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Empedocles (c.495–c.435 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A046-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Empedocles, born in the Sicilian city of Acragas (modern Agrigento), was a major Greek philosopher of the Presocratic period. Numerous fragments survive from his two major works, poems in epic verse known later in antiquity as On Nature and Purifications.

On Nature sets out a vision of reality as a theatre of ceaseless change, whose invariable pattern consists in the repetition of the two processes of harmonization into unity followed by dissolution into plurality. The force unifying the four elements from which all else is created – earth, air, fire and water – is called Love, and Strife is the force dissolving them once again into plurality. The cycle is most apparent in the rhythms of plant and animal life, but Empedocles’ main objective is to tell the history of the universe itself as an exemplification of the pattern.

The basic structure of the world is the outcome of disruption of a total blending of the elements into main masses which eventually develop into the earth, the sea, the air and the fiery heaven. Life, however, emerged not from separation but by mixture of elements, and Empedocles elaborates an account of the evolution of living forms of increasing complexity and capacity for survival, culminating in the creation of species as they are at present. There followed a detailed treatment of a whole range of biological phenomena, from reproduction to the comparative morphology of the parts of animals and the physiology of sense perception and thinking.

The idea of a cycle involving the fracture and restoration of harmony bears a clear relation to the Pythagorean belief in the cycle of reincarnations which the guilty soul must undergo before it can recover heavenly bliss. Empedocles avows his allegiance to this belief, and identifies the primal sin requiring the punishment of reincarnation as an act of bloodshed committed through ‘trust in raving strife’. Purifications accordingly attacked the practice of animal sacrifice, and proclaimed prohibition against killing animals to be a law of nature.

Empedocles’ four elements survived as the basis of physics for 2,000 years. Aristotle was fascinated by On Nature; his biology probably owes a good deal to its comparative morphology. Empedocles’ cosmic cycle attracted the interest of the early Stoics. Lucretius found in him the model of a philosophical poet. Philosophical attacks on animal sacrifice made later in antiquity appealed to him as an authority.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Empedocles (c.495–c.435 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A046-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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