Cosmic Cycles #5

Love, Strife and the Four Elements. 

There is also a set of physical doctrines such as the theory of the Four Elements and the Twin Forces as the exhaustive causes of genesis and decay.

Empedocles’ most influential doctrine is probably the “Four Elements“ of which natural beings are composed. Eusebius says: “Empedocles of Acragas [says that] there are four elements, fire, water, aether…”.1 Aristotle’s first mention of Empedocles in the Metaphysics concerns the topic of “material causes:  “Empedocles [posits] four [principles] adding earth to the three already mentioned [water, air, and fire]. For these always remain and do not come to be except by becoming more or less as they congregate or segregate to form or dissolve a unity.”2 Empedocles’ main contributions to the study of matter is “material pluralism, of which our modern “Periodic Table of Elements” is a variation. Previous Ionian thinkers were material monists; i.e., they claimed that there was only one sort of matter by which material beings are composed. As the single ultimate material principle Thales put forth water, Anaximenes air, and Heraclitus claimed fire.3

After material causes, Aristotle (and in Simplicius’ commentary on these same passages) discuss so-called “efficient causes”; for Empedocles these are Love (“Philotes”) and Strife (“Neikos”). In the present work I shall call these the “Twin Forces”.

He [Empedocles] makes the corporeal bodies four in number: fire, air, water, and earth, everlasting but changing in their multitude and fewness by congregation or segregation, while he makes the real principles, those by which these are moved, to be Love and Strife. For the elements must continually move back and forth, at one time being congregated by Love, at another time segregated by Strife, so that there are in fact six principles according to him. Indeed, in one place he grants active power to Love and Strife when he says 

“At one time coming together into one by Love, 

at another time each being borne apart by the enmity of strife”

but sometimes he uses these powers with the four as equals when he says 

“At another time it grew apart to be many from one:

fire, water, earth, and the lofty expanse of air,

destructive Strife apart from them, balanced in every direction

and Love among them, equal in height and width.”4

Furthermore, many other fragments show that these elements and their interactions exhaustively explain everything:

“But come, let us gaze on this witness of previous words, 

If anything in the previous one was lacking in form;

sun, shining to sight and everywhere hot,

and immortal things which are soaked in heat and blazing beam,

and rain, dark and chilling in everything,

and from earth flow out intertwined and solid things.

When they are in strife all these are different in form and separated; 

but they come together in love, and are desired by one another. 

For out of these have sprung all things that were and are and shall be—

trees and men and women, beasts and birds and the fishes that dwell in the waters, 

yea, and the gods that live long lives and are exalted in honor. 

For there are these alone; but, running through one another, 

they take different shapes—so much does mixture change them.  (DK31 B21)

Here we find that “all things” are composed of the four elements which “come together in Love” and “in Strife they are all divided and separate”. Even the gods are subject to becoming and corruption; note that they are called “long-lived” (“dolikaiones”) rather than “immortal“. As with Aristotle, anything which is generated must perforce be contingent and corruptible.5

If coming-to-be is nothing besides the composition of material elements, then death must be nothing but the decomposition of those same material elements: “He does not make some things perishable, some not, but he makes all things imperishable except the elements.”6

“Empedocles [says] the kinds of flesh were generated from a blend of the four elements in equal measure; the sinews from fire and earth mixed with a double portion of water; the claws of animals from sinews which were cooled as they encountered air; and bones from two parts of water and an equal number of earth, as well as four parts of fire, which were combined <within> the earth. Sweat and tears come to be when blood is melted and dissolved to become thin.” (DK31 A78, Trans. Graham) 

And if living creatures are so composed in genesis, they are so decomposed in death:

“…at another time each being borne apart by the enmity of Strife. 

<Thus inasmuch as they are wont to grow into one from many,> 

and in turn with the one growing apart they produce many, 

they are born and they do not enjoy steadfast life; 

but inasmuch as they never cease continually alternating, 

they are ever immobile in the cycle.”7

Such are the rudiments of Empedocles’ physics. In addition to this, there is a very strong streak of Empedoclean supernaturalism in the katharmic fragments and testimony. Many doubt whether these are coherent, either as a single philosophy or a single poem.

To be continued here.


2Metaphysics I.3 984a8-11. Trans. Graham (2010).

3Aristotle followed this line of thought in the fashion of Heraclitus, whose various elements were continuous and transmutable. HoweverEmpedocles, seems to claim that the multiple fundamental elements are each on the contrary irreducible and eternal.

4 DK A28; Simplicius, Physics 25.21-31. Trans. Graham (2010).

5 Note that in line 10-12 we have an instance of the elemental catalogue motif; in this case the elements are represented by those organisms whose predominant element they are fowls for air, fish for water, beasts for earth, humans for fire(?), and gods for Love, since they are long-lived, and it is love that makes things live. 

6 DK 31 A52 from Aristotle Metaphysics Book III.4 (1000b18-20)

7Simplicius On the Heavens 293.18-2, Trans. Graham


One thought on “Cosmic Cycles #5

  1. Pingback: Creation, Cosmic Cycles and History #4 | Zoon Echon Blogon

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