Born: 490 BC
Died At Age: 60
Born Country: Italy
Born in: Sicily, Italy
Famous as: Philosopher
Died on: 430 BC
place of death: Mount Etna, Italy
Who was Empedocles?
Empedocles was a philosopher from ancient Greece. He was one of the most prominent Western philosophers of the pre-Socratic era. A native of Akragas, a Greek city in Sicily, Empedocles garnered recognition for conceiving the cosmogonic theory of the four classical elements. He also hypothesized forces he dubbed “Love” and “Strife” which would blend and part the elements, respectively. These physical concepts were part of the universe which also proposed ideas about the origin and development of life. He was born into an affluent family. His father played a pivotal role in deposing a tyrant in Akragas. Following in his footsteps, Empedocles also took part in the dethronement of the succeeding oligarchic government. He was highly altruistic and an impassioned supporter of the poor. He constantly criticised and acted against the despotic actions of the oligarchs and once even turned down the offer of the sovereignty of the city. The works of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans had a deep impact on him. Empedocles was a vociferous opponent of the practice of animal sacrifice and killing animals for food. He created a unique doctrine of reincarnation and was possibly the final Greek philosopher to document his ideas in verse. A few of his works still exist, something that cannot be said about his contemporary colleagues.
Born in 490 BC, in Akragas in Sicily, Empedocles hailed from a distinguished family. Not much information is available on his childhood. His father, Meton or Meto, had a pivotal role in deposing the tyrant of Akragas, possibly Thrasydaeus, in 470 BC.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Empedocles was instrumental in overthrowing the oligarch government that replaced the tyrant. He was supposedly very generous towards the poor and harshly criticised and acted against the dictatorial actions of the oligarchs. He even rejected the proposition of becoming the sovereign of Akragas.
Empedocles became known for his exceptional oratory skills, insightful knowledge of nature, and stories of his miraculous powers. He became the subject of many myths and tales as a man who ostensibly could heal diseases and provide people with defence against epidemics. Empedocles wrote about his marvellous powers in the poem ‘Purifications’, claiming that he could destroy evil, restore youth, and dictate wind and rain.
Empedocles knew physician Acron, a number of Pythagoreans, and possible even Parmenides and Anaxagoras. Another physician, Pausanias, was his eromenos. His only known pupil is the sophist and rhetorician Gorgias.
Timaeus and Dicaearchus record Empedocles’ travel to the Peloponnese and the great popularity he enjoyed there. Others write about the time he spent in Athens and the newly-established colony of Thurii in 446 BC. There are also imaginative accounts of him venturing far to the east to the lands of the Magi (Persia).
Aristotle writes that Empedocles passed away when he was sixty years old (430 BC). However, according to some other writers, he was alive until he was 109. A few myths have developed throughout the centuries about his death. One of these traditions, which was originated by Heraclides Ponticus, says that he was taken away from the Earth. Others state that he died in the flames of Mount Etna.
The contemporary ‘Life of Empedocles’ by Xanthus could have been a reliable source on his life, but it has not survived to the modern age.
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Empedocles is believed to be the last Greek philosopher to have written his ideas in verse. Contradictory views among scholars exist on whether his teaching should be categorised in two separate poems, ‘Purifications’ and ‘On Nature’, with individual subject matter, or if they should all come from a single poem with two different titles or one title corresponding to a section of the entire poem. Some scholars put forth the idea that the title ‘Purifications’ corresponds to the first part of a larger work titled (as a whole) ‘On Nature’.
There is also another scholarly argument about which part should be allocated to each of the poems, if it is to be considered that there are two poems, or if a fragment of it is titled ‘Purifications’, as ancient writers seldom cited which poem they were using as source material.
It is clear from his works that he was very familiar with the didactic poems of Xenophanes and Parmenides, but the animation and richness of his style, along with the clearness of his descriptions and diction, were even better than the other two poets.
Aristotle hailed him as the father of rhetoric. While he only used the meter to draw a comparison between the poems of Empedocles and the epics of Homer, he referred to Empedocles as Homeric and robust in his diction.
The old biographies of Empedocles generally categorised only about 100 lines in ‘Purifications’, which, for a long time, was regarded as a poem about ritual purification or a poem in which he recorded all his religious and ethical thoughts. Initial editors believed that the poem gave a fantastical account of the world which may still be included in the Empedocles' philosophical system. The modern interpretation is that the title ‘Purifications’ corresponds to the poem ‘On Nature’, or to a part of that poem.
’On Nature’ is comprised of about 450 lines, among which 70 lines were recomposed from some papyrus scraps called the Strasbourg Papyrus. The poem was initially made up of 2000 lines of hexameter verse and was composed as a monologue aimed at Pausanias.
Through this poem, he clarified his philosophical system, writing about his beliefs about the nature and history of the universe, which includes his concept of the four classical elements. Furthermore, he elucidates his ideas on causation, perception, and thought, alongside offering clarifications on his ideas on terrestrial phenomena and biological processes.
While Empedocles was well-versed in the theories of the Eleatics and the Pythagoreans, he was not part of any singular school. He did not rigidly subscribe to any particular belief but formed a viewpoint that was an amalgamation of ideas of Parmenides, Pythagoras and the Ionian schools. He was an ardent supporter of Orphic mysteries. He also has the distinction of being a scientific thinker and a pioneer of physics.
Aristotle cites him as one of the Ionic philosophers and draws favourable comparisons between him and the atomist philosophers and Anaxagoras. As with the atomists and Ionic philosophers, Empedocles pursued the tradition of the tragic thought which attempted to discover the foundation of the connection between the one and the many.
Empedocles theorised that the world is made up of four essential elements, earth, water, fire, and air. He named these elements “roots” and also distinguished them by giving them mythical names, Aidoneus, Nestis, Zeus, and Hera. As these elements are simple, eternal, and unalterable, they are brought together and separated by two divine powers, Love and Strife or Hatred.
In their ideal and original condition, the four pure elements and two powers persisted together in a state of inactivity and dormancy in the form of a sphere, which is known as the Sphere of Empedocles.
Empedocles offers a theory on how the universe was created after the parting of the elements. He also describes how plants and animals came into being, as well as the physiology of humans. He has the distinction of being the first scholar to propose a detailed theory of light and vision.
He tries to elucidate, in a popular section of his work, the phenomena of respiration through an intricate analogy with the clepsydra, which was a device used in the classical age for transferring liquids from one vessel to another.
Like Pythagoras before him, Empedocles hypothesized that the transmigration of the soul/metempsychosis or reincarnation occurs between humans, animals, and even plants.