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Life of Empedocles

From Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Philosophers
Translated by C. D. Yonge (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853).

I. Empedocles, as Hippobotus relates, was the son of Meton, the son of Empedocles, and a citizen of Agrigentum. And Timaeus, in the fifteenth book of his Histories, gives the same account, adding that Empedocles, the grandfather of the poet, was also a most eminent man. And Hermippus tells the same story as Timaeus; and in the same spirit Heraclides, in his treatise on Diseases, relates that he was of an illustrious family, since his father bred a fine stud of horses. Erastothenes, in his List of the Conquerors at the Olympic Games, says, that the father of Meton gained the victory in the seventy-first olympiad, quoting Aristotle as his authority for the assertion.

But Apollodorus, the grammarian, in his Chronicles, says that he was the son of Meton; and Glaucus says that he came to Thurii when the city was only just completed. And then proceeding a little further, he adds:

And some relate that he did flee from thence,
And came to Syracuse, and on their side
Did fight in horrid war against th' Athenians;
But those men seem to me completely wrong–
For by this time he must have been deceased,
Or very old, which is not much believed;
For Aristotle, and Heraclides too,
Say that he died at sixty years of age.

But certainly the person who got the victory with a single horse in the seventy-first olympiad vas a namesake of this man, and that it is which deceived Apollodorus as to the age of this philosopher.

But Satyrus, in his Lives, asserts, that Empedocles was the son of Exaenetus, and that he also left a son who was named Exaenetus. And that in the same Olympiad, he himself gained the victory with the single horse; and his son, in wrestling, or, as Heraclides says in his Abridgment, in running. But I have found in the Commentaries of Phavorinus, that Empedocles sacrificed, and gave as a feast to the spectators of the games, an ox made of honey and flour, and that he had a brother named Callicratidas.

But Jelanges, the son of Pythagoras, in his letters to Philolaus, says that Empedocles was the son of Archinomus; and that he was a citizen of Agrigentum, he himself asserts at the beginning of his Purifications.

Friends, who the mighty citadel inhabit,
Which crowns the golden waves of Acragas.

And this is enough to say about his family.

II. Timaeus, in his ninth book, relates that he was a pupil of Pythagoras, saying that he was afterwards convicted of having divulged his doctrines, in the same way as Plato was, and therefore that he was forbidden from thenceforth to attend his school. And they say that Pythagoras himself mentions him when he says:

And in that band there was a learned man,
Of wondrous wisdom; one, who of all men
Had the profoundest wealth of intellect.

But some say that when the philosopher says this, he is referring to Parmenides.

Neanthes relates, that till the time of Philolaus and Empedocles, the Pythagoreans used to admit all persons indiscriminately into their school; but when Empedocles made their doctrines public by means of his poems, then they made a law to admit no Epic poet. And they say that the same thing happened to Plato; for that he too was excluded from the school. But who was the teacher of the Pythagorean school that Empedocles was a pupil of, they do not say; for, as for the letter of Jelanges, in which he is stated to have been a pupil of Hippasus and Brontinus, that is not worthy of belief. But Theophrastus says that he was an imitator and a rival of Parmenides, in his poems, for that he too had delivered his opinions on natural philosophy in epic verse.

Hermippus, however, says that he was an imitator, not of Parmenides, but of Xenophanes with whom he lived; and that he imitated his epic style, and that it was at a later period that he fell in with the Pythagoreans. But Alcidamas, in his Natural Philosophy, says, that Zeno and Empedocles were pupils of Parmenides, about the same time; and that they subsequently seceded from him; and that Zeno adopted a philosophical system peculiar to himself; but that Empedocles became a pupil of Anaxagoras and Pythagoras, and that he imitated the pompous demeanour, and way of life, and gestures of the one, and the system of Natural Philosophy of the other.

III. And Aristotle, in his Sophist, says that Empedocles was the first person who invented rhetoric, and Zeno the first person who invented dialectics. And in his book on Poetry, he says, that Empedocles was a man of Homeric genius, and endowed with great power of language, and a great master of metaphor, and a man who employed all the successful artifices of poetry, and also that when he had written several poems, and among them one on the passage of the Hellespont, by Xerxes, and also the prooemium of a hymn to Apollo, his daughter subsequently burnt them, or, as Hieronymus says, his sister, burning the prooemium unintentionally, but the Persian poem on purpose, because it was incomplete. And speaking generally, he says that he wrote tragedies and political treatises.

But Heraclides, the son of Sarapion, says that the tragedies were the work of some other Empedocles; and Hieronymus says that he had met with forty-three. Neanthes, too, affirms that when he was a young man, he wrote tragedies, and that he himself had subsequently met with them; and Satyrus, in his Lives, states that he was a physician, and also a most excellent orator. And accordingly, that Gorgias, of Leontini, was his pupil, a man of the greatest eminence as a rhetorician, and one who left behind him a treatise containing a complete system of the art; and who, as we are told by Apollodorus, in his Chronicles, lived to the age of a hundred and nine years.

IV. Satyrus tells us that he used to say that he had been present when Empedocles was practising magic; and that he professes this science, and many others too in his poems when he says:

And all the drugs which can relieve disease,
Or soften the approach of age, shall be
Revealed to your inquiries; I do know them,
And I to you alone will them disclose.
You shall restrain the fierce unbridled winds,
Which, rushing o'er the earth, bow down the corn,
And crush the farmer's hopes. And when you will,
You shall recall them back to sweep the land:
Then you shall learn to dry the rainy clouds,
And bid warm summer cheer the heart of men.
Again at your behest, the drought shall yield
To wholesome show'rs : when you give the word
Hell shall restore its dead.

V. And Timaus, in his eighteenth book, says, that this man was held in great esteem on many accounts; for that once, when the etesian gales were blowing violently, so as to injure the crops, he ordered some asses to be flayed, and some bladders to be made of their hides, and these he placed on the hills and high places to catch the wind. And so, when the wind ceased, he was called wind-forbidder (kôlusanemas). And Heraclides, in his treatise on Diseases, says that he dictated to Pausanias the statement which he made about the dead woman. Now Pausanias, as both Aristippus and Satyrus agree, was much attached to him; and he dedicated to him the works which he wrote on Natural Philosophy, in the following terms:

Hear, O Pausanias, son of wise Anchites.

He also wrote an epigram upon him:-

Gela, his native land, does boast the birth
Of wise Anchites' son, that great physician,
So fitly named Pausanias, from his skill;
A genuine son of Aesculapius,
Who has stopped many men whom fell disease
Marked for its own, from treading those dark paths
Which lead to Proserpine's infernal realms.

The case of the dead woman above mentioned, Heraclides says, was something of this sort; that he kept her corpse for thirty days dead, and yet free from corruption; on which account he has called himself a physician and a prophet, taking it also from these verses :--

Friends who the mighty citadel inhabit,
Which crowns the golden waves of Acragas.
Votaries of noble actions, Hail to ye;
I, an immortal God, no longer mortal,
Now live among you well revered by all,
As is my due, crowned with holy fillets
And rosy garlands. And whene'er I come
To wealthy cities, then from men and women
Due honours meets me; and crowds follow me,
Seeking the way which leads to gainful glory.
Some ask for oracles, and some entreat,
For remedies against all kinds of sickness.

VII. And he says that Agrigentum was a very large city, since it had eight hundred thousand inhabitants; on which account Empedocles, seeing the people immersed in luxury,said, "The men of Agrigentum devote themselves wholly to luxury as if they were to die to-morrow, but they furnish their houses as if they were to live for ever."

VIII. It is said that Cleomenes, the rhapsodist, sung this very poem, called the Purifications, at Olympia; at least this is the account given by Phavorinus, in his Commentaries.

IX. And Aristotle says, that he was a most liberal man, and far removed from anything like a domineering spirit; since he constantly refused the sovereign power when it was offered to him, as Xanthus assures us in his account of him, showing plainly that he preferred a simple style of living. And Timaus tells the same story, giving at the same time the reason why he was so very popular. For he says that when on one occasion, he was invited to a banquet, by one of the magistrates, the wine was carried about, but the supper was not served up. And as every one else kept silence, he, disapproving of what he saw, bade the servants bring in the supper; but the person who had invited him said that he was waiting for the secretary of the council. And when he came he was appointed master of the feast, at the instigation of the giver of it, and then he gave a plain intimation of his tyrannical inclinations, for he ordered all the guests to drink, and those who did not drink were to have the wine poured over their heads. Empedocles said nothing at the moment, but the next day he summoned them before the court, and procured the execution of both the entertainer and the master of the feast.

And this was the beginning of his political career. And at another time, when Acron, the physician, asked of the council a place where he might erect a monument to his father, on account of his eminence as a physician, Empedocles came forward and opposed any such grant, adducing many arguments on the ground of equality, and also putting the following question :-- "And what elegy shall we inscribe upon it? Shall we say:-

Akron iętron Akrôn Akragantinon patros akrou
kruptei kręmnos akros patridos akrotatęs.

But some give the second line thus :-

'Akrotatęs koruphęs tumpos akros katechei.

And others assert that it is the composition of Simonides.

But afterwards Empedocles abolished the assembly of a thousand, and established a council in which the magistrates were to hold office for three years, on such a footing that it should consist not only of rich men, but of those who were favourers of the interests of the people. Timaeus, however, in his first and second book (For he often mentions him), says that he appeared to entertain opinions adverse to a republic. And, as far as his poetry goes, any one may see that he was arrogant and self-satisfied.

Accordingly, he says :

                      Hail to ye,
I an immortal God, no longer mortal,
Now live among you:

And so on.

But when he went to the Olympic games he was considered a worthy object of general attention; so that there was no mention made of any one else in comparison of Empedocles.

X. Afterwards indeed, when Agrigentum was settled, the descendants of his enemies opposed his return; on which account he retired to Peloponnesus, where he died. And Timon has not let even Empedocles escape, but satirises him in this style, saying:

And then Empedocles, the honeyed speaker
Of soft forensic speeches; he did take
As many offices as he was able,
Creating magistrates who wanted helpers.

But there are two accounts of the manner of his death.

XI. For Heraclides, relating the story about the dead woman, how Empedocles got great glory from sending away a dead woman restored to life, says that he celebrated a sacrifice in the field of Pisianax, and that some of his friends were invited, among whom was Pausanias. And then, after the banquet, they lay down, some going a little way off, and some lying under the trees close by in the field, and some wherever they happened to choose. But Empedocles himself remained in the place where he had been sitting. But when day broke, and they arose, he alone was not found. And when he was sought for, and the servants were examined and said that they did not know, one of them said, that at midnight he had heard a loud voice calling Empedocles; and that then he himself rose up and saw a great light from heaven, but nothing else. And as they were all amazed at what had taken place, Pausanias descended and sent some people to look for him; but afterwards he was commanded not to busy himself about the matter, as he was informed that what had happened was deserving of thankfulness, and that they behoved to sacrifice to Empedocles as to one who had become a God.

Hermippus says also, that a woman of the name of Panthea, a native of Agrigentum, who had been given over by the physicians, was cured by him, and that it was on this account that he celebrated a sacrifice; and that the guests invited were about eighty in number. But Hippobotus says that he rose up and went away as if he were going to mount Aetna; and that when he arrived at the crater of fire he leaped in, and disappeared, wishing to establish a belief that he had become a God. But afterwards the truth was detected by one of his slippers having been dropped. For he used to wear slippers with brazen soles. Pausanias, however, contradicts this statement.

But Diodorus, of Ephesus, writing about Anaximander, says that Empedocles imitated him; indulging in a tragic sort of pride and wearing magnificent apparel. And when a pestilence attacked the people of Selinus, by reason of the bad smells arising from the adjacent river, so that the men died and the women bore dead children, Empedocles contrived a plan, and brought into the same channel two other rivers at his own expense; and so, by mixing their waters with that of the other river, he sweetened the stream. And as the pestilence was removed in this way, when the people of Selinus were on one occasion holding a festival on the bank of the river, Empedocles appeared among them; and they rising up, offered him adoration, and prayed to him as to a God. And he, wishing to confirm this idea which they had adopted of him, leaped into the fire.

But Timaeus contradicts all these stories; saying expressly, that he departed into Peloponnesus, and never returned at all, on which account the manner of his death is uncertain. And he especially denies the tale of Heraclides in his fourth book; for he says that Pisianax was a Syracusan, and had no field in the district of Agrigentum ; but that Pausanias erected a monument in honour of his friend, since such a report had got about concerning him; and, as he was a rich man, made it a statue and little chapel, as one might erect to a God. "How then," adds Timaus, "could he have leaped into a crater, of which, though they were in the neighbourhood, he had never made any mention? He died then in Peloponnesus; and there is nothing extraordinary in there being no tomb of his to be seen; for there are many other men who have no tomb visible." These are the words of Timaeus; and he adds further, "But Heraclides is altogether a man fond of strange stories, and one who would assert that a man had fallen from the moon."

Hippobotus says, that there was a clothed statue of Empedocles which lay formerly in Agrigentum, but which was afterwards placed in front of the Senate House of the Romans divested of its clothing, as the Romans had carried it off and erected it there. And there are traces of some inscriptions or reliefs still discernible on it.

Neanthes, of Cyzicus, who also wrote about the Pythagoreans, says, that when Meton was dead, the seeds of tyrannical power began to appear; and that then Empedocles persuaded the Agrigentines to desist from their factious disputes, and to establish political equality. And besides, as there were many of the female citizens destitute of dowry, he portioned them out of his own private fortune. And relying on these actions of his, he assumed a purple robe and wore a golden circlet on his hand, as Phavorinus relates in the first book of his Commentaries. He also wore slippers with brazen soles, and a Delphian garland. His hair was let grow very long, and he had boys to follow him; and he himself always preserved a solemn countenance, and a uniformly grave deportment. And he marched about in such style, that he seemed to all the citizens, who met him and who admired his deportment, to exhibit a sort of likeness to kingly power. And afterwards, it happened that as on the occasion of some festival he was going in a chariot to Messene, he was upset and broke his thigh ; and he was taken ill in consequence, and so died, at the age of seventy-seven. And his tomb is in Megara.

But as to his age, Aristotle differs from this account of Neanthes ; for he asserts that he died at sixty years of age; others again say, that he was a hundred and nine when he died. He flourished about the eighty-fourth olympiad. Demetrius, of Traezen, in his book against the Sophists, reports that, as the lines of Homer say :--

He now, self-murdered, from a beam depends,
And his mad soul to blackest hell descends.

But in the letter of Telauges, which has been mentioned before, it is said that he slipped down through old age, and fell into the sea, and so died.

And this is enough to say about his death.

There is also a jesting epigram of ours upon him, in our collection of Poems in all Metres, which runs thus:

You too, Empedocles, essayed to purge
Your body in the rapid flames, and drank
The liquid fire from the restless crater;
I say not that you threw yourself at once
Into the stream of Aetna's fiery flood.
But seeking to conceal yourself you fell,
And so you met with unintended death.

And another:-

'Tis said the wise Empedocles did fall
Out of his chariot, and so broke his thigh:
But if he leapt into the flames of Aetna,
How could his tomb be shown in Megara?

XII. The following were some of his doctrines. He used to assert that there were four elements, fire, water, earth, and air. And that that is friendship by which they are united, and discord by which they are separated. And he speaks thus on this subject:

Bright Jove, life-giving Juno, Pluto dark,
And Nestis, who fills mortal eyes with tears.

Meaning by Jove fire, by Juno the earth, by Pluto the air, and by Nestis water. And these things, says he, never cease alternating with one another; inasmuch as this arrangement is perpetual. Accordingly, he says subsequently:

Sometimes in friendship bound they coalesce,
Sometimes they're parted by fell discord's hate.

And he asserts that the sun is a vast assemblage of fire, and that it is larger than the moon. And the moon is disk-shaped; and that the heaven itself is like crystal; and that the soul inhabits every kind of form of animals and plants. Accordingly, he thus expresses himself:

For once I was a boy, and once a girl.
A bush, a bird, a fish who swims the sea,

XIII. His writings on Natural Philosophy and his Purifications extend to five thousand verses; and his Medical Poem to six hundred; and his Tragedies we have spoken of previously.