Home > Philosophy, Science > ‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment One: The Presocratics. Pt 2.

‘Ancient Greek Ideas’ – Assignment One: The Presocratics. Pt 2.

Topic: ‘What role did the theory of elements play in the Presocratics’ account of cosmic order?’


Continued from part one which can be viewed here.

By the time of Empedocles the dominant thought was influenced by the Eleatic school, particularly its central figure, Parmenides. Empedocles’ thought was so shaped by this figure that he copied his style of writing that is verse rather than prose (and some, such as Kenny, state to greater poetic effect). Although Empedecles was obviously influenced by the Eleactic school of which he was part, Kenny states that Empedocles’s work could be seen as a “synthesis” of Ionian thought, in that while the Ionian’s used a single element, generally, as the dominant stuff of the universe Empedocles used all of the elements (or “roots” as he called them) as the basis for the formation of the cosmos. His cosmological theory also varied from others in that it relied on two other “motive forces.” Patricia Curd from The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states these as:  “Love and Strife. Love unites opposed (unlike) things, mixing unlikes, while Strife sets unlikes in opposition and pulls them apart, with the effect that it mixes like with like.” (Curd, 2012) In other words Love joins the different elements, and Strife separates them.

In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy the relationship between the elements and the role of Love and Strife is described as: “the four elements combined to form the Sphere, grows into a cosmos with the elements forming distinct cosmic masses of earth, water (the seas), air, and fire.” (Audi, 1999, p.262) To Empedocles’ the “operations” of Love (Philia) and Strife (Neikos) co-mingled the different elements as a builder might use different materials in varying arrangements to create a building. There is some scholarly debate about much the meaning of these motive forces; Gordon Campbell from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that it is not clear if the cosmic forces of Love and Strife are simply mechanistic descriptions of the way things happen. Are they internal expressions of the way in which the elements act and interact? Or, are they external expressions which act upon the elements?  Still more questions could be asked, such as whether or not they are purely impersonal forces, or whether they are divinities which act with a goal toward creation or destruction in mind?  Campbell states there is evidence for all of the above interpretations, but what is clear from the evidence: “is that these two forces are engaged in an eternal battle for domination of the cosmos and that they each prevail in turn in an endless cosmic cycle.“ (Campbell,  2005)

Empedocles’ theory of elements received great attention and praise from later thinkers. Kenny states that Aristotle congratulated him for having the wherewithal to create a cosmological theory that not only attempted to identify the elements which construct the universe, but to also “assign causes for the development and intermingling of the elements to make the living and inanimate compounds of the actual world.” (Kenny, 2010, p.24) To, Campbell, Empedocles theory of elements worked at the macroscopic and microscopic levels of nature, in the quadripartite representation of the elements at the macroscopic level in the Sun, the sea, the earth and the fiery aether of the heavenly bodies. At the microscopic level this theory is applied “reductively” to the constituents of matter to mirror such at the macroscopic level, in that fire, earth, air and water are used in different measures to create fundamental matter. (Campbell, 2005)

Finally we might like to see how these two thinkers contrasted with each other. The most obvious is how they used the elements to varying degrees of importance in their cosmologies. Anaximander used aperion in priority over the elements as the guiding force for the creation and indeed the destruction of the heavens and “the worlds that come into them out of this.” (Kenny, 2000,  p.17) Empedocles felt that all of the elements, which are present in all things in varying composition and eternal and unchanging preceded his non-elemental forces. To him, Love and Strife, operate as opposites that work to create equilibrium in the elements, whereas Anaximander thought aperion was the basis for the elements, indeed, possibly a fifth element unto itself, and from where the elements sprung. Both thinkers’ posited extra forces in their cosmologies, the role of the elements is different in the force and order of their use, one thinker places them secondary to other forces, the latter places the elements in priority.

In conclusion we’ve seen that the Presocratics are defined as something close to those thinkers operating between c.600 BC to c.400c. BC. More specifically, they are considered to be the thinkers within the Ionian and Eleatic schools, the Pythagoreans, the post-Eleatic atomists, Empedocles and Heraclitus. Generally interested in developing systematic and naturally explained cosmologies, they turned away from previous mythical traditions of reality (mythos) handed down from Hesiod and Homer to a more rational account of nature (logos). An important focus was placed on cosmology as opposed to cosmogony – that is, the structure of the cosmos which was accomplished by a use of the elements, rather than its birth. Anaximander, whom we examined first, was novel amongst his contemporaries, to the point of being critical of his teachers, and rejected by his successors. To him, the elements weren’t of primary focus, that was rather left to his principal aperion; a unique term whose exact meaning is debated over by scholars. For our purposes it was outlined as simply a force or principle that was infinite or indefinite. What we do know about Anaximander’s theory of elements in regards to apeiron is that it was the underlying, background or initial principle that allowed his theory of elements to operate, it was fundamental to this theory, and the elements themselves. By the time of Empedocles’ work, the Eleatic school led by Parmenides was predominant. We see in Empedocles a shift toward a greater inclusion of the elements toward cosmic explanations.  In combining the elements, he amalgamated some of the ideas of the Ionian thinkers before him who usually supposed a single element to be the dominant material of the universe. Empedocles considered them all important, and ultimately controlled by the opposing forces of Love and Strife. We can imagine Empedocles’ “motive forces” as two forces that draw the elements together (Love) and are pull them apart (by Strife), comingling them to create different objects at the macro and microscopic levels in a continual struggle for domination in an endless cycle.  This novel idea received great attention from later thinkers, such as Aristotle.  Although the theories of the elements posited by Presocratics such as Anaximander and Empedocles have been overturned in modern physics and cosmological theory, these thinkers set major cosmological questions for later philosophers, and in fact Empedocles four elements became standard in natural philosophy until the early modern era.


Audi, R. (1999). The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition). Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Blackburn, S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press.

Campbell, G. (2005). Empedocles (c.492—432 BCE). The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved http://www.iep.utm.edu/empedocl/#H3

Couprie, D.L. (2005). Anaximander (c.610—546 BCE).  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/anaximan/

Curd, P. (2012). “Presocratic Philosophy”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/presocratics/

Kenny, A. (2010). A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford, United Kingdom .Oxford University Press.

Smith, N. (2008). Ancient Philosophy. Malden MA. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Categories: Philosophy, Science
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