Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
106. Empedokles and Parmenides 108. Strife and Love

From Chapter V., Empedokles of Akragas

107. The "Four Roots"
The "four roots" of all things (fr. 6) which Empedokles assumed—Fire, Air, Earth, and Water—seem to have been arrived at by making each of the traditional "opposites"—hot and cold, wet and dry—into a thing which is real in the full Parmenidean sense of the word. It is to be noticed, however, that he does not call Air ἀήρ but αἰθήρ77, and this must be because he wished to avoid confusion with what had hitherto been meant by the former word. He had, in fact, made the discovery that atmospheric air is a distinct corporeal substance, and is not to be identified with empty space on the one hand or rarefied mist on the other. Water is not liquid air, but something quite different.78 This truth Empedokles demonstrated by means of the klepsydya, and we still possess the verses in which he applied his discovery to the explanation of respiration and the motion of the blood (fr. 100). Aristotle laughs at those who try to show there is no empty space by shutting up air in water-clocks and torturing wineskins. They only prove, he says, that air is a thing.79 That, however, is exactly what Empedokles intended to prove, and it was one of the most important discoveries in the history of science. It will be convenient for us to translate the αἰθήρ Empedokles by "air"; but we must be careful in that case not to render the word ἀήρ in the same way. Anaxagoras seems to have been the first to use it of atmospheric air.

Empedokles also called the "four roots" by the names of certain divinities—"shining Zeus, life-bringing Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis" (fr. 6)—though there is some doubt as to how these names are to be apportioned among the elements. Nestis is said to have been a Sicilian water-goddess, and the description of her shows that she stands for Water; but there is a conflict of opinion as to the other three. This, however, need not detain us.80

We are already prepared to find that Empedokles called the elements gods; for all the early thinkers had spoken in this way of whatever they regarded as the primary substance. We must only remember that the word is not used in its religious sense. Empedokles did not pray or sacrifice to the elements.

Empedokles regarded the "roots of all things" as eternal. Nothing can come from nothing or pass away into nothing (fr. 12); what is is, and there is no room for coming into being and passing away (fr. 8). Further, Aristotle tells us, he taught that they were unchangeable.81 This Empedokles expressed by saying that "they are always alike." Again, the four elements are all "equal," a statement which seemed strange to Aristotle ,82 but was quite intelligible in the days of Empedokles. Above all, the four elements are ultimate. All other bodies might be divided till you came to the elements; but Empedokles could give no further account of these without saying (as he did not) that there is an element of which Fire and the rest are in turn composed.83

The "four roots" are given as an exhaustive enumeration of the elements (fr. 23 sub fin.); for they account for all the qualities presented by the world to the senses. When we find, as we do, that the school of medicine which regarded Empedokles as its founder identified the four elements with the "opposites," the hot and the cold, the moist and the dry, which formed the theoretical foundation of its system,84 we see at once how the theory is related to previous views of reality. We must remember that the conception of quality had not yet been formed. Anaximander had no doubt regarded his "opposites" as things; though, before the time of Parmenides, no one had fully realised how much was implied in saying that anything is a thing. That is the stage we have now reached. There is still no conception of quality, but there is a clear apprehension of what is involved in saying a thing is.

Aristotle twice85 makes the statement that, though Empedokles assumes four elements, he treats them as two, opposing Fire to all the rest. This, he says, we can see for ourselves from his poem. So far as the general theory goes, it is impossible to see anything of the sort; but, when we come to the origin of the world (§ 112), we shall find that Fire plays a leading part, and this may be what Aristotle meant. It is also true that in the biology (§§ 114-116) Fire fulfils a unique function, while the other three act more or less in the same way. But we must remember that it has no pre-eminence over the rest: all are equal.

Burnet's Notes


77. In fr. 17, Diels reads ἠέρος ἄπλετον ὕψος with Sextus and Simplicius. Plutarch, however, has αἰθέρος, and it is obvious that this was more likely to be corrupted into ἠέρος than vice versa in an enumeration of the elements. In fr. 38. v. 3, which is not an enumeration of elements, ὑγρὸς ἀήρ (i.e. the misty lower air) is distinguished from Τιτὰν αἰθήρ (i.e. the bright blue sky) in the traditional way. In fr. 78 the reference is clearly to moisture. On fr. 100, 13, see p. 219, n. 3. These are the only passages in which Empedocles seems to speak of ἀήρ in the sense of atmospheric air.

78. Cf. Chap. I. § 27.

79. Arist. Phys. Δ.6, 213 a 22 (R. P. 159). Aristotle only mentions Anaxagoras by name in this passage; but he speaks in the plural, and we know from fr. 100 that the klepsydva experiment was used by Empedokles.

80. In antiquity the Homeric Allegorists made Hera Earth and Aidoneus Air, a view which has found its way into Aetios from Poseidonios. It arose as follows. The Homeric Allegorists were not interested in the science of Empedokles, and did not see that his αἰθήρ was quite a different thing from Homer's ἀήρ. Now this is the dark element, and night is a form of it, so it would naturally be identified with Aidoneus. Again, Empedokles calls Hera φερέσβιος, and that is an epithet of Earth in Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. Another view identified Hera with Air, which is the theory of Plato's Cralylus, and Aidoneus with Earth. The Homeric Allegorists further identified Zeus with Fire, a view to which they were doubtless led by the use of the word αἰθήρ. Now αἰθήρ certainly means Fire in Anaxagoras, as we shall see, but there is no doubt that in Empedokles it meant Air. It seems likely, then, that Knatz is right ("Empedoclea" in Schedae Philologicae Hermanno Usenero oblatae, 1891, pp. 1 sqq.) in holding that the bright Air of Empedokles was Zeus. This leaves Aidoneus to stand for Fire; and nothing could have been more natural for a Sicilian poet, with the volcanoes and hot springs of his native island in mind, than this identification. He refers to the fires that burn beneath the Earth himself (fr. 52). If that is so, we shall have to agree with the Homeric Allegorists that Hera is Earth; and surely φερέσβιος Ἥρα can be none other than "Mother Earth." The epithet seems only to be used of earth and corn.

81. Arist. De gen. corr. B, 1. 329 b 1.

82. Ibid. B, 6. 333 a 16.

83. Ibid. A, 8. 325 b 19 (R. P. 164 e). This was so completely misunderstood by later writers that they attribute to Empedokles the doctrine of στοιχεῖα πρὸ τῶν στοιχείων (Aet. i. 13, 1; 17, 3). The criticism of the Pythagoreans and Plato had made the hypothesis of elements almost unintelligible to Aristotle, and a fortiori to his successors. As Plato put it (Tim. 48 b 8), they were "not even syllables," let alone "letters" (στοιχεῖα). That is why Aristotle calls them καλούμενα στοιχεῖα (Diels, Elementum, p. 25).

84. Philistion put the matter in this way. See p. 201, n. 5.

85. Arist. Met. A, q. 985 a 31; De gen. corr. B, 3. 330 b 19 (R. P. 164 e).

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