9. Empedocles
From Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1958)

Empedocles, a native of the Greek city of Akragas in Sicily, was born probably about 493 B.C. and may have lived until about 433. His activities and his character alike seem to have been extraordinarily various. He was an aristocrat and also a champion of the democracy. He was offered and declined the kingship of Akragas. He was exiled and recited at Olympia his poem "The Purifica-tions," in which he claimed to be a god. He was a keen observer — much more of a "scientist" than Parmenides — and he was also a kind of magician. He was a considerable poet and one of the founders of the new art of rhetorical and balanced prose. He had an important influence on medicine. He was an evolutionist and may be credited with the invention of the theory of "the survival of the fittest." He seems to have followed, at least to some extent, the Pythagorean way of life. "Wretches," he exclaims, "utter wretches, keep your hands from beans!" Some idea of his own notion of himself may be gained from another passage from the "Purifications".

112. Friends, that inhabit the great town looking down on the yellow rock of Akragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbours of honour for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, all hail. I go about among you an immortal god, no mortal now, honoured among all as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway, whenever I enter with these in my train, both men and women, into the flourish-ing towns, is reverence done me; they go after me in countless throngs, asking of me what is the way to gain; some desiring oracles, while some, who for many a weary day have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing.

We may notice here, apart from the claim to divinity, a great confidence in the power of wisdom to bring about results. And in fact Empedocles' theory of the four (or six) elements has proved very much more capable of useful development than have the various theories of "the One."

His philosophy is expressed in the poem "On Nature," of which 350 verses survive. His problem, it seems, was, while repairing the theory of Parmenides about "what is," to reconcile it with the apparent facts of change and of motion. And (though Burnet does not accept this view) his method appears to be based on a kind of compromise between Parmenides and Heraclitus. He accepts the idea of the permanency of "what is," but insists also on the permanency of a "process." In doing so he abandons the original Milesian hypothesis of a single substratum and comes forward with the view that the world is composed not of one "stuff" but of four "roots" or elements — fire, air, water and earth. These, as seems natural to a person of his temperament, are given divine names, though they are examined both experimentally and logically. Three of these "roots" had already been put forward as the ultimate reality by Empedocles' predecessors. In adding earth to the list and in asserting the existence of four elements rather than one "stuff," he may have been actuated simply by a kind of common sense; and those who, whether from a logical or an aesthetic impulse, wish to see all things explained by one hypothesis must deplore the pluralism. Yet it was a plural-ism which led to results and which, unlike the splendid monism of Parmenides, did, if not make, at least account for, sense. In a way, too, it was the first step towards the atomic theory. But more remarkable than the theory of the four "roots" is the theory which is intended to account for change and motion, for the process of development and dissolution. Here Empedocles proclaims the existence of two "things" which he calls Strife and Love. We should, without question, call these "things" "forces." As Sambursky says, "Empedocles was the first to distinguish matter from force." And this is probably true, though it may be possible to find some such distinction in Heraclitus. However, though the distinction is a real one, the fragments show that Empedocles himself was scarcely aware of it. His "forces" are to him material. They have weight, length and breadth. How he thought of them we do not know. But do we know how we think of our own "forces"?

Strife and Love, or, as we should say, attraction and repulsion, account for change and motion. The elements are compounded under their influence and their influence can be imagined in more dimensions than the "upward and downward path" of Heraclitus. The cyclical process of the "Sphere" in which we live can be imagined or demonstrated as follows. Love is the unifier and Strife the divider. Four distinct historical periods must follow each other.

1. The period in which Love is supreme and Strife is outside the sphere. In this period all the elements are mixed together. Nothing is distinguishable from anything else.

2. The period when Strife begins, as it were, to invade. In this period the elements are separated and, with Love still active, come together in various combinations, including some very odd ones (e.g., heads without necks, men with the heads of oxen, etc.).

3. The period when Strife is supreme. The four ele-ments are now distinct and separate. Nothing can exist except fire, air, water and earth. Love is outside the sphere.

4. The period when Love, in its turn, begins to invade and the elements are again brought to mingle with each other in various associations. Obviously the kind of world which we know can only exist in periods 2 and 4. There are good reasons for believing that Empedocles thought that our world is in period 2.

This theory was evidently worked out in great detail. Perhaps its most interesting applications are in the realm of biology. Empedocles' theory of sensation and of vision was to have a long future and was taken up both by Plato and Aristotle and by the atomists. The theory is that "effluences" come to us from things and by "fitting into the forces" of the various organs of sense communicate to us vision, taste, smell, etc.

In the following extracts (taken from