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Topic #A9

Empedocles

 

28 September 2001

Scribes: Ben Gallagher and Carol Yeung

 

These minutes were spoken on 1 October; for another version,

go to the unspoken minutes

 

 

 

Friday's lecture began with a similar theme as the previous one, that of fragments.  The fragments we have of Empedocles are an interesting case, Professor Hutchinson informed us, because like Parmenides his texts were written in poetry.  We can be fairly sure, then, that when it was quoted, the quotations were accurate.  As well, many of the fragments we do have come from Aristotle, who was fascinated with Empedocles, and as a consequence we too have a good knowledge of Empedocles, and the accuracy of the quotations is assured. 

 

         Contrary to the usual fate of ancient documents, the collection of Empedocles's fragments has been increasing.  Professor Hutchinson related that not very long ago, while at Cambridge, he had heard a rumour of the discovery of a scrap of papyrus that contained new fragments of Empedocles's work.  In F20 (pp 147-149) we find the longest continuous fragment of Empedocles, pieced together from Simplicius’ Commentary on Aristotle's Physics, and this newly found papyrus. 

 

         So how did this happen?  In the early 19th century, when Germany had control of Strasbourg, a German businessman paid money on the black market for a piece of papyrus (as the Professor explained, this grave robbing took place quite frequently then).  He deposited it in a German collection in Strasbourg, and it was not discovered until a graduate student did research in the collection and found the papyrus. 

 

         The discovery of the papyrus had a large impact on our view of Empedocles.  It helped to indicate the correct order of some fragments we already knew existed (and which were contained on the papyrus), and also introduced several new lines of text.  As well, it strengthened the view that Empedocles wrote only one poem, contradicting the previous belief that he had written two poems, one on nature and one on religion.  Professor Hutchinson related that one of his colleagues had argued for the existence of only one poem, and this evidence seems to support that claim.  Fragment 20 on pp 147-149, is the first time the whole fragment that was pieced together is seen in a popular book. 

 

         Professor Hutchinson then moved on to an actual discussion of Empedocles, stating first that we would be unable to talk about the whole book in detail in the lecture, but that we know it is poetry and it's subject is the natural world.  Similar to the "Table of Contents" of the Milesians, Empedocles covers magnetism, fixed stars, eclipses, the moon, solstices, and astronomical distances. 

 

         In T16 and T17, there is a discussion of why children are born male or female (which Parmenides also covered), why there are twins, and the resemblance of children to their parents.  T13 discusses magnetism, T12 concerns the physiology and psychology of perception.  One thing is obvious -- Empedocles knows the Milesian tradition, and gives his ideas on the same topics they covered.

 

         Empedocles borrows his poetic hexameter from Parmenides, and also borrows from the Pythagoreans the conviction that we experience reincarnation, death and rebirth into another being.  There is quite a lot of evidence for this.  In F38 pp 154, which begins "A father raises up his own son in a different form and slaughters him with a prayer, the utter fool, while the son sheds bitter tears and begs for mercy from the sacrificer," it is clear Empedocles shares the disapproval of sacrifice the Pythagoreans had. 

 

         Professor Hutchinson then explained the attitude towards sacrifice in ancient Greece.  In the ancient Greek world you did not go to a butcher shop to get meat, the meat came from an act of sacrifice.  This was not done casually but in a ritual manner, the blood of the animal drained in a certain way and perhaps given to a priest, along with burnt offerings.  The gods really liked the barbecue smell of the burnt and charred bones wrapped in fat, and so the Greeks both pleased the gods and got food for the table.  When meat was served in a Greek household, it was due to sacrifice only. 

 

         Empedocles's objection, and the Pythagoreans before him, was that if you ate animals that you sacrificed you could be eating a dead relative whose soul had been reborn in that animal.  However, this did not apply to fish apparently (which also were not sacrificed), since fish was rare, tasty, and expensive.  In ancient Greece, a glutton was a fish-eater.

 

A question was then raised by a student.  "Could you sacrifice purely for the sake of sacrifice?"   Professor Hutchinson's answer was yes, you could.  The animal would be taken to a priest and donated to the temple, the donor not getting the meat.  People often gave animals to the temple, because while they did not get food out of it they were insuring not only the happiness of the gods but the continued existence of the priests, who also needed food.  However, the Epicureans and Pythagoreans would not have followed this, but more likely would have sacrificed fruits and flowers instead of livestock.

 

Another question was then raised: "How widespread was the notion of reincarnation?"  Professor Hutchinson responded that Plato had argued persuasively for it, and so some philosophers after him also believed in reincarnation.  Plato himself had received the idea from the Pythagoreans, who in turn had taken it from the Egyptians, and so the idea originated in cultures foreign to Greece.  What that meant was while some people believed it, it was not a ingrained cultural or nation-wide belief.  As well, it is hard to say how widespread the belief was, just as it is difficult as saying how widespread Christian ideas on the survival of the soul were.  There were no surveys conducted in ancient times, and people have different views to different degrees.  However, the belief in reincarnation was definitely a minority one.

 

Continuing with his lecture, Professor Hutchinson said that Empedocles was post-Parmenides and post-Pythagoras, and there seems to be a need to explain the prime elements.  Empedocles believed in the existence of the 4 elements, as well as two forces, love and strife, and is responding to Parmenides's need for an enternal object of knowledge.

 

          Empedocles was also thought of as a religious leader or shaman.  There were stories of his death mixed with his performing acts of resurrection, and also claims that his knowledge was sent from the gods.  We read in T1 that Empedocles raised someone from the dead, and then died himself.  Professor Hutchinson noted that this has parallels to Jesus of Nazareth.  Both Jesus and Empedocles were regarded as gods by their followers, and although the parallel is loose the Professor found it interesting that we see the same combination of attributes (resurrection followed by death) in ancient Greece long before the birth of Christianity.  However, Professor Hutchinson expressed that he thought Jesus did not have the self-knowledge Empedocles claimed to have. 

 

         Professor Hutchinson continued, saying that a central theme in Empedocles is a fluxation between unity and disunity, and that Empedocles also had an affinity for metaphor and analogy, which occurs throughout the fragments.

 

         Looking at F41, Empedocles's view of the pupil, the analogy is of fire projected through the pupil, the eye seeming to reach out and catch hold of the object.  The Professor then quoted the fragment, which begins "Think of someone who plans a journey on a winter's night, and prepares a lamp, a burning source of fire's gleam; he attaches linen screens against winds from all quarters, and they scatter the breath of the winds as they blow..." and ends with, "primal fire enclosed within membranes and fine linens, which protected the fire against the depths of the surrounding water, but let through to the outside as much of the fire as was finer." Professor Hutchinson noted that the "she" mentioned in this fragment was probably the goddess Aphrodite.  This is obviously a speculative physiology of the eye and vision. 

 

         These fragments of Empedocles are full of interesting things to comment on, the Professor continued, but they leave a lot of lingering doubts in his mind.  Namely, it seems like a lot of stuff to claim to know.  Empedocles's abstract confidence is misplaced, and while his fragments are fertile, they are perhaps overly fertile.  Aristotle thought this as well, and argued furiously with many of Empedocles's notions, most famously against natural selection (in which Empedocles in fact turned out to be right).  However, the point remains that Empedocles's work is ambitions but thoroughly speculative.  His claims that other people, who were taught the right principles, could see what he sees and know what he knows, also appears dubious.

 

         Referring to F7, Professor Hutchinson pointed out that it talks about the different senses, quoting: "think not that sight is ever more reliable than what comes to hearing, nor rate echoing hearing above the pores of the tongue, nor keep your trust from any of the other organs by which there is a channel for understanding, but use whatever it takes to make things clear to the mind." Empedocles felt that no one sense is to be taken as absolute.  Mind is the final arbiter, and mind should hold certain principles (or ways of interpreting reality).

 

         Then, looking to F8, Empedocles says "for if you plant them too down under your agitated mind, and observe them kindly with episodes of untainted attention, all of them will remain with you throughout your life, and from them you will gain many others..." and so on.  This is one of several root and seed metaphors in Empedocles, but what it is saying is that choosing the right principles and "planting them," will provide clarity of vision and understanding of the world.

 

Next, Professor Hutchinson referred to a student's position paper, which first of all paraphrased fragments 7 and 8, and continued to say that there was a huge problem with this idea of Empedocles.  It pointed out that any insight collects dust if not used, and that all humans are nothing if not biased, so it is difficult to bring true insight into a topic if you do not discuss it with others.  That any idea, not matter how valid, will stagnate if left in our brains as Empedocles would have us do.

 

         Professor Hutchinson continued in this vein, saying that while Empedocles proposes fundamental methods of thought to focus on, discovery doesn't happen that way in science.  Scientists don't sit on an insight, but are active with their thoughts, testing and challenging them, pitting them against others.  This is a dynamic and fruitful method of discovery, as well as a proven one.  Compared to this scientific approach, Empedocles's thoughts seem based on thin epistemological principles.  As Aristotle would say, "nice theory, but where did it come from?"