The Pythagorean influence dominated Greek thought for a long time. Many of Pythagoras' ideas can be found in the work of Empedocles. He was the first philosopher who stated that there are four primordial elements: earth, air, fire and water. This is a somewhat statesman-like compromise between the view of Pythagoras who maintained that water is the primordial substance, Anaximenses who said it is air, and finally Heraclitus who said that fire is the origin of everything. The ingenious combination of these views was Empedocles' major contribution to the dispute about the primordial element, which lasted almost as long as Greek philosophy itself.
Empedocles came from a rich and illustrious family in Acragas at the south coast of Sicily. It is said that his grandfather won a victory in the horse-racing at the Olympic games of 496 BC. He was a politician of Acragus who represented the democratic group and he also worked as a scientist and physician.
Legend tells us that Empedocles worked miracles by magic and by his scientific knowledge thus he was often approached by the citizens of Acragus for oracles. People believed he could control the winds and he had allegedly restored to life a woman who had seemed dead for thirty days. He spoke of himself as a god sometimes and his desire to be godlike made him ending his life by leaping into the crater of the Etna volcano, hoping thereby not to leave any remains of his (mortal) body so that people would think he has returned to the gods.
Like Heraclitus, he wrote his philosophical works in verse. The most important writings are "On Nature" and "Purifications" of which numerous fragments have survived. The original texts are quite enigmatic and difficult to read or translate. We will look at the chief points in plain English, hopefully without losing too much of the original content. Because synthesis was his speciality, Empedocles arrived at a new cosmology that unites the conflicting standpoints of Heraclitus and Parmenides and reconciles flux and fire with monism.
Empedocles came to the conclusion that motion and change actually exist and that at the same time reality is fundamentally changeless, allowing the validity of both Heraclitean and Parmenidean doctrines and combining them into a new and surprising concept. As it was said before, Empedocles believed that all matter in the universe is made of the four elements, but he added something unique to the elements: the forces of Love and Strife.
Love and Strife cannot be understood literally; instead Empedocles spoke of them as diametrically opposed cosmic principles, where Love (harmony) is the uniting force that attracts all things, thereby creating something new, and Strife (discord) is the dividing force that separates and destroys things. This notion bears some similarity to the Yin and Yang principles of ancient China. In the I-Ging, Yin is attributed to the female and Yang is attributed to the male. Together these two principles govern the totality of existence while bringing about cyclical changes, depending on whether Yin or Yang assumes dominance. This is not unlike Empedocles who contends that the history of the universe is cyclic and eternal and the primary moving factors are Love and Strife.
According to Empedocles, all matter periodically contracts and expands. Under the power of Love everything unites until there is only "The One" - a divine and homogeneous sphere. Then the sphere dissolves under the rising power of Strife and the world is established in a series of stages until it reaches a state of complete dissolution. History then reverses itself, and the universe gradually returns to the state of the irreducible sphere. This cosmic cycle rolls on repeatedly without beginning and without end.
In his own words: "I will tell a two-fold story. At one time they [the elements] grew to be alone from being many, and at another they grew apart again to be many from being one. Double is the generation of mortal things, double their passing away: one is born and destroyed by the congregation of everything, the other is nurtured and flies apart as they grow apart again. And these never cease their continual change, now coming by Love all into one, now again all being carried apart by the hatred of Strife. Thus insofar as they have learned to become one from many and again become many as the one grows apart, to that extent they come into being and have no lasting life; but insofar as they never cease their continual change, to that extent they exist forever, unmoving in a circle. [...]
And in addition to them nothing comes into being or ceases. For if they were continually being destroyed they would no longer exist. And what would increase the size of the universe? And whence might it come? And where indeed might it perish, since nothing is empty of them? But these themselves exist, and passing through one another they become different at different times - and are ever and always the same." (Simplicius, Commentary on Physics, 31.30)
This can be wrapped up in precise scientific terms. The last passage expresses the idea that the sum of all things in the universe is constant. Since we know that matter can be transformed into energy this is not quite correct, but we may disregard this subtlety because Empedocles made no distinction between matter and energy. The basic idea still holds in view of Einstein's principle of mass-energy conservation. Moreover, Empedocles' cosmology can be thought of as an anticipation of modern cosmology if we identify the state of complete unity with the hypothetical state of all matter being condensed into energy at the moment of the Big Bang. Since our universe is presently expanding, according to Empedocles, we would then live in the age of (rising) Strife.
Empedocles was remarkably ahead of his time. He made several noteworthy statements, such as that the moon would shine by reflected light and that solar eclipses are caused by the interposition of the moon. He held that light takes time to travel, but so little time that we cannot observe it. He also discovered at least one example of the centrifugal force: if a cup of water is whirled round at the end of a string, the water does not flow out. In addition, Empedocles conceived of a fanciful version of the theory of evolution which included the idea of survival of the fittest. He stated that in prehistoric times strange creatures had populated the world of which only certain forms had survived. Though, it must be granted that Empedocles' vision is somewhat crude and bizarre, compared to the painstaking investigation that led Darwin to the same conclusion two thousand three hundred years later.
The following are excerpts from the book "On Nature", in which Empedocles describes the fantastic creatures that preceded mankind: "Come now, hear how the shoots of men and pitiable women were raised at night by fire, as it separated, thus - for my story does not miss the mark, nor is it ill-informed. First, whole-natured forms sprang up from the earth, having a portion of both water and heat. Fire sent them up, wishing to come to its like, and they showed as yet no desirable form in their limbs, nor any voice, nor member native to man." (Simplicius, Commentary on Physics 381.29)
"Here many neckless heads sprang up. Naked arms strayed about, devoid of shoulders, and eyes wandered alone, begging for foreheads. But when they mingled, these things came together as each happened and many others in addition were continuously born." (Simplicius, Commentary on the Heavens, 586.6)
"Many grew double headed, double-chested - man-faced oxen arose, and again ox-headed men - creatures mixed partly from male partly from female form, fitted with dark limbs." (Aelian, The Nature of Animals XVI 29)