Empedocles was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Acragas (a city in Sicily) born in 492 BC. His philosophy is eclectic, meaning that he fused multiple philosophical traditions together including the thoughts of the earlier Milesian philosophers and their understanding of the world being made up of elements, Pythagoras‘s belief in the immortality of the soul and reincarnation, Heraclitus’s understanding of the world as being in a constant state of flux, and Parmenides belief that the world is fundamentally one. Empedocles believed the world to be made up of the four primary elements: earth, water, wind and fire. He saw the world coming to be (cosmogony) and maintaining itself (cosmology) through the coming together and separating of these elements by the two processes he called Love and Strife. Within this cosmic structure, he saw the soul as having fallen from an initial divine state, and he sought to show others how to purify the soul in order to enable it to become one again with it’s original divine source.
Empedocles came from an aristocratic background, but he was pro democracy. He was active in politics, having successfully fought to remove an oligarchy (rule by a few people) from power in his hometown. He was revered by his fellow citizens, and seen as a God by the people of the neighboring city Selinus for having freed them of disease caused by a polluted river. He was considered a great physician and magician, treating diseases as well as performing wondrous deeds.
In ancient Greece, there wasn’t a rigid distinction between science and religion. Empedocles is best known for a poem he wrote, titled both On Nature and Purifications, which discusses both of these topics. The concept of pollution was common in ancient Greece, and it referred to when something such as an individual, family or city was contaminated in some way either because of something forbidden that was done (ex: manslaughter), intentionally or unintentionally, or because of something that wasn’t done (ex: sacrifices). Purifications are necessary to make things right.
Empedocles believed that himself, as well as all humans, were originally divine (daimons), but became polluted through initial bad acts such as murder and lying. The punishment for these sins is a period of time of being reincarnated in different life forms. Empedocles’ message is that humans must realize their divine nature and current fate, and then take steps to purify themselves in order to be able to unify with the divine once again. This understanding that there are things we can do in this world to have a better afterlife is similar to the teachings of Pythagoras.
Also like Pythagoras, Empedocles’ religious beliefs relate to his cosmology (“understanding of the world”). Empedocles believes that the world is composed of the four primary elements earth, water, wind and fire which are eternal. The world came into being and is maintained by the mixing of these elements as they come together and are separated by the processes of Love and Strife. Love and Strife have also always existed, and it is through their interplay that change occurs in the world. Love and Strife are equal and opposite forces. He sees Love and Strife as truly causing the elements to become “in love” with one another or to become “enemies.” In this way, Empedocles’ understanding of the cosmos is along the same lines that he understands how people interact with one another. Proper moral action follows from a proper understanding of the world. The world started as a sphere but Strife would come to be dominant. With Love, the world will ultimately return to it’s original spherical nature as humans return to their original divine like nature.
Empedocles is writing in response to Parmenides who wrote in response to Heraclitus. Heraclitus believed that the fundamental principle of the world was change, which he symbolized with fire. Parmenides, in contrast, believed that change was an illusion as the world is and has always been One reality. Empedocles combines these two with his understanding of the four elements as being eternally unchanging, yet capable of creating change in the world through their combination and separation. Together, Love and Strife His understanding of the world as constantly changing due to the principles of Love and Strife is similar to the principles of Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy.
Empedocles also put forward an understanding of how humans and other life forms came into existence. From the four elements, different mixtures resulted in different life forms with combinations of various body parts. Eventually, through a process which is seen as a predecessor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, certain combinations came into being that allowed for the creation of male and female beings and the continued existence of life in the world.
Empedocles is also credited with a theory of perception and knowledge (epistemology). He believed vision was made possible when light coming from our eyes meets light emitted from objects. Knowledge is possible because the same elements that make up the world also make up human beings. “Like is known by like.” Empedocles saw the senses as helpful, but not capable of providing true knowledge of the world. It is up to the philosopher, who understands the elements and how they inter-relate with one another, who is capable of determining the way the world truly is as opposed to how it merely appears to be.
As a philosopher, Empedocles is impressive for his ability to combine the thoughts of those who came before him in order to create a unique understanding of the world that connects his religious and scientific beliefs in a unified way. As a person, he is impressive for his success as a figure who was equally a poet, physician, politician, philosopher and scientist.