Empedocles of Acragas

Empedocles was not only philosopher, but also medic and physiologist, which had a big impact on his philosophical system. By the end of his life he had established a Sicilian school of medicine, which greatly influenced Plato and Aristotle.

There is not as much originality in Empedocles as in other philosophers of his time. He basically took ideas of all his predecessors and interpreted them from a physiologist’s point of view.

Empedocles, like many of his contemporaries, found the conclusions of Parmenides unacceptable. Empedocles started with Eleatics’ premise that “what is” cannot come into being or perish, and that it is indestructible. To avoid the conclusion of Parmenides, he introduces a theory of elements, or “roots” (the term “element” was coined by Plato). These roots were fire, air, water, and earth, and he also identified them with Zeus, Hera, Hestis (Persephone), and Aidoneas (mythical king, husband of Persephone). But these were just elements which make up our world. To explain motion and the way in which these roots mingle with one another, Empedocles also had to introduce two moving forces, or divine powers – Love and Strife. This is certainly the influence of Heraclitus here. Love is the force that attracts the elements to each other, Strife – the one that separates them. This is somewhat observable in human behavior, but also pervades the universe.

According to Empedocles, there was time when all the elements existed together, neither mixed nor separated. The world, presented as a sphere (influence of Parmenides), was dominated by Love inside, while Strife guarded the extreme edges. But, as time passed, Strife has gained more space in the sphere, and Love has been pushed further to the center.This is the reason we have such a world around us – full of contrasts and opposites. But – “there is no division nor unrighteous strife in the world’s limbs, but he was equal on every side and quite boundless” – unlike Parmenides’ sphere.

The way in which Love and Strife interact with each other in the sphere is similar to the old idea of world breathing, which was adopted by Anaximenes.

Empedocles believed in the cyclical universe. According to him, there are four recurring stages in world’s history: 1) Harmony (Love is dominant); 2) Strife preponderates; 3) Chaos (Strife is dominant); 4) Love preponderates. Our world could not have existed neither when all elements were fully mixed, nor when they were fully separate. It could have only come into being during second and fourth periods: “twofold is the birth of mortal things and twofold its passing away: for on generation the coming together of all things brings to birth and destroys, and the other is nourished and scattered as they spread apart again”.

Bailey: “But it soon becomes clear that even with four elements, the possibilities of difference in compound bodies are greatly limited: this difficulty Empedocles solved by another of the far-sighted conceptions, which are really his contribution to knowledge – the elements could mingle, he saw, in different proportions.”

So, this coming into being of things answered to all Parmenides’ requirements – nothing comes into being, there is only change in the elements’ juxtaposition.

He had a theory of how the life in this world developed, and it may be counted as a antecedent of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, but Empedocles really was not a source of it. Russell: ” 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, oxen with heads of men, and men with heads of oxen, and creatures of double sex. Only the fittest survived.

The change of day and night Empedocles explained in the following way: after the separation of elements, fire occupied the upper hemisphere and air the lower. The earth was at center of the sphere, and it was supposed to fall into the lower hemisphere, but is prevented from doing so by the lower hemisphere constantly becoming the upper. This rotation had been produced by the disturbance of the equilibrium of the sphere after the separation of elements.

There are other important scientific discoveries, carried out by Empedocles. Burnet: “In fact, Love and Strife are to the world what blood and air are to the body. The physiological analogy naturally influenced the founder of a medical school, who had for the first time formulated a theory of the flux and deflux of blood from and to the heart.” And again: “Empedocles also held, however, that respiration depended upon the systole and diastole of the heart, and therefore we find that, as soon as Strife has penetrated to the lowest (or most central) part of the sphere, and Love is confined to the very middle of it, the reverse process begins.”

Empedocles also discovered, of course through pure reasoning, that light travels with a finite velocity, a form of the law of conservation of energy and a theory of constant proportions of chemical reactions.

Pythagoras had a great influence on Empedocles. He believed in the transmigration of souls. He thought that humans, animals, and plants are all links in one chain, and hence urged a vegetarian lifestyle – he believed animals’ bodies to be dwelling places of punished souls. Wise men, according to him, are next to divine.

Aristotle attached great importance to Empedocles’ theory of “ratio of mixture”, which is most likely an adoption of Pythagorian doctrine.

Although Empedocles’ theories were far-sighted, they had little influence on the development of science. And although some of his ideas are self-contradictory, they showed a way in which speculation must now move.


Cyril Bailey. Greek Atomists and Epicurus.

John Burnet. Early Greek Philosophy.

Bertrand Russell. The History of Western Philosophy.


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