Empedocles: (Material) Change we can believe in
“Blessed is the man who has gained the riches of divine wisdom; wretched he who has a dim opinion of the gods in his heart.” 179.
One rather strange argument against reading the canon is that it has been somehow rendered obsolete by our modern understanding. The Socratic form of the Good is “last year’s model” and if Heraclitus believed in change occurring by fire, well, we know better than that! This attitude comes by mistakenly applying the model of scientific advancement in empirical understanding to subjective and unempirical phenomena- it’s very optimistic to assume that scientists will, any day now, perform experiments that render what Shakespeare had to say about love obsolete. And who would want to live in a society with that accomplishment to its name?
This argument becomes acute with Empedocles, who is often held up as a “father of modern science”, provided that we ignore not only his belief in astrology, magic, Love and Strife as the metaphysical forces guiding all physical change, and that he himself was godlike, but also overlook that he saw his “scientific” study of the physical world as beckoning us towards a mystical understanding of an absolute and universal reality that could not be gained by the senses or expressed in words. In other words, if we cut out all the mysticism, we can keep the science. Empedocles, meanwhile, made no such distinction, and wouldn’t have understood it, so this is a bit like saying that we can still read his work; we just need to leave out the consonants.
A somewhat unfair modern stereotype holds that the scientific man does not believe in life after death, while the religious man does not believe in life before death. While there are certainly those who fit the type, it arises from a distinction that we make between physics and metaphysics that makes no sense until a few hundred years ago. Certainly, Aquinas and Empedocles would have agreed that both paths, the “scientific” and the “mystical” start in the same place, wind up at the same destination, and intersect at many points, regardless of their disagreements about how to describe that destination.
Our need to pry those paths apart places some writers in the strange position of seeing Empedocles as a materialist, in spite of the metaphysics, or an idealist, in spite of all the observations of physical phenomena. In both areas, he’s called inaccurate.
However, if we accept metaphysics- which we might note is the biggest “if” that there is- it becomes a lot harder to talk about the “inaccuracies” in Empedocles; because we’re not talking about something like bad calculations or mistaken theses; instead we’re talking about using the “wrong” words to describe something that everyone who has ever experienced it has agreed is indescribable in words. A Christian might accuse Empedocles of coming to conclusions that defy their doctrine, but they also believe the revelation of that doctrine was a historical event that came later and elsewhere. It’s a bit like faulting Empedocles for not “believing” in the automobile.
Moreover, he’s an eclectic; not a dogmatic. The dogmatic denies any ideas that contradict his system, while the eclectic chooses the ideas over the system. Empedocles agrees with Pythagoras about the transmigration of souls, with Parmenides about there being no creation or destruction of Being, and Heraclitus about all physical things being in a state of constant change. He sees no disagreement in these ideas at all, taking more the attitude of the zen Buddhist who said we are all looking at the sky through our own narrow straws and can get the most complete picture by accepting each other’s claims.
The “scientific” innovation of Empedocles, and it’s a profound one, is to extend eternal Being to all physical things. This sounds vague, but he simply says that matter is never created nor destroyed, but simply changes form. Different physical things are made by different combinations of indivisible and eternal “roots” which are, in their pure form, Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Many later thinkers adopted this model, while others would see the basic correctness in an atomic model of matter and change that denied any vacuum in nature.
The forces that affect change in the universe are Love and Strife: the elements come together in Love and are separated in Strife. In our own lives, there is a time of physical blooming, characterized by feelings of erotic Love; and a time of decline, characterized by Strife. Freud realized the psychological aptness of this idea and claimed Empedocles for a predecessor. We could characterize rogue-Freudian Wilhelm Reich’s idea that Thanatos and Eros are actual forces in the universe (called “negative” and “positive Orgone”) as in line with Empedocles. One might also wonder about the role that Love and Strife play in the blossoming and dissolution of communities.
Empedocles believes the cosmos was once a sphere of elements in perfect balance-a standard image of God. With an increase of Strife, the “roots” separated and formed the physical phenomena we see now. Empedocles imagines a sort of mad scientist’s lab, with bodiless heads, men with oxen heads, hermaphrodites, and other short-lived creations running wild. All creatures great and small are mixtures of the four roots- for example the turtle has an excess of “earth” on his back!
This all sounds a bit materialistic; but Empedocles believes we have souls. Used souls anyway. He believes in the transmigration of souls. If we live unwisely, our souls will move downward to women (yes, I know), and from there to animals. If we achieve genuine wisdom, after death we will exist in the star that bears our name. Because this chain of being extends, quite democratically, to animals, he comes to an uncomfortable truth about the then-common animal sacrifices: it takes no special devotion to sacrifice someone else. Paying a spiritual debt with an animal sacrifice is a bit like paying one’s debt to society by having an understudy do your jail time. Of course, I suppose Christ’s death is a bit like a sacrifice; the salient point, though, is that Christians see Christ’s self-sacrifice as the foundation of a debt, not its cancellation.
Some see an “esoteric” meaning to the Empedocles text. The case for this is that he talks so much about the physical realm, only to tell us that focusing on the roots in their purest physical form will help us to experience God, who he says cannot be seen with the eyes or touched with the hands. Many of the philosophical problems we’ve discussed thus far have to do with the seeming separation between thoughts and things. Empedocles, first, sees things as the source of our thoughts, a simple answer that befuddles many philosophers.
He also treats the physical world as a sort of symbol-key that unlocks the spiritual world, if we know how to use it correctly. If we fix our attention on the elements in their purest forms, we will have an image of truth and not be confused by phenomena. A famed magician, he also said that, from these forms, we can learn to make medicines for any disease, alter the weather, or revive the dead. If we study the forces of Love and Strife and understand them, we will bring good things into our lives. At this point, the blogger admits that, at age 35, he has not yet come to understand love or strife, but recognizes the logic in Empedocles’s recommendation.
1. This was a bit rushed. So, I might have drifted a bit from the actual text by Empedocles- an online translation is here.
2. I might be nuts here, but I think we should discuss The Republic soon. Admittedly, it’s a biggie.