back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline

 

Topic #A9

Empedocles

 

28 September 2001

Scribes: Atis Reisenauer and Matthew Stupar

 

These minutes were not spoken; for another version,

go to the spoken minutes

 

 

 

         Professor Hutchinson began the September 28th lecture with the theme of fragments. With Empedocles we have an ancient philosopher who wrote in Homeric hexameter such that commentators are better able to quote accurately since the rigorous meter he used lends itself well to being translated and interpreted down through the ages. Many scholars are well versed in Homeric hexameter, which also helps to elucidate the meaning in Empedocles' poetry. Professor Hutchinson then proceeded to state that the surfacing of papyrus fragments continues into the present. He explained that the more recent the philosopher the more fragments available. He also mentioned that at times, new fragments are discovered. Such is the case with Empedocles of Acragas. He stated that with Empedocles we are better able to piece together his work, to draw greater understanding from it compared with other earlier philosophers in large part because ancient papyrus scrolls have turned up to fill in missing fragments.

 

         Professor Hutchinson began to relate that while in Cambridge he remembered having heard rumours of a newly discovered papyrus scroll attributed to Empedocles the contents of which are newly published in the First Philosophers. Then, Professor Hutchinson began to explain the historic chain of events that led to this, another first. The papyrus scroll is noted as coming from Strasburg (see reference for F20 p.149), but was brought there only recently by a German antiquarian. This German it was related at length had bought the papyrus for a sizeable amount from an ancient artifact dealer in either Alexandria or Cairo, the same dealers who inadvertently rely on tomb-robbers for their stock of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The papyrus scrolls then fell into the hands of the German state during the war when the Germans occupied Strasburg and seized the papyrus.

 

         The significance of the papyrus scroll is that it was a more complete section of a known work of Empedocles. This new information provided not only more lines of the poem, but also allowed philosophers and historians to align previous fragments into their proper order. The new findings also helped to establish that Empedocles had written only the one poem. Before the finding, it had been widely thought that he had actually written two poems: Purification, dealing with spiritual matters and On Nature, dealing with the physical world.  At this time, Professor Hutchinson pointed out that we can occasionally obtain additional information from antiquity in modern times. He also pointed out that the Waterfield text was the first popular book to contain the fullest form of the Empedocles fragment in F20. Fragment 20 in the text, then is the effect of a remarkable chain of events, and marks the first time the papyrus has been published in a popular work for students of ancient philosophy. 

 

         In general Empedocles in his poetry responds to the philosophical investigations of previous philosophers by giving his own account of the occurrence of natural phenomena. Empedocles' responses are primarily triggered by the reflections of Pythagoras and Parmenides. The influence of Pythagoras on Empedocles is evidenced by the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul. F38 on page 154 was read at length and Professor Hutchinson expounded on its meaning and significance. The first line was found to mean that the fathers of dead sons would bring up their sons again but this time in the shape of a lamb, so that when they slaughtered that same lamb when it grew fatter they were unknowingly contributing to their son's death.  Professor Hutchinson drew attention to the fact that in the time of the ancient philosophers, fathers living to witness their sons succumb to fatal disease was not uncommon. As a result of the belief in the transmigration of the soul the premeditated slaughter of an animal necessarily became a sacred act.  The killing of an animal solely for its meat became forbidden on the grounds that you never knew whose soul might be inhabiting an animal’s body.

 

         Nevertheless, this did not stop adherents from consuming meat, rather every act of animal slaughter became a ritual sacrifice designed to honour the gods who conveniently enough were placated by the smell of smoking meat.  Peculiarly, the moral conscience was pricked by the consumption of fish.  Professor Hutchinson suggested that a possible reason for this was because fish were more expensive and not as accessible. It is not clear why fish were exempt from this dietary stricture or whether this means human souls could never inhabit a fish. It is clear that meat-lovers who took advantage of the absence of constraints on fish by eating them with unreserved abandon were dubbed "fish-eaters,” a term that became synonymous for a self-indulgent morally decrepit person.

 

         Subsequently, this question was raised: “Could you sacrifice purely for sacrifice and not for meat?”  Professor Hutchinson confirmed that this was a possibility.  Then the question was raised, “So there was no feeling then, that you were killing Johnny?”  To which professor Hutchinson replied that it was possible because in those days the sacrifice would not be a personal gain for the donor, but rather the meat would be given to the temple. In the scenario, the family making the sacrifice would offer the entire animal to the temple/priests and therefore would be exempt from any “blood-guilt” that would accompany a sacrifice.  Professor Hutchinson also pointed out that there were alternative sacrifices that could be given such as fruits. 

 

         Then another question was raised, questioning how widespread the teaching of reincarnation was during the time of Empedocles.  Professor Hutchinson replied by describing how the doctrine came to arise in Ancient Greece in the first place. Plato was responsible for increasing the spread of the belief through his arguments. It was emphasized that the belief was not mainstream and did not permeate the traditional Greek religious belief system. It was then explained that Plato's beliefs could be traced to Pythagoras. Pythagoras in turn probably came across the belief during his traveling years in Egypt and the Near East from where we can conclude the belief in reincarnation originated It is also known that some philosophers did hold the doctrine even though they also held traditional Greek views as well.  It was further emphasized how difficult it was to say how widespread the belief was but that it was clearly imported from outside Greece since, during the time concerned, it did not rank highly as a belief of the majority. Professor Hutchinson explained that it is difficult to know how many people knew of the teaching in their time.  He made a comparison between the Greeks and reincarnation to early Christian communities who were uncertain of the physical resurrection of the body.

 

         After discussing the Pythagorean influence on Empedocles' poem, Professor Hutchinson spoke about the Parmenidean influence therein. This could be seen in the way in which Empedocles tries to account for the diversity of observable phenomena, that is the world of change, difference, while at the same time dealing with the challenge of Parmenides which effectively rules out the existence of difference on the grounds that nothing can come into being from not-being. It is also a response to Parmenides, as witnessed in his discussion of the root elements of fire, water, earth, and air. 

 

         Professor Hutchinson proceeded to expound on how Empedocles viewed himself and how those in southern Italy viewed him.  It seems that Empedocles considered himself to be somewhat of a prophet, religious leader, or shaman.  The story is told in T1 of Empedocles raising a woman from the dead and then going off to his own death.  Professor Hutchinson said that a loose comparison could be made between Empedocles and Jesus in the way that they performed miracles (resurrecting others) and then were led to their own deaths.  It was made clear that there existed dissimilarities as well such as the way Empedocles viewed himself as one of the gods, whereas that was not the case with Jesus who emphasized the existence of only one God in relation to whom he was human.

 

         The Empedoclean cosmological theory was given a cursory glance- the theory of the cycles of unity and disunity and the metaphors of attraction (love) and separation (strife). Then Empedocles' physiological explanation of vision was discussed, where he   believed that the eye contained fire and that the pupil acted as a screen against the elements of water, wind and earth. Professor Hutchinson then commented that Empedocles through F41 bore some resemblance to Thales and Anaximander.  Finally, Professor Hutchinson stated his over-arching impression of Empedocles' lasting contribution to philosophy in the form of a lingering doubt as to its real value. Professor Hutchinson explained that Empedocles claims to know a lot but his claims are very speculative and the confidence he shows in his knowledge is disputable.  It was spoken at length of his over confidence in his knowledge and that even Aristotle showed similar doubts and criticized Empedocles for his over-speculation.  Professor Hutchinson said that Empedocles' confidence in his speculative philosophy came from his belief that certain fundamental principles should be held in higher regard than others. 

 

         F7 was read at length to show how Empedocles relied on the senses for the attainment of knowledge.  The fragment explains that no one channel of understanding should be considered better than another, but that they should all be used in order to make things clear to the mind.  The mind is viewed as the final arbiter that decides on what is the important, fundamental knowledge.  F8 outlines the unquestioning confidence Empedocles had for the fundamental principles he had for attaining knowledge.  F8 is Empedocles attempt to persuade a person to “plant” knowledge in the mind and keep it safe.  If this is done successfully, knowledge will always remain and it will produce more knowledge.  Empedocles used extensive gardening metaphors in this explanation of knowledge.

 

         Professor Hutchinson raised a good point from one of the position papers that if insight is left on its own, it will collect dust.  In order for it to be useful, insight must be constantly “turned over”.   Contrary to Empedocles’ position, advancement of any sort comes not from unquestioningly adhering to a set of fundamental principles but rather from challenging the position of established doctrine. In closing Empedocles was seen as lacking somewhat an epistemological position with which to strengthen the foundations of a noble school of thought.