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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 1
EMPEDOCLES, HEALER OF THE MIND (CONCLUDED)
LYNN E. ROSE
Copyright 1983 by Lynn E. Rose
The interest in reincarnation and transmigration is perennial and pervasive. Many of Empedocles' fragments have been read as reflecting such an interest on his part. When he speaks of himself as "immortal", and when he says that "I have been ere now a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a dumb fish in the sea" (Fragment 117, Burnet), such remarks are taken to mean that some one and the same immortal part of Empedocles - call it soul or mind or whatever - has been successively incarnated in all of these diverse forms. That part, though in itself immortal, is subjected to a series of births and deaths. The Purifications is then read as a set of rules for releasing us from this chain of births and deaths, so that we may thenceforth subsist in a god-like state.
It is clear that a number of the fragments of Empedocles are quite consistent with such a reading. The following passage, for example, seems to speak of one "daimon" and its successive incarnations:
It is possible, of course, that Empedocles is alluding to the usual sort of doctrine of reincarnation. He may have felt that that would be the best way of introducing his reluctant audiences to his unwelcome message. But what is this immortal daimon that becomes a wanderer and fugitive? If successive instantiations occur, does that preclude simultaneous instantiations? Not if it is a collective mind that is instantiated, a mind that is somehow divided and split.
Despite Fragment 115 and other passages suggestive of reincarnation, Empedocles never says explicitly that an individual mind is instantiated in body a and then in body b, and that another individual mind is instantiated in body c and then in body d. (This would be the usual pattern for reincarnation, perhaps with a and c being contemporary, and with b and d being contemporary.) But we should not rule out the possibility that one and the same collective mind is instantiated in a, in b, in c, and in d, in which case a would no more have been a previous incarnation of b than it was of d.
Even the reference to "one of the daemons" in Fragment 115, as if there were a plurality of such beings, each condemned to successive incarnations, may not be all that definitive. For Fragment 134 speaks of "a holy and inexpressible mind, alone, darting with swift thoughts through the whole cosmos" (my translation). The word translated as "mind" is phren, from which schizo-phren-ia is derived; the word translated "alone" is sometimes intended in the sense of "single in its kind"; and the word translated as "inexpressible" also means "enormous". Could Empedocles be trying to describe the collective mind'?
Another reason to go slow in taking Empedocles to be speaking of the usual sort of transmigration is that Fragment 9 describes how the elements are mixed together to form such things as humans, wild animals, plants, and birds; these compounds will be broken up eventually, but the elements will remain, to enter into further combinations. It may be one of these elements that is made to say in Fragment 117 that "I have been ere now a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a dumb fish in the sea". Or it may be Empedocles speaking. Or it may be the collective mind speaking! We do not know, since this is only two lines of poetry, entirely out of context. Under these circumstances, any definitive interpretation is presumptuous. (It should be emphasized that I do not claim to have proved that Empedocles was thinking of collective mind in such contexts; I merely suggest that to read him as referring unambiguously to the usual sort of reincarnation and transmigration is a bit too facile and that these questions require further pondering.)
Perhaps at this point a few words should be devoted to the physical or ontological status of the collective mind. Many may wonder just what sort of thing it is. I do not have any of the answers. I do not know whether it is merely the common content or structure that all of our minds have inherited, or whether it actually does things on its own, more or less independently of the various individual minds. Nor do I understand how the individual minds, let alone the collective mind, can be "reduced" to a combination of whatever basic constituents the universe may have, whether the four elements of old or the various elementary particles of today.
Nevertheless, there are two aspects of this problem of "reductionism" that should be stressed. In the first place, those who may be regarded as having done the most creative work in this area - Freud, Velikovsky, and (I would say) Empedocles - were not overly worried about the problem. (Nor, for example, was Democritus: he had nothing but atoms and the void to work with, but he thought that reason, responsibility, and a great many other notions far removed from colliding atoms made good sense.) Such people seem to take it for granted that everything can in principle be reduced to the basic constituents of the universe, even though they themselves may not yet have determined exactly how to carry out this reductionist project. Freud seems to have been a reductionist in principle, but he did not feel obliged to define a superego, say, as such-and-such a configuration of atoms. Similarly, Velikovsky did not feel obliged to reduce the collective mind to a certain complex configuration of elementary building blocks. Empedocles thought that love and Strife and the four elements were the only things that existed. It follows that a mind must be a combination of those constituents. But Empedocles does not let the difficulty of reducing the mind to those constituents prevent him from studying the mind and its workings. (Actually, he does seem to have offered some speculations about the physical status of mind. Fragment 105 (Burnet) has mind "dwelling in the sea of blood that runs in opposite directions, where chiefly is what men call thought; for the blood round the heart is the thought of men".)
The "mind-body" problem has received a great deal of attention from those who wonder how mental phenomena are related to physical states. I don't have a solution to this problem either. But I would point out, in the second place, that in most ways the collective mind may be no more of a problem to define or to defend than is the individual mind. Somehow an individual mind sustains its existence in terms of various changing combinations of elementary particles that are not only scattered in space but are even replaced from time to time. Thus an individual mind somehow retains its basic identity, even though most of the atoms of its body have been replaced, and even though most of the elementary particles making up that body have relatively vast spaces separating them. If an individual mind can be understood as or reduced to such a motley and scattered set of particles, could not the collective mind be understood as or reduced to an admittedly even more varied configuration of particles? If an individual mind can be loosely situated within the confines of its bodily shell, why can't the collective mind be situated in the "noosphere" that Teilhard de Chardin saw as enveloping Earth (with some recent probings farther out)? As I said, I have no answers for such questions. But we should not exaggerate the difficulties presented by the concept of a collective mind; such difficulties are perhaps not peculiar to that concept.
What caused the collective mind to split? Empedocles' account of this is sketchy, in the surviving fragments. He seems to believe that our present lowly condition is a punishment for having taken up the eating of meat and, in general, the slaughter of living things, to all of which we are akin; in the golden age, ruled by Kypris (Aphrodite), there was no eating of meat, nor was there any killing at all, even for sacrifice (see Fragment 128). But why should we be punished for being carried along in what was a matter of Necessity? For as Strife gains, splitting off is inevitable. We become divided from the collective, divided from the rest of what we are. And Strife brings pervasive warfare, hostility, and violence. As we are being split, so we split others; as we are being dismembered, so we dismember others. We tear living things to pieces and devour them. Clearly, this is part of the Strife process, not a divine punishment for what we accidentally started to do.
What, then, caused this splitting of the collective mind, this literal inferred that the answer is global cataclysm, or, better, a series of global cataclysms. One of the sections of Mankind in Amnesia is entitled "The Archaic Trauma"; neither Empedocles nor Freud ever discovered the nature of that trauma.
The Platonic version of the story, that it was the gods (Zeus and Apollo, in particular) who brought about the division, is basically true: the collective mind sank into unconsciousness, and we split-up components sank into amnesia and pseudo-individuality, as a result of the buffetings that we took from the planetary gods. But it was not punishment, even though the survivors typically interpreted it as punishment,* and even though Plato has Aristophanes describe it as a punishment.
The continued progress of Strife and division might be expected to bring additional schizophrenia, not in the sense of the further splitting of bodies that was threatened by Zeus, but in the sense that one compartment of a human mind will become disconnected from other compartments of that mind. Indeed, these disconnected or split-off compartments might better be considered individual minds in their own right, as is the case with split or multiple personalities. This might also involve a disconnection with the body.
In all of this, there is some hope. The so-called "schizophrenic", not tightly linked to the body, and not mentally focused as one in terms of the individual human mind, and not tied down in the "normal" way in terms of place and time, may be in a better position to revive the collective mind and to raise it to a state of consciousness.
We have seen that Plato, Freud, and apparently even Empedocles have all put forth, if not fully endorsed, the idea of sexual union as an effort to return to an earlier state. In this connection, it might be noted that Aristotle's definition of a friend (or lover) as another self misses the point: a friend is another part of the same self. Just as Strife dissociates mind or self into smaller and smaller segments, so love is able to associate mind with mind, uniting self with self, until a collective consciousness is reached.
If there ever was a collective consciousness, why did cosmic catastrophes cause it to split? I suggest that one consideration may be that by splitting or retreating into an individuality that does not go back to the catastrophes, we make our new and lesser selves safe. The collective must be repudiated, for it encompasses those catastrophes. They fall within its biography. By splitting ourselves, especially temporally, we at least make sure that nothing like that happened to us. Our time is like all times. We do not want to be old enough to remember times that were different. This may even have something to do with our society's quest for youth: the old are those who remember when times were different, and that is precisely what we need to forget.
I have alluded to the conflicting accounts of Empedocles' death. Many other strange and garbled stories are told about Empedocles. Most scholars doubt the Aetna suicide story, though Matthew Arnold and I, for different reasons, accept it. Many of the other stories that have been seriously entertained strike me as inventions by ancient fable-mongers who did not understand what Empedocles was driving at. In some cases these are loosely inspired by remarks in the poems themselves. Thus, for example, Empedocles speaks in Fragment 111 of combatting old age, of harnessing the wind and the rain, and of reviving the power of those who have perished and gone to Hades. I give this passage in the Leonard translation, which tries to capture the poetry as well as the content of the original. As already mentioned, the Greek word pharmakon included all sorts of charms and therapies, not just medicines.
The remark here about the wind seems to have led to the fantastic story that we find in Diogenes Laertius about ass-hides stretched on hilltops to stop the etesian winds. (The winds were duly checked.) I suggest that all that Empedocles meant was what many others have said: that if we could draw upon the unused portions of our minds, we could achieve what we now barely dream of. But if it is the collective mind whose recesses and resources we explore and employ, do we not indeed "from Hades beckon the might of perished men"? How else could he put it? I can see Empedocles stressing the benefits of collective consciousness. I cannot see him impaling ass-hides on Sicilian hilltops to stop the winds.