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KRONOS Vol VIII, No. 3
EMPEDOCLES, HEALER OF THE MIND (PART I)
LYNN E. ROSE
Copyright (C) 1983 by Lynn E. Rose
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.
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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):
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).
(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.
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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):
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):
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):
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.