Empedocles (/ɛmˈpɛdəkliːz/; Greek: Ἐμπεδοκλῆς
[empedoklɛ̂ːs], Empedoklēs; c. 490 – c. 430 BC)
was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher and a citizen of Akragas, a Greek
city in Sicily. Empedocles' philosophy is best known for originating
the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements. He also proposed
forces he called
Love and Strife which would mix as well as separate
the elements. These physical speculations were part of a history of
the universe which also dealt with the origin and development of life.
Influenced by the Pythagoreans,
Empedocles was a vegetarian who
supported the doctrine of reincarnation. He is generally considered
the last Greek philosopher to have recorded his ideas in verse. Some
of his work survives, more than is the case for any other pre-Socratic
philosopher. Empedocles' death was mythologized by ancient writers,
and has been the subject of a number of literary treatments.
2.2 On Nature
3.1 The four elements
Love and Strife
3.3 The sphere of Empedocles
Perception and knowledge
4 Death and literary treatments
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
The temple of
Hera at Akragas, built when
Empedocles was a young man,
c. 470 BC.
Empedocles was born, c. 490 BC, at
Sicily to a
distinguished family. Very little is known about his life. His
father Meto seems to have been instrumental in overthrowing the tyrant
of Akragas, presumably
Thrasydaeus in 470 BC.
this tradition by helping to overthrow the succeeding oligarchic
government. He is said to have been magnanimous in his support of the
poor; severe in persecuting the overbearing conduct of the
oligarchs; and he even declined the sovereignty of the city when it
was offered to him.
His brilliant oratory, his penetrating knowledge of nature, and the
reputation of his marvellous powers, including the curing of diseases,
and averting epidemics, produced many myths and stories surrounding
his name. He was said to have been a magician and controller of
storms, and he himself, in his famous poem Purifications seems to have
promised miraculous powers, including the destruction of evil, the
curing of old age, and the controlling of wind and rain.
Empedocles was acquainted or connected by friendship with the
physicians Pausanias (his eromenos) and Acron; with various
Pythagoreans; and even, it is said, with
Anaxagoras. The only pupil of
Empedocles who is mentioned is the
sophist and rhetorician Gorgias.
Dicaearchus spoke of the journey of
Empedocles to the
Peloponnese, and of the admiration, which was paid to him there;
others mentioned his stay at Athens, and in the newly founded colony
of Thurii, 446 BC; there are also fanciful reports of him
travelling far to the east to the lands of the Magi.
According to Aristotle, he died at the age of sixty
(c. 430 BC), even though other writers have him living up to
the age of one hundred and nine. Likewise, there are myths
concerning his death: a tradition, which is traced to Heraclides
Ponticus, represented him as having been removed from the Earth;
whereas others had him perishing in the flames of Mount Etna.
The contemporary Life of
Empedocles by Xanthus has been lost.
A piece of the Strasbourg
Empedocles papyrus in the Bibliothèque
nationale et universitaire, Strasbourg
Empedocles is considered the last Greek philosopher to write in verse
and the surviving fragments of his teaching are from two poems,
Purifications and On Nature.
Empedocles was undoubtedly acquainted
with the didactic poems of
Xenophanes and Parmenides—allusions
to the latter can be found in the fragments—but he seems to have
surpassed them in the animation and richness of his style, and in the
clearness of his descriptions and diction.
Aristotle called him the
father of rhetoric, and, although he acknowledged only the meter as a
point of comparison between the poems of
Empedocles and the epics of
Homer, he described
Homeric and powerful in his
Lucretius speaks of him with enthusiasm, and evidently
viewed him as his model. The two poems together comprised 5000
lines. About 550 lines of his poetry survive, although because
ancient writers rarely mentioned which poem they were quoting, it is
not always certain to which poem the quotes belong. Some scholars now
believe that there was only one poem, and that the Purifications
merely formed the beginning of On Nature.
We possess only about 100 sections of his Purifications. It seems to
have given a mythical account of the world which may, nevertheless,
have been part of Empedocles' philosophical system. The first lines of
the poem are preserved by Diogenes Laërtius:
Friends who inhabit the mighty town by tawny Acragas
which crowns the citadel, caring for good deeds,
greetings; I, an immortal God, no longer mortal,
wander among you, honoured by all,
adorned with holy diadems and blooming garlands.
To whatever illustrious towns I go,
I am praised by men and women, and accompanied
by thousands, who thirst for deliverance,
some ask for prophecies, and some entreat,
for remedies against all kinds of disease.
It was probably this work which contained a story about souls,
where we are told that there were once spirits who lived in a state of
bliss, but having committed a crime (the nature of which is unknown)
they were punished by being forced to become mortal beings,
reincarnated from body to body. Humans, animals, and even plants are
such spirits. The moral conduct recommended in the poem may allow us
to become like gods again.
There are about 450 lines of his poem On Nature extant, including 70
lines which have been reconstructed from some papyrus scraps known as
the Strasbourg Papyrus. The poem originally consisted of 2000 lines of
hexameter verse, and was addressed to Pausanias. It was this
poem which outlined his philosophical system. In it, Empedocles
explains not only the nature and history of the universe, including
his theory of the four classical elements, but he describes theories
on causation, perception, and thought, as well as explanations of
terrestrial phenomena and biological processes.
Empedocles as portrayed in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Although acquainted with the theories of the
Eleatics and the
Empedocles did not belong to any one definite school. An
eclectic in his thinking, he combined much that had been suggested by
Pythagoras and the Ionian schools. He was a firm believer
in Orphic mysteries, as well as a scientific thinker and a precursor
Empedocles among the Ionic
philosophers, and he places him in very close relation to the atomist
philosophers and to Anaxagoras.
According to House (1956)
Another of the fragments of the dialogue On the Poets (Aristotle)
treats more fully what is said in Poetics ch. i about Empedocles, for
though clearly implying that he was not a poet,
Aristotle there says
he is Homeric, and an artist in language, skilled in metaphor and in
the other devices of poetry.
Empedocles, like the Ionian philosophers and the atomists, continued
the tradition of tragic thought which tried to find the basis of the
relationship of the one and many. Each of the various philosophers,
following Parmenides, derived from the Eleatics, the conviction that
an existence could not pass into non-existence, and vice versa. Yet,
each one had his peculiar way of describing this relation of Divine
and mortal thought and thus of the relation of the One and the Many.
In order to account for change in the world, in accordance with the
ontological requirements of the Eleatics, they viewed changes as the
result of mixture and separation of unalterable fundamental realities.
Empedocles held that the four elements (Water, Air, Earth, and Fire)
were those unchangeable fundamental realities, which were themselves
transfigured into successive worlds by the powers of
Love and Strife
Heraclitus had explicated the Logos or the "unity of opposites").
The four elements
Empedocles established four ultimate elements which make all the
structures in the world—fire, air, water, earth— in other
words, the several states of matter are represented, being energies,
gasses, liquids, and solids.
Empedocles called these four elements
"roots", which he also identified with the mythical names of Zeus,
Hera, Nestis, and Aidoneus (e.g., "Now hear the fourfold roots of
everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis,
moistening mortal springs with tears.")
Empedocles never used the
term "element" (στοιχεῖον, stoicheion), which seems to have
been first used by Plato. According to the different proportions
in which these four indestructible and unchangeable elements are
combined with each other the difference of the structure is produced.
It is in the aggregation and segregation of elements thus arising,
that Empedocles, like the atomists, found the real process which
corresponds to what is popularly termed growth, increase or decrease.
Nothing new comes or can come into being; the only change that can
occur is a change in the juxtaposition of element with element. This
theory of the four elements became the standard dogma for the next two
Love and Strife
Not to be confused with the Greek deities of love and strife.
Empedocles cosmic cycle is based on the conflict between love and
The four elements, however, are simple, eternal, and unalterable, and
as change is the consequence of their mixture and separation, it was
also necessary to suppose the existence of moving powers that bring
about mixture and separation. The four elements are both eternally
brought into union and parted from one another by two divine powers,
Love and Strife.
Love (φιλότης) is responsible for the
attraction of different forms of matter, and Strife (νεῖκος) is
the cause of their separation. If the four elements make up the
Love and Strife explain their variation and harmony.
Love and Strife are attractive and repulsive forces, respectively,
which are plainly observable in human behavior, but also pervade the
universe. The two forces wax and wane in their dominance, but neither
force ever wholly escapes the imposition of the other.
The sphere of Empedocles
As the best and original state, there was a time when the pure
elements and the two powers co-existed in a condition of rest and
inertness in the form of a sphere. The elements existed together in
their purity, without mixture and separation, and the uniting power of
Love predominated in the sphere: the separating power of Strife
guarded the extreme edges of the sphere. Since that time, strife
gained more sway and the bond which kept the pure elementary
substances together in the sphere was dissolved. The elements became
the world of phenomena we see today, full of contrasts and
oppositions, operated on by both
Love and Strife. The sphere being the
embodiment of pure existence is the embodiment or representative of
Empedocles assumed a cyclical universe whereby the elements
return and prepare the formation of the sphere for the next period of
Empedocles attempted to explain the separation of elements, the
formation of earth and sea, of Sun and Moon, of atmosphere. He also
dealt with the first origin of plants and animals, and with the
physiology of humans. As the elements entered into combinations, there
appeared strange results—heads without necks, arms without
shoulders. Then as these fragmentary structures met, there were
seen horned heads on human bodies, bodies of oxen with human heads,
and figures of double sex. But most of these products of natural
forces disappeared as suddenly as they arose; only in those rare cases
where the parts were found to be adapted to each other did the complex
structures last. Thus the organic universe sprang from spontaneous
aggregations that suited each other as if this had been intended. Soon
various influences reduced creatures of double sex to a male and a
female, and the world was replenished with organic life. It is
possible to see this theory as an anticipation of Charles Darwin's
theory of natural selection, although
Empedocles was not trying to
Perception and knowledge
Empedocles is credited with the first comprehensive theory of light
and vision. He put forward the idea that we see objects because light
streams out of our eyes and touches them. While flawed, this became
the fundamental basis on which later Greek philosophers and
Euclid would construct some of the most important
theories of light, vision, and optics.
Knowledge is explained by the principle that elements in the things
outside us are perceived by the corresponding elements in
ourselves. Like is known by like. The whole body is full of pores
and hence respiration takes place over the whole frame. In the organs
of sense these pores are specially adapted to receive the effluences
which are continually rising from bodies around us; thus perception
occurs. In vision, certain particles go forth from the eye to meet
similar particles given forth from the object, and the resultant
contact constitutes vision.
Perception is not merely a passive
reflection of external objects.
Empedocles noted the limitation and narrowness of human perceptions.
We see only a part but fancy that we have grasped the whole. But the
senses cannot lead to truth; thought and reflection must look at the
thing from every side. It is the business of a philosopher, while
laying bare the fundamental difference of elements, to show the
identity that exists between what seem unconnected parts of the
In a famous fragment,
Empedocles attempted to explain the phenomena
of respiration by means of an elaborate analogy with the clepsydra, an
ancient device for conveying liquids from one vessel to another.
This fragment has sometimes been connected to a passage in Aristotle's
Aristotle refers to people who twisted wineskins and
captured air in clepsydras to demonstrate that void does not
exist. There is however, no evidence that
Empedocles performed any
experiment with clepsydras. The fragment certainly implies that
Empedocles knew about the corporeality of air, but he says nothing
whatever about the void. The clepsydra was a common utensil and
everyone who used it must have known, in some sense, that the
invisible air could resist liquid.
Empedocles believed in the transmigration of the
soul, that souls can be reincarnated between humans, animals and even
plants. For Empedocles, all living things were on the same
spiritual plane; plants and animals are links in a chain where humans
are a link too.
Empedocles was a vegetarian and advocated
vegetarianism, since the bodies of animals are the dwelling places of
punished souls. Wise people, who have learned the secret of life,
are next to the divine, and their souls, free from the cycle of
reincarnations, are able to rest in happiness for eternity.
Death and literary treatments
The Death of Empedocles
The Death of Empedocles by
Salvator Rosa (1615 – 1673), depicting
the legendary alleged suicide of
Empedocles jumping into
Mount Etna in
Diogenes Laërtius records the legend that
Empedocles died by throwing
Mount Etna in Sicily, so that the people would believe
his body had vanished and he had turned into an immortal god; the
volcano, however, threw back one of his bronze sandals, revealing the
deceit. Another legend maintains that he threw himself into the
volcano to prove to his disciples that he was immortal; he believed he
would come back as a god after being consumed by the fire.
refers the death of
Empedocles in his work Ars Poetica and admits
poets the right to destroy themselves.
In Icaro-Menippus, a comedic dialogue written by the second century
Lucian of Samosata, Empedocles’ final fate is re-evaluated.
Rather than being incinerated in the fires of Mount Etna, he was
carried up into the heavens by a volcanic eruption. Although a bit
singed by the ordeal,
Empedocles survives and continues his life on
the Moon, surviving by feeding on dew.
Empedocles' death has inspired two major modern literary treatments.
Empedocles' death is the subject of Friedrich Hölderlin's play Tod
des Empedokles (The Death of Empedocles), two versions of which were
written between the years 1798 and 1800. A third version was made
public in 1826. In Matthew Arnold's poem
Empedocles on Etna, a
narrative of the philosopher's last hours before he jumps to his death
in the crater first published in 1852,
To the elements it came from
Everything will return.
Our bodies to earth,
Our blood to water,
Heat to fire,
Breath to air.
In his History of Western Philosophy,
Bertrand Russell humorously
quotes an unnamed poet on the subject – "Great Empedocles, that
ardent soul, Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole."
J R by William Gaddis, Karl Marx's famous dictum ("From each
according to his abilities, to each according to his needs") is
misattributed to Empedocles.
In 2006, a massive underwater volcano off the coast of
In 2016, Scottish musician Momus wrote and sung the song "The Death of
Empedokles" for his album Scobberlotchers.
List of vegetarians
^ Frank Reynolds, David Tracy (eds.), Myth and Philosophy, SUNY Press,
1990, p. 99.
^ a b c Frag. B100 (Aristotle, On Respiration, 473b1–474a6)
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 51
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 73
^ Timaeus, ap. Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 64, comp. 65, 66
Aristotle ap. Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 63; compare, however,
Timaeus, ap. Diogenes Laërtius, 66, 76
^ Satyrus, ap. Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 78; Timaeus, ap. Diogenes
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 60, 70, 69; Plutarch, de Curios. Princ.,
adv. Colotes; Pliny, H. N. xxxvi. 27, and others
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 60, 61, 65, 69
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 60: "Pausanias, according to Aristippus
and Satyrus, was his eromenos"
^ Pliny, Natural History, xxix.1.4–5; cf. Suda, Akron
^ Suda, Empedocles; Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 55, 56, etc.
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 58
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 71, 67; Athenaeus, xiv.
^ Suda, Akron; Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 52
^ Pliny, H. N. xxx. 1, etc.
^ Apollonius, ap. Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 52, comp. 74, 73
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 67, 69, 70, 71; Horace, ad Pison. 464,
^ Hermippus and Theophrastus, ap. Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 55, 56
^ Aristotle, Poetics, 1, ap. Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 57.
^ See especially Lucretius, i. 716, etc.
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 77
^ Simon Trépanier, (2004), Empedocles: An Interpretation, Routledge.
^ DK frag. B112 (Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 61)
^ Frag. B115 (Plutarch, On Exile, 607 C–E; Hippolytus, vii. 29)
^ Suda, Empedocles
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 60
^ Aristotle, Metaphysics, i. 3, 4, 7, Phys. i. 4, de General, et Corr.
i. 8, de Caelo, iii. 7.
^ House, Humphry (1956). Aristotles Poetics. p. 32.
^ James Luchte, Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn, Bloomsbury,
^ Frag. B17 (Simplicius, Physics, 157–159)
^ Frag. B6 (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, x, 315)
^ Peter Kingsley, in Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic:
Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1995).
^ Plato, Timaeus, 48b–c
^ Frag. B35, B26 (Simplicius, Physics, 31–34)
^ Frag. B35 (Simplicius, Physics, 31–34; On the Heavens, 528–530)
^ Frag. B57 (Simplicius, On the Heavens, 586)
^ Frag. B61 (Aelian, On Animals, xvi 29)
^ Ted Everson (2007), The gene: a historical perspective page 5.
Let There be Light
Let There be Light 7 August 2006 01:50 BBC Four
^ Frag. B109 (Aristotle, On the Soul, 404b11–15)
^ Frag. B84 (Aristotle, On the Senses and their Objects,
^ Frag. B2 (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, vii.
^ a b c
Jonathan Barnes (2002), The Presocratic Philosophers, page
^ Aristotle, Physics, 213a24–7
^ W. K. C. Guthrie, (1980), A history of Greek philosophy II: The
Presocratic tradition from
Parmenides to Democritus, page 224.
Cambridge University Press
^ Frag. B127 (Aelian, On Animals, xii. 7); Frag. B117 (Hippolytus, i.
^ Heath, John (2005-05-12). The Talking Greeks: Speech, Animals, and
the Other in Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato. Cambridge University Press.
p. 322. ISBN 9781139443913. An excellent study of
Empedocles' vegetarianism and the various meanings of sacrifice in its
cultural context is that of Rundin (1998).
Plato (1961) [c. 360 BC]. Bluck, Richard Stanley Harold, ed. Meno.
Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521172288. This suggests
that e.g. Empedocles' vegetarianism was partly at least due to the
idea that the spilling of blood brings pollution.
^ Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians, ix. 127; Hippolytus,
^ Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, iv. 23.150
^ Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, v. 14.122
^ Diogenes Laërtius, viii. 69
^ Horace, Ars Poetica, 465–466
^ Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, 1946, p. 60
^ JR by William Gaddis, Dalkey Archive, 2012
^ BBC News, Underwater volcano found by Italy, 23 June 2006
^ Freeman, Zachary (September 2016). "Albums". Now Then. Retrieved 24
Laërtius, Diogenes (1925). "Pythagoreans: Empedocles". Lives of
the Eminent Philosophers. 2:8. Translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (Two
volume ed.). Loeb Classical Library.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Empedocles.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Empedocles
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Parry, Richard. "Empedocles". In Zalta, Edward N. Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Campbell, Gordon. "Empedocles". Internet Encyclopedia of
Empedocles Fragments, translated by Arthur Fairbanks, 1898.
Empedocles by Jean-Claude Picot with an extended and updated
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O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Empedocles", MacTutor
History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
Works by or about
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