In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Empedocles

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions and Commentaries
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections of Papers

Classics Empedocles
Simon Trépanier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0235


Empedocles of Acragas was a philosopher-poet of the first half of the 5th century BCE, one of the major Greek philosophers before Plato. For that background see the Oxford Bibliographies in Classics entry Presocratic Philosophy. Empedocles wrote in hexameter verse after Parmenides and responds to Parmenides’ challenges to the possibility of change. He is known to us mainly through fragments, that is, quotations from ancient authors. Two main titles are associated with his name, the On Nature and the Purifications. Their relation is debated; the older view is that they correspond to two separate works, but some think they are alternate titles for a single work. In philosophy, he is best known for his four-element theory (earth, air, fire, and water), taken over with modifications by Plato and Aristotle. But his system also includes two motive or psychological powers: Love, cause of elemental mixture and unification, and Strife, cause of separation. Their relative influence waxes and wanes, which produces a cyclical creation and destruction of the world, Empedocles’ cosmic cycle. In this respect, Empedocles continues the tradition of Ionian inquiry into nature. In other fragments, however, he discloses himself to be a god and offers teachings based on reincarnation lore, including a passionate denunciation of animal sacrifice and meat eating. This side of his thought relates him to Pythagoreanism. Because his work continued to be read as literature long after his theories had been surpassed, his text(s) survived throughout Antiquity and were lost only much later. Since 1999, the Strasbourg papyrus of Empedocles, from a book roll dating to the 1st century, has added a number of new passages, some of which overlap with fragments securely identified as from the On Nature. The passages are not quotations but the remains of an ancient edition, our first witness to the direct textual transmission of his work. Significantly, one of these passages includes a clear reference to reincarnation. Thus, while the debate on the number of works remains open, it now seems certain that the On Nature also contained material on reincarnation. The famous story of his death—that he leapt into the flames of Aetna to prove his divinity—was widespread in Antiquity but belongs to his reception rather than to his biography proper. For his influence in poetry and his position as a canonical Greek didactic author, see Poetry and Philosophy and Reception.

General Overviews

The following works are general treatments of early Greek philosophy that contain substantial sections on Empedocles. Kirk, et al. 1983 and Graham 2010 are source books that include a Greek text and translation. McKirahan 2010 gives all material in translation only but with a full discussion. For general surveys see Guthrie 1965, Barnes 1982, and Wright and Taylor 1997. The response to Parmenides usually gets the lion’s share of attention. Primavesi 2013 is a dense and detailed survey.

  • Barnes, J. 1982. The Presocratic philosophers. London: Routledge.

    Empedocles at pp. 305–317; 477–507. Focused on arguments, but not at the cost of linguistic subtlety or scholarly detail.

  • Graham, D. W. 2010. The texts of early Greek philosophy. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Empedocles is mentioned on pp. 326–433. Fragments and testimonia in Greek collected by theme, with English translation, brief commentary, and select bibliography. Up-to-date and concise interpretation from a top specialist.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1965. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Empedocles is on pp. 122–265. Detailed and learned survey, if inevitably dated now. Still a good starting point for those who want a comprehensive introduction.

  • Kirk, G. S., J. Raven, and Malcolm Schofield. 1983. The Presocratic philosophers. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Empedocles is mentioned on pp. 280–321. Select collection of key fragments and testimonia in Greek with English translation. Clear and readable exposition.

  • McKirahan, R. D. 2010. Philosophy before Socrates. 2d ed. Indianapolis: Hackett.

    See pp. 230–292. Up-to-date collection of all fragments in translation with generous citation of other testimonies in the main text. Presents the fragments according to the single work approach. Original concluding discussion of the relation of the daimon to physics and the cosmic cycle.

  • Primavesi, O. 2013. Empedokles. In Überweg. Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie. Die Philosophie der Antike. Bd. 1, Frühgriechische Philosophie. 2 vols. Edited by D. Flashar, H. Bremer, and G. Rechnauer, 667–739. Basel: Schwabe Verlag.

    A thorough and informed modern survey, divided into 6 sections. 1. Modern studies. 2. Transmission, incl. biography, number of works. 3. A defense of the two-work reconstruction. 4. Doctrines: cosmic cycle (double cosmogony); like to like; our world; chronology of the cycle; elements exiled from the Sphairos; zoogony; myth and the unity of Empedocles’ thought. 5. Reception. 6. Bibliography, thematically organized.

  • Wright, M. R., in C. C. W. Taylor, ed. 1997. The Routledge history of philosophy: From the beginnings to Plato. Vol. 1. London and New York: Routledge.

    Clear, concise survey with emphasis on Empedocles’ unifying vision and his attempt to produce a “theory of everything.” Empedocles at pp. 161–191.

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