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by Vincenzo Mormino

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Bust of Empedocles as envisioned by an artist following his death.Empedocles was born around 494 BC in Akragas (now Agrigento) and is best known as a Pre-Socratic philosopher of what is often called the Pluralist School, though like many ancient philosophers he was also a poet and something of a scientist, having studied with Pythagoras. He espoused the "cosmogenic" theory that all matter was either earth, water, air or fire. He was one of the first scientists to suggest that light travels at a constant velocity, and though he lived long before Archimedes the two had much in common. Plato praised Empedocles as a "gentle muse." Aristotle regarded him as the originator of rhetoric. Our knowledge of the life of Empedocles comes to us from several sources, including Timaeus, as well as some ancient surviving texts (such as that shown here).

Empedocles broadly believed in egalitarian principles, was reputedly a vegetarian and respected the rights of animals, believing that all living beings had spirits. He was a strong advocate of democracy when he felt it was under threat, openly despised the glorification of individuals, and was known to condemn the consumeristic materialism and gluttony of the citizens of Akragas. Interestingly, Empedocles viewed the survival and supremacy of certain forms of life as part of a grand struggle which some of today's scholars suggest, in some abstract way (at least philosophically), presages the ideas expressed in Darwin's theory of natural selection.

He believed in a natural attraction ("love") and separation ("strife") governing relationships between the four "elements" of earth, Fragment of an early manuscript.water, air and fire. He thus postulated that harmony among the four was an essential factor in relationships among them, and between the elements and people. This "holistic" concept, though admittedly abstract by today's standards, coincides with certain philosophies known in the East (i.e. in China and India) and generally accepted (if after a fashion) by today's leading scientists, environmentalists and philosophers; recognition of the dangers of global warming is an example of this. Even his contemporaries considered Empedocles a bit eccentric, though they greatly respected his intellect.

Empedocles was probably the last Greek philosopher to write in verse. Fragments of only two of his poems survive, namely "Purifications" and "On Nature." His observations imply that he was possibly a scientific deist, believing that a superior god created the universe and established physical laws without subsequently intervening in daily life on earth.

One of his most noteworthy practical projects involved engineering: clearing the marshes of Selinus (Selinunte) in the years around 445 BC. He theorized that objects consisted of particles whose position changes with motion as the objects are moved --a basic supposition of modern physics. Yes, Empedocles was a man well ahead of his time.

Circumstances of his death are hotly debated. The most colourful version is that he threw himself into Mount Etna, an active volcano (perhaps to see if the hot vapors would make him float in air), which spit back one of his bronzed sandals. It is more likely that he died in Greece around 420 BC.

About the Author: Vincenzo Mormino has written about wildlife and nature for Best of Sicily and hard-copy publications.

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© 2007 Vincenzo Mormino