Monthly Archives: December 2013

Empedocles the Democrat? Some thoughts…

A puzzling fragment, possibly from Aristotle’s lost treatise On Poets (F *71 Janko), appears to associate the great poet and Presocratic philosopher Empedocles of Agrigentum with, of all things, democracy:

Aristotle too says that he [sc. Empedocles] was a free man, and estranged from every sort of rule, if indeed it is true that he declined the kingship when it was offered to him, as Xanthus claims in his work on him [sc. Empedocles] – obviously because he was more content with simplicity.  Timaeus also said these things, at the same time adding the cause for his [sc. Empedocles’] being a man of the people.

φησὶ δ’αὐτὸν καὶ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐλεύθερον γεγονέναι καὶ πάσης ἀρχῆς ἀλλότριον, εἴ γε τὴν βασιλείαν αὐτῷ διδομένην παρῃτήσατο, καθάπερ Σάνθος ἐν τοῖς περὶ αὐτοῦ λέγει, τὴν λιτότητα δηλονότι πλέον ἀγαπήσας.  τὰ δ’ αὐτὰ καὶ Τίμαιος εἴρηκε, τὴν αἰτίαν ἅμα παρατιθέμενος τοῦ δημοτικὸν εἶναι τὸν ἄνδρα.

(Diogenes Laertius 8.63 = FGrHist 566 F 134)

The external cover text here, Diogenes Laertius, couches the discussion of Empedocles’ democratic leanings between two passages of the late 4th Century historian Timaeus of Tauromenium, who wrote extensively about the political activities of philosophers, including Pythagoras and other ‘Pythagoreans’, in his Sicilian and Italian Histories.  Aristotle’s testimony has received surprisingly little discussion.

Empedocles the Democrat?

Empedocles the Democrat?

Let’s begin, then, with Aristotle’s take on Empedocles’ political orientation.  Diogenes claims that, according to Aristotle, Empedocles “was a free man[1], and estranged  from every sort of rule” (ἐλεύθερον γεγονέναι καὶ πάσης ἀρχῆς ἀλλότριον).  Diogenes quotes Aristotle here in order to show agreement (καί) with Timaeus of Tauromenium, who seems to have previously ‘quoted’ (summarized?) Empedocles’ criticism of the Agrigentines’ proclivity to luxury (τρυφή).[2]  There is, of course, no reason for us to associate Timaeus’ criticisms of luxury with Aristotle’s evaluation of Empedocles’ political character, especially given Timaeus’ apparent fixation on luxury.[3]  Instead, we would do better to seek, from Aristotle’s other works, a better sense of what he may have meant when referring to Empedocles as “free” and “estranged from every sort of rule”.[4]

As Mogens Herman Hansen has argued, the standard meaning of the word eleutheros in Greek prior to Plato and Aristotle is simply being “free”, as opposed to being “slave”.  There is no specific implication of political liberty in the writings of Homer, but sometime in the fifth century BCE, at the latest, eleutheros and eleutheria began to take on political semantics, and to be associated specifically (in various ways) with democracy.  Hansen associates this change with the semantic expansion of these words to include more ‘metaphorical’ senses, which leads to the association of freedom with citizenship, and, in the context of debates concerning the best form of rule, with the democratic ideal.[5]  This can also imply the right to participate in decision-making within the polis, or the right to live as one pleases, as opposed to being ruled by someone else, e.g. by a tyrant or an oligarchic group.[6]  As Hansen convincingly shows, all of these senses are apparent in Aristotle’s use of the terms, which is primarily relegated to his Politics and not, perhaps surprisingly, to his Eudemian or Nicomachean Ethics: in the first two books of the Politics, we see Aristotle use the term eleutheros conventionally, by reference to the opposition between “free” and “slave”, and of citizens; but in books 3-6 of the Politics, “the opposition between free and slaves disappears from the discussion”, and these terms refer univocally to refer to adult male citizens of the polis and their possession of political rights.[7]  It is entirely possible that Aristotle was referring in such a way to Empedocles, but this would not account for the information that glosses the word eleutheros, namely, that Empedocles was “estranged from every sort of rule”.  We would assume that Aristotle is referring not, in particular, to tyrannical or oligarchic rule, but rather, to “every” kind of rule (πάσης ἀρχῆς), which would render Empedocles some sort of anarchist.

In Book 6 of the Politics, we see Aristotle elaborate further on this sort of person.  In seeking to describe eleutheria as the “principle” (ὑπόθεσις) of democracy, by which he seems to mean something like its final cause[8], he differentiates two indicators[9] of eleutheria that can be discerned from what the proponents of democracy themselves say:

Well, then, a principle of the democratic constitution is freedom. For this is customarily asserted, on the grounds that people have a share of freedom only under this sort of constitution, since, as they say, every sort of democracy aims at this.  One indicator of freedom is to be ruled and to rule by turns…Another indicator, however, is to live as one likes.  For this, they say, is the function[10] of freedom, insofar as to live not as one likes is (the function) of someone who has been enslaved.  So, then, this is the second definition of democracy.  From it has come [the claim of] not being ruled, preferably not by anyone, or, failing that, (being ruled) by turns; and, in this way, one engages in freedom in accordance with equality.

(Aristotle, Politics 6.1, 1317a40-1317b17)

Aristotle introduces the two ‘indicators’ of freedom in order to expound two diverging definitions of democracy, both of which link freedom essentially to democracy.  But two modalities of freedom too are distinguished: one in which people rule and are ruled by turns, also said to be “in accordance with equality” (κατὰ τὸ ἴσον)[11], and one in which there are no stated contingencies.  It thus becomes possible that, by elaborating on Empedocles’ status as a free person that he was “hostile to every sort of rule”, Aristotle was really describing Empedocles as a sort of extreme anarchic democrat, one who simply believed that he should do whatever he wishes, at any given time.

If this is the case, then Empedocles’ peculiar type of democratic ideology cannot be seen as praiseworthy by Aristotle.  He discusses this in several passages.  In the context of describing the sort of extreme democracy that is opposite to what is expedient, i.e. a democracy which lacks majority rule, he says “freedom appears to be doing precisely what one wants; so that everyone who lives in these sorts of democracies lives as he wants – ‘as he fancies’, as Euripides says.  But this is bad; for living in conformity with a constitution should not be considered slavery, but preservation.”[12]  Aristotle’s commitment to political participation reveals a fundamental criticism of this sort of democratic anarchy, that living autonomously is dangerous and does not guarantee personal safety.  This claim in bound up in Aristotle’s commitment to the notion that human beings are naturally disposed to political participation, on the grounds that self-preservation is a function of all nature.[13]  In fact, this claim takes us back to a fundamental proposition of Aristotle’s Politics, as adumbrated in the first book:

From these things, then, it is clear that the city-state is one of the things that exists by nature, and that the human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is by nature, and not simply by chance, citiless, is either less, or more, than a human being.

(Aristotle, Politics 1.1, 1253a1-4)

If a human being does not participate in a city-state, then, he is assumed to be either less, or more, than human.  Aristotle goes on to explain what he means a few passages later: anyone who does not participate in the city-state, either because of incapacity to do so, or because of self-sufficiency, is respectively either a beast, or a god.[14]  A human being who refuses to, or cannot, participate in political life simply isn’t by nature a human at all.

This information, I think, is key to understanding Aristotle’s description of Empedocles as “a free man, and estranged from every sort of rule”, and it forces us to reconsider whether Aristotle was referring to Empedocles as an anarchist of a democratic sort, or as a different kind of anarchist altogether.  While it is possible, as I argued above, that Aristotle sees Empedocles as an extreme democrat who simply does what he wishes, I submit instead that Aristotle is more likely to be criticizing Empedocles for being a sort of person who does not participate in society at all, and who fails to obtain the conditions of being a political animal whatsoever.  David Keyt has sought to associate the implicit criticism of the apolitical proto-anarchist in Politics 1.1-2 with Diogenes the Cynic[15]; but the case for Empedocles is no less, and possibly more, convincing, especially given Aristotle’s extensive analysis of Empedocles’ poems and their underlying meaning throughout his corpus.[16]  Under this hypothetical scenario, Timaeus of Tauromenium appropriated Aristotle’s description of Empedocles as a “free man” (ἐλεύθερος) to his own purposes, making Empedocles into a proto-democratic hero whose character and actions reveal his wisdom and who identified luxury as the vehicle of tyranny and oligarchy among the Agrigentines.  Even so, however, Timaeus managed to preserve a nugget of Aristotle’s original description, in which Aristotle imagined Empedocles to assume a sort of self-sufficiency that only gods possessed. 

Why might Aristotle think this way?  Empedocles’ well-known fragment B 112 provides the likely reason:

O friends, who dwell in the great city of the yellow Acragas,
Up in the high parts of the city, concerned with good deeds,
<Respectful harbours for strangers, untried by evil,>
Hail! I, in your eyes a deathless god, no longer mortal,
Go among all, honoured, just as I seem:
Wreathed with ribbons and festive garlands.
As soon as I arrive in flourishing cities I am revered
By all, men and women. And they follow at once,
In their ten thousands, asking where is the path to gain,
Some in need of divinations, others in all sorts of diseases
Sought to hear a healing oracle…
(Trans. by Inwood)


[1] There is simply no indication that we should as Hicks, take ἐλεύθερον to mean ‘champion of freedom’.

[2] The passage given, lines 126-130 in Dorandi’s edition, is not included in Jacoby’s fragments, but Battier’s 1705 edition emended the text to included Timaeus’ name, on the assumption that there is a lacuna.  See below.

[3] It is true, as Gorman and Gorman have observed (2007), that authors such as Athenaeus overemphasized, perhaps playfully, the significance of τρυφή.  Yet we should not be so hasty to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Gorman and Gorman do not take account of the evidence from Diogenes Laertius and dismiss other crucial evidence from Diodorus Siculus (Timaeus’ F 26a and F 164, which is not discussed) without substantial argument (2007: 59 n. 81).  Nor is it compelling, in the light of Timaeus’ well-documented critiques of Aristotle’s appeal to historical causation (on which, see Horky 2013: 109), that he would accept Aristotle’s argument that Sybaris fell because of the mythological co-colonization by Acheaeans and Troezenians and subsequent expulsion of the Troezenians (Pol. 5.2, 1303a24-33, cited by Gorman and Gorman 2007: 59 n. 82).

[4] It is of course possible that the words themselves are not Aristotle’s, but there is nothing obviously un-Aristotelian about them, and indeed they do demonstrate strong affinities with Aristotelian political thought, as I will argue below.

[5] Hansen 2010: 2-3.

[6] Hansen 2010: 9.

[7] Hansen 2010: 10.

[8] Arist. Rh. 3.2, 1404b15-16.

[9] He refers to them as σημεῖα.

[10] The manuscripts, followed by Ross, have ἔργον, but Richards postulated ὅρον, which would render ‘definition’.

[11] If, that is, we admit the phrase καὶ συμβάλλεται ταύτῃ πρὸς τὴν ἐλευθερίαν τὴν κατὰ τὸ ἴσον, which Bonitz thought was interpolated.  There are two sorts of equality named in the portion I have excised, namely ‘according to number’ (sc. arithmetical) and ‘according to value’.  The anarchic aspect of freedom evidently shares in neither.  On arithmetical equality and equality according to value, see Hansen 2010: 14-15.

[12] Arist. Pol. 5.7, 1310a31-36.

[13] On self-preservation in Aristotelian teleology, see Leunissen 2010: 93-95.

[14] Arist. Pol. 1.1, 1253a25-29.

[15] Keyt 1993: 135-136.

[16]A simple glance at Bonitz’ listing for Ἐμπεδοκλῆς ὁ Ἀκραγαντῖνος in the Index Aristotelicus, which comprises in total almost two whole columns, reveals Aristotle’s deep and continued engagement with Empedocles throughout his works.  By contrast, Diogenes receives only one mention (Rh. 3.10, 1311a24-25).

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