Empedocles of Agrigento: biography of this Greek philosopher

The figure of Empedocles of Agrigento is shrouded in legend because, in addition to being a philosopher, he was widely known in his time as a qualified physician.

These medical skills were in sync with classical Greece’s knowledge of ailments and ailments of the body, as its medical technique was mixed with the art of magic and shamanism and, of course, its philosophy.

Although we do not know much about his life, his philosophy is well known, which has had repercussions until our days on the elements or “roots” that make up matter. Let’s see here what his life and his work looked like through a biography of Empedocles.

    Brief biography of Empédocle d’Agrigento

    Empedocles of Agrigento was born in Akragas (also called Agrigento), Sicily, probably between the years 483 and 495. As is common among pre-Socratic philosophers, it is not possible to determine the exact date of his birth, although indirect evidence suggests that the year of birth is 495 BC.

    We know practically nothing of his childhood, although we know that in his childhood his native Agrigento enjoyed great power and great fame thanks to the Theron shooting (488-472). He was born into an illustrious family, received a careful education and, thanks to this, became the leader of the democratic faction of his native Agrigento. Thanks to a good social position and to gain popularity as a doctor-thaumaturge and scientist, he was able to occupy important positions in public life.

    We know that in his life, Empedocles motivated a political change. After Theron’s death and the rise to power of his son Trasideo, tyranny eventually lost the latter’s power. It was then that Empedocles, defender of democracy, encouraged the parties in power to end the conflict and to cultivate political equality. Perhaps it is for this reason that, despite great fame among his fellow citizens, he also made many enemies, which is why he would find himself in exile in the Peloponnese.

    The death of Empedocles, like his own birth and his own figure, is shrouded in mystery. Of his death several anecdotes are told, being the most well-known the one that he himself sent to the bowels of the Etna volcano in 423 a. C. He is said to have been slain in this manner in order to gain fame among the living and to be recognized as a god by dying in such an epic manner. Nevertheless, this story was abandoned by the historian Hipóboto.

    Another legend has it that after celebrating a sacrifice in a camp at Pisianacte, all of his guests, including his disciple Pausanias, left the scene, with the exception of Empedocles, who remained here. The next day the philosopher was nowhere, and a servant said he heard a voice calling him, then saw a heavenly light. After that, Pausanias determined that the time had come to praise as if he were a god.

    Despite how impressive these two stories are, the truth is that the most reliable data on the death of Empedocles of Agrigento are held by the Greek historian Timaeus of Taormina. He claims that Empedocles of Agrigento died in the Peloponnese, probably in 423 BC in exile and living far from his native Sicily at the age of 60.

    Thought and career of a philosopher

    This Greek philosopher and poet was the first of the thinkers of pluralist eclecticism, who tried to reconcile opposing views of reality to which Parmenides and Heraclitus had come.

    The four roots of matter

    Before the arrival of the great Socrates on the Hellenic philosophical scene, Greek philosophy had assumed the existence of a common constitutive principle in nature, called the Arje.

    Philosophers such as Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all three from Miletus, as well as the school of Pythagoras, wanted find this principle in different natural phenomena and aspects. Some saw it in concrete substances, such as air, water, while others saw it in abstract or formal nature, as indeterminate, proposed by Anaximander, or number, proposed by the sect Pythagorean.

    As these ideas developed they approached the antithetical conceptions of reality of Parmenides and Heraclitus. For Parmenides, reality is one and unchanging, its transformation being a mere appearance. Instead, for Heraclitus, it was incessant becoming, constant change, the true nature of reality. Empedocles saw in these two positions two ideas perfectly in phase and which explained the behavior of the natural world.

    Thus, the figure of this philosopher represents the first attempt to harmonize these two positions, which would also attempt to combine Anaxagoras and atomists like Leucippus and Democritus. They all longed to an eclectic synthesis, proposing to arjé not as a single element or type of energy, but a plurality of them or a set of particles. These elements had the capacity to remain steadfast.

    In his works, Empedocles establishes the need and the perpetuity of being. This is why he established as constitutive principles of all things 4 hours “roots” or “rhicomates”: water, air, earth and fire. It is these four roots which correspond to the principles or arjé proposed by various philosophers before Empedocles. Such he saw water as an ark, Anaximenes the air, Xenophanes the earth and Heraclitus fire.

    Empedocles differs from these philosophers in that it is not that the substance or the ark becomes all that the combination in different proportions of these four roots which results in the different materials and living beings of reality. It also highlights the idea that these four roots remain what they are, no matter how they are combined. The elements that constitute matter remain immutable, no matter how much the being or the object they constitute changes.

    The change in the proportion and quantity of these substances is the involvement of two cosmic forces, which this philosopher called Love and Hate. Love is the force of attraction, which tends to unite the four elements, so that what is different can be held together. Instead, hate acts as a separating force from what appears.

    When Love fully predominates, a perfect sphere is generated, all equal and infinite. On reaching this perfection, hatred begins to act, undoing all this harmony until obtaining the most absolute separation, which would come to be represented in the form of the most erratic chaos. Faced with this chaos, Love intervenes again, bringing everything together. In this way, these two forces act in a cyclical fashion, giving life to the different forms of matter in the cosmos, generating order and disorder.

    About nature and reincarnation

    Empédocles devoted a great interest to the observation of natural phenomena, contributing to the knowledge of his time on botany, zoology and physiology. In addition, he presented completely new ideas on the evolution of living organisms and blood circulation. Interesting way, this philosopher thought that the thought was in the heart, An idea long accepted by medicine.

    His ideas on the evolution and transformation of all living things gave rise to the theory of metempsychosis. According to this view, living beings atone for their crimes through a series of reincarnations. According to Empedocles, people were many things before they inhabit our bodies, and we could even have been other men and women. According to his vision, only men who succeed in purifying themselves will be able to escape the cycle of reincarnations, and return to live in the world of the gods.


      To date, only a few writings of Empedocles of Agrigento are known. Among the most notable are the political writings, the treatise on medicine, the Proemius to Apollo, the purifications and the poem on nature. The latter is incomplete, because of the 5,000 verses of the work, only about 450 have been recovered. All these works were written in the form of poems.

      The way Empedocles describes the world and how he sees it seems to have a very strong influence on Parmenides, the Greek philosopher whom he met in his hometown, Elea.

      Influences on other thinkers

      The name of Empedocles, although famous, is not however that of one of the great figures of Greek philosophy. its four-root theory would end up being very important to Western thought for more than twenty centuries after its existence.. Aristotle would adopt his theory, changing the name from “roots” to “elements”, and this theory would be the most accepted for explaining what matter looked like until the 18th century.

      It was during this century that, thanks to the founding of chemistry as a modern science by the French chemist, biologist and economist Antoine Lavoisier, it was discovered that matter was made up of elements. However, it is not four, but hundreds of them that make up the problem. In fact, the original four elements were not pure, for water was made up of hydrogen and oxygen, air was a very disparate mixture of gases, earth had countless elements, and fire was energy in the form of plasma.

      Among the thinkers closest to his time, we have Plato, Which he used to formulate a theory of vision. In keeping with Empedocles’ idea that likeness is known by likeness, they both postulate that there is fire inside us and that it resembles fire outside. This fire flows, subtly and continuously through the eye, allowing vision. Aristotle noted that Plato’s theory of the soul coincides with that of Empedocles, where the soul is made up of the four roots that make up matter.

      Coming to more modern times and arriving in Germany we have the lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Hölderlin devotes a work to the Greek philosopher, with his “Death of Empedocles”, published between 1797 and 1800. Schopenhauer would have esteem for the figure of Empedocles, taking his theory of Love and Hate and the way in which these two forces structure themselves reality, by relating it to their idea of ​​the Blind Will as the principle of all reality and destiny.

      Friedrich Nietzsche also had a particular interest in the figure of Empedocles. He considers the Greek to be a pessimistic thinker, but one who makes active and productive use of pessimism. Their efforts are directed towards achieving unity, through the forces of Love in various spheres of life, especially in the political and moral realms.

      Sigmund Freud, in the same line as Schopenhauer, would consider Empedocles as a very classic predecessor of his modern theory of Eros (love) and Thanatos (death) in his work “Analysis without end and without end”. Although Freud himself points out that although the Hellenic philosopher is based on a “cosmic fantasy”, Freud’s theory claims some biological validity.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Ruiza, M., Fernández, T. and Tamaro, I. (2004). Biography of Empédocle d’Agrigento. In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia. Barcelona, ​​Spain). Retrieved from https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/e/empedocles.htm on June 29, 2020.
      • Laerci, D. (1947). Life and doctrine of the great philosophers of antiquity. Buenos Aires: Clarity.
      • Chambers-Guthrie, WK (1998). History of Greek philosophy. Volume II: The Pre-Socratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus. Spain: Gredos.
      • Eggers-Lan, C. Eggers; Be, NL (1985). The pre-Socratic philosophers 2. Spain: Gredos. p. 426. ISBN 9788424935320.
      • Barri-Gutiérrez, J. (1964). Empedocles. On the nature of beings: Purifications. Buenos Aires: Aguilar. p. 106.
      • Nietzsche, FW (1873). The pre-Platonic philosophers. Madrid: Celesa. p. 182. ISBN 9788481645910.

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