THE figure of Empedocles of Agrigentum, when seen across the twenty-three centuries which separate us from him, presents perhaps a more romantic appearance than that of any other Greek philosopher. This is owing, in a great measure, to the fables which invest his life and death with mystery, to his reputation for magical power, and to the wild sublimity of some of his poetic utterances. Yet, even in his lifetime, and among contemporary Greeks, he swept the stage of life like a great tragic actor, and left to posterity the fame of genius as a poet, a physician, a patriot, and a philosopher. The well-known verses of Lucretius are enough to prove that the glory of Empedocles increased with age, and bore the test of time. Reading them, we cannot but regret that poems which so stirred the reverent enthusiasm of Rome's greatest singer have been scattered to the winds, and that what we now possess of their remains affords but a poor sample of their unimpaired magnificence.
Nothing is more remarkable about Empedocles than his versatility and comprehensiveness. Other men of his age were as nobly born, as great in philosophic power, as distinguished for the part they bore in politics, as celebrated for poetic genius, as versed in mystic lore, in medicine, and in magic arts. But Parmenides, Pythagoras, Pausanias, and Epimenides could claim honor in but one, or two at most, of these departments. Empedocles united all, and that too, if we may judge by the temper of his genius and the few legends handed down to us about his life, in no ordinary degree. He seems to have possessed a warmth and richness of nature which inclined him to mysticism and poetry, and gave a tone of peculiar solemnity to everything he did or thought or said. At the same time, he was attracted by the acuteness of his intellect to the metaphysical inquiries which were agitating the western colonies of Greece, while his rare powers of observation enabled him to make discoveries in the then almost unexplored region of natural science. The age in which he lived had not yet thrown off the form of poetry in philosophical composition. Even Parmenides had committed his austere theories to hexameter verse. Therefore, the sage of Agrigentum was easily led to concentrate his splendid powers on the production of one great work, and made himself a poet among philosophers, and a philosopher among poets, without thereby impairing his claims to rank highly both as a poet and also as a thinker among the most distinguished men of Greece. But Empedocles had not only deeply studied metaphysics, nature, and the arts of verse; whatever was mysterious in the world around him, in the guesses of past ages, and in the forebodings of his own heart, possessed a powerful attraction for the man who thought himself inspired of God. Having embraced the Pythagorean theories, he maintained the fallen state of men, and implored his fellow-creatures to purge away the guilt by which they had been disinherited and exiled from the joys of heaven. Thus he appeared before his countrymen not only as a poet and philosopher, but also as a priest and purifier. Born of a wealthy and illustrious house, he did not expend his substance merely on horse-racing and chariots, by which means of display his ancestors had gained a princely fame in Sicily; but, not less proud than they had been, he shod himself with golden sandals, set the laurel crown upon his head, and, trailing robes of Tyrian purple through the streets of Agrigentum, went attended by a crowd of serving-men and reverent admirers. He claimed to be a favorite of Phoebus, and rose at length to the pretension of divinity. His own words show this, gravely spoken, with no vain assumption, but with a certainty of honor well deserved
"Friends who dwell in the great city hard by the yellow stream of Acragas, who live on the Acropolis, intent on honorable cares, harbors revered of strangers, ignorant of what is vile, welcome; but I appear before you an immortal god, having overpassed the limits of mortality, and walk with honor among all, as is my due, crowned with long fillets and luxuriant garlands. No sooner do I enter their proud prosperous cities than men and women pay me reverence, who follow me in thousands, asking the way to profit, some desiring oracles, and others racked by long and cruel torments, hanging on my lips to hear the spells that pacify disease of every kind."
We can hardly wonder that some of the fellow-citizens of Empedocles were jealous of his pretensions, and regarded him with suspicious envy and dislike, when we read such lines of lofty self-exaltation. Indeed, it is difficult for men of the nineteenth century to understand how a great and wise philosopher could lay claim to divine honors in his own lifetime. This arrogance we have been accustomed to associate with the names of a Caligula and a Claudius. Yet when we consider the circumstances in which Empedocles was placed, and the nature of his theories, our astonishment diminishes. The line of demarcation between this world and the supernatural was then but vague and undetermined. Popular theology abounded in legends of gods who had held familiar intercourse with men, and of men who had been raised by prowess or wisdom to divinity. The pedigrees of all distinguished families ended in a god at no great distance. Nor was it then a mere figure of speech when bards and priests claimed special revelations from Apollo, or physicians styled themselves the children of Asclepius. Heaven lay around the first Greeks in their infancy of art and science; it was long before the vision died away and faded into the sober daylight of Aristotelian philosophy. Thus when Empedocles proclaimed himself a god, he only stretched beyond the usual limit a most common pretension of all men learned in arts and sciences. His own speculations gave him further warrant for the assumption of the style of deity; for he held the belief that all living souls had once been demons or divine spirits, who had lost their heavenly birthright for some crime of impurity or violence, and yet were able to restore themselves to pristine splendor by the rigorous exercise of abstinence and expiatory rites. These rites he thought he had discovered. He had prayed and fasted; he had held communion with Phoebus the purifier, and received the special favor of that god, by being made a master in the arts of song and magic and healing and priestcraft. Was he not, therefore, justified in saying that he had won again his rights divine, and transformed himself into a god on earth? His own words tell the history of his fall:
"Woe to me that I did not fall a prey to death before I took the cursed food within my lips! . . . From what glory, from what immeasurable bliss, have I now sunk to roam with mortals on this earth?"
Again, he says:
"For I have been in by-gone times a youth, a maiden, and a flowering shrub, a bird, yea, and a fish that swims in silence the deep sea."
From this degraded state the spirit gradually emerges. Of the noblest souls he says:
"Among beasts they become lions dwelling in caverns of the earth upon the hills, and laurels among leafy trees, . . . and at last prophets and bards and physicians and chiefs among the men of earth, from whence they rise to be gods supreme in honor .... sitting at banquets with immortal comrades, in their feasts unvisited by human cares, beyond the reach of fate and wearing age."
Empedocles, by dint of pondering on nature, by long penance, by the illumination of his intellect and the coercion of his senses, had been raised before the natural term of life to that high honor, and been made the fellow of immortal gods. His language upon this topic is one of the points in which we can trace an indistinct resemblance between him and some of the Indian mystics. There is, however, no reason to suppose that Asiatic thought had any marked or direct influence on Greek philosophy. It is better to refer such similarities to the working of the same tendencies in the Greek and Hindoo minds.
To those who disbelieved his words he showed the mighty works which he had wrought. Empedocles, during his lifetime, was known to have achieved marvels, such as only supernatural powers could compass. More than common sagacity and ingenuity in the treatment of natural diseases, or in the removal of obstacles to national prosperity, were easily regarded by the simple people of those times as the evidence of divine authority. Empedocles had devised means for protecting the citizens of Agrigentum from the fury of destructive winds. What these means were, we do not know; but he received in consequence the title of κωλυσανέμας, or warder-off of winds. Again, he resuscitated, from the very jaws of death, a woman who lay senseless and unable to breathe, long after all physicians had despaired of curing her. This entitled him to be regarded as a master of the keys of life and death; nor did he fail to attribute his own power to the virtue of supernatural spells. But the greatest of his achievements was the deliverance which he wrought for the people of Selinus from a grievous pestilence. It seems that, some exhalations from a marsh having caused this plague, Empedocles, at his own cost, cut a channel for two rivers through the fen, and purged away the fetid vapors. A short time after the cessation of the sickness, Empedocles, attired in tragic state, appeared before the Selinuntians at a banquet. His tall and stately figure wore the priestly robe; his brazen sandals rang upon the marble as he slowly moved with front benign and solemn eyes; beneath the sacrificial chaplet flowed his long Phoebean locks, and in his hand he bore a branch of bay. The nobles of Selinus rose; the banquet ceased; all did him reverence, and hailed him as a god, deliverer of their city, friend of Phoebus, intercessor between angry heaven and suffering men.
Closely connected with his claim to divinity was the position which Empedocles assumed as an enchanter. Gorgias, his pupil, asserts that he often saw him at the magic rites. Nor are we to suppose that this wizardry was a popular misinterpretation of his real power as a physician and philosopher. It is far more probable that Empedocles himself believed in the potency of incantations, and delighted in the ceremonies and mysterious songs by which the dead were recalled from Hades, and secrets of the other world wrung from unwilling fate. We can form to ourselves a picture of this stately and magnificent enchanter, convinced of his own supernatural ascendency, and animated by the wild enthusiasm of his ardent nature, alone among the mountains of Girgenti, or by the sea-shore, invoking the elemental deities to aid his incantations, and ascribing the forebodings of his own poetic spirit to external inspiration or the voice of gods. In solitary meditations he had wrought out a theory of the world, and had conceived the notion of a spiritual God, one and unseen, pure intellect, an everlasting omnipresent power, to whom might be referred those natural remedies that stopped the plague, or cured the sick, or found new channels for the streams. The early Greek philosophers were fond of attributing to some "common wisdom" of the world, some animating soul or universal intellect, the arts and intuitions to which they had themselves attained. Therefore, with this belief predominating in his mind, it is not strange that he should have trusted to the divine efficacy of his own spells, and have regarded the results of observation as a kind of supernatural wisdom. To his friend Pausanias the physician he makes these lofty promises, "Thou shalt learn every kind of medicines that avert diseases and the evils of old age. Thou too shalt curb the fury of untiring winds, and when it pleases thee thou shalt reverse thy charms and loose avenging storms. Thou shalt replace black rain-clouds with the timely drought that men desire, and when the summer's arid heat prevails, thou shalt refresh the trees with showers that rustle in the thirsty corn. And thou shalt bring again from Hades the life of a departed man." Like the Pythagoreans whom he followed, he seems to have employed the fascination of music in effecting cures: it is recorded of him that he once arrested the hand of a young man about to slay his father, by chanting to the lyre a solemn soul-subduing strain. The strong belief in himself which Empedocles possessed inspired him with immense personal influence, so that his looks and words and tones went further than the force of other men. He compelled them to follow and confide in him, like Orpheus, or like those lofty natures which in every age have had the power of leading and controlling others by innate supremacy. That Empedocles tried to exhibit this superiority, and to heighten its effect by gorgeous raiment and profuse expenditure, by public ceremonies and mysterious modes of life, we need not doubt. There was much of the spirit of Paracelsus in Empedocles, and vanity impaired the simple grandeur of his genius. In every age of the world's history there have been some such men—men in whom the highest intellectual gifts are blended with weakness inclining them to superstitious juggleries. Not content with their philosophical pretensions, or with poetical renown, they seek a more mysterious fame, and mix the pure gold of their reason with the dross of idle fancy. Their very weakness adds a glow of color, which we miss in the whiter light of more purely scientific intellects. They are men in whom two natures cross—the poet and the philosopher, the mountebank and the seer, the divine and the fortune-teller, the rigorous analyst and the retailer of old wives' tales. But none have equalled Empedocles, in whose capacious idiosyncrasy the most opposite qualities found ample room for coexistence, who sincerely claimed the supernatural faculties which Paracelsus must have only half believed, and who lived at a time when poetry and fact were indistinguishably mingled, and when the world was still absorbed in dreams of a past golden age, and in rich foreshadowings of a boundless future.
We are not, therefore, surprised to read the fantastic legends which involve his death in a mystery. Whatever ground of fact they may possess, they are wholly consistent with the picture we have formed to ourselves of the philosopher, and prove at least the superstition which had gathered round his name. One of these legends has served all ages as a moral for the futility of human designs, and for the just reward of inordinate vanity. Every one who knows the name of Empedocles has heard that, having jumped into Etna in order to conceal the time and manner of his death, and thus to establish his divinity, fate frustrated his schemes by casting up his brazen slippers on the crater's edge. According to another legend, which resembles that of the death of Romulus, of Oedipus, and other divinized heroes, Empedocles is related to have formed one of a party of eighty men who assembled to celebrate by sacrifice his restoration of the dying woman. After their banquet they retired to sleep. But Empedocles remained in his seat at table. When morning broke, Empedocles was nowhere to be found. In reply to the question of his friends, some one asserted that he had heard a loud voice calling on Empedocles at midnight, and that, starting up, he saw a light from heaven and burning torches. Pausanias, who was present at the sacrificial feast, sent far and wide to inquire for his friend, wishing to test the truth of this report. But piety restrained his search, and he was secretly informed by heavenly messengers that Empedocles had won what he had sought, and that divine honors should be paid to him. This story rests on the authority of Heraclides Ponticus, who professed to have obtained it from Pausanias. The one legend we may regard as the coinage of his foes, the other as a myth created by the superstitious admiration of his friends.
We have hitherto regarded Empedocles more in his private and priestly character than as a citizen. Yet it was not to be expected that a man so nobly born, and so remarkable for intellectual power, should play no public part in his native state. A Greek could hardly avoid meddling with politics, even if he wished to do so, and Empedocles was not one to hide his genius in the comparative obscurity of private life. While he was still a young man, Theron, the wise tyrant of Agrigentum, died, and a powerful aristocracy endeavored to enslave the state. Empedocles manfully resisted them, supporting the liberal cause with vehemence, and winning so much popular applause that he is even reported to have received and refused the offer of the kingly power. By these means he made himself many foes among the nobility of Agrigentum; it is also probable that suspicion attached to him for trying to establish in his native city the Pythagorean commonwealth, which had been extirpated in South Italy. That he loved spiritual dominion we have seen; and this he might have hoped to acquire more easily by taking the intellectual lead among citizens of equal rights than by throwing in his lot with the aristocratic party, or by exposing himself to the dangers and absorbing cares of a Greek tyrant. At any rate, it is recorded that he impeached and procured the execution of the leaders of the aristocracy; thus rescuing the liberty of his nation at the expense of his own security. After a visit to Peloponnesus, Empedocles returned to Agrigentum, but was soon obliged to quit his home again by the animosity of his political enemies. Where he spent the last years of his life, and died, remains uncertain.
It remains to estimate the poetical and philosophical renown of Empedocles. That his genius was highly valued among the ancients appears manifest from the panegyric of Lucretius. Nor did he fail to exhibit the versatility of his powers in every branch of poetical composition. Diogenes Laertius affirms that forty-three tragedies bearing his name were known to Hieronymus, from whom he drew materials for the life of Empedocles. Whether these tragedies were really written by the philosopher or by another Sicilian of the same name admits of doubt. But there is no reason why an author possessed of such varied and distinguished talents as Empedocles should not have tried this species of composition. Xenophanes is said to have composed tragedies; and Plato's youthful efforts would, we fondly imagine, have afforded the world fresh proofs of his commanding genius, had they escaped the flames to which they were condemned by his maturer judgment. No fragments of the tragedies of Empedocles survive; they probably belonged to the class of semi-dithyrambic compositions which prevailed at Athens before the days of Aeschylus, and which continued to be cultivated in Sicily. Some of the lyrical plays of the Italians—such, for instance, as the Orfeo of Poliziano—may enable us to form an idea of these simple dramas. After the tragedies, Diogenes makes mention of political poems. These may be referred to the period of the early manhood of Empedocles, when he was engaged in combat with the domineering aristocracy, and when he might have sought to spread his liberal principles through the medium of gnomic elegies, like those of Solon or Theognis. The fragments of the Katharmoi, or poem on lustral rites, sufficiently display his style of earnest and imperious exhortation to make us believe that at a time of political contention he would not spare this powerful instrument of persuasion and attack. In the next place, we hear of an epic poem on the invasion of Greece by Xerxes, which Empedocles is said to have left unfinished, and which his sister or his daughter burned with other papers at his death. The great defeat of the Medes took place while Empedocles was still a youth. All Hellas had hung with breathless expectation on the event of Marathon and Salamis. The fall of Xerxes brought freedom and relief from terrible anxiety, not only to the towns of Attica and the Peloponnesus, but also to the shores of Sicily and Italy. It is not, therefore, unlikely that the triumph which excited Simonides and Aeschylus to the production of masterpieces may have stirred the spirit of the youthful patriot of Agrigentum. Another composition of Empedocles which perished under his sister's hands was a Proemium to Apollo. The loss of this poem is deeply to be regretted. Empedocles regarded himself as specially protected by the god of song and medicine and prophetic insight. His genius would therefore naturally take its highest flight in singing praises to this mighty patron. The hymn to Zeus, which has been ascribed to Cleanthes, and some of the pseudo-Orphic declamations, may give us an idea of the gravity and enthusiasm which Empedocles would have displayed in treating so stirring a theme. Of his remaining works we possess fragments. The great poem on Nature, the Lustral Precepts, and the Discourse on Medicine were all celebrated among the ancients. Fortunately, the inductions to the first and second of these have been preserved, and some lines addressed to Pausanias may be regarded as forming the commencement of the third. It is from these fragments, amounting in all to about 470 lines, that we must form our judgment of Empedocles, the poet and the sage.
That Empedocles was a poet of the didactic order is clear from the nature of his subjects. Even as early as the time of Aristotle, critics disputed as to whether poems written for the purpose of scientific instruction deserved the name of poetry. In the Poetics, Aristotle says, οὐδὲν δὲ κοινόν ἐστιν Ὁμήρῳ καὶ Ἐμπεδοκλεῖ πλὴν τὸ μέτρον· διὸ τὸν μὲν ποιητὴν δίκαιον καλεῖν, τὸν δὲ φυσιόλογον μᾶλλον ἢ ποιητήν. 1 The title φυσιόλογος, or philosopher of nature, was of course generic, and might have been claimed by Heraclitus, on the strength of his prose writings, no less than by Empedocles. Lucretius, in the exordium to his poem, argues for the utility of disguising scientific precepts under the more attractive form of art; as we sweeten the lips of the vessel that contains bitter medicine, in order to induce the child to take it readily. And not only had Empedocles this reason in his favor for the use of verse, but also, at the age in which he lived, it was still a novelty to write prose at all; nor would it have been consistent with his theories of inspiration, and with the mysticism he professed, to abandon the poetic form of utterance. He therefore thought and wrote hexameters as naturally as the scientific men of the present day think and write their sentences and paragraphs, until the discourse is formed into a perfect whole. Allowing, then, for the subject of his poem, Empedocles was regarded by antiquity as first among the Greek didactic singers, though he competed with Parmenides for this distinction, and was placed upon a level with Lucretius. Lactantius mentions them both together, in his definition of this kind of poetry. And Aristotle, in another treatise, now lost, but quoted by Diogenes, praises the artistic genius of the philosopher in these words: Καὶ Ὁμηρικὸς ὁ Ἐμπεδοκλῆς καὶ δεινὸς περὶ τὴν φράσιν γέγονε μεταφορικός τε ὢν καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις περὶ τὴν ποιητικὴν ἐπιτεύγμασι χρώμενος. .2 The epithet Ὁμηρικὸς is very just; for not only is it clear that Empedocles had studied the poems of Homer with care, and had imbibed their phraseology, but he also possessed a genius akin to that of Homer in love of simplicity, in fidelity to nature, in unimpeded onward flow of energetic verse.
The simile of the girl playing with a water-clock, whereby Empedocles illustrates his theory of respiration, and that of the lantern, which serves to explain his notion of the structure of the eye, are both of them Homeric in their unadorned simplicity and vigor. Again, such epithets as these, πολυαίματον (full-blooded) for the liver, ἱλάερα (gentle) for the moon, ὀξυβελὴς (quick-darting) for the sun, πολυστέφανος (crowned) for majesty, θεμερῶπις (grave-visaged) for harmony, and the constant repetition of θεοὶ δολιχαίωνες τιμῇσι φέριστοι (the long-aged gods in honor foremost), have the true Homeric ring. Like Homer, he often chooses an epithet specific of the object which he wishes to describe, but not especially suited to the matter of his argument. Thus πολυκλαύτων γυναίκων (women given to tears) occurs where there is no particular reason to fix the mind upon the tearfulness of women. But the poetic value of the passage is increased by the mind being thus carried away from the logical order of ideas to a generality on which it can repose. At other times, when this is necessary, the epithets are as accurately descriptive as those of a botanist or zoologist:
ἐν κόγχαισι θαλασσονόμοις βαρυνώτοις (in whelks that inhabit the sea with heavy backs) . . . λιθορρίνων τε χελωνῶν (stony-coated tortoises), for example. Again, Empedocles gives rein to his imagination by creating bold metaphors; he calls the flesh σαρκῶν χιτών (a robe of flesh), and birds πτεροβάμονας κύμβας (boats that move with wings). Referring to his four elements, he thus personifies their attributes: "Fiery Zeus, and Herè, source of Vital Breath, and Aidoneus, and Nestis, with her tears." At another time he speaks of "earth, and ocean with his countless waves, and liquid air, the sun-god and ether girdling round the universe in its embrace.''
The passage, too, in which he describes the misery of earth rises to a sublime height. It may well have served as the original of Virgil's ccelebrated lines in the sixth Aeneid:
"I lifted up my voice, I wept and wailed, when I beheld the unfamiliar shore. A hideous shore, on which dwell murder, envy, and the troop of baleful destinies, wasting corruption, and disease. Through Até's meadow they go wandering up and down in gloom. There was the queen of darkness, and Heliope with her far-searching eyes, and bloody strife, and mild-eyed peace, beauty and ugliness, swiftness and sloth, and lovely truth, and insincerity with darkling brows. Birth too and death, slumber and wakefulness, motion and immobility, crowned majesty and squalid filth, discordant clamor and the voice of gods."
We can understand by these passages how Empedocles not only was compared with Homer by Aristotle, but also with Thucydides and Aeschylus by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who speaks of his "austere harmony" (αὐστηρὰν ἁρμονίαν). The conciseness of his argumentative passages, the breadth of his treatment, and the dryness of his coloring, to quote the terms of painting, resemble the style of Thucydides, while his bold figures and gloomy grandeur are like those of Aeschylus. Plutarch, in the treatise on the Genius of Socrates, speaks of the style of Empedocles at large, both as regards his poems and his theories, as "inspired with dithyrambic ecstasy" (μάλα βεβακχευμένη). This seems a contradiction to the "austere harmony" of Dionysius. But there are passages which justify the title. This exordium, for instance, savors of prophetic fury:
"It stands decreed by fate, an ancient ordinance of the immortal gods, established from everlasting, ratified be ample oaths, that, when a spirit of that race, which has inherited the length of years divine, sinfully stains his limbs with blood, he must go forth to wander thrice ten thousand years from heaven, passing from birth to birth through every form of mortal mutability, changing the toilsome paths of life without repose, even as I now roam, exiled from God, an outcast on this world, the bondman of insensate strife.
"Alas, ill-fated race of mortals, thrice accursed! from what dire struggles and what groans have ye been born! The air in its anger drives them to the sea, and ocean spues them forth upon the solid land, earth tosses them into the flames of the untiring sun, he flings them back again into the whirlwinds of the air; from one to the other are they cast, and all abhor them."
And the following adjuration has a frantic energy, to modern readers almost laughable but for its indubitable gravity:
Wretches, thrice wretches, keep your hands from beans!
or, again, with reference to the abomination of animal food:
"The father drags along his dear son changed in form, and slays him, pouring prayers upon his head. But the son goes begging mercy from his maniac sire. The father heeds him not, but goads him on, and, having slaughtered him, prepares a cursed meal. In like manner sons take their fathers, and children their mothers, and tearing out the life devour the kindred flesh. Will ye not put an end to this accursed slaughter? Will ye not see that ye consume each other in blind ignorance of soul?"
It is not strange that the poems of Empedocles were pilfered by oracle-mongers, in after-ages.
Besides these passages, there are some of a milder beauty which deserve high praise for their admirable power of suggesting the picture that the poet wishes to convey. The following lines describe the golden age of old, to which Empedocles looked back with melancholy longing:
"There every animal was tame and familiar with men, both beasts and birds, and mutual love prevailed. Trees flourished with perpetual leaves and fruits, and ample crops adorned their boughs through all the year. Nor had these happy people any Ares or mad Uproar for their god; nor was their monarch Zeus, or Kronos, or Poseidon, but Queen Cypris. Her favor they besought with pious symbols and with images, and fragrant essences, and censers of pure myrrh, and frankincense, and with brown honey poured upon the ground. The altars did not reek with bullocks' gore."
It may sound ridiculous to say so, yet Empedocles resembles Shelley in the quality of his imagination and in many of his utterances. The lines just quoted, the belief in a beneficent universal soul of nature, the hatred of animal food, the love of all things moving or growing on the face of earth, the sense of ancient misery and present evil, are all, allowing for the difference of centuries and race and education, points by which the Greek and the English poets meet in a community of nature. Two more passages illustrative of the poetical genius of Empedocles may be quoted. In the first he describes the nature of God, invisible and omnipresent. In the second he asserts the existence of a universal law. They are both remarkable for simplicity and force, and elevation of style:
"Blessed is the man who hath obtained the riches of the wisdom of God; wretched is he who hath a false opinion about things divine.
"He (God) may not be approached, nor can we reach him with our eyes or touch him with our hands. No human head is placed upon his limbs, nor branching arms; he has no feet to carry him apace, nor other parts of man; but he is all pure mind, holy, and infinite, darting with swift thought through the universe from end to end."
"This law binds all alike, and none are free from it: the common ordinance which all obey prevails through the vast spaces of wide-ruling air and the illimitable fields of light in endless continuity."
The quotations which have served to illustrate the poetical genius of Empedocles have also exhibited one aspect of his philosophy—that wherein he was connected with the Pythagoreans. It is quite consistent with the whole temper of his intellect that he should have been attracted to the semi-Oriental mysticism which then was widely spread through Grecian Italy and Sicily. After the dissolution of the monastic commonwealth founded by Pythagoras, it is probable that refugees imbued with his social and political theories scattered themselves over the adjacent cities, and from some of these men Empedocles may have imbibed in early youth the dream-like doctrines of an antenatal life, of future immortality, of past transgression and the need of expiation, of abstinence, and of the bond of fellowship which bound man to his kindred sufferers upon the earth. It is even asserted in one legend that the philosopher of Agrigentum belonged to the Pythagorean Society, and was expelled from it for having been the first to divulge its secrets. In later life these theories were developed by Empedocles after his own fashion, and received a peculiar glow of poetic coloring from his genius. There is no need to suppose that he visited the East and learned the secrets of Gymnosophists. A few Pythagorean seeds sown in his fruitful soil sprang up and bore a hundred-fold. Referring to the exordium of his poem on Nature, and to the lines in which he describes the unapproachable Deity, we find that Empedocles believed in a pristine state of happiness, when the "Daimons," or "gods, long of life, supreme in honor," dwelt together, enjoying a society of bliss. Yet this state was not perfect, for some of these immortals stained their hands with blood, and some spoke perjury, and so sin entered in and tainted heaven. After such offence the erring spirit, by the fateful, irrevocable, and perennial law of the divine commonwealth, had to relinquish his heavenly throne and wander "thirty thousand seasons" apart from his comrades. In this period of exile he passed through all the changes of metempsychosis. According to the rigorous and gloomy conception of Empedocles, this change was caused by the hatred of the elements: earth, air, fire, and water refusing to retain the criminal, and tossing him about from one to the other without intermission. Thus, he might be a plant, a bird, a fish, a beast, or a human being in succession. But the transmigration did not depend upon mere chance. If the tortured spirit, environed, as he was, by the conflicting shapes and contradictory principles and baleful destinies which crowded earth—"the overvaulted cave," the "gloomy meadow of discord," as Empedocles in his despair described our globe—could yet discover some faint glimmering of the truth, seize and hold fast some portion of the heavenly clue, then he might hope to reascend to bliss. Instead of abiding among birds and unclean beasts and common plants, his soul passed into the bodies of noble lions and mystic bay-trees, or became a bard, a prophet, a ruler among men, and lastly rose again to the enjoyment of undying bliss. Throughout these wanderings death was impossible. Empedocles laughed at the notion of birth and death; he seems to have believed in a fixed number of immortal souls, capable of any transformation, but incapable of perishing. Therefore, when his spirits, falling earthward, howled at the doleful aspect of the hideous land, the very poignancy of their grief consisted in that bitter thought of Dante's, "questi non hanno speranza di morte"—in that thought which makes the Buddhist welcome annihilation. It has been already hinted, that although the soul by its forced exile lost not only happiness but also knowledge, yet the one might be in part retrieved, and the other toilsomely built up again in some degree by patient observation, prayer, and magic rites. On this point hinges the philosophy of Empedocles. It is here that his mysticism and his science are united into one system. In like manner, Plato's philosophy rests upon the doctrine of Anamnesis, and is connected with the vision of a past beatitude, the tradition of a miserable fall, and the prospect of a possible restoration. Empedocles, like Parmenides and Xenophanes in their disquisitions on the eternal Being, like Plato in his references to the Supreme Idea, seems to have imagined that the final Essence of the universe was unapproachable, and to have drawn a broad distinction between the rational and sensual orders, between the world as cognizable by pure intellect, and the world as known through the medium of human sense. The lines of Empedocles upon God, which have been already quoted, are similar to those of Xenophanes: both philosophers assert the existence of an unknown Deity pavilioned in dense inscrutability, yet not the less to be regarded as supreme and omnipresent and omnipotent—as God of gods, as life of life. How to connect this intuition with the physical speculations of Empedocles is difficult. The best way seems to be to refrain from identifying his eloquent description of the unknown God with the Sphaerus of his scientific theories, and to believe that he regarded the same universe from different points of view at different times, as if in moments of high exaltation he obtained a glimpse of the illimitable Being by a process of ecstatic illumination, while in more ordinary hours of meditation his understanding and his senses helped him to obtain a knowledge of the actual phenomena of this terrestrial globe. His own language confirms this view of the case:
"Weak and narrow," he says, "are the powers implanted in the limbs of men; many the woes that fall on them and blunt the edge of thought; short is the measure of the life in death through which they toil; then are they borne away, like smoke they vanish into air, and what they dream they know is but the little each hath stumbled on in wandering about the world; yet boast they all that they have learned the whole—vain fools! for what that is, no eye hath seen, no ear hath heard, nor can it be conceived by mind of man. Thou, then, since thou hast fallen to this place, shalt know no more than human wisdom may attain.
"But, O ye gods, avert the madness of those babblers from my tongue, and cause the stream of holy words to issue from my hallowed lips. And thou, great Muse of Memory, maiden with the milk-white arms, I pray to thee to teach me things that creatures of a day may hear. Come from the House of Holiness, and bring to me her harnessed car."
Here we see plainly set forth the impossibility of mortal, fallen intellects attaining to a perfect knowledge of the Universe, the impiety of seeking such knowledge, or pretending to have found it; and, at the same time, the limitations under which true science remains within the reach of human beings. How this science may be reached, he tells us in some memorable lines, probably supposed to issue from the lips of the Muse whom he invokes: "But come, search diligently, and discover what is clear in every realm of sense, . . . check the conviction of thy senses, and judge by reason what is evident in every case."
Thus the senses, although feeble and erring guides, are, after all, the gates to knowledge; and their reports, when tested by the light of reason, form the data for human speculation. The senses, resident in the limbs, are composed in certain proportions of the four elements, which also constitute the earth. Therefore, between the frame of man and the world outside him, there is a community of substance, whereby he is enabled to know. Ὅμοια ὁμοίοις γιγνώσκεται (likes are known by likes) is the foundation of our philosopher's theory of knowledge. The rational soul, being that immortal part of man whereon depends his personal identity, whether he take the shape of plant or animal, receives and judges the results of sensation. This theory, it will be observed, has a kind of general similarity to that of Parmenides. Empedocles draws a marked difference between the province of the senses and of the reason, and inveighs against the impotence of the former.
Again, he speaks of the real being of the world as pure and perfect intellect; and at the same time elaborately describes the universe as it appears to human sense and understanding. But here the likeness ends. Parmenides has no mysticism, and indulges in no theology. He believes in the actual truth of his rational ontology, and sneers at the senses. "Thy fate it is," he says, "all mysteries to learn, both the unswerving mind of truth that wins a sure assent, and the vain thoughts of men, in which no certainty abides. But, baseless as they are, these also shalt thou learn; since thou must traverse every field of knowledge, and discern the fabric of the dreams of men." His ontology is just as elaborate as his physics, and he evidently considers its barren propositions of more value than any observations on astronomy or physiology. Empedocles, on the other hand, despaired of ontology, and gave all his mind to explanations of the physical universe-how it came to be, and what laws governed its alternations—believing all along that there was a higher region of pure intellect beyond the reach of his degraded soul. "Here we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face." In this respect he resembled Xenophanes more than Parmenides. Xenophanes had said, "No man hath been, nor will ever be, who knows for certain all about the gods, and everything of which I speak; for should one publish the most sure and settled truth, yet even he cannot be said to know: opinion is supreme in all things." Empedocles belonged more to the age behind him than to that which followed; and his extensive knowledge of nature was a part of his artistic rather than his scientific temperament.
Yet, allowing for the march of human progress during twenty-three centuries, we are bound to hold much the same language as Empedocles regarding the limitations of knowledge. We have, indeed, infinitely extended our observation of phenomena; we have gained fuller conceptions of the Deity and of the destinies of man. But the plummet which he threw into the bottomless abyss of science has as yet found no bottom, and the circle which it made by striking on the surface of the illimitable ocean has grown and grown, but yet has touched no shore on any side. Like him, we still speak of an unapproachable God, utterly beyond the reach of human sense and intellect; like him, we still content ourselves with receiving the reports of our senses, comparing and combining them by means of our understanding, and thus obtaining some conception of the universe in which we live. If we reject the light of Christianity, the guesses which we form about a future world are less vague than those of Empedocles, but founded on no surer scientific basis; the God we worship still remains enveloped in symbols; we still ascribe to him, if not a human form, at least the reason, partialities, and passions of mankind. Indeed, in this respect, the sage of Agrigentum stood unconsciously upon the platform which only our profoundest thinkers have attained. He felt the awe of the Unseen—he believed in the infinite Being; but he refused to dogmatize about his attributes, confining his own reason to the phenomenal universe which he strove in every way to understand, and to employ for the good of his race. Empedocles was greater than most of his contemporaries, for he neither believed it possible to explain the whole mystery of the world, nor did he yet reject the notion of there being a profound mystery. He steered clear between the Parmenides and Democritus of his own day—between the Spinoza and the materialist of modern speculation. Herein the union of philosophy and poetry, of thought and feeling, in his nature, gave the tone to all his theories. We must not, however, in our praise forget that all these problems appeared in a far more simple form to the Greeks of that age than to ourselves, and were therefore more hastily and lightly answered. Between the ontology of Parmenides and that of Hegel what a step there is! What meagre associations gather round the one; what many-sided knowledge gives substance to the other!
Remembering, therefore, in what light Empedocles regarded his own physical speculations, we may proceed to discuss them more in detail. We shall find that he deserved a large portion of that praise which Bacon rather whimsically lavished on the pre-Socratic philosophers, to the disadvantage of the mightier names of Plato and Aristotle.
The poem on Nature is addressed to Pausanias the physician, who was a son of Anchitus of Agrigentum, and a special friend of Empedocles. To Pausanias the philosopher begins his instruction with these words: "First learn what are the four chief roots of every thing that is: fiery Zeus, and Herè, source of vital breath, and Aidoneus, and Nestis with her tears, who is the fount of moisture in the world." Thus Empedocles, after the fashion of the Pythagoreans, allegorized his four elements. In other passages he calls them "fire, water, earth, and air's immeasurable height;" or, "earth, and ocean with his countless waves, and liquid air, the sun-god, and ether girdling the universe in its embrace;" or again, "Hephaestus, rain, and radiant ether;" or lastly, "light, earth, heaven, and ocean." It will be seen that he designated his elements sometimes by mythological titles, sometimes by abstract terms, and sometimes by selecting one or other natural object—such as the sun, the air, the ocean—in which they were most manifest. It is well known that Empedocles was the first philosopher to adopt the four elements, which, since his day, continued to rule supreme over natural science, until modern analysis revealed far simpler and broader bases. Other speculators of the Ionian sect had maintained each of these four elements—Thales the water, Anaximenes the air, Heraclitus the fire, and perhaps (but this rests on no sure evidence), Pherecydes the earth. Xenophanes had said, "Of earth and water are all things that come into existence." Parmenides had spoken of dark and light, thick and subtile, substances. Each of these fundamental principles is probably to be regarded not as pure fire, or pure water, or pure air, but as a universal element differing in rarity, and typified according to the analogical necessities of language, by means of some familiar object. The four elements of Empedocles appear to have been suggested to him, partly by his familiarity with contemporary speculation, and partly by his observation of Nature. They held their ground so long in scientific theory, because they answered so exactly to a superficial view of the world. Earth with everything of a solid quality, water including every kind of fluid, fire that burns or emits light, air that can be breathed, appear to constitute an exhaustive division of the universe. Of the eternity of these four primal substances, according to the Empedoclean theory, there is no doubt. The philosopher frequently reiterates his belief in the impossibility of an absolute beginning or ending, though he acquiesces in the popular use of these terms to express the scientific conceptions of dissolution and recombination.
These elements, then, were the material part of the world according to Empedocles. But inherent in them, as a tendency is inherent in an organism, and yet separable in thought from them, as the soul is separable from the body, were two conflicting principles of equal power, love and discord. Love and discord by their operation wrought infinite changes in the universe: for it was the purpose of love to bind the elements together into a compact, smooth, motionless globe; and of discord to separate them one from another, and to keep them distinct in a state of mutual hostility. When, therefore, either love or discord got the upper-hand, the phenomenal universe could not be said to exist, but in the intermediate state was a perpetual order of growth and decay, composition and dissolution, whereby the world, as we behold it, came into existence. This intermediate state, das Werdende, τὸ γιγνόμενον καὶ ἀπολλύμενον (the Becoming, that which comes into existence and passes out of it again by dissolution), was φύσις, or Nature. The conflicting energies of love and discord formed the pulses of its mighty heart, the systole and diastole of its being, the one power tending to life, the other power to death, the one pushing all the elements forward to a perfect unity of composition, the other rending them apart. To the universe when governed by love in supremacy Empedocles gave the name of σφαῖρος (perfect globe), which he also called a god. This σφαῖρος answered to the Eleatic ἓν, while the disjointed elements subservient to the force of strife corresponded to the Eleatic πόλλα. Thus the old Greek antagonism of Good and Evil, One and Many, Love and Hatred, Being and Not-being, were interpreted by Empedocles. He looked on all that is, das Werdende, as transitory between two opposite and contradictory existences.
Again, according to his system, the alternate reigns of love and discord succeeded one another at fixed intervals of time; so that, from one point of view, the world was ceaselessly shifting, and from another point of view, was governed by eternal and unalterable Law. Thus he reconciled the Heraclitean flux and the Parmenidean immobility by a middle term. Each of the elementa possessed a separate province, had separate functions, and was capable of standing by itself. To fire it would seem that the philosopher assigned a more active influence than to any of the other elements; therefore a kind of dualism may be recognized in his Universe between this ruling principle and the more passive ingredients of air, earth, and water. The influence of love and harmony kept them joined and interpenetrated, and so mingled as to bring the different objects which we see around us into being. Empedocles professed to understand the proportions of these mixtures, and measured them by Pythagorean rules of arithmetic. Thus everything subsists by means of transformation and mixture; absolute beginning and ending are impossible.
Such, briefly stated, is the theory of Empedocles. The following passage may be quoted to show how the phenomenal Universe comes into being under the influence of love:
"When strife has reached the very bottom of the seething mass, and love assumes her station in the centre of the ball, then everything begins to come together, and to form one whole—not instantaneously, but different substances come forth, according to a steady process of development. Now, when these elements are mingling, countless kinds of things issue from their union. Much, however, remains unmixed, in opposition to the mingling elements, and these malignant strife still holds within his grasp. For he has not yet withdrawn himself altogether to the extremities of the globe; but part of his limbs still remain within its bounds, and part have passed beyond. As strife, however, step by step, retreats, mild and innocent love pursues him with her force divine; things which had been immortal instantly assume mortality; the simple elements become confused by interchange of influence. When these are mingled, then the countless kinds of mortal beings issue forth, furnished with every sort of form—a sight of wonder."
In another passage this development is compared to the operation of a painter mixing his colors, and forming with them a picture of various objects. Discord is said to have made the elements immortal, because he kept them apart, and would willingly have preserved their separate qualities; whereas love mixes them together, breaks up their continuity, and confuses their kinds. What Empedocles exactly meant by Sphaerus is hard to understand; nor do we know how far he intended Chance to operate in the formation of the Universe. He often uses such expressions as these, "So they chanced to come together," and describes the amorphous condition of the first organisms in a way that makes one think he fancied a perfectly chaotic origin. Yet "the art of Aphrodite," "so Cypris ordained their form," are assertions of designing intelligence. In fact, we may well believe that Empedocles, in the infancy of speculation, was led astray by his double nomenclature. When talking of Aphrodite, he naturally thought of a person ruling creation; when using the term "Love," he naturally conceived an innate tendency, which might have been the sport of chance in a great measure. It also appears probable that, when Empedocles spoke of "Chance" and "Necessity," he referred to some inherent quality in the elements themselves, whereby they grew together under certain laws, and that the harmony and discord which ruled them in turn were regarded by him as forces aiding and preventing their union.
To understand the order of creation, we may begin by imagining the sphere, which, in the words of Empedocles, "by the hidden bond of harmony is stablished, and rejoices in unbroken rest . . . in perfect equipoise, of infinite extent, it stays a full-orbed sphere rejoicing in unbroken rest." Love now is omnipotent; she has knit all the elements into one whole; Discord has retreated, and abides beyond the globe. But soon his turn begins: he enters the sphere, and "all the limbs of the god begin to tremble." Now the elements are divided one from the other—ether first, then fire, then earth, then water from the earth. Still the elements are chaotic; but wandering about the spaces of the world, and "permeating each the other's realm," they form alliances and tend to union. Love is busy no less than Discord. The various tribes of plants and animals appear at first in a rudimentary and monstrous condition: "many heads sprouted up without necks, and naked arms went wandering forlorn of shoulders, and solitary eyes were straying destitute of foreheads." Still the process of seething and intermingling continued; "when element with element more fully mixed, these members fell together by haphazard . . . many came forth with double faces and two breasts, some shaped like oxen with a human front, others, again, of human race with a bull's bead; and some were mixed of male and female parts." Unfortunately, the lines in which he describes the further progress of development have been lost, and we do not know how the interval between chaos and order was bridged over in his system. Only with reference to human beings he asserts that in the earliest stage they were produced in amorphous masses, containing the essence, as it were, of both male and female; and that after the separation of these masses into two parts, each part yearned to join its tally. And therefrom sprang the passion of desire in human hearts. This theory has been worked out by Plato artistically in the Symposium. Also with reference to the accretion of the phenomenal universe, he says that earth formed the basis of all hard and solid substances preponderating in the shells of fish, and so on. Bones were wrought of earth and fire and water, "marvellously jointed by the bonds of Harmony." It is needless to follow Empedocles through all his scattered fancies, to show that he knew that the night was caused by the earth intercepting the sun's rays, or that he thought the sun reflected heaven's fire like a mirror, or that he placed the intellect in the blood, and explained respiration by a theory of pores, and the eyesight by imagining a fire shut up within the pupil. The fragments we possess are too scanty to allow of our obtaining a perfect view of his physical theory; all we gather from them is that Empedocles possessed more acquired and original knowledge than any of his contemporaries.
It may appear from what has been said about his system that Empedocles was at best a great eclectic. But this is not entirely the case. If he deserves the name of eclectic, he deserves it in the same sense as Plato, though it need not be said how infinitely inferior, as an original thinker, he is to Plato. Empedocles was deeply versed in all the theories, metaphysical, cosmogonical, mystical, and physiological, of his age. He viewed from a high station all the problems, intellectual, social, and moral, which then vexed Greece. But he did not pass his days in a study or a lecture-room, nor did he content himself with expounding or developing the theories of any one master. He went abroad, examined nature for himself, cured the sick, thought his own thoughts, and left an impress on the constitution of his native state. In his comprehensive mind all the learning he had acquired from men, from books, from the world, and from reflection, was consolidated into one system, to which his double interest for mysticism and physics gave a double aspect. He was the first in Greece to reconcile Eleatic and Heraclitean speculations, the puzzle of plurality and unity, the antagonism of good and evil, in one theory, and to connect it with another which revealed a solemn view of human obligations and destinies, and required a life of social purity and self-restraint. The misfortune of Empedocles as a philosopher consisted in this—that he succeeded only in resuming the results of contemporary speculation, and of individual research, in a philosophy of indisputable originality, without anticipating the new direction which was about to be given to human thought by Socrates and Plato. He closed one period—the period of poetry and physical theories and mysticism. The period of prose, of logic, and of ethics was about to begin. He was the last of the great colonial sages of Greece. The Hellenic intellect was destined henceforth to centre itself at Athens.
1. Between Homer and Empedocles there is nothing in common except their metre: therefore it is right to call the former a poet, the latter a natural philosopher rather than a poet.
2. Empedocles again was Homeric in style, and clever in his use of phrase, for he inclined to metaphor, and employed the other admirable instruments of the poetic art.