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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Empedocles (c. 495–435 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Herbert Palmer (1842–1933)
 
EMPEDOCLES the Sicilian was born at Agrigentum, early in the fifth century B.C. The dates of his birth and death are uncertain, but his life probably covered nearly the whole of the first three-quarters of that century. His family was rich and influential, and in politics allied with the popular or democratic side. He himself rose to a commanding position as a statesman, and was sufficiently versatile to become no less eminent as an orator, poet, religious teacher, and physician. Of his two long poems—the one cosmological, the other religious—four hundred and fifty fragmentary verses have come down to us, the exceptionally large number probably showing the widespread character of his popularity. In certain political overturnings he fell into disfavor with his fellow-citizens, and was apparently banished. At any rate, many years of his life were passed in wandering over the Greek countries. Travel in those days took the place of the modern university, and whatever results travel could yield he obtained. A long life was spent in forming and proclaiming philosophic doctrine, in preaching, and in healing the sick. A man of imposing personality, he was popularly believed to work miracles and to possess divine power,—beliefs which he took no pains to discourage. The suspicion of charlatanry which attaches to him appears in the probably baseless story that he secretly threw himself into the crater of Etna, in order not to be thought to have died as a man, but to have disappeared as a god. His character and teachings have deeply affected two notable poems, Lucretius’s ‘De Rerum Natura,’ and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Empedocles on Etna.’  1
  At the beginning of the fifth century B.C. there was great intellectual activity throughout the Greek world, especially along the coastland of Asia Minor, among the islands of the Ægean Sea, in Sicily and Southern Italy,—the Greek America,—where comfortable conditions had been attained in freedom, wealth, and ease of communication. Here men were becoming conscious of themselves and of an environing world, and had begun to seek a more exact explanation of the universe than the traditional mythologies could supply. The ancient beliefs accepted gods of all degrees and ranges of power. The arrangements of the world were due to them, and all events were under their control; but they were imagined as having their birth and exerting their activity in an already existing universe. Of this, or of themselves, they did not lay the foundations. Multitudinous they were as the physical forces of our scientific men, and as little capable of accounting for their own origin. In the preceding century men had already begun to wonder about this origin, and to distrust mythological explanations of it. They questioned what was the ultimate ground of things, what was the universal Nature ([Greek]) from which gods and men alike proceeded, of what was the world made. These questions mark the first stirrings of a philosophic spirit among the Greeks.  2
  The Ionians or Eastern Greeks suggested in reply that some one of the many elements now existing might be the primordial element, and from this all else be derived. Water or even air might be the primordial stuff ([Greek]), which processes of thickening and thinning then turned into all that we see. Nature would thus consist of a single real substance, and of it the many objects we perceive would be but the modifications.  3
  Acute minds, however, at Elea in Southern Italy,—Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno,—pressed this hypothesis farther. If the many objects we see are but modifications of a single being or substance, then objects themselves, and the whole changing world which they involve, become illusory. For how could water be changed into anything other than itself, without ceasing in the same degree to be water at all? And if one primordial element is all that ultimately constitutes Being, will not every change of this Being or Substance move in the direction of Not-Being or Insubstantiality? It is useless to suggest that change might arise through the transition from one kind of being to another. If there are kinds of Being, diversity is planted in the frame of things, rational unity disappears, and anything like a universe becomes impossible. The one and the many are so inherently opposed that each must exclude the other from existence. To the Eleatic eye, or to any other capable of distinguishing reality and appearance, all Being is one, changeless, undifferentiated, eternal. It is the deceiving senses which report multiplicity; reason speaks only of unity. The transformations suggested and seemingly warranted by sensuous experience cannot even be thought of with precision, but will on reflection everywhere disclose hidden contradictions.  4
  Only one method of preserving the reality of change accordingly remains, and that is to imbed it in the nature of the primordial element itself. This method was adopted by Heraclitus of Ephesus. Fire, said he, presents a case of existence where nothing like fixed Being is to found. Of fire it is not true that it first exists and afterwards changes. At no moment of its existence, even the earliest, is it unchanging. Into its nature change is so essentially inwrought that we are obliged to describe it as always becoming, rather than as at any time being. And what is true of fire is true of the universe in general. Ceaseless change characterizes it. All things flow, nothing stands. You cannot bathe twice in the same stream. The Eleatics were right in declaring that Being cannot change except into its opposite, Not-Being; but that is precisely what it perpetually does change into. Nature is made by the union of these opposites. Strife is the father of all, the unceasing strife of Being and Not-Being. The two are inseparable. The original element contains them both, and Nature arises from their conflict.  5
  These, then, were the explanations of the universe offered to Empedocles: the mythological notion of personal divine agency, the primary transformable element of the Ionians, the one fixed substance of the Eleatics, the ceaseless change of Heraclitus. Perhaps we should add the teachings of Pythagoras about number, immortality, and a renovated social order. All these widely divergent cosmologic notions Empedocles accepted, and in his eclectic and compromising fashion sought to adjust them into harmony with one another.  6
  With the Eleatics he agrees in holding that whatever ultimately exists must be perpetual, incapable of changing its qualities, of coming into being or ceasing to be. But he conciliates this with the Heraclitan recognition of the universality of change, by a peculiar adaptation of Ionic doctrine. It is true that not all the elements of the world are equally primordial; but why assume that there is but one such primordial element?—may there not be several? The Pythagoreans taught that the number four entered deeply into the structure of the world. Might there not, then, be four original elements—say, earth, air, fire, and water? Three of these had already figured separately in Ionic speculation. These primordial roots, as Empedocles calls them, in themselves always unchanged, might by mingling with one another, or by separation, produce the appearances which we know as birth, death, and changeable phenomena. Yet to effect such combinations, something is needed which the Ionians overlooked—forces, to operate change and to adjust the elements to one another. These Empedoclean forces are two,—Love and Strife,—or (stripping off that mythological and personified character which this poetizing philosopher attributes to them, as also to his four elements) we may call them by the modern names of affinity and repulsion. In the beginning all the four elements were compacted by Love into a harmonious universe, which may be symbolized by a sphere. Into this spherical concord crept Strife, gradually, through disturbing the normal degrees of mixture, breaking up the primeval whole into individual existences. These individual existences appeared at first in fragmentary and imperfect forms, heads and arms and eyes coming into life, yet missing their congruous parts. Such monstrosities soon perished. But when one happened to be joined to another in natural fitness, it survived. So there was a progression from the imperfect to the more perfect. Moreover, although in the world which now exists, differentiating and individualizing Strife is in the ascendant, Love will one day have its way again and draw all once more back to the sphere-shaped fourfold harmony. Yet this Love-ruled harmony will not persist, but out of it new mixtures will still proceed, a Strife-cycle forever alternating with a Love-cycle. Out of this same Love our perceptions and desires spring, the elements which form us seeking their similars elsewhere. Only like can be known by like. With these physical doctrines Empedocles combined, for no obvious reason, the Pythagorean doctrine of the transmigration of souls.  7
  To sum up, the teaching of Empedocles is a composite, and includes fragments of all the theories current in his time. His own contributions are—1, the doctrine of the four elements; 2, the perception that for the fashioning of a world, forces are as needful as material; 3, the notion of alternating world-cycles; 4, vague hints of evolution and even of natural selection; and 5, cognition by similars. To have four or five original ideas is to be a wealthy man indeed. Those of Empedocles were all taken up into subsequent philosophy, and have ever since enriched the blood of the world.  8
  The Greek text of the fragments of Empedocles, with Latin translation, may be found in Mullach’s ‘Fragmenta Philosophorum Græcorum,’ Vol. i.; selections, with Latin comment, arranged so as best to exhibit the philosophy, in Ritter and Preller’s ‘Historia Philosophiæ’; an English translation, in the fifth chapter of Burnet’s ‘Early Greek Philosophy’; the life, in the eighth Book of Diogenes Laertius; discussions of the philosophy, in all the histories of Greek Philosophy—especially in Burnet, in Zeller’s ‘Pre-Socratic Philosophy,’ Vol. ii., in Zeller’s small ‘Greek Philosophy,’ and in Windelband’s ‘Geschichte der alten Philosophie.’  9
 
  [The mere fact that some four hundred and eighty verses of Empedocles have been preserved is doubtless a tribute to his high rank as a poet. Certainly no other among the early philosophers has had so happy a fate. Enough remains to indicate his lofty creative imagination, as well as the splendid march of his verse. A few of the chief fragments are therefore presented here in a metrical version, by W. C. Lawton. The other passages, needed to illustrate Professor Palmer’s study, follow in the prose form given them by John Burnet, M.A., in his history of early Greek philosophy. There is also a verse translation by W. E. Leonard (1908).]  10
 
 
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