Empedocles

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


EMPEDOCLES


There is an oracle of Necessity, ancient decree of the gods,
Eternal, sealed with solemn oaths,
That whenever one of the
daimones, allotted long life,
Fouls his limbs by unwitting involvement in murder,
Or in strife falsely swears an oath,
He is exiled to wander for thirty thousand seasons
Far from the blessed gods, being born in myriads
of mortal forms, on the painful paths of life.
The mighty ether chases him into the seas.
The sea spews him forth upon the threshold of earth,
And earth casts him into the sun's shining splendour.
The sun hurls him into the whirling ether's vortex.
Thus one receives him from the other, and all loathe him.
I, too, am one of these now, fugitive from the gods
And wanderer, for I yielded to raging Strife's enticement.

EMPEDOCLES

A powerful current galvanized humanity towards the close of the sixth century B.C. The spiritual and social foundations of classical China were strengthened by Lao Tzu and Confucius. Aryavarta experienced a profound regeneration in response to the teachings of Gautama Buddha, Shankaracharya and Mahavira. The scattered fragments of New World history suggest that Quetzalcoatl may have appeared at this time. In the Greek world a scintillating constellation of philosophers, playwrights and poets provided the cornerstone of the edifice that became the glorious heritage of Hellenic civilization. Just as Gautama revealed aspects of the highest wisdom even whilst veiling truths and doctrines which are too sacred to set forth explicitly, so too Hellenic thinkers raised only a corner of the veil that conceals the divine Mysteries. Pythagoras established a fraternal community to make philosophy a way of life and to bring mathematical precision to ethics, the study of nature and human welfare. Aeschylus dramatized the spiritual inheritance of humanity and the subtle symmetries of dike, justice or karma, showing the power of dialogue to touch the vital core of ethics.

The pre-Socratic philosophers turned to the natural world and the conceptual power of mind to discern the architectonic principles of the cosmos and of man. The earliest of these recognized the play of opposites in the dynamics of manifestation and the need for metaphysical unity in a proper understanding of the world. With incisive logic Parmenides showed that the undeniable requirement of unity as a basis for knowledge of any kind unequivocally implied the essentially illusory nature of existence. One may have the way of truth, he taught, or the way of seeming reality or illusion, but not both. Zeno applied this doctrine to change, producing paradoxes of motion that still challenge logicians. As occurs in any age of creative ferment, crisis accompanied insight. The Greek mind could neither discard the foundations of knowledge nor accept a relativity that precludes knowing. As if answering a call, Empedocles drew together philosophy, poetry and medicine and made his whole life a response to the problem of the One and the many.

In 581 B.C. Gela, an independent colony founded by pioneers from Crete and Rhodes, established its own colony in Sicily, Acragas. The new city soon became as independent as its parent and flourished for two centuries before being subdued by the Carthaginians and then abandoned. Empedocles was born there around 495 B.C., the son of Meton, a prosperous and influential citizen. The wealthy son of a prominent family in a thriving community, Empedocles was raised in luxurious circumstances. Acragas supported six splendid temples, one of them the second largest in the Greek world. Apparently the life of the city matched the grandeur of its buildings, for Empedocles once said that "the Acragantines feast as if they were going to die tomorrow, and build their houses as if they were going to live for ever". Whilst legend and anecdote abound amongst classical writers, and more of his work survives than from any philosopher before Plato, both are sufficiently fragmentary to invite dissimilar interpretations, as diverse as the range of plausible standpoints.

Even as a youth, Empedocles seized the opportunity of his fortunate birth to study philosophy, the arts and natural science. Politics came naturally to him. Unlike any of his older contemporaries, he sensed the significance of the attack of Xerxes upon Greece, and in 480 B.C. composed an epic poem on the subject. Neanthes claimed that Empedocles wrote seven tragedies in his youth, but none of these survive. He grasped the intent of the Milesian philosophers to establish the operating principles of nature, and he was so deeply impressed by the logical arguments of Parmenides that he composed his own philosophical poems in dactylic hexameters, the metre of the Way of Truth. Perhaps whilst still a young man, Empedocles was converted to the doctrines of the Pythagoreans. The Pythagorean School was already defunct, but second and third generation disciples had spread throughout Magna Graecia as teachers, mathematicians, engineers and city planners. Tradition holds that Empedocles studied with Telauges, a son born to Pythagoras in his old age, and Philolaos, whose surviving relatives later sold Plato three secret books of Pythagoras. Like Aeschylus, Empedocles was once accused of revealing secret Pythagorean doctrines.

After his father died, Empedocles followed a democratic bent in politics, and he had a direct hand in ousting the oligarchical 'Thousand' who ruled Acragas. During the succeeding democratic regime he freely gave from his fortune for the welfare of the city. Once when a pestilence had settled on Acragas, Empedocles diagnosed the cause as a polluted breeze emanating from a mountain gully. He designed a way for skins to be drawn across the opening so that the wind was diverted. Soon the sickness ceased, and he was nicknamed 'Wind-stopper'. It may have been at this time that the city offered him the sovereign's crown, but he refused, insisting that the citizens should be free. A little later, the neighbouring city of Selinus asked him for help in ending another infectious illness. Here Empedocles found a polluted water-supply. By diverting the courses of two other rivers into the stream that passed through the city, he flushed out the pollution. Both of these curative measures were carried out at his own expense, and he refused remuneration of any kind. His medical knowledge was profound and intuitive. Once when a girl named Pantheia had been given up for dead, he stayed at the side of her body for a month, and eventually she revived. Shortly thereafter, a group of people attending a banquet saw Empedocles enter, and they prostrated themselves in the manner associated with homage to a god.

Empedocles wrote two monumental philosophical poems, one devoted to an outline of natural philosophy, Peri Physeos (On the Nature of Things), the other an explanation of the moral and spiritual life, Katharmoi (Purifications). His writings as well as his medical, political and theurgic activity made him famous in his own day. When the descendants of the 'Thousand' overthrew Acragantine democracy, Empedocles was exiled, but he had little difficulty finding hospitality in other cities. In 444 B.C. he was invited to the founding ceremonies at Thurii, a city designed by Pericles to be open to all Greeks, without ties to any mother-city and cosmopolitan in every sense. Protagoras, who had written its constitution, journeyed from Athens to Sicily for the occasion, and Herodotus, 'the Father of History', was also present. Sometime later, Empedocles was invited to Olympia to hear a recitation of his Purifications. Timaeus reported that people were awed by the beauty and power of his poetry, and stunned by his majestic tunic and unusual bronze sandals. Whilst he did not live the austere life of a Pythagorean disciple in the school at Crotona, his Pythagorean manners added to his legendary stature. Once when he gave a banquet, guests expecting the ritual sacrifice of a bull customary at grand occasions were surprised to find an effigy of a bull made of flour, honey and condiments. As a Pythagorean he firmly rejected animal sacrifices of any kind, a stance vigorously supported by Apollonius of Tyana centuries later.

Unlike his contemporaries, Empedocles did not establish even the rudiments of a school. Rather, he devoted his teaching to one disciple, Pausanias, for whom he wrote his works. Without a school to preserve and elaborate his teachings, his thought was easily misunderstood by later generations. Even in his lifetime his power of mind, uniqueness of personality, brilliance of poetic style, and boldness of civic action conspired to surround him with an aura of mystery. Some say he lived until sixty, others that he died at seventy-seven and even at one hundred and nine years of age. Stories of his death varied, but tradition tended to prefer one that suits his stature as a philosopher and religious thinker. Heraclides wrote that whilst Empedocles was in exile, he attended a banquet held in a field belonging to Peisianax, located near Mount Aetna. After dinner and the enjoyment of pleasant conversation, the guests lay down to sleep. Empedocles, however, remained seated in his place. A brilliant light appeared on the summit of Aetna, and a servant heard a voice call Empedocles by name. When the guests awoke in the early morning, Empedocles had vanished. A search was launched, and as the seekers neared the summit of Aetna, someone found one of his bronze sandals. Pausanias called off the search, saying that the wish of his teacher had been fulfilled: Empedocles had become a god.

Hail! I wander amongst you now no more
a mortal but like a god immortal,
Honoured by all, as is fitting, crowned with
sacred fillets, laden with wreaths.
I am revered by men and women; thousands
follow me as I go through the shining cities.

The citizens of Acragas erected a statue in his honour. Long after the Carthaginians destroyed it, the Romans occupied the site and renamed it Agrigentum. The statue was reverently removed from its neglected niche and installed before the Senate House in Rome.

Empedocles recognized that a complete philosophical perspective must not only meet the highest intellectual and material needs of individuals but also satisfy the spiritual potentials of humanity. Earlier natural philosophers expanded knowledge of the physical world and developed methodologies for the fruitful exploration of nature. The Eleatic philosophers unveiled the full range of reason and logic. Yet Empedocles felt that teaching that the One alone is real and the world is an illusion promulgates a fundamental truth but leaves the individual without purpose or guidance. To say that Esti ("It is") is the limit of knowledge of reality is to say that the mind that can realize this truth is still as trapped as any other in the realm of relativities. Yet to understand the dynamics of nature and ignore the One is to force the mind to abdicate the throne of knowledge. For Empedocles, absolute and relative truth should be connected, for only when that is done can the soul both know Truth and find its way through the labyrinth of relativity. Not only should the operations of spirit and matter be described, but in addition, their mutual interpenetration at every point, and hence their transcendent unity, should be shown. Spirit and Matter, the vital concerns of the Eleatics and Milesians, could be brought together, Empedocles believed, through the application of the ethical mathematics of Pythagoras. Compared to the exalted state of the soul in its true home, its enforced pilgrimage through the cycle of relative existence is an agonizing illusion indeed. But the wise soul discerns the metaphysical architectonic and moral dynamics of the relative world, so that through purification it may hasten to its supercelestial abode beyond the shining empyrean.

Extensive but disconnected fragments remain from the two great philosophical poems of Empedocles, perhaps amounting to as much as a sixth of his entire work. His poetic thought is sufficiently subtle that thinkers and commentators have produced conflicting interpretations from the time of his death. Some have held that the 'scientific' poem on nature is at odds with the 'religious' poem on purification of the soul, but it is possible to see them as complementary halves of a universal perspective. This standpoint begins and ends in the Sphairos – the perfect Sphere – which is the homogeneous source of material and spiritual existence:

In it were not to be seen the swift limbs of the sun
Nor the earth's dense vegetation; nor yet, the sea.
So much was the Sphairos firmly embedded
Within the secret compactness of harmony,
spherical all around,
Exultant in surrounding solitude.
For his limbs are not proudly crowned by a
man-like head
Nor do two branching arms from his back swing;
He has no feet or swift-moving knees,
or sexual organ shaggy.
He is all one sacred ineffable mind:
By his swift thoughts encompassing the entire universe.

The Sphairos is transcendent and also immanent as the starting point of a temporal cycle, one stage of which constitutes the world as humanity knows it. The Sphairos can be characterized only in negative terms – withdrawn into itself, antedating manifestation, without limbs or any apparatus of motion, devoid of creative potency – and yet is that to which all existing things are metaphysically referred.

The Sphairos cyclically differentiates and eventually returns to its transcendental and negative unity. It is in these cycles of manifestation that the world of mortal experience takes shape, and herein change rules. Insofar as manifestation is considered real, change and the mathematical ratios which govern it are the fundamental facts of nature, as Heraclitus had seen, and are appropriate for scientific study. When contrasted with the Sphairos, however, only It is real, and Parmenides was right to say the only truth is Esti ("It is"). As the transcendent Sphere begins to differentiate, elements emerge out of indiscrete matter and daimones or souls appear on the side of spirit. In potentia, they are eternal and immortal, and only their manifestation in actu is periodical.

I shall speak a double truth:
At times one alone comes into being;
At other times, out of one several things grow.
Double is the birth of mortal things
and double their demise.
For the coming together of all both causes their birth
And destroys them; and separation nurtured
in their being
Makes them fly apart.
These things never cease changing.

The birth of individuated entities is their death in transcendental unity of the Sphairos; their death as entities is rebirth into divine Oneness. In differentiation, materiality manifests as four roots, rizomata, of physical nature:

Of the roots of all things hear me first speak:
Zeus the white splendour, Hera carrying life,
And Aidoneus, and Nestis, whose tears bedew mortality.

They are for ever themselves,
But running through each other they become different,
Yet are for ever and ever the same.

Fire (Zeus), earth (Hera), air (Aidoneus) and water (Nestis) are the four modes of matter that produce through admixture and alloy the sensible world, "as when painters, intending to adorn votive offerings, having kneaded many-hued substances in their hands, mix them harmoniously, here a little more, there a little less". The roots, at once matter, daimonic entities and mythic symbols, are not self-moved. Motive power belongs to the great polar principles of attraction and repulsion, variously called Love and Strife, Aphrodite and Neikos, or Harmony and Hatred, forces that act under the law of Necessity to differentiate, evolve and dissolve combinations of the roots. The Sphairos seems to disappear in its manifestations as material roots and daimones or Monads, but it is immanent as the mathematical law that is expressed in the operations of Love and Strife. The One alone is real, and it is ever present in the many. Both science and spirituality seek to discern the Sphairos in its evolving effects.

Cyclic existence begins and ends in the Sphairos. Somehow Strife first enters the "secret compactness of harmony" and a chaotic world appears,

In which many a head grew without a neck,
And naked arms wandered without
supporting shoulders,
And eyes bereft of a forehead.

After a long time, Love begins to dominate, and the blind creativity of nature is drawn into a harmoniously organized world. The interplay of Love and Strife is not mechanical over time, for harmony requires that things be separated out into an intelligent order whilst hatred may lump things together chaotically. Eventually Love and Strife reach a balance which manifests in the world as the Golden Age: "Thus myriads of forms, well-knit together, come into being, a wonder to behold." Whilst this state is furthermost in the cycle from the Sphairos, it mirrors transcendent unity in its harmonies. Aphrodite rules, and neither Zeus nor Ares, nor even Poseidon yet exists. Sacrifices are of fruit and grain, war is unknown and all creatures live in mutual peace. At present, however, the gods are enthroned on Olympus. Strife, whilst not yet wholly disordering nature, is on the ascendant, and the age is dark for all beings. The earth has become "a joyless place, where murder and vengeance dwell, and swarms of other Fates – wasting diseases, putrefactions and fluxes – roam in darkness over the meadow of Doom".

The cycle of existence is fixed by Necessity and cannot be altered. Nevertheless, since the human daimon emanates from the spiritual aspect of the initiating Sphairos, it is only experientially but not ontologically a part of the cycle. It is not composed of the roots, though it must pass through their cyclic revolution in an unfamiliar garment of flesh. . . that earth which envelops mortals". If it must be likened to anything witnessed in the order of nature, it is most like Love, which is its natural state. Its participation in the whirl of forces is due to its original individuation, a kind of separation from the undifferentiated Sphairos symbolized by murder and lying. These acts intimate the destruction of breaking away from pre-cosmic harmony and the deception of participating in that illusion which is at once birth as a separate entity and death in one s ultimate nature. The daimon is compelled under Necessity to pass through the elements, experience the full potency of the roots and the polar attractions of Love and Strife – the six powers of Nature – and thereby to learn of its own inmost essence. "By now I have been born as a boy, a girl, a plant, a bird and a dumb fish in the sea." The daimon is like a fugitive from its true home, undergoing those conscious and unconscious purifications that will allow it to return to its abode. Hence Empedocles, speaking for the daimon, can say: "I wept and wailed when I saw the alien land."

Here are the goddess of earth
And the far-seeing goddess of the Sun,
Bloody Discord and grave-eyed Harmony,
Beauty and Ugliness, Swiftness and Delay,
Lovely Truth and dark-haired Uncertainty.

The daimon which has been sufficiently purified to reach the human level of being can learn to rise in consciousness above the unalterable cycle. If one is determined enough, one can sift the evidence of the senses and recognize it for what it is. Meditation on the Sphairos and "pure intent" will then gradually fill one with higher knowledge. "Will you not cease from slaughter?" Empedocles asks. "Do you not see that you are devouring one another in your folly?" By living in accord with that harmony – the balance of Love and Strife – which best reflects the Sphairos, one not only approaches it in consciousness, but also affects the living vestures which clothe one. For Empedocles, the purification of a self-conscious daimon consists in adhering to the ethical precepts of Pythagoreans. Through honouring each being in its place, following a harmonious and elevating routine and diet, guarding one's thoughts and being careful in one's actions, practising meditation and dispassionate self-study, and looking always to that Source which is one's true abode, one will manifest the immanence of the Sphairos in one's life. This truly human code of conduct mirrors the mathematics of the daimon just as the movements of the powers of nature mirror the mathematics of matter, and both embody the transcendental harmony of the Sphere.

For if thou adherest to these things steadfastly
in thy strong mind,
Considering them with good intent and selfless pure study,
They will all be with thee throughout thy life in high degree,
And thou wilt have acquired much else from them.

Purification nurtures knowledge. "Knowledge makes the mind grow." The expanding mind gradually approaches closer to the one sacred ineffable mind" which is the spiritual aspect of the unknowable Sphairos.

Empedocles recognized no tension between rigorous scientific enquiry and authentic spiritual awareness. He conducted experiments in nature, outlined natural laws, composed compelling poetry and exemplified a life of compassionate conduct. Whilst Love and Strife, like the yin and yang of the Tao, move the four roots in cyclic activity, universally represented by the swastika, the daimon cannot wholly merge with the Sphairos. It can, however, transcend the flux of cycles so that it views them with pellucid knowledge and dispassionate awareness, even whilst its mortal vestures obey the laws of change. Centered in the One whilst active in the many, such human beings become a race apart.

In the end they become seers
And composers of hymns, healers,
And leaders of men on earth.
Then from these they sprout up again
As gods immortal, honoured above all.