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[im ped' o klEz] Greek philosopher who believed that all matter is composed of earth, air, fire and water
Empedocles was born in the small Sicilian village of what is now Agrigento, about 490 B.C. While still a young man he was actively involved in local politics, but by middle-age he had begun to concentrate more on philosophical studies. Throughout his life he was widely acclaimed as an important statesman, philosopher, teacher, and poet.
As a man, Empedocles is reported to have been wealthy, to have kept a train of boy attendants, and to have a love for fine dress and other trappings. As a statesman, he was actively pro-democratic. As a poet, he showed considerable rhetorical skills. He was also famous for his medical skills, often spoken of as a wandering healer.
But it is as a philosopher that Empedocles is now best known. Like most of his contemporaries, he was especially interested in constructing a philosophical view of how the universe was made. Earlier philosophers -- such as Thrales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus -- had attempted to identify a single basic substance from which all matter was made. Empedocles, however, identified four such substances: fire, air, water, and earth. All matter, he said, was composed of various combinations and arrangements of these natural elements.
The drawings below illustrate Empedocles' view of the universe. The four elements were linked together by four qualities, each element possessing two of these. Fire (top left) was hot and dry with heat predominating. Air (bottom left) was hot and moist with moisture predominating. Water (bottom right) was moist and cold with cold predominating. Earth (top right) was cold and dry with dryness predominating. The interplay of these elements created matter.
Empedocles also believed in two mystical forces that acted on the elements and caused them to mingle, separate, and recombine. Love, he believed, was the force that tended to draw the elements together, while Strife was responsible for driving them apart. At the beginning of time, Love dominated all things and matter existed as a harmonious intermingling of the elements. The creation began when Strife entered into conflict with Love and the elements were flung apart in disorder. After thousands of years of chaos, stability returned with the elements in partial or complete states of combination. According to Empedocles, rivers and volcanoes were perfect examples of imperfect combinations of water and fire with earth.
Expanding upon his theories of Love and Strife, Empedocles believed that in its earliest stages life was an indistinguishable mixture of species and sexes. Strife forced organisms apart to form the different varieties of plants and animals. And, a continuing interplay between Love and Strife caused plants and animals to gradually change their shape until they evolved into the species known at the time he formulated his theory. This would become the earliest known "theory of evolution."
Empedocles also speculated on the nature of human physiology. He believed that blood represented the most perfect intermingling of the four natural elements and that the heart was the center of the blood-vessel system. He therefore believed that the heart was the seat of life itself.
Empedocles' concept of the four elements had the most influence on later thinkers, including Aristotle, who adopted and extended Empedocles' ideas. Despite the mystical basis of Empedocles' ideas of the natural elements and the forces that control them, his theory, improved and extended by Aristotle, remained the cornerstone of chemical science for nearly 2,000 years, when it was finally replaced by the theory of chemical elements that react and intermingle to form the molecules that make up matter.
Empedocles died about 430 B.C.
This page was last updated on February 19, 2017.