Hölderlin’s Reflections on the Death of Empedocles: A Mourning Play

Hölderlin’s Reflections on the Death of Empedocles: A Mourning Play

Friedrich Hölderlin was a German poet and philosopher (1770-1843) devoted to classical Greek culture. Much of his work concerns the memorialization of classical antiquity, blending its mythology with the exhausted Christian mythos of his day, and attempting to clear a space for the departed gods to walk once more with men. As a result, he felt a kinship to Empedocles, a thinker who, like himself, united poetry and philosophy in the work of memory. In particular, he was haunted by the legend of his death. As noted in my previous essay, there are multiple surviving accounts of Empedocles’ death. In some he wandered off in silence, never to be heard from again. In others, he was deified and taken up into heaven by lights in the sky. And, in yet others, he threw himself into the fires of Mount Aetna.  It was these latter accounts that gripped Hölderlin. He was engrossed by sage’s leap into the primordial fires of the earth to merge with the eternal roots of nature, and found in it the rich subject matter for a tragedy, or as he called it a “mourning play” (ein Trauerspiel).           

We can see Hӧlderlin’s fascination with Empedocles even in his early poetry. For example, the poem entitled Empedocles, runs as follows:

You look for life, you look and from Deeps of Earth/ A fire, divinely gleaming wells up for you, /And quick, aquiver with desire, you/ Hurl yourself down into Etna’s furnace. [Das Leben suchst du, suchst, und es quillt und glänzt/ Ein göttlich Feuer tief aus der Erde dir,/ Und du in schauderndem Verlangen/ Wirfst dich hinab, in des Aetna Flammen.]

So did the Queen’s exuberance once dissolve/ Rare pearls in wine; and why should she not? But you/ If only you, O poet, had not/ Offered your wealth to the seething chalice! [So schmelzt’ im Weine Perlen der Übermuth/ Der Königin; und mochte sie doch! hättst du/ Nur deinen Reichtum nicht, o Dichter/ Hin in den gährenden Kelch geopfert!]

Yet you are holy to me as is the power/ Of Earth that took you from us, the boldly killed!/ And gladly, did not love restrain me,/ Deep as the hero plunged down I’d follow./ [Doch heilig bist du mir, wie der Erde Macht,/  Die dich hinwegnahm, kühner Getödteter!/ Und folgen möcht’ ich in die Tiefe,/ Hielte die Liebe mich nicht, dem Helden] –trans. Michael Hamburger.

Hölderlin here depicts Empedocles leap, not as an act of despair, but of exuberance. The poet looks for life, not death, and finds it flaring eternal in the earth. It is a yearning for divine fire (Ein göttlich Feuer) that inflames his soul, setting it aquiver with desire (in schauderndem Verlangen). The leap, then, is an offering of excess and intensity, like a queen dropping her costly pearls in wine to be dissolved. It is not the result of melancholy, or the hatred of life, but a holy act of heroism.

            The question, then, that fascinates Hölderlin is not the philosophical question of suicide created and marketed in the 20th century. For, unlike the existentialist quandary posed by Camus about how to live in a world devoid of meaning, Hölderlin’s question concerns the eruption of meaning in Nature, the Dionysian exuberance bursting forth from the heart of the earth. It is a question of how to soar with the supernal fire pulsing through the natural world and the ever intensifying desire for life that it calls forth. Empedocles musings before the central fire are thus not those of Sisyphus’s at his bolder, for Hӧlderlin’s reflections on the sage were unconstrained by 20th century ideology. Hӧlderlin wrote in a world where heroism and sacrifice were still thinkable, not in the ideological wasteland we have inherited so obsessed with its own sufferings that it vows to cancel the very practice of poetry as barbarism.

What, then, for Hölderlin, was the significance of Empedocles salto mortale? How could a stepping forth into fire serve as an affirmation of life or a heroic sacrifice? For Hölderlin, as for Empedocles himself, the fundamental issue concerns how we as finite determinate beings relate to Being as such. As a result, Hölderlin claims that “the tragic ode begins in supernal fire”[1], which because of its “pure spirit pure intensity” transgresses determinate boundaries, and excites other relations which “tend towards excess” and that “what the tragic dramatic poem expresses is the most profound intensity.”[2] In the case of Hölderlin’s mourning play, this intensity of yearning for the absolute allows for a reconciliation between man and nature. According to Hölderlin, there is a fundamental tension between organized culture and nature, which he calls the aorgic. He notes that art and nature stand, at the outset, in an immature harmony, where human culture operates instinctively on the basis of feeling alone. Each supplies what the other lacks, and the divine takes its place at the midpoint between the two. But this implicit harmony is not yet grasped explicitly through cognition. “Such a life is at hand only in feeling, and not a manner of cognition.” [Aber dieses Leben ist nur im Gefuehle und nicht fuer die Erkenntis vorhanden.]. For knowledge requires separation. Consciousness must separate from its object in order to conceptually grasp it. To do so, each side must withdraw and become more intense. Hölderlin explains, in the essay fragment, The Basis of Empedocles:

“If it is to be knowable [erkennbar] it must depict itself [sich darstellen] by separating itself off from itself in the excess of intensity in which opposites mistake themselves for one another, such that the organizational, which surrendered itself too much to nature and thereby forgot its essence and its consciousness, passes over into the extremes of autonomous activity, art, and reflection; by contrast, nature, at least in the effects it exercises on the reflective human being, passes over into the extreme of the aorgic, the inconceivable, the insensible, the unbounded, until both sides, advancing in their reciprocal yet opposite directions, unite with one another in a primordial way, as though encountering one another at the commencement, except that nature has become more organized through the shaping and cultivating human being, through the cultural dives and formative forces in general, whereas, by contrast, the human being has become more aorgic, more universal more infinite.”[3]

If the relation between art and nature is to be known, the relation must be depicted, and this is done by the separation and intensification of the two relata. On the one hand, human culture rallies around the organizational, identifying exclusively with autonomous action, art, and reflection. Nature, on the other hand, takes up the opposite extreme, being identified with the aorgic. It is all that resists being organized–unyielding to thought, sensation, or boundaries of any kind. In tragedy, these extremes meet and are transformed: Nature, once more becomes an organic ordered whole, and human culture grows less rigid and more open to the infinite that eludes its grasp.

            This transformation, imagines Hölderlin, is begotten from Empedocles leap. For, with the death of the individual, “the organizational dispenses with its ego, its particularized existence” and the aorgic “dispenses with its universality” in a moment of “supreme strife” that effects a reconciliation. Empedocles, for Hölderlin, is one chosen by his time to enact this reconciliation through his going under.

“In this way, Empedocles is a son of his heavens and of his period, a son of his fatherland and of the massive oppositions of nature and art in which the world appeared to his eyes. A human being in whom those opposites are united so intensely that they become one in him, divesting themselves of their original distinguishing form and thus reversing themselves…”

He bears the oppositions of his age in his person, incarnating them and taking them to such extremes that they reverse polarities. Destiny thus works itself out in the philosopher’s demise. “Empedocles” according to Hölderlin, “was to become a sacrifice to his time” [So sollte also Empedokles bei Opfer seiner Zeit werden], since “the ones who apparently dissolve destiny most completely exhibit themselves most conspicuously in their efforts to be a sacrificial victim.”  [auch sich am moisten in seiner Vergänglichkeit und im Fortschritte seiner Versuche am auffallendsten als Opfer darstellt]. He becomes the means by which time individualizes, and thus dissolves, itself.

            We see the breakdown of the unreflective immediacy of the relation between man and nature in Empedocles’ various lamentations throughout Hölderlin’s play. He laments, for example, that:

 “Oh, by the sacred founts (heiligen Brunnen), where quietly/ The waters gather (wo sich still die Wasser sammeln), where those who thirst/ On summer days rejuvenate! in me/ In me, you founts of life (ihr Quellen des Lebens), you once flowed all/ Together from the world’s depths (strӧmtet ihr einst/ aus Tiefen der Welt zusammen);/ The parched then came to me—desiccated now/ Am I, no more do mortals take their joy/ in me—am I all alone? and is it now night/ Up here, the daylight notwithstanding? woe!/ An eye that saw more lofty things than mortal eye/ Is now struck blind, I grope about me—/ Where are you, O my gods? (Wo sind ihr, meine Gӧtter?) woe, do you now leave/ Me like a beggar? and this breast that loves/ And is attuned to you, why do you now repel it?” (First Version)

Or again,

“I walked in dazzling dreams—that’s gone now! (in einem schӧnen Traume ging—es ist vorbei!)/ I was beloved, beloved of you, my gods (ich war geliebt, geliebt von euch, ihr Gӧtter,)/ Ah, intimately, as you live with one another/ So you lived in me, and no! that was/ No dream; in this heart of mine I felt you/ I saw you I knew you I worked with you/ O Phantom! (O Schattenbild!)/ That’s gone now (Es ist vorbei)/ And you alone, conceal it not! (und du, verbirg dir’s nicht!)” (First Version)

But fate unfolds itself in this very process of alienation, and Empedokles  resolves, in his person, the contradictions of his age, thereby ushering in a new one. Hölderlin identified Empedocles’ mediating sacrifice with the concept of fate. For Hölderlin, Empedocles’ choice takes on a world historical significance. Hölderlin spells this out through the idea of “the fatherland in decline (das untergehende Vaterland)”. He defines the fatherland as “a specific mutual interaction (in einer besondern Wechselwirkung stehen)” between nature and humanity, a relation constituting “a particular world that has become ideal (eine besondere ideal gewordene Welt) and the very nexus of things (Verbindung der Dinge).” The fatherland is constituted by the way a particular people interacts with its world; because the two reciprocally effect one another, they take on a particular idealized shape. In the fatherland, a people achieves a particular conception of nature and of themselves, and a world of things comes to be through this mutual interaction. But, according to Hölderlin, the fatherland is always already in decline. Because it is a particular relation, emerging between a particular culture and a particular environment, it cannot last. It is destined to dissolve (auflösen) as all particulars must. Here Hölderlin points to a phenomenon closely aligned with what the Budhhist tradition calls sankhara dukkha, the suffering constitutive of all conditioned being as such. Particular human cultures and their particular natural environments will last for only a time. Their destiny to go down.

            Yet, Hӧlderlin observes that something remains in the downfall. The generations of the culture that survive the collapse and the powers of nature working upon them constellate themselves so that “a new world may take shape”, one which encodes once more a particular mutual interaction between man and nature. Both the world which has gone under, and the new emerging one are the outworking of a higher, truer world. Hölderlin calls this “the world of all worlds, which forever is all in all” (die Welt aller Welten, das Alles in Allen, welches immer ist.” But this higher world can represent (darstellen) itself “only in the fullness of time” (in aller Zeit–oder im Untergange oder im Moment oder genetischer im Werden des Moments und Anfang von Zeit und Welt), i.e. through the totality of the rising and falling of worlds entelechally encoded in the inception time itself and the occurrence of any particular world.

            According to Hölderlin this higher world is depicted through memory. In the downgoing of a particular world, man feels the possibility of a new one. He explains that “this downgoing or transition of the fatherland… is felt in the members of the subsisting world, so that at precisely the moment and degree that the subsisting dissolves, the incipient, youthful, possible world is felt.” (Dieser Untergang oder Übergang des Vaterlands… fühlt sich in den Gliedern der bestehenden Welt so, dass in ebendem Momente und Grade, worin sich das Bestehende, auch das Neuintretende, Jugendliche, Mӧgliche sich fühlt.). In this manner, the possible becomes actual at the very point at which the actual is no more. He maintains, “the possible, which steps into actuality, by actuality dissolving itself” (Aber das Mӧgliche, welches in die Wirklichkeit tritt, indem die Wirklichkeit sich auflöst), effects both the sensation of the dissolution (Empfindung der Auflӧsung) and the remembrance of what has dissolved (die Erinnerung des Aufgelӧsten).” It is in this remembrance that the meaning of the now dissolved world as a whole is grasped.  Hölderlin explains:

“Such ideational dissolution is not met with trepidation; its points of commencement and end are already fixed, located, secured; for that reason such dissolution is also more secure, more inexorable, bolder; it depicts itself thereby as what it properly is, namely, a reproductive act by means of which life traverses all its points, in order to attain the entire sum of those points it does not tarry on any one point but dissolves its attachment to each in order to reproduce itself in the next–it is only that the dissolution becomes increasingly ideal as it removes itself from its point of commencement, or, by contrast, increasingly real as the production advances, until in the end, out of the sum of these sensations of passing away and originating, run through infinitely in a single moment, a feeling of life as a whole comes to the fore; out of this feeling, the soul excluded item, which at the outset was dissolved in remembrance (because of memory’s need for an object in the most accomplished state) now also comes to the fore; and after this remembrance of what has dissolved of the individual, unites with the infinite feeling of life by means of the remembrance of dissolution itself, and after the gaps between them have been filled in, there should emerge from such unification and comparison of the particulars of the past and the infinite that is now presenting itself the new state proper the next step that is to follow upon what is bygone.”

Thus, in remembrance, one sees not only the meaning of the world whole which has fallen, but also that of the world to come. Indeed, one grasps, albeit darkly, that unchanging world of all worlds which grasps itself in the outworking of fate.

            These themes take center stage in the third and final draft of Hölderlin’s of play. Here Empedocles’ leap takes on a world historical significance. He notes, for example, that his choice does not concern one moment only, but is a matter of fate. “And what I am intending now is not a matter of today, for at my birth, already then, it was concluded.” (Third draft). And Manes, an Egyptian Priest who functions as Empedocles brother, double, and opponent in this version, describes Empedocles coming sacrifice and asks whether he is worthy of the calling:

“That one [i.e. the sacrificial victim] is greater than I am! for as the vine (denn wie die Rebe)/ Bears witness to the earth and sky when, saturated by (von Erd und Himmel zeugt, wenn sie getränkt)/ The lofty sun it rises from dark soil, thus (Von hoher Sonn aus denklem Boden steigt,)/ This being grows, a child of light and night (So wächst er auf, aus Licht und Nacht geboren.)/ The world around him bubbles in ferment, and all/ Disruption and corruption in the mortal breast/ Is agitated, and from top to bottom; whereupon/ The lord of time (Der Herr der Zeit), grown apprehensive of his rule,/ Looms with glowering gaze above the consternation./ His day extinguished, lightning bolts still flash, yet/ What flames on high is inflammation, nothing more;/ What strives from down below is savage discord./ The one, however, the newborn savior, grasps (Der Eine doch, der neue Retter, faß)/ The rays of heaven tranquilly, and lovingly (des Himmels Strahlen ruhig auf, und liebend)/ He takes mortality unto his bosom, and (Nimmt er, was sterblich ist, an seinen Busen)/ The world’s strife grows mild in him. (Und milde wird in ihm der Streit der Welt)./ The human being and the gods he reconciles; (Die Menschen und die Gӧtter sӧhnt er aus,)/ Again they live in close proximity, as in former times. (Und nahe wieder leben sie, wie vormals)./ No sooner has the son appeared, that he may not/ Surpass his parentage, and that the holy spirit (der heilige Lebensgeist)/ Of life may not remain in shameful fetters/ On his account, forgotten up above, the unique one/ Now turns aside, although he is the idol of his times,/ Destroys himself, so that a pure hand executes (Zerbricht, er selbst, damit durch reine Hand)/ Whatever of necessity befalls the pure one; (Den Reinen das Notwendige geschehe)/ He shatters his own fortune, now too fortunate for him, (Sein eigen Glück, das ihm zu glücklich ist,)/ Restores whatever he possessed unto the element (und gibt, was er besaß, dem Element,)/ That glorified him, gives it back now wholly cleansed (das ihn Verherrlichte, gläutert wieder)./ Are you that man? the very one? are you this?” (Bist du der Mann? Derselbe? Bist du dies?)

To this Empedocles replies:

“A boy I was back then, my eyes did not know what/ Mysterious things were under way from day to day,/ Surrounding and bedazzling me, the great/ Configurations of this world (die großen Gelstalten dieser Welt), the joyous ones that stirred/ The inexperienced and slumbering heart within my breast (die freudigen, Mein unerfahren schlummernd Herz im Busen)./ Astonished oftentimes I heard the waters’ flow and saw (Und stauend hӧrt ich oft die Wasser gehn)/ The sun burst into bloom; I saw our silent earth (Und sah die Sonne blühn und sich an ihr)/ At youthful day catch fire from that sun (Den Jugendtag der stillen Erd entzünden)./ A hymn was in me, splendidly it soared, (Da ward in mir Gesang, und helle ward)/ My twilit heart I poetized in prayers (Mein dämmernd Herz im dichtenden Gebete)./ When I gave names to all these strangers (die Fremdlinge),/ The present ones (die gegenwärtigen), the gods of nature (die Gӧtter der Natur); to me/ The spirit showed itself in words and images (Und mir der Geist im Wort, im Bild sich),/ Felicitous, to solve the mysteries of life (Im seligen, des Lebens Rätsel lӧste)./ The years passed uneventfully; I grew, while other things/ Prepared themselves for me. For far more violent (Denn gewaltsamer),/ Than inundating waters, savage waves of humankind (Wie Wasser, schlug die wilde Menschenwelle)/ Came crashing down against my breast; in all that din (Mir an die Brust, und aus dem Irrsal kam)/ I came to hear the voice of my poor people (Des armen Volkes Stimme mir zum Ohre)./ And while I paced in silence in my halls/ At midnight rose in tumult their lament/ They stormed across the fields, and weary unto death (lebensmüd)/ With frenzied hands they tore down their own homes, (Mit eigner Hand sein eignes Haus zerbrach),/ They razed their desecrated and abandoned temples (Und die verleideten verlaßnen Tempel);/ When brother fled from brother, when lovers passed (Wenn sich die Brüder flohn und sich die Liebsten)/ Each other by in ignorance, when fathers failed (Vorübereilten und der Vater nicht)/ To recognize their sons, when human words no more (Den Sohn erkannt und Menschenwort nicht mehr)/ Were understood, nor human laws, that was when (Verständlich war und menschliches Gesetz),/ The meaning of it all assailed me and I trembled (Da faßte mich die Deutung schaudernd an):/ It was my nation’s parting god (Es war der scheidende Gottes meines Volks)!/ I heard him, and upward to unspeaking stars (Den hӧrt ich, und zum schweigenden Gestirn)/ I gazed, the place from which he had descended (Sah ich hinauf, wo er herabgekommen)./ And then I went to placate him. For us there still/ Were many radiant days. It still seemed at the very end/ We might invigorate ourselves; and thus consoled/ By memories of the Golden Age, that all-confident/ And brilliant morning full of force, the frightful melancholy/ Was lifted from me and from my people also;/ We sealed with one another free and firm bonds,/ Appealing to the living gods in supplication./ Yet often when I donned the crown of all the people’s thanks,/ And when the nation’s soul (Des Volkes Seele) approached me ever closer,/ Crowding me alone, again the melancholy stole upon me./ For when a country is about to die, its spirit at the end (Denn wo ein Land ersterben soll, da wählt)/ Selects but one among the many, one alone through whom (Der Geist noch einen sich zuletzt, duch den)/ Its swan song, the final breaths of life, will sound (Sein Schwanensang, das letzte Leben tӧnet)./ I had an intimation, yet served the spirit willingly./ And now it has transpired. To mortals I belong (Es ist geschehn. Den Sterblichen gehӧr ich)/ No more. Oh, the termination of my time (Nun nimmer an. O Ende meiner Zeit)!/ O spirit! you who raised us, you who secretly (O Geist, der uns erzog, der du geheim)/ Prevail beneath the sun as well as in the clouds (Am hellen Tag und in der Wolke waltest),/ And you, O light! and you, our mother earth! (Und du, o Licht! Und du, du Mutter Erde!)/ Here I am, tranquil, for I await that which (Hier bin ich, ruhig, denn es wartet mein)/ Prepared itself so long ago, my new hour (Die längstbereitete, die neue Stunde)./ No longer now in images, not as before among (Nun nicht im Bilde mehr und nicht, wie sonst,)/ The mortals steeped in sometime happiness (Bei Sterblichen, im kurzen Glück, ich find),/ In death I’ll find the living one; today (Im Tode find ich den Lebendigen),/ Will be the day I meet him, for on this day (Und heute noch begegn’ ich ihm, denn heute)/ The lord of time inaugurates a festival and sends (Bereitet er, der Herr der Zeit, zur Feier),/ A sign for me and for himself, a cloudburst (Zum Zeichen ein Gewitter mir und sich)./ Do you feel the calm about us now? do you sense/ The silence of the sleepless god? await him here!/ At stroke of twelve he will accomplish it for us./ For if as you have said you are the Thunderer’s/ Familiar, and if your spirit’s of a single mind with his,/ And if you know the path and wish to walk it,/ Then come with me and banish dire loneliness;/ The heart of earth lamenting to itself, remembering (Das Herz der Erde klagt und, eingedenk)/ Their ancient unity, the darksome mother reaching out (Der alten Einigkeit, die dunkel Mutter)/ Her arms of fire, stretching toward the ether; (Zum Äther aus die Feuerarme breitet)/ And if the ruler comes in his bright ray (Und itzt der Herrscher kӧmmt in seinem Strahl),/ We’ll follow him, to signify that we are blood (Dann folgen wir, zum Zeichen, daß wir ihm)/ Related, going down in holy flames together (Verwandte sind, hinab in heil’ge Flammen).”

Sometimes it seems as if we, like Empedocles, stand on the edge of a precipice. We watch as the fatherland goes under. The gods have departed, and the best of our finite efforts to shore up the ruins have proved ineffectual. The temptation to acquiesce to despair or to deaden our minds in a virtual world and its promises of a transhuman technocracy can seem overwhelming. But, perhaps, before surrendering to the fever dreams of the anti-humanists and allowing their poison to be injected deeper into our a bodies and souls, we can recall Hӧlderlin’s Empedocles and his swan song of spirit. Perhaps, if we too had the courage to let his song resound, its incantation would quicken the lapsed memory of our age and call forth a new one, not the new world order preached by the transhumanists, but an ordered world both natural and humane, where the gods once more deign to dwell.

“New world/ and it looms, a brazen vault/ the sky above us, curse lames/ the limbs of humankind, and the nourishing, gladdening/ gifts of earth are like chaff, she/ mocks us with her presents, our mother/ and all is semblance—/ Oh, when, when will it open up/ the flood across the barren plain./ But where is he?/ That he conjure the living spirit.”  (Third Version)

Neue Welt/ und es hängt, ein ehern Gewölbe/ der Himmel über uns, es lähmt Fluch/ die Glieder den Menschen, und die stärkenden, die erfreuenden/ Gaben der Erde sind, wie Spreu, es/ spottet unser, mit ihren Geschenken, die Mutter/ und alles ist Schein –/ O wann, wann/ Schon öffnet sie sich/ die Flut über die Dürre./ Aber wo ist er?/ Daß er beschwöre den lebendigen Geist

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[Image used in thumbnail is The Death of Empedocles by Salvator Rosa. It is in the public domain and can be found here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empedocles#/media/File:The_Death_of_Empedocles_by_Salvator_Rosa.jpg]


[1] “On the Tragic Ode” in The Death of Empedocles: A Mourning Play, trans. David Krell.

[2] “The General Basis [of Tragic Drama]” in The Death of Empedocles, trans. Krell.

[3] Trans. Krell. All translations will be coming from Krell, though some are slightly modified.

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