“He makes the material elements four in number, fire, air, water, and earth, all eternal, but changing in bulk and scarcity through mixture and separation; but his real first principles, which impart motion to these, are Love and Strife.” – Simplicius (speaking of Empedocles).1
So far we have reviewed the pre-Socratic theories of ultimate reality as formulated by Pythagoras, Heraclitus, the Milesians, Democritus, and Parmenides – in brief, roughly as mathematics or number, change (fire), variations of theoretical or deductive physics, and Being as a whole. There remain two prominent thinkers who offer original concepts of ultimate reality from this period: Empedocles and Anaxagoras.
Empedocles (circa 494-434 B.C.E.) was from Acragas, a Greek city in Sicily. He was influenced by Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, but reconfigured the various systems of his time into a novel theory of reality. His surviving thoughts of about 470 verses include those from his more scientific treatise called On Nature and from a more theological work called Purifications. Empedocles originated the classical Greek principle that all material reality is composed of four primary elements – earth, air, fire, and water. In his system these four elements are subjected to two fundamental opposing forces – Love and Strife.
Like Parmenides, Empedocles does not believe that anything can arise from nothing nor that any existing entity can become entirely non-existent. In his words, “Fools…fancy that that which formerly was not can come into being or that anything can perish and be utterly destroyed.”2 Instead there is a constant mixing, unmixing, and remixing of permanent materials. He labels Love (sometimes Aphrodite) as the force by which materials are attracted to each other in a comprehensive fashion to create a single primordial ball and in a partial fashion to create planets, land masses, and biological organisms including humans. Thus, regarding the cosmos, he tells us, “Equal [to itself] from every side and quite without end, [it] stays fast in the close covering of Harmony, a rounded sphere rejoicing in [its] circular strutcture,”3
He designates as Strife the counter-force that dissociates these combinations leading to the apparent disappearance of entities and the reappearance of elements that can be reconfigured by Love into new entities. Moreover there is a continuous cycle of the cosmos coming together into a single whole followed by a disintegration of all physical matter into the world of plurality we experience. The “life cycle of the universe thus oscillates between the poles of unity and diversity.”4 And the reconfigured parts adhere in random arrangements such that some are well-adapted to survival – an uncanny anticipation of Darwinian evolution.5 It turns out the microcosm of living beings mimics “the principles of elemental mixture, harmony, and separation at work.”6
(continued next post)
1Allen, Reginald E., Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1966. Page 51.
2Ibid., page 50.
4Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, page 496.
5Honderich, Ted (editor), The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8, page 242.
6Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, page 497.