Today I will be writing about a very interesting, even legendary, pre-socratic philosopher: Empedocles. He was from Acragas, in the South of Sicily, and considered himself to be a god (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). This, of course, lead to tales of him being able to perform miracles such as controlling the winds or reviving a woman who had supposedly been dead (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).
However, despite all the fairy tales surrounding his life, he made significant contributions to philosophy and science, the most important of which can be considered to be the discovery of air as its own substance (Russell, 1946). This came through observing that when a bucket, or something similar, is put upside down into water, the water does not fill up the object (Russell, 1946). This is something you can even try for yourself: go grab a glass, put it upside-down into water, and check if any water gets inside. You can’t say I’ve never provided you with a DIY scientific experiment you can do at home.
Empedocles is also said to have discovered an example of centrifugal force by noticing that water will not come out from inside a cup if the latter is tied to the end of a string and spun around (Russell, 1946). In addition to this, he theorized that the moon shone through reflected light, but that this was also true for the sun, and that light travels too fast for us to see but that it does take time for it to travel (Russell, 1946).
To add to this amazing curriculum, Empedocles was also the one who founded the Italian school of medicine (Russell, 1946). It has been argued that this school influenced the tendencies of scientific and philosophical thinking at the time, even having an influence on Plato and Aristotle later on (Russell, 1946).
Empedocles amazingly was also the first person to come up with an idea that although very fantastic and archaic, somewhat resembles the Darwinian theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. According to Empedocles, initially, there were many tribes constituted of creatures with multiple shapes: neckless heads, arms without shoulders, eyes without heads. And these various limb/organ-creatures would roam around seeking to unite with each other. There would be a lot of unions that happened by chance, leading to creatures that had multiple hands as part of their body, creatures with multiple faces and breasts in all sorts of arrangements, and even unions of these limb/organ-creatures with other established animals such as bulls (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). However, only some of these unions would be suitable for survival and be able to reproduce, in a way that would eventually lead to the known human body (Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). Despite the overall narrative appearing Darwinian, as it is pointed out by Adamson (2014), it is missing a crucial characteristic that stops us from being able to call it a precursor of the modern theory of evolution: that certain inherited characteristics are selected and passed on through reproduction because they make animals and plants more likely to survive. Empedocles fails to give us an explanation of what causes some combinations of organs to make animals more suitable and allows them to survive and further reproduce. Still, his ability to foreshadow natural selection earned Empedocles the shoutout from Darwin in the lather’s 6th edition of the Origin of Species (Kenny, 2010).
Now we come to one of Empedocles’ most influential, although not scientific, theories, which is in the field of cosmology. The classical idea of earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements that constitute the universe was first established by Empedocles (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). According to him, all of these are everlasting and would be mixed in various ways, forming all the different things we see in the world. The forces that mixed them were none other than Love, which brought the elements together, and Strife, which separated them (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). This has been considered similar to Heraclitus’ cosmology, however, Empedocles rejected the former’s doctrine of Monism. (Russell, 1946). What causes things in the world to change and move is because there is an ongoing cyclical balance, almost a battle, between Love and Strife: when Love brings the elements closer, Strife gradually separates them; when Strife brings the elements further apart, Love gradually unites them (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). However, he would believe that these changes would happen by chance, the events in the universe not having a purpose (Russell, 1946). Here again, we see the pre-Socratic tendency of trying to understand and explain why things in the observable world move and change.
To end Empedocles’ tale, his aspiration to godhood is said to have been his undoing, as supposedly he died when he jumped into the crater of the volcano Etna to prove his godly status (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946). Talk about going out in a blaze!
Empedocles was an interesting character, not just because of his extravagant belief in his own godhood, but because lived in dissonance between some parts of his theories being surprisingly scientific, more than some philosophers before and after him, and in others, he was still quite prone to superstition, with this aspect of his being influenced by Pythagoreanism (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russell, 1946) As pointed by Russel (1946), this is not much different than the cognitive dissonance displayed by people in scientific areas such as medicine, nutrition or energy production in the present. Just like the cycle of the elements between Love and Strife, time goes on, but some things never change.
I hope that this continues to show that some of the ideas and ways of thinking common nowadays originated way earlier than we think and why it is still valuable to revisit the ideas of these past philosophers in search of enlightenment in our own life.
As always, if you learned something and/or found this text interesting, please share it all over social media so you can help others learn. See you in the next one.
Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Kenny, A. 2010. A New History of Western Philosophy: In Four Parts. Reprint Edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Russell, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.
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