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Empedocles and the Clepsydra

Author(s): D. J. Furley
Source: The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 77, Part 1 (1957), pp. 31-34
Published by: The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies
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simile of the clepsydra (DK6 3IBIoo) is a crucial document for historians of

ancient science. It has been much discussed, and often quoted in evidence, in spite of formidable
differences of opinion about its significance. 'Empedocles undertook an experimental investigation
of the air we breathe' (B. Farrington). 'The star example of a physical "experiment" in the
natural philosophers, the clepsydra, was not an experiment at all, in the proper sense of the word'
(G. Vlastos). 'All Empedocles did was to draw the explicit inference: "the vessel cannot be simply
empty: the air in it cannot be nothing at all". He did not invent the clepsydra in a laboratory'
(F. M. Cornford). The simile 'ha tutto il carattere di una esperienza scientifica' (A. Traglia).
Now whether the fragment describes an experiment or not, it is certainly a simile, and the first
step must be to understand the force of the simile. It is possible, in my view, that the differences
of opinion about the fragment spring from various misunderstandings of the simile; and I propose
in this article to offer an explanation of its details which I think is new and which may enable us
to form a clearer picture of its place in the history of science.
Early attempts to elucidate the passage were marred by two recurrent mistakes. The first
mistake was made by Aristotle: in introducing the quotation from Empedocles in De Respiratione7,
Aristotle uses the words 'KaW
8t 7T-v /lVKTpWVLovLvarTVo7S
T~ Kvptas
9Eyov O'ETLtKal TrEpt
failed to
make the distinction between breathing through the nostrils, which is just one of at least two kinds
of breathing, and breathing through the windpipe, which in Aristotle's view is Kvpla Jvairvo-q.
there is nothing in the quotation, properly understood, to show that Empedocles was speaking only of
nostril-breathing. Diels and Burnet therefore concluded that Aristotle misunderstood the phrase 'v6iv
was the genitive plural of 'ls (nostril), though Empedocles
EaXarar'pOpa' in line 4; he thought 4ALv-v
meant it for the genitive plural of Atvds (skin). Since Aristotle says nothingabout breathing through
the skin in this chapter and Empedocles certainly meant to speak of breathing through the skin,
Diels and Burnet must be right.' The second mistake was about the clepsydra (line 9). For a
long time it was thought to be a water-clock. Many details which were obscure on this hypothesis
became clear when Professor Last proved (in Classical Quarterly,18, 1924, 169-73) that Empedocles
was talking about a device for lifting and perhaps measuring liquids, which did not work in quite
the same way as the water-clock.z
It is certain, then, that fr. Ioo offers a theory of breathing which includes the notion of breathing
through pores in the skin, and explains the theory by using the example of a familiar kind of waterlifter. We must now examine the details of the simile with the help of the following analysis :3


is the way all things breathe in and out.
'In all [animals] there are tubes of flesh, empty of blood, stretched all over the
surface of the body, and over their openings the outermost surface of the skin
is pierced through with close-packed holes, so that the blood is hidden but a
free passage is cut through for the air by these holes.'
When the blood rushes away
from them, the air rushes in (Kavrarat7ua )
with a mad gush. ..
. . . and when the blood runs back (Jvacp"uKV), the air breathes out.
It is like what happens when a girl plays with a clepsydra.
When she closes the vent at the top and dips the clepsydra into the water, no
water enters; it is prevented by 'the weight of air falling on the many holes'
of the strainer at the bottom.. .

have set out this argument in full in view of a

curious attempt by Antonio Traglia in his recent book
Studi sulla Lingua di Empedocle (Bari, n.d., p. 25 n.) to
save Aristotle from this mistake. All is simple, Traglia
maintains, if we realise that the crucial sentence is to be
translated: 'Affirmando . . . (v. 4) Empedocle pensa di
parlare anche della respirazione nasale e della respirazione vera e propria.' A glance at the text of Aristotle
will show that this is a misunderstanding of the typography of DK: Aristotle does not quote v. 4 here.
2 See the illustrations in Professor Last's
article, or in
W. K. C. Guthrie, Aristotle on the Heavens (Loeb C.L.),




p. 228. The clepsydra was a hollow vessel, covered at

the top except for a narrow vent or tube which could
be plugged with the thumb; the bottom was perforated
to form a strainer. It was used for transferring liquids
from one vessel to another. What Empedocles describes
is the normal use of the clepsydra, except that normally
it would be dipped into the liquid with the vent unplugged.
3 My analysis of the simile (lines 8-21) follows that of
O. Regenbogen, 'Eine Forschungsmethode antiker Naturwissenschaft', Quell. u. Stud. z. Gesch. d. Mathematik, B. I,
pp. I80 ff.

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. . . until she unblocks the compressed [air-]stream; then, as the air leaves,
the due quantity of water enters.
In the same way, when there is water in the clepsydra and the vent at the top
is closed by the hand, air pressure from the outside,
(rrop6pofo... n& Tndpoto)
exerted upwards on the strainer at the bottom, holds in the water4 ...
... until she lets go with her hand; then in turn, the opposite happens-as air
enters [through the vent at the top] the due amount of water flows out.
In the same way, when the blood in the body 'rushes back again to the inmost
part' (narAvopcrov
xdvOE),a stream of air enters . . .
again (dvacp OK-) an equal stream [of air] breathes
out again.


20-2 I

At first sight, it seems obvious that in the simile water corresponds to blood, and air to air;
and many commentators have explained it in that way. The breathing-in process is described by
Empedocles (C and K) as the withdrawal of blood and entrance of air; this must correspond to
the withdrawal of water from the clepsydra and entrance of air. But there is only one stage of
the operations when this takes place, and that is section I, in which air enters through the vent
at the top and water pours out through the strainer at the bottom. Similarly the breathing-out
process (D and L) must correspond to the entrance of water into the clepsydra (G).
This hypothesis leads to a number of paradoxes. The withdrawal of blood to the inside of
the body must correspond to the flow of water out of the clepsydra. The retention of water in
the clepsydra by air pressure (H) corresponds to nothing in the breathing process. The entrance
of air into the body through the pores must correspond to the entrance of air into the clepsydra
through the vent at the top, and the strainer at the bottom has no counterpart in the body. In
fact, on this hypothesis the clepsydra seems merely confusing. A half-full wine-skin, squeezed
until the wine just reaches the mouth and then released, would provide a much apter illustration.
Faced with these paradoxes, some scholars have fallen back on the alternative hypothesis,
that water in the clepsydra corresponds to air in the body, and air in the clepsydra to blood in
the body. Now, the entrance of water as the air withdraws (G) corresponds to breathing-in
(C and K), and the departure of water as air re-enters (I) corresponds to breathing-out (D and L).
This hypothesis avoids the paradoxes of the former one, but involves others just as formidable.
It seems extraordinarily unlikely, in the first place, that Empedocles would choose to make air
play opposite parts in the two halves of the simile; to do this simply asks for misunderstanding.
Moreover, on this hypothesis, as on the former one, there seems to be no point in that feature of
the clepsydra's behaviour which must particularly have been thought odd-namely,
the queer
behaviour of the water when the vent is blocked (F and H). Indeed, the situation of the clepsydra
in H suggests a quite impossible parallel-air breathed in through the pores and then held in by
the pressureof bloodfrom the outside.
In all these attempts to understand the simile, since Aristotle's mistake was first pointed out,
there is one major absurdity which seems hardly to have been noticed. Whatever may be the
truth about one's skin, one breathes through the nose and mouth, and there is no imaginable reason
why Empedocles should have denied this. No explanation of his meaning is acceptable unless
it takes account of this fact. Yet scholars have either ignored it or else assumed, weakly, that the
nose and mouth are simply two pores among many.
Moreover, no explanation ought to be accepted unless it can show why Empedocles chose
the clepsydraas his illustrative model, and why having chosen it he stressed particularly its odd
behaviour when the top vent is plugged (F and H).
If I am right so far, the odd feature of Empedocles' theory is that he thought breathing takes
place not only through the nose and mouth but also through pores in the skin; and the odd features
of the clepsydra's behaviour all spring from the fact that it has not one but two openings. The
solution is simple and obvious: he meant the top vent of the clepsydra to correspond to the nose
and mouth, and the strainer at the bottom to the pores in the skin.
First he describes the pores (B) and then states their function in breathing: when the blood
drains away from them (to the interior of the body), air takes its place (C), and when the blood
returns to them, the air comes out (into the atmosphere) (D). This part of the theory depends
on the notion that neither blood nor air can be (much) compressed; so we are entitled to ask where
the blood withdraws to when it leaves the pores. Empedocles does not say; but he does say what
happens to the water in the clepsydra-it takes the place of air which leaves through the top
vent (G). It needs only a very simple interpretation of the simile to see that the blood withdrawing
4 In line 18, taking 'd6' as apodotic and reading 'epvKEt' and in line
with Regenbogen.
I9 reading '2'06uoLo',

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from the pores is supposed to take the place of air breathed out through the nose and mouth.
Correspondingly, just as the air enters the clepsydra at the top vent when the water leaves space
for it (I), so air enters through the nose and mouth when the blood moves from the interior of the
body towards the pores. Empedocles' theory was that breathing in through the nose was simultaneous with breathing out through the pores, and vice versa, and that this was made possible by
a sort of oscillation of the blood.
The choice of the clepsydra is now easily explained: he needed a model with two air vents
and liquid oscillating, as it were, between them. The strainer in the clepsydra, corresponding to
the pores, is probably a lucky coincidence. But of course the analogy is still not wholly exact.
Section I of the simile seems to suggest blood streaming from the pores as one breathes in through
the nose. It may be thought that this objection is as great as those brought against the other
hypotheses, but I think it can be explained. Empedocles wanted to suggest that as one breathes
in through the nose the blood falls away towardsthe surface of the skin; the nearest he could get to
this was to show that the water moves not merely towards the strainer but right through it.
Without a glass container and some sort of pump he could do no better.
This imperfection in the model helps to explain why he draws attention particularly to the
odd behaviour of the water in the clepsydra. As we breathe out through the nose, the blood leaves
the surface of the body and air enters. He could not find a model in which air followed the liquid
inside; but he could show that there is air pressure on the surface so that the air would follow if it
could. In section H you cannot see the air surprisingly holding the water in the clepsydra, but
you can deduce that it must be there; similarly you cannot feel the air pressing on your skin but
you can infer, from the model, that it must be there. Section F, which describes the other aspect
of the clepsydra's odd behaviour, seems to explain why you cannot breathe with your nose and
mouth gagged, even though the skin has pores. The water cannot enter the clepsydra, because
the air cannot escape through the vent; similarly the blood cannot leave the surface of the body
to make room for air, because the air cannot escape through the nose and mouth.
The model does not explain the causation of breathing, but that is not surprising. It is not
clear what Empedocles believed to be the motive power that causes respiration-perhaps he thought
the blood moves naturally, as Aristotle seems to suggest (473b6 -oi aLkta-rosTEVKdOTOS KWEVoLrOt avw
Kac Kco-7). Whether natural motion or internal heat is the cause, it is hardly likely that he would
find a domestic utensil which would illustrate the cause as well.
It will be objected that if Empedocles wanted to make the nose and mouth correspond to the
upper vent of the clepsydra he could have said so. Is it quite certain that he said nothing about it?
The appropriate place seems to be sections K and L of the fragment, which on the orthodox interpretation merely repeat the sense of C and D.5 In line 24 the accepted reading is alcOpos Ev1,s



CalWpos-is the reading

of M and the first hand of Z; the reading

and Michael is
It is tempting to suggest that Empedocles wrote
of air coming through the nose and mouth). 'rorv-Epov',
Line 23,
E tvXdV&', would then have to mean 'when the blood rushes away
IlE 7raalvopcrov
far as the inmost part' (i.e. the blood drains away from the chest, leaving
the other direction as
enter, as far as the inmost part; the blood in fact moves outwards towards the
pores). In favour of this view one can argue (i) that it makes the description of breathing in
through the nose and mouth follow immediately after the corresponding section of the simile (I);
(2) that 'raaAlvoprov'('back in the other direction') now refers back to line 6, which describes the
movement of blood from the pores to the interior; this gives it a better sense than the orthodox
interpretation, in which it makes a rather irrelevant reference to the repetition of the whole process;
and (3) that although at first sight 'yvXdvs' seems to mean 'away from the skin to the interior',
it could just as well mean 'away from the chest (or windpipe or whatever) to the interior'; in each
case it is the space left free by the withdrawing blood that is in question, rather than the mass of
the blood itself.
If this last idea is not accepted-and
I do not wish to insist on it-then we are still faced with
the objection that Empedocles said nothing about breathing through the nose and mouth. I can
only answer that he must have known about it (what else does 'dvanErvY' normally mean?) and
we are forced to guess what he meant. My guess seems to me to have more to be said for it than
any other.
The theory of respiration which I attribute to Empedocles is very nearly that which Plato
describes in the Timaeus (79a5-e9).
Plato says explicitly that the heat of 'the inner parts about
the blood and the veins' causes the movement of the air, and he believes that the air circulates
outside the body, because there is no void, by a series of pushes, so that air expelled from the mouth
pushes more air round to fill up through the pores the place it has vacated in the body. Whether
5 Such a repetition is of course a usual feature of early Greek style; but it is hardly a necessary one.


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either of these ideas was held by Empedocles I do not know. Plato certainly seems to differ from
Empedocles in saying nothing about movements of the blood. Otherwise their theories are virtually
the same.6
There is nothing surprising in this-indeed it may be regarded as a confirmation of my
suggestion. Plato drew largely from the work of Philistion, the Sicilian doctor from the same
school as Empedocles; and Philistion's belief in respiration through the pores is known (see
Anonymus Londinensis XX, 24). Nor is there anything surprising in Aristotle's failure to see
the similarity between Plato's theory, which he criticised in De Respiratione
5, and Empedocles',
which he criticisedfor quite differentreasonsin De Respiratione
7. His mistakenidea that Empedocles
was talking about nostrils instead of pores prevented him from understanding the passage.
Empedocles' theory of breathing is not, perhaps, of great importance, though my suggestion,
if it is accepted, will at least have the merit of saving him from charges of perversenesswhich he
has had to bear. His theory is still wrong, but it is no longer silly.
It is more important to decide whether this business with the clepsydra is properly described
as an experiment or not. The purpose of the clepsydra in the fragment is to illustrate the fact
that air entering the body cannot occupy an already occupied space but must have somewhere to
go, and that space is provided for it by movements of the blood. When Professor Farrington
writes (GreekScience,I, p. 55): 'His great contribution to knowledge was his experimental demonstration of the corporeality of the viewless air', he has some justification, but many qualifications
are necessary. There is no evidence that Empedocles wished to establish any such generalisation
as that air is corporeal. We must realise that discovery and belief are quite different from demonstration and proof; there is first the vague assumption, then the demonstration of particular cases,
and finally the proof of a generalised proposition in precise terms. It is probable that Empedocles
inherited a notion that air is something rather than nothing; he wished to use this notion in the
context of a theory of respiration, but apparently decided that its particular application-the
suggestion that blood and breath are about equally substantial and incompressible-was an obstacle
to belief in his theory. He therefore used an illustration from ordinary experience.
This is the most that can be said for the thesis that Empedocles established the corporeality
of air by experiment. The whole business lacks certain essential features of the experimental
method-the attempt to control the conditions exactly and to find answers to precise questions,
and the readiness to let conclusions wait upon results. Above all, we must remember that
Empedocles does not conclude 'Air is therefore corporeal' but 'This is how we breathe'. The
clepsydra is much more like a persuasive analogy than an experiment.
6 'The
region of the chest and lung, in the act of discharging the breath outwards, is filled again by the air
surrounding the body, as it is driven round and makes
its way inwards through the porous flesh. Again, when

the air is turned back and is moving outwards through

the body, it thrusts round the respiration inwards by way
of the passage of mouth and nostrils.' (Timaeus79c, Cornford's translation.)

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