Creation, Cosmic Cycles, and History #3

On Empedocles and early Greek philosophy. –

Before we dive in, we should describe some assumptions we have about the coherence is Empedocles’ work. They come down to us as a set of fragments, and we are not really sure what order they came in, whether they form an entire work, or whether they come from various stages in the development of one career, so this complicates our project. Now I can assume that many of my readers are not ones to pore over fragments of scrolls for mere antiquarian purposes. Are there not enough books to read without trying to piece together another one from quotes in other authors? I am sympathetic to this concern, but there is a special charm to poring over the fragments of the early greeks, and this has been a major source of inspiration for philosophy and science in recent times.1 The view that our current collection of Empedoclean fragments are all in fundamental agreement we call the “unitary view”.2 The opposing disunity view which sees the extant fragments as fundamentally in disagreement with each other over the primacy of faith and reason, or myth and science. Those who hold the “Disunity View” are further divided as to whether this disunity was because Empedocles changed his views3 or whether perhaps was a charlatan or just divided his views into separate realms of faith and reason4. Each of these views has major implications for our work and they need to be addressed at the outset. In addition to the unity of thought, there is also the issue of the unity of work, whether the extant fragments all stem from one poem or two poems.5 In recent years, the one poem thesis may have been supported by the discovery of the Strasbourg Papyrus6, and we shall take this into account in our argument.

These two unities of work and thought are related like this: if we know that we have one single work from which our fragments and testimonies stem, then this greatly supports the unitarian view concerning thought. On the other hand, if we find that our extant material might come from two or more separate works written at different times for different audiences or different purposes, then this greatly complicates our interpretation and supports the dualist. It is not our goal to take a strong stand on either issue, but knowing something about it is important in understanding Empedocles. We shall attempt to elucidate both issues (unity of work and unity of thought) concurrently in our exposition.

It is clear from many sources that Empedocles wrote many works: various poems as well as prose works on rhetoric, medicine, and politics.7 Most relevant to the present work is the question of how many philosophical works there were. Here we shall briefly review the basis for the unity of thought, and then that for unity of work. For our exposition, we shall focus on those aspects which have been thought by modern interpreters to be most in conflict with each other. They are best summed up8 at the following:

  1. The So-called Katharmic doctrines:
    1. There is reincarnation of some portion of one’s personality between one life and the next.
    2. There are idealistic moral laws and taboos that affect one’s happiness and one’s reincarnation.
  2. The Physical Doctrines:
    1. Nature is nothing but contraries of the material elements.
    2. Death is just the dissolution of these elements.

The Katharmic doctrines are said to be the content of the alleged work “Katharmoi9, while the latter two are said to come from the work “Ta Phusika”.

To be continued.

1Over many centuries, Plato and Aristotle dominated the field, but in modern times Democritus and other atomists made a major comeback. More recently, Nietzsche’s study of philosophy is perhaps the first to center the early Greeks so as to gain a better perspective on Plato and Aristotle, who have between them formed the horizon for so much later thinking, and in my next work I hope to explore his use of them. 

2The dualists include: Rohde (1925), Diels and Kranz (1960), Sedley (1989), Kingsley (1996, 2002) Laks (2002), and Graham (2010).The unitarians include Kirk and Raven (1960), Barnes, H. E. (1967), Long (1949), and Trépanier, Simon (2004).

3Kranz, W. (1935), Bidez (1894), Wilamowitz (1929).

4Rohde (1925)

5Two poem-ists: Diels and Kranz (1960), Kingsley (1996, 2002) Laks (2002). One poem-its: Barnes, H. E. (1967), Long (1949), Inwood(2001), andTrépanier, Simon (2004). Sedley (1989) believes that there was a separate work called the “Katharmoi”, but that this work was not a poem or philsophical work but merely a list of magical or ritual formulae and thus was unlikely to be the source of any of our fragments.

6Martin, A. and O. Primavesi, 1999

7DK A1, A2, A26.

8Following Long (1949) p. 142ff

9This Greek word means “purifications”, which has a wide variety of related meanings, from purely medical (as in using a “purgative” to purifiy the body from toxins) or in the sense of Purgatory, where one’s sins are purged away. Plato calls the practice of philosophy a “purging” of ignorance, and Aristotle claims that tragic drama “purges’ pity and fear. Given the broad and fragementary nature of Empedocles’ work, it is hard to tell where the emphasis lies in his purifications.


One thought on “Creation, Cosmic Cycles, and History #3

  1. Pingback: Creation, Cosmic Cycles and History #1. | Zoon Echon Blogon

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