Born: 490 B.C.
Died: 430 B.C.
Empedocles was born in Acragas (Agrigentum) on the south coast of Sicily. He flourished about 440 B.C., and was a student of Parmenides though his doctrine had in some way more similarity with that of Heraclitus. He did not share Parmenides’ distrust of the senses but like him composed his philosophy in verse. Fragments of two treatises, one entitled On Nature and the other Purification, are extant. He was a democratic politician and an opponent of tyranny, who at the same time claimed to be a God. It seems probable that in youth he was more or less Orphic; that before the exile he combined politics and science; and that it was in later life, as an exile, that he became a prophet. He was a founder of the first great medical school.
His most important contribution to science was his discovery of air as separate substance. This he proved by the observation that when a bucket is put upside sown into water the water does not enter into the bucket. He also discovered at least one example of centrifugal force: that if a cup of water is whirled around at the end of a string, the water does not come out. He knew that there is sex in plants, and had a theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest. In the area of astronomy, he knew that the moon shines by reflected light and thought that this is also true of the sun. He said that light takes time to travel, but so little time that, we cannot observe it. He knew that solar eclipses are caused by the interposition of the moon, a fact that he seems to have learnt from Anaxagoras.
He established the doctrine of the four elements earth, air, fire, and water, which dominated the popular thinking about nature for more than two thousand years.
According to this doctrine each of these element was everlasting, but they could be mixed in different proportions, and thus produce the changing complex substance that we find in the world. According to him, two fundamental forces, love and strife produce “Change”. The first was the cause of combination and the other of separation. Further, the Changes in the world are not governed by any purpose, but only by Chance and Necessity. He explained cosmic nature, the functions of the human body, and the activities of the soul as the result of the conflicting forces.
According to Empedocles theory the individual things, including man, came into being through the combination of the four elements and went out of existence as a result of their separation, the whole cosmic process being a periodic alteration between combination and dissipation.
Almost certainly, Plato had these doctrines in his mind when he produced the theory of generation that is put forward in the Phaedo. Plato argues here that all things come into being out of their opposites, the warm from the cold, the wet from the dry, and vice versa.
The philosophy of Empedocles was a blend of mythological imagination and scientific observation.
Empedocles, like his teacher Parmenides, was raised in the Pythagorean tradition. In a very broad sense, he tried to combine Pythagoreanism with the naturalistic philosophy and science of the Milesians. The views of Empedocles on religion are, Pythagorean.
He rejected monism, and regarded the course of nature as regulated by chance and
necessity than by purpose. In this respect, his philosophy was more scientific
than those of Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle were. His legendary death is
supposed to have taken place by jumping into the crater of Mount Etna.