Affixed to Empedocles’ material version of ultimate reality as four basic substances and two opposing forces are non-material elements. On the one hand he believes in a form of “radical panpsychism” whereby all matter is endowed with thought and sensation and as such thought, like matter, obeys the laws of combination, attraction, and repulsion.7 On the other hand he believes in the pre-existence of the soul, that is, the life principle which appeared ex nihio nihil 8 Mortal beings are occupied by errant souls9 who undergo reincarnation in many forms. This leads to a parallel of his religious and scientific teachings: the primeval sin of daimon (corporeal human) coming from strife versus the fellowship of purified spirits through love and affection. He proposes a process of purification via the ritual abstinence from meat and some other foods (such as beans) which in his view come from ensouled beings.10 In this way Empedocles envisions the process of nature and spirit as two aspects of a single whole.
Empedocles offers somewhat conflicting ideas of deity. In one sense, the primordial cosmic sphere is a “god.”11 But in another sense his ultimate deity is the power of Love (Aphrodite). Alternatively a third possibility is that he is the first of the Greeks to form a “notion of an invisible, incorporeal, non-anthropomorphic deity characterized as ‘holy mind ‘alone darting through the whole cosmos with rapid thoughts.”12 Will Durant concludes that for Empedocles, God is not approachable – “He is only mind”13
We can extract from our discussion a more contemporary scientific understanding of ultimate reality in the thinking of Empedolces. Earth, air, and water represent solid, gas, and liquid, the three states of matter understood by modern science. Fire represents energy proven to be interchangeable with matter by relativity theory. His concept of Love seems remarkably similar to our concept of gravity at the cosmic level and chemical bonds and the strong and weak nuclear forces at the microcosmic level. Strife is reborn as entropy in modern science, but may also be shorthand for the explosive force that arose from the big bang. Thought and the mind are his recognition of the ineffability and unique place of consciousness on the one hand and the intelligible order of the universe on the other; or perhaps he is suggesting the universe may have its own consciousness.
In another sense however, I think Empedocles may be using the word ‘love’ as a hint of the connection between the fundamental nature of reality and the key force humans have for each other and for the world at large. In this sense he may portend the teachings of the Stoics by more than a century and of Jesus by over four centuries.
7Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, page 497.
8Ibid., page 498.
9Barnes, Jonathan, Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page xlii.
10 Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 2, page 498.
13Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 357.