The Interesting Life and Spectacular Death of Empedocles

Empedocles of Acragas was an Ancient Greek, pre-Socratic philosopher from modern-day Sicily. He lived during the fifth century BC, and while sensible Aristotle wrote that he died aged 60, some accounts suggest he lived to 109. And here we reach what is, to me, very exciting about Empedocles, but to a proper philosopher would be frustrating. There is very little known for certain about the life and works of Empedocles. What we do know is from the works of other philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, who quote passages from his work, and fragments of papyrus manuscripts from two of his poems (he wrote his philosophy in the form of Homeric verse). This means that a lot of information about him is legend rather than history, and the fragments of his work that are known are open to interpretation. Personally, I enjoy believing the myths, and if you read to the end you will see why.

Empedocles’ most significant contribution to humanity, and the one you are most likely to be familiar with, is his theory that the cosmos is divided into four elements: fire, water, earth and air. This became a commonly held belief in Ancient Greek physics, but Empedocles went further. He suggested there are two conflicting forces which govern the cosmos, Love and Strife. He supposed the cosmos originated as a sphere containing the four elements, dominated by the force of Love, but gradually Strife took control, and these two forces cyclically take control of the cosmos. In a classic piece of anthropomorphising the universe, he argued Love causes elements to be attracted together, while Strife repels them, thus the movement and flux which exists in the universe.

Another fascinating part of Empedocles’ work is his theory on zoogony (the development of animals). In keeping with his theories of cosmogony (the development of the cosmos), he believed that animals first existed in a chaotic state but were then drawn together into their current states:

“Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads… Many creatures were born with faces and breasts on both sides, man-faced ox-progeny, while others again sprang forth as ox-headed offspring of man, creatures compounded partly of male, partly of the nature of female, and fitted with shadowy parts.” -Empedocles, On Nature.

As I mentioned earlier, Empedocles was a poet, as well as a sort of physicist-philosopher. He wrote his theories in accomplished verse and was a renowned orator. Being a pre-Socratic, Socrates had not yet invented epistemology (the study of knowledge) and philosophy as we know it, so Empedocles engaged in a kind of speculative metaphysics, which treads the fine line between genius and nonsense. His theories seem to be poetically satisfying and symmetrical, if lacking in rationality. His death followed a similar pattern.

The story goes that Empedocles gained a cult-like following throughout his life, similar to that of Pythagoras. In his poem Purifications, he claimed he had various mystical powers, including curing old age and controlling the weather. The narrator of Purifications is not necessarily Empedocles himself, but it appears to be partly autobiographical. The narrator describes himself as a God or Daemon who is in exile for shedding the blood of an animal, which Empedocles forbade as he believed that the soul could be reincarnated into an animal. Due to the lack of definitive sources about his life and the mythology surrounding him, the line between his life and the narrator of Purifications is blurred. According to one legend, to prove his immortality, Empedocles travelled to the top of Mount Etna and threw himself into the volcano.

The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa, 1665

Turns out, he wasn’t immortal.

This King Cnut-esque (and yes I know Cnut didn’t actually think he could hold back the tide) act of defiant, vainglorious delusion has a certain romance to it. There are several variations of the story, for example one suggests he deliberately jumped into the volcano to trick his followers into believing his body had vanished and he turned into a God, but the volcano threw up one of his bronze shoes (of course he wore bronze shoes) which gave the trick away. However, I prefer to think that he just stepped a little too far to the madness side of the genius-madness line.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about a brilliant mind and brilliant life.

Peter Bath

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