Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 B.C.) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, usually considered a member of the poorly-defined Pluralist school in that he was eclectic in his thinking and combined much that had been suggested by others.
He is perhaps best known as the originator of the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements of the ancient world: earth, air, fire and water, which became the standard dogma for much of the next two thousand years. He is also credited with several prescient ideas in physics which have since proved quite prophetic.
The details of his life have mainly passed into myth, and he has been regarded variously as a materialist physicist, a shamanic magician, a mystical theologian, a gifted healer, a democratic politician, a living god and a fraud and charlatan.
Empedocles (pronounced em-PED-o-clees) was born around 490 B.C. or 492 B.C. at Acragas (Agrigentum in Latin), a Greek colony in Sicily, to a distinguished and aristocratic family. His father, Meto or Meton, seems to have been instrumental in overthrowing Thrasydaeus, the tyrant of Agrigentum in 470 B.C.
Very little is known of Empedocles’ life. He is said to have been very wealthy and was magnanimous in his support of the poor, but severe in persecuting the overbearing conduct of the aristocrats. Some sources mention his travels to southern Italy, the Peloponnese and Athens, and some even further afield, far to the east. He cultivated a regal public persona, with a grave manner and flamboyant clothes.
Despite his airs, he was obviously a popular politician and champion of democracy and equality. He began his political career with the prosecution of two state officials for their arrogant behaviour towards foreign guests (which was seen as a sign of incipient tyrannical tendencies), and is credited with activities against other anti-democratic citizens. He continued his father’s democratic tradition by helping to overthrow the succeeding oligarchic government and instituting a democracy at Acragas. At one point, he was offered effective rule of the city, but he declined.
He was a brilliant orator (Aristotle credited him with the invention of rhetoric itself), and his knowledge of natural phenomena and medical conditions earned him the reputation of marvellous, even magical, powers. Empedocles himself apparently did little to dispel such ideas, and he is reported as claiming seemingly god-like powers (including the ability to revive the dead and to control the winds and rains), and as claiming to be a daimon (a divine, or potentially divine, being).
He was acquainted with the eminent Acragas physicians Acron and Pausanias (the latter was his eromenos or youth lover), with various Pythagoreans (some of the whom had come to Acragas after being attacked in their centre at Croton) and possibly Parmenides and Anaxagoras. The Sophist and rhetorician Gorgias is mentioned as a pupil of Empedocles, although he would only have been a few years younger.
According to Aristotle, Empedocles died at the age of sixty, in 430 B.C. or 432 B.C., although other writers have him living up to the age of 109. The manner of his death is likewise uncertain (reflecting his myth-like status), including his having been “removed” from the earth, or perishing in the volcanic flames of the Mount Etna. Other more prosaic reports include drowning, a fall from a carriage and suicide by hanging.
Empedocles’ work survives only in fragments, but fragments in a far greater number than any of the other Pre-Socratics. His major work, “On Nature” (and possibly parts of a second work, “Purifications”), written in hexameter verse, exists in more than 150 fragments. He was a poet of outstanding ability, and of great influence on later poets such as Lucretius (99 – 55 B.C.)
Empedocles was very familiar with the work of the Eleatic School and the Pythagoreans, and particularly of Parmenides. Like Pythagoras, Empedocles believed in the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation between humans, animals and even plants), and that all living things were on the same spiritual plane, like links in a chain. He therefore urged a vegetarian lifestyle, believing that the bodies of animals are the dwelling places of punished souls. He believed that wise people, who have learned the secret of life, are next to the divine and that their souls, free from the cycle of reincarnations, are able to rest in happiness for eternity.
Like many of the other Pre-Socratics, he found Parmenides’ claim that change is impossible unacceptable, and tried to find the basis of all change. Starting from the assumption (passed down from the Eleatics) that existence cannot pass into non-existence (or vice versa), Empedocles held that change, including what we call coming into existence and death, is only the mixture and separation of the four indestructible and unchangeable elements (or “roots” as he called them): earth, air, fire and water.
He posited two divine powers, Love and Strife, which pervade the universe and act as the moving powers which bring about these mixtures and separations (Loveexplains the attraction of different forms of matter, and Strife accounts for their separation). He further taught that there was a time when the pure elements and the two powers co-existed in a condition of rest and inertness, without mixture and separation, in the form of a sphere (representative of God). The uniting power of Love then predominated in the sphere, and the separating power of Strife guarded the extreme edges of the sphere. Since that time, however, Strife has gained more sway, and the actual world is full of contrasts and oppositions, due to the combined action of both principles.
Empedocles believed that the organic universe sprang from spontaneous aggregations of parts, and only in those rare cases where the parts were found to be adapted to each other, did the complex structures last (arguably a crude anticipation of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection). He assumed a cyclical universe, whereby the elements would return to the harmony of the sphere in preparation for the next period of the universe.
Empedocles is also credited with other prescient ideas, such as that light travels with a finite velocity, a form of the law of conservation of energy and a theory of constant proportions in chemical reactions. These theories (arrived at simply through reasoning, rather than through any experimental evidence, of course) had little influence on the development of science, stated as they were within an insufficient theoretical framework, but in retrospect were remarkably prophetic.