The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan

  Bollack, Jean. 2016. The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Trans. C. Porter and S. Tarrow with B. King. Edited by C. Koenig, L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and S. Pollock. Hellenic Studies Series 73. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

6. Purifications*

God on Earth

A subversive action

Purifications (Katharmoi) marks a complete break with the cultural tradition, one that could equally well be called literary or religious. The poem [1] invents a myth, a new story that purports to replace all the other stories that have ever been told, from Homer and Hesiod to the contemporary productions of Athenian tragedy. Empedocles’ invention, designed to demystify, consists in reworking the mythological themes, making changes that go beyond banishing a god or dismembering his body. The process of reinterpreting written texts comes to the forefront with this poem; so too with the Orphic poets, who are too often invoked for their beliefs in the afterlife by scholars who neglect their work of composition and exegesis of words otherwise taken at face value—work that connects this world to the next and provides access to salvation. Verbal enigmas in Empedocles are not used for their own sake as exotic exercises, no matter how salutary. That stage has been surpassed, as it were. The writing is controlled, brought to the radiance of poetic speech, and, through its aesthetic appeal, made communicable and public. The Panhellenic aim of this text, which, with its techniques of substitution, rivals Homer, can be understood as a desire for cultural growth. The work of interpretation around a table, among learned friends, is raised to the level of a religious and political message. Purifications is presented as a manifesto and a project for the universal reform of societies. {65|66}

In the few lines that remain to us, tension is expressed between the subject matter of the exegesis, based on rereading and meditating upon books (to be precise: all books), and the voice of a political program that is undoubtedly revolutionary. If there is not, properly speaking, a “religion of the book” in Greece, it is no less true that there is a bookish culture, all the more influential in that it does not justify any specific practice directly; in addition there is a powerful interpretive tradition, which stimulates all the liberties taken by the author.

It falls to political history to study the conditions under which an important segment of the ruling class freed itself from its position of political ascendancy and turned toward a cultural legitimation belonging to another order. At the same time, on the level of religious sociology, one can wonder how this group {66|67} imposed upon itself the ascetic discipline and way of life from which the charismatic figure of Empedocles emerged like a character in a play.

In Empedocles more than in any of the other pre-Socratic philosophers, the social aspiration to freedom is felt in every word. All the pre-Socratics are inclined toward the transmission of what is known. Knowledge alone is not sufficient; its capacity to analyze has to be converted and allowed to manifest its own power freely. Empedocles’ historical reality, which scholars are trying to constitute (the poet was a citizen of Agrigento, a large city in Sicily, in the mid-fifth century BCE), helps us see the signification of a work that declares its dependencies and integrates them into a stance of total independence. It is the specific import of a rupture that has to be pinned down; the rupture is unique. Nothing of the cultural universe with which Empedocles and the Greeks of his time were familiar is maintained in its original signification. We must presuppose that the entire horizon was known to Empedocles, but at the same time this horizon remains unknown to us, as long as we have not measured the angle of its transformation.

Nothing is taken up again without being recast; none of the doctrines that are evoked in the fragments can in any way be invoked positively in order to decipher the texts: neither Hesiod’s (according to Günther Zuntz [1971]) nor the Pythagorean doctrine (as Marcel Detienne [1963] tried to reconstitute it). Empedocles is a Pythagorean, but after his own fashion, differently. According to the Sicilian historian Timaeus, who was dealing with the cities of Locris and Croton, Empedocles was accused, as Plato was later on, of an illegitimate appropriation of intellectual property belonging to the Pythagorean School (logoklopia)—of plagiarism, in short, and he was excluded for that reason. Two lines from Purifications (frag. 129) are cited in support of doctrinal filiation, but Timaeus envisages another possibility at the same time: “Timaeus in the ninth book of his Histories says … that Empedocles himself mentions Pythagoras … Others say that it is to Parmenides that he is here referring.” [4] We are, then, in the realm of interpretation, and we are dealing with identifications after the fact. Of all the tendencies to which Empedocles has been attached (despite any evidence of eclecticism on his part), Pythagoras and Parmenides are by far the most important. The tradition retains the differences. Plotinus (Enneads 4.8.1) refers to the interpretations of initiates—Empedocleans—and compares Empedocles’ revelations to those of Pythagoras, claiming that “Empedocles—where he says that it is law for faulty souls to descend to this sphere … reveals neither more nor less than Pythagoras and his school seem to me to convey on this as on many other {67|68} matters.” [5] That there has been hesitation between Pythagoras and Parmenides is instructive. Empedocles’ poetry is anti-­Parmenidean in its construction and its tonality by dint of its repoetization. The way the poem is presented—its style—is anti-Pythagorean.

Empedocles operates on beliefs; he knows that everything rests on them, and that philosophical speculation, which has been liberated, was built on the basis of beliefs. This speculation can impose the authority of its conceptual truth only if the consequences to be drawn from an effective supremacy of thought are envisaged. For those who limit themselves to that sovereignty alone and view it as reigning in the order of the living, there are no other sovereignties, there are no longer any gods. Philosophy may seek to occupy the place of religion in society and make religion understandable, but in vain; the beliefs installed at the heart of every stronghold have neither been reformed nor suppressed. As they are constitutive of the order of city-states, they can only be given a new expression. The most just and the best adapted beliefs will be the loftiest and most abstract, the most in conformity with what has been acquired through reflection. If we consider the welfare of humankind first and foremost, philosophical knowledge requires a retranslation. Hence the redefinition of the divine in the light of Being, which forms the content of the second part of Purifications. Ontological difference is abolished, as it were, when the radiance of Being finds itself invested in the forms taken by human destiny. Difference is reincarnated in god-men. Transcendence is condemned to immanence. The necessity for a break in its plenitude and its perfection can be imposed on transcendence, precisely owing to its unitary character. Concentration tends to be achieved and thus manifested. Unity is therefore pushed toward its own shattering, to ensure the life in which it is found. This is the law of an opening reserved in a distinctive way to the divine, including a distancing from the self in view of a return to the self.

At the center, there will always be the struggle against violence in the world. Disorder cannot be originary. Good is primary if it is the reason for life. The entrance of the divine into the human can thus be achieved only by a relaxing of concentration. Violence can be overcome only inasmuch as it is a negation of a former state. Destruction still belongs to the unity destroyed. The most tenacious thinking will discover that negation has not emerged out of nothing, but that, dialectically, it proceeds from a dynamism inherent to being, from a need for separation and then reconstitution of self through the regulation of the {68|69} forces that have been liberated. Life is, indeed, the will to be. The consequence drawn from this is that one must trust in evil, if it is an emanation of good. The operation is purely intellectual, and it is visibly presented as a construction, as if it emanated from a discussion that had concluded as follows: there exists a truth that leads to making war on war; this is because war is originally the negation of peace. In a poem, one can give birth to a new myth that, marvelously, tells the truth. It will be a different theogony, in which good engenders evil through a primal murder. Violence allows the divine to diversify. Here we have a veritable utopia, responding as always to some despair, a utopia in which one places one’s faith decisively, clinging to the idea that violence is contained, that excess is not winning out, whatever tragedy may say.

As a result, there is nothing left of the traditional religion of the Greeks: neither Homer’s version nor Hesiod’s. Nothing is left but religion itself. No anthropomorphism is thinkable, no god with a human face that one can picture, neither Zeus nor any other, and while it has been remarked that Apollo is privileged, this is because his verbal and oracular faculties lend themselves best to reconcentration and spiritual transfiguration (“You shall make yourselves no images, no signs substituting for the truth; the ineffable has no images.”). In the golden age, when creatures simply loved one another, the primary salient feature was that there was no war, no Iliadic terror, and thus no preoccupation with power or rivalry. No dynasty, no war of succession, neither against the father, Kronos, nor against Poseidon, the brother and rival, master of the earth. Nothing but love. With Empedocles, there is no longer any room for the gods of the city-state. They lie beneath the text, buried in words, in what people have done with them. If the god is a man, he is god with man, in him and for him: god-man on earth, leaving man a chance to be or to become that god who has always occupied his dreams and his thought. Thus everything has to be done again, everything spelled out anew, if one wants to speak the truth; everything has to be called back into question. Empedocles offers an analysis of moral standards, a study of religious practice, and a reflection on the relation between the domain of order and the domain of the irrational, domains that confront one another in Greek mythology. This aspect, whether we call it critical, analytical, or reflexive, gradually comes to the fore and remains primordial; it is somewhat lessened by the dependencies that are attributed to it when it is re-immersed in its own traditions. Nothing of what has been believed and practiced in rituals can claim to be divine, nor can it accede to divinity if it does make such a claim. The Other is in nature; it is seen in living beings. The separation from altars and temples is absolute. {69|70}

The two poems: nature and religion

The relation between the two poems, between the genesis of the world bringing to light the variety of living beings in Origins and the demythifying myth of the incarnation of the gods in Purifications, becomes clear if we define with precision the major outlines of a political aim. Owing to their positivist representations, the nineteenth-century scholars who created the basis for our investigation had come up against the irreconcilable character of the two undertakings, each an object in its own field, one scientific, enlightened, and empirical, the other religious, sectarian, or obscurantist, with all the nuances that such an irreducible antagonism could include and tolerate. During the last few decades, however, the problem has been set aside by a curious but characteristic tendency to suppress the duality of the propositions, by refusing to dissociate and choose between them. This was a large-scale attack on the hermeneutics and the critical traditions of the science of philology. All classifications, whether they had already been accepted or not, were suspended. So they remained to be discovered. It was convenient but deceptive to refer to elements that did not fit well together, to conclude that “the irreconcilable” had never been reconciled, and to decide to leave everything as it was, unchanged. {70|71}

Daimonology was reintroduced into the heart of the portion that had been attributed to science. A dose of sorcery was injected in Origins. The impasse was absolute. What should have been acknowledged was precisely the difference between the two works; it was indeed the distinct logic of each that made it possible to grasp the unity that the two formed together, in their connection and their interrelation. Neither one is directly explained in the framework of the other. There was simply a correspondence between them, and each work can be explained in relation to the other. In the modern history of interpretation, over the last two centuries, there are, in fact, some rather inexplicable divergences among the interpreters, who were disarmed before the coherence of two forms of logic; these divergences ended up taking scholars back to the starting point and canceling out assured discoveries. The impasses were exploited naively. Scholarship had simply gone backwards.

Going back and forth, defending contrary theses regarding the two poems or the different cycles of cosmic becoming, Love and then Strife, or Strife and then Love, or one of these alone instead of half of one and half of the other, creates the impression of an eternal and, as it were, predestined beginning all over again. Scholars present the history of the problem without defining the selection criteria, and almost without taking sides, as if there were an objective science with its own logic and its own coherence that could, although contradictory, be substituted for that of the system being studied; the consensus that is established rests on a factitious exhaustiveness. On this basis one can play the game indefinitely. It is the opposite of a carefully argued questioning of the results, some of which hold up while others are obsolete.

“Physics” is linked to the birth of the world, and in a sense this genesis comes first. In Purifications, the world exists with its “gods,” the same as in Origins (frags. 63, 12); it does not have to be formed. It was a real aberration to make the narrative of Purifications coincide with the cycle of supposed physical alternations between Love and Strife. Their cosmic supremacies are intermingled in a single unitary logic.

The poems have their own temporality. They bring it into being; it is deployed in them and is abolished there. There is succession and anteriority in matter; genesis comes before the world, but that does not rule out presupposing an anteriority of a different type. In the order of composition, Purifications came first, sketching out a political goal and an unsurpassable outcome. In the Strasbourg papyrus, [7] where we find a variant of fragment 139, it does seem as though we are dealing with an explicit reference, in Origins, to Purifications; {71|72} elsewhere, too, following the epic model, lines have been taken up again and modified. One can read these passages in the papyrus as signifying adaptations of a key passage, in a new context. There is a homology to be established between the episodes of the birth of death, better known now in Origins, and the irruption of violence through murder. [8] The work dialogues with itself in the framework of a hierarchy. The iterations studied in Origins highlight a concordance between the two poems. The first-person plural, the “we” found in the papyrus, might very well be understood as a reference to the group of friends, reproducing the situation defined by the rule of community life, although it is not possible to deduce from this that “daimones” are implicated in the passage in the papyrus that comes from Origins. The correspondences are real, but this does not allow anything to be simply assimilated. The sense attributed to the relationship remains a determining factor.

In Purifications, there is no god Sphairos; that god exists only in relation to the cosmos, to its mode of destruction. The “gods” of Origins are not touched by him. He translates a homology between the world to come and the world that has become. Strife, Neikos, given this name in fragment 115, is not the antagonist in the cosmogonic struggle, even if the concept of antagonism, no less purely negative, remains the same. Destruction demands to be strictly isolated. The daimon plays that card; he integrates evil, which was unknown to him, into his role; he represents the divine in its fall. The two principles, good and evil, meet and rub shoulders in him. While the idyll of fragment 128 offers a fine reproduction of the peaceful scene of a Golden Age, it does not directly evoke the reign of Love, of Philia, even when it is Philia that rules, in this state of the world. One may say that the world existed, with light and stars, and that it knew a different state prior to our own; such a world existed in the plurality of possible worlds; before the primal murder, creatures lived in peace without fighting over anything.

The true presence of the divine among men is due to a rupture in the world, to the irruption of violence. Murder led to this—murder multiplied in a mass, a multitude of substitutes separated from unity, adapting to a truth made worldly, humanized. Men thus gained access to the divine, benefiting from an entry into the logic of its destruction. “Empedocles’ philosophy” is developed around this dialectic, which makes the loss of a unitary state the condition for surpassing mere humanity, a process involving individuals and no longer the whole. From the human standpoint, evil becomes the condition of a good that can only be located in consciousness, which has emerged from innocence. Paradise is no {72|73} more. The good had simply been a given; a lost origin, it becomes the remote endpoint of an aspiration. Reparation, bringing purpose to moral life, has yet to be achieved. History cannot be directly combined with the cosmic cycle of Origins; it supplies no elements for the reconstitution of that cycle. It is in harmony with the cycle, but it applies to something else. The duality of perspectives has to be fully accepted. Thought is unified, but it is developing; the domains differ in every respect. It was not a mistake to oppose a natural order to reforms of a social, political, and religious order, subjecting human behavior to respect for the living.

The new myth

The new “myth” purifies; it is based on the rupture that affects the divine as such, the organizing principle in the absolute difference of its celestial unity, which, contradictorily, makes itself visible, but in the most abstract and most immaterial manner imaginable. Its form, if one is required, will be revealed by the inaccessible radiance of the ether, or the concentration of light. This form will be alienated in the obscurity of bloodshed. The murder, which can be carried out only by a god, institutes the initial act of a contrary life. If there exists a strictly identical moment in the development of the two poems, it is that of the rupture itself, which puts an end to the state of stability outside of time, drags it away from eternity, to bring into being the order of things created by the law of Necessity (frag. 115). It is the fatality of the event of the rupture that leads at once to the reconstitution of the state that has been destroyed, the necessity that the One be divided and reproduced in innumerable living beings. Good undergoes the trial that it imposes on itself, obliged to deny itself the better to find itself again: it triumphs in the end over self-negation and its letting-go. Here we have the Muses of Sicily, according to Plato’s Sophist (242C–E), as opposed to the Ionian Muses of Heraclitus. The other succeeds the same, in a second phase, then the same succeeds the other, which is not the same thing; it succeeds itself. The other presents itself as a negative reproduction. Unlike the model, one can reconnect with it by overcoming evil.

The daimon, in his exile, can call himself the “vassal of Strife” (frag. 115.13), knowing that he has alienated himself so as to restore order to chaos. The evil that oppresses men proceeds from the bloody act through which the gods gave up their power in favor of a rebellion, giving birth to individual consciousness through the intervention of “someone,” a tis, which is at first only that, an entity that separates itself. Following this self-sacrifice, committed by the gods at one point in the world, the separation between beings is immediately installed everywhere. Order was unitary; division will be just as universal. The rupture of {73|74} any singularity whatsoever leads the whole into plurality. “The one” is not just one daimon but a multitude of daimones. Their name is legion: the entire explosion of the divine spreads into the wound. Duality rests on the strictest antithesis and on mutual exclusion. Organized speech, even if it is the expression of anger or indignation, stems from a power that overcomes death.

In the order of human destinies, this act is primal. There remains only to purify oneself by purifying the daimon who has defiled himself and inhabits us like a delegate from some elsewhere—we have to adapt to him, to his duality. Purifications puts words to this work of asceticism, which leads to a simple exit from the world, a disappearance. The only salvation, if there is one, lies in the contribution to reestablishing the divine, as long as it lasts. The superhuman forces that are drawn from the exercises of purification can, during the lifetime of the saviors, be placed at the service of other, less fortunate men. Complementary political action, the struggle against violence from all sources, takes over.

Crossing the limits of the human condition remains tied to the exploration of an unknown domain and to the growth of the resources of knowledge. Transmigrations follow a certain logic. The conception of metasomatosis (or metempsychosis) probably takes local forms everywhere. At the end of his “Life of Empedocles,” Diogenes Laertius, summarizing the doctrine, writes that “the soul … assumes all the various forms of animals and plants.” [10] There are partial migrations of daimones, beyond human limits in certain incarnations. It does not seem as though, for Empedocles, the nature of the reincarnations is determined by the faults committed during one’s life, as in Plato’s eschatological myths. There is no fault and no punishment other than the murder and the fall {74|75} to earth that is reproduced at each birth. Procreation (more than the sex act) becomes problematic for this reason. Life extends beyond its human limits to a larger life, led by the daimon, if one can cling to him and follow him in his peregrinations. The “I” who says “I have been this or that—laurel or lion” is speaking of the daimon in himself. The migrations are those of a double free of the constraints that other daimones, having become masters and decision-makers, have assigned him. The daimones circulate. The logic of the chain of existences is charged with a collective positivity, even if destinies are differentiated each time according to the quality of the daimones, divided between natural good and borrowed evil. Are the daimones not the ones who decide and who have the last word? It is through them that one becomes, or is, a god.

Metempsychosis is attributed to Empedocles by his ancient commentators. Origen deems it mythical. Christians have their mortification in its place. Moderns question the extent of the process and its systematic character, most often concluding that the application of the principle was partial. A double legitimation may be found in thinking about metempsychosis. On the one hand, the integration of animal natures foreign to man is a powerful factor in the combat consisting in non-violence. The incursion into that reign is substituted for a factitious primitive understanding that has been lost. On the other hand, knowledge in the order of the living can be strengthened in this form, less mythical than it seems, of methodical investigations of behaviors and morphologies that differ from our own. We shall know what we do not absorb.

Non-violence, which is expressed in the rejection of blood sacrifices, is the leading principle. Withdrawal is a mode of life, and, through the conversion of the forces that command the radical respect of animal life, it is in harmony with the extension of consciousness. One loses one’s strength by devouring beasts, even cooked flesh. But one appropriates the energy of animals with the help of a daimonic knowledge that extends to the living on a broad scale.

Daimones male and female

Daimonology is not a fixed body of knowledge, however it may have been used in later theories; since Plato, these theories have very often been syncretic. The way Empedocles conceives of daimonology is wholly original, bound up with the poet’s inventiveness, something that is legible although difficult to decipher, given the state of the extant documents. It suffices to note that a daimon, a fallen god, in his cohabitation with the body of a man, is distinguished from the soul in all its aspects, whether the soul is construed as breath, blood, or vital principle. The soul is part of the body; the daimon is not. Daimones are of a different nature, noetic and immaterial just like the gods of the ether, losing {75|76} themselves in their own brilliance. We have to accept this highly paradoxical presence of pure philosophical transcendence, transferred into the sphere of the religious imaginary, before we approach the readings produced by Plato, Xenocrates, Plutarch, and many others. Empedocles rethought the concepts of gods, daimones, and divinity. We have to free these concepts from associations that are foreign to them, and retain, from the texts in which they are applied, the elements that make it possible to construct the system that gives them meaning.

Is there a soul in each being, even in plants, and do “daimones” designate a destiny reserved for certain privileged human beings? One may say that the soul, as diversified as need be, is part of all beings, and that all humans—but at the outset humans only—have a daimon double, who is allied with the body on which he lands by chance.

Does the word “soul,” psukh ē, correspond to a precise representation? Empedocles does not use the term in a sense that is directly related to our vision of things. Daimones are wholly distinct from corporeal souls, from material nature. This distinction and this dualism need to be introduced.

The introduction of dualism also allows us to answer the question about the nature of the souls involved in migrations. In Empedocles, is there a new, even revolutionary, conception of the unity of vital movements and consciousness, or is there a more mysterious and meta-empirical “self”? The question is moot if {76|77} we consider that in essence a share in divinity is associated with human natures: this explains the choice of the word “daimon” in an idiomatic sense specific to the system.

Do reincarnations occur immediately following death, or must we introduce a transitory station that reserves a function to Hades? And, concomitantly, is the soul inhaled by an organism that is being born in the cycle of becoming, or must we bring into play a tribunal that rules on the destiny of souls? The extant texts allow us to conclude (contrary to the opinion of certain scholars) that there is no Hell and no Rhadamanthus; only the world exists, already an obscure place in which men live and die without noticing any changes of scenery.

We still need to ask whether we are dealing with a circular chain of perpetual reincarnations or whether a definitive deliverance or damnation corresponds to the initial fall: the Champs Elysées or Tartarus? It is time to get rid of the mythological traditions, or at least to give priority to their transformation. The received representations are rejected. The gods have wagered on separating themselves from themselves by mixing with men through a crime that must be taken into account. The rest is nothing but an infinitely long work of reparation and a series of cathartic tasks that allow certain men to be virtual gods on earth at the conclusion of their incarnations, and to await a return to the fold, which no longer has a mythological dimension, unless the forms of visualization characteristic of philosophical speculation are included under this term. If the gods are absolutely transcendent, they have no places that would limit their power; they are nowhere in the world. If there is a “hearth,” it can be only a point that they choose as a center where they gather, at the same “table” (frag. 147). The forms of their representation are determined by their nature. Nothing distinguishes the immortal beings from one another. But their abstraction is configured.

Internal and citational testimony

In the first part of the poem, the narrator recounted, in his own name and as an example, the adventure of his birth and the daimon’s incarnation in his body. He needed to tell the story of that cohabitation and follow the peregrinations of his alter ego, the god who became man through blood, and was initiated into the evils that oppress men even while remaining the god that he is, in order to become a god again, purified, in the end.

For Empedocles, it was rather the heavens that the soul leaves (Plutarch, a Platonist, confused the horizons). As for the life that one leads on earth, it is made uncomfortable by this distancing and suffers from it, even if the distance crossed is short; human life is like that of a wretched plant left to dry out. In this Platonizing context, Empedocles is defended by virtue of his originality against later enrichments and legitimizations. The daimon lives out his exile, consents to act against his multiple nature in order to complete his mission. He is the other in us—or with us—who suffers from all the elsewheres of existence, insofar as he has not recovered his own place elsewhere, according to the desire inscribed in the wheel depicted in the second part of fragment 115 (lines 9–12). What does this mean? Does the desire institute the struggle, or the end of the return? {78|79}

If there has been an interpretation of Empedocles that attributed death to the daimones, thrust into mortality, this is because the initiation to evil that they underwent logically occupied a large place. This accounts for the confusion denounced by Plutarch, and it brings to light the paradox of the cohabitation between mortals and immortals. In Purifications, Empedocles’ daimones are not a separate category of beings known in the divine order, distinct from the gods and endowed only with a long life span instead of eternity; they are gods like the others, who have fallen far from their place.

The region of the powers of evil, where the fallen god is led (frag. 121), evokes a decisive phase in the preparation and initiation of the daimon. It is not only his terrestrial exile. We have to keep in mind that the essence of the daimon is divine; that is his basis, his initial nature. In order to adapt to the bodies of the divided world, he takes contrary forces into himself, undergoing the baptism of evil.

These daimones are surrounded by daimon colleagues who take care of them, govern their affairs, and follow them in their travels throughout the world of the living. Here we have, transferred, something like a group of philoi, citizens of another world living among us—angels, fairies, the marvelous folk of tales

The distribution of destinies by the daimones, who are manipulators of life, corresponds to a new or true birth, presided over by the Moirai, and above all by Lachesis (who is profiled in the verb lelakhasi, frag. 115.5). The idea of distribution is related to that of a function, implied in the “fates” (kl ē roi) that the daimones ultimately manage to leave behind.

Some are more purified than others. Let us agree that the psychopomps, soul escorts, work things out so as to incarnate the more purified souls in the body of a sage. They then become “great intellectuals,” healers and saviors, real gods.

In Plutarch’s On the Sign of Socrates, the daimon is detached from the soul, which is tied to the body. The part that escapes corruption is usually called “intelligence” (nous), and it is presumed to be lodged inside, as an image is believed to be lodged inside a mirror. However, “those who conceive the matter rightly call it a daemon, as being external” (591E). The voice heard by Timarchus, one of the interlocutors in the treatise, establishes a correspondence between celestial visibility and the nature of the soul: fires extinguished during their absorption into the body, lighted up upon the arrival of the dead souls; but there is a third category that is seen to move: these are “the daimones of men ‘said to possess understanding’” (591F)—applying it to Empedocles, we might well call them “purified and rid of evil.” In Plutarch, it is a matter of recognizing the link that every daimon maintains with the bodily complex of the soul. In any case, the distinction is made visible. Nostalgia—the desire to return—is inscribed in the daimones’ nature. Men can count on the daimones, and this helps the latter become redivinized while being purified.

A history of man

What is the history of humanity? One cannot rule out the possibility that Purifications contains a non-mythic or anti-mythic history of humanity and a certain philosophy of history. The world first, then the men who inhabit it, existed before there was anything like a “religion.” Religion intervened at a certain point. What is the philosophy of this history that can be retraced? Man lived in peace with the other creatures—if this is the primitive state that is to be reconstituted. Originally, a pure, non-conflictual goodness (philophrosun ē) occupied the place of justice (dikaiosun ē, with the same suffix sunē); this was before the murder.

Man was not conceived in violence. However, he became man socially by escaping the carnage unleashed by the murder. If the daimones were the ones who saved him and protected him from the beasts, one can conclude that, at this initial stage, they were incarnated only in men’s bodies; it was to this encounter that the daimones’ intervention was destined. There were men, and the gods associated themselves with them.

The logic of this thesis can be reconstructed. It is not so much that men free themselves by denouncing the Hesiodic sacrificial pact (Theogony 535–616; Works and Days 42–105), as Detienne (1970), along with others, has suggested, and that they reject the difference sanctioned by the rite. Philosophical reflection {81|82} did not follow this logic: Pythagoras did not, nor did Empedocles. The gods were conceived and men with them. Even savages can be divinized, men-gods at the other pole. A new cult is proposed in place of the other, the latter being viewed as the “animal” pole by Empedocles, in any case. The initial de-animalization, provoked by daimonization, is still going on.

The forcible entry of violence, projected into the exemplary narrative of sacrifice, did not imply simply an extension to all beings, but the primary effect, in the order of the living, was allelophagia, a universalized cannibalism that pitted men against animals, as well as against themselves (see frag. 130). It was a second point of departure, another origin; the first may be regretted, the second lamented. Men had to fight to rid themselves of the animal component, aided by their daimones, who were becoming human. In this, in the universal consequence of the primal murder, all men are complicit with the crime that made them truly men. The two poles that have been established in the history of the world, the divine and its sacrificial negation—a sacrifice offered to men—open a path to reestablishment. This would have to be deduced from the very logic of the global construction, but one finds a double testimony to it in the fragments, direct testimony with the mutual devouring and indirect with the evocation of the peace that had reigned earlier. One did not kill (1), then there was the murder that changed everything (2); to escape the logic, there must be no more killing (3). {82|}

Works Cited

Burkert, W. 1972. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Trans. E. L. Minar, Jr. Cambridge, MA. Orig. pub. Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaos und Platon, Nuremberg, 1962.

Detienne, M. 1963. La notion de daïmon dans le pythagorisme ancien: de la pensée religieuse à la pensée philosophique. Paris.

———. 1970. “La cuisine de Pythagore.” Archives des sciences sociales des religions 29:141–162.

Diels, H., and W. Kranz, eds. 1951. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed. Berlin, 1951.

Zuntz, G. 1971. Persephone: Three Essays on Religion and Thought in Magna Graecia. Oxford.


[TN: The fragments discussed in this essay are provided here in Brad Inwood’s translation (in The Poem of Empedocles, revised edition, Toronto, 2001; © University of Toronto Press, reprinted with permission of the publishers). Readers will note that Jean Bollack’s readings often reflect alternative interpretations, justifications for which appear in his commentary.]

Fragment 112

ὦ φίλοι, οἳ μέγα ἄστυ κατὰ ξανθοῦ Ἀκράγαντος
ναίετ’ ἄν’ ἄκρα πόλεος, ἀγαθῶν μελεδήμονες ἔργων,
<ξείνων αἰδοῖοι λιμένες κακότητος ἄπειροι,>
χαίρετ’· ἐγὼ δ’ ὑμῖν θεὸς ἄμβροτος, οὐκέτι θνητός
5 πωλεῦμαι μετὰ πᾶσι τετιμένος, ὥσπερ ἔοικα,
ταινίαις τε περίστεπτος στέφεσίν τε θαλείοις·
πᾶσι δ’ ἅμ’ εὖτ’ ἂν ἵκωμαι ἐς ἄστεα τηλεθάοντα,
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξί, σεβίζομαι· οἱ δ’ ἅμ’ ἕπονται
μυρίοι ἐξερέοντες, ὅπῃ πρὸς κέρδος ἀταρπός,
10 οἱ μὲν μαντοσυνέων κεχρημένοι, οἱ δ’ ἐπὶ νούσων
παντοίων ἐπύθοντο κλύειν εὐηκέα βάξιν,
δηρὸν δὴ χαλεπῇσι πεπαρμένοι <ἀμφ’ ὀδύνῃσιν>.

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,
5 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,
10 some in need of divinations, others in all sorts of diseases
sought to hear a healing oracle,
having been pierced <about by harsh pains> for too long a time. {83|84}

Fragment 115

ἔστιν ἀνάγκης χρῆμα, θεῶν ψήφισμα παλαιόν,
ἀίδιον, πλατέεσσι κατεσφρηγισμένον ὅρκοις·
εὖτέ τις ἀμπλακίῃσι φόνῳ φίλα γυῖα μιήνῃ
†ὃς καὶ† ἐπίορκον ἁμαρτήσας ἐπομώσει
5 δαίμονες οἵτε μακραίωνος λελάχασι βίοιο,
τρίς μιν μυρίας ὧρας ἀπὸ μακάρων ἀλάλησθαι,
φυόμενον παντοῖα διὰ χρόνου εἴδεα θνητῶν
ἀργαλέας βιότοιο μεταλλάσσοντα κελεύθους.
αἰθέριον μὲν γάρ σφε μένος πόντονδε διώκει,
10 πόντος δ’ ἐς χθονὸς οὖδας ἀπέπτυσε, γαῖα δ’ ἐς αὐγάς
ἠελίου φαέθοντος, ὁ δ’ αἰθέρος ἔμβαλε δίνῃς·
ἄλλος δ’ ἐξ ἄλλου δέχεται, στυγέουσι δὲ πάντες.
τῶν καὶ ἐγὼ νῦν εἰμι, φυγὰς θεόθεν καὶ ἀλήτης,
νείκεϊ μαινομένῳ πίσυνος.

There is an oracle of necessity, and ancient decree of the gods,
eternal, sealed with broad oaths:
whenever one, in his sins, stains his dear limbs with blood
… [the text is corrupt here] by misdeed swears falsely,
5 [of] he daimons [that is] who have won long-lasting life,
he wanders for thrice then thousand seasons away from the blessed ones
growing to be all sorts of forms of mortal things through time,
interchanging the hard paths of life.
For the strenth of aither pursues him into the sea,
10 and the sea spits [him] onto the surface of the earth and earth into the beams
of the blazing sun, and throws him into the eddies of the air;
and one after another receives [him], but all hate [him].
I too am now one of these, an exile from the gods and a wanderer,
trusting in mad strife.

Fragment 119

ἐξ οἵης τιμῆς τε καὶ ὅσσου μήκεος ὄλβου

from what honour and how great a height of bliss {84|85}

Fragment 120

ἠλύθομεν τόδ’ ὑπ’ ἄντρον ὑπόστεγον

we came down into this roofed-in cave

Fragment 121*

…………………………………… ἀτερπέα χῶρον
ἔνθα Φόνος τε κότος τε καὶ ἄλλων ἔθνεα κηρῶν,
Ἄτης ἀν λειμῶνα κατὰ σκότος ἠλάσκουσιν.
αὐχμηραί τε νόσοι καὶ σήψιες ἔργα τε ῥευστά

……………………………………an unpleasant place
where there are blood and wrath and tribes of other banes
they wander in darkness in the meadow of Atè.
and parching diseases and rots and deeds of flux [?]
*Note: Inwood splits this into two separate fragments.

Fragment 122

ἔνθ’ ἦσαν Χθονίη τε καὶ Ἡλιόπη ταναῶπις,
Δῆρίς θ’ αἱματόεσσα καὶ Ἁρμονίη θεμερῶπις,
Καλλιστώ τ’ Αἰσχρή τε, Θόωσά τε Δηναίη τε,
Νημερτής τ’ ἐρόεσσα μελάγκουρός τ’ Ἀσάφεια

where there were Earth and Sun far-seeing
and bloody Battle and Harmony of solemn aspect
and Beauty and Ugliness and Speed and Delay
and lovely Truth and dark-haired obscurity

Fragment 123

Φυσώ τε Φθιμένη τε, καὶ Εὐναίη καὶ Ἔγερσις,
Κινώ τ’ Ἀστεμφής τε, πολυστέφανός τε Μεγιστώ,
κἀΦορίη Σωπή τε καὶ Ὀμφαίη.

and Birth and Waning and Repose and Waking
and Movement and Stability and much-crowned Greatness
and Barrenness and Silence and Prophecy. {85|86}

Fragment 128

οὐδέ τις ἦν κείνοισιν Ἄρης θεὸς οὐδὲ Κυδοιμός
οὐδὲ Ζεὺς βασιλεὺς οὐδὲ Κρόνος οὐδὲ Ποσειδῶν,
ἀλλὰ Κύπρις βασίλεια ……………………….….
τὴν οἵ γ’ εὐσεβέεσσιν ἀγάλμασιν ἱλάσκοντο
5 γραπτοῖς τε ζῴοισι μύροισί τε δαιδαλεόδμοις
σμύρνης τ’ ἀκρήτου θυσίαις λιβάνου τε θυώδους,
ξουθῶν τε σπονδὰς μελίτων ῥίπτοντες ἐς οὖδας,
ταύρων δ’ ἀκρήτοισι φόνοις οὐ δεύετο βωμός,
ἀλλὰ μύσος τοῦτ’ ἔσκεν ἐν ἀνθρώποισι μέγιστον,
10 θυμὸν ἀπορραίσαντας ἐέδμεναι ἠέα γυῖα.

They had no god Ares or Battle-Din,
nor Zeus the kin nor Kronos nor Poseidon;
but Kupris the queen [Aphrodite] ……….…
her they worshipped with pious images,
5 painted pictures and perfumes of varied odours,
and sacrifices of unmixed myrrh and fragrant frankincense,
dashing onto the ground libations of yellow honey
[her] altar was not wetted with the unmixed blood of bulls,
but this was the greatest abomination among men,
10 to tear out their life-breath and eat their goodly limbs.

Fragment 129

ἦν δέ τις ἐν κείνοισιν ἀνὴρ περιώσια εἰδώς,
ὃς δὴ μήκιστον πραπίδων ἐκτήσατο πλοῦτον.
παντοίων τε μάλιστα σοφῶν ἐπιήρανος ἔργων·
ὁππότε γὰρ πάσῃσιν ὀρέξαιτο πραπίδεσσιν,
5 ῥεῖ’ ὅ γε τῶν ὄντων πάντων λεύσσεσκεν ἕκαστον,
καί τε δέκ’ ἀνθρώπων καί τ’ εἴκοσιν αἰώνεσσιν.

There was among them a man of exceptional knowledge,
who indeed obtained the greatest wealth in his thinking organs,
master of all kinds of particularly wise deeds;
for whenever he reached out with all his thinking organs {86|87}
5 he easily saw each of all the things which are
in ten or twenty human lifetimes.

Fragment 130

ἦσαν δὲ κτίλα πάντα καὶ ἀνθρώποισι προσηνῆ,
θῆρές τ’ οἰωνοί τε, φιλοφροσύνη τε δεδήει.

All were tame and gentle to men,
both beasts and birds, and loving thoughts blazed on.

Fragment 134

οὐδὲ γὰρ ἀνδρομέῃ κεφαλῇ κατὰ γυῖα κέκασται,
οὐ μὲν ἀπὸ νώτοιο δύο κλάδοι ἀίσσουσι,
οὐ πόδες, οὐ θοὰ γοῦν’, οὐ μήδεα λαχνήεντα,
ἀλλὰ φρὴν ἱερὴ καὶ ἀθέσφατος ἔπλετο μοῦνον,
φροντίσι κόσμον ἅπαντα καταΐσσουσα θοῇσιν.

For [it / he] is not fitted out in [its / his] limbs with a human head,
nor do two branches dart from [its /his] back
nor feet, nor swift knew nor shaggy genitals;
but it / he is only a sacred and ineffable thought organ
darting through the entire cosmos with swift thoughts.

Fragment 137

μορφὴν δ’ ἀλλάξαντα πατὴρ φίλον υἱὸν ἀείρας
σφάζει ἐπευχόμενος μέγα νήπιος, οἱ δ’ ἀπορεῦνται
λισσόμενον θύοντες· ὁ δ’ αὖ νήκουστος ὁμοκλέων
σφάξας ἐν μεγάροισι κακὴν ἀλεγύνατο δαῖτα.
5 ὡς δ’ αὔτως πατέρ’ υἱὸς ἑλὼν καὶ μητέρα παῖδες
θυμὸν ἀπορραίσαντε φίλας κατὰ σάρκας ἔδουσιν.

A father lifts up his dear son, who has changed his form,
and prays and slaughters him, in great folly, and they are at a loss
as they sacrifice the suppliant. But he, on the other hand, deaf to the rebukes,
sacrificed him in his halls, and prepared himself an evil meal.
5 In the same way, a son seizes his father and the children their mother,
and tearing out their life-breath devour their own dear flesh. {87|88}

Fragment 146

εἰς δὲ τέλος μάντεις τε καὶ ὑμνόπολοι καὶ ἰητροί
καὶ πρόμοι ἀνθρώποισιν ἐπιχθονίοισι πέλονται·
ἔνθεν ἀναβλαστοῦσι θεοὶ τιμῇσι φέριστοι.

And finally they become prophets and singers and doctors
and leaders among men who dwell on earth;
thence they sprout up as gods, first in their prerogatives. {88|}


[ back ] * Originally published as the preface to: Jean Bollack, ed., Empédocle. Les purifications. Un projet de paix universelle (Paris, 2003), pp. 9–28. Selected fragments appear in Greek and in English translation at the end of this chapter.

[ back ] 1. “Empedocles,” in Diels and Kranz 1951 (hereafter D-K). In this chapter, all fragment numbers from Empedocles refer to the Diels-Kranz edition.

[ back ] 2. Diogenes Laertius “Life of Empedocles,” in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, vol. 2, trans. R. D. Hicks (Cambridge, MA, 1931), 8.63–8.66.

[ back ] 3. [TN: “At the time when he visited Olympia he demanded an excessive deference, so that never was anyone so talked about in gatherings of friends as Empedocles” (Diogenes Laertius “Life of Empedocles” 8.66).]

[ back ] 4. Diogenes Laertius “Life of Empedocles” 8.54.

[ back ] 5. Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, 3rd ed., rev. (London, 1962), 8th Tractate, 4.1, 357.

[ back ] 6. [TN: In translation, this poem is often titled On Nature. For the best scholarly editions in English, with excellent translations, see B. Inwood, The Poem of Empedocles (Toronto, 2001), and M. R. Wright, Empedocles: The Extant Fragments (London, 1995).]

[ back ] 7. The Strasbourg papyrus ( 1665–66) was published in 1991 by A. Martin and O. Primavesi (L’Empédocle de Strasbourg [Berlin and New York]).

[ back ] 8. See frag. 115, p. 84.

[ back ] 9. Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals, trans. G. Clark (Ithaca, NY, 2000).

[ back ] 10. “Life of Empedocles,” 8.77.

[ back ] 11. Burkert 1972:135.

[ back ] 12. Burkert 1972:133–135.

[ back ] 13. [TN: The reference is to Theophrastou phusikōn doxōn Bibliōn II, as reconstituted by Diels, on the basis of the ancient commentators, in Doxographi Graeci (Berlin, 1879), 475–495.]

[ back ] 14. Plutarch, On Exile, in Moralia, vol. 7, trans. P. H. De Lacy and B. Einarson (Cambridge, MA), 607C.

[ back ] 15. Plutarch, On Exile, 607D–E.

[ back ] 16. Plutarch, The Obsolescence of Oracles, in Moralia, vol. 5, trans. F. C. Babbitt (Cambridge, 1936), 418E.

[ back ] 17. On the Cave of the Nymphs, trans. Thomas Taylor, intro. Kathleen Raine (Grand Rapids, MI, 1991), section 8; cf. frag. 120.

[ back ] 18. Stobaeus Eclogae 1.49.60, p. 446.7–11, in Ioannis Stobaei Anthologium, ed. C. Wachsmuth and O. Hense, 5 vols. (Berlin, 1958; orig. ed. 1884–1912).

[ back ] 19. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, in Moralia, vol. 5, 361C. [TN: Here is the citation in context: “Empedocles says also that the demigods must pay the penalty for the sins that they commit and the duties that they neglect: [ back ] Might of the Heavens chases them forth to the realm of the Ocean; [ back ] Ocean spews them out on the soil of the Earth, and Earth drives them [ back ] Straight to the rays of the tireless Sun, who consigns them to Heaven’s [ back ] Whirlings; thus one from another receives them, but ever with loathing; [ back ] until, when they have thus been chastened and purified, they recover the place and position to which they belong in accord with Nature.”]

[ back ] 20. Heraclitus, Fragments, trans. T. M. Robinson (Toronto, 1987), p. 13.