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date: 03 October 2022


, c. 492–432 bce


, c. 492–432 bce
  • Brad Inwood


  • Philosophy

A philosopher from Acragas in Sicily. Most details of his life are uncertain. Book 8 of Diogenes (6) Laertius provides the largest selection of legends. Much of our biographical information (especially the manner of his death and claims that he was a doctor and prophet and considered himself a god) may have been extrapolated from his poetry. There is no reason to doubt his aristocratic background, that his family participated in the Olympian Games, that he was involved in political life, or that he was active in both the religious and the philosophical spheres. He apparently travelled to mainland Greece to recite at the Olympian Games and visited Thurii soon after its foundation in 443 bce. Pythagoreanism was clearly a philosophical inspiration. Equally important was Parmenides, whose thought shaped the basic ideas underlying Empedocles' philosophy. There is no evidence that he was familiar with the work of Zeno (1), Melissus, or the atomists; he probably knew the work of Anaxagoras, certainly that of Xenophanes.

According to Diogenes Laertius (8. 77), he was the author of two poems, On Nature and Purifications. (The Suda entry for Empedocles mentions only an On Nature, though it is often emended to agree with Diog. Laert.) Other authors refer to one poem or the other, not both. The relationship between these two poems is problematic, with no consensus about the distribution of the fragments. Opinion about the relationship between On Nature and Purifications (if they were in fact distinct works) has been profoundly altered by the discovery and publication by Martin and Primavesi of substantial new papyrological evidence for Empedocles' poetry which confirms inter alia that physical and religious themes were handled together rather than separately; the renewed debate about its impact on the understanding of Empedocles' works and doctrines will likely continue for many years. Our sources also mention works of dubious authenticity: medical writings in prose and verse, tragedies, a hymn to Apollo, an Expedition ofXerxes. But the surviving fragments can be fairly well accommodated in the work(s) on natural philosophy and religion.

Empedocles is especially important for:


His response to Parmenides, who argued that no real thing could change or move and that the world was static. Empedocles accepted that real objects did not change; but against Parmenides he claimed that there could be several such things, his four ‘roots’ or elements, which moved under the influence of Love and Strife. All six of Empedocles' realities were often personified as gods. The events of the world's history result from the interaction of these entities.

2. .

Introducing the notion of repeated world cycles The influence of Love and Strife alternated; hence the history of the cosmos was cyclical. The principal controversy about the details of the cosmic cycle centres on whether or not there is a recognizable ‘world’ during each half (under the increasing power of Love and under that of Strife). When Love is supreme, the world is a homogeneous whole; when Strife has conquered, the elements are completely separated.

3. :

The claim that there are only four basic forms of perceptible matter earth, water, fire, and air. Unlike Aristotle, who adopted his view, Empedocles thought that these forms of matter were unchangeable. Empedoclean matter is often treated as particulate; hence, despite his denial of void, there is reason to suspect that he influenced atomism.

4. .

The effluence theory A simple mechanism of pores and effluences was used to explain perception (effluences from sense-objects entering into the pores of sense organs), mixture, and many other natural processes. This notion had a major influence, especially on atomism.

5. .

A theory of reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul Despite the claim that transmigration occurs, there is no clear indication of whether the daimones (spirits) which move from body to body survive for ever or only until the end of the current world cycle. His claim that even human thought is identifiable with the blood around the heart points to the physical nature of the transmigrating daimōn. Orphic and Pythagorean views are also relevant (see orphism; pythagoras (1)).


  • H. Diels and W. Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th edn. (1952) 31.
  • J. Bollack, Empédocle, 4 vols. (1965–9).
  • R. Wright, Empedocles: The Extant Fragments (1981).
  • A. Martin and O. Primavesi, L'Empédocle de Strasbourg (1998).
  • B. Inwood, The Poem of Empedocles, 2nd edn. (2001).