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Copyright (C) 1983 by Lynn E. Rose

* Editor's Note: This paper was first presented at the Princeton Seminar - The Velikovsky Challenge - In Science and History - held on Sept. 6, 1981 and sponsored by KRONOS. Other papers from that seminar will be appearing in the pages of KRONOS as well. - LMG


Empedocles of Akragas lived only a few centuries after the last of the interplanetary near-collisions proposed by Velikovsky. There are indications in his writings that he may have been dealing with the concept of collective mind. This paper explores those indications, and argues that Empedocles was indeed a precursor both of Freud and of Velikovsky, not only with respect to the idea of collective mind, but also with respect to the idea of an ancient trauma that has affected the behavior of the human species. (Empedocles was explicitly acknowledged by Freud as having anticipated Freud's own concepts of Eros and Thanatos.)


There seem to be only two places in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (ed. Strachey) where Freud refers to character Aristophanes Empedocles by name. Both of these references are from the last few years of Freud's life, and are due to Freud's having read about Empedocles in Capelle's Die Vorsokratiker, which was published in Leipzig in 1935. One of these references is on pages 244-247 of "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937), and the other is on page 149 of An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (1938, published posthumously in 1940); both works are contained in Volume XXIII of the Standard Edition.

* * *

But let us begin with Freud's treatment of a relevant passage in Plato's Symposium (189-191), where the character Aristophanes speaks of three sorts of double-natured beings: a single organism made up of what we would now consider two men, another of two women, and another of one man and one woman. Because of their presumptuousness, the double-natured people were split in two by the gods, and ever since then these divided creatures have felt incomplete and have sought union with their "other halves", some seeking union with those of their own sex and some seeking union with those of the opposite sex.

Freud alludes to this passage from the Symposium in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (VII, 136), published in 1905. Later, in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, published in 1920, Freud goes into somewhat more detail. He has been discussing the sexual instincts and the death instincts - often called Eros and Thanatos, respectively - and trying to detect in these various instincts "a conservative, or rather retrograde, character corresponding to a compulsion to repeat" (XVIII, 44). Thanatos is not a problem, because the death instincts "arise from the coming to life of inanimate matter and seek to restore the inanimate state" (44). But what does Eros repeat?

After considerable discussion, Freud notes that he still finds this "line of thought appreciably hampered by the fact that we cannot ascribe to the sexual instinct the characteristic of a compulsion to repeat which first put us on the track of the death instincts" (56). The search for "more information on the origin of sexual reproduction and of the sexual instincts in general" (56) leads him into a discussion of Darwinian views on the origin of sexuality, including the possibility of an accidental conjugation of two one-celled organisms that "was retained and further exploited in later development" (56); but he concludes that this sort of speculation "is of little help for our purposes" (57).

Freud then turns from Darwin to Plato (57-58):

"Apart from this, science has so little to tell us about the origin of sexuality that we can liken the problem to a darkness into which not so much as a ray of hypothesis has penetrated. In quite a different region, it is true, we do meet with such a hypothesis; but it is of so fantastic a kind - a myth rather than a scientific explanation - that I should not venture to produce it here, were it not that it fulfills precisely the one condition whose fulfillment we desire. For it traces the origin of an instinct to a need to restore an earlier state of things.

"What I have in mind is, of course, the theory which Plato put into the mouth of Aristophanes in the Symposium, and which deals not only with the origin of the sexual instinct but also with the most important of its variations in relation to its object. 'The original human nature was not like the present, but different. In the first place, the sexes were originally three in number, not two as they are now; there was man, woman, and the union of the two....' Everything about these primaeval men was double: they had four hands and four feet, two faces, two privy parts, and so on. Eventually Zeus decided to cut these men in two, 'like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling'. After the division had been made, 'the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and threw their arms about one another eager to grow into one'."

In a footnote, Freud discusses the question of whether this Platonic myth might have been derived from the Upanishads.* Freud attributes this discussion to Professor Heinrich Gomperz. "For we find the following passage in the Brihâdaranyaka-upanishad, 1, 4, 3 [Max-Müller's translation, 2, 85 f.], where the origin of the world from the Atman (the Self or Ego) is described: 'But he felt no delight. Therefore a man who is lonely feels no delight. He wished for a second. He was so large as man and wife together. He then made this his Self to fall in two, and then arose husband and wife. Therefore Yagñavalkya said: "We two are thus (each of us) like half a shell." Therefore the void which was there, is filled by the wife.' " (58).

[* Speculative treatises (c. 600 B.C.) concerned chiefly with a mystical interpretation of Vedic ritual and its relationship to man and the universe (see Sources of Indian Tradition, N. Y., 1959). - LMG]

(A comparison to Eve as formed from Adam's rib would be obvious, but misleading. Adam undergoes no appreciable physical change, and does not miss his rib at all. The splitting of the Atman is more into equal parts. So it is with the Platonic division. So it is also, as we shall see later, with the collective mind.)

Obviously, Freud is strongly attracted to the Symposium story, but he is also repelled: these biological unities, piles of doubled flesh, feature the required sort of repetition, but are lacking in credibility.

Thus Freud remains extremely skeptical, to say the least, about this "hypothesis that living substance at the time of its coming to life was torn apart into small particles, which have ever since endeavoured to reunite through the sexual instincts" (58). And yet he continues to wonder: "my assertion of the regressive character of instincts also rests upon observed material - namely on the facts of the compulsion to repeat" (59). What, then, is being repeated? Freud seems never to have found anything that he considered a satisfactory answer to this question.

* * *

Let us now consider the two passages in which Freud refers to Empedocles by name - the later one first, because it is shorter. In An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (written in 1938), Freud turns once again to the two basic instincts, Eros and the destructive instinct (or Thanatos), and elaborates upon the distinction as follows (XXIII, 148-149):

"The aim of the first of these basic instincts is to establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thus - in short, to bind together; the aim of the second is, on the contrary, to undo connections and so to destroy things. In the case of the destructive instinct we may suppose that its final aim is to lead what is living into an inorganic state. For this reason we also call it the death instinct. If we assume that living things came later than inanimate ones and arose from them, then the death instinct fits in with the formula we have proposed to the effect that instincts tend towards a return to an earlier state. In the case of Eros (or the love instinct) we cannot apply this formula. To do so would presuppose that living substance was once a unity which had later been torn apart and was now striving towards re-union."

At this point, Freud adds a footnote: "Creative writers have imagined something of the sort, but nothing like it is known to us from the actual history of living substance." (149). The reference is undoubtedly to Plato's Symposium, but Freud is again saying that life does not seem to have featured any such actual unities that were at one time torn apart and thereafter sought reunion.* [* But is not the unborn child and the mother an example of one of the "greater unities" that Freud here mentions? And has not Freud himself stressed the instinct "to return to the womb"? Why then does Freud rule out such a greater unity by saying that "nothing like it is known to us"? I do not know the answer, and I hope that someone better acquainted with Freud than I am can clarify this point and can explain why Freud says that: "In the case of Eros (or the love instinct) we cannot apply this formula", namely, the formula "that instincts tend towards a return to an earlier state." Even aside from the case of the mother and unborn child, however, it could be argued that the collective mind itself is the very sort of greater unity that might permit Eros to be viewed as a tendency to return to an earlier state.]

Freud then continues(149):

"In biological functions the two basic instincts operate against each other or combine with each other. Thus, the act of eating is a destruction of the object with the final aim of incorporating it, and the sexual act is an act of aggression with the purpose of the most intimate union. This concurrent and mutually opposing action of the two basic instincts gives rise to the whole variegation of the phenomena of life. The analogy of our two basic instincts extends from the sphere of living things to the pair of opposing forces - attraction and repulsion - which rule in the inorganic world."

Here Freud adds another footnote: "This picture of the basic forces or instincts, which still arouses much opposition among analysts, was already familiar to the philosopher Empedocles of Acragas" (149).

That is all that is said about Empedocles in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, but in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (written in 1937), there is a more detailed discussion of Empedocles (XXIII, 244-247):

"I am well aware that the dualistic theory according to which an instinct of death or of destruction or aggression claims equal rights as a partner with Eros as manifested in the libido, has found little sympathy and has not really been accepted even among psychoanalysts. This made me all the more pleased when not long ago I came upon this theory of mine in the writings of one of the great thinkers of ancient Greece. I am very ready to give up the prestige of originality for the sake of such a confirmation, especially as I can never be certain, in view of the wide extent of my reading in early years, whether what I took for a new creation might not be an effect of cryptomnesia.

"Empedocles of Acragas (Girgenti),1 born about 495 B.C., is one of the grandest and most remarkable figures in the history of Greek civilization. The activities of his many-sided personality pursued the most varied directions. He was an investigator and a thinker, a prophet and a magician, a politician, a philanthropist and a physician with a knowledge of natural science. He was said to have freed the town of Selinunte from malaria, and his contemporaries revered him as a god. His mind seems to have united the sharpest contrasts. He was exact and sober in his physical and physiological researches, yet he did not shrink from the obscurities of mysticism, and built up cosmic speculations of astonishingly imaginative boldness. Capelle compares him with Dr. Faust 'to whom many a secret was revealed'. Born as he was at a time when the realm of science was not yet divided into so many provinces, some of his theories must inevitably strike us as primitive. He explained the variety of things by the mixture of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. He held that all nature was animate, and he believed in the transmigration of souls. But he also included in his theoretical body of knowledge such modern ideas as the gradual evolution of living creatures, the survival of the fittest and a recognition of the part played by chance [Greek text] in that evolution.

1. What follows is based upon Wilhelm Capelle, Die Vorsokratiker, Alfred Kröner Leipzig, 1935. [This is Freud's footnote, which I have restored in full from the German version.]

"But the theory of Empedocles which especially deserves our interest is one which approximates so closely to the psycho-analytic theory of the instincts that we should be tempted to maintain that the two are identical, if it were not for the difference that the Greek philosopher's theory is a cosmic phantasy while ours is content to claim biological validity. At the same time, the fact that Empedocles ascribes to the universe the same animate nature as to individual organisms robs this difference of much of its importance.

"The philosopher taught that two principles governed events in the life of the universe and in the life of the mind, and that those principles were everlastingly at war with each other. He called them [Greek text] (love) and [Greek text] (strife). Of these two powers - which he conceived of as being at bottom 'natural forces operating like instincts, and by no means intelligences with a conscious purpose' [Freud here cites page 186 of Capelle] - the one strives to agglomerate the primal particles of the four elements into a single unity, while the other, on the contrary, seeks to undo all those fusions and to separate the primal particles of the elements from one another. Empedocles thought of the process of the universe as a continuous, never-ceasing alternation of periods, in which the one or the other of the two fundamental forces gains the upper hand, so that at one time love and at another strife puts its purpose completely into effect and dominates the universe, after which the other, vanquished, side asserts itself and in its turn defeats its partner.

"The two fundamental principles of Empedocles - [Greek text] and [Greek text] - are, both in name and function, the same as our two primal instincts, Eros and destructiveness, the first of which endeavours to combine what exists into ever greater unities, while the second endeavours to dissolve those combinations and to destroy the structures to which they have given rise. We shall not be surprised, however, to find that, on its re-emergence after two and a half millennia, this theory has been altered in some of its features. Apart from the restriction to the biophysical field which is imposed on us, we no longer have as our basic substances the four elements of Empedocles; what is living has been sharply differentiated from what is inanimate, and we no longer think of the mingling and separation of particles of substance, but of the soldering together and defusion of instinctual components. Moreover, we have provided some sort of biological basis for the principle of 'strife' by tracing back our instinct of destruction to the death instinct, to the urge of what is living to return to an inanimate state. This is not to deny that an analogous instinct already existed earlier, nor, of course, to assert that an instinct of this sort only came into existence with the emergence of life. And no one can foresee in what guise the nucleus of truth contained in the theory of Empedocles will present itself to later understanding."

This paper will be an effort toward such a "later understanding" of Empedocles, an understanding that would hardly have been possible without the work of both Velikovsky and Freud. I will question several of the traditional ways of looking at Empedocles (as found, for example, in the book by Capelle that Freud used), and I will suggest that Empedocles is entitled to be regarded as an important precursor both of Freud and of Velikovsky, not only with respect to the Freudian distinction between Eros and Thanatos, but also with respect to the concepts of collective mind that we find both in Freud and in Velikovsky. Empedocles even searches for the "Ancient Trauma" that is discussed by Freud and by Velikovsky (see Chapter I of Mankind in Amnesia).

The Freudian and Hegelian views of collective mind and self consciousness are the subject of an important series of articles by Leon Rosenstein being published in KRONOS; the second of those articles (KRONOS V:4, pages 70-83) even begins with a quotation from Fragment 17 of Empedocles. My own inclination, by the way, is to accept the concept of a collective mind. But that does not mean that I accept Freud's Eros-Thanatos dualism as the final word on human instincts. Karen Horney, for example, has made a number of plausible criticisms of the Freudian perspective (see her New Ways in Psychoanalysis ).

As far as I know, since the day Empedocles died, there has never been anybody, with the possible exception of the philosopher Gorgias, who was willing to be called an Empedoclean. I am proud to wear such a label, provided that Empedocles can be freed from some of the traditional misinterpretations of his work. Let me give some examples. I find no evidence of "mysticism" in Empedocles. It seems at least questionable whether Empedocles believed in "the transmigration of souls". I see nothing "primitive" about Empedocles. He seems to me to have been far more of a Freudian psychologist than a source of "kosmische Phantasie", as Freud puts it. I would even deny that Empedocles ever recognized a time of complete domination of Love over Strife or another time of complete domination of Strife over Love. And so on.

This paper is in no sense a criticism of Freud for having accepted the traditional sort of interpretation of Empedocles. For over a quarter of a century, I did the same; I am in no position to throw stones.

Before we take a closer look at this Empedocles, it should be mentioned that Velikovsky, like Freud, seems to refer only twice to Empedocles. These brief references are on pages 245 and 317 of Worlds in Collision; both have to do with cosmology rather than with psychology. Thus Freud sees Empedocles as having anticipated mainly the distinction between Eros and Thanatos; and Velikovsky refers to Empedocles only in connection with catastrophic themes, not in connection with psychological themes. Neither Freud nor Velikovsky sees Empedocles as having been concerned with the collective mind. This paper will argue, however, that it is exactly the Freudian and Velikovskian concept of collective mind that is the long-missing key to a correct understanding of Empedocles.

... to be continued.

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