Thursday, October 30, 2008


Apostolos L. Pierris (ed.), The Empedoclean Kosmos: Structure, Process and the Question of Cyclicity. Proceedings of the Symposium Philosophiae Antiquae Tertium Myconense July 6th - July 13th, 2003. Part 1: Papers. Patras: Institute for Philosophical Research, 2005. Pp. 425, xcvi (App.). €100.00 (pb). ISBN 960-88183-1-1.
Reviewed by Jenny Bryan, Homerton College, Cambridge (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This is a collection of fifteen papers presented at the Symposium Philosophiae Antiquae Tertium Myconense held on Mykonos in July 2003. If this volume is any indication, the meeting must have been a lively affair. It includes work by many of the most influential modern scholars of Empedocles and covers a wide range of topics from the reception of Empedocles to his methodology of argumentation to the details of his cosmology. In addition, Apostolos Pierris provides, in an appendix, a reconstruction of Empedocles' poem. Several themes emerge from the various papers, most notably the notion of scientific versus religious thinking, the unity of his poem(s?), the importance of the Strasbourg Papyrus, and Aristotle's role in shaping our understanding of Empedocles' cycle. As a whole, the book's most obvious and perhaps most exciting theme is that of 'Strife'. This 'Strife' is not, however, Empedocles' cosmic force (although he does, of course, loom large). Rather it is the kind of discord that seems to arise whenever there is more than one (or maybe even just one) interpreter of Empedocles in the room. This, of course, is no bad thing. This volume represents Pre-Socratic scholarship at its most dynamic.

In general, editing seems to have been rather 'hands off'. Some papers offer primary texts only in Greek, others include translations. One piece in particular is sprinkled with typos and misspellings that do a disservice to its argumentative force.[[1]] That being said, thought has clearly been given to the grouping of the papers. I particularly benefited from the juxtaposition of those papers explicitly about Empedocles' cosmic cycles, if only because it illustrates the strength of disagreement which this topic continues to inspire. Thus, for example, whilst Primavesi employs the Byzantine scholia as the linchpin of his reconstruction of the cycle, Osborne dismisses the same as 'probably worthless as evidence for how Empedocles himself intended his system to work' (299). Whatever position you hold, or indeed if you hold no position at all, this collection will present you with something to get your teeth into.

Anthony Kenny's 'Life after Etna: the legend of Empedocles in literary tradition' offers a whistle-stop tour through accounts of Empedocles' reputed death on Etna, and then arrives at a more extensive discussion of Matthew Arnold's 'Empedocles on Etna'. Kenny points out that, at times, Arnold's Empedocles resembles Lucretius, of whom Arnold was an admirer from childhood. Kenny concludes with the suggestion that, although 'Empedocles on Etna' may be more about Arnold than Empedocles, there is an affinity between the two men: 'Empedocles, part magus and part scientist, was, like Arnold, poised between two worlds, one dead, one struggling to be born' (30).

Glenn Most offers a rather fascinating discussion of Nietzsche's Empedocles in his 'The stillbirth of tragedy: Nietzsche and Empedocles'. Most reveals the extent to which Empedocles 'played quite a significant role in Nietzsche's intellectual world' (33). Although Nietzsche made some abortive attempts at a philosophical discussion of Empedocles, he was 'far less interested in Empedocles as a thinker than as a human being' (35). Such was his admiration for Empedocles, whom he viewed as 'der reine tragische Mensch', that, perhaps under the influence of Hölderlin, Nietzsche formed the (unfulfilled) intention of writing an opera or tragedy about him. Most suggests, in passing, that the tendency for reception of Empedocles to take dramatic form could be due to the influence of Heraclides Pontus (whose dialogue about Empedocles may have formed a source of Diogenes Laertius' account).

In 'Empedocles: two theologies, two projects', Jean Bollack rails against attempts made, on the basis of the Strasbourg Papyrus, to narrow the gap between Empedocles' physical and ethical theories. He interprets 'The Origins' and 'The Purifications' as offering two distinct theologies, tailored to suit the purpose, strategy, and audience of each poem. His view is that '[t]he two poems were very probably intended to shed light on one another precisely in their difference' (47). Bollack also offers, in an appendix, a rereading of fragment B31 'extended by the Strasbourg Papyrus' (62).

Rene Nünlist's 'Poetological imagery in Empedocles' considers the apparent echo of Parmenides B8's κόμος ἐπέων in Empedocles B17's λόγου στόλος. Nünlist argues that Empedocles' 'poetological imagery' is more dynamic and potentially more aggressive than that of his predecessor. Empedocles uses path metaphors to 'convey the idea of philosophical poetry being a process or a method' (79). Nünlist also provides a brief appendix on line 10 of ensemble d of the Strasbourg Papyrus.

Richard Janko returns to the vexed question of whether Empedocles wrote one poem or two in his 'Empedocles' Physica Book 1: a new reconstruction'. Janko presents a masterful summary of the evidence for and against trying to unite Empedocles' physical and religious verses, admitting his preference for accepting Katharmoi and Physika as two titles for the same work (which discussed both physical theory and ritual purification). On this topic, I benefitted particularly from his discussion of the fragments of Lobon of Argos (another possible source for Diogenes Laertius). This discussion serves as the introduction to Janko's reconstruction and translation of 131 lines of Book 1 of Empedocles' Physics, in which he attempts to incorporate some of the ensembles of the Strasbourg Papyrus, which he suggests 'at last gives us a clear impression of Empedocles as a poet' (113).

In 'On the question of religion and natural philosophy in Empedocles', Patricia Curd neatly sidesteps the 'one poem or two?' question, formulating instead a distinction between Empedocles' 'esoteric' and 'exoteric' teachings. She then attempts to establish an essential relation between the two. Curd argues that the exoteric verses, addressed to a plural 'you', offer exhortation and instruction as to how to live a certain kind of life without any 'serious teaching' (145). On the other hand, the esoteric verses addressed to Pausanias offer explanation but lack any direct instruction. Curd's suggestion is that Empedocles holds that 'one must be in the proper state of soul in order to learn and so acquire and hold the most important knowledge' (153). Further, she argues for reading Empedocles as holding the possession of such natural knowledge as the source of super-natural powers. Curd's Baconian Empedocles 'sees knowledge of the world as bestowing power to control the world' (153).

Richard McKirahan's 'Assertion and argument in Empedocles' cosmology or what did Empedocles learn from Parmenides?' offers a subtle and stimulating survey of 'the devices [Empedocles] uses to gain belief' (165). McKirahan attempts a rehabilitation of Empedocles against Barnes's assertion that those reading his cosmology 'look in vain for argument, either inductive or deductive.'[[2]] Offering persuasive evidence from the fragments, he argues that Empedocles employs both assertion and justification (via both argument and analogy) in his cosmology and that the choice between the two is fairly systematic. McKirahan frames his suggestions within a reconsideration of Empedocles' debt to Parmenides, arguing that, in places, 'Empedocles seems to be adding new Eleatic-style arguments for Eleatic-style theses' (183).

Apostolos Pierris argues for a 'tripartite correspondence' (189) between Empedoclean religion, philosophy and physics in his 'Ὅμοιον ὁμοίω and Δίνη: Nature and Function of Love and Strife in the Empedoclean system.' Pierris traces the connection between these three aspects of Empedocles' thinking via an investigation of the relation between the activity of Love and Strife and the role of the cosmic vortex, reconsidering Aristotle's critique along the way. He concludes that 'in understanding Empedocles' system of Cosmos both [i.e., metaphysical and physical levels of discourse] are equally needed, for one sheds light on the other' (213). Further, the physical and metaphysical accounts of the Sphairos and the effects of Love and Strife aid our awareness of our ethical status.

In 'The topology and dynamics of Empedocles' cycle', Daniel Graham attempts a sidelong offensive on the puzzles of Empedocles' cosmic cycle, armed with a plausible belief that a treatment of the cosmic forces of Love and Strife will shed light on the cycle that they dominate. He offers a neat summary of traditional readings of the location and direction of the action of Love and Strife before presenting a defence of the position developed by O'Brien.[[3]] Graham argues that this so-called 'Oscillation Theory' makes the most sense of Empedocles' use of military imagery in B35. He also presents a rather illuminating political analogy whereby Empedocles' Love serves to avoid a kind of cosmic stasis.

Oliver Primavesi's 'The structure of Empedocles' cosmic cycle: Aristotle and the Byzantine Anonymous' also has in its sights O'Brien's reconstruction of the Empedoclean cycle. Primavesi argues against this reconstruction on the grounds that 'O'Brien's hypothesis of symmetrical major alternation of rest and movement is...exclusively based on a controversial interpretation of Aristotle, Physics 8, 1' (257). As an alternative, Primavesi adduces a set of Byzantine scholia which seem to conflict with O'Brien's alternations and which were 'composed in a time when access to a complete work of Empedocles was still open' (257).[[4]] Primavesi concludes by hypothesising a timetable for the cycle compatible with the scholia.

André Laks considers the relationship between Empedocles' cosmology and demonology in his 'Some thoughts about Empedoclean cosmic and demonic cycles'. He champions a 'correspondence model' of interpretation, arguing that, although the two accounts are distinct, they are also clearly related. Laks suggests that one clear point of relation is the shared cyclicity of the cosmic and demonic stories. Laks focuses his discussion on how each of the cycles starts and argues that 'we are entitled to speak of necessity in the case of the cosmic cycle (as Aristotle does) as well as in that of the demonic circle' and, further, that 'although we are entitled to speak of necessity in both cases, we should carefully distinguish between the two cases, and indeed between two kinds of necessity' (267). Cosmic 'necessity' is absolute, whilst demonic 'Necessity' is hypothetical.

In 'Sin and moral responsibility in Empedocles' cosmic cycle', Catherine Osborne also gets stuck into the thorny issue of Empedoclean necessity. She rejects the kind of 'mechanical and deterministic' reading of Empedocles' cycle which, by imposing 'fixed periods between regular recurring events... leave[s] little room for moral agency to have any significance' (283). Osborne worries that notions of sin and responsibility will be meaningless in a cosmos where acts of pollution and periods of punishment are predetermined. Using the illuminating parallel of Sophocles' Oedipus, Osborne argues that a distinction between necessity and prediction should be applied to Empedocles. Empedocles' daimones are moral agents who act voluntarily in a manner that has been predicted (but which they have promised to avoid) and thus, being responsible for their own predicament, they are punished according to the moral code upon which they have previously agreed. She canvasses a variety of possible readings for B115's 'oracle of necessity' and concludes that none of them diminishes the responsibility of the daimones or interferes with their free will. Her ultimate conclusion is that Empedocles intended to 'set the cosmic events within a moral structure, one in which the fall from unity was the effect of violence in heaven' (297). Osborne also offers an appendix on the Byzantine sScholia.

Angelo Tonelli's 'Cosmogony is psychogony is ethics: some thoughts about Empedocles' fragments 17; 110; 115; 134 DK, and P. Strasb. Gr. Inv. 1665-1666D, VV. 1-9' is an intriguing attempt to draw parallels between Empedocles' 'initiation poems' and the 'oriental spiritual tradition'. As the title suggests, Tonelli argues for the unity of physics and ethics in what he identifies as Empedocles' mysticism. He reaches the provocative conclusion that Empedocles' wise man longs for the triumph of Love even at the expense of his own dissolution qua individual into total unity. 'But this', Tonelli asserts, 'is not nihilism: this is psychocosmic mysticism' (330).

David Sedley urges a radical rethinking of Empedocles' double zoogony in his 'Empedocles' life cycles'. He argues against the reading that places Love's zoogony in a phase of increasing Love leading up to the Sphairos. Sedley points out that it would be odd for Empedocles to expend more energy 'accounting for the origin of life forms which he could do no more than conjecture to have existed in a remote part of cosmic history... (since the sphairos has intervened to render them extinct), than he did on accounting for life as we know it' (332). He proposes an alternative reading whereby both parts of the double zoogony are offered as an explanation of life as we know it, i.e. 'Love's zoogony was itself located in our world' (341) and is not separated from us by the Sphairos. Sedley also makes a seductive suggestion regarding the double anthropogony: Love's anthropogony produces daimones (whom Sedley understands to be creatures of flesh and blood), whilst Strife's 'discordant anthropogony' (355) results in 'wretched race of men and women...committed to the divisive sexual politics that Strife imposes upon them' (347).

In 'Empedocles' zoogony and embryology', Laura Gemelli Marciano too turns her thoughts to the double zoogony, reinstating the Sphairos between the twin acts of creation. She argues that Strife's zoogony is, in a sense, a continuation of the creative act of Love. For the creatures who owe their origin to Love are, in time, 'suffocated' by the total unity of the Sphairos (but still present within it) but are then, in a sense, reborn via the divisive power of Strife. Strife's zoogony is dependent on that of Love for 'he only frees little by little those beings that Aphrodite had first created and then suffocated' (381). Gemelli Marciano presents a particularly appealing case for reading Empedocles' double zoogony as 'repeated at a microcosmic level in the mechanism of the conception and development of the embryo' (383). Both zoogony and embryology describe conception followed by articulation. She closes with some thoughts of how this connection should inform our understanding of Empedocles' theory of the transmigration of souls.

I can't help but feel well-disposed towards a book that includes the declaration 'The colour of the cover in this volume corresponds to that of blood, Empedoclean substance of thought' (407). Had the book's design been influenced by more prosaic concerns, its sheer wealth of stimulation, provocation and authority ensures that I would nevertheless recommend it to anyone who feels the slightest curiosity about Empedocles, perhaps the most curious of all the Pre-Socratics.

Authors and titles:

Anthony Kenny, 'Life after Etna: the legend of Empedocles in literary tradition'

Glenn Most, 'The stillbirth of tragedy: Nietzsche and Empedocles'

Jean Bollack, 'Empedocles: two theologies, two projects'

Rene Nünlist, 'Poetological imagery in Empedocles'

Richard Janko, 'Empedocles' Physica Book 1: a new reconstruction'

Patricia Curd, 'On the question of religion and natural philosophy in Empedocles'

Richard McKirahan, 'Assertion and argument in Empedocles' cosmology or what did Empedocles learn from Parmenides?'

Apostolos Pierris, ' Ὅμοιον ὁμοίω and Δίνη: Nature and Function of Love and Strife in the Empedoclean system'

Daniel Graham, 'The topology and dynamics of Empedocles' cycle'

Oliver Primavesi, 'The structure of Empedocles' cosmic cycle: Aristotle and the Byzantine Anonymous'

André Laks, 'Some thoughts about Empedoclean cosmic and demonic cycles'

Catherine Osborne, 'Sin and moral responsibility in Empedocles' cosmic cycle'

Angelo Tonelli, 'Cosmogony is psychogony is ethics: some thought's about Empedocles' fragments 17; 110; 115; 134 DK, and P. Strasb. Gr. Inv. 1665-1666D, VV. 1-9'

David Sedley, 'Empedocles' life cycles'

M. Laura Gemelli Marciano, 'Empedocles' zoogony and embryology'

Appendix--Apostolos Pierris, 'Reconstruction of Empedocles' poem'


[[1]] Angelo Tonelli's 'Cosmogony is psychogony is ethics: some thoughts about Empedocles' fragments 17; 110; 115; 134 DK, and P. Strasb. Gr. Inv. 1665-1666D, VV. 1-9'.

[[2]] J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers (London, 1982).

[[3]] See Denis O'Brien, Empedocles' Cosmic Cycle (Cambridge, 1969).

[[4]] The Byzantine scholia are published in M. Rashed, 'La chronographie du système d'Empedocle: documents byzantins inédits', Aevum Antiquum 1 (2001) 237-259.

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