Empedocles- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter (6)

Empedocles represents the cusp of Greek scientific endeavour. He was a brilliant thinker in regards of his science, but his religious life was rather different. It is worth separating the two because of how at odds with each other they are.

He flourished around the date of 440BCE in Akragas. He was originally a successful politician, and also claimed to be a living God. He was later banished by both Carthage and Persia, after which he spent his life as a sage.


Empedocles was a famous discoverer and innovator. Among other things, he discovered-

  1. Air is a substance. He arrived at this conclusion after noticing that in a tube, fluids could be displaced by air when pressure is applied.
  2. Centrifugal force. He understood that when a bucket full of water was swung at the end of a rope, there must be a reason that the liquid is forced to the bottom of the bucket.
  3. This had been discussed earlier by previous philosophers, but Empedocles attempted to map the evolutionary tree of humans and animals. He also posited that the survival of the fittest was the reason for genetic survival in nature.
  4. The moon is bright because it reflects light. He also mapped solar eclipses, although this was building on much groundwork by Anaximander.
  5. He also founded an incredibly successful and important medical school.

Cosmology and philosophy

Empedocles believed that there were four elements in the world, which were earth, water, fire, and air. These four substances were all individual and eternal, like Heraclitus’ fire. He believed that these four substances could be combined in different quantities and in different ways to produce new and more complex substances, which in turn made up different things in the world.

He believed that there were two forces in the world, love and strife. These forces combined the elements together or pulled them apart. They never remained in constant proportions, but were in a state of constant fluctuation, just how Heraclitus believed.

The entire universe was a sphere. As the elements and forces (love and strife) shifted gears, the universe changed between golden eras and dark eras. In the golden eras, the dominant force was love, whereas it was strife in the dark eras. The dominant force was believed to fill the universe, with the other force sitting outside, attempting to get back in.


The elements and forces were influenced by religion and the worship of the masses. If people worshipped the correct Gods in the correct ways, we would end up in a golden era. He believed that Aphrodite was the perfect Goddess to worship for a Golden era.

He was originally Orphic in his religion, and adapted the beliefs of Pythagoras almost completely, he even venerated Pythagoras as a singly eminent being on the earth.

As I stated at the top of the article, he believed himself to be a living God. He was a tortured soul whose mind was in constant conflict. On one hand, he regarded himself as an immortal who walked among mortals for their benefit. At other times, however, he believed he was on the earth as a punishment given by higher Gods; his time on the earth being his opportunity to expiate for a terrible sin. In the end, he died by jumping into a volcano to prove that he was immortal. It is not known for certain, but the sin for which he believed himself guilty was thought to be that of eating beans.

Tomorrow we will briefly look at how Athens became so important in culture.

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To read the other articles in this series, click HERE

2 thoughts on “Empedocles- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter (6)

  1. This is the first time I have heard of Empedocles, so thanks for the fascinating introduction. His scientific discoveries were amazing.Your post prompted me to look for what else I could find out. Evidently there’s a legend that he died by throwing himself into Mount Etna. I suppose this was too much of a legend for Bertrand Russell to mention 🙂
    I am enjoying your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! Sorry for the late reply, I’m away from my computer often and schedule the posts. I think Russell enjoys working with a critical eye towards these matters! Catherine Osborne wrote a Very Short Introduction to Presocratic Philosophy which is well worth a read. She provides an introduction in slightly greater depth than Russell, but also gives lots of the fragments of their writings.


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