Empedocles - Biography
Empedocles (490–430 BC) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher from Acragas, Sicily and is more than a philosopher. His many roles include that of a poet, physician and politician, Empedocles also held claim to magical powers that could revive the dead. Empedocles stands out as a colorful character among the array of pre-Socratic philsophers in his oft described purple robe and bronze sandals, a Delphinic wreath crowning his head. The important part that Empedocles played not only in pre-Socratic times but also in the development of the basic groundwork for the earliest particle physics was that he built upon the Eleactics and the problem of change in the natural world. Parmenides had argued that what exists always already existed and that there was no actual change to be seen, a view grounded in rationalism that saw the senses as incomplete. Heraclitus, on the other hand, maintained that everything flows and that existence is in a constant play of opposites that it is characterized by. Empedocles found that the arguments both had an initial flaw which was to assume that there was only one element. Instead, Empedocles claimed there are four elements: fire, air, earth and water.
Empedocles was the son of a wealthy merchant and was active in political and social life in Acragas. Although he is said to have been rather eccentric, not only with his dress, but also that he kept a train of boy attendants, Empedocles was generous with his wealth providing dowries for many of the girls in Acragas. He was also active in the political life of Acragas, crusading for democracy in the public sphere through his rhetorical skills (Aristotle credits Empedocles with the invention fo rhetoric) giving speeches on equality and even aiding in the prosecution of two officials for arrogant behavior which may lead to tyrannical tendencies. Most of the information that has been passed down about Empedocles shows him in a favorable light as a popular politician and speaker on democracy and equality. He was also well known in Acragas as a healer and physician. Whether or not stories that were passed through interlocutor's or coming from some of his enthusiastic writing of himself in Purifications, it is certainly the case that a tradition of remembering Empedocles being a great healer, physician and sometime magician. The tales are large as to recount Empedocles curing whole plagues and even reviving the dead. While it is doubtful that he was as talented as all that, it is known that Empedocles was well-versed in biology and human physiognomy and that medicine was a part of his philosophy and vice versa. He was so intent on this cohesion that he was attacked by the writer of the Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine. By studying the recently recovered Strasbourg fragments it is becoming more and more clear how close even Empedocles wove his ideas on the philosophy of nature and more mystical, theological aspects.
Two pieces of Empedocles writing exists as a fragment of On Nature and perhaps another piece entitled Purifications. Whether or not these are two pieces of the same work or two different works entirely is a matter of debate. Most recently the aforementioned reedit of his papyrus at Strasbourg leads scholars to believe that the two are part of the same work. Besides the physical remains of hie work, Empedocles' investigations and conclusions have been maintained through quotes of his through other ancient authors including through a few dialogues of Plato's, in Greek commentaries of Aristotle's and most notably through Diogenes Laertius. As for On Nature as well as Purifications, both were written in hexameter verse and it is generally thought that Empedocles was the last to write his philosophy in this manner.
Empedocles was influenced heavily by the Eleatics/Pythagoreans although it is in dispute as to whether or not he was actually in contact with Anaxgoras and Parmenides. As mentioned above, Empedocles continued to work with the problem of change that was set out by these thinkers and it is On Nature that this topic is dedicated. By separating out four elements, he was able to more readily describe changes in nature including growth and what appeared to be increase or decrease. The issue at hand was how one element was able to undergo difference but with four basic elements, these happenings could begin to be described as combination and recombination of the elements. Like Democritus, Empedocles had little empirical evidence although it is said that he was able to witness air as a thing by using a vessel with a hole on top of it as well as the bottom; when placed in water with both holes open, the vessel filled with water but when the top hole was covered, water would not enter the vessel thus showing that air took up space. As for the combination and recombination, Empedocles used the terms love and strife. Love being a binding force and strife being the opposite separating force. Empedocles thought that with love in full effect, as he imagined it at the beginning of the universe, it maintained a sphere in which strife guarded the edges of the perfectness of the sphere. Strife continued to gain over love however, and this is the force that separated out the elements. Empedocles said that we can see the forces of love and strife working in the world of men, bringing them together and tearing them apart, but that this force also drove the entirety of the universe. Fragment 17 of On Nature describes how Empedocles saw the elements and forces working together:
"A twofold tale I shall tell: at one time it grew to be one alone out of many, at another again it grew apart to be many out of one. Double is the birth of mortal things and double their failing; for one is brought to birth and destroyed by the coming together of all things, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. And these things never cease their continual exchange, now through Love all coming together into one, now again each carried apart by the hatred of Strife. So insofar as it has learned to grow one from many, and again as the one grows apart [there] grow many, thus far do they come into being and have no stable life; but insofar as they never cease their continual interchange, thus far they exist always changeless in the cycle."
Empedocles' descriptions and thesis were taken up by Plato and Aristotle and were followed for centuries. Today we can see the impact of his thinking on developing modern science and even in today's contemporary science. His description of the world as composed of substance and of force which are not equivalent to each other but are two parts that interact to bring about everything is something that we very much hold onto even today with science still separating still elements and natural forces. This is not the only contribution that Empedocles made that foreshadows developments in science, although it must be noted that his ideas were not knowingly built upon by modern scientists but merely in retrospect are able to be seen as quite radical to our contemporary scientific beliefs. He also began to hypothesize that light had a speed with a finite velocity which would be later be one of Einstein's major contributions. Aristotle writes of Empedocles' notion: "Empdeocles says that the light from the Sun arrives first in the intervening space before it comes to the eye, or reaches Earth. This might plausibly seem to be the case. For whatever is moved through space, is moved from one place to another; hence, there must be a corresponding interval of time also in whch it is moved from the one place to the other. But any given time is divisible into parts; so that we should assume a time when the sun's ray was not as yet seen, but was still travelling in the middle space."
As for Purifications, the piece is written in first person and it is a matter of dispute whether or not Empedocles wrote this earnestly or created a character to embody the bold claims made by the speaker of the piece. Whether or not Empedocles believed it, the speaker writes that he is a divine being that has been exiled even by the elements and that at the end of his exile he will be a divine being once again. This fragment could be the religious or spiritual part of a larger work containing On Nature since there is proof that Empedocles intertwined philosophic and mystical belief. As for Empedocles' idea of himself as a divine being, there are many stories of his death but the most famous is that to prove his godliness he threw himself into a crater on Etna.