Creation, Cosmic Cycles and History #4

From Diogenes Laertius’ life of Empedocles:

“That he was a citizen of Acragas in Sicily he himself says at the beginning of the purifications: ‘O friends, who dwell in the great city of yellow Acragas, up in the high parts of the city…’.”1 …”Heracleides says that the case of the woman who stopped breathing was like this: for thirty days her body was preserved intact, although she neither breathed nor had a pulse, Hence he called him both a doctor and a prophet, deriving this also from these lines:

O friends, who dwell in the great city of yellow Acragas, 

up in the high parts of the city, concerned with good deeds,

Hail! I, in your eyes a deathless god, no longer mortal,

go among all, honored, just as I seem:

[5] Wreathed with ribbons and festive garlands.

As soon as I arrive in flourishing cities I am revered

by all, men and women. And they follow at once,

in their ten thousands, asking where is the path to gain,

some in need of divinations, others in all sort of diseases

[10] sought to hear a healing oracle.”2

Diogenes has told us this concerning the unity Empedocles’ work:

  • There was a work which was called by some of its readers ‘the purifications’.
  • The quote was the opening lines.3
  • This work has a plural addressee, as opposed to the singular which the two-poem view claims for “the physics”. (For which see below.)
  • This incipit claims for the poet the following: Divinity of some sort, miraculous powers of healing, prophecy, practical wisdom, and a public reputation for the above.

    This testimony is the most explicit we have for the existence and content of Empedocles’ “katharmoi”.

    Empedocles taught both the immortality of the soul and reincarnation:

    “Most of all he [Empedocles] agrees with the doctrine of reincarnation, saying:

    For ere now I have been a boy, a girl,

    a bush, a fowl, and a fish traveling in the sea.

    He said all souls transmigrate into every kind of living thing.”4

    In addition, there is ample testimony to some doctrine of what we today call “karma”, i.e. change in the fate of the reincarnated soul connected with the observance or violation of certain moral laws.5 For example, another katharmic6fragment that Plutarch cites (as he says) from “a prelude at the beginning of his [Empedocles’] philosophy”:

    There is an oracle of necessity, an ancient decree of the gods,

    eternal, sealed with broad oaths:

    whenever one, in his sins, stains his dear limbs with blood

    ….[corrupt text here] by misdeed swears falsely,

    [5] [of] the daimons [that is] who have won long-lasting life,

    he wanders for thrice ten thousand seasons away from the blessed ones,

    growing to be all sorts of forms of mortal things through time,

    interchanging the hard paths of life.

    For the strength of aither pursues him to the sea,

    [10] and the sea spits [him] onto the surface of the earth and earth into the beams

    of the blazing sun, and it throws him into the eddies of the air;

    and one after the other receives [him], but all hate [him].

    I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer,

    trusting in mad strife. (B116)

    According to this, the bad karma for murderers or liars is to suffer “exile” described as follows:

    1. Lasting “thrice ten thousand seasons”. (line 6)
    2. “Away from the blessed ones” or gods (line 6, 13)
    3. A long series of incarnations in various kinds of living beings. (line 7)7
    4. With much difficulty. (line 8)
    5. …which difficulty is caused by Strife (line 14) and the Four Elements (“aither”, “sea”, “earth”, “sun”)line 9-12)

    Of these, only the second and third are distinctly katharmic, the first applies also to the (physical) Cosmic Cycles, and the fourth applies to Strife in both its moral and physical aspects. 

    In contrast to these doctrines, there are others which are more clearly “physical” in that they belong more properly to the study of nature rather than to the care of the soul. The most important of these physical doctrines are: that nature is nothing but contraries of the material elements and that death is nothing but the dissolution of these elements.

    To be continued here.

    1DL 8.54 (DK A1)

    2DL 8.61-61 (DK A1) Trans. Graham (2010).

    3Following Trepanier (2004), we shall assume this means the incipit or “very first lines” of the work.

    4DK B119. Trans. Graham (2010) Attested in Hippolytus, Plutarch, Diogenes Laertius, and Athenaeus – Ibid. p. 406.

    5It is not my intent to make any claims relating to the concept of work “karma” and its history in authentic Indian discourse. Instead I use this term as it is used in modern English.

    6I will use the term “katharmic” to refer to the domain proper to works bearing the title “Katharmoi”; i.e. concerning healing, prophecy

    7The fifth point above should be given particular notice. We shall call it the “elemental catalogue motif” in B115 lines 9-12 first explicitly described by Daniel Graham. This motif consists of the description of the Four Elements and often one or both of the Twin Forces. Lines 9-12 above are a good example. It is very often used in the more obviously “physical” works of Empedocles; seven to nine times in the 69 lines of B115/Strasbourg ensemble d (see below Ch, 2.B.5). Compare this to the three katharmic fragments cited thus far (B112, B115, B117) which total 29 lines and have an abbreviated elemental motif occurrence (B117 line 2 “a bush [earth], a fowl [air], and a fish [water]”).Thus, it shows that even in the most katharmic of the fragments, we have clear presence of physical themes: the Cosmic Cycles and the Six Principles. 


    One thought on “Creation, Cosmic Cycles and History #4

    1. Pingback: Creation, Cosmic Cycles, and History #3 | Zoon Echon Blogon

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