Vain pursuit of a magus

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic
February 2, 1996

Empedocles is one of several early Greek philosophers (others include Heraclitus and Zeno of Elea of Flying Arrow fame) who have exercised an extraordinary fascination from antiquity to the present day.

Empedocles was responsible for the first statement of a physical theory that dominated European science until the revival of atomism in the 17th century, namely that which takes other physical substances to be compounds of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. But the stories of his life include accounts of the miracles he performed, and in one of his most famous statements he said that he went among his fellow townspeople as "an immortal god, no longer mortal". But Empedocles, so this highly polemical new book by Peter Kingsley proclaims, has been radically and systematically misrepresented and misunderstood. Kingsley writes of a crisis in the contemporary study of the Presocratic philosophers, and castigates most of those who have discussed Empedocles and early Pythagoreanism in particular for their simplemindedness, blindness, ignorance and prejudice. What we need is a new approach. That is never defined in so many words, and it comprises several features, but among the most important are two.

First, we must abandon old-fashioned dichotomies between "science" and "myth", or between "rationality" and "mysticism". Second, the chief clue to the interpretation of much of Empedocles's teaching is to see him as a magician, indeed a magus. We should relate his work to what else we can glean of Orphic, Bacchic and more generally magical or occult beliefs and practices. Only if we do so shall we give due weight to his interests in initiation, self-perfection, purification and immortality.

The thesis is argued with immense learning, but with wearisome rhetoric. Kingsley marshals the archaeological and papyrological evidence including some from quite recent discoveries. True, much of this evidence - the gold plates from Thurii, the lead tablets from Selinus and Oxyrhynchus, the Derveni papyrus, let alone the bulk of the magical papyri and the Hermetic literature - is later than Empedocles himself, but Kingsley is not alone in suggesting that behind much of it lie earlier archetypes and traditions. Again, he explores the West Greek background to some of Plato's myths, especially that in the Phaedo. He identifies Zopyrus of Tarentum as the probable author of a now-lost text, the Krater, and as a key influence. But more attention is devoted to trying to establish that this was an influence than to explaining why precisely Plato should have used this material in the way he did. Since part of the thesis is that there was a considerable after-life of Pythagorean and Empedoclean ideas long after the demise of pagan antiquity, Kingsley investigates traces in such sources as the Turba philosophorum, and its purported Arabic prototype, the Mushaf al-jama'a, attributed to 'Uthman Ibn Suwaid working around the year 900, as well as in a variety of other alchemical writings and Sufism.

This is all heady stuff, but Kingsley's impatience with alternative views often gets the better of him. The reader wearies of the claims that the conclusions are plain, even unmistakable, such as only the patently prejudiced would resist, when a more cautious writer would have paid more attention to the room for doubt. But although the rhetoric is overwhelming, the question is: how far do the principal theses seem fruitful? So far as the recommendation to abandon the myth versus logos dichotomy goes, Kingsley is charging at an open door. This may have been part of the assumption of the late W. K. C. Guthrie, but it should not now represent orthodoxy.

What about the submerged religious background? There is a catch here, in that the objection of lack of evidence can be met by the counter that much was originally kept secret and the truly esoteric leaves little trace. But the chief weaknesses of this discussion lie elsewhere. Kingsley seems satisfied with showing some very loose associations and connections. Orphism has certain points in common with Pythagoreanism, and again others with Bacchic cults. There are certain affinities between the heroisation of Heracles, the Persephone mysteries, and Sicilian folklore. But in the bid to show connections - some connections - differentiations and specificities get lost. The contrast with Walter Burkert's classic Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism is striking: not just that Burkert presented far more of the evidence, and far more detailed analysis of it, but also in that he allowed for far greater diversity within the traditions he was dealing with.

Kingsley's Empedocles the magician does not allow enough to the point that he was a magician with a difference. Like the political elements in the story more generally - the involvement in the actual political life of 5th-century Greek states - so the politics of religious rivalry is not given the prominence it deserves. This is a courageous, original, but flawed attack on a fiendishly difficult subject: but Empedocles has not yet met his match.

G. E. R. Lloyd is master, Darwin College, Cambridge, and professor of ancient philosophy and science.

Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition

Author - Peter Kingsley
ISBN - 0 19 814988 3
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 422

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