1974. III 2. produces at first a cosmos.The elements of earth. sun. the symmetry of the fundamental principle might suggest a second cosmogony.). making them identifiable as such. water. given the fragmentary nature of the text. the mixture of things by Love gives rise to mortal beings. oceans. However. While in traditional interpretations the separation by Strife. moon. water more or less surrounds the earth. the sun comes to be as a distinct entity. Such interpretations still read the fundamental principle of B 17 as referring to alternating periods of domination by Love and Strife. In the vortex.e. rivers. winds. Ultimately. This geocentric formation is what the ancients usually recognized to be our cosmos. etc. Strife dominates in order to separate the elements into their respective places to form a cosmos. This is the extreme point in the domination of Strife. air and fire.. air and fire would predominate in the respective masses. but it is not. under the influence of Love. the central point round which the whole cosmos turns). When Strife reaches the depths of the vortex (i. the Sphere is restored. 334a5) that Empedocles was committed to such a second cosmogony. Love begins to assert her influence. the cosmogony so described is presumably dependent on Strife's influence. Aristotle suggests in a number of places (On the Heavens II 13. The mass of earth is at the center. a total. But he says Empedocles shied away from holding to such a cosmogony because it is not reasonable to posit a cosmos coming to be from elements already separated—as though cosmogony can only happen through the separation of elements out of a previously blended condition of them all (On the Heavens. there arise various forms of animal life. Empedocles also describes a time when Strife has separated the elements (B 35). Since it is Strife that separates the elements. Air forms the next layer. one taking place under the influence of Love. On this interpretation there is a single . as on the traditional interpretation.
So far we have concentrated on Empedocles' account of the coming to be of the cosmos. (B 62) This phase produces the earliest human forms. Empedocles also wrote about animals and how they came to be. Ultimately. there is only one zoogony. We can distinguish two sets of fragments that tell of the way that living beings come to be. which is the part proper to men. which takes place under the increasing influence of Love. not two as on the traditional interpretations. II 8. the work of Love. there are not two zoogonies happening in distinct cosmic cycles. some influence of Strife). Thus. These fire sent up. although they have yet to show clearly human features. in part. as the first lines of the fragment show. arms wandered without shoulders. By contrast. the second about natural-sounding events and creatures. however. in the second strain of interpretation. these separate limbs combined in random ways to make fantastic creatures: Many creatures were born with faces and breasts on both sides. Phys. The wandering and straying suggest aimless and disorderly movements (and so. In the traditional interpretations. in need of foreheads (B 57). While these creatures are fantastic. sexual reproduction becomes the focus of Empedocles' account. one under the increasingly dominant influence of Love and the other under the dominant influence of Strife. because it echoes other Presocratic philosophers. of course. Aristotle does say some of the combinations were fitted to survive (Aristotle. man-faced oxprogeny. At this point. from these there developed men and women as we know them today (B 63–65). Then. creatures compounded partly of male. (B 61) In these fragments there is a change from separateness to combination. Come now. and fitted with shadowy parts. while others again sprang forth as ox-headed offspring of man. and eyes strayed alone. there are two zoogonies. But in his zoogony. partly of the nature of female. Empedocles says that there was a time when separate limbs wandered around on their own: Here sprang up many faces without necks. although Strife is still present. Let us start with the fantastic. In the second set of fragments we find an explanation of the way that present day creatures come to be. 198b29). Combination is. The first set tells about fantastic events and creatures. wishing to come to its like: they did not yet display the desirable form of limbs nor voice. hear how fire as it was separated raised up the nocturnal shoots of men and pitiable women: it is no erring nor ignorant tale. Whole-nature shapes first sprang up from the earth. unattached.cosmogony and zoogony. this phase begins with separation of elements. It is clear that he associated zoogony with the influence of both Love and Strife. The idea of a single cosmogony and zoogony is attractive. rather there are . and so it involves some influence of Strife. Still. having a portion of both water and heat.
then. the proportion that produces the variety of creatures gives way to a homogenizing blend of the roots. among other things. earth. Thus. fire. for the traditionalists is to find passages in the manuscript that clearly show a sundering that produces viable creatures or parts thereof. While the traditionalists have presented passages from the manuscript that they claim to be such evidence. there must be other forces at work in order to have the world we live in. In turn. On the one hand. Empedocles says that flesh and blood are composed of approximately equal parts of earth. Thus. When harmony is a creative force. Besides the interaction of fire. the claims have not gone unchallenged (Balaudé 2010 and Laks 2001). and aither (B 98). However. they also come together by harmonizing their particular qualities due to Love. Since zoogony under Love is shown to be a kind of assembly of parts that leads to viable creatures. and water. are not so naturally antagonistic as to defy combination but are capable both of repelling one another and of coming together. come to be. dry and wet as constituting the healthy condition of the body. perhaps. their opponents recognize a fluctuation in the influence of Love and Strife—but is achieving complete separation. the four roots. air. to which we now turn. The explanation of harmonizing achieves an important depth in the idea of a proportional mixture of elements. it is that . this harmony of potentially opposing roots is only a phase. In turn. with its theory of the proper mixture of hot and cold. 144–149) strengthens previous evidence for a kind of zoogony. The question of the sequence of these stages is. (Recall that we are told that Empedocles was a physician as well as a philosopher and poet. the extant fragments do not show any detailed connection with medical explanations. The task. However we read the cycles of Love and Strife. by parity of reasoning.fluctuations of Love and Strife within the progress from total domination by Strife to that by Love. The equal proportion in the mixture of blood does seem related to another kind of explanation. on the other. taking place under the influence of Strife. Another proportion of elements produces bone (B 96). zoogony under Strife should be a sundering of wholes that leads to viable creatures or to the sort of parts that are condemned to further disintegration. on any view. distinct zoogonies imply distinct cosmogonies. a lot of our world is the effect of disintegration because the roots prove to be antagonistic due to Strife. However. the double zoogony implies that animals or their parts will come to be through a process of separation. which is fully distinct from the kind of zoogony under the influence of Love. the sundering must clearly belong to a stage in which Strife is not just dominant—after all. these qualities alone are not enough to explain how a cosmos. For instance. Blood has a central role to play in Empedocles' account of biological processes.) However. In the sphere of Love. At this point in the continuing scholarly debate perhaps it is not too bold to say that the new material presents some—not uncontested—evidence for a double zoogony. Trépanier (2003) argues that ensemble d (see Martin and Primavesi 1999. then. and its creatures. water. These fragments seem related to ancient medicine. some commentators argue that new material in the Strasbourg papyrus lends weight to the traditional interpretation. with their particular qualities. a proper balance harmonizes the roots and banishes antagonism. While each of the four roots has its particular quality. how Love achieves combination comes to the fore. not as important as the fact that. Empedocles is proposing a way of explaining living beings by competing principles of Love and Strife.
” he refines his account of perception to include the idea of “effluences. In the lantern. which seems to depend on deduction (B 17) However.” For with earth do we see earth. One then can grasp one half of the correspondence. of course. perception of color is based on a correspondence between the shape of the pores in the eye and the shape of the particles that flow from the perceived object. This god is actually a spirit—a daimôn—who has been exiled from the blessed . with Love do we see Love. describes himself as a god. 2. So. Strife with dread Strife. received as such by the cities to which he travels. and cures (B 112)..” Everything gives off effluences (B 89). it would be best to begin with the latter. the passage suggests that elements in one correspond to elements in the other. This account of the eye refers to another important Empedoclean idea. Purifications Purifications has a style markedly different from that of On Nature. Then. (B 109) Since roots and principles in the perceiver are related to the roots and principles in the perceived object. another goes out from the perceiving organ itself. Then colors are effluences from objects fitted to the pores of the eye (Meno 76c). First of all. While one stream of effluences goes from the object of perception to the organ. effluences of fire would make contact with the fire in the eye. Empedocles holds that perception is based on the principle of “like by like. the surface of the eye has passages through which the effluent fire goes out. This passage. with fire consuming fire. does not make immediately clear how this correspondence results in the perception of color and shape. Different sized effluences from the object fit similarly shaped openings or pores in the different organs. of course. from the objects. in particular to the perceptual organ. prophecies. with water water. However.g. but the light still goes through the linen. they come from the object of perception to the organ of perception. Empedocles' account of perception is more complex still. Effluences go in the other direction. e. these sorts of explanations do not encompass the perception of Love and Strife. is white. effluences from the perceived object flow to the perceiver. Empedocles compares the eye to a lantern (B 84). In a well-known passage of Plato's Meno where Socrates is supposed to be giving Empedocles' theory of perception. one can construct an account of the way that fire—and other roots—are responsible for color perception. who is presumably Empedocles. since fire. On this basis. concerns the origins and workings of natural phenomena.whereby men think (B 105). the flame is shielded by a linen screen. the narrator of the poem. While the latter. Since Empedocles seems not to have distinguished thinking from perception. To them he dispenses advice. It appears that the equal mixture allows discrimination of all things (since. These are tiny particles that flow out from objects conintually. as well. using the basic idea of “like by like. for the most part. In any event. all things are made up of the four elements in differing proportions). In this account there is also a way to distinguish the different kinds of perception. So the eye has a membrane through which the flame within the eye goes out. the former is the autobiography of a divine being. In the opening lines. with air bright air.
there could be no relation at all between them. The relation between On Nature and Purifications is the subject of varied speculations. The narrator himself. Nature. the narrator himself is at this stage in his exile.) At last they arise as gods. and. that whereby we think and perceive. Presumably we are to think of Aphrodite as ruling over beings joined by love. Since it is the key event in the life of a daemon. since all are reincarnated as various sorts of living beings. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Exiled daemons are reincarnated into all sorts of living forms. Bibliography • Diels. god of war. Nevertheless. Understanding how nature works. Presumably. Berlin: WeidmannscheVerlagsbuchhandlung. In fact. Kranz. Both. poets. Thus. commentators have seen the teaching about nature as continuous with Purifications. is ruled by the very same principles that are the key to understanding the drama of the ethical life. and leaders among men. What is most notable about those who lived in this era is that they did not pollute themselves with bloody sacrifice (B 128). the exiled and wandering daemon. one will want to avoid the shedding of blood. More recently. we need to know why shedding blood is so important and how it is related to putting trust in Strife. nor Zeus. The chief reason given for abstinence from meat is that. . physicians.life of the other spirits by breaking an oath and shedding blood (by killing and eating animals: see below). This era is normative for all of existence (B 135). and a prophet too. Mortals are warned in the strongest possible terms to abstain from bloodshed and the eating of flesh. (Empedocles was a poet. Since these categories were understood to be antithetical. He wanders throughout the natural world. both animals and men lived together in friendship (B 130). finally released from exile. then. one will want to side with Love and not Strife—especially. However. they then enjoy a blessed life (B 146 and 147). are associated with war and strife. Once it was thought that the first was a scientific work and the latter a religious one. nor Poseidon. 1960. as Empedocles represents that. and we recall that ancient evidence indicated he was also a physician and political leader. Empedocles had just written two incompatible poems. killing and eating animals is in reality cannibalism (B 136 and 137). killing and eating one another is the most extreme form of Strife among humans. not Ares. wishes that he had been destroyed before he had done the terrible deed of eating flesh with his lips (B 139). H. These two are connected in the practice of bloody sacrifice because those attending the sacrifice ate the flesh of sacrificed animals. For instance. rejected by the very elements. the very principle of conscious life. finally coming to be as prophets. Primavesi claims the daemons' journeying back to a state of purity mirrors the roots returning to the sphere of Love (Primavesi 2005). Empedocles describes (B 128) what sounds like a golden age in which the reigning divinity was Aphrodite. after all. because he put his trust in raving Strife (B 115). nor Kronos. here too commentators have interpreted passages from the Strasbourg manuscript as showing a tighter unity between what are taken to be two aspects of the same account. Such interpretations imply that there are not two poems but one. the goddess of love and sex. whereas the rest. 3 volumes. like Ares.. give a prominent place to Love and Strife. the way textual support has been marshalled for these sorts of readings has not gone uncritized (Laks 2002). as the usefulness of such a rigid dichotomy seemed less plausible. and W.
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