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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From the Poem on Nature
By Empedocles (c. 495–435 B.C.)
 
EMPEDOCLES was without doubt a leader of mystics, and one who claimed for himself superhuman nature and wisdom; but it seems equally true,—as true as of Plato, of Swedenborg, or of Emerson,—that he was his own first and sincerest believer. In particular, the lines in which he declares his recollections of immortality and of a more blest divine existence, are as earnest as anything in Plato or in Wordsworth.
  THERE is a doom of fate, an ancient decree of immortals,
Never to be unmade, by amplest pledges attested:
That, if a spirit divine, who shares in the life everlasting,
Through transgression defile his glorious body by bloodshed,
Or if he perjure himself by swearing unto a falsehood,
Thrice ten thousand seasons he wanders apart from the Blessèd
Passing from birth unto birth through every species of mortal,
Changing ever the paths of life, yet ever unresting:
Even as I now roam, from gods far-wandered, an exile,
Yielding to maddening strife.
  1
  These, as Plutarch and others testify, are the opening lines in the Prelude of Empedocles’s great poem on Nature. Other and briefer fragments continue the same train of thought.
  ONCE already have I as a youth been born, as a maiden,
Bush, and wingèd bird, and silent fish in the waters….
After what horrors, and after how long and blissful existence,
Thus am I wretchedly doomed to abide in the meadows of mortals!
Loudly I wept and wailed at beholding the place unfamiliar….
                    Joyless the place, where
Murder abides, and Strife, with the other races of Troubles.
  2
  The belief in transmigration, which we are wont to associate especially with the Pythagorean teachings, is nowhere more earnestly and vividly expressed than by Empedocles. The conviction that Man’s soul is a fallen exile from a higher diviner sphere, to which he may hope to return only after long purgatorial atonement in earthly incarnations,—all this has been even more magnificently elaborated in Platonic dialogues like the Phædrus and the Phædo; but Plato himself may well owe much of his loftiest inspiration to this Sicilian seer.  3
  The theory of the four elements is clearly stated in a three-line fragment of the same Prelude:—
  HEARKEN and learn that four, at the first, are the sources of all things:
Fire, and water, and earth, and lofty ether unbounded.
Thence springs all that is, that shall be, or hath been aforetime.
  4
  Empedocles seems to have rivaled Lucretius himself in the picturesque vividness of his similes. Here, for instance, is an attempt to illustrate how the manifold forms of the visible world might well arise from the mingling of these few elements:—
  JUST as men who the painter’s craft have thoroughly mastered
Fashion in many a tint their picture, an offering sacred;
When they have taken in hand their paints of various colors,
Mingling skillfully more of the one and less of another,
Out of these they render the figures like unto all things;
Trees they cause to appear, and the semblance of men and of women,
Beasts of the field, and birds, and fish that inhabit the waters,
Even the gods, whose honors are greatest, whose life is unending:—
Be not deceived, for such, and nowise other, the fountain
Whence all mortals spring, whatever their races unnumbered.
  5
  Incidentally we see clearly that while the painter’s art has made many a stride from Homer’s time to Empedocles’s day, yet “Art is still religion”; the masterpiece is as a matter of course an anathēma, an altar-piece.  6
  Among the other fragments of the Proem is the singular invocation of the Muse. The poetic quality is rather disappointing. Despite his hatred of Strife, Empedocles has evidently just indulged in rather strong polemic; perhaps against those who profess to teach more than man may know, for the invocation begins thus:—
  ONLY do ye, O gods, remove from my tongue their madness;
Make ye to flow from a mouth that is holy a fountain unsullied.
Thou, O white-armed Virgin, the Muse who rememberest all things,
Whatsoe’er it is lawful to utter to men that are mortal
Bring me, from Piety driving a chariot easily guided.
  7
  It is clear from many such passages, that Empedocles claimed for himself not merely a poetic inspiration but an absolutely superhuman nature. It is not easy to find anywhere a more magnificent and sublime egotism than his. The most famous passage of this character is not from his great work on Nature (or Creation), but is found in the ‘Katharmoi’ (Poem of Purifications):—
  O MY friends, whoso in Acragas’s beautiful city
Have your dwelling aloft; whose hearts are set upon virtue;
Reverent harbors of guests, who have no share in dishonor,—
Greeting! But I as a god divine, no longer a mortal,
Dwell with you, by all in reverence held, as is fitting,
Girt with fillets about, and crowned with wreaths of rejoicing.
Whatsoever the folk whose prosperous cities I enter,
There I of women and men am revered. By thousands they follow,
Questioning where they may seek for the path that leadeth to profit.
These are in need of prophetic words, and others, in illness,
Since they have long been racked with the grievous pangs of diseases,
Crave that I utter the charm whose power is sovran in all things.—
Yet pray why lay stress upon this, as were it a marvel
If I surpass mankind, who are mortal and utterly wretched?
  8
 
 
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