The Life and Times of Empedocles

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The Life and Times of Empedocles

Postby JustinFelux » Tue Sep 17, 2002 1:04 am

The Life and Times of Empedocles

by Justin Felux

In all the voluminous works that make up the history of philosophy, it may be rather difficult to come across a person more colorful and more interesting than Empedocles. He was a citizen of Agrigentum in Sicily around 440 BCE. He was a jack of all trades; a historian, a scientist, a poet, a philosopher, a theologian, a doctor, a politician, and perhaps above all, a charlatan. He favored democratic politics, and this made him very popular among the people of Sicily, even though it eventually led to his exile when opposing political groups rose to power. Only fragments of his work remain in tact today, but they are treasures none the less.

Empedocles informs us that he has in fact led many different past lives. He was once born "a boy, and a maiden, and a plant, and a bird, and a darting fish in the sea." All of these things were apparently just a precursor of the great things to come. In the life that we know him from, he fancied himself a god:

"I go about among you an immortal god, no longer a mortal, honoured by all, as is fitting, crowned with fillets and luxuriant garlands. With these on my head, so soon as I come to flourishing cities I am reverenced by men and by women; and they follow after me in countless numbers, inquiring of me what is the way to gain, some in want of oracles, others of help in diseases, long time in truth pierced with grievous pains, they seek to hear from me keen-edged account of all sorts of things."

Much of his work is littered with such high praise of himself, except for at one point where he seems to have done some great sin, and is very upset about it: "Alas that no ruthless day destroyed me before I devised base deeds of devouring with the lips!" What his sin is, we can not be sure, but a later passage may give us some clues: "Miserable men, wholly miserable, restrain your hands from beans." Empedocles greatly admired Pythagoras, and apparently adhered to Pythagoreanism. The Pythagorean religion (which was a reformed version of Orphism) has two central tenets: The transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans. So perhaps that was his great sin.

As proof of his godliness, Empodocles was alleged to perform many miracles. It is said that he could control the winds, and at one point he resurrected a woman who had been dead for thirty days. Many of his miracles may have been the doing of his superior scientific knowledge. He was the first person to discover air as a separate substance by putting upside-down pots into the water. He observes that "water combines with wine, but is unwilling to combine with oil", and postulates that "wine is water that has fermented in the wood beneath the bark." He also knew that the moon shined by reflected light, and that solar eclipses are caused by the interposition of the moon. The idea that light takes time to travel was also first conceived by him, though he believed light moved faster than we could fathom. He also founded the Italian school of medicine.

Unfortunately, many of his scientific theories turned out to be untrue. He held that "many fires burn beneath the earth", and that "the sea is the sweat of the earth." Among animals, fish are the most stupid (curiously so, since by his account he used to be one). At one point he hypothesizes that men are formed in certain parts of a woman's womb which are warmer than others, and "on this account men are dark and more muscular and more hairy." Centuries before his time, Empedocles came up with a theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. His version is a bit more colorful than Darwin's, however. Originally, "countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold." There were many creatures with "double faces and double breasts", and certain offspring that had the heads of oxen and the bodies of men. There were also sterile creatures who had "mixed some parts from men and some of the nature of women". There were heads without necks, arms without bodies or shoulders, and eyes "roaming about alone with no foreheads." Only some of these creatures were fit enough for survival.

His contributions to philosophy had a profound impact on the likes of Plato and Aristotle. He was the first to hold that the four elements were fire, earth, wind, and water. These elements are eternal, and can be mixed with each other in different proportions. Fire is the greatest of the elements, and it is the stuff that souls are made out of. There are two forces in the world: Love and Strife. Love is the force that brings things together, and Strife is the force that brings things apart. At one point in time long ago, there was a Golden Age where love ruled and people only worshipped Aphrodite. Then Strife began to reappear and separate things again, until eventually Strife reigned supreme. Then Love would reappear, and the cycle would repeat itself over and over again. There is no "higher purpose" to the events that occur in the world; everything is governed by Chance and Necessity. With regards to religion, as I said, he was probably a Pythagorean. His (somewhat comical, as always with Empedocles) description of the supreme deity as a sort of "Absolute Mind" has shades of Hegel and pantheism:

"It is not possible to draw near (to god) even with the eyes, or to take hold of him with our hands, which in truth is the best highway of persuasion into the mind of man; for he has no human head fitted to a body, nor do two shoots branch out from the trunk, nor has he feet, nor swift legs, nor hairy parts, but he is sacred and ineffable mind alone, darting through the whole world with swift thoughts."

At one point he wonders why he even bothers thinking about all of this stuff: "But why do I lay weight on these things, as though I were doing some great thing, if I be superior to mortal, perishing men?" Which leads us to the topic of his ultimate fate. Legend has it that Empedocles sought out one day to prove to everyone that he was truly and immortal god by leaping into the crater of Etna. As one poet put it:

Great Empedocles, that ardent soul
Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole

Aristotle regards the tale as fiction, however, and claims that he died in his sixties. However, I feel inclined to believe in the story. Mainly because of how hilarious it is. It is such a fitting end for such a colorful and charismatic character. Whatever his fate was, there is no questioning that Empedocles is one of the most awesome characters in all of history, and I feel inclined to idolize him.
And there is just no way you can disagree with that.
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