Eliot Weinberger


he was a student of parmenides or of Xenophanes or of Anaxagoras or of Pythagoras or of Pythagoras’ son, Telauges. He wore purple robes and a beaten gold headband or a purple cloth headband, bronze sandals, and a Delphic wreath. He had thick hair. He carried a staff.

“the pale-eyed moon”

“blind-eyed night”

“from both there was one vision”

He was Sicilian, from the city of Acragas, from which he was or was not banished, and where, he said, the citizens live extravagantly, as though they were about to die tomorrow, but build their houses as though they were going to live forever.

“upon him comes, through sight, the desire for intercourse”

“there are effluences from all things that have come to be”

He wrote two long poems, called “The Purifications” and “The Physics” [or “On Nature”] or one long poem, called “The Purifications,” with the subtitle “On Physics” [or “On Nature”]. He wrote a poem or a prose treatise on medicine and seven or forty-three tragedies that do not survive, possibly because he never wrote them. He wrote an account of The Expedition of Xerxes and a hymn to Apollo that were burned by his sister or his daughter or did not exist. 138 or 153 fragments remain.

He believed that the world was made of four roots—earth, water, air, fire—and two forces, love and strife. These were eternal: nothing had come from nothing and nothing would pass into nothing. No root could be observed by man in its pure form; everything in the world was the result of combinations and arrangements of the roots in tiny particles, placed like bricks, and held together by a mingling of effluences through pores in the particles, as the wind blows through hollows in the rocks. Everything is sometimes different but perpetually alike, momentary creations that are formed, separate into their immortal elements, and are recombined.

“I have already been a boy and a girl and a bush and a bird and a
fiery fish from the sea”

[Or “a mute fish”]

[Or “a scaly fish”]

When the violent etesian winds from North Africa threatened the crops, he made donkey skins into bags, placed them on the tops of the surrounding mountains to catch the wind, and saved the city. He became known as the Windstopper. He saved the people of Selinus, who were suffering from the plague, by diverting a pestilential river to mix fresh water with the foul, or by building a great fire.

A skull consists of four parts fire, two parts water, and two parts earth. Flesh consists of equal quantities of the four roots; blood is the same, with a little more or less of each.

He believed that love and strife are in an eternal cycle: the world comes together during the period of increasing love until it reaches the condition of a perfect sphere held together by love, a kind of featureless god, an organ of pure thought that is long-lived but not immortal, “rejoicing in its solitude.” Then it breaks up again in the half-cycle of increasing strife.

“it is honorable to say what one must say even twice”

Everything is sometimes different but perpetually alike. He believed that the natural world contains a model for how we ought to live. He forbade his disciples to eat meat, for animals are people, slightly different combinations of the same things as ourselves, or the reincarnations of people, and one might inadvertently eat one’s own father.

He believed that in the time of unity there is no difference between the sexes. Sexual reproduction belongs to the period of strife; it reaffirms the separation of the sexes, and from the two it creates many, further disunification. Human love is a futile effort in a period when there is no cosmic love. He forbade his disciples to have heterosexual intercourse, though he gave poor women money for their dowries.

When asked why certain children do not resemble their parents, he replied that foetuses are formed by what a woman visualizes at the moment of conception. A woman thinking about a statue or painting or another person will have a child that resembles it.

Like the Pythagoreans, he forbade his disciples to eat beans. “Bean” was slang for “testicle,” or beans were of a windy nature and too full of the life-force, or beans resembled the Gates of Hades, or beans contained the souls of the dead, or beans had hollow unjointed stems through which the souls of the dead would rise from under the earth, or beans buried in the earth would take the form of a human or a child’s head or the female genitals, or beans chewed and left in the sun smelled like semen: “wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands off beans.”

“every man is convinced of the one thing he happened by
chance to learn”

There is a hierarchy of gods, humans, animals, plants. The best among men are prophets, bards, physicians, and princes, and they come back as gods. The best among animals is the lion; the best among plants the laurel. He forbade his disciples to eat bay leaves.

He believed that in the cycle of increasing love, animal heads or limbs were generated separately and then put together by the force of love, entirely at random: oxen with human heads, creatures with two faces. But only the stable and successful combinations survived and multiplied.

There are gods who, though they have “won long-lasting life, must wander for thrice ten thousand seasons away from the blessed ones, growing to be all sorts of forms of mortal things through time, interchanging the hard paths of life. For the strength of air pursues them into the sea, and the sea spits them onto the surface of the earth, and the earth into the beams of the blazing sun, and the sun into the eddies of air, and one after another receives them, and all hate them.” Their crime is bloodshed, the killing of animals, and Empedocles was one of them: “I am an exile from the gods and a wanderer, trusting in strife.”

He died, presumably, at a feast at Peisianax’s farm, for the next morning he could not be found, and the servants reported hearing a loud voice in the night crying “Empedocles” and a strange burst of light in the sky. He died, presumably, in the Peloponnese, where he had gone and never returned. He died when he fell from a wagon at age 71. He died at 60 or 109. He hung himself; he fell into the sea. He died, as dramatized by Hölderlin and Arnold, when he leapt into the crater of Mt. Etna, knowing that, as a prophet, bard, and physician, in his next life his elements would combine in such a way as to make him a god again, and the crater hurled back one of his bronze sandals.

When asked why a certain dog always slept on a certain tile of the floor, he replied that the dog and that one tile were similar in ways we didn’t know, but had an affinity they recognized.

“many fires burn below the earth”

“eyes roamed alone, without foreheads”

“the unmusical tribe of prolific fish”