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Empedocles of Agrigentum
Empedocles of Agrigentum

Empedocles (Greek: Εμπεδοκλής, circa 490 BCE – c. 430 BCE) was a Greek presocratic philosopher and a citizen of Agrigentum, a Greek colony in Sicily. Empedocles' philosophy is best known for being the origin of the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements. Little of the verse that Empedocles wrote survives today, and, as with many of the presocratics, much of what is known about his philosophy comes from commentary upon it by later thinkers. Empedocles' death has been the subject of both legend and a number of literary treatments.



Empedocles maintained that all matter is made up of four elements: water, earth, air and fire. Empedocles called these the four "roots"; the term "element (stoicheion)", meaning literally "syllable", was used only by later writers.

Apart from these four roots, Empedocles postulated something called Love (philia) to explain the attraction of different forms of matter, and of something called Strife (neikos) to account for their separation. These ideas should not be confused with the four elements: if the elements are the content of the universe, then Love and Strife explain their variation and harmony. He was also one of the first people to state the theory that light travels at a finite (although very large) speed, a theory that gained acceptance only much later.

Though having much in common with Parmenides's ontology, Empedocles is considered to be more tolerant and soft in his outlook. Plato, in the famous Sophist dialogue, described Empedocles as a "gentle muse":

Then there are Ionian, and in more recent times Sicilian muses, who have arrived at the conclusion that to unite the two principles is safer, and to say that being is one and many, and that these are held together by enmity and friendship, ever parting, ever meeting, as the-severer Muses assert, while the gentler ones do not insist on the perpetual strife and peace, but admit a relaxation and alternation of them; peace and unity sometimes prevailing under the sway of Aphrodite, and then again plurality and war, by reason of a principle of strife. (Plato, Soph.).

Empedocles was also a mystic and a poet, and some consider him the inventor of the study of rhetoric[citation needed]. Gorgias of Leontini was his student, and it is probably from Empedocles that Gorgias developed the notion of rhetoric as magic[citation needed].

As a person he was perceived by some as somewhat arrogant, dressing himself in purple and claiming that by the virtue of the knowledge he possessed he had become divine and could perform miracles[citation needed]. Yet his actions and teaching betrayed an egalitarian streak, he fought to preserve Greek democracy and allowed that through his teaching others could also become divine[citation needed]. He even went so far to suggest that all living things were on the same spiritual plane, indicating he was influenced by Pythagorean spirituality[citation needed]. Like Pythagoras, he believed in the transmigration of souls between humans and animals and followed a vegetarian lifestyle. He also propounded a theory of struggle in the animal kingdom that in some ways prefigures natural selection. [citation needed]

Empedocles is considered the last Greek philosopher to write in verse and the surviving fragments of his teaching are from his two poems, Purifications and On Nature.

Death and literary treatments

Empedocles' life was recorded by Diogenes Laertius. The legend goes that he died by throwing himself into an active volcano (Mount Etna in Sicily), so that people would believe his body had vanished and he had turned into an immortal god; however, the volcano threw back one of his bronze sandals, revealing the deceit. The legend is likely to have little truth within it; there is evidence that he actually died in Greece[citation needed].

In Icaro-Menippus, a comedic dialogue written by the second century satirist Lucian of Samosata, Empedocles’s 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's death is the subject of Friedrich Hölderlin's play Tod des Empedokles (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, Empedocles predicts:

To the elements it came from
Everything will return.
Our bodies to earth,
Our blood to water,
Heat to fire,
Breath to air.

In 2006, a massive underwater volcano off the coast of Sicily was named after Empedocles [1].

Further reading

  • Bakalis, Nikolaos (2005). Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford. ISBN 1-4120-4843-5. 
  • Burnet, John [1892] (2003). Early Greek Philosophy. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger. ISBN 0-7661-2826-1. 
  • Gottlieb, Anthony (2000). The Dream of Reason: A History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9143-7. 
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. [1965] (1978). in A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 2: The Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29421-5. 
  • Inwood, Brad (2001). The Poem of Empedocles, rev. ed., Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 0-8020-4820-X. 
  • Kingsley, Peter (1995). Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-814988-3. 
    • Review by John Bussanich
    • Review by John Opsopaus
  • Kirk, G. S.; J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield (1983). The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History, 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-25444-2. 
  • Long, A. A. (1999). The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-44122-6. 
  • Russell, Bertrand (1945). A History of Western Philosophy, and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Simon and Schuster. 
  • Wright, M. R. (1995). Empedocles: The Extant Fragments, new ed., London: Bristol Classical Press. ISBN 1-85399-482-0. 

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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