Empedocles was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher and a poet. He was born circa 495 BC in the Sicilian city of Acragas (recently Agrigento) and died, according to a famous but unproven story, by throwing himself into the active volcano Mount Etna in Sicily circa 435 BC, thus intending to demonstrate his personal immortality.
Empedocles is said to have been personally extravagant, practicing magic, medicine, rhetoric, and politics. His philosophy was fundamentally inspired by, and is a reaction to, the teachings of another two major pre-Socratics, Pythagoras and Parmenides. Empedocles provided the first comprehensive vision of the pluralistic and dynamic unity of the universe in Western philosophy. He sought to put all diversity of being into one system, to unite nature with human soul, physics with psychology, lifeless things with living bodies, even competing and contradictory powers and processes into one cosmic cycle of endless flux of formation and dissolution.
His two major works, philosophical poems On Nature and Purifications, survive in one of the largest corpus of fragments of all pre-Socratics. Empedocles’s basic philosophical doctrine presupposes that there are four irreducible physical elements or roots (earth, air, fire, and water), from which the whole cosmos is created. To explain this creation as well as any kind of movement, change, and evolution, Empedocles postulates, in addition to four elements, two basic cosmic forces or principles, one of which is constructive (love, philia), another destructive (strife, neikos), as a means by which the elements are combined and separated. The elements themselves, being the earliest version of particle theory, though eternal and unchanging, are by no means mechanistic and involve their own creative potential within, since they are also divine and sentient. This potential comes into actual being by their intermingling in endless mixtures, which are constantly reconfigured without losing their elementary building blocks. The active powers, remaining rather magical and mythical in Empedocles’s conception, that secure this reconfiguration of stable and rather passive elements are of two kinds: Love brings all together, harmonizes and unites, while strife separates, dissolutes, and divides. The results of both attraction and distraction processes are bodies, plants, organisms, and living creatures and their decomposition back into parts and elements. This shows the powerful analogy between the evolution of the universe and the evolution of life and makes a link to Empedocles’s biological explanations of zoogeny (the origin of species), which is also anthropologically relevant and later influenced Plato and Aristotle. According to Empedocles, life is the consequence of an evolutionary process.
- Guthrie, W. K. C. (1962-1978). A history of Greek philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E., & Schofield, M. (1983). The pre-Socratic philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Wright, M. R. (1981). Empedocles: The extant fragments. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.