Empedocles of Acragas
Life and Work
Empedocles (c. 490-430 BC) flourished in the city of Acragas, Sicily. Like Parmenides he wrote in the form of Homeric hexameter. The subject of the first poem On Nature. Is the nature and structure of the physical world, while the second poem On Purifications includes some practical guidance for soul’s purification. The legend of Empedocles’ death describes him flinging into the crater atop of Mount Etna to convince his pupils of his divinity.
The Four Roots
Empedocles maintained the theory that the material world is composed of four elements or roots: fire, air, water and earth. The botanical terms ‘roots’ indicate the vitality of the substructure, their unseen depths and the potentiality for growth. These four essential ingredients are immortal, distinct and equally balanced in cosmos. While themselves remain imperishable, immobile and unchanged, they can produce the various beings in this material world. On this basis, the indestructible nature of the four roots echo Parmenides’ indestructibility of Being.
Love and Strife
Due to the completeness of the four elements, being is continuous, without spatial gaps. Empedocles accepts Parmenides’ thesis that nothing comes-to-be or passes-away. Generation and destruction have to be denied; so-called generation is merely the ‘mixing’ of the elements in various proportions, while destruction is the ‘separation’ of the various compounds into their original elements. The former corresponds to the force of Love, the latter to the force of Strife. Love and Strife are the eternal motive forces which combine and separate the elements within the cosmic cycle.
The Holy Mind
Empedocles’ god is immortal and everlasting, described as a rounded sphere rejoicing in encircling stillness, equal to itself in every direction, without any beginning or end. Empedocles’ God contains holy-mind which embraces all the immortal principles of the cosmos, a God who has little in common with the traditional anthropomorphic gods. The divine nature is conceivable only through human mind. The senses can tell us only about the perceptible world.
Whereas God is immortal and unchangeable, human beings are mortal and subject to alteration of the four elements under the act of Love and Strife. The human soul experiences a life of suffering wandering for many years through many mortal bodies and reincarnations. Empedocles further maintains that between the life of mortals and the life of immortals there is a middle-life, the life of spirits or daemons. The daemons are also subject to alteration but though a longer period of time.
1 (2) The powers spread over the body are constricted, and many afflictions burst in and dull their meditations. After observing a small part of their life in their lifetime, subject to a swift death they are borne up and waft away like smoke; they are convinced only of that which each has experienced as they are driven in all directions, yet all boast of finding the whole. These things are not so to be seen or heard by men or grasped with mind. But you now, since you have come aside to this place, will learn within the reach of human understanding.
2 (3) But turn from my tongue, o gods, the madness of these men, and from hallowed lips let a pure stream flow. And I entreat you, virgin Muse, white-armed, of long memory, send of that which it is right and fitting for mortals to hear, driving the well-reined chariot from the place of reverence.
3 (131) If for the sake of any one of mortals, immortal Muse, <it pleased you> that our cares come to your attention, now once more Kalliopeia, answer a prayer, and support the unfolding of a worthy account of the blessed gods.
4 (1) And you, Pausanias, son of wise Anchitos, hear me.
5 (3) And do not it <the account> impel you to take up garlands of glory and honour from mortals, on condition that you speak recklessly, overstepping propriety, and so then sit on the high throne of wisdom. But come, observe with every power in what way each thing is clear, without considering any seeing more reliable compared with hearing, nor echoing ear above piercings of the tongue; and do not keep back trust at all from the other parts of the body by which there is a channel for understanding, but understand each particular in the way in which it is clear.
6 (4) It is indeed the habit of the mischievous to distrust authority, but learn yourself as the assurances of my Muse urge, after the argument has been articulated within your breast.
7 (6) Hear first the four roots of all things: bright Zeus and life-bringing Hera and Aidoneus and Nestis, whose tears are the source of mortal streams.
8 (17) A twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be only one from many, and at another again it divided to be many from one. there is a double birth of what is mortal, and a double passing away: for the uniting of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it, and the other is reared and scattered as they are again being divided. And these things never cease their continual exchange of position, at one time all coming together into one through love, at another again being borne away from each other by strife's repulsion. <So, insofar as one is accustomed to arise from many> and many are produced from one as it is again being divided, to this extent they are born and have no abiding life; but insofar as they never cease their continual exchange, so far they are forever unaltered in the cycle. (13)
But come, hear my words, for learning brings an increase of wisdom. Even as I said before, when I was stating the range of my discourse, a twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be only one from many, and at another again it divided to be many from one fire and water and earth and measureless height of air, with pernicious strife apart from these, matched <to them> in every direction, and love among them, their equal in length and breadth. Contemplate her with the mind, and do not sit staring dazed; she is acknowledged to be inborn also in the bodies of men, and because of her their thoughts are friendly and they work together, giving her the name Joy, as well as Aphrodite. No mortal has perceived her as she whirls among them; but you now attend to the progress of my argument, which does not mislead. (26)
All these are equal and of like age, but each has a different prerogative and its own particular character, and they prevail in turn as the time comes round. furthermore nothing comes to birth later in addition to these, and there is no passing away, for if they were continually perishing they would no longer exist. And what would increase this whole, and from where would it come? How would it be completely destroyed, since nothing is without them? No, these are the only real things, but as they run through each other they become different objects at different times, yet they are forever the same.
9 (12) It is impossible for there to be coming into existence from what is not, and for what exists to be completely destroyed cannot be achieved, and is unheard of; for when and where it is thrust, there it will be.
10 (13) There is no part of the whole that is empty or overfull.
11 (16) They are as they were before and shall be, and never, I think, will endless time be emptied of these two.
12 (8) Here is another point: of all mortal things none has birth or any end in pernicious death, but there is only a mixing and a separating of what has been mixed, and to these people give the name 'birth'.
13 (9) When they have been mixed in the form of a man and come to the air, or in the form of the race of wild animals, or of plants, or of birds, then people say that this is 'to be born', and, when they separate, they call this again 'ill-fated death'; these terms are not right, but I follow the custom and use them myself.
14 (21) But come, if the form of my preceding argument was in any way incomplete, take note of the witnesses of these to what I have said before: sun with its radiant appearance and pervading warmth, heavenly bodies bathed in heat and shining light, rain everywhere dark and chill, and from earth issue firmly-rooted solids. Under strife they have different forms and are all separate, but they come together in love and are desired by one another. From them comes all that was and is and will be hereafter trees have sprung from them, and men and women, and animals and birds and water-nourished fish, and long-lived gods too, highest in honour. For these are the only real things, and, as they run through each other, they assume different forms, for the mixing interchanges them.
15 (23) As painters, men well taught by wisdom in the practice of their art, decorate temple offerings they take in their hands pigments of various colours, and after fitting them in close combination, more of some and less of others, they produce from them shapes resembling all things, creating trees and men and women, animals and birds and water-nourished fish, and long-lived gods too, highest in honour; so let not error convince you in your mind that there is any other source for the countless perishables that are seen, but know this clearly, since the discourse you have heard is from a god.
16 (26) They prevail in turn as the cycle moves round, and decrease into each other and increase in appointed succession. For these are the only real things, and, as they run through one another, they become men and the kinds of other animals at one time coming into one order through love, at another again being borne away from each other by strife's hate, until they come together into the whole and are subdued. So, in so far as one is accustomed to arise from many, and many are produced from one as it is again being divided, to this extent they are born and have no abiding life; but in so far as they never cease their continual exchange, so far they are for ever unaltered in the cycle.
17 (25) For what is right is worth repeating.
18 (24) Joining one main point to another, so as not to pursue only one path of discourse
19 (27) There the shining form of the sun is not shown, nor the shaggy might of earth, nor sea.
20 (36) Strife was retreating from them to the extremity as they were coming together.
21 (27) There the swift limbs of the sun are not distinguished . . . in this way it is held fast in the close covering of harmony, a rounded sphere, rejoicing in encircling stillness.
22 (29/28) For two branches do not spring from his back, he has no feet, no swift knees, n organs of reproduction, but he is equal to himself in every direction, a rounded sphere, rejoicing in encircling stillness.
23 (30) But when strife had grown great in the frame and leapt upward to its honours as the time was being completed .. .
24 (31) For one by one all the parts of the god began to tremble.
25 (22) For all these sun and earth and sky and sea are one with the parts of themselves that have been separated from them and born in mortal things. In the same way, those that are more ready to combine are made similar by Aphrodite and feel mutual affection. But such as are most different from each other in birth and mixture and in the moulding of their forms are most hostile, quite inexperienced in union, and grieving deeply at their generation in strife, in that they were born in anger.
26 (22) This is well-known in the mass of mortal limbs: at one time, in the maturity of a vigorous life, all the limbs that are the body's portion come into one under love; at another time again, torn asunder by evil strifes, they wander, each apart, on the shore of life, So it is too for plants, and for fish that live in the water, and for wild animals who have their lairs in the hills, and for the wing-sped gulls,
27 (8) Come now, I shall tell you from what sources in the beginning <arose> the sun and all those others which we now see become distinct earth and swelling sea and moist air and Titan sky, whose circle binds fast all things..
28 (51) swiftly upwards
29 (53) For it chanced to be running in this way then, but often in other ways.
30 (54) <air> with deep roots sank down over the earth.
31 (37) Earth increases its own bulk, and air increases air.
32 (52) And many fires burn beneath the surface of the earth.
33 (39) If the depths of the earth and extensive air are without limit, as has come foolishly from the tongue of the mouths of many who have seen but a little of the whole
34 (40) sharp-arrowed sun and kindly moon
35 (41) But <the sun>, after being collected together, moves round the great sky.
36 (44) He shines back to Olympus with fearless face.
37 (47) She contemplates the bright circle of her lord facing her.
38 (43) As the ray, after striking the broad circle of the moon . . .
39 (45) A circle of borrowed light moves swiftly round the earth.
40 (46) As the course of the chariot turns round and back she . . .
41 (42) She dispersed his rays to earth from the upper side, and cast on the earth a shadow equal to the breadth of the silvery moon.
42 (48) And earth causes night by coming under the rays.
43 (49) of desolate, blind-eyed night
44 (50) And iris brings wind or heavy rain from the sea.
45 (56) Sat was crystallised under pressure from the rays of the sun.
46 (55) sea, sweat of earth
47 (35) But I shall turn back to the path of song I traced before, leading off explanation from explanation as follows: when strife had reached the lowest depth of the whirl and love comes into the centre of the eddy, in her then all these things unite to be one only not immediately, but coming together from different directions at will. And, as they were being mixed, countless types of mortal things poured forth, but many, which strife still restrained from above, stayed unmixed, alternating with those that were combining, for it had not yet perfectly and completely stood out as far as the furthest limits of the circle, but part remained within and part had gone out of the frame. And, in proportion as it continually ran on ahead, a mild, immortal onrush of perfect love was continually pursuing it. Immediately what were formerly accustomed to be immortal became mortal, and formerly unmixed things were in a mixed state, owing to the exchanging of their ways. And, as they were being mixed, countless types of mortal things pour forth, fitted with all kinds of forms, a wonder to see.
48 (96) And the kindly earth received into its broad hollows of the eight parts two of the brightness of Nestis and four of Hephaistos; and these came to be white bones, marvellously held together by the gluing of harmony.
49 (34) When he had glued barley meal with water
50 (57) Here many heads sprang up without necks, bare arms were wandering without shoulders, and eyes needing foreheads strayed on their own.
51 (59) But as god mingled further with god they fell together as they chanced to meet each other, and many other things in addition to these were continually arising.
52 (61) Many creatures with a face and breasts on both sides were produced, man-faced bulls and again bull-headed men, <others> with male and female nature combined, and the bodies they had were dark.
53 (62) And now hear this how fire, as it was being separated, brought up by night the shoots of men and pitiable women, for the account is to the point and well-informed. First whole-nature forms, having a share of both water and heat, sprang up from the earth; fire, as it tended to reach its like, kept sending them up, when they did not yet shoe the lovely shape of the limbs, or voice or language native to men.
54 (64) And on him desire too
55 (66) the divided meadows of Aphrodite
56 (63) But the substance of the limbs is separated, part in <the body of> the man
57 (65) They were poured in pure places; some met with cold and became women . . .
58 (67) For the male was in the warmer . . . this is the reason why men are dark, more powerfully built and hairier.
59 (68) On the tenth day of the eighth month it became a white pus.
60 (71) But if your belief about these things in any way lacked assurance, how, from the combining of water, earth, air and sun came the forms and colour of mortal things which have now arisen, fitted together by Aphrodite . . .
61 (33) As when the sap <of the fig tree> has riveted and set white milk . . .
62 (73/70) And as, at that time, when Kypris was busily producing forms, she moistened earth in water and gave it to swift fire to harden . . . <a baby> in a membrane tunic
63 (72) How tall trees and fishes in the sea . . .
64 (77/8) <Trees ever-bearing leaves and ever-bearing fruit flourish> with fruit in abundance because of the air all the year round.
65 (79) In this way tall trees produce olive eggs first.
66 (80) This is why pomegranates come late in the season, and apples are exceptionally succulent.
67 (81) Water from the skin, fermented in wood, becomes wine.
68 (74) leading the songless tribes of prolific fish
69 (76) For those with heavy backs who live in the sea, this <is found> in mussels, and indeed you will notice that earth is on the top surface of the flesh of tritons and stony-skinned turtles.
70 (75/99) But of those which are compact within and loosely formed without, having chanced on this kind of flaccidity at the hand of Kypris . . . <ear> a fleshy sprout
71 (82) As the same things grow hair, leaves, the close-packed feathers of birds, and scales on strong limbs.
72 (83) but for hedgehogs sharp-pointed hairs bristle on their backs . . . ear a fleshy sprout
73 (89) There are effluences from all things in existence.
74 (91) <Water> combines more with wine, but refuses with oil.
75 (90) So sweet seized on sweet, bitter rushed to bitter, sharp came to sharp and hot coupled with hot.
76 (93) And the gleam of bright saffron mixes in with the linen.
77 (109) With earth we perceive earth, with water water, with air divine air, with fire destructive fire, with love love, and strife with baneful strife.
78 (107) All things are fitted together and constructed out of these, and by means of them they think and feel pleasure and pain.
79 (106) For people's wisdom grows according to what is present.
80 (108) In so far as they have changed in their nature, so far changed thoughts are always present to them.
81 (103) There by the working of chance all things have conscious thoughts.
82 (104) And in so far as the finest happened to have fallen together . . .
83 (98) And earth, anchored in the perfect harbours of Aphrodite, chanced to come together with them in almost equal quantities, with Hephaistos and rain and all-shining air, either a little more, or less where there was more. From these came blood and forms of other flesh.
84 (85) The gentle flame met with a slight portion of earth.
85 (86) Out of these the goddess Aphrodite fashioned untiring eyes.
86 (87) Aphrodite, having fitted <them> with rivets of affection . . .
87 (95) When they first grew together in the hands of Kypris . . .
88 (84) As when a man who intends to make a journey prepares a light for himself, a flame of fire burning through a wintry night; he fits linen screens against all the winds which break the blast of the winds as they blow, but the light that is more diffuse leaps through, and shines across the threshold with unfailing beams. In the same way the elemental fire, wrapped in membranes and delicate tissues, was then concealed in the round pupil these kept back from the surrounding deep water, but let through the more diffuse light.
89 (88) From both <eyes> comes one seeing.
90 (94) And black colour in the depths of a river comes from the shadow, and is seen in the same way in hollowed caverns.
91 (100) This is the way in which all things breathe in and out: they all have channels of flesh, which the blood leaves, stretched over the surface of the body, and at the mouth of these the outside of the skin is pierced right through with close-set holes, so that blood is contained, but a passage is cut for air to pass through freely. Then, when the smooth blood rushes away from the surface, a wild surge of blustering air rushes through, and, when the blood leaps up, the air breathes out again. It is like a girl playing with a clepsydra f shining bronze when she puts the mouth of the pipe against her pretty hand and dips it into the smooth body of shining water, no liquid yet enters the vessel, but the mass of air pressing from within against the close-set perforations holds it back until she releases the compressed current, and the, as air escapes, a due amount of water enters. (15)
Similarly, when she has water in the hollow of the bronze vessel, and the neck and passage are closed by human hand, the air outside, pressing inward, keeps the water in at the gates of the harsh-sounding strainer, controlling the defences, until the girl releases her hand; then, the reverse of the former process as the air rushes in, a due amount of water runs out before it. (21)
In the same way, when the smooth blood surging through the body rushes back and inward, a flooding stream if air at once comes pouring in, and, when the blood leaps up, an equal amount <of air> in turn breathes back out again.
92 (101) . . . tracking with nostrils fragment of animal bodies <which they> left behind.
93 (102) In this way all things are apportioned breathing and smelling.
94 (105) <the heart> nourished in seas of blood coursing to and fro, and there above all is what humans call thought, because, for humans, blood around the heart is the thinking.
95 (132) Happy he who has gained the wealth of divine understanding, wretched he who cherishes an unenlightened opinion about the gods.
96 (133) It is not possible to bring <the divine> close within reach of our eyes or to grasp him with the hands, by which the broadest path of persuasion for men leads to the mind.
97 (134) For he is not equipped with a human head on a body, [two branches do not spring from his back,] he has no feet, no swift knees, no shaggy genitals, but he is mind alone, holy and inexpressible, darting through the whole cosmos with swift thoughts.
98 (27a) no discord or unseemly warring in the limbs
99 (129) And there was among them a man knowing an immense amount, who had acquired a great treasure of thoughts, master especially of all kinds of wise works; for whenever he reached out with all his thoughts, easily he saw each of the things that there are, in ten and even twenty human generations.
100 (110) If you push them firmly under your crowded thoughts, and contemplate them favourably with unsullied and constant attention, assuredly all these will be with you through life, and you will gain much else from them, for of themselves they will cause each thing to grow into the character, according to the nature of each. But if you yourself shall reach out for the countless trivialities which come among men and dull their meditations, straightaway these will leave you as the time comes round, longing to reach their own familiar kind; for know that all things have consciousness and a share of intelligence.
101 (111) You will learn remedies for ills and help against old age, since for you alone shall I accomplish all these things. You will check the force of tireless winds which sweep over land and destroy fields with their blasts; and again, if you wish, you will restore compensating breezes. After black rain you will bring dry weather in season for men, and too after summer dryness you will bring tree-nourishing showers (which live in air), and you will lead from Hades the life-force of a dead man.
102 (112) My friends who live in the great town of the tawny Acragas, on the city's citadel, who care for good deeds (havens of kindness for strangers, men ignorant of misfortune), greetings! I tell you I travel up and down as an immortal god, mortal no longer, honoured by all as it seems, crowned with ribbons and fresh garlands. Whenever I enter prospering towns I am revered by both men and women. They follow me in countless numbers, to ask where their advantage lies, some seeking prophecies, others, long pierced by harsh pains, ask to hear the word of healing for all kinds of illnesses.
103 (114) My friends, I know that there is truth in the words which I shall speak, but indeed it comes hard to men, and the onrush of conviction to the mind is unwelcome.
104 (11) Fools, for their meditations are not far-reaching thoughts, men who suppose that what formerly did not exist comes into existence, or that something dies and is completely destroyed.
105 (113) But why do I lay stress on this, as if it were some great achievement of mine, if I am superior to many-times-dying human mortals.
106 (15) A man who is wise in such matters would not surmise in his mind that men are, and good and ill befall them, for a lifetime as they call it, and that before they were formed, and after they have disintegrated, they do not exist at all.
107 (115) There is a decree of necessity, ratified long ago by gods, eternal and sealed by broad oaths, that whenever anyone in error from fear <defiles> his own limbs, having by his error made false the oath he swore daimons to whom life long-lasting is apportioned he wanders from the blessed ones for three times countless years, being born throughout the time as all kinds of mortal forms, exchanging one hard way of life for another. For the force of air pursues him into sea, and sea spits him out on to earth's surface, earth casts him into the rays of the blazing sun and sun into the eddies of air; one takes him from another and all abhor him. I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer, having put my trust in raging strife.
108 (117) For before now I have been at some time boy and girl, bush, bird and a mute fish in the sea.
109 (116) <She> abhors intolerable necessity.
110 (126) enclosing in an unfamiliar tunic of flesh
111 (126) from honour and from what great extent of happiness
112 (118) I wept and wailed on seeing an unfamiliar place
113 (121/142/153a) . . . a joyless place, where there is slaughter and death and hatred (and parching fevers and consumptions and dropsy) . . . they wander in darkness over the field of . . . the house of aegis-bearing Zeus does not receive him nor the house of Hades . . . a baby in seven days.
114 (124) Alas, wretched unhappy race of mortals, from what strifes and lamentations were you born.
115 (120) We have come under this roofed cavern.
116 (122) There were earth and far-seeing sun, bloody discord and serene harmony, beauty and ugliness, speed and slowness, lovely truth and blind uncertainty.
117 (123) Birth and death, sleep and wakefulness, movement and rest, much-crowned splendour and rubbish, silence and speech.
118 (128) They did not have Ares as god or Kydoimos, nor Zeus as king nor Kronos nor Poseidon, but queen Kypris. Her they propitiated with holy images and painted animal figures, with perfumes of subtle fragrance and offerings of distilled myrrh and sweet-smelling frankincense, and pouring on the earth libations of golden honey. Their altar was not drenched by the unspeakable slaughter of bulls, but this was the greatest defilement for people to bereave of life and eat noble limbs.
119 (130) All creatures, animals and birds, were tame and gentle to humans, and bright was the flame of their friendship.
120 (139) Alas that the pitiless day did not first destroy me before I devised for my lips the cruel deed of eating flesh.
121 (135) but the law for all extends throughout wide-ruling air and measureless sunlight.
122 (136) Will you not cease from the din of slaughter? Do you not see that, in your careless way of thinking, you are devouring one another?
123 (145) That is why, distraught with bitter misfortunes, you will never lighten your hearts of grievous sorrows.
124 (137) The father will lift up his dear son in a changed form, and, blind fool, as he prays he will slay him, and those who take part in the sacrifice bring <the victim> as he pleads. But the father, deaf to his cries, slays him in his house and prepares an evil feast. In the same way son seizes father, and children their mother, and having bereaved them of life devour the flesh of those they love.
125 (138) drawing off life with bronze
126 (144) to be empty of misfortune
127 (140) Keep completely from leaves of laurel
[128 (141) Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans.]
129 (143) from five streams drawing out with a long bronze blade
130 (125) for from living creatures it set out dead bodies.
131 (127) Among animals they are born as lions that make their lairs in the hills and bed on the ground, and among fair-leafed trees as laurels.
132 Of those thriving with roots closer set and branches spaced further apart
133 (146) And at the end they come among men on earth as prophets, minstrels, physicians and leaders, and from these they arise as gods, highest in honour.
134 (147) With other immortals they share hearth and table, having no part in human sorrows, unwearied.
Translation M. R. Wright - note: numbers in parentheses refer to the standard Diels/Kranz order