Empedocles  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Empedocles (ca. 490–430 BC) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher and a citizen of Agrigentum, a Greek colony in Sicily. Empedocles' philosophy is best known for being the origin of the cosmogenic theory of the four classical elements. He also proposed powers called Love and Strife which would act as forces to bring about the mixture and separation of the elements. These physical speculations were part of a history of the universe which also dealt with the origin and development of life. Influenced by the Pythagoreans, he supported the doctrine of reincarnation. Empedocles is generally considered the last Greek philosopher to record his ideas in verse. Some of his work still survives today, more so than in the case of any other Presocratic philosopher. Empedocles' death was mythologized by ancient writers, and has been the subject of a number of literary treatments.

Death and literary treatments

Diogenes Laërtius records the legend that he died by throwing himself into an active volcano (Mount Etna in Sicily), so that people would believe his body had vanished and he had turned into an immortal god; however, the volcano threw back one of his bronze sandals, revealing the deceit. Another legend has it that he threw himself in the volcano to prove to his disciples that he was immortal; he believed he would come back as a god among man after being devoured by the fire.

In Icaro-Menippus, a comedic dialogue written by the second century satirist Lucian of Samosata, Empedocles’s final fate is re-evaluated. Rather than being incinerated in the fires of Mount Etna, he was carried up into the heavens by a volcanic eruption. Although a bit singed by the ordeal, Empedocles survives and continues his life on the moon, surviving by feeding on dew.

Empedocles' death has inspired two major modern literary treatments. Empedocles's death is the subject of Friedrich Hölderlin's play Tod des Empedokles (Death of Empedocles), two versions of which were written between the years 1798 and 1800. A third version was made public in 1826. In Matthew Arnold's poem Empedocles on Etna, a narrative of the philosopher's last hours before he jumps to his death in the crater first published in 1852, Empedocles predicts:

To the elements it came from
Everything will return.
Our bodies to earth,
Our blood to water,
Heat to fire,
Breath to air.

In 2006, a massive underwater volcano off the coast of Sicily was named Empedocles.

Cosmogony

Empedocles dealt with the first origin of plants and animals, and with the physiology of humans. As the elements entered into combinations, there appeared strange results – heads without necks, arms without shoulders. Then as these fragmentary structures met, there were seen horned heads on human bodies, bodies of oxen with human heads, and figures of double sex. But most of these products of natural forces disappeared as suddenly as they arose; only in those rare cases where the parts were found to be adapted to each other, did the complex structures last. Thus the organic universe sprang from spontaneous aggregations, which suited each other as if this had been intended. Soon various influences reduced the creatures of double sex to a male and a female, and the world was replenished with organic life. It is possible to see this theory as an anticipation of Darwin's theory of natural selection, although Empedocles was not trying to explain evolution.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Empedocles" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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