Empedocles (c. 495-435 BCE) was a Presocratic philosopher, poet, and mystic whose theory of cosmogenesis marks his fame. He was born in the ancient Greek city of Akragas (recently renamed Agrigento) on the coast of Sicily. Popular lore claims that Empedocles was offered the kingship of Akragas after having overthrown the previous oligarchy. Though Empedocles is often cited as being extravagant, and even making claims that he was immortal, he refused the kingship in order to support a democracy. His ideas embraced a temporal framework.
Empedocles was a pupil of Pythagoras and a disciple of Parmenides, two other major Presocratic figures. Borrowing heavily from Parmenides’ concepts of the nature of reality and theory of being, along with the Pythagorean theory of opposites, Empedocles applied these principles to his cosmogony and the universe’s cyclical nature. Owing to Empedocles’ belief in the transmigration of souls, which also stemmed from Pythagorean tradition, he remained a strict vegetarian, believing meat-eating to be a sin, an act of cannibalism. In fact, Empedocles believed his fall from being a potentially divine being (or daimon) stemmed from a past life’s sin of eating meat. To complete his catharsis, Empedocles is forced to journey the earth through continuous reincarnations, being rejected by the various combinations of elements, until one day being reunited with the gods, free of pollution.
According to Empedocles, all matter is composed of four primal elements (stoicheon). These elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—are each attributed to a god: Hera, Aidoneus, Zeus, and Nestis, respectively. The elements are timeless and indestructible and therefore can be considered divine. To explain the creation of the universe, Empedocles introduces two cosmic forces known as Love (Philia) and Strife (Neikos), which in turn are likened to the gods Aphrodite and Aries. Love is responsible for the unity of the elements, while Strife is responsible for the division of the elements. Because the elements can never be annihilated, only separated and united, all things are eternal, including life. Death, as one knows it, is merely a separation of the elements by Strife, which will soon be rearranged and united by Love.
This elemental theory applies to all aspects of the universe and is undoubtedly what led to Empedocles’ evolutionary theory and ideas of natural selection, in anticipation of later philosophers and naturalists such as Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin, respectively. Empedocles claimed that Earth was responsible for the birth of living creatures, each imbued with portions of Water and Fire. In the beginning, however, all were masses of disembodied organs. Through the force of Love, the organs would join together in different combinations. These combinations would result largely in mutation, filling the world with beings with two heads and human-faced animals, though sometimes perfect combinations would result and would survive and multiply.
Empedocles delivered these postulations in the form of epic verse, which can be found in his two extant works, “On Nature” (Peri Physeos) and “Purifications” (Katharmoi), the largest body of fragments that remain from any Presocratic philosopher. Whether or not these two works are separate entities has long been a source of scholarly debate, though a recent find of papyrus fragments at the University of Strasbourg may link the two works as part of one larger work.
In addition to being a philosopher, poet, and crude scientist, Empedocles was well known for his mystical feats. There are many accounts of Empedocles performing miracles, healings, and even being consulted for cures. Although these ideas may originate from Empedocles’ poems, where he describes himself as a celebrated mystic, one cannot help but believe that Empedocles was often consulted for help because of his knowledge of cosmic affairs. His skill in the art of rhetoric was, without a doubt, another impetus for him to be well received.
To prove his immortality, according to a much celebrated tradition, he threw himself into an active volcano on Mount Etna, the mythical forge of the Greek god Hephaestus, leaving nothing behind but a sanDalí, which revealed the farce. Most likely a legend, this particular account of Empedocles’ death has been dramatized in a play by Friedrich Hölderlin and in the poem “Empedocles on Etna” (1852) by Matthew Arnold. Though Empedocles may not have proved his immortality to his contemporaries, his ideas and notions remain immortal and timeless.
Dustin B. Hummel
See also Anaximander; Anaximines; Heraclitus; Parmenides of Elea; Presocratic Age; Pythagoras of Samos; Thales; Xenophanes
Birx, H. J. (1984). Theories of evolution. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
Visnovsky, E. (2006). Empedocles. In H. J. Birx (Ed.), Encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 809-810). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.