The mixture of philosopher, prophet, man of science, and charlatan which we found already in Pythagoras, was exemplified very completely in Empedocles, who flourished about 440 B.C., and was thus a younger contemporary of Parmenides, though his doctrine had in some ways more affinity with that of Heraclitus. He was a citizen of Acragas, on the south coast of Sicily; he was a democratic politician, who at the same time claimed to be a god. In most Greek cities, and especially in those of Sicily, there was a constant conflict between democracy and tyranny; the leaders of whichever party was at the moment defeated were executed or exiled. Those who were exiled seldom scrupled to enter into negotiations with the enemies of Greece—Persia in the East, Carthage in the West. Empedodes, in due course, was banished, but he appears, after his banishment, to have preferred the career of a sage to that of an intriguing refugee. It seems probable that in youth he was more or less Orphic; that before his exile he combined politics and science; and that it was only in later life, as an exile, that he became a prophet.
Legend had much to say about Empedocles. He was supposed to have worked miracles, or what seemed such, sometimes by magic, sometimes by means of his scientific knowledge. He could control the winds, we are told; he restored to life a woman who had seemed dead for thirty days; finally, it is said, he died by leaping into the crater of Etna to prove that he was a god. In the words of the poet:
Great Empedocles, that ardent soul,
Leapt into Etna, and was roasted whole.
Matthew Arnold wrote a poem on this subject, but, although one of his worst, it does not contain the above couplet.
Like Parmenides, Empedocles wrote in verse. Lucretius, who was influenced by him, praised him highly as a poet, but on this subject opinions were divided. Since only fragments of his writings have survived, his poetic merit must remain in doubt.
It is necessary to deal separately with his science and his religion, as they are not consistent with each other. I shall consider first his science, then his philosophy, and finally his religion.
His most important contribution to science was his discovery of air as a separate substance This he proved by the observation that when a bucket or any similar vessel is put upside down into water, the water does not enter into the bucket. He says:
'When a girl, playing with a water-clock of shining brass, puts the orifice of the pipe upon her comely hand, and dips the water-clock into the yielding mass of silvery water, the stream does not then flow into the vessel, but the bulk of the air inside, pressing upon the close-packed perforations, keeps it out till she uncovers the compressed stream; but then air escapes and an equal volume of water runs in.'
This passage occurs in an explanation of respiration.
He also discovered at least one example of centrifugal force: that if a cup of water is whirled round at the end of a string, the water does not come out.
He knew that there is sex in plants, and he had a theory (somewhat fantastic, it must be admitted) of evolution and the survival of the fittest. Originally, 'countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold.' There were heads without necks, arms without shoulders, eyes without foreheads, solitary limbs seeking for union. These things joined together as each might chance; there were shambling creatures with countless hands, creatures with faces and breasts looking in different directions, creatures with the bodies of oxen and the faces of men, and others with the faces of oxen and the bodies of men. There were hermaphrodites combining the natures of men and women, but sterile. In the end, only certain forms survived.
As regards astronomy: he knew that the moon shines by reflected light, and thought that this is also true of the sun; he said that light takes time to travel, but so little time that we cannot observe it; he knew that solar eclipses are caused by the interposition of the moon, a fact which he seems to have learnt from Anaxagoras.
He was the founder of the Italian school of medicine, and the medical school which sprang from him influenced both Plato and Aristotle. According to Burnet (p. 234), it affected the whole tendency of scientific and philosophical thinking.
All this shows the scientific vigour of his time, which was not equalled in the later ages of Greece.
I come now to his cosmology. It was he, as already mentioned, who established earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements (though the word 'element' was not used by him). Each of these was everlasting, but they could be mixed in different proportions and thus produce the changing complex substances that we find in the world. They were combined by Love and separated by Strife. Love and Strife were, for Empedocles, primitive substances on a level with earth, air, fire, and water. There were periods when Love was in the ascendant, and others when Strife was the stronger. There had been a golden age when Love was completely victorious. In that age, men worshipped only the Cyprian Aphrodite (fr. 128). The changes in the world are not governed by any purpose, but only by Chance and Necessity. There is a cycle: when the elements have been thoroughly mixed by Love, Strife gradually sorts them out again; when Strife has separated them, Love gradually reunites them. Thus every compound substance is temporary; only the elements, together with Love and Strife, are everlasting.
There is a similarity to Heraclitus, but a softening since it is not Strife alone, but Strife and Love together, that produce change. Plato couples Heraclitus and Empedocles in the Sophist (242):
There are Ionian, and in more recent time Sicilian, muses, who have arrived at the conclusion that to unite the two principles (of the One and the Many), is safer, and to say that being is one and many, and that these are held together by enmity and friendship, ever parting, ever meeting, as the severer Muses assert, while the gentler ones do not insist on the perpetual strife and peace, but admit a relaxation and alternation of them; peace and unity sometimes prevailing under the sway of Aphrodite, and then again plurality and war, by reason of a principle of strife.
Empedocles held that the material world is a sphere; that in the Golden Age Strife was outside and Love inside; then, gradually, Strife entered and Love was expelled, until, at the worst, Strife will be wholly within and Love wholly without the sphere. Then—though for what reason is not clear—an opposite movement begins, until the Golden Age returns, but not for ever. The whole cycle is then repeated. One might have supposed that either extreme could be stable, but that is not the view of Empedocles. He wished to explain motion while taking account of the arguments of Parmenides, and he had no wish to arrive, at any stage, at an unchanging universe.
The views of Empedocles on religion are, in the main, Pythagorean. In a fragment which, in all likelihood, refers to Pythagoras, he says: 'There was among them a man of rare knowledge, most skilled in all manner of wise works, a man who had won the utmost wealth of wisdom; for whensoever he strained with all his mind, he easily saw everything of all the things that are, in ten, yea twenty lifetimes of men.' In the Golden. Age, as already mentioned, men worshipped only Aphrodite, 'and the altar did not reek with pure bull's blood, but this was held in the greatest abomination among men, to eat the goodly limbs after tearing out the life'.
At one time he speaks of himself exuberantly as a god:
Friends, that inhabit the great city looking down on the yellow rock of Acragas, up by the citadel, busy in goodly works, harbour of honour for the stranger, men unskilled in meanness, all hail. I go about among you an immortal god, no mortal now, honoured among all as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway, whenever I enter with these in my train, both men and women, into the flourishing towns, is reverence done me; they go after me in countless throngs, asking of me what is the way to gain; some desiring oracles, while some, who for many a weary day have been pierced by the grievous pangs of all manner of sickness, beg to hear from me the word of healing…. But why do I harp on these things, as if it were any great matter that I should surpass mortal, perishable men?
At another time he feels himself a great sinner, undergoing expiation for his impiety:
There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient ordinance of the gods, eternal and sealed fast by broad oaths, that whenever one of the daemons, whose portion is length of days, has sinfully polluted his hands with blood, or followed strife and forsworn himself, he must wander thrice ten thousand years from the abodes of the blessed, being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms, changing one toilsome path of life for another. For the mighty Air drives him into the Sea, and the Sea spews him forth upon the dry Earth; Earth tosses him into the beams of the blazing Sun, and he flings him back to the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and all reject him. One of these I now am, an exile and a wanderer from the gods, for that I put my trust in an insensate strife.
What his sin had been, we do not know; perhaps nothing that we should think very grievous. For he says:
'Ah, woe is me that the pitiless day of death did not destroy me ere ever I wrought evil deeds of devouring with my lips!…
'Abstain wholly from laurel leaves…
'Wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans!'
So perhaps he had done nothing worse than munching laurel leaves or guzzling beans.
The most famous passage in Plato, in which he compares this world to a cave, in which we see only shadows of the realities in the bright world above, is anticipated by Empedocles; its origin is in the teaching of the Orphics.
There are some—presumably those who abstain from sin through many incarnations—who at last achieve immortal bliss in the company of the gods:
But at the last, they1 appear among mortal men as prophets, song-writers, physicians, and princes; and thence they rise up as gods exalted in honour, sharing the hearth of the other gods and the same table, free from human woes, safe from destiny, and incapable of hurt.
In all this, it would seem, there is very little that was not already contained in the teaching of Orphism and Pythagoreanism.
The originality of Empedocles, outside science, consists in the doctrine of the four elements, and in the use of the two principles of Love and Strife to explain change.
He rejected monism, and regarded the course of nature as regulated by chance and necessity rather than by purpose. In these respects his philosophy was more scientific than those of Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle. In other respects, it is true, he acquiesced in current superstitions; but in this he was no worse than many more recent men of science.