Empedocles & the Doctrine of the Four Roots

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The following is from An Essay on Pantheism, by John Hunt (1866)

To what school Empedocles belonged, is a question left undecided by Aristotle. With the Eleatics, he distrusted the senses. Regarding human and divine reason as one, he found in reason the source of knowledge. In placing the origin of the universe in material elements, he seems allied to the Ionic school; but he separates from them in assuming four original or root elements instead of one.*

Of these he makes fire the most important, and thus seems to approach Heraclitus. These elements are each original and eternal. They are mingled again by the working of two powers—strife and friendship. Men call these changes, birth and death, but in reality there is neither birth nor death. Nothing can be produced which has not always existed, and nothing which has once existed can ever cease to be.

This indeed is the fundamental doctrine of the philosophy of Empedocles. It is truly Eleatic. But to his doctrine of separating and co-mingling elements, he seems to have added the Becoming of Heraclitus, not however purely, for in Empodocles’ belief the elements do not change in themselves, but only in their relations. The four elements are eternal, yet not as material elements, but as ideal existences in the Divine mind. The world as revealed to the senses is but a copy. The world intellectual is the type. The latter, being the ideal, is the reality of the former, which is only phenomenal. The root elements exist eternally in the One.

The separating and uniting which we see incessantly at work arc caused by discord and friendship. As these root-elements are the original thoughts of the Supreme, and as these undergo continual transformations, so the being of the supreme One is interfused throughout the universe. His essence pervades all. All life and intelligence are the manifestations of the Divine Mind. God is not like anything which can be seen or touched, or imaged by human intellect. He is an Infinite Mind.

Here Empedocles joined with Xenophanes in opposition to the popular deities of the mythology. He was a great enemy to the gods of Homer. Karsten describes Empedocles’ theology as an apotheosis of nature and pre-eminently Pantheistic, that is, in the sense of merely worshipping external nature. But the verses of Empedocles evidently mean more than this.

Polytheism was an apotheosis of Nature; but the Pantheism of Empedocles was the worship of Being. His God is not the phenomenal, but the real, and is allied to the One of Parmenides. Only on this ground could he have opposed the worship of the popular deities. But we have seen in another place that this worship of Being had nearly the same origin as the worship of natural powers and objects. The one was the goal of reason, the other was the result of imagination. The one made the theology of the philosopher, the other that of the multitude.

Reason protested against Polytheism, which Empedocles could not have done had his theology been merely a deification of phenomenal nature. Tradition says that Empedocles proclaimed himself divine, and to prove it, leaped into the crater of Mount Etna. The mountain disproved his divinity by casting up his sandal. This may be true or it may be only the popular interpretation of his identification of the human and the divine Reason.

* Empedocles called the original uncreated universe a sphere or globe. It continued in its bosom the four elements—a syncretism of the primajval chaos. His love and hatred arc evidently suggested by the eternal strife, the Heraclitcan father of all things.—Professor Thompson’s Notes.

The following is from Paths of the Ancient Sages, Peter Kingsley:

In Syria a man called Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi was executed on direct instructions from the great Islamic ruler, Saladin. He was 38 years old.

His death and short life might seem to have nothing to do with Pythagoras, or the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece. But that’s not the case.

Suhrawardi has been known in Persia since his death as “The Sheikh of the East,” or simply as “He who was killed.” While still alive he taught and wrote about how he had discovered a continuous line of esoteric tradition: a tradition that started in teh East, passed to the early Greek philosophers, then was carried from Greece to Egypt where it traveled a long way up the Nile and eventually was transmitted from southern Egypt back to Persia.

…Suhrawardi was very serious about what he said. So were his successors – people who down to the present day claim they have perpetuated intact an esoteric tradition based not on theorizing or reasoning about reality, but on direct experience gained through spiritual struggle and specific techniques of realization.

For them this tradition was alive, incredibly powerful, Suhrawardi described it as an eternal ‘leaven’ capable of transforming whatever it touches, of raising people who are ready into another level of being. And just as yeast acts subtly, but irresistibly, transforming from the inside, unrestrainable precisely because it’s so subtle, the theologians in his time saw the only way to try and stop his teaching would be to kill him. But they killed nothing.

And Suhrawardi, like his successors among Persian Sufis, was quite precise about his ancestors. He mentions two early Greek philosophers, and a man from Sicily called Empedocles…

Empedocles lived in the 5th century BC and played a major role in transmitting Pythagoras’ teaching in Sicily. He used the language of the gold plates in the poetry he wrote, and through what he says he shows that the process of dying to be reborn doesn’t just refer to dying physically. Initiates had to die before they died – face the underworld before their physical death..

During the 9th century AD, 700 years after Empedocles’ teachings had been copied onto this papyrus, an alchemist in Akhmim wrote a work that was to have the profoundest influence on virtually every aspect of medieval alchemy. His name was Uthman Ibn Suwaid, and he wrote the work in Arabic.

It became known in the Islamic world as The Book of the Gathering; translated into Latin it came to be called the Turba philosophorum, or Gathering of the Philosophers. The book described a series of meetings between ancient Greek philosophers at four “Pythagorean conferences,” all of the dedicated to getting to the heart of the alchemical art. The meetings were presided over by Pythagoras himself. And in the text of one of the speakers at the gathering, Empedocles, outlines genuine aspects of the historical Empedocles’ teaching – about the fundamental importance of fire at the center of the earth – which until recently were either forgotten or completely distorted in the West.

The significance of those details is immense. What Empedocles wrote and taught during the 5th century BC played a crucial role in shaping Western philosophy, Western science, the history of Western ideas. But the simple fact is that a true understanding of what Empedocles had taught didn’t survive in the West. All that was left there of his teaching – about the mysteries of the world around us, about the nature of the soul – was empty theorizing and hollow ideas. The lived reality had moved elsewhere.

It’s strange, now, to look at the surviving evidence in Arabic texts about the existence of groups of alchemists who called themselves “Empedocles circles,” or “Pythagoras circles.” You find “Empedocles circles” mentioned again in descriptions of Islamic esoteric groups who saw Empedocles as their guide: who “regard themselves as followers of his wisdom and hold him superior to all other authorities.”Here were people who in spite of their culture, religion, language, took as their inspiration and teacher a man who had lived one and a half thousand years before them.”


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