Cosmic Cycles #9: “Mid-level” elements

In the last chapter, we dealt with multiple ways that Empedocles teated the substance of living creatures. We are not merely made of the Four Elements, but these elements are combined through a force of nature called “Love”:

This is very clear in the bulk of mortal limbs: At one time we come together into one by love, all the limbs [that is], which have found a body, in the peak of flourishing life; at another time again, being divided by evil quarrels, [5] they [the limbs] wander, all of them separately, about the breakers of life.1

Now the discourse has much greater depth through the addition of two ideas: 

  1. Midlevel elements – The elements of which the organisms are composed are not merely earth and water, but “limbs”. 
  2. Phylogeny – The emergence or evolution of our currently dominant forms of life from earlier more primitive forms.2

These two features are clearly relevant to Aristotle’s criticism. Uniquely among his predecessors, Empedocles alone refers to these two important concepts, and each deserves a separate discussion.

Mid-level elements. – It is safe to assume that Empedocles’ “limbs” are composed of the lower-level nonliving3 Four Elements. Mid-level elements are components which are themselves composed of the lower or more fundamental Four Elements. Mid-level elements are then in turn the elements for a potential higher level of organization. On this view, Aristotle and Empedocles both view the distinction of matter and thing-composed-of-matter relative to a nested hierarchy of levels. In the works of Aristotle, organisms are composed not merely of the fundamental material elements (fire, air, water, earth), but also of mid-level elements such as tissues and organs. This vastly increases the explanatory power of his theory, because it allows the same metaphysical principles to function analogically at multiple levels at once. 

Phylogeny – For Aristotle the mid-level elements are merely potential i.e., they do not exist in actuality apart from the entire organism. For Empedocles on the contrary, these elements once formed separate organisms during their own zoogonic era, which Aetius called the “Generation” of “Separate Limbs”. The existence of this era is known from a great many other fragments and testimony. 4 There are some unanswered questions concerning it which we shall treat at length below, but what all authorities ancient and modern agree on is that:

  1. At some time the “limbs” that make up our body were once separate free-living organisms. (Ensemble c line 5)
  2. At some time, these came together through the influence of Love to form beings like us, thus inaugurating the “Generation of Men and Women”. (Ensemble c line 2)
  3. At some other time the men and women like us, devolved into separate limbs thus inaugurating the next “Generation of Separate Limbs”. (Ensemble c line 4)

This is of interest for two reasons. First, it is a major point of criticism for Aristotle; though he does carry over the concept of multi-level elements into his hylomorphic theory, he very explicitly and at great length attacks the concept of such lower level elements coming together into a complete organism except through the efficacy of an actualized individual of that same species.5 Secondly, in modern science we seem to have a major vindication of Empedocles contraAristotle, for at one time there were separate elements that came together to form more complex systems such as or advanced organisms and biospheres.6

To be continued here.

1Strasbourg Papyrus ensemble c in Martin and Primavesi (1999).

2“Phylogeny” and its counterpart “”ontogeny” are terms of modern biological theory. The former is what we call the “evolution” of genera and species, while individual organisms undergo “ontogeny”, otherwise called the “development” of mature organisms from eggs. 

3In whatever sense that earth and fire are less “alive” than plants. On the hylozoic or panpsychist view, plausibly attributed to most early Greek thinkers, the living/non-living distinction is less robust than for us. To see this for Empedocles, see DK B102, 103. In Empedocles studies, this view is held by Rowett (2016)

4Minar (1963: pp. 139ff), O’Brian (1969).

5Specifically in Metaphysics IX.8 and XII.3 (1070a4ff)

6Empedocles has forseen the two primary modes of phylogeny: through natural selection (Darwin 1859) and through endosymbiosis (Margulis 1970), of which Aetius’ stages seem to be the latter and the more important.


One thought on “Cosmic Cycles #9: “Mid-level” elements

  1. Pingback: Cosmic Cycles #9: The “double tale” of the Twin Forces | Zoon Echon Blogon

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