Ancient History & Civilisation


Idealism offends the senses, materialism offends the soul; the one explains everything but the world, the other everything but life. To merge these half-truths it was necessary to find some dynamic principle that could mediate between structure and growth, between things and thought. Anaxagoras sought such a principle in a cosmic Mind; Empedocles sought it in the inherent forces that made for evolution.

This Leonardo of Acragas was born in the year of Marathon, of a wealthy family whose passion for horse racing gave no promise of philosophy. He studied for a while with the Pythagoreans, but in his exuberance he divulged some of their esoteric doctrine, and was expelled.54 He took very much to heart the notion of transmigration, and announced with poetic sympathy that he had been “in bygone times a youth, a maiden, and a flowering shrub; a bird, yes, and a fish that swims in silence through the deep sea.”55 He condemned the eating of animal food as a form of cannibalism; for were not these animals the reincarnation of human beings?56 All men, he believed, had once been gods, but had forfeited their heavenly place by some impurity or violence; and he was certain that he felt in his own soul intimations of a prenatal divinity. “From what glory, from what immeasurable bliss, have I now sunk to roam with mortals on this earth!”57 Convinced of his divine origin, he put golden sandals upon his feet, clothed his body with purple robes, and crowned his head with laurel; he was, as he modestly explained to his countrymen, a favorite of Apollo; only to his friends did he confess that he was a god. He claimed supernatural powers, performed magic rites, and sought by incantations to wrest from the other world the secrets of human destiny. He offered to cure diseases by the enchantment of his words, and cured so many that the populace half believed his claims. Actually he was a learned physician fertile in suggestions to medical science, and skilled in the psychology of the medical art. He was a brilliant orator; he “invented,” says Aristotle,58 the principles of rhetoric, and taught them to Gorgias, who peddled them in Athens. He was an engineer who freed Selinus from pestilence by draining marshes and changing the courses of streams.59 He was a courageous statesman who, though himself an aristocrat, led a popular revolution against a narrow aristocracy, refused the dictatorship, and established a moderate democracy.60 He was a poet, and wroteOn Nature and On Purifications in such excellent verse that Aristotle and Cicero ranked him high among the poets, and Lucretius complimented him with imitation. “When he went to the Olympic games,” says Diogenes Laertius, “he was the object of general attention, so that there was no mention made of anybody else in comparison with him.”61 Perhaps, after all, he was a god.

The 470 lines that survive give us only hazardous intimations of his philosophy. He was an eclectic, and saw some wisdom in every system. He deprecated Parmenides’ wholesale rejection of the senses, and welcomed each sense as an “avenue to understanding.”63 Sensation is due to effluxes of particles proceeding from the object and falling upon the “pores” (poroi) of the senses; therefore light needs time to come from the sun to us.64 Night is caused by the earth intercepting the rays of the sun.65 All things are composed of four elements—air, fire, water, and earth. Operating upon these are two basic forces, attraction and repulsion, Love and Hate. The endless combinations and separations of the elements by these forces produce the world of things and history. When Love or the tendency to combine is dominant, matter develops into plants, and organisms take higher and higher forms. Just as transmigration weaves all souls into one biography, so in nature there is no sharp distinction between one species or genus and another; e.g., “Hair and leaves and the thick feathers of birds, and the scales that form on tough limbs, are the same thing.”68 Nature produces every kind of organ and form; Love unites them, sometimes into monstrosities that perish through maladaptation, sometimes into organisms capable of propagating themselves and meeting the conditions of survival.69 All higher forms develop from lower forms.70 At first both sexes are in the same body; then they become separated, and each longs to be reunited with the other.*71 To this process of evolution corresponds a process of dissolution, in which Hate, or the force of division, tears down the complex structure that Love has built. Slowly organisms and planets revert to more and more primitive forms, until all things are merged again in a primeval and amorphous mass.72 These alternating processes of development and decay go on endlessly, in each part and in the whole; the two forces of combination and separation, Love and Hate, Good and Evil, fight and balance each other in a vast universal rhythm of Life and Death. So old is the philosophy of Herbert Spencer.73

The place of God in this process is not clear, for in Empedocles it is difficult to separate fact from metaphor, philosophy from poetry. Sometimes he identifies deity with the cosmic sphere itself, sometimes with the life of all life, or the mind of all mind; but he knows that we shall never be able to form a just idea of the basic and original creative power. “We cannot bring God near so as to reach him with our eyes and lay hold of him with our hands. . . . For he has no human head attached to bodily members, nor do two branching arms dangle from his shoulders; he has neither feet nor knees nor any hairy parts. No; he is only mind, sacred and ineffable mind, flashing through the whole universe with swift thoughts.”74 And Empedocles concludes with the wise and weary counsel of old age:

Weak and narrow are the powers implanted in the limbs of men; many the woes that fall on them and blunt the edge of thought; short is the measure of the life in death through which they toil. Then are they borne away; like smoke they vanish into air; and what they dream they know is but the little that each hath stumbled upon in wandering about the world. Yet boast they all that they have learned the whole. Vain fools! For what that is, no eye hath seen, no ear hath heard, nor can it be conceived by the mind of man.75

In his last years he became more distinctly a preacher and prophet, absorbed in the theory of reincarnation, and imploring his fellow men to purge away the guilt that had exiled them from heaven. With the assorted wisdom of Buddha, Pythagoras, and Schopenhauer he warned the human race to abstain from marriage, procreation,76 and beans.77 When, in 415, the Athenians besieged Syracuse, Empedocles did what he could to help its resistance, and thereby offended Acragas, which hated Syracuse with all the animosity of kinship. Banished from his native city, he went to the mainland of Greece and died, some say, in Megara.78 But Hippobotus, says Diogenes Laertius,79 tells how Empedocles, after bringing back to full life a woman who had been given up for dead, rose from the feast that celebrated her recovery, disappeared, and was never seen again. Legend said that he had leaped into Etna’s fiery mouth so that he might die without leaving a trace behind him, and thereby confirm his divinity. But the elemental fire betrayed him; it flung up his brazen slippers and left them, like heavy symbols of mortality, upon the crater’s edge.80

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