Cosmic Cycles #7 : The unity of Empedocles’ work.

Apart from the alleged doctrinal conflicts discussed earlier, there is other evidence that seems to imply that Empedocles wrote two poems, and that these poems might disagree with each other. First, many of our most important testimonies from the ancient world imply that Empedocles wrote at least two major philosophical works. In Diogenes’ Lives of the Philosophers, for example, he is said in one paragraph to have written a work called On Nature, and in the next he is also said to have written one called Purifications.1 Elsewhere Diogenes claims “His verses On Nature and Purifications extend to five thousand lines…”2 Secondly, there are multiple modes of address in the poetic fragments. Diogenes cites that  On Nature was said to have been addressed to Empedocles’ disciple Pausanias, from whicha fragment has been preserved: “Pausanias, son of Anchites, hearken.”3 In other sources, we have preserved other passages addressed in the plural, for example to “Friends, who inhabit the great city of Acragas…”4

These two factors of title and addressees are chief among those which motivate the two-poem view, and until recently it was dominant in our field, but now this has begun to change.5 Upon further reflection, neither of these arguments are considered very compelling, given the fact that the titles assigned to this work or works were stock titles by which people described many works and were not likely to be assigned by the author. Most nonfiction works of this era are titled by their audiences in this way. Thus, when Diogenes refers to two titles written by Empedocles, he may be citing from sources that have given different title based on whether they were more interested in the study of nature or in caring for the soul. Empedocles clearly pursued both concerns, and so if he did write one poem, it could easily have been given either title. 

Likewise, many classic poems have changes in addressee. If Diogenes’ testimony about titles is suspect, then when he claims that “the physics” is addressed to Pausanias, it should not carry enough weight to tell us much about whether every single verse of this work was addressed to Pausanias, or whether there were changes of addressee in this same work. 

In addition to these counter-arguments there are some more detailed considerations arising from the analysis of the Empedoclean corpus that argue in favor of a single poem. These include the overlap in topics among the testimonies of the two titles; for example: Fragment B153a claims that the Katharmoi speaks concerning embryology, and another from this same work is claimed to say something on the growth and structure of trees.6 While it is possible to have allusions to physical doctrines in a katharmic poem, most of our testimony of the content of this alleged work seems to lend credence to the likelihood that such a work could just as easily be called “physics” as otherwise.
There is also not a single case of any ancient testimony explicitly distinguishing between two separate works by Empedocles, even when these authors quote from both the so-called physical and what I will call the “katharmic” fragments. In addition, no ancient author has ever mentioned a major doctrinal division or tension between the physical and katharmic within the philosophy. 

Furthermore, there is considerable overlap of physical and katharmic in the recently-discovered “Strasbourg Papyrus”.7Since this is our best-attested source of Empedoclean material, we shall review this entire corpus before moving on to other fragments. 

To be continued here.

1DL .60, 63. (DK31 A1)

2DL 8.77 (DK31 A1)

3DL 60 (DK31 B1)

4DL 61 (DK31 B12)

5See Osbourne (1987) pp.25ff and Trepanier (2004) pp. 6-14.

6Trepanier (2004) 9-10, Inwood(2001), fragment Inwood 35.

7Martin and Primavesi (1999)


One thought on “Cosmic Cycles #7 : The unity of Empedocles’ work.

  1. Pingback: Cosmic Cycles #6 | Zoon Echon Blogon

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