Site Section Links
KRONOS Vol VIII, No. 4
EMPEDOCLES, HEALER OF THE MIND (PART II)
LYNN E. ROSE
Copyright (c) 1983 by Lynn E. Rose
Empedocles was born in Akragas (Agrigentum of the Romans) on the southern shore of Sicily. His dates are uncertain, but we are told that he was a little younger than Anaxagoras (whose dates are also uncertain), and somewhat older than Socrates (who lived from 469 to 399, historical). The grandfather of Empedocles, who was also named Empedocles, was an Olympic victor near the beginning of the fifth century, and our Empedocles may thus have been born in, say, the second or third decade of the fifth century. His death, which is said to have occurred when he was sixty, would then have been in about the eighth or ninth decade of the fifth century, probably well into the Peloponnesian War. He is reported to have taken his own life, by leaping into the volcanic crater of Mount Aetna in northeastern Sicily (though accounts of Empedocles' death differ greatly).
Empedocles wrote poetry, in Ionian Greek. His writings have survived only in fragments quoted by later writers. We have more than three hundred fifty lines from his On Nature, and over one hundred lines from his Purifications. The total is nearly five hundred lines, more than has survived from any other pre-Socratic philosopher. Yet this may represent as little as one-tenth of what Empedocles originally wrote.
There are also doxographical materials about Empedocles, but these reports are of very limited value, since the ancients seem to have had a great deal of difficulty understanding what Empedocles was saying; we are well-advised to stick closely to the fragments, and not to put too much stock in the third-person reports of such as Aristotle.
The poems of Empedocles deal not only with cosmogony and nature, but also with biology and physiology. Empedocles himself was said to have been a physician, but the fragments and even the anecdotes suggest that he was more a student of what ails the mind than of what ails the body. He is said to have treated an insane man through music, and to have raised a woman from a death-like trance. These stories should perhaps be taken as indications of his areas of interest, rather than as proofs of success. In any case, his mode of psychotherapy seems to have been more verbal than medicinal. He describes how his patients seek a "word" or "saying" that will relieve their agonies.
Empedocles may thus have been more of a Freud or a Velikovsky than a Salk or a Pasteur. The Greek word that is translated Purifications is Katharmoi; Freud, early in his career, even called his method katharsis - only later did he call it psychoanalysis.
The "charms" that Empedocles offered need not be interpreted as drugs; the Greek word pharmakon sometimes meant a medicine or drug, but also meant remedy in general, including charm, spell, enchantment.
Empedocles recognized four "roots" or elements of things: earth, water, air, and fire. He also recognized two cosmic forces or active substances that move the four elements: Love and Strife. The Love and Strife are material constituents of things; they are described as fluids, rather than as disembodied forces. Love and Strife are active materials, not passive and inert materials like the four elements. It must be stressed, however, that all six are material substances; indeed, for Empedocles, all that is is body.
The four elements are unlike each other. Love acts to bring opposite or unlike elements together. (The Greek verb for copulation also means "mix".) Strife acts to separate unlike elements from each other.
Empedocles had a great respect for Parmenides, founder of the Eleatic school of philosophy. Empedocles did not agree with Parmenides' arguments against plurality and against change, but there are many aspects of Empedocles' work that reflect the influence of Parmenides. Indeed, the very idea of treating reality as changing combinations of a plurality of unchanging components is a reaction to Eleatic arguments. Empedocles' apparent belief that reality is a spherical plenum, completely full, with no void inside it or outside it, also seems to be due to Parmenides.
It has widely been thought – indeed, I thought so myself for an embarrassingly long time – that Empedocles regarded the history of the universe as an unending repetition of four stages. (Since there is no beginning to this cycle, it does not matter which of the four we consider the "first": it will have been preceded by whatever we call the "fourth".) The usual claim is that when Strife is completely dominant (Stage I) over Love, all of the elements will be separated from each other, with no compounds whatsoever: all the element earth would be here, all the water there, all the air in one place, and all the fire in another place. Then Love would begin to gain on Strife (Stage II), and when Love was completely dominant (Stage III), the elements would be thoroughly mixed. Nowhere would there be any quantity of any element in pure or even in semi-pure form. A sampling taken from anywhere in the universe would contain all four elements, thoroughly mixed and totally homogeneous. Then Strife would begin to gain on Love (Stage IV), and the cycle would go on, until Stage I was again reached.
When one of the two moving forces – either Love or Strife – is dominant in the central part of the sphere (that is, the universe), Empedocles speaks of the other as retreating to the extremity of the sphere. He does not actually say that it goes outside the sphere, but those who recognize Stages I and III suppose that if one force is to be completely dominant throughout the sphere, the other must have left the sphere. Then the one on the outside comes back in and slowly drives the other outside the sphere in its turn. Such is the usual interpretation .
According to this reading of Empedocles, an organized cosmos, with compounds of the elements forming all sorts of complex structures, including all of the various organisms and life forms, would be possible either when Love was gaining on Strife (Stage II), or when Strife was gaining on Love (Stage IV), but not in the two extreme situations. When Strife is completely dominant (Stage I), there is no compounding whatsoever, and therefore no life. When Love is completely dominant (Stage III), compounding has been carried as far as it can go: the entire universe is, in effect, the same compound, with no differentiation whatsoever. And with no differentiation, there can be no separate organisms, no life forms at all in any usual sense.
The fragments of Empedocles that describe the development of life forms are usually divided by his interpreters into two groups. To Stage II are assigned those fragments that describe present life forms as having developed from random combinations of separate parts and organs, which somehow come into being on their own. Many of these combinations are either sterile or otherwise unsuited for survival, and have become extinct. But other combinations are fit, and are able to survive. These are life forms of the sort that we see around us today. The earlier part of Stage II might be called Stage IIa; this is where there are separately-existing parts and organs. "Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union" (Fragment 58, Burnet). Stage IIb would be a situation very much like ours today, where the surviving combinations are generally well-suited for survival as species. The combination of the different separate parts and organs is taken to be an effect of Love gaining on Strife.
To Stage IV are assigned those fragments, especially Fragment 62, that describe present life forms as having developed by a splitting of earlier forms that Empedocles calls "whole-natured" forms. The exact character of the whole-natured life forms is not specified in the surviving fragments. Some interpret them as seed-like structures, undifferentiated into sexes, or as like those forms of plant life in which the same individual features both sexes. Others take them as similar to the "double-natured" organisms described by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium: the gods split these organisms as a form of punishment, and now the separated organisms seek their "other halves". There may not be enough evidence to settle this question to everyone's satisfaction, but I will follow what is probably the most popular conjecture, that Aristophanes' double-people are indeed derived from and are essentially the same as Empedocles' whole natured forms (although Empedocles probably had only the so called "androgynous" sort that split into one man and one woman). In any case, the whole-natured forms are usually assigned to Stage IVa, and their divided descendants, the sorts of life forms that we see around us today, are assigned to Stage IVb.
But this means that both Stage lIb and Stage IVb feature life forms of the same sort that we see today. To which of these do we in fact belong? Are we descendants of "solitary limbs" or of "whole-natured forms"? We are usually thought to be in Stage IVb, where Strife is gaining on Love, and is approaching a state of complete domination. This is based mainly upon a remark in Aristotle that will be discussed in a moment; the surviving fragments of Empedocles do not address this question.
Upon checking, I find that the four-Stage cycle itself is not well attested in the surviving fragments of Empedocles. There are indeed fragments in which Empedocles speaks of Love gaining on Strife or of Strife gaining on Love, but nowhere does he say that Love is ever completely dominant over Strife in such a way and to such an extent that the entire universe is absolutely homogeneous; and nowhere does he say that Strife is ever completely dominant over Love in such a way and to such an extent that the universe is separated into four distinct areas or compartments for each of the four elements, with every last specimen of each element confined to its own compartment.
Empedocles does speak of one force gaining dominion in "the center of the whirl", and of the other being driven "out to the furthest limit" (Fragment 35, 36, Burnet). He also speaks of "the alternate time" according to which Love and Strife claim their prerogatives (Fragment 30, 31, Burnet). I readily grant that many such fragments are compatible with, and even conducive to, the usual interpretation of Empedocles. But none is conclusive: the fragments are sometimes rather short; their language is poetical, and often imprecise; their context is unknown; and their meaning is usually debatable. Thus the doors remain wide open for the reading that I have proposed. Indeed, the overall impression that I receive from the fragments of Empedocles is that the cosmos is an organism, and that Love and Strife are forever locked in struggle, with no winner – just as are Eros and Thanatos in Freudian psychology. One of them may prevail here or there for a time, but neither ever achieves total dominance.
The two extreme situations, with one of the cosmic forces completely dominant over the other, may have first been read into Empedocles by Aristotle. Aristotle was always reading things into his predecessors. He is not to be trusted in such matters.
If we simply reject these two extreme situations, then we are in a better position to resolve two of the nagging questions in Empedoclean scholarship: where Love has gone, when Strife is completely dominant; and where Strife has gone, when Love is completely dominant. The usual supposition – that the totally defeated force has then retired outside Empedocles' spherical* universe, only to come back in, regain control, and drive the other force outside the sphere in its turn – seems unlikely on various grounds. First, defenders of spherical universes are usually quite uncomfortable about what is outside them, and do not readily allow things to go there. Second, Empedocles, who denied the existence of the void, could not even allow a void outside the universe for Love or Strife to flow into! Love and Strife, we must remember, are physical substances, like fluids; there must be a void out there for them to fill, or material for them to displace. Neither alternative would be acceptable to Empedocles. There is no void, and the universe is spherical. Never mind asking what's out there. There's no there there, not even a void. This awkwardness befalls all defenders of a spherical universe, and is by no means peculiar to Empedocles. See Bruno's critique of such positions, in Dialogue One of De l'Infinito, Universo e Mondi.
By rejecting the four-Stage cycle, we also avoid the unanswerable question of whether we are in Stage IIb or in Stage IVb. Sometimes, an attempt is made to settle this in favor of Stage IVb, by appealing to a passage in Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption, in which we are told that Empedocles "asserts that the world is in the same state now in the period of Strife as it was earlier in that of Love" (Raven's translation, my emphasis). But this testimony appears to be neatly contradicted by another passage, in Aristotle's Physics, in which we are told that the unfit combinations of parts that were produced in the period of Love "perished and are perishing still" (Raven). If we are in Stage IVb, how is it possible that creatures from Stage IIb "are perishing still"? How could they have survived Stage III?
Even aside from any living fossils from Stage II, how, if we are in Stage IV, do we know anything of Stage II? Stage III is a totally homogeneous mix of the four elements, with no differentiation whatsoever. There is no way of preserving records or memories of earlier states. It is like present-day astronomers trying to talk about what happened before (or even during) a supposed big bang, or what happened when the universe was in some supposed state of contraction that preceded its present state of expansion.
All in all, we are much better off abandoning the four-Stage cycle as an interpretation of Empedocles. We thereby avoid some serious difficulties, and there never was any compelling evidence in its favor to begin with.
Nevertheless, it may be granted that, in terms of the here and the now, that is, in terms of the present state of our little corner of the universe, Strife might indeed seem to be generally dominant over Love – or, at least, so it would have appeared to Empedocles. For our Strife-torn surroundings were already rather compartmentalized: land, sea, air, and the fiery heavens (especially the Sun) above displayed the elements imperfectly but conspicuously divided from one another.
Yet Love is still active in many ways in our world, and there is at least the hope (Empedocles' hope, it would seem) that Love will gain ground on Strife, especially if people become aware of what Empedocles was trying to tell them. Strife is responsible for many of our ills, and Love is the answer to those ills. The collective mind seems to have been fragmented through Strife, and the antidote or corrective to that Strife is Love.
But they would not listen to Empedocles.
How are we to interpret Empedocles' allusions to the collective mind, if that is what they are? It might be noted at once that Empedocles does not seem to restrict the collective mind to humans: for Empedocles, though not for Freud or for Velikovsky, plants and animals would be part of the collective mind, too. (This may be debatable; some would merely say that Empedocles' focus is on reincarnation, which can be in animals or plants as well as in humans.) In any case, the lion is the noblest of animals, and the laurel is the noblest of plants. Yet the verbal therapies of Empedocles were dependent upon language. How could he communicate them to the lion and to the laurel? Indeed, how could he communicate them even to his fellow human beings, who did not want to listen?
Despite such difficulties, Empedocles had tried his best to communicate. The tradition that he was younger than Anaxagoras, though his writings preceded those of Anaxagoras, may suggest not only that Anaxagoras wrote relatively late in life, but also that Empedocles wrote rather early in life. Though he was only sixty when he died, according to the Aetna version of his demise, Empedocles may have had several decades in which to observe the effects of his writings, which he offered as charms for what ailed the human race.
And charms they were. He seems to have abandoned early on any hope of direct literal communication with his intended audience: his message was one that they did not want to hear. Like Lucretius of a later day, he decided to use poetry and verse, so that his hearers would be charmed by the beauty of his expression and language, and thereby come to be persuaded of the content.
Xenophanes and Parmenides wrote in verse, and perhaps Empedocles was to some extent following their example. But Empedocles seems to have made special efforts to be poetical; his work is not only in meter, but abounds in metaphor and simile. One never knows just how he is to be taken, literally or figuratively. He seems, like Lucretius, to be trying to present his ideas in a beautiful way, so that those who read him for the poetry will come away with the message. He wanted to prepare a verbal charm or enchantment that would get across to those who would react with resistance to a literal account of what ails them and what has made them the way that they are. The poetry was to persuade in a way that a treatise could not. (Aristotle calls Zeno the father of dialectic and Empedocles the father of rhetoric; rhetoric was viewed as the art of persuasion.)
Yet ultimately Empedocles' persuasion failed. Indeed, he had already suggested that the main persuasion of humans is through the sorts of things that they see and touch: the present, the physical, the particular. He stressed that such perspectives are inevitably misleading and mistaken:
Thus whatever we happen upon in the here and now is taken to be all that there can be, for any time, and for any place. It would be difficult to imagine a more eloquent and devastating exposure of the illogic of uniformitarianism than that provided by Empedocles in these verses.
Such charms were the works of Empedocles' youth. The main truths were already found, and even the recognition of resistance and the recognition that poetic persuasion would be needed are there already.
But there is also the optimism of youth, and the optimism of the recent discoverer who wrongly supposes that others will come to see and accept what has been discovered. The opening lines of the Purifications must be a report of his hopes, not his experiences:
Yet the time and the tide were wrong for Empedocles' charms. Everything was getting worse, not better. The Peloponnesian War was a time of madness. Athens and Sparta were destroying themselves and each other, as well as Empedocles' beloved Sicily in the process, leaving Sicily prey to the plutocratic Carthaginians to the west and the timocratic Romans to the north. It may have been too much for Empedocles to watch. Humankind suffered deeply from its collective amnesia, and there was little that Empedocles could do about it. We were moving toward Aristotle,* not toward Freud and Velikovsky. The individual patients did not really want to hear the truth. Empedocles' efforts to treat and to help were met with resistance. The collective unconscious mind wished to remain unconscious. No wonder Empedocles leapt into Aetna! There is no shortage of reasons for Empedocles' decision. Many suicides have been over less.
Empedocles had thought that there were any number of other people like him, but there were not. He had thought that multitudes would follow him, clamoring for his message and his therapy, but they did not. He had thought that his poems would elevate humankind to a collective consciousness, but those who read him were mainly baffled. The collective mind, which still wished to remain unconscious, would await the charms of Aristotle, and ignore those of Empedocles. Empedocles may have raised his patient from her deathlike trance, but when it came to raising the collective mind to self awareness, he failed. Humankind was well on the road to Aristotelian oblivion. If Aristotle had not been born, it would have made little difference: the Aristotelianism that developed would have been named after somebody else, who would have codified the same currents. Since Aristotle's own charms, the collective mind has been deeply drugged, tripping and stumbling along in no danger of awakening to reality.
. . . to be continued.