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History of Science Ancient Egypt

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 3: Ancient Egyptian and Aegean science

Empedokles of Akragas (fl. 450 B.C.)

| Presocratics Index | Intro | Thales | Anaximandros | Anaximenes | Herakleitos | Parmenides | Zenon | Melissos |
| Atomists: Leukippos and Demokritos | Anaxagoras | Empedokles | Significance of the Presocratics |

Akragas, in SicilyAnother natural philosopher whose work survives is Empedokles of Akragas. The wealthy Greek colony of Akragas (Latin, Agrigentum) was located on the southwest edge of Sicily, overlooking the Mediterranean sea (map from Wikipedia, right). The only presocratic who did not come from Ionia, Empedokles nevertheless wrote in the Ionian dialect and in hexameter verse (just like Homer).

"In another time, I have been a boy and a girl, a shrub and a bird, and a dumb fish in the sea."

Empedokles was a physician who roamed the Greek world claiming to be a god, and to perform miracles of healing. However, he denied that the present cosmos was the work of any god, and suggested that animals originated from the chance association of body parts floating in a primordial sea.

Empedokles rejected Parmenides’ denial of change, and rejected the atomists' assertions that nothing (that is, a void) can exist. So how did he salvage the perception of change within a plenum against the logic of Parmenides?

Empedokles was willing to compromise monism, and to adopt a "limited pluralism" (as opposed to monism, dualism, or radical pluralism). That is, instead of asserting that "The All is One" like the Milesian monists, Empedokles argued that "the All could be the Few." Instead of searching for one first principle of all things, there might be just a few first principles of different things. At least, this would be more satisfying than the radical pluralism of Anaxagoras, where everything is different.

Appropriating some of the elements of the three Milesians and of Herakleitos of Ephesos, Empedokles suggested that four elements are the roots (rhizo) of all that is. These four elements are: earth, water, air and fire.

"Hear first the four roots of all things: bright Zeus (fire), life-giving Hera (air), and Aidoneus (earth), and Nestis who moistens the springs of men with her tears." (33)

These elements are eternal, indestructible, and irreducible. The properties of any object depend upon the proportions of the four elements which it contains, like the pigments of a painter blended together.

"And as when painters are preparing elaborate votive offerings-men well taught by wisdom in their [Page 173] art - they take many-coloured pigments to work with, and blend together harmoniously more of one and less of another till they produce likenesses of all things; so let not error overcome thy mind to make thee think there is any other source of mortal things that have likewise come into distinct existence in unspeakable numbers; but know these (elements), for thou didst hear from a god the account of them." (121)

If there is no void, how does change occur in a plenum? The four elements theory of Empedokles allows for the reality of change by a process known as "antiperistasis." Change could occur by a process of mutual replacement, or musical chairs, whereby each part moves simultaneously into the place formerly occupied by another, in an endless cyclical loop. Something similar happens when a painter mixes his pigments. With antiperistasis, contrary to the atomists, no void is required for change to be able to occur.

Does this theory explain common natural phenomena in a satisfactory way? Later, Aristotle himself appropriated both the four element theory and the explanation of antiperistasis from Empedokles, and thereafter these views would be upheld in one form or another, as a compelling answer to the challenge of Parmenides, for two millennia.

How do the four elements mingle and interact to form ordered substances? For Empedokles, there are two fundamental forces that guide the interactions of the elements: love and strife. Love or harmony attracts; strife or hate repels. “Strife and Love,” or attraction and repulsion, are the driving forces of orderly change.

"And these (elements) never cease changing place continually, now being all united by Love into one, now each borne apart by the hatred engendered of Strife, until they are brought together in the unity of the all, and become subject to it. Thus inasmuch as one has been wont to arise out of many and again with the separation of the one the many arise, so things are continually coming into being and there is no fixed age for them; and farther inasmuch as they [the elements] never cease changing place continually, so they always exist within an immovable circle." (66)

Note: Empedokles fragments are quoted from the Hanover Historical Texts Project.


First principle
Thales of Miletos
Anaximandros of Miletos
Anaximenes of Miletos
Herakleitos of Ephesos

Parmenides of Elea,
Zenon of Elea,
Melissos of Samos


Monism, Plenism, Rationalism, Necessitarianism, Sufficient Reason, Akinesis, Eternity of the World

Leukippos of Miletos and Demokritos of Abdera Atoms + Void Pluralism, Void, Tychism
Anaxagoras of Klazomenai
All in All
Radical Pluralism, Teleology
Empedokles of Akragos
Roots (earth, air, water, fire)
Moderate Pluralism, Tychism (chance)


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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux