ped' o klEz] Greek philosopher who believed that
all matter is composed of earth, air, fire and
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 at left 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
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.
Anthony Feldman and Peter Ford Scientists
and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology
from Earliest Times to Present Day New
York: Facts on File, 1979
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