Empedokles and the cosmic cycle

Ritzy asked:

My question is about Empedocles trying to solve the Parmenidean challenge of change and working towards the idea of why does Empedocles have a cosmic cycle. Your guidance would be of utmost importance and greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

When Parmenides said, the Cosmos is One, a rigid block, eternal and unchanging, he wanted this to be understood as the all-encompassing order among all of its constituents. If this were not the case, the Cosmos would be a higgledy-piggledy entity, without rhyme or reason, without any coherence or form.

But we humans perceive things in motion and in constant change, so this demands an explanation. Hence his doctrine of “phenomena”. The word means “appearances” and takes account of what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste. But this capacity for sensing does not report the truth about the objects and processes of the Cosmos, because we are limited at both ends — things that are larger, smaller, faster and slower than we can perceive. So our perceptual apparatus performs all sorts of compensations on our behalf, enabling us to navigate in the world and orient ourselves.

From this explanation, you might be inclined to agree with Parmenides — except that he did not carry out a comprehensive account of how appearances and the “naked reality” (aletheia) can be fused in our understanding. This, precisely, was the challenge taken up by the other philosophers. The notion common to them was, that the structure of objects and processes can be analysed internal to the cosmos, which would not affect the structure, but explain the details of phenomena that affect our perceptions. In a word: it was tantamount to a concession that intellectually Parmenides could not be contradicted; yet phenomenally it was possible to understand how we can and must live in our world of appearances.

Accordingly Empedokles conceived of a two-fold aspect to phenomena:

(a) All things are unequal mixtures of fundamental parts which he calls “roots” — earth, water, air and aether. Some of them are stable; though most of them percolate incessantly through the whole structure, yet altogether they remain true to the structure of the whole. E.g. water can be pumped through a series of pipes and gush out through a fountain, then into a basin and back to the pump. In those motions it might acquire heat and cold, maybe dirt as well, which could be filtered out somewhere along the route.

(b) This image also explains his conception of the “sphairos”. His cosmos is an organism, breathing in and out. It was a relatively common belief among the Greeks that the material and spiritual world are continuous. We note this organismic feature in the rotation of the seasons; but it also applies to what he calls “The Great Year”. This is an analogue of the ancient (probably Babylonian) zodiacal cycle of c. 26,000 years. The cosmos cycles through this, inhaling and exhaling in four stages. The beginning (taking breath) is the inception of a new world; then follow the high season, the declining season and finally the run down to demise. But the end is also its new beginning; and so on forever.

This idea (misleadingly called “eternal return”) led to Empedokles’ startling thesis that in each of these great cycles, the world engenders different life forms, since the resources for emergent life are infinite and never repeat themselves.

To conclude I will give you a practical instance of reality vs phenomena that is familiar to you. When you sit in an aeroplane in front of the engines, you can see them starting up and the blades rotating. But at some moment in this acceleration they seem simply to stand still or even move backward. This is a visual effect (called “strobe light”) caused by the limited capacity of our eyes to resolve fast motion. It occurs near 24 impingement per second, and when the propellors spin at that rate, the eye sees all of them paused in the same position. But you know of course that they are still spinning. Now we are used to this phenomenon and accept it as unproblematic for us. However, imagine now that everything in the world is in a state of differential vibration. Then we can discern only those features which correspond to the capacities of our sensory system to resolve them. This is a chastening thought, but I might leave it to you to figure out!

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