Heidegger & Empedocles: Part 2

(For Part 1 Click Here)

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

“[N]ature appeared with all her melodies through the spirit and word of this man and so intimate, warm, and personal as if his heart was hers and the spirit element lived among mortals in human form.” — Hölderlin on Empedocles, from Friedrich Hölderlin, The Ground For “Empedocles” (“TGFE”), ca 1800, in Essays and Letters on Theory, Thomas Pfau, trans., p59.

Considering the manifestly intense emotional engagement Hölderlin had with Empedocles as well as the comparable engagement Heidegger had with Hölderlin, it is surprising how little Heidegger had to say about Empedocles relative, for example, to Parmenides. As a threshold matter, it is fair to question what drew Hölderlin to Empedocles in the first place and why his opinion regarding him deserves attention. One source for Empedocles available to Hölderlin was a Renaissance anthology (the “Stephanus”) of what is referred to simply as “Poetic Philosophy,” which lists Empedocles first, before Parmenides.

While it may seem uncanny that what Hölderlin says about Empedocles in TGFE is demonstrably more valid today than it was over 200 years ago, given that only some of the lines that now comprise the 2004 Empedocles were included in the Stephanus, it is not entirely inexplicable. For the priority assigned to Empedocles in the Stephanus reflects the opinion of Cicero, who is quoted in it, to the effect that Empedocles was a better poet than Parmenides and Xenophanes. Thus, not only does Hölderlin’s opinion regarding Empedocles have a substantial authoritative basis, it can be associated with a tradition that plainly conflicts with the now orthodox narrative of the history of philosophy that, notwithstanding Heidegger, patronizingly portrays what came chronologically prior to Socrates as ‘Pre-Socratic.’

The Unique Importance Of The Latin Tradition As A Legacy Of Empedocles

Arguably Cicero’s opinion of Empedocles is merely a symptom of like attracting like: Cicero, who was anything but bashful about boasting of his own capabilities, surely saw in Empedocles, who boasted of being a god, a kindred spirit. Yet, Cicero was fluent in Greek and he voiced his opinion at a time when it is a virtual certainty that all of the poetry of Empedocles was in existence. Furthermore, there is solid evidence that at least two of his contemporaries, Lucretius and Varro, agreed with him.

The Roman appreciation of poetry’s importance to philosophy and the recognition of the importance of Empedocles in particular as a poetic philosopher contrasts sharply with the marginalization of poetry by Plato and the dismissiveness of Aristotle towards Empedocles in particular (see Part 1 for specifics). As a threshold matter this is of enormous evidentiary value. For while the 2004 Empedocles substantially supplements what is known about him directly, because of its chronological and geographical proximity to him, the ancient Roman reception of Empedocles can be relied upon to arrive at conclusions about him.

The influence of this Roman reception of Empedocles is itself of interest, especially with regard to Heidegger. In one lecture (The Origin of the Work of Art) Heidegger spoke of the “appropriation of Greek words by Roman-Latin thought” that failed to convey the “authentic experience” that initially inspired them, resulting in the “rootlessness of Western thought.” It is quite ironic he said such a thing, for a case can be made that the Roman reception of Empedocles preserved the original, non-metaphysical tradition of early Greek culture (associated most closely with Sicily and southern Italy) that Heidegger rightly argued Plato had disastrously rejected. Indeed, far from “rootlessness,” because of the degree to which the German intellectual tradition has its roots in the Roman reception of Empedocles it essentially prepared the way for Heidegger’s critique of Plato.

Lucretius And Related Latin Poets

Lucretius should need no introduction. Interest in his De Rerum Natura (“DRN”) was such during the German Romantic Era that at one point Goethe and Schelling planned on collaborating on a German philosophical poem on nature modelled on it. Though prior to the publication of the 2004 Empedocles arguments had been made for the influence of Empedocles on Lucretius, the evidence now is such that there is hardly any need to argue the point: it is that obvious.

In addition to Lucretius, there are other Latin poems composed not long after him where the influence of Empedocles can be detected (directly or indirectly via Lucretius). Attribution of authorship in both cases is problematic, albeit not relevant to the issue of such influence. One poem is attributed to a ‘Manilius’: the Astronomica, the single most important source of information about ancient astrology. His ‘portrait’ and name can be seen in the lower left corner of an astrological chart attributed to Albrecht Dürer.

A Renaissance Star Chart Attributed to Albrecht Dürer (the Roman Astrological Poet Manilius is depicted in the lower left corner)

The last two lines of Goethe that Heidegger quotes immediately after quoting Empedocles in his 1936 lecture on Schelling are in essence a loose translation of two lines of the Astronomica. Goethe himself had quoted the Latin lines in an entry in the guestbook atop Mount Brocken in 1784. As has been noted by at least a few scholars, that entry is suspiciously close in space and time to where and when the first child of the future wife of Friedrich Schelling (“Caroline”) was conceived.

The other poem is Moretum, an allegorical poem composed perhaps no more than a decade or two after the death of Cicero, during the early years of the reign of Augustus. Though it ostensibly narrates a farmer’s preparation of his lunch with the assistance of his black slave, what is ‘really’ going on seems to be a celebration (or condemnation) of interracial sex (or rape) in ‘honor’ of the Black Goddess of Rome, Cybele. The traditional attribution of Moretum to Vergil was challenged in the Renaissance, but reasserted by the German scholar Heyne in 1775.

Largely because of the tradition of attributing its authorship to Vergil, I have argued Moretum was, among other things, very much on the minds of teenage schoolboys in the 1700s in the United States. It is hard to believe that in the town where Heyne lived — that was and is home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world — that it escaped the attention of teenagers there, including his daughter Terese, who was a close friend of Caroline (neither had formal training in Latin but Moretum is not a long poem and easily translated).


Though Boethius lived a half millennium after Lucretius and drew on many sources, for his justly famous ninth poem of Book III of the Consolatio Philosophiae (CP) he may have drawn in part upon DRN or even directly upon Empedocles. It is generally agreed that CP, unlike no other text than the Bible, was widely and continuously in circulation throughout the Middle Ages. A depiction of the personified Philosophy of CP, embellished with imagery celebrating the four elements, on a book published in about 1500, that notwithstanding its mediocre quality is attributed to Albrecht Durer (his famous logo does appear on it), is a legacy of its influence in Germany. It is, for example, generally agreed that the analogous fourfold organization of some of the artwork attributed to Hildegard von Bingen reflects its influence.

Philosophy, Albrecht Dürer (1502)(Die Bayerische Staatsbiliothek)

What is most apparent not only from Dürer’s depiction of Philosophy, but also in how his many portrayals of the Madonna and child fuse pagan with Christian elements, is the prominence of female spirituality. In the future I hope to elaborate upon how this relates to the goddess (nature) worship that Hölderlin correctly identifies with Empedocles and how this may relate to Caroline’s influence on her husband Friedrich, including ‘his’ 1809 Essay on Human Freedom which Heidegger deemed one of the most important works of Western philosophy.


By contrast to Lucretius, not only is the connection of Varro with Empedocles not obvious, Varro himself is a figure that today is known almost exclusively only to those few who remain committed to studying Latin literature. Significantly, however, the areas of Latin literature where Varro shows up, so to speak, either directly by being quoted, or indirectly by being followed without attribution, have important implications for understanding Heidegger’s thought, especially in his early years. Varro directly influenced Augustine. Indeed, many of Augustine’s paraphrases or quotations of Varro constitute our only surviving source for such writings. Of particular interest to Christian theologians is the fact that Augustine credits Varro for what has been characterized as a ‘metaphysics of prepositions’ as one way of formulating his own trinitarian theology (a quo, de qua, secundum quod)(for a recent summary see Ronald Cox, By The Same Word; for older scholarship just Google the phrase ‘metaphysics of prepositions’).

One work by Varro that survives, albeit only in part, that is of special interest philosophically is his De Lingua Latina (“DLL”). Though it was not until 1974 that the contours of a coherent philosophy of language were identified in DLL, it is safe to assume its influence was significant even if it cannot be specifically identified as such. For example, there should be no question that the metaphysics of prepositions derives from it, for it can be correlated with the overall structure of DLL, which (1) began with etymology (the question of ‘from where’ a word originates (a quo)), (2) proceeded to an analysis of the forms a given word has (that is, its material manifestation (de qua)) and (3) concluded with a consideration of the principle by which (secundum quod) words are put together to form a meaningful statement. The triadic structure of DLL can also be correlated with the triadic definition of action found in DLL that has it begin with the intent (voluntas) first formulated mentally (cogitare), then expressed (dicere) and ultimately actualized (facere)(with even that term having its own triadic definition (facere (e.g., to create a poem or play), agere (e.g., to act out a play), gerere (e.g., to direct the play’s production)).

Tracing the influence of DLL beyond Augustine is difficult. Still, apart from theology, it would have attracted the attention of anyone wanting not merely to learn but to master Latin. It is therefore likely that it influenced the speculative grammarians of the Medieval period that Heidegger studied in his early years (as did Charles Peirce). In that regard it should be noted that the Latin concept of ‘thing’ (res) is of special importance in the DLL (and in Medieval speculative grammar) as ‘the’ named object.

While some have challenged the significance of DLL as an expression of linguistic theory, it is generally, if begrudgingly, agreed that there seems to be no readily identifiable precedent for it in the Greek tradition. Attempts to trace its triadic scheme back to Aristotle’s four cause scheme have been unconvincing. In the future I intend to argue that a theory of poetry that in 1962 Charles Segal identified in the remains of Gorgias may be the primary source for DLL. It should be noted that one key term in DLL, facere, is the Latin translation of the Greek verb poiein. As Segal noted, there are ancient sources that identify Empedocles as the teacher of Gorgias. Significantly, the earliest such source is from the Latin tradition: Quintillian, who wrote only about a century after Varro (Inst. Orat. III.1.8). Given Cicero’s high regard for Empedocles this may explain the fact that Varro dedicated DLL to him, but the evidence is insufficient to make such a conclusion.


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