Empedocles and Us

Empedocles is the only evolutionist whose theory impresses me in the least, because he is the only one who is rational enough not to imagine he is describing a rectilinear development, and expansive enough not to harbor any self-flattering hidden premise that he is living in an “advanced” stage of the process he describes. On the contrary, he saw all too clearly what a profound theory of evolution, of which his was the first (and perhaps the last) implied about his own life.

Empedocles’ speculation, his attempt to explain the delicate balance of unity and plurality that defines the world we observe, and think we know, is that the cosmos is in a perpetual cycle of evolution and devolution stretched between two poles, which he calls Love (Greek philia, “friendship,” although he occasionally uses Eros, “desire,” almost interchangeably) and Strife. When the cosmos is in the phase of the cycle ruled by Love, its tendency is toward unity, and therefore away from multiplicity, which means away from the growing variety of beings that constitute the content of our “ever-expanding” knowledge. When the cycle reaches its final state of complete unity — the dominance of Love — the phase of Strife’s rule begins, which entails the gradual “separating out” of distinctly definable beings from Love’s cosmic unity. This then, is the phase in which mind experiences itself as expanding in knowledge. What is happening, precisely, is that the world is breaking down into increasingly multifarious, i.e., disunited, compounds. At last, however, there comes a point beyond which the expanding multiplicity has reached a level of disintegration that transcends the limits of comprehensible definition and intelligibility — the limits of mind’s power to encompass and organize the increasing separateness of what it observes — and the cosmos enters a state of complete non-mixture of the elements, i.e., pure matter devoid of any intelligible form whatsoever, which is to say nothingness. Out of this nothingness, Love begins its ascendancy once again, as hints of unity begin to reassert themselves, and intellect is slowly reawakened.

On this cyclical view, it seems we must locate our own position today as quite far along in the process of devolution, our modern “progress” of knowledge entailing the inexorable approach of elemental separation, which in turn means the final transcendence of intelligibility in the cosmos. That is, we are well on our way to the ultimate dominance of Strife, the moment of pure material nothingness, the loss of all comprehensibility and rational awareness in a mire of literally unthinkable disintegration.

In the cosmic cycle, then, according to Empedocles, we are currently under the rule of Strife, and therefore proceeding toward a point at which there is so much to know — everything particularized, nothing categorizable — that thought finally becomes meaningless, and being ends. Our political life today is perhaps nothing but our collective forecast of the coming universal incoherence, a faint echo from our cosmic future — a foggy practical presage, if you will, of the fate of our essential existence, our contemplative life. 

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