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Painting of Empedocles

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water: Empedocles of Acragas - The Pre-Socratic Philosopher with a Sense of Style

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Socrates and his successors Plato and Aristotle are perhaps the best known and most influential philosophers of ancient Greece. Nevertheless, Greek philosophy had already been flourishing for more than a century prior to the birth of Socrates (said to be in 469 BC). These Greek philosophers who were practicing their craft prior to the arrival of Socrates are today known collectively as the ‘Pre-Socratic philosophers.’ They would strongly influence the thoughts of Socrates himself, as well as other Greek philosophers. One of the most interesting of these Pre-Socratic philosophers was Empedocles of Acragas.

The Many Trades of Empedocles

Empedocles was born in the Greek city of Acragas (also known in Latin as ‘Agrigentum’ and in Italian as ‘Agrigento’), which is located on the southern coast of Sicily, around 490 BC. Empedocles is believed to have come from a wealthy family and he was more than just a philosopher. In the words of a modern scholar:

“Empedocles sparkles like a diamond among the Pre-Socratics – many-faceted and appearing different from different directions. A poet and a politician, a physician and a philosopher, a scientist and a seer, a showman and a charlatan…”

A Kingly Presence

In addition to being a multi-talented individual, Empedocles seems to have had quite a unique fashion sense. This philosopher also had a distinct way of carrying himself, which would certainly make him stand out in a crowd. According to an ancient biographer of the Greek philosophers, Diogenes Laertius:

“He assumed a purple robe and wore a golden circlet on his hand, …. He also wore slippers with brazen soles, and a Delphian garland. His hair was let grow very long, and he had boys to follow him; and he himself always preserved a solemn countenance, and a uniformly grave deportment. And he marched about in such style, that he seemed to all the citizens, who met him and who admired his deportment, to exhibit a sort of likeness to kingly power.”

llustration of Empedocles from ‘The History of Philosophy’ (1655) by Thomas Stanley.

Illustration of Empedocles from ‘The History of Philosophy’ (1655) by Thomas Stanley. (Public Domain)

The Four Roots Theory of Empedocles

As a philosopher, Empedocles is best known for his theory that the world is composed of four elements or, more precisely, ‘roots’ – fire, air, earth, and water. In one of Empedocles’ fragments, it is written thus: “Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus (commonly identified as fire) and life-bringing Hera (commonly identified as air) and Aidoneus (commonly identified as earth) and Nestis (commonly identified as water).”

This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Empedocles, as it became the standard dogma for much of the following two millennia.

Papyrus of Empedocles’ ‘Physika’ from the late first century AD.

Papyrus of Empedocles’ ‘Physika’ from the late first century AD. (Public Domain)

Empedocles’ Doctrine on Reincarnation and Concept of Love and Strife

Some other teachings of Empedocles include the doctrine of reincarnation:

“Divinities (daimones) who possess immensely long life / he wanders away from the blessed ones for thrice ten thousand seasons, / through time growing to be all different kinds of mortals / taking the difficult paths of life one after another.”

Another of his concepts is that of ‘Love and Strife.’ Empedocles suggests that there are two divine forces that pervade the universe – Love and Strife. These two forces act as moving powers – with Love bringing about mixtures, and Strife separation.

Concept Map of Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle based on Love and Strife.

Concept Map of Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle based on Love and Strife. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Two Stories on the Death of Empedocles

As for Empedocles’ end, there are two versions. In the first, Diogenes wrote that the philosopher died at the age of 77 after catching an illness when he broke his thigh while on his way to a festival in Messene, the Peloponnese, “And afterwards, it happened that as on the occasion of some festival he was going in a chariot to Messene, he was upset and broke his thigh; and he was taken ill in consequence, and so died, at the age of seventy-seven. And his tomb is in Megara.”

Diogenes also provides an alternative (and more colorful) version of Empedocles’ death. According to this version, which the biographer quotes from a writer known as Hermippus, the philosopher once cured a woman by the name of Panthea, who was also from the city of his birth. This incident is note-worthy, as the other physicians had given up on saving this woman. As a result of Empedocles’ actions, a sacrifice was celebrated, indicating that Empedocles had achieved the status of a god.

Diogenes also quotes from another writer, Hippobotus, who records that Empedocles took his ‘godhood’ very seriously, and sought to establish it as a fact, an undertaking that would ultimately end in his death:

“He rose up and went away as if he were going to mount Aetna; and that when he arrived at the crater of fire he leaped in, and disappeared, wishing to establish a belief that he had become a God. But afterwards the truth was detected by one of his slippers having been dropped. For he used to wear slippers with brazen soles.”

Salvator Rosa, 'The Death of Empedocles', c. 1665 – 1670. (Public Domain)

This version ends the story of Empedocles, a Pre—Socratic “Jack of all Trades,” in a style very much matching the way he lived his dramatic life.

Top Image: Painting of Empedocles (circa 1499 to 1502) by Luca Signorelli. Source: Slices of Light/CC BY NC ND 2.0

By: Ḏḥwty


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If you really want to know something about Empedocles and what he meant, you may like to read "Reality" by Peter Kingsley. Empedocles, who lived 2500 years ago, is his teacher and one of the people who conciously created this Western civilisation, which we live in the death throes of...

SJDF's picture

Sound's like a solid good intention's kind of guy,with a good morel code of engaging anyone wherever he went, it would be nice to see more people take responsibility and ownership for the word's & action's inflected on others instead of endless finger pointing, witch is a kin to circular argument's.

Maybe I'm a reincarnation of this guy. I've never heard of him before yet his ideas are exactly what I have been personally writing about in my journal for the last few years. The only difference is my use of terminology.

To bad we don't have any great philosophers any longer. The Fundamentalists on both sides (christian & Atheist) have drowned them all out.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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