Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
105. The Remains 107. The "Four Roots"

From Chapter V., Empedokles of Akragas

106. Empedocles and Parmenides
At the very outset of his poem, Empedocles speaks angrily of those who professed to have found the whole (fr. 2); he even calls this "madness" (fr. 4). No doubt he is thinking of Parmenides. His own position is not, however, sceptical. He only deprecates the attempt to construct a theory of the universe off-hand instead of trying to understand each thing we come across "in the way in which it is clear" (fr. 4). And this means that we must not, like Parmenides, reject the assistance of the senses. We soon discover, however, that Empedokles too sets up a system which is to explain everything, though that system is no longer a monistic one.

It is often said that this system was an attempt to mediate between Parmenides and Herakleitos. It is not easy, however, to find any trace of Herakleitean doctrine in it, and it would be truer to say that it aimed at mediating between Eleaticism and the senses. Empedokles repeats, almost in the same words, the Eleatic argument for the sole reality and indestructibility of "what is" (frs. 11-15); and his idea of the "Sphere" seems to be derived from the Parmenidean description of reality.75 Parmenides had held that what underlies the illusory world of the senses was a corporeal, spherical, continuous, eternal, and immovable plenum, and it is from this Empedokles starts. Given the sphere of Parmenides, he seems to have said, how are we to get from it to the world we know? How are we to introduce motion into the immovable plenum? Now Parmenides need not have denied the possibility of motion within the Sphere, though he was bound to deny all motion of the Sphere itself; but such an admission would not have served to explain anything. If any part of the Sphere were to move, the room of the displaced body must at once be taken by other body, for there is no empty space. This, however, would be of precisely the same kind as the body it had displaced; for all "that is" is one. The result of the motion would be precisely the same as that of rest; it could account for no change. But is this assumption of perfect homogeneity in the Sphere really necessary? Evidently not; it is simply the old unreasoned feeling that existence must be one. Nevertheless, we cannot regard the numberless forms of being the senses present us with as ultimate realities. They have no φύσις of their own, and are always passing away (fr. 8), so the only solution is to assume a limited number of ultimate forms of reality. We may then apply all that Parmenides says of What is to each one of these, and the transitory forms of existence we know may be explained by their mingling and separation. The conception of "elements" (στοιχεῖα), to use a later term,76 was found, and the required formula follows at once. So far as concerns particular things, it is true, as our senses tell us, that they come into being and pass away; but, if we have regard to the ultimate elements of which they are composed, we shall say with Parmenides that "what is" is uncreated and indestructible (fr. 27). The elements are immortal, just as the single φύσις of the Milesians was "ageless and deathless."

Burnet's Notes


75. Cf. Emp. frs. 27, 28, with Parm. fr. 8.

76. For the history of the term στοιχεῖον see Diels, Elementium. Eudemos said (ap. Simpl. Phys. p. 7, 13) that Plato was the first to use it, but he probably got it from the Pythagoreans. The original term was μορφή or ἰδέα.

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