BMCR 2024.06.07

Soleil et connaissance. Empédocle avant Platon

, Soleil et connaissance. Empédocle avant Platon. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2023. Pp. 312. ISBN 9782350882031.

This nicely produced volume comprises two roughly equal-length studies of Empedocles. The first, ‘Cosmologie et connaissance’ offers a reconstruction of Empedocles’ cosmology, theology and theory of learning, and stresses the importance of a Pythagorean, Apollonian sun to his overall system. The second, ‘Empédocle à Athènes’ investigates Empedocles’ reception in Classical Athens. In practice, this means Aristophanes’ comedies Clouds and then Women at the Thesmophoria, in particular the latter’s depiction of the tragic poet Agathon, followed by Plato, in whose Symposium Agathon is also prominent, and where Plato has his fictionalised Aristophanes relate a myth about human origins that has long been recognised as either a parody of Empedocles, or at least obviously indebted to him. Of the two, the first study can stand or fall on its own as an essay on Empedoclean physics and theology, whereas the second, in so far as it relies on findings from the first study to ground its approach to Empedocles’ reception, is that much more fragile.

Saetta Cottone divides the first study into 14 sections, with 1-9 covering Empedocles’ cosmology and theology, while 10 to 14 advance her reconstruction of Empedocles’s conception of knowledge and learning. (References to Empedocles are given according to Diels-Kranz numbering, abbreviated to DK, and to the (2016) Laks-Most Loeb edition, where Empedocles is in Vol. V, part 2.)

Sections 1-3 open with one of the longest-running debates in the study of Empedocles, the nature of his cosmic cycle, that is, how we should understand the different configurations over time of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) acting under the influence of unifying Love and separating Hate. Cannily—and mercifully—Saetta Cottone does not rehash the whole issue but confines herself to staking a position within established alternatives, albeit with an important variant of her own. At p. 17, Saetta Cottone starts by endorsing the more standard but by no means unanimous ‘symmetrical cycle’. On that reconstruction, the universe alternates between two end states. At one extreme, we have a period of complete unity and immobility, when all four elements are subsumed by Love into a single entity, a god which Empedocles calls the Sphairos. This ends when Hate reintroduces motion and separation into the elements. Hate’s dominion thereafter continues to grow, as Love retreats to the centre, until a complete separation of the four elements results, in which no world or living creature endures. Eventually, however, Love will also reassert itself (see DK B 35/Laks-Most D 75) and continue its work until it has reconstituted the Sphairos.[1] Worlds like ours exist in the middle periods when both powers are operative. Our specific world, according to Aristotle (GC 334a6) is the world of growing Hate.

Saetta Cottone’s not insignificant variant on this scheme consists in asserting that our current world is the true, polar opposite of the Sphairos, with the sun as its central, defining feature. Her basis for this claim is Diels-Kranz fr. B 27 (Laks-Most D89), a passage on the Sphairos, where Empedocles specifies that at that time ‘the swift limbs of the sun are not seen.’ Yet Empedocles elsewhere uses a very similar phrase to denote a period of a-cosmic Hate-induced chaos, as quoted by Plutarch, On the face in the moon 926e (Laks-Most D96), when the sun is not what it now seems (it is either ‘not seen’, which requires emendation, or somehow differently shaped; the transmitted text is problematic). Saetta Cottone is not unaware of this issue but contends that other advantages of her approach warrant looking beyond it and postpones her defence of it to section 9. In that section, however, as part of her defence, Saetta Cottone finds it necessary to reject a number of features of the symmetrical view, so that in the end I had trouble distinguishing her final position from that of J. Bollack (1969), the main denier of a symmetrical cycle.

In sections 4 and 5, Saetta Cottone moves on to fragment B 134 (Laks-Most D 93) which depicts a god. Empedocles first tells us that the god is limbless, then at lines 4 and 5 adds that it is an ‘indescribable’ (ἀθέσφατος) ‘holy phren, soaring through the whole cosmos on swift thoughts.’ The similarity of this god to the equally limbless Sphairos, described in B 29 (Laks-Most D 92) is surely intentional: Empedocles wants the holy phren to remind us of the Sphairos. Beyond that, however, an identity of the two is unlikely since the god of B 134 is defined by motion within a cosmos. Saetta Cottone, along with others, argues that the god is the sun and hence most likely Apollo, according to Pythagorean lore. That the god is a circular celestial body of some kind is highly plausible, but why plump for the sun, rather than the moon, planets, or stars? Against identification with the sun, the main stress is on its being a ‘thought organ’, a phren, with no mention of the ‘fiery’ phenomenal properties of the sun, heat and brightness, which Empedocles stresses elsewhere, for example B 21.3 (LM D 77).

Section 6 I found the most interesting part of the book, devoted to the strange Empedoclean doctrine of the double sun. According to the report from Aëtius Book 2, chapter 20, lemma 13 Empedocles taught that the visible sun is not a ball of fire in the heavens but in fact a reflection, off the glassy firmament, of an ambient but more diffuse atmospheric fire.[2] (In Empedocles, night and day are produced by the rotation of two hemispheres, one of bright diffuse fire and air, the other mostly of darker air.) Many have noted that the double sun seems like an attempt to top the recent –at the time– discovery that the Moon shines by reflected light. How exactly Empedocles imagined his double sun doctrine has been the object of various reconstructions, but space prevents a full discussion. Nevertheless, Saetta Cottone’s account seems as viable to me as others on the market.

In 7 and 8, and then on through subsections 10 to 14, Saetta Cottone takes this theory, which distinguishes the appearance of a thing from its material basis, to be a paradigmatic case of Empedoclean teaching. Why? Because, according to Saetta Cottone, it is a matter of producing images, and images are the means to knowledge, once we also recognise the difference between an image and its origins from the eternal elements. Over these sections, I found that the author was moving much too fast and that many debatable theses were not sufficiently argued out. That Empedocles was the first Presocratic to formulate theories of perception is notable and important. But it is equally well known that Aristotle and then Hellensitic and other later thinkers recast his statements about perception and thinking in terms of their own epistemological and metaphysical frameworks (see especially Sextus Empiricus Adv. Math. 7 123-35, the source for DK B 2 and 3 = LM D 42 and 44). This material requires careful unwinding, but the reader is not given enough help. At any rate, from these complex materials, Saetta Cottone reconstructs an Empedoclean doctrine of learning based on perception, yet mediated by divine logos and a Muse whose job is to help the poet fashion images. Rather than try to sum all this up myself, I let Saetta Cottone herself do so. I quote from page 123, where she returns to the god of B 134:

Autrement dit, Empédocle aurait désigné le Soleil par le mot Phrèn pour que son élève saisisse l’importance des images dans la connaissance des choses. La désignation par la métaphore aide à effectuer le passage d’une connaissance se situant au niveau de la vie biologique (le sang autour de la phrèn de l’homme) à une connaissance supérieure, celle de la vie symbolique des images qui sont dans la nature (comme le Soleil) et dans la poésie, les unes renvoyant aux autres.

The second study moves to Athens to study the early reception of Empedocles in Aristophanes and Plato. Saetta Cottone sees the visit to Athens in 427 BC of the sophist Gorgias, said to have been a student of Empedocles, as the likely conduit. Saetta Cottone opens sections 1 to 5 with the problem of the Cloud-chorus in Clouds, who in the end turn against the rascally Strepsiades. The main parallelism with Empedocles that Saetta Cottone sees in the play is the presentation of learning as an initiation into mysteries, with the clouds representing a reflection on artistic mimesis, shifting appearances, and the ability to see through them to achieve salvation through (Aristophanic) poetry. Sections 6 to 8 move on to Women at the Thesmophoria where Aristophanes spoofs Euripides by putting the playwright into one of his own escape-plots. Saetta Cottone sees a link to Empedocles in the opening jokes about sight and hearing and then in Agathon’s thoughts about mimesis. This relation in turn, according to Saetta Cottone, is the necessary background for understanding Agathon’s prominence in the Symposium and its contest of speeches in praise of Eros. After pointing out some interesting remarks of Alcibiades, who proposes to depict Socrates through images (215 a4-b3), Saetta Cottone finally turns (section 11) to the speech of Aristophanes (189c2-193d6). This famous passage, which depicts current human nature as the broken halves of former spherical selves, and eros as the quest to find our missing other half, has always been recognised as Plato’s recycling of Empedoclean ideas on the origins of humanity. After a lot of what seem, to me, much more tenuous connections, this obvious case of extended engagement with Empedocles deserves more exploration, but the chapter is frustratingly short. The study as a whole ends with a coda on Socrates’ possible Apollonian connections in the Apology.

Now to sum up. This volume makes some interesting suggestions on a number of Empedoclean topics, but does not sufficiently ground them in the evidence. In saying that, I should make clear that there is no consensus in the study of Empedocles, so that my statement does not pretend to issue from any superior vantage-point. My criticism is rather that, in the absence of such a consensus, one must bring the reader along every step of the way by building from the evidence. Of other complaints, I found that the bibliography was somewhat underexploited, while several sections were so short, at 2 or 3 pages, that they read more like introductory outlines. In the second study on the reception, I do think Saetta Cottone is on to something, though it would have been more convincing to present her archaeology of the Empedoclean reception in reverse order, starting from the strongest evidence, Plato and the speech of Aristophanes, and then to work back from that to the historical Aristophanes and Euripides.



[1] The key feature of the alternative, asymmetrical view is the denial of a creative role for Strife, defended at greatest length by J. Bollack (1965-1969) Empédocle i. Introduction à l’ancienne physique, Paris, 95-124. For the symmetrical view, see D. O’Brien (1969) Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle, Cambridge, especially pp. 196-236. A new basis for the symmetrical view is D.W. Graham (1988) ‘Symmetry in the Empedoclean Cycle’ Classical Quarterly 38: 297-312. Post Strasbourg papyrus (1998), the most significant exponents of the asymmetrical single cosmogony are D. Sedley (2007) Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity, University of California Press, pp. 40-52, and most extensively, T. Wellmann (2020) Die Entstehung der Welt. Studien zum Straßburger Empedokles-Papyrus. Berlin/Boston.

[2] = DK A 56; LM D 126. For the Aëtian text, J. Mansfeld and D. T. Runia Aëtiana V. An Edition of the Reconstructed Text of the Placita with a Commentary and a Collection of Related Texts, 4 vols. (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2020), vol. 2 p. 972.