Heidegger & Empedocles: An Update For Scholars and Students Alike (Part 1)

Left: Empedocles as depicted in the 1493 Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle); Right: Martin Heidegger photographed in 1959.

Scholars and students of Heidegger have an enormous amount of writings by and about Heidegger to contend with, including keeping up with new publications and translations of his work. Therefore, notwithstanding the importance of ancient Greek thinking to Heidegger, it is unlikely that many such scholars and students have the time to keep up with developments in ancient Greek. Yet, because of the unique importance of Empedocles to Schelling’s 1809 Essay on Human Freedom (the “Freedom Essay”), which Heidegger noted in his 1936 lecture on the Freedom Essay, and, of course, to Hölderlin and hence the importance of Empedocles to many aspects of the “Later” Heidegger, it seems worthwhile to provide an update of developments in scholarship on Empedocles, including entirely new and substantial amounts of his poetry.

Richard Janko’s Publication In 2004 Of His Reconstruction of New Fragments of Empedocles

By far the most significant development has been the publication in 2004 by Richard Janko of his reconstruction of fragments (including his English translation, the “2004 Empedocles”) originally published in the 1990s, but without the relationship of such fragments to each other or other extant fragments of Empedocles. It was originally published in a specialist journal but a PDF is available online here. In my opinion the 2004 Empedocles effectively makes everything written about Empedocles prior to 2004 substantially if not entirely obsolete.

The 2004 Empedocles constitutes the longest continuous “fragment” not only of Empedocles but of any pre-Socratic poet or thinker (if more were known about them it is likely that they would all be considered poets and not merely ‘thinkers’). Though there are some gaps, the 2004 Empedocles consists of 131 continuous lines of dactylic hexameter (aka Homeric/epic meter) poetry. Studying the 2004 Empedocles confirms that Empedocles indeed deserves the otherwise inexplicable adulation he has received for over two millennia. Janko goes so far as to compare him to Buddha.

The Relationship Of Poetry To Theology

I intend to write more on this in the near future but want to point out for now that the 2004 Empedocles provides much needed evidence for appreciating and indeed validating aspects of Heidegger’s thinking on how poetry relates to philosophy, but also theology. Classicists in general are allergic to Christian texts and for that reason have marginalized or ignored the interest of Clement of Alexandria in Empedocles. In addition, other than specialists in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, few are aware that Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (hereafter “Nazianzus”), arguably one of the most important theologians in the Christian tradition, composed substantial amounts of poetry in dactylic hexameters; it now seems his poetry may have been as much inspired by Empedocles as any other Greek poet (his dependence on Parmenides, who also composed exclusively in dactylic hexameters, has been previously noted). This may be relevant to appreciating how Heidegger himself tried to align his philosophy with poetic principles, but also the Christian theology of his youth that he never fully abandoned.

Quality Of The Poetry Of Empedocles Raises Questions About Why Plato Is Almost Silent About Him And Why Aristotle Marginalizes Him

Apart from his notoriously problematic attitude towards poetry generally, it is not clear what Plato thought of Empedocles or his poetry. Relative to the prominence of Parmenides in Plato, the lack of specifics about Empedocles is curious if not suspicious. He is mentioned only once in all of Plato’s dialogues (Meno 76c-d).

Aristotle famously derides Empedocles as a poet, claiming that the only thing he has in common with Homer is the use of the dactylic hexameter meter (Poetics 1447b17–20). Also notable is his characterization of the “stammering expression” of Empedocles at Metaphysics 984b32ff. It is now clear that with respect to Empedocles it is Aristotle who is the one who deserves ridicule. He seems to have been inexcusably naive about the sophistication of poetry generally and the poetry of Empedocles in particular. Based not only on the 2004 Empedocles, but substantial evidence from comparative linguistic analysis of the oral poetic tradition from India to Ireland (see Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon), it is clear that Empedocles was as consummate a poet as any known to us today.

This would seem to have substantial implications for validating aspects of Heidegger’s thought that privilege poetry relative to all other forms of philosophizing other than prose works or lectures that effectively are themselves poetic. For it would seem that poetry is not merely one way of expressing philosophy or theology but inherently a necessary way. To use Heidegger’s later formulation: perhaps poetry represents the only appropriate way to give voice to what is being silently called out for from what is otherwise the existential silence with which people are confronted.

If that is the case, then it is legitimate to raise questions about how the metaphysical turn in ancient Greek thought that Heidegger considered so disastrous for Western culture related to the abandonment of poetic expression as a vehicle for philosophic thought. Was this abandonment part of a deliberate suppression of a way of thinking and living that was unjustifiably deemed to be inferior to that advocated by Plato and Aristotle?

For Part 2 Click Here.