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(ĕmpĕd`əklēz), c.495–c.435 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Acragas (present Agrigento), Sicily. Leader of the democratic faction in his native city, he was offered the crown, which he refused. A turn in political fortunes drove him and his followers into exile. Empedocles taught that everything in existence is composed of four underived and indestructible roots, material particles identified as fire, water, earth, and air. He declared the atmosphere to be a corporeal substance, not a mere void; and in the absence of the void or empty space he explained motion as the interpenetration of particles, under the alternating action of two forces, harmony and discord. Believing that motion, or change of place, is the only sort of change possible, he explained all apparent changes in quality or quantity as changes of position of the basic particles underlying the observable object. He was thereby the first to state a principle that is now central to physics.


See studies by C. E. Millerd (1980) and M. R. Wright (1981).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



of Acragas (Agrigento). Born circa 490 B.C.; died circa 430. Greek philosopher, physician, and political figure; head of the democrats’ party.

Empedocles was influenced by the Pythagoreans and by Parmenides. In the poem On Nature he developed the doctrine of the four eternal and invariable elements—fire, air, water, and earth—out of which, in various proportions and combinations, all things are formed. The joining and separation of the elements are predicated on the existence of two forces, love and strife, whose alternating predominance determines the cyclicity of the world process. In the period of the supremacy of love, the elements are fused together, forming an enormous homogeneous sphere that is in a state of peace; the predominance of strife leads to the separation of the elements. The world in which we live, according to Empedocles, represents one of the intermediate stages. The description of the origin of living creatures in the period of ascendancy of love anticipates in some respects the idea of natural selection.

Empedocles devoted considerable attention to questions of anatomy and physiology, as exemplified by his description of the breathing process; his theory of “pores” and “effluences,” which was intended to explain sensations, contains the rudiments of atomistic ideas. In the poem Purifications, Empedocles expounded his religious-ethical doctrine of metempsychosis, or transmigration of the soul. He is considered the founder of the Sicilian medical school.


Diels, H. Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., vol. 1. Berlin, 1951. Pages 276–375.
Ben, N. van der. The Poem of Empedocles’ Peri Physeos. Amsterdam, 1975.
In G. Zuntz, Persephone. Oxford, 1971. Pages 181–274.
In Russian translation:
In P. Tannery, Pervye shagi drevnegrecheskoi nauki. Translated by E. L. Radlov. St. Petersburg, 1902. Pages 87–105.
Lucretius. On the Nature of Things, vol. 2. Translated by G. I. Iakubanis. Leningrad, 1947. Pages 663–95.


Iakubanis. G. I. Empedokl—filosof, vrach i charodei. Kiev, 1906.
Bollack, J. Empédocle, vols. 1–3. Paris, 1965–69.
O’Brien, D. Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle. Cambridge, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


?490--430 bc, Greek philosopher and scientist, who held that the world is composed of four elements, air, fire, earth, and water, which are governed by the opposing forces of love and discord
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Ovid's central statement of this idea at 15.252-8 is close to Empedoclean formulations, above all fragment 8 (cf.
Ovid will have noted that the Hellenistic epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes had drawn on Empedoclean monsters when describing the victims of Circe, that most famous mythological agent of transformation (Argonautica 4.672-80):
Apollonius draws on Empedocles elsewhere most notably in Orpheus' song on the origin of the universe at 1.497-511,(15) just as Ovid includes Empedoclean colouring in his cosmogony at the beginning of the Metamorphoses.(16) Peter Knox argues that the Speech of Pythagoras may be taken as a symptom of Ovid's Alexandrianism, pointing to Callimachus' use of Pythagoras in his poetry;(17) the Apollonian imitations of Empedocles show that in using this model as well Ovid continues an Alexandrian interest in earlier scientific poetry.
Aristotle in the Poetics (1447b 17-20) denies that Empedocles is a poet in anything but metre, but it may well be that the example is chosen polemically, because many did hold that he was outstanding as a poet as well as a philosopher; Diogenes Laertius (8.57) reports that in Aristotle's On Poets it was said that Empedocles was [GREEK TEXT OMITTED] and [GREEK TEXT OMITTED];(18) Ovid may preserve an Empedoclean metaphor in the description of the sun as (15.192) 'ipse dei clipeus' (the surviving fragments of Empedocles bear out Aristotle's statement that he liked to use striking metaphors).(19) Empedoclcan influence has been traced in Aeschylus, as well as Apollonius of Rhodes;(20) the Latin poet most indebted to Empedocles is of course Lucretius.
In Empedoclean and Pythagorean thought animal sacrifice is tantamount to human sacrifice; Empedocles describes a father unwittingly sacrificing his metensomatized son in language that is close to the later Aeschylean account of the sacrifice of Iphigenia (B137).(25) The Empedoclean passage also suggests a feast such as that offered to Thyestes, in an earlier episode from the history of the Pelopids; when the Ovidian Pythagoras returns to his diatribe against meat-eating at the end of his speech, he makes the connection between his injunction and the doctrine of metempsychosis and inveighs against 'Thyestean tables' (15.462 'neue Thyesteis cumulemus uiscera mensis').
This emphatic double imitation of the Greek and Latin philosophical poets at the beginning of the last book of Ovid's poem marks a return literally to first things, for the description of Chaos at the beginning of book one of the Metamorphoses (1.7-14) imitates a Lucretian passage (5.432-5) that is in turn a close imitation of an Empedoclean passage (B27).(26)
First of all, it is easy to understand why a critic might be unwilling to apply Empedoclean science to Arnold's poem, since Arnold in many places admits the limitations of his scientific knowledge.
Fortunately, that Matthew Arnold apparently had no more than an educated layman's understanding of Empedoclean cosmology provides the reader with hope for understand as much of it as Arnold may have decided to use.
Any reader looking for the Empedoclean Love/Strife cosmology in "Empedocles on Etna" is first going to wonder what has happened to that half of the theory regarding "Love," since love in any form a reader might expect is missing from the poem, an omission that seems not only significant but intentional.
"Love," Feshbach points out in his application of the Empedoclean cosmos to "Dover Beach," "can be felt only at the most human level while Strife, achieving dominance, is heard everywhere" (274).
However, it seems equally possible that what the poem contains is a "Strife" that is peculiarly Empedoclean.
Although critics have been confused by the concept of Ananke in particular, and by its function in the Empedoclean system generally (Guthrie 162-63), an affinity between Empedoclean Ananke and Darwinian "struggle for survival" occurs easily in the imagination if not in fact.