BMCR 2021.03.35

Die Entstehung der Welt: Studien zum Straßburger Empedokles-Papyrus

, Die Entstehung der Welt: Studien zum Straßburger Empedokles-Papyrus. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Band 142. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xiii, 234. ISBN 9783110633726 €99,95.

Table of Contents

P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 1665–1666 hands down the remnants of a roll that contained Empedocles’ On Nature (Φυσικά). Its sensational discovery has been of capital importance in understanding the core of Empedocles’ thought. Since (and even before) the editio princeps by Alain Martin and Oliver Primavesi,[1] the new text has aroused great interest and a heated debate. The papyrus was originally the support for the copper leaves of a funeral crown. On November 21st, 1904, in the antiques market of Achmîm (the ancient Panopolis), the classical archaeologist Otto Rubensohn, who worked on behalf of the Abteilung B of the Deutsches Papyruskartell,[2] purchased it, along with a series of other papyrus fragments. Dated palaeographically between the 1st and the 2nd cent. AD, the papyrus transmits altogether 74 Empedoclean verses, of which 54 are new, while 20 are already attested by the indirect tradition. The pieces of which the papyrus consists are 52. They have been divided into 11 ens(embles), labeled with the letters a–k. The largest section is transmitted by ens. a–d. The volume by Tom Wellmann under review intends to shed light on some of the thorniest points of this fundamental text. In ch. 1, Wellmann provides an accurate history of the papyrus from the discovery to the publication. For the sake of convenience, I will divide the themes with which the other chapters deal into two parts: [A] the problem of the cosmic cycles and the role of the four elements (chs. 2–4); and [B] the relationship between cosmology and zoogony (chs. 5–7).

[A] Wellmann summarizes the various solutions to the problem of the cosmic cycles in two opposite theories, which he labels ‘orthodox’ and ‘revisionist’. In a nutshell, these two rival positions we can describe as follows. (1) According to the ‘orthodox’ interpretation (authoritatively represented, among others, by Panzerbieter, Zeller, Diels, Bignone, O’Brien), Empedocles’ cosmology develops along a single cosmic cycle symmetrically divided: there is a phase entirely dominated by Love (Φιλότης), in which the four elements are joined in the Sphairos; and a phase entirely dominated by Strife (Νεῖκος), in which the four elements are split into four separated masses. The history of the universe consists of a continuing transition from one extreme phase to the other. Obviously, these transitions entail intermediate periods, during which living beings come to light and evolve. Hence, in such a vision, there is a double cosmogony and a connected double zoogony. (2) The ‘revisionist’ interpretation includes several trends, but these are united by common criticism of the idea of a double cosmogony/zoogony: during the cosmic alternation of the domains of Love and Strife, only once, under the influence of Love, is a habitable world formed, which (only once) fills up with living beings. However, among the ‘revisionists’ there are those (such as Tannery and von Arnim) who posit the perennial recurrence of this single cosmic cycle and those (such as Hölscher and Bollack) who instead support its linearity: for the latter the cosmic cycle has an end and, once finished, the only cycle that remains is the biological cycle, namely the sequence of the birth and death of living beings. In light of passages such as v. 273 (= ens. a(ii) 3) and vv. 285–287 (= ens. a(ii) 15–17), the Strasbourg Papyrus has been mostly considered as support for the ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But Wellmann attempts to overturn the mainstream and to show how, on the contrary, there are strong elements provided by the papyrus that confirm, in various ways and with due changes, the ‘revisionist’ stance. For this purpose, Wellmann frames the topic of the cosmic cycles within the more general One/Many alternation, focusing in particular on the much-discussed fr. 17 DK (ch. 2). This alternation, as the scholar points out, traces an ‘ontological crossroad’ in Empedocles’ thought. On the one hand, an ontological opposition comes into play: One and Many are opposites, each of which, in turn, concentrates within itself the opposition of generation and corruption, in the sense that the generation of the One implies the corruption of the Many, and vice versa. On the other hand, there is an ontological permanence, represented by the endless endurance (Unvergänglichkeit) of the four elements (cf. pp. 43–49, with regard to vv. 237–244 of the papyrus). This kind of immortality—Wellmann warns—is not (from an Aristotelian perspective) that of a material substrate that remains unchanged regardless of the (formal) alternation One/Many, but depends rather on the fact that this alternation is carried out seamlessly (p. 44). This means that the apparent extinction of the elements in the One is continually ‘compensated’ by the restoration of the Many. To prove this, in ch. 3 Wellmann analyses the relationship of Love and Strife with the elements, taking the papyrus into account, and provides a new (though questionable) reading of fr. 22 DK. This reading leads him to ascribe to the like-to-like principle some functions generally attributed to Strife (according to Aristotle’s account): in particular, on the cosmological level, the reunification (Wiedervereinigung) of the elements with their own parts (pp. 60–63). On the basis of this process, ch. 4 attempts to destroy the opinion—common to both ‘orthodox’ and ‘revisionist’ interpreters—that, at the macrocosmic level, inertia corresponds to the realm of One, while movement corresponds to the stage of Many. In Wellmann’s opinion, this vision is the outcome of a Missverständnis, originated by Aristotle (Phys. 8.1, 250b23–251a5, where 31 B 26.8–12 DK is cited) and, more generally, disseminated by the Peripatetic doxography (especially Eudemus). In reality, Wellmann argues, for Empedocles the elements would be in continuous motion, not only in the stage of Many, where the separation of the elements generates a vortex. The elements continue to move even in the realm of One, which is poetically described as a divine mind not in stasis, but “darting through the whole cosmos by quick thoughts” (φροντίσι κόσμον ἅπαντα καταΐσσουσα θοῆισιν: 31 B 134.5 DK, although identifying the grammatical subject of this fragment is a vexata quaestio).

[B] As for the relationships between cosmology and zoogony (or biology), Wellmann has no doubt that Empedocles’ arguments aim to explain the genesis of a single world—the present one (ch. 5). The protagonists of this cosmogonic process are the elements. They are initially united in the Sphairos and then, owning to Strife’s activity, gradually become more and more disconnected. The first element to detach itself from the Sphairos is air, followed by fire. It acts in a two-fold way: on the one hand, through a ‘chemical’ reaction with air, it gives life to the sky and the fixed stars; on the other hand, in synergy with the force of gravity, it pushes the elements into the vortex. The last element to disengage itself from the Sphairos is water: by evaporating due to fire, it generates the clouds. According to Wellmann, this dissolution of the Sphairos leads to a phase where the domain of Strife increases, in which, however, the order of the elements described above remains constant. After the conclusion of this cosmogonic process (and only at this time), under the opposite influence of Love (which now slowly resumes its activity), a systematic zoogonic process is triggered. Taking human generation as reference point, Wellmann divides this zoogony into four phases (ch. 6), which materialize in the formation of: (a) disconnected limbs; (b) hybrid living beings; (c) living beings without a voice and asexual; (d) sexually differentiated individuals. Wellmann has no doubt in tracing all these four zoogonic phases exclusively to the action of Love, challenging the thesis of the ‘orthodox’ interpreters, who, ascribing phases (c) and (d) to Strife instead, tend to discredit Aëtius’ account of Empedocles’ zoogony (5.19.6 Mansfeld/Runia = 31 A 72 DK). Here Wellmann seems to skip the problems that the ‘revisionists’, too, have with Aëtius, but this is not the place to inquire closely into those difficulties. Wellmann points out that Aëtius’ account—also considering the few zoogonic fragments of the Φυσικά known to us via indirect tradition (esp. 31 B 62 DK) and, above all, in light of the Strasbourg Papyrus—is perfectly consistent with the theory of a single zoogony. If so, Wellmann points out, the zoogonic process outlined by the papyrus ends at the moment when the genesis of life is no longer entrusted to the action of Love, but to sexual reproduction. The latter represents, in a certain sense, the ‘biological translation’ of the (cosmic) alternation One/Many and describes the current phase of the world, that is, the one to which, according to Wellmann, the Elementenlehre of Empedocles refers exclusively.

As a whole, the volume is a relevant contribution to the Presocratic studies. Written clearly and well documented, its rich bibliography is followed by the indices of passages, Greek terms, concepts, and remarkable things. I have found no typos. In terms of content, it must be said that not all the problems raised by the Strasbourg Papyrus are tackled. Wellmann does not pay attention to the complex issue of Empedocles’ daemonology and, going against a fairly general opinion in current scholarship, seems to exclude a precise relationship between daemonology and physics in the papyrus, which means throwing doubt on the substantial unity of Empedocles’ thought.[3] Nonetheless, the book is to be highly appreciated for the stimulating ideas it puts forward. Perhaps, some doubts are raised by Wellmann’s peremptoriness in excluding any plausibility to the double cosmogony-zoogony thesis. If some Aristotelian testimonia are objectively ambiguous (esp. 31 A 42 DK), I am at loss to see how to interpret, other than as a kind of confirmation of that thesis, Simplicius’ account in his Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens (293.18 Heiberg = 31 A 52 [II] DK). On several occasions, Wellmann accepts Richard Janko’s proposal (partly reworked by Primavesi too) to consider the surviving fragments as belonging to contiguous sections (i.e. columns) of the original roll.[4] Sometimes the author argues convincingly for some of the consequences of this choice, showing autonomy in exploiting it for his hermeneutic purposes. In ch. 9, however, he provides a German translation of the Strasbourg Papyrus printing a Greek text without a critical apparatus. This makes it difficult for the reader to evaluate the conjectures he accepts, especially those that differ (often in a way with which I quite agree) in essential points from the editio princeps. For example, in v. 268, Wellmann accepts as certain the aorist διέφυ, which in the editio princeps was printed with a question mark (the conjecture is followed, for instance, by Janko as well), without accounting for alternative supplements that may also have hermeneutic consequences, like the present φύεται suggested, with good arguments, by Chiara Ferella.[5] One should add that some supplements given for certain by Wellmann sometimes seem to be spatio brevius or spatio longius. But, apart from these shortcomings, I would like to conclude with a more general consideration. Several studies appearing in the last few years have shown that a patient reconstruction of the roll and (as far as possible) an alternative replacement of the surviving pieces could lead to a deep rethinking of all the philosophical problems P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 1665–1666 entails.[6] A new edition of this papyrus with commentary is thus a desideratum for the near future, preferably one produced not by a single scholar, but as the result of cooperation among experts, including the supporters of seemingly irreconcilable positions. As is constantly the case with the texts from the Herculaneum library and as has happened (and still happens, only fifteen years after the ‘official’ editio princeps) concerning the Derveni Papyrus, I am sure that the close synergy between philosophical papyrology and ancient philosophy will lead scholarship to surprising places.


[1] A. Martin and O. Primavesi (eds.), L’Empédocle de Strasbourg (P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 1665–1666): Introduction, édition et commentaire, (Berlin; New York 1999).

[2] Hereto O. Primavesi, “Zur Geschichte des Deutschen Papyruskartells”, in: ZPE 114 (1996) 173–187.

[3] In ch. 7, with reference to ens. d/f 1–10, TW suggests explaining the prohibition of killing evoked by Empedocles only in light of the Elementenlehre in the Φυσικά, rather than of the metempsychosis in the Καθαρμοί.

[4] R. Janko, Empedocles, “On Nature I 233–364: A New Reconstruction of P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 1665–6”, in ZPE 150 (2004) 1–26, at 16.

[5] Ch. Ferella, L’ampia Natura di Empedocle, Diss. Pisa 2011, 26–27 and 94 ad loc.

[6] See e.g. R. Janko (n. 4 above); O. Primavesi, Empedokles Physika I: Eine Rekonstruktion des zentralen Gedankengangs, (Berlin ; New York, 2008) (2nd ed. planned for 2025); M. Rashed, “La zoogonie de la Haine selon Empédocle : Retour sur l’ensemble ‘d’ du papyrus d’Akhmim, in Phronesis 56 (2011) 33–57 (= Id., La jeune fille et la sphère : Études sur Empédocle, Paris 2018, 85–112); B. Cartlidge, “Empedocles, Physika 1.278 (P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 1665–1666, a(ii)8), in ZPE 203 (2017) 53–55; Ch. Ferella, Empedocles and the Birth of Trees: Reconstructing P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 115–6, ens. d–f 10b–18, in CQ 69 (2019) 75–86; S. Trépanier, “Empedocles on the Origin of Plants: P.Strasb. gr. Inv. 1665–1666, Sections d, b, and f”, in Ch. Vassallo, Presocratics and Papyrological Tradition: A Philosophical Reappraisal of the Sources, (Berlin; Boston, 2019), 271–297.