The Life and Philosophy of Empedocles

The Life and Philosophy of Empedocles

Empedocles (c.494-c.434 BC), like Pythagoras, is a presocratic philosopher whom contemporary expositors either deride or ignore. Because he is a philosopher who sings, invoking the muse and articulating his doctrines as hexameter poems (D7)[1], if it is presented at all, he is presented as an object of either pity (for his alleged ignorance) or scorn (for his spiritual aspirations). As I have argued earlier in my essays on Pythagoreanism, I believe this approach to be fundamentally misguided. Empedocles lived in a world that fused μυθος and λογος into a single living whole, and he crafted a philosophy fit for such world, not for our age of darkness and death. As a result, one cannot amputate the mythical material from the extant sources while still holding true to his philosophy. Thus, instead of ridiculing him as a cult leader who declared himself a god, or praising him for allegedly paving the way for Darwin by telling fanciful myths of isolated organs wandering the world and conjoining randomly to form monsters (D152-156), I’ll attempt to here set forth the philosophy of Empedocles on its own terms.

Life of Empedocles

As with Pythagoras, our knowledge of Empedocles derives from a series of fragmentary legends that contemporary “naturalistic” historians dismiss a priori as mythological. But, I contend that, precisely because the stories of Empedocles are Geschichte and not Historie that we must understand them as myths if we are to understand them at all.  

According to some sources, Empedocles was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Akragas Sicily. His father was likely named Meton (P6), and his grandfather, also named Empedocles, was a victor in the Olympic games (P3). The younger Empedocles used his wealth and social standing to support the community. Diogenes Laertius, for example, relates that “by reason of his ample wealth he gave a dowry to many girls of his city who did not have one” (P21). He was also known for his theatrical flamboyant style of dress that some criticized as pretentious (P22). Again, Diogenes records that “this [wealth] was how he could dress in purple clothes and a gold sash, as Favorinus says in his Memoirs, and also wear bronze shoes and a Delphic garland. He had luxuriant hair and a retinue of young attendants; and he was always gloomy and did not change his bearing. This is how he went along; and when his fellow citizens met him they regarded this as though it were a sign of certain royalty” (P21).  He was offered the kingship, but turned it down, being averse to political power and preferring a simple life (P19).

            In addition to philosophy, Empedocles practiced medicine (P24), was an exceptional orator (P24) and poet (R1b and R3b), and even created the art of rhetoric (R5a). He is said to have learned philosophy either from Pythagoras himself or from later Pythagoreans, and to have been exiled from their ranks for revealing their secrets. Diogenes recounts that “Timaeus reports in his ninth book that he [i.e. Empedocles] studied with Pythagoras, and says that then, having been caught plagiarizing, he was forbidden […] from participating in the discussions” (P10), and “Neanthes says that until Philolaus and Empedocles, the Pythagoreans shared their teachings among themselves, but when he [i.e. Empedocles] divulged them in his poetry, they made a rule not to transmit them to any poet” (P12). Others claimed that he emulated Parmenides and Xenophanes, rather than Pythagoras (P14-15).

Like Pythagoras, Empedocles was known for his magic, stopping winds and reviving a woman who had ceased breathing for 30 days (P16). Diogenes, for example, recounts that:

“When a plague fell upon the inhabitants of Selinunte because of the miasmas coming from the neighboring river, so that they themselves were dying and the women were miscarrying, Empedocles understood and at his own expense diverted two nearby rivers to the city; and the mixture sweetened its streams. When the plague had stopped in this way, the Selinunties were banqueting one day beside the river and Empedocles arrived. They got up and prostrated themselves before him and prayed to him as though he were a god.” (P29).

And again like Pythagoras, he is said to have worked wonders through music. Iamblichus recounts:

“When a young man had already drawn his sword against his host Anchitus […], Empedocles changed the harmony of the lyre he was holding and, seizing upon a mellow and sedating tune, quickly struck up the line that calms grief and anger and brings forgetfulness of all evils, as the poet [i.e. Homer] says [Odyssey 4.221], and saved both his host Anchitus from dying and the young man from committing murder. It is reported that this man went on to become Empedocles’ most celebrated disciple” (P 17).

            The stories of his death are as enigmatic as those of his life. Some say he was deified and taken up to heaven, while others say he threw himself into a volcano to deceive people into believing he was so deified. The account of his deification is as follows, Diogenes, citing Heraclides, states that Empedocles had raised a woman from the dead and sent her back home. Afterwards he went to perform a sacrifice near a field owned by Peisanax.

“Some of his friends, including Pausanias, had been invited. Then after the banquet the others went off to rest, some under the trees, as the field was nearby, others wherever they wished; but he remained where he had been reclining. But when they got up at daybreak, he was the only one who could not be found. When they looked for him and the servants, when asked, said they knew nothing, someone said that in the middle of the night he had heard a very loud voice calling upon Empedocles, and that he had gotten up and seen a light in the sky and a gleam of torches (φως ου͐ρανιον και λαμπαδων φεγγος), but nothing else. They were astounded by what had happened, and Pausanias ended up sending some people to look for him. But later he told them not to trouble themselves, saying that what had happened was worthy of prayer, and that they should sacrifice to him as though he had become a god” (P29).

And the account of him deceptively throwing himself into a volcano, provided by Hippobotus and preserved by Diogenes goes as follows:

“He got up and walked toward Aetna, and then, when he had arrived at the fiery craters, he threw himself in and vanished, since he wished to confirm the rumor that he had become a god; but that later the truth was discovered, when one of his shows was hurled up again. For he had the habit of wearing bronze shoes.” (P29).

Later humorous accounts said he lived on the moon, “walking on air and dining on dew” after being blasted into the sky by the volcano (R101).[2]

On Nature

Empedocles philosophy was articulated in two hexameter poems: On Nature (περι ϕυσεως), which develops his account of the four roots of fire, air, water, and earth related through the powers of love and strife, and The Purifications (ʿοι καθαρμοι), which explains the soul’s exile and return to heaven through a process of reincarnation. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

On Nature is addressed to his lover Pausanias (P9). Though it attempts to explain the natural world, the poem does not attempt to do so in a way consistent with contemporary reductive materialism. This should be clear from the fact that Empedocles invokes the muse at the outset (D44) of his poem and promises that the knowledge he imparts will bestow magical powers such as the ability to control the weather and raise the dead (D43). Moreover, he even goes on to explicitly renounce reductivism at the outset of his work, announcing his intentions early in the poem:

“For narrow are the resources spread out along the limbs, and numerous the miseries that break in, blunting the thoughts. Having seen in their existences (ζωη) only a small part of life (βιος), they fly off, swift-fated, borne along like smoke, convinced of whatever one thing each one of them has encountered, driven in every direction. But the whole, <who then> boasts that he has found it? Thus these things are neither seen by men nor heard nor grasped by the mind (νοος). But you, since you have withdrawn here, you will learn; never has human intelligence (μητις) soared further” (D42).

Here Empedocles contrasts the individual parts of the universe, the limbs with their narrow resources and accompanying miseries, with the universe considered as a whole. To think in terms of limited beings is to blunt one’s thoughts, since these beings are ephemeral, “borne along like smoke”. The whole, in contrast, can be grasped by the mind, as human intelligence soars to its limits. For, unlike the fleeting world of experience, the whole is characterized by Being—“of the whole, nothing is empty; so from where could anything come to be added to it.” (D50). And, echoing, Parmenides, Empedocles proclaims:

“For from what is not at all, it is impossible that something come about, and that what is be completely destroyed is unfeasible and unheard of; For, wherever one presses each time, each time it will be there.” (D48).

Empedocles is thus not interested in reducing the universe to its component parts, but in grasping its Being as a whole. Indeed, he calls men “children” (νηπιοι) lacking “long-thinking (δολχοφρονες) cares (μεριμναι)”  who “suppose that what was not before comes about, or that something dies and is completely destroyed” (D51).

To think Being as the indestructible whole that it is, Empedocles maintains that we cannot lmit ourselves to one source of information exclusively. He observes, in a passage preserved by Sextus Empiricus:

“But come, consider with every resource in what way each thing is evident, without holding some vision in greater trust than what accords with hearing (ακουη), nor resonating sound (ακοη) as superior to the clarities of the tongue, and from none of the other limbs, in whatever way it provides a path [πορος] for thought (νοησαι), withhold your trust, but think (νοει) in whatever way each thing is evident.” (D44).

Rather than restricting our sources of information (as reductive naturalism does), to think Being, we must think things in accordance with how they present themselves, “in whatever way each thing is evident [δῆλος].” It is only by thinking appearing things as they appear, that we will able to grasp the Being that appears in the appearing. For these are the pathways (ποροι) for thinking.

When we follow these pathways through the fleeting world of experience, we come to see the eternal roots underlying and sustaining it. Empedocles claims these roots are fourfold, announcing:

“Hear first of all the four roots of all things [τέσσαρα μὲν πάντων ῥιζώματα πρῶτον ἄκουε]: Zeus the gleaming, Hera who gives life, Aidoneus, and Nestis, who moistens with her tears the mortal fountain” (D57).

These god roots are what appear in the stepping forth of the elemental tetrad of fire, air, water, and earth. Here, most think that Empedocles assigns Zeus to fire, Hera to air, Nestis to water, and Aidoneus to earth.[3] Empedocles also used a variety of other terms to refer to these fundamental roots, Simplicius, for example, records that:

“He also called the fire ‘Hephaestus’, ‘sun,’ and ‘flame,’ the water ‘rain’, the air ‘aether’…., calling the fire ‘sun,’ the air ‘gleam’ and ‘sky,’ and water ‘rain’ and ‘sea’” (D58).

These four unchanging roots undergird the changing world of experience and guide its unfolding though their combinations. Empedocles likens this to a painter who depicts a scene by combining a fundamental pallet of colors:  

“As when painters color many-hued sacrificial offerings, both men, by reason of their skill, very expert in their art, they grasp many-colored pigments in their hands, then, having mixed them in harmony, the ones more, the others less, out of these they compose forms similar to all things, creating trees, men, and women, wild beasts and birds, water-nourished fish, and long-lived gods, the greatest in honors: in this way may your mind not succumb to the error that it is from elsewhere [scil. than from the four elementary roots]. That comes the source of all the innumerable mortal things whose existence is evident, but know this exactly, once you have heard the word of a god.” (D60).

The four elements are related by two primary powers, love (Aphrodite) and strife (Neikos). They are fitted together (συναρμόζω) by Aphrodite (D61) and separated by strife. So, continuing our example above, Aphrodite would be equated with blending various colors, and strife by pulling them apart. Empedocles explains:

“Twofold is what I shall say: for at one time they [i.e. the elements] grew to be only one out of many, at another time again they separate to be many out of one. And double is the birth of mortal things, double their death. For the one [i.e. birth] is both born and destroyed by the coming together of all things, while the other inversely, when they are separated, is nourished and flies apart (?). And these [scil. the elements] incessantly exchange their places continually, sometimes by love all coming together into one, sometimes again each one carried off by the hatred of strife. <Thus insofar as they have learned to grow as one out of many,> And inversely, the one separating again, they ended up being many, to that extent they become, and they do not have a steadfast lifetime; but insofar as they incessantly exchange their places continually, to that extent they always are, immobile in a circle.

But come now, listen to my words: for learning will make your mind (φρενες) grow. For as I already said, when I was indicating clearly the boundaries of my words, twofold is what I shall say: for at one time they grew to be only one out of many, at another time again they separate to be many out of one, fire, water, earth, and the immense height of air; and baleful Strife is separate from them, equivalent everywhere, and Love (φιλοτης) in them, equal in length and in breadth. Look upon her with your mind (νοος)—and do not sit there with astounded eyes—she who mortals too think is implanted in their joints (αρθρα), and by whom they have loving thoughts and perform deeds of union (αρθμια), Calling her ‘Joy’ as by name and ‘Aphrodite’; That it is she who is going around among them [i.e. the elements], no mortal man knows this. But as for you, listen to the undeceitful voyage of my discourse.” (D73).

Empedocles here notes that what we experience as birth and death are both operations of both powers. Aphrodite operates in our birth because the various components of our bodies must come together into a living unity, yet Neikos must also act, for if the components of our bodies were merged with all others the universe into an undifferentiated unity, our bodies would fail to be distinct living beings. The same holds for what we call death. Death is the coming together of some elements in new formations, and the pulling apart of others (i.e. those constituting our living bodies). But when we expand our view to consider the universe as a whole, there is no real change, only a perpetual balance of the fundamental roots standing “immobile in a circle.” Aphrodite and Neikos are eternally balanced, as yin and yang, the former acting on behalf of the One, and the latter the Many. Empedocles proclaims:

“The sun, warm to see and shining everywhere, all the immortal things [i.e. probably clouds] moistened with heat and a bright gleam, and rain for all, dark and icy; and out of the ground flow forth foundations and solid things. Under hatred, all things are divided in form and are separated, while under love they come together and desire each other.” (D77).

As this interplay works itself out in time; the universe unfolds in cycles. Sometimes Aphrodite rules, bringing all to undifferentiated unity. Empedocles identifies this condition with the god “Sphairos”, the ‘spherical’ god under the total domination of Love.”[4] (D87-88, D90). Then Neikos takes over by rupturing Sphairos and beginning to differentiate the roots once more (D94).

On the Purifications.

Whereas On Nature speaks of the universe in which we live, move, and have our Being, On The Purifications speaks to how we should conduct ourselves in such a universe. Empedocles, like a Taoist sage, aims for nothing less than immortality. Indeed, at the outset of the Purifications, he announces that he has attained this lofty goal:

“Friends, you who dwell in the great city beside the yellow Acragas on the lofty citadel and who care for good deeds, respectful harbors for strangers, inexperienced in wickedness, I great you! I, who for you am an immortal god, no longer mortal, [θεος α’μβροτος, ου’κετι θνητος] go among you, honored, as I am seen, crowned with ribbons and with blooming garlands. Whenever I arrive with these in the flourishing cities, I am venerated by men and by women; they follow me, thousands of them, asking where is the road to benefit: Some of them desire prophecies, others ask to hear, for illnesses of all kinds, a healing utterance, pierced for a long time by terrible <pains>.” (D4)

As he did in On Nature, he proclaims that through theosis he has gained the power to prophesy and heal. And similarly, he claims that divinity is achieved through right thinking. Clement of Alexandria records his declaration “Happy he who possesses the wealth of divine organs of thought (prapides); wretched, he who cares for an obscure doctrine about the gods.” (D8). Here Empedocles contrasts the misery of those who have an obscure doctrine of the gods, with those who possess divine organs of thought. It is interesting to note that the word translated here as “organ of thought” is πραπίδες which, translated literally, means diaphragm, but came to refer to the mind. Mind, for Empedocles, is not located in the head, but in the midriff. We thus once more see a parallel to Taoism, with its notion of the dantien, the elixir field where qi is stored in the body.[5] And the parallels grow even clearer when we observe that, for Empedocles, thought occurs in the blood. Theophrastus records Empedocles account as follows:

“He speaks in the same way about thinking and ignorance. For one thinks by means of what is similar, while one does not know because of what is dissimilar, since for him thinking is either identical with perception or very similar to it. …. This is why it is by means of the blood that one thinks best; for, among the parts [scil. of the body], it is in this one that elements can achieve their best mixture” (D237).

Empedocles is here using the principle that like is known by like, that knowledge is grounded in identity. In On Nature he set forth a theory of effluences in which physical particles of earth, air, fire and water, were emitted by objects, and received by similarly composed receptors in the human body (D208, 209, 212). And because the elemental roots are most mixed in the blood, the blood becomes the seat of knowledge.[6]

Theophrastus continues to summarize Empedocles view:

“So the people in whom they are mixed in equal quantity, in a homogeneous manner and without large disparities, when moreover they are neither small or too big, these are the ones who think the best and are most precise in the use of the senses, and in the same way, proportionally, those who are closest to these conditions; while those who are in the opposite condition are those ones who think least well: those in whom the elements are rarified and loosely dispersed are sluggish and laborious; while those in whom the elements are dense and crowded closely together get carried away quickly and launch themselves upon many projects but complete only few of them because of the rapidity of the motion of their blood. And those in whom the mixture is moderate in a specific limb are proficient in that regard: it is for this reason that some people are good orators, others artisans, since the latter have the mixture in their hands, the former in their tongue. And the same applies to the other talents.” (D237).

Because thought thinks through the blood, better thinking will be correlated with a greater mixture of blood. This again echoes Taoist teaching and the practice of Qigong which relies on the correlation between the three treasures of Jing (physical essence), Qi (life force), and Shen (mind). One practitioner, for example, defines the relation as follows:

“Within the tradition of the “three treasures”, the Shen leads and controls the Qi and the Qi directs the Jing. The mind directs the vital energy which draws the essence with it. In practical terms, the Qi follows whatever the mind focuses on. The mind leads the Qi to a certain place. When the Qi is focused there and gathers the essence, substance will be formed. Physical change will occur.”[7]

            Empedocles believes that once we have purified ourselves to rightly think the divine, we see that we share a kinship with other living beings. This, claims Empedocles, forces us to acknowledge an ethics of nonviolence. Circero, for example, records that:

“Pythagoras and Empedocles assert that there is a single legal condition for all living beings and they proclaim that inexpiable punishments await those who have done violence to an animal.” (D27b).

If animals are as alive as we are, made of the same eternal roots as us, thinking as we do through the circulation of their blood, then we have no grounds to do them violence. The bloodshed becomes even more horrific when one adopts the doctrine of metempsychosis as Empedocles did by claiming “as for me, once I was already both a youth and a girl, a bush and a bird, and a sea-leaping, voyaging fish.” (D13)

If our souls transmigrate from body to body, the killing of other animals could well be the killing of one’s previous friends and family. For Empedocles, the killing of animals constitutes something like humanity’s original sin, since we have come to rely on the grisly practice both to feed ourselves and to uphold our institutional and religious life through blood sacrifice. In this manner, Empedocles offered a radical critique of the culture of his day. Sextus Empiricus records Empedocles revulsion to common practices as follows:

 “The father, lifting up his own son who has changed shape, cuts his throat, with a prayer—fool that he is! The others are at a loss while they sacrifice the suppliant; but he [scil. the father], deaf to the shouts, has cut the throat and prepared an evil meal in his house. In the same way, a son seizes his father and children their mother, and ripping out their life they devour the flesh of their dear ones.” (D29).

            Empedocles expands this insight to articulate a myth of a cosmic fall. This is recorded by Hyppolitus as follows:

“There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient decree of the gods, Eternal, sealed by broad oaths: whenever by crimes some one [scil. of them] pollutes his limbs, by murder <…> whoever commits a fault by perjuring himself on oath, the divinities (δαιμονες) who have received as lot a long life, must wander thrice ten thousand seasons far from the blessed ones, growing during this time in the different forms of mortal beings, exchanging the painful paths of life. For the force of the aether chases them toward the sea, the sea spits them out toward earth’s surface, the earth toward the rays of the bright sun, and he [i.e. the sun] hurls them into the eddies of the aether. Each one receives them from another, but all hate them. Of them, I too am now one, an exile from the divine and a wanderer, I who relied on insane Strife.” (D10).[8]

This, then becomes an explanation for the suffering intrinsic to mortal life. “Alas! Wretched race of mortals, miserable race! From such kinds of strife and from such groans are you born!” (D17) Our souls find themselves in frail bodies subject to change (especially in the sublunar realm in which we live), because we have been exiled from our true home on account of half-remembered crime. We are cursed to wander for thirty thousand seasons through the earthly elements, being chased from the oceans, through the earth, to the fires of the sun, and then the heavenly aether.

            As a result, the aim of philosophy according to Empedocles is to aid us in our homeward journey. In a fragment taken to be the end of the Purifications, he declares that, in our final state we will be welcomed back to the realm from whence we came,

“sharing the hearth with other immortals, sitting at the same table, without any share in men’s sufferings, indestructible.” (D40).

May we, like Empedocles, one day find our way home, and, through that journey, may philosophy itself perhaps be restored to its Empedoclean roots.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Fragment numbers and quotations are from Early Greek Philosophy V: Western Greek Thinkers Part. II ed. and trans. Laks and Most. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.

[2] Like a theologian seeking to harmonize the Gospels, one might try to harmonize these accounts. https://youtu.be/94IcxvoRoi4

[3] M.R. Wright, Empedocles the Extant Fragments (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 23.

[4] Laks and Most, 447.

[5] He reiterates this point in a different fragment, again preserved by Clement, noting that “it is impossible to approach [scil. Probably: the divine], to attain it with our eyes or to grasp it with hands—which is how the greatest highway of persuasion penetrates the mind (phrên) of men” (D9). Φρήν again means midriff or heart.

[6]  Further passages are recorded by Pseudo-Plutarch and Porphyry. Ps-Plutarch: “The directing organ is neither in the head nor in the chest, but in the blood; so that he thinks that men excel in whatever part of the body the directing organ is more disseminated.” (D239). Porphyry: “[scil. Probably: the heart] nourished in the seas of back-springing blood, where above all is located what humans call thought: For the blood around the heart is for humans their thought.” (D240).

[7] https://www.taoistsanctuary.org/principles-of-qigong

[8] Plutarch provides a similar testimony. “Empedocles says that the divinities (daimones) are punished for whatever faults and offenses they commit […]  until, having been punished in this way and been purified, they once again take up their natural location and rank.” (D11).

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