Peithô's Web   Empedocles Index  

From The Greek Thinkers, by Theodor Gomperz (1920)


1.THE modern traveller who visits Girgenti is reminded at every step of Empedocles, for the beautiful piety of the Italians, fostered by the continuity of their civilization, takes no count of chronological barriers. What Virgil is to his Mantuans, Stesichorus to the inhabitants of Catania, and the great Archimedes to his fellow-citizens of Syracuse, so dear and so beloved is the memory of their great fellow-countryman Empedocles, the philosopher and the leader of the people, to the inhabitants of Girgenti.1 He is worshipped as a democrat by the disciples of Mazzini and Garibaldi, because he overthrew the rule of the nobles who had oppressed Acragas for three years, and refused the royal crown for his own head. This tradition, which is credible in itself, is in unison with all that we know of the circumstances of his life and of the condition of his native city. Moreover, similar stirring scenes were enacted about that time in other Sicilian communities. The family of Empedocles was one of the most aristocratic in the country. It was at the height of its wealth and splendour at the date of his own birth—between 500 and 480 B.C. In the year 496 B.C. another Empedocles, his grandfather, had taken the prize at Olympia in the four-horse chariot race. A quarter of a century later, in 470 B.C., Meto, the father of the philosopher, had taken an active and prominent part among the citizens of Acragas in overthrowing the tyranny of Thrasidaeus. We are, therefore, not overmuch [227/228] surprised to learn that the road to royal power stood open for his high-spirited and high-born son. Nor need we ascribe it to the motive of pure love for the people that Empedocles resigned the chance of solitary rule as well as a participation in the oligarchic government. His decision may well have been due to the force of shrewd common sense. As one of the founders of rhetoric, he was an orator as well as a thinker, and he may conceivably have hoped to play a more distinguished part under democratic institutions than in the narrow circle of his peers. Furthermore, it is no mean title to fame to have refused a crown; the crown that has not been worn is innocent of blood and mud, but the throne that has arisen from the troubled waters of revolution may lightly sink back into them. Empedocles lived in an age of ferment, when the princely dignity itself was not exempt from the changes of popular favour. But as a private man he was safe at least from the vengeful steel of the republican fanatic. If the wayward mob grew tired of his leadership it could drive him into exile, and this would appear to be the fate which actually overtook Empedocles. At the age of threescore years he succumbed to an accident in the Peloponnese, and died a stranger in a strange land. Antiquity deemed this end unworthy of the wonderful man, and, according to one fable, he perished in consequence of a leap into the crater of Aetna, while another account sent him straight to heaven in a cloud of flame.

But the strenuous ambition of Empedocles soared higher than all princely thrones. A shining palace on the bank of "the yellow Acragas " might be tempting enough, but the dominion over 800,000 subjects is insignificant in comparison with the mastery exercised over countless souls bound by no temporal or local conditions, by the sage, the seer, the miracle-worker. A king is inferior to a god, and no meaner boast did Empedocles make to his elect—"I am an immortal god unto you; look on me no more as a mortal." In purple vestments, with a golden girdle, with the priestly laurel bound in the long hair that framed his melancholy features, and [228/229] surrounded by the hosts of men and women who worshipped him, Empedocles made his progress through the Sicilian land. He was acclaimed by thousands and tens of thousands of the populace, who clung at his feet and implored him to direct them to a prosperous future, as well as to heal in the present their sickness and sores of all kinds. He claimed the sceptre of the winds, the key of the burning sunbeams and destructive falls of rain. And he could point to examples of his might. It was he who had freed the city of Selinus from its deadly pestilence by draining its soil; it was he who had bored through a rock and opened a road for the north wind to give his native city a wholesome climate. His achievements as an engineer were matched by his achievements or promises as a physician. He had wakened from catalepsy a victim who had lain thirty days like a dead woman "without pulse or breath," and Gorgias, his disciple, had seen him "perform magic feats," a piece of evidence which cannot fairly be interpreted as referring to hypnotic or other cures due to the power of the imagination.

It is difficult to form a just estimate of a mind and character in which the true gold of genuine merit was mixed with so strange an alloy of tawdry and showy tinsel. It is an excuse, though hardly a justification, to recall the peculiarities of the fellow-countrymen, and perhaps fellow-citizens, of Empedocles. The inhabitants of the island which proved the cradle of rhetoric, were always disposed to ostentation and pretence. The very ruins of the temples which crown the heights of Girgenti create a disagreeable impression of an exaggerated desire for effect. It is yet more difficult to trace the doctrines of our philosopher to their fountain-head, for they appear, at first sight at least, to be deficient in the virtue of strict consistency, and have not escaped the reproach of a vicious eclecticism.

2. The physician, the hierophant, the orator, the politician, the author of works for the common good, whatever their secondary tastes, are united by their prime interest in man. We shall therefore expect to find that [229/230] Empedocles the philosopher was an anthropologist as well as a cosmologist, and that his investigation of nature led him to the regions of physiology, chemistry, and physics, rather than to those of astronomy and mathematics. And the facts justify our expectation. The sage of Acragas never concerned himself with the science of space and numbers, and he was but an indifferent student of the science of the stars. In biological research, on the contrary, he introduced some fresh contributions which proved by no means unfertile; but the crowning point of his work was attained in his doctrine of matter. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Empedocles takes us at a bound into the heart of modern chemistry. We are confronted for the first time with three fundamental conceptions of that science: the assumption of a plurality, and of a limited plurality, of primary elements; the premise of combination in which such elements enter; and, finally, the recognition of numerous quantitative differences or proportional variations, of the said combinations.

It is not improbable in this connection that the practical physician led the footsteps of the speculative chemist. Alcmaeon, who preceded Empedocles by about half a century, has already familiarized us with the theory that illnesses are caused by the conflict or disproportion of the heterogeneous elements contained in the animal body. It was a doctrine which had taken firm hold in medical circles at least, and which was used, according to Polybus, in a passage quoted above,2 as a chief weapon against material monism. But apart from the attack from this quarter, that doctrine was obviously not well suited to give an exact account of the phenomena. No one can fail to perceive that with the progress of the study of nature the vague process of generalization was bound to defer more and more to detailed investigation and research. The old Ionian philosophers, with the honourable exception of Anaximenes, had acquiesced in an indefinite "transformism" which rested neither on well ascertained facts nor yet on precise reflection; and when its defects had been exposed, [230/231] no second alternative remained but to refer the plurality of phenomena to an original plurality of material substances. Anaxagoras, the older contemporary and intellectual congener of Empedocles, approached the new task of philosophy in a spirit of defiance. He threw away the wine with the lees, rejecting at a single stroke all differences between the elements and the substances derived from them, thus returning for the nonce to the infancy of human thought. But Empedocles took a less violent method. In rejecting the single element he did not throw overboard the whole theory of elements. He may have learnt to appreciate the value of compromise in the school of practical politics, and this experience may have saved him from the error of the rigid "this or that "—either one primary element or nothing but primary elements. The problem was to secure a plurality of fundamental elements, and in order to gain this end it was sufficient to join together the doctrines of Thales, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus; or, to speak more precisely, it was sufficient to take a comprehensive view of the popular system of physics which lay at the root of the teaching of those philosophers, and in accordance with its tenets, to combine the Earth with Air, Fire, and Water. The "four elements" which compose and preserve the world, now surviving merely in folklore and poetry, have a long and glorious history. Aristotle embodied them in his theory of nature, and his authority sped them over the stream of the centuries, and impressed on the doctrine the stamp of unimpeachability. Nevertheless it was devoid from the start of all intrinsic justification. It obviously rests on the crudest possible confusion, for we shall hardly be asked to prove that it reverts in the last instance to the distinction of the three states of aggregation—the solid, fluid, and gaseous—and that the fourth element which was added to these fundamental states was the mere accessory of a process, and was nothing but the phenomenon, so dazzling to the senses, which accompanies combustion. The mistake was to regard the fundamental forms of substance as homogeneous kinds and as the only fundamental kinds of substance. [231/232]

Despite these objections, the merit of the doctrine was incalculable. The value of a doctrine in the history of science is not always commensurate with its degree of objective truth. A theory may be wholly true, and yet the unpreparedness of human understanding may make it useless and abortive, whereas a second theory, though wholly untrue, may render abundant service to the progress of knowledge precisely on account of that stage of intellectual development. In the age with which we are dealing, and far beyond its confines, the doctrine of a single primary matter belongs to the first-named category of ineffectual theories; in the same era and in those immediately succeeding to it the doctrine of the four elements belongs to the second of our categories. We may make as many deductions from the truth of the doctrine as we choose; we may explain that no one of the elements was a genuine element; that Water, which had the best claim to that title, was a compound combination; that Earth and Air, on the contrary, were each but a single name for countless material substances partly simple and partly complex, each respectively in but one of its phenomenal shapes; and we may discreetly pass over the nonentity of the element of Fire: still, this pseudo-science was, as it were, the bud from which the true flower of science was to unfold. A model was given which represented the fundamental conceptions of chemistry, and from which alone those conceptions could be derived. If philosophy had waited to form the conceptions of elements and combinations till it had become familiar with real elements and real combinations of the same, it might have waited for ever. For the goal of the theory of matter, like that of astronomy itself, was only to be reached by paths of error.3 The reflections of Empedocles in this connection were as correct as their application was misleading. He was as reluctant as any of his predecessors to recognize an absolute beginning and end, and, moreover, he surpassed his predecessors in the clear grasp which he obtained of the positive counterpart of those negations. To him, as to Anaxagoras, each [232/233] apparent beginning was really "only a mixture," each apparent end a mere separation of the mixture. But he leaves Anaxagoras behind in his perception and statement of the fact that the sensible qualities of a compound depend on the manner in which it is composed. His first hint of this perception is contained in a remarkably significant simile. To illustrate the endless multiplicity of qualities which objects offer to our senses, he recalled the process that is constantly at work on the artist's palette. He compared his four primary substances with the four primary colours used by the artists of his day, from the mixed proportions of which were derived the countless shades and gradations of hue. It may be urged that this is a mere simile, and not an explanation, but it is a simile which at least contains some of the elements of an explanation. It brings one important fact very clearly to light, that a merely quantitative difference in a compound of two or more elements causes a qualitative difference in its sensible qualities. It is not a mere matter of inference that Empedocles was master of this fact; it may be directly proved by the testimony of his own writings. For with a venturesomeness which reacted on the details of the experiment, he attempted to reduce the qualitative differences in the parts of the human body to quantitative differences of composition. Thus flesh and blood were supposed to contain equal parts of the four elements—equal in weight, and not in volume—whereas the bones were composed of 1/2 Fire to 1/4 Earth and 1/4 Water. It cannot be disputed that he was obliged to employ this aid to explanation in the most comprehensive fashion, otherwise he could never have maintained with such emphasis the dependence of sensible qualities on the mode of composition as in the simile mentioned just now. The four elements in themselves could give but a very small number of possible combinations, viz. one four, four threes, and six twos. But as soon as the principle of proportional combination was admitted the possible number was infinitely extended, and the doctrine of Empedocles rose to the height of its intention, and was able to account for a [233/234] really inexhaustible variety of substances. And here let us pause to remark that we are confronted with one of the most striking anticipations of the results of modern science. The chemistry of our century from Dalton downwards is dominated by the theory of proportions or equivalents. In the realm of organic chemistry in especial, where the four primary elements C, H, O, N completely justify the comparison with the four primary colours borrowed from ancient painting, its value is most significant, and in recent times we owe to it the discovery that the number of atoms in albuminoids, for instance, can be counted by their hundreds.

3. Empedocles is at one with the modern chemist in his recognition of the changeless condition of the primary elements side by side with the Protean variation of their compounds. But of all the intermediate links in this chain of thought one alone, so far as we are aware, was fully grasped by Empedocles, namely, the significance mentioned above of proportional quantities in combination. He may have perceived, but he never clearly expressed his knowledge or acceptance of the second and more important fact that the qualities of a compound are affected by its structure, by the conditions of its parts in respect to situation and movement, and that a body which is distinguished from another body by these conditions will exercise a different influence on other bodies and on our organs of sense. Yet we fancy that Empedocles must have guessed at this fact, else he must have been content to forego every explanation of the circumstance that the elements in their combination "traverse each other," to use his own words, "and show a different face." And we miss something else in Empedocles. We look in vain in this connection for the full recognition and appreciation of the part which is played by the subjective factor in our sense-perceptions, though he comes much nearer to it than any of his predecessors except one. The exception is Alcmaeon, the independent thinker and observer included in the Pythagorean circle, with whom time has dealt a little hardly. Alcmaeon gives us the first hint of subjective sensible [234/235] phenomena, and Empedocles, as may be abundantly testified, followed in his footsteps. Alcmaeon was the first and Empedocles was the second, and there was no intermediary thinker, who represented the interior of the eye as consisting almost entirely of Fire and Water. Hereon was based the comparison of the structure of the eye with the making of a lantern. The transparent plates to protect the flame from the wind which might extinguish it correspond in the eye to the thin films covering the contents of the orbit, which are partly of a fiery and partly of a watery nature. Next came the principle, probably derived from the analogy of the sense of touch and resistance, that like is recognized by like, and in accordance therewith the fiery parts of the eye were to recognize external fire, and the watery parts external water, those two elements being taken as the types of light and darkness. The act of perception was accomplished as follows. At the approach of fiery or watery effluvia from the substances, fiery or watery particles went out to meet them from the funnel-shaped pores of the eye. The meeting was caused by the mutual attraction of similar materials, and the perception was brought about by the contact of the particles entering the pores from without with those quitting them from within at a point outside the eye, though presumably close to its surface. Thus sight was assimilated to touch, light being touched by light and dark by dark, and it depended on which of the two elements was less strongly represented, and therefore more susceptible of its complement, in the eyes of the respective kind of animals or individuals whether they were better adapted to receive colour-impressions and to see clearly by daylight or by dusk. This view of the mechanism and the process of the act of sight is crude and fanciful enough. It does not even explain what it professes to explain, and countless questions arise to which it does not pretend to give an answer. Still it possesses one undisputed merit. It was an attempt, however inadequate, to explain perception by intermediate processes.4 It was an attempt, moreover, which admitted, [235/236] however reluctantly, the subjective factor, thus completing one stage of the journey whose ultimate goal it is to recognize that our sense-perceptions are anything rather than the mere reflections of exterior objective qualities of things. Further, this theory of Empedocles did not wholly reject the principle of relativity. We saw that the increased mass of the fiery or watery matter contained in different eyes was to explain the differences of perception, and we may add that the shape and size of the pores were here, as in other instances of sensation, to permit or prevent the entry of the "effluvia." Such effluvia alone as corresponded with the pores were regarded as perceptible. Thus error once more was justified of its offspring, and this erroneous theory smoothed the way for a true insight into the nature of sense-perception. The old stumbling-block which left the human intelligence no choice save between a blind acceptance and an equally blind rejection of the evidence of sense receded further and further in the distance. That evidence was more carefully guarded against the objections arising from individual or temporary differences of impression, and thus the knowledge derived from this source was at once restricted to narrower limits and more firmly secured within them.

4. Empedocles displays in the rest of his allied doctrines the same merits and defects as in his physiology of sense. They exhibit a common tendency to reduce the physical and psychical phenomena of the human, animal, and vegetable worlds to universal natural processes. The barriers between the organic and inorganic, between the conscious and unconscious, were to be destroyed; better still, they were never to be erected or completed. It was at once the strength and weakness of our philosopher that he looked so deeply into the unity of all natural and spiritual life. It was his weakness because his comprehensive generalizations rested rather on a neglect of differences than on the evidence of likeness in difference, and because the experiment is fully as crude and premature as the kindred attempt of Anaxagoras.5 The [236/237] perception that made the deepest impression on the mind of Empedocles was that of the mutual attraction of like by like. This doctrine applied equally to the masses of homogeneous matter, earth, air, clouds, and sea, as to the parallel observation; taken from social life and raised to the dignity of a proverb, "like to like." On the other hand, the attraction depending on the difference of sex was but little taken in account, and the natural phenomena with which we have been familiarized by the doctrine of electricity, and which contradict this principle of attraction, were unknown at that time. Thus there was nothing to prevent the constant and general application of this so-called universal law. At one time it was used to explain the growth of plants ; at another the origin of the human race, and in both cases the fire in the interior of the earth was supposed to yearn towards the external fire, and thus impel to the surface and beyond it the various forms of vegetable life and the yet unformed human "lumps" consisting of earth and water. Another illustration may be taken from the phenomenon of breath. Respiration was due, according to the doctrine of Empedocles, to the fire in the living organism which was impelled by the same force to drive out the air contained therein, and thus to bring about expiration. A further point to be noticed is that the dwelling-place of the various kinds of animals is determined, no less than the rest of their qualities, by the same fundamental principle of the predominance of a single element in each. Animals full of air seek the air, those full of water make for the water, and those with a preponderance of earth in their composition have a natural bias to the earth. The perception of like by like ranks as a universal rule applicable not merely to the region of sense-perception, as we have already seen, but to the realm of thought itself. In the theory of sight which we have just examined we saw that like required to be completed by like, and the same principle was taken to govern all manifestations of desire, such as that of hunger, for instance, and to account no less for the sensation of [237/238] pleasure in the satisfaction of desire than for that of pain in its non-satisfaction. Such doctrines, of course, were one-sided and partly fanciful, but we cannot escape the impression of grandeur which they create, recalling to our memory the breadth of the Heraclitean philosophy. Still, there is something refreshing in the occasional interruption of these monotonous elucidatory endeavours by a genuine observation of nature, however imperfectly it may have been applied. We come across an observation of this kind, or, to speak more correctly, across a truth ascertained by experiment, in the account of the breathing, or exhalation, which takes place through the skin. Empedocles employed in this connection a very apt illustration. He took the case of a bottle held mouth downwards in a basin of water with a finger closely pressed against the opening, and remarked that even after the removal of the finger the bottle would not fill with water, though in other circumstances it would be flooded forthwith; and he was quite clear on the point that it was the air which had been prevented from escaping from the bottle that kept the water from entering. In the same way, so he argued, external air could only enter the body when the blood had receded from the surface and had welled back to the inner organs. The regular consecution of this tidal process of the blood accounted, according to his doctrine, for the exhalation through the pores of the skin. We see that Empedocles ascribed very considerable influence to this pretended universal law of the attraction of like by like. At the same time he could not possibly have regarded it as the only regulating principle. He must have sought some explanation of the origin and self-preservation of organic beings, each of which he perceived to contain more than one of the four elements or all the four at once. Hence he conceived, in the tendency of like to separate from like and of unlike to combine with unlike, a second principle precisely contrary to the first to check and control its operations. The existing order of things represented a kind of compromise between the two [238/239] natural causes. The origin of each individual was due to the operation of the second tendency; its nourishment, especially in the Empedoclean sense which we noticed just now, and its dissolution of earth to earth, air to air, and so forth, were due unmistakably to the first. At this point we must revert for a moment to the teaching of Anaximander and Anaxagoras about the differentiation of matter and the separation of the elements. Those philosophers had taught that such processes were not primeval, but that they were preceded in time by a condition of complete homogeneity of matter in which the individual substances were either not yet differentiated or were thoroughly mixed and combined. Now, by adopting this belief, whether at the hands of his predecessors or by his own investigations, Empedocles reached a point in time at which one of the two fundamental tendencies in all natural life would have reigned in solitary splendour. That was the time when the attraction of like by like was entirely outweighed by the rival principle of the attraction of unlikes. Having reached that point, the symmetry of thought would have rendered it practically necessary to provide a similar period of solitary reign for the first and more powerful principle. Finally, Empedocles, following in the footsteps of Anaximander, Heraclitus, and at least a proportion of the Pythagoreans,6 and regarding all phenomena as cyclical in character, would not have considered the succession of these two epochs of the world as having taken place once for all, but as a constantly recurring alternation of such periods. This, in fact, was his teaching, and he selected as its vehicles a couple of forces, working in consecutive epochs of temporary superiority. These powers dominated matter under the names of "Friendship" and "Discord." It was the part of the first to combine and unite substances of different natures, whereas Discord, as soon as its turn arrived, broke those bonds of union and left the elements free to obey their natural tendency of like to like. It was not supposed that each of the two powers [239/240] vanquished the other suddenly or at one blow. The steady conflict went on during each of the successive periods, and one by one they obtained the mastery, till the weaker in each instance was gradually supplanted, and then devoted itself again to recuperative efforts with a view to reversing the victory. Thus Empedocles distinguished in the ebb and flow of this movement between two eras of rise and decay, first, the triumph of Friendship and the ensuing growth of Discord; next, the triumph of Discord and the growth of Friendship. We have tried to give a correct account of the nature of this conception, but there is still one feature which calls for further remark. There is something eminently characteristic of the deep insight into nature which distinguished Empedocles in the gradual method of transition by which he conceived the supremacy to pass from one power to the other. It manifests his incredulous attitude towards sudden and immediate changes and his view of their continuity as a fundamental law of the universe. Taking the successive periods as the zenith and the nadir, then the first, when Friendship is at its height, will correspond to a condition of things which we may compare with the primeval "confusion" of Anaxagoras and its analogue in Anaximander. An immense sphere contains the elements, which are molten and mingled in indiscriminate chaos. The zenith of Discord presents us with quite a contrary picture. The four fundamental types of matter will be almost completely sundered from one another, and will be gathered separately in a conglomerate mass before our eyes. But the attention of Empedocles was chiefly directed to the problem of organic life, and this can neither begin nor prosper at one or the other culminating point of the successive periods. For each organism is composed of several elements combined with one another in varying proportions. Such elements exist, in the external world from which the organism derives its nourishment, in a state of at least partial separation—or rather easily separable—but at the same time they must be capable of combining with one another. At neither [240/241] of the two culminating points are both conditions present at once; the first is wanting when Friendship has the upper hand, and the second in the reign of Discord. They are never found in conjunction except in the two transitional stages which divide the extremes of cosmic evolution. Thus organic life can only originate and flourish at the two focal points where the streams of tendency cross each other; and as soon as one or other of the upward movements reaches its goal or zenith, organic life will always be annihilated.

5. We have now briefly to advert to the details of the Empedoclean cosmology. Neither by its virtues nor by its faults has its influence been considerable, and our information in this respect is, moreover, defective. We can but suggest a conjectural answer to the question whether our philosopher regarded the earth as round or cylindrical in shape. He agreed with Anaxagoras in supposing that the quality of order or "cosmos" had hitherto been acquired by a part only of primeval matter. At the period when friendship was at its zenith, the, communion and comminglement of the elements lent it the shape of a motionless ball which was invested with the attributes of personality and bliss under the name of Sphairos. Material separation began, according to a verse of Empedocles, with a severance of "the heavy" and "the light," and it is legitimate to conjecture that the mechanical agent was a kind of whirlwind which collected the heavier matter, consisting of mixed earth and water, in the central spot which is now our own place of habitation. One point remains obscure. We are unable to identify the original motive in this process, which made it possible for "all the limbs of the god to move in turn." Fire first, and a portion of the air, escaped upwards. The air was supposed to have been fastened to the crystalline vault of heaven under the influence of fire, and to have acquired a kind of glaze. The remaining central mass soon came to a standstill, but the regions round the earth continued their rotatory movement, and their pressure squeezed the water out of the quiescent mass. Meantime the heavenly [241/242] fire drew the air that still remained for some unknown reason in this sea or "sweat of the earth" by the process of evaporation. The problem suggests itself why the earth should have stood still, and why it should not have sunk downwards, and Empedocles met his questioners by an argument from analogy which, if it failed to do anything else, would at least excite our admiration for the vivid and mobile genius by which he united the most discrepant conceptions. While he was groping about to explain the apparent quiescence of the earth, he remembered by a happy inspiration a trick as familiar in the fairs of antiquity as in those of this day. Several goblets are filled with water or with some other fluid, and are then tied to a hoop with their open mouths pointing inwards. The hoop is then set in swift rotation, and the essence of the trick is that the water does not escape. Empedocles seized on this mountebank's exploit for the solution of his problem. Set the goblets revolving quickly, and their contents will not escape; set the firmament revolving quickly, and the earth at its centre will not slip. Empedocles was content with this analogy, though it provokes a smile to-day and is hardly intelligible at first sight. We know that the fluid is constantly impelled to the bottom of the goblet, and its attempts to escape are counteracted by centrifugal force. But that force could never have been brought into play if the fluid itself had not been made to rotate together with the goblet that contained it, and we ask with surprise how any one could have come to compare the relative quiescence of the fluid with the presumptive absolute quiescence of the earth. But Empedocles was not in possession of that causal insight. In both cases he regarded the smaller force and velocity of the downward tendency as overcome by the "quicker" rotatory movement. Empedocles, we must remember, was a warm-blooded Sicilian, whose brilliant intellect was distinguished by breadth rather than by depth of thought. He had a keen scent for analogies, and the mistake he made in this instance was characteristic of his hasty conclusions. He explained the alternation of day and night [242/243] by the revolution of the firmament, which consisted in his theory of two hemispheres, the one light and the other dark. Furthermore, the sun was not conceived as shining by its own light, but as a kind of glass-like body absorbing and reflecting the light of ether. In this doctrine Empedocles may have given a lead to the younger Pythagoreans.7 He agreed with Anaxagoras in supposing that the light of the moon was borrowed from the sun, and, further, in his correct explanation of the eclipses of the two luminaries. He agreed with Alcmaeon in distinguishing between the fixed stars, literally fixed in heaven, and the freely moving planets. At this point, however, we may leave his meteorological speculations. They were partly correct and generally ingenious, but we may return more profitably to his theories about organic life and its origin.

6. Two modes were suggested for the beginnings of organic being. On the one which rests on the progress of the separation of the elements our information is incomplete; we have already made acquaintance with the shapeless lumps from which mankind was later to be formed, and which constitute the sole reference to this aspect of the question. When we come to the gradual and continuous perfection of the forms of animal and vegetable life under the sign of "Friendship," our authority is fuller. The vegetable world was supposed to have preceded the animal, and to have belonged to a period anterior to the present inclination of the axis of the earth—a detail which once more reminds us of Anaxagoras. The belief that the less perfect preceded the more perfect is the guiding thought of his zoogony, which, fanciful as it was, was yet not wholly devoid of scientific significance. First of all, single limbs were supposed to have sprung from the earth—"heads," for instance, "without neck and trunk," "arms without shoulders," and "eyes without a face." Some of these fragmentary creatures were bound together by Friendship, others were driven to and fro in a solitary condition, unable to effect a landing and gain a [243/244] foothold on the "shore of life." Whenever such combinations took place, all kinds of monsters would be created, "double-headed and double-breasted beings," "human forms with heads of bulls," "bodies of bulls with human heads," and so forth. These grotesque shapes disappeared as quickly as the original separate limbs, and only such combinations as exhibited an inner harmony evinced themselves as fit for life, maintained a permanent place, and finally multiplied by procreation. It is impossible not to be reminded here of the Darwinian survival of the fittest. There is nothing to prevent and everything to favour the belief that we are confronted with an attempt, as crude as it could be, but yet not entirely unworthy of respect, to explain in a natural way the problem of design in the organic world. Empedocles used the processes of vegetable and animal life as the favourite playground of his genius for research. Gleams of inspiration are crossed by glimpses of childish impertinence in which the philosopher fondly expects to rob nature of her veil before he has learnt the A B C of renunciation. Among the inspired utterances we may quote the saying that "hair and foliage and the thick plumage of birds are one." It is a thought which makes Empedocles a predecessor of Goethe in the realm of comparative morphology, and though its author hardly used it, it was yet a fresh contribution towards the theory of descent. The child in Empedocles must answer for the fantastic attempts to explain the deepest secrets of procreation—the birth of male or female offspring, their resemblance to the father or the mother, the production of twins or triplets, the shocks sustained by pregnant women and their supposed relation to birthmarks, the origin of monstrosities, and the sterility of mules. Less fanciful was his conception of sleep as a partial, and of death as a total, chilling of the blood.

We have already directed attention to the links by which the Empedoclean theory of matter is closely united with his theory of cognition. We have made acquaintance with his maxim that like is recognized by like, "earth by earth, water by water, divine ether by ether, "destructive [244/245] fire by fire," and the conjecture lay ready to hand that Empedocles regarded matter itself as endowed with consciousness, and that he drew no strict distinction between the animate and the inanimate worlds. The conjecture is justified by the facts. Empedocles did not merely follow Anaxagoras in ascribing sensibility to plants, but he taught that, without exception, "everything possesses the power of thought and a share in understanding." Attempts have been made to divide Empedocles from his predecessors, the Hylozoists, and even to represent him as opposed to them in principle, on account of his doctrine of the two immaterial forces causing the succession of universal periods. That doctrine, it must be admitted, introduced a dualistic germ in his system, but it never took root nor made any growth, and we are now in a position to see how completely erroneous these attempts were. For beside the two alternately ruling powers, and superior to them, there was, as our readers are aware, a single natural force of truly universal sway inherent to matter itself—the attraction of like to like. Next, there is the extraordinary power of thought which he ascribed to matter, and the universal extension of the franchise of consciousness. The doctrine of Empedocles might be called Hylozoism in excelsis. It gave to matter not merely life, but a soul. And there is a second point to be mentioned in contravention of the view that Empedocles regarded matter as something dreary and dead, responsive to outside impulses alone, but not as the seat of motion in itself. If this had been his opinion by no conceivable right could he have given to his four elements the names of gods, and of gods, moreover, who, like Hera and Zeus, occupied the highest places in the Greek Pantheon. It has been urged that this was nothing but a poetic licence without any serious meaning. But we are not convinced by that argument. The author of a new theory, in our opinion, is commonly fully aware of the innovation he is making, and of its contrast with older doctrines; he tends rather to emphasize those features than to weaken and destroy their force by clothing them [245/246] in antiquated forms. Further, it may be noticed that Aristotle at least took those names as signifying something more than mere rhetorical devices. He expressly states of the Empedoclean elements that "these, too, are gods to him." But without enumerating these more or less secondary arguments, we need but refer to the verse quoted above, in which the problem whether its author was or was not a champion of the theory of universal animation is decided once and for all. And if any shadow of doubt should yet remain, it will be allayed by the following consideration. We remember that the recurring triumph of "Friendship" which united the aggregate of matter to indivisible unity raised it each time to the highest divine honours under the name of Sphairos; and we are unable to believe that the mere fact of combination could have endowed with consciousness, filled with force, and exalted to divine bliss substances which in their separate condition were dead, powerless, inert, and responsive merely to impulses from without. And our belief is the less constrained since the Sicilian philosopher was here a strict logician, and maintained his fundamental theory in its ultimate consequences. Thus, though he would doubtless have been inclined to ascribe every kind of cognition to this "most blessed god," yet the divinity was found wanting in one respect. He lacked the knowledge of "Discord," inasmuch as Discord was foreign to the pious peace of his universe. For not merely was each element perceived and recognized by that same element, but "Friendship" was recognized "by Friendship," and " Discord by horrid Discord."

7. We have eulogized Empedocles on account of his consistency, but when we come to his psychological teaching it would seem that our praise must be recalled. It was dualistic in character. It comprised on the one side what is practically his physics of the soul. Turning to this first, we see that he reduced the psychical to the material without exception and without intervention. He did not even postulate an intermediate soul-substance, but he based all differences of psychical properties and [246/247] functions on corresponding material differences, as well in the species of beings as in individual beings, and in the varying states of the individual—

"E'en as the matter at hand, so man increaseth in wisdom;"


"Ever as men do change, there cometh in constant succession One thought after another."

Every preferential endowment was traced by Empedocles to the wealth of material composition and the success of the admixture. Thus he explained the superiority of organic beings to the inorganic creation containing but a few elements or one only. Thus, too, he explained the superiority of individual gifts, such as the pre-eminent tongue of the orator and the master-hand of the sculptor. And hence, further, he derived the adaptation of the blood, as that part of the body in which the combination was most complete, to be the agent of the highest functions of the soul. Empedocles conceived the blood welling forth from its source in a pure and untroubled stream as displaying the four elements in their most equable proportions. And in this belief he wrote that "the blood of the heart is thought."

The other side of the dualism we have mentioned is found, if the expression be permissible, in the Empedoclean theology of the soul. Every soul is a "demon" which has been thrust out of its heavenly home to "the unamiable fields," "the joyless place," the valley of lamentation. There it assumes the most diverse shapes. Empedocles himself claimed to have passed through the metamorphoses of a boy, a girl, a bush, a bird, and a fish. The soul is bound to that habitation by its native guilt, especially of bloodshed or perjury, and the "vagrant fugitive" cannot return to its original home, if at all, till after the lapse of 30,000 (hôrai), or 10,000 years. We have already made acquaintance with this doctrine. It is a reproduction of the Orphic-Pythagorean psychology depicted in glowing colours and adorned with all the magic of an inspired and fervid eloquence; and, appropriately enough, we find [247/249] Empedocles extending a meed of eulogy and honour to the "mighty mind" of Pythagoras. He describes in moving verse the fatal mistakes to which orthodoxy itself may impel those who are uninitiated in metempsychosis. There was the blinded father, for example, who was fain to offer an acceptable sacrifice to the gods and slew unwittingly the son of his own loins, thus preparing a fatal meal for himself with the very words of prayer on his lips. Similarly, sons devoured their mother, and not till too late did the guilty appeal to Death, who might have saved them from the execution of their horrible misdeed. The road of purification was a long road, and its steps were marked by centuries; nor could sinful men regain their lost divinity till they had climbed the topmost rungs of the ladder of earthly existence as seers or poets or physicians or princes. Side by side with the process of moral perfection went a series of outward ceremonies, initiations, and libations, to which Empedocles devoted an entire poem which was called the book of "Purifications." Its remnants combine with the fragments of his three books "On Nature" to form his literary bequest.

Here, then, we have the two parts of the Empedoclean psychology, and it may reasonably be asked how two such different doctrines, which practically exclude each other, could have found a common resting-place in one mind. It is little or no explanation to utter the word Eclecticism. We have seen that, apparently, at least, a great gulf was fixed between the spiritualistic doctrine on the one side and the materialistic on the other, and if this gulf really existed there are but two conclusions we can draw. Either the philosopher himself must have been lacking in reason and judgment or he must have counted on finding those defects in his readers, to whom he offered this contradictory dualism as the expression of his serious conviction. But in point of fact there is no need for any such desperate resort. The apparent contradiction was partly non-existent, and was partly by no means limited to Empedocles. His "soul-demon," like the "soul " or psyche of most of his predecessors, was not [248/249] the vehicle of psychical qualities denoting an individual or a kind of beings.8 In proof of this we may quote his own express statements in the passages that refer to his previous existence; for the bush, the bird, or the fish, which he claimed to have been, obviously bore no remotest resemblance to the richly dowered human personality which he felt himself at the time. It was the same with the popular belief which the Homeric poems had already embodied. The psyche of Homer played precisely the same idle part in the existence of man on earth as the "soul-demon" in Empedocles. The fact may arouse our surprise, but it is beyond dispute. Psyche's sole raison d'etre would appear to be her separation from the body at death and her survival in the underworld. Not a single instance can be quoted in which she appears as the agent of human thought, will, or emotion. We may go further than this. Those functions, so far from being performed by the Homeric psyche, actually belonged to a being of quite a different formation—to a perishable being which dissolved in air at the death of animals and men. To that extent it is even legitimate to speak of a two-soul theory in Homer, and this second mortal soul went by the name of Thymos. The word is identical with the Latin fumes, or smoke, with the Sanskrit dhumas, the Old Slavonic dymu, and so forth. We were ignorant of the nature of this smoke-soul till it was illustrated by a remark of Alfred von Kremer, who in the course of his inquiries into Oriental peoples and civilizations, stated that "the steam ascending from the warm and freshly-shed blood" was regarded as the psychic agent. The smoke-soul is older in origin than the exclusively Greek psyche. Its antiquity is proved by the existence of the word, with partially the same meaning in the allied languages, and traces of its original signification still linger in some isolated references in Homer, as when, in awaking from unconsciousness, Thymos, who was nearly scattered, is collected in the breast or diaphragm. Thus when the breath-soul came in the field, [249/250] the ground was already occupied by the smoke-soul or blood-soul, and the later comer had to be content with a more modest though nobler part. The situation remained unchanged for many centuries. The poet Pindar, for instance, wrote that "Psyche, who alone is descended from the gods, slumbers as long as the limbs are in motion," and the popular religion agreed with him in ascribing no activity to Psyche except in dreams. It was not till science began to extend itself to the phenomena of the soul that the old process of thought, dating from centuries before, was repeated afresh. Thymos had long since lost its original meaning, and was therefore altogether inadequate to the demand for a material principle of explanation; so that Empedocles, in placing the seat of psychic activity in the blood of the heart, may be said to have invented the blood-soul for the second time in its history. And if he still retained a belief in the immortal soul, he was not, therefore, more inconsistent than the poets of the Homeric age, or even than his immediate predecessor Parmenides. For Parmenides too reduced to material causes not merely the moral qualities, but the temporary psychic states of men.9 Moreover, he ascribed a partial perception of darkness and cold and silence even to dead human bodies, and in his theory no beings whatsoever, not even the objects that at no stage of their existence were connected with a psyche, were without some kind of perception. Nevertheless, his doctrine did not exclude a belief in the soul and its immortality. Under Orphic influence, no doubt, he represented the souls as descending into Hades, and as reascending thence to the upper world. Philolaus, a younger Pythagorean, proved himself in this respect an apt follower of Parmenides. The elder master had derived the "mind of man" from the composition and elemental mixture of his bodily parts, and Philolaus called the soul itself a "mixture and harmony" of such parts, though this in no wise prevented him from assuming the existence of a substantial soul, and from believing, in accordance with the teaching of "old divines [250/251] and soothsayers," that it was exiled to the body as the penalty of guilt.

And this is the conclusion of the whole matter. The belief in an immortal psyche might very well have been dispensed with, but Empedocles was no more inclined to reject it than were the representatives of the popular religion or his own philosophical forebears and contemporaries. In other words, he was liable to the same religious as well as scientific motives as was the rest of the world. We next come to the question of his self-contradiction. He made the fate of the soul dependent on the acts of the men whose bodies it temporarily inhabited; at the same time he reduced the mental disposition of those men—the source of their conduct, that is to say—to the material composition of their bodies. Such is the charge, and it is admittedly proven. But he shares the responsibility for the contradiction, not merely with the Orphics, whose psyche certainly meant nothing more than that of a Pindar or a Parmenides, but its germ can clearly be traced back to the Homeric poems themselves. For even there the contradiction is glaring. Some souls at least, such as those of Tityus, Tantakus, and Sisyphus, are paying, in the eleventh book of the Odyssey, the penalty for crimes which the immortal souls cannot be held to have committed, according to the doctrine prevailing in the totality of the poems even down to their latest additions. The history of religion in all ages is rife with similar anomalies. We need hardly refer to the conflict between predestination and retribution in the ecclesiastical canons of mediaevalism, or to the Buddhistic doctrine, so completely parallel to the Orphic, of the retributive reincarnation of the dead, who were at the same time denied the possession of a substantial soul. It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain away this contradiction from the central tenets of the widest-spread of all religions; and the "Questions of King Milinda," with their extraordinary endowment of ingenious subtlety, are sufficient testimony to that fact. The spirit of science was as strong in Empedocles as the sway of religious emotion, so that both conflicting tendencies were intensified in his instance. That [251/252] was the characteristic of Empedocles, and it stamps him with a grotesque trait. He appears at one and the same time as an orthodox member of the Orphic community, filled with pious faith, and as an eager champion of scientific natural research, as the heir of venerable mystics and priests, and as the immediate precursor of the atomic physicists. This duality may have interrupted the consistency and uniformity of his system, so rigidly maintained up to a certain point, but it affords a shining testimony to the universality of his sympathies and to the wealth of his natural endowments.

8. Curiously enough, in the theology of Empedocles, where it would seem most likely that his dualism would have displayed itself, there is scarcely a trace of it to be found. Here he succeeded in welding the two halves of his system of thought in a practically undisturbed harmony. On the top of his conception of matter as endowed with force and consciousness there was obviously no room for an extramundane deity controlling, ordering, or even creating the world. But there was no obstacle to his belief in divine beings of the kind which we met with in the other Hylozoists and designated gods of the second rank. We are already aware that the four divinely conceived elements of Empedocles disappear at the time of their union in Sphairos, and lose their separate existence; and we now have to add that the same fate, presumably in the same moment of the restoration of the original universal unity, likewise overtook the rest of the gods to whom Empedocles expressly denied immortality, calling them long-lived, but not eternal. The universal periods by which their longevity was limited presumably served to measure the fate of the soul-"demons" as well. Thus his theology and psychology were linked by a common bond; one and the same term was set to all the separate existences which might disturb the perfect unity of being. Except in a single instance, no details are forthcoming anent these secondary gods, but in some memorable verses about Apollo, Empedocles describes him as not possessed of human limbs, and calls him "a spiritual being (Phren), holy, ineffable, hastening [252/253] with swift thoughts through the world." To our thinking it is as inadmissible to identify this "demon" with Sphairos—the animate universe or universal godhead—as to subordinate Sphairos, in whom all things are comprised, to this deity.

There is, therefore, no serious reason to reproach Empedocles with eclecticism or with borrowing other men's thoughts without taking overmuch trouble to see that they were suitable. But a certain weight is lent to the charge by a defect of the philosopher's mind which was intimately blended with its qualities. He was a thinker of restless activity, constantly engaged in the pursuit of fresh problems and standing in the closest communion with nature, and thus his spirit lacked the patience which is absolutely necessary for the prosecution of every thought to its goal. At the same time, despite the wealth of his teeming imagination, he failed to exhibit that sovereign self-security which would have enabled him to neglect the bounds of empirical knowledge, and which enabled Anaxagoras, for instance, to raise his pseudo-chemistry to a system as deficient in outward proof as it was internally homogeneous. The best illustration of this habit of his mind will be found in his relation with the Eleatics. We may safely assume that Empedocles was acquainted with the didactic poem of Xenophanes; indeed, the fact is vouched for by the occasional attitude of hostility which he assumed towards it, and we may fairly trace the influence of the sage of Colophon in the pantheistic doctrine of Empedocles, culminating in the conception of Sphairos, and in his dislike for the anthropomorphism of the popular religion, which in one instance at least, as we have just now seen, came to unequivocal utterance. Further, his acquaintance with a second Eleatic philosopher is proved by his frequent imitation of verses by Parmenides, with whose poems he must have been familiar. An enduring impression was made on his mind by the teachings of his predecessor contained in the "Words of Opinion," and relating to physics in the widest sense of that term. The same is true in a less degree of the metaphysics of Parmenides, Empedocles adopted in [253/254] an almost literal form his à priori demonstration of the impossibility of birth and decay. But we have to go back to Anaxagoras to find a clearer and more precise statement than is to be found in Empedocles of what we have called the second postulate of matter. Empedocles, it is true, was convinced of the general stability of the elements, but what we miss is an accurate application of that principle. His optics were based on the presumption that every element had a fixed and original property of colour, but we look in vain for a clear explanation of the endless multiplicity of coloured substances proceeding from these primary colours. Anaxagoras's theory of matter was capable of explaining how the four elements "traversing one another showed a different face." His account, though contradicted by the facts, was consistent with itself and with the postulate of qualitative constancy. But Empedocles failed in both particulars. And as it is impossible to believe that Anaxagoras was acquainted with or appreciated even the outline of the didactic poems of Parmenides, our conviction is strengthened that both postulates of matter—the second no less than the first—were necessarily evolved from the theories of Ionian physiologists, and that they owed to the Eleatics, not their invention, but merely their stricter formulation.10 At the close of an earlier chapter11 we left it doubtful whether and to what extent an intermediary link was required to connect the older forms of the theory of primary matter with the later stages of its development That doubt, we venture to think, has now been satisfactorily resolved.


1. Agrigentum, Acragas.

2. Bk. II. Ch. II. Init.

3. Bk. I. Ch. IV. I (pp. 114, 115).

4. Cp. Bk. II. Ch. III. 2.

5. Cp. Bk. II. Ch. IV. 1.

6. Bk. I. Ch. V. 4.

7. Cp. Bk. I. Ch. IV. 2.

8. Ch. Bk. I. Ch. V. 4 (P. 144).

9. Cp. Bk. II. Ch. II. fin.

10. Bk. II. Ch. II. 3.

11. Bk. II. Ch. III. fin.

Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from Greek Thinkers: A History of Ancient Philosophy, Vol. 1, translated by Laurie Magus (London: John Murray, 1920). "Empedocles" is chapter 5 of the first volume. Note: the publishing date for the four volumes is listed as 1901-1912 in the University of Washington library catalogue. The title page from the scanned book has 1920.