Leon Wash on Empedocles and the Concept of Nature

Metamorphoses, MS Douce 117, f. 028v, Bodleian Library. 

(The inset image) Roman de la Rose, MS Ludwig XV 7 (83.MR.177), f. 121v, J. Paul Getty Museum, photograph from Modersohn, M. Natura als Göttin im Mittelalter. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997, p. 348. 

At the last meeting of the Classics seminar this semester, Leon Wash (Ph.D. candidate, University of Chicago) will present his ongoing work on Empedocles' concept of nature. The lecture is entitled: "Between Demiurgic Love and Random Growth: Image and Concept in Empedocles". All are welcome to attend. The abstract follows.

There is an old verdict, stemming primarily from Aristotle, that Empedocles, the fifth-century poet-philosopher, was conceptually weak and, correspondingly, too bound to ambiguous poetical and mythological images. According to Aristotle, Empedocles’ concept of physis (“nature”) was inadequate, and his metaphors, such as that the sea is the sweat of the earth, are merely poetical and offer nothing useful concerning physis. That verdict has been partially countered by recent scholarship. Most prominent is a growing consensus, that Empedocles’ similes and metaphors drawn from craftwork, which illustrate the composition and action of certain organs as well as the activity of his goddess Love, in fact reveal a clear and systematic providentialism: his Love would then be the pre-Platonic Demiurge, intelligently designing the cosmos. Other scholars, following the lead of such thinkers as Ernst Cassirer, have argued that what Aristotle failed to appreciate was the fundamental mythical identity asserted by Empedocles’ metaphors that unite plant, animal and human life with the life of the four elements themselves, which Empedocles calls rhizomata (“roots”): Empedocles’ cosmos would then be a proto-Romantic, pantheistic unity of exuberant growth. Neither camp has attempted to clarify the concept of physis in the corpus and its relationship to those images. A further possibility lies somewhere between the two positions and will be taken up in this paper. It is predicated in part on the premise—which will be briefly presented, but not argued for here—that Empedocles’ physis shows a greater conceptual clarity and interest than previously appreciated, involving a “nature” that is constituted by the elements as they “learn” to grow together or apart. Each “nature,” that is, is “learned” by immanent processes, not coordinated by an external intelligence. Correspondingly, when carefully analysed and compared, his images display a combination of poetic license and critical restraint, such that although vegetal metaphors are decisively privileged over those from craftwork, even vegetal metaphors have their limits. Between a demiurgic Love and random growth, Empedocles’ roots learn to grow together into a living unity that ultimately outstrips such familiar figuration.


Classics seminar
Published May 8, 2019 11:57 PM - Last modified May 8, 2019 11:57 PM