by Brett Jordan
Empedocles of Agrigentum was a Greek philosopher, in addition to being a poet, scientist, and theologian. He lived during the approximate time period of 490 to 430 BCE. Like other pre-socratic philosophers, we have very little of his work which has been handed down mostly by Aristotle and Plutarch. His most notable works are Purifications and On Nature.
Before we begin this short espousal, we must address an interpretive issue. Many scholars suggest that Empedocles studied under Parmenides, based on some textual evidences and his general agreement with Parmenides’ philosophy. However, some debate surrounds this claim, but we can generally agree that Empedocles was deeply immeshed in Parmenides’ work and sought to strengthen his monistic metaphysics.
Empedocles disagreed with Parmenides on the nature of change, as Parmenides saw change as a mere illusion, and nature as a unified unchanging substance. To support his argument, Parmenides’ thought rests very heavily on a simple premise: something cannot come from nothing. He develops this premise to later conclude that the world was one single, unified substance.
Empedocles did not wholly disagree with this, but he suggested that conversely, we must also accept with this premise that something cannot turn into nothing either. If we buy into this as well, then we deny the possibility of seemingly true concepts such as change, demise, decay, destruction, and absence. Empedocles stated that we should rather say that the ever-changing phenomenal world must be supported by a unified, monistic metaphysics.
To Empedocles, four elements, or “roots,” make up the world as we know it, and yes, you’ve guessed it, they are earth, air, fire, and water. He suggested that the world undergoes a tension between two cosmic forces: Love and Strife. If we imagine a world dominated by Love, the elements are all combined into one, yet not reduced to a single substance, but into indistinguishable forms that cannot support life or matter, because life and matter require difference, forms, and change, or in short: beings.
As Strife begins to act on this world, the elements are separated but can be so manipulated by Strife as to create a whirlwind of change that cannot support any stability or unified being. When this happens, love returns to rebalance the Cosmos, life and the phenomenal world are again brought back to life, and then Love seeks to dominate the cosmos again. Once it has, the process starts all over at the beginning.
We do not know whether Empedocles saw these forces as merely mechanical or if they were acts of the gods, because Empedocles was a theologian and very ethical man as well. Despite this fact, many scholars contend that Empedocles was positing the existences of two separate worlds, or Spheres, one wrought with Strife and the other with Love. Empedocles suggested that the human race lives in the world increasingly dominated by Strife.
In this Sphere of Strife, the differentiating force continues to delineate all matter, over and over again. Matter exists as a particular proportion of elements which provide any given object or being its unique nature. He compared this world to the art of painting, as the painter mixes a few basic colors to create an infinite number of shades and colors. Similarly, the world constantly adjusts its proportions of the elements to provide for change and difference. Fire, for example, provide human beings with their own particularity.
Empedocles committed to this Cosmology so much that he applied it to every realm of the human sciences, including botany, biology, and ethics. In fact, the soul favors the movement of the Cosmos, and we see in his ethics a direct parallel between the journey of the soul and the tension in the Cosmos. We can safely assume that his theology and physics coincided with his Cosmology as well.
Empedocles, a many of many talents, played an important role in the history of Western Philosophy. If not, he definitely contributed to the long debate that followed Parmenides’ work.
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