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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

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(Vol. II) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers


 p367  Chapter 2
Empedocles (484‑424 B.C.)

[link to original Greek text] 51 Empedocles was, according to Hippobotus, the son of Meton and grandson of Empedocles, and was a native of Agrigentum. This is confirmed by Timaeus in the fifteenth book of his Histories, and he adds that Empedocles, the poet's grandfather, had been a man of distinction. Hermippus also agrees with Timaeus. So, too, Heraclides, in his treatise On Diseases,​1 says that he was of an illustrious family, his grandfather having kept racehorses. Eratosthenes also in his Olympic Victories records, on the authority of Aristotle, that the father of Meton was a victor in the 71st Olympiad.​2 [link to original Greek text] 52 The grammarian Apollodorus in his Chronology tells us that

He was the son of Meton, and Glaucus says he went to Thurii, just then founded.​3

p369 Then farther on he adds:

Those who relate that, being exiled from his home, he went to Syracuse and fought in their ranks against the Athenians seem, in my judgement at least, to be completely mistaken. For by that time either he was no longer living or in extreme old age, which is inconsistent with the story.

For Aristotle and Heraclides both affirm that have died at the age of sixty. The victor with the riding-horse in the 71st Olympiad was

This man's namesake and grandfather,

so that Apollodorus in one and the same passage indicates the date as well as the fact.

[link to original Greek text] 53 But Satyrus in his Lives states that Empedocles was the son of Exaenetus and himself left a son named Exaenetus, and that in the same Olympiad Empedocles himself was victorious in the horse-race and his son in wrestling, or, as Heraclides​4 in his Epitome has it, in the foot-race. I found​5 in the Memorabilia of Favorinus a statement that Empedocles feasted the sacred envoys officers and men a sacrificial ox made of honey and barley-meal, and that he had a brother named Callicratides. Telauges, the son of Pythagoras, in his letter to Philolaus calls Empedocles the son of Archinomus.

[link to original Greek text] 54 That he belonged to Agrigentum in Sicily he himself testifies at the beginning of his Purifications:6

My friends, who dwelt in the great city sloping down to yellow Acragas, hard by the citadel.

So much for his family.

Timaeus in the ninth book of his Histories says he  p371 was a pupil of Pythagoras, adding that, having been convicted at that time of stealing his discourses, he was, like Plato, excluded from taking part in the discussions of the school; and further, that Empedocles himself mentions Pythagoras in the lines:7

And there lived among them a man of superhuman knowledge, who verily possessed the greatest wealth of wisdom.

Others say that it is to Parmenides that he is here referring.

[link to original Greek text] 55 Neanthes states that down to the time of Philolaus and Empedocles all Pythagoreans were admitted to the discussions. But when Empedocles himself made them public property by his poem, they made a law that they should not be imparted to any poet. He says the same thing also happened to Plato, for he too was excommunicated. But which of the Pythagoreans it was who had Empedocles for a pupil he did not say. For the epistle commonly attributed to Telauges and the statement that Empedocles was the pupil of both Hippasus and Brontinus he held to be unworthy of credence.

Theophrastus affirms that he was an admirer of Parmenides and imitated him in his verses, for Parmenides too had published his treatise On Nature in verse. [link to original Greek text] 56 But Hermippus's account is that he was an admirer not so much of Parmenides as of Xenophanes, with whom in fact he lived and whose writing of poetry he imitated, and that his meeting with the Pythagoreans was subsequent. Alcidamas tells us in his treatise on Physics that Zeno and Empedocles were pupils of Parmenides about the same time, that afterwards they left him, and that, while Zeno framed his own system, Empedocles became the pupil of Anaxagoras and Pythagoras,  p373 emulating the latter in dignity of life and bearing, and the former in his physical investigations.

[link to original Greek text] 57 Aristotle in his Sophist calls Empedocles the inventor of rhetoric as Zeno of dialectic. In his treatise On Poets he says that Empedocles was of Homer's school and power­ful in diction, being great in metaphors and in the use of all other poetical devices. He also says that he wrote other poems, in particular the invasion of Xerxes and a hymn to Apollo, which a sister of his (or, according to Hieronymus, his daughter) afterwards burnt. The hymn she destroyed unintentionally, but the poem on the Persian war deliberately, because it was unfinished. [link to original Greek text] 58 And in general terms he says he wrote both tragedies and political discourses. But Heraclides, the son of Sarapion, attributes the tragedies to a different author. Hieronymus declares that he had come across forty-three of these plays, while Neanthes tells us that Empedocles wrote these tragedies in his youth, and that he, Neanthes, was acquainted with seven of them.

Satyrus in his Lives says that he was also a physician and an excellent orator: at all events Gorgias of Leontini, a man pre‑eminent in oratory and the author of a treatise on the art, had been his pupil. Of Gorgias Apollodorus says in his Chronology that he lived to be one hundred and nine. [link to original Greek text] 59 Satyrus quotes this same Gorgias as saying that he himself was present when Empedocles performed magical feats. Nay more: he contests that Empedocles in his poems lays claim to this power and to much besides when he says:8

 p375  And thou shalt learn all the drugs that are a defence to ward off ills and old age, since for thee alone shall I accomplish all this. Thou shalt arrest the violence of the unwearied winds that arise and sweep the earth, laying waste the cornfieldsº with their blasts; and again, if thou so will, thou shalt call back winds in requital. Thou shalt make after the dark rain a seasonable drought for men, and again after the summer drought thou shalt cause tree-nourishing streams to pour from the sky. Thou shalt bring back from Hades a dead man's strength.

[link to original Greek text] 60 Timaeus also in the eighteenth​9 book of his Histories remarks that Empedocles has been admired on many grounds. For instance, when the etesian winds once began to below violently and to damage the crops, he ordered asses to be flayed and bags to be made of their skin. These he stretched out here and there on the hills and headlands to catch the wind and, because this checked the wind, he was called the "wind-stayer." Heraclides in his book On Diseases10 says that he furnished Pausanias with the facts about the woman in a trance. This Pausanias, according to Aristippus and Satyrus, was his bosom-friend, to whom he dedicated his poem On Nature thus:11

[link to original Greek text] 61 Give ear, Pausanias, thou son of Anchitus the wise!

Moreover he wrote an epigram upon him:12

The physician Pausanias, rightly so named, son of Anchitus, descendant of Asclepius, was born and bred at Gela. Many a wight pining in fell torments did he bring back from Persephone's inmost shrine.

At all events Heraclides testifies that the case of  p377 the woman in a trance was such that for thirty days he kept her body without pulsation though she never breathed; and for that reason Heraclides called him not merely a physician but a diviner as well, deriving the titles from the following lines also:13

[link to original Greek text] 62 My friends, who dwell in the great city sloping down to yellow Acragas, hard by the citadel, busied with goodly works, all hail! I go about among you an immortal god, no more a mortal, so honoured of all, as is meet, crowned with fillets and flowery garlands. Straightway as soon as I enter with these, men and women, into flourishing towns, I am reverenced and tens of thousands follow, to learn where is the path which leads to welfare, some desirous of oracles, others suffering from all kinds of diseases, desiring to hear a message of healing.

[link to original Greek text] 63 Timaeus explains that he called Agrigentum great, inasmuch as it had 800,000 inhabitants.​14 Hence Empedocles, he continues, speaking of their luxury, said, "The Agrigentines live delicately as if tomorrow they would die, but they build their houses well as if they thought they would live for ever."

It is said that Cleomenes the rhapsode recited this very poem, the Purifications, at Olympia:​15 so Favorinus in his Memorabilia. Aristotle too declares him to have been a champion of freedom and averse to rule of every kind, seeing that, as Xanthus relates  p379 in his account of him, he declined the kingship when it was offered to him, obviously because he preferred a frugal life. [link to original Greek text] 64 With this Timaeus agrees, at the same time giving the reason why Empedocles favoured democracy, namely, that, having been invited to dine with one of the magistrates, when the dinner had gone on some time and no wine was put on the table, though the other guests kept quiet, he, becoming indignant, ordered wine to be brought. Then the host confessed that he was waiting for the servant of the senate to appear. When he came he was made master of the revels, clearly by the arrangement of the host, whose design of making himself tyrant was but thinly veiled, for he ordered the guests either to drink wine or have it poured over their heads. For the time being Empedocles was reduced to silence; the next day he impeached both of them, the host and the master of the revels, and secured their condemnation and execution. This, then, was the beginning of his political career.

[link to original Greek text] 65 Again, when Acron the physician asked the council for a site on which to build a monument to his father, who had been eminent among physicians, Empedocles came forward and forbade it in a speech where he enlarged upon equality and in particular put the following question: "But what inscription shall we put upon it? Shall it be this?

Acron the eminent physician of Agrigentum, son of Acros, is buried beneath the steep eminence of his most eminent native city?"​16

Others give as the second line:

Is laid in an exalted tomb on a most exalted peak.

Some attribute this couplet to Simonides.

 p381  [link to original Greek text] 66 Subsequently Empedocles broke up the assembly of the Thousand three years after it had been set up, which proves not only that he was wealthy but that he favoured the popular cause. At all events Timaeus in his eleventh and twelfth books (for he mentions him more than once) states that he seems to have held opposite views when in public life and when writing poetry.​17 In some passages one may see that he is boastful and selfish. At any rate these are his words:18

All hail! I go about among you an immortal god, no more a mortal, etc.

At the time when he visited Olympia he demanded an excessive deference, so that never was anyone so talked about in gatherings of friends as Empedocles.

[link to original Greek text] 67 Subsequently, however, when Agrigentum came to regret him, the descendants of his personal enemies opposed his return home; and this was why he went to Peloponnesus, where he died. Nor did Timon let even him alone, but fastens upon him in these words:19

Empedocles, too, mouthing tawdry verses; to all that had independent force, he gave a separate existence; and the principles he chose need others to explain them.

As to his death different accounts are given.  p383 Thus Heraclides,​20 after telling the story of the woman in a trance, how that Empedocles became famous because he had sent away the dead woman alive, goes on to say that he was offering a sacrifice close to the field of Peisianax.º Some of his friends had been invited to the sacrifice, including Pausanias. [link to original Greek text] 68 Then, after the feast, the remainder of the company dispersed and retired to rest, some under the trees in the adjoining field, others wherever they chose, while Empedocles himself remained on the spot where he had reclined at table. At daybreak all got up, and they questioned the servants, who said they did not know where he was. Thereupon someone said that in the middle of the night he heard an exceedingly loud voice calling Empedocles. Then he got up and beheld a light in the heavens and a glitter of lamps, but nothing else. His hearers were amazed at what had occurred, and Pausanias came down and sent people to search for him. But later he bade them take no further trouble, for things beyond expectation had happened to him, and it was their duty to sacrifice to him since he was now a god.

[link to original Greek text] 69 Hermippus tells us that Empedocles cured Panthea, a woman of Agrigentum, who had been given up by the physicians, and this was why he was offering sacrifice, and that those invited were about eighty in number. Hippobotus, again, asserts that, when he got up, he set out on his way to Etna; then, when he had reached it, he plunged into the fiery craters and disappeared, his intention being to confirm the report that he had become a god. Afterwards the truth was known, because  p385 one of his slippers was thrown up in the flames; it had been his custom to wear slippers of bronze. To this story Pausanias is made (by Heraclides) to take exception.21

[link to original Greek text] 70 Diodorus of Ephesus, when writing of Anaximander, declares that Empedocles emulated him, displaying theatrical arrogance and wearing stately robes. We are told that the people of Selinus suffered from pestilence owing to the noisome smells from the river hard by, so that the citizens themselves perished and their women died in childbirth, that Empedocles conceived the plan of bringing two neighbouring rivers to the place at his own expense, and that by this admixture he sweetened the waters. When in this way the pestilence had been stayed and the Selinuntines were feasting on the river bank, Empedocles appeared; and the company rose up and worshipped and prayed to him as to a god. It was then to confirm this belief of theirs that he leapt into the fire. [link to original Greek text] 71 These stories are contradicted by Timaeus, who expressly says that he left Sicily for Peloponnesus and never returned at all; and this is the reason Timaeus gives for the fact that the manner of his death is unknown. He replies to Heraclides, whom he mentions by name, in his fourteenth book. Pisianax,º he says, was a citizen of Syracuse and possessed no land at Agrigentum. Further, if such a story had been in circulation, Pausanias would have set up a monument to his friend, as to a god, in the form of a statue or shrine, for he was a wealthy man. "How came he," adds Timaeus, "to leap into the craters, which he had  p387 never once mentioned though they were not far off? He must then have died in Peloponnesus. [link to original Greek text] 72 It is not at all surprising that his tomb is not found; the same is true of many other men." After urging some such arguments Timaeus goes on to say, "But Heraclides is everywhere just such a collector of absurdities, telling us, for instance, that a man dropped down to earth from the moon."

Hippobotus assures us that formerly there was in Agrigentum a statue of Empedocles with his head covered, afterwards another with the head uncovered in front of the Senate House at Rome, which plainly the Romans had removed to that site. For portrait-statues with inscriptions are extant even now. Neanthes of Cyzicus, who tells about the Pythagoreans, relates that, after the death of Meton, the germs of a tyranny began to show themselves, that then it was Empedocles who persuaded the Agrigentines to put an end to their factions and cultivate equality in politics.

[link to original Greek text] 73 Moreover, from his abundant means he bestowed dowries upon many of the maidens of the city who had no dowry. No doubt it was the same means that enabled him to don a purple robe and over it a golden girdle, as Favorinus relates in his Memorabilia, and again slippers of bronze and a Delphic laurel-wreath. He had thick hair, and a train of boy attendants. He himself was always grave, and kept this gravity of demeanour unshaken. In such sort would he appear in public; when the citizens met him, they recognized in this demeanour the stamp, as it were, of royalty. But afterwards, as he was going in a carriage to Messene to attend some festival, he fell and broke his thigh; this  p389 brought an illness which caused his death at the age of seventy-seven. Moreover, his tomb is in Megara.

[link to original Greek text] 74 As to his age, Aristotle's account is different, for he makes him to have been sixty when he died; while others make him one hundred and nine. He flourished in the 84th Olympiad.​22 Demetrius of Troezen in his pamphlet Against the Sophists said of him, adapting the words of Homer:23

He tied a noose that hung aloft from a tall cornel-tree and thrust his neck into it, and his soul went down to Hades.

In the short letter of Telauges which was mentioned above​24 it is stated that by reason of his age he slipped into the sea and was drowned. Thus and thus much of this death.

There is an epigram of my own on him in my Pammetros in a satirical vein, as follows:25

[link to original Greek text] 75 Thou, Empedocles, didst cleanse thy body with nimble flame, fire didst thou drink from everlasting bowls.​26 I will not say that of thine own will thou dist hurl thyself into the stream of Etna; thou didst fall in against thy will when thou wouldst fain not have been found out.

And another:27

Verily there is a tale about death of Empedocles, how that once he fell from a carriage and broke his right thigh. But if he leapt into the bowls of fire and so took a draught of life, how was it that his tomb was shown still in Megara?

[link to original Greek text] 76 His doctrines were as follows, that there are four elements, fire, water, earth and air, besides friendship by which these are united, and strife by which they are separated. These are his words:28

 p391  Shining Zeus and life-bringing Hera, Aidoneus and Nestis, who lets flow from her tears the source of mortal life.

where by Zeus he means fire, by Hera earth, by Aidoneus air, and by Nestis water.

"And their continuous change," he says, "never ceases,"​29 as if this ordering of things were eternal. At all events he goes on:30

At one time all things uniting in one through Love, at another each carried in a different direction through the hatred born of strife.

[link to original Greek text] 77 The sun he calls a vast collection of fire and larger than the moon; the moon, he says, is of the shape of a quoit, and the heaven itself crystalline. The soul, again, assumes all the various forms of animals and plants. At any rate he says:31

Before now I was born a boy and a maid, a bush and a bird, and a dumb fish leaping out of the sea.

His poems On Nature and Purifications run to 5000 lines, his Discourse on Medicine to 600. Of the tragedies we have spoken above.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 V.87.º

2 496 B.C.

3 445‑444 B.C.

4 i.e. Heraclides Lembus.

5 Cf. Introd. p. xiv.

6 Fr. 112 D.

7 Fr. 129 D.

8 Fr. 111 D.

9 According to Beloch this should be the twelfth book: cf. inf. § 66.

10 V.87.º

11 Fr. 1 D.

12 Fr. 156 D.

13 Fr. 112 D.

14 According to the vulgate, an unknown writer Potamilla is the authority cited by Diogenes. Diels, however (Frag. der Vorsokr. II3 p196), prefers the reading of two MSS. ποταμὸν ἄλλα (sc. ὑπομνήματα or ἀντίγραφα λέγει), regarding this as derived from a marginal note which was afterwards put in the text. In the Palatine MS. the gloss is ποταμὸν ἄλλοι. Apelt, however, suggests ποτ’ ἀμέλει, not as a scholium, but as part of the text.

15 Cf. Athenaeus XIV. 620D, whence it appears that the ultimate authority is Dicaearchus; ἐν τῷ Ὀλυμπικῷ, F. H. G. II p249, fr. 47. Here again a citation from Favorinus seems to disturb the context.

16 Anth. Plan. V.4.

17 This emphasis on the political leanings of Empedocles, backed by the authority of Timaeus, looks strange after the anecdote, also from Timaeus, of §§ 64, 65, nor is it clear that the attack on the close oligarchical corporation of the Thousand really took place at a later date (ὕστερον). That D. L. is working in two passages of Timaeus, in the second of which the first is not pre‑supposed, is an obvious suggestion.

18 Fr. 112.4 D.

19 Fr. 42 D.

20 In the list of the writings of Heraclides of Pontus (see V.86 sqq.) occurs Περὶ τῶν ἐν ᾄδου, a dialogue on a similar subject, if not actually identical, with Περὶ τῆς ἄπνου. In the latter Pausanias was one of the characters: see next note.

21 ἀντέλεγε. The imperfect tense is convincing proof that D. L. (or his source) is drawing upon the dialogue, and not narrating facts as an historian: D. L. must be giving a large extract from the dialogue Περὶ τῆς ἄπνου, beginning in the second paragraph of § 67. Only D. L. has inserted, in § 69, (1) a note from Hermippus and (2) a résumé from Hippobotus of the very passage in the dialogue Περὶ τῆς ἄπνου with which D. L. has been dealing in §§ 67‑69.

22 444‑441 B.C.

23 Od. XI.278.

24 VIII.55.º

25 Anth. Pal. VII.123.

26 i.e. the craters of Etna.

27 Anth. Pal. VII.124.

28 Fr. 6 D.

29 Fr. 17.6 D.

30 Fr. 17.7 D.

31 Fr. 117 D.

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