We need to talk about Empedocles’ cosmogony

We need to talk about Empedocles’ cosmogony. Well, I need to. Because it’s just so different. And like I’ve said before, I love a good creation story. Though whether this is a creation story or more of a…creation process is debatable.  But first, background. Who is this guy?

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Bio- at least what we think we know

He was a philosopher, one of the so-called pre-Socratics, and he was from the area of what is today Sicily. We’re not able to say much definitively at all about his origins because different dates are suggested for both his birth and death and most of what we have about him was written centuries after his death. Since he was a philosopher, it seems likely that his family was well-off and based on his writings, scholars think he was responding to Parmenides, but we can’t know for sure. Some people also draw parallels between him and the Pythagorean, though no direct links have been established.  It’s also supposed that “the “long year” of the babylonians probably contributed to the formation of his idea of an eternal recurrence” (Lambridis, 107) but that doesn’t do much to situate him in a specific time period.


Empedocles cosmogony doesn’t really have a beginning or an end, so I’m not sure where to start. The elements, I guess. You know those four classical elements earth, water, fire, and air? Yeah, this is where those came from. Obviously its not the only place. Different places developed the same idea independently but for western philosophy, he’s the origin. So what are the elements in this context? Essentially they’re like building blocks. They’re the fundamental forces that compose reality at its base and “are in the background of all the changes and mutations  of things, of their creation and destruction, and thus necessarily persists as an  immutable foundation. From the transformations of this foundation, everything else is created and back to it everything reverts.”(Vojtěch Hladký, 2) Sometimes, at least. Whether they always existed, or emerge as part of a process is debated, because his cosmology is endlessly cyclical.


Reality is basically a pendulum for him, swinging back and forth between endless states of division and unity. These states are influenced by the cosmic forces of Love and Strife. Love pushes things towards greater unity until it reaches a tipping point where Strife pushes everything to division and chaos. And then back again.

“Empedocles tells of a cosmic sequence which repeats continuously: at one time everything unites to become one and at another time it all falls apart to become a plurality. This explains how there is a kind of newness about things[…] But at the same time nothing really new ever emerges. The things that emerge are just phases of an everlasting reality, and that reality is ‘motionless’ in the sense that it never actually goes away. It just rotates perpetually between being one and being many. “(11, Catherine Osborne )

As things get closer and the elements mix and influence each other, we get life. As Osborne describes it:

“As things grow together there comes a stage when sufficient unity is obtained for some coherent animals and plants to be formed, with distinctive limbs and organs. The more friendly the elements become, the more coherent the bodies of the creatures that emerge; and coherent creatures are better fitted for survival. So, by survival of the fittest, creatures such as those we know today develop from earlier species much weirder in their construction. (13)


Here’s where it gets weirder. Since his idea is for a cycle, we shouldn’t be surprised that reincarnation plays a big role. Specifically the reincarnation of intelligent beings. All we have of his writings are fragments, but some of them are quite lengthy. Below I quote  fragment 115.

“There is an oracle of Necessity, an ancient ordinance of the gods, eternal and sealed fast by broad oaths, that whenever one of the daemons, whose portion is length of days, has sinfully polluted his hands with blood, or followed strife and forsworn himself, 5he must wander thrice ten thousand seasons from the abodes of the blessed, being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms, changing one toilsome path of life for another. For the mighty Air drives him into the Sea, and the Sea spews him forth on the dry Earth; 10Earth tosses him into the beams of the blazing Sun, and he flings him back to the eddies of Air. One takes him from the other, and all reject him. One of these I now am, an exile and a wanderer from the gods, for that I put my trust in insensate strife. ” (John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, chapter 5)

We can really only guess but it seems like something happened or will happen or keeps happening and these spirits are then punished by “being born throughout the time in all manners of mortal forms”.


Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. Adam and Charles Black. 1908

Hladký, Vojtěch. “Empedocles’ Sphairos” in Rhizomata 2017; 5(1): 1–24

Lambridis, Helle. Empedocles : a philosophical investigation. University of Alabama Press. 1976

Osborne, Claire. Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 2004

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