April 9, 2009


Empedocles (born 490 B.C. in Agrigentum, Sicily) is an interesting figure not least because he inspired others (Hölderlin and Arnold - more below), but also in his own right as a philosopher.

The last Greek philosopher to write in verse, it was he who established the four ultimate elements underpinning all structures in the world - fire, air, water, earth. Calling them "roots", he further identified them with the mythical names of Zeus, Nestis and Aidoneus and Hera (temple above).

But is, perhaps, the manner of his death for which he is best remembered today. Legend has it that he threw himself in the volcano of Mount Etna to prove to his disciples that he was immortal; he believed he could cheat death and return as a god among man after being devoured by the flames - the perfect embodiment of his own carpe diem ideology.

Indeed, Empedocles' death has inspired two major modern literary treatments. It’s the subject of Friedrich Hölderlin’s play Tod des Empedokles (Death of Empedocles, 1826) - a set text of mine at uni - and two poems by Matthew Arnold, above (1822-1888), one of which is Empedocles on Etna (1852), a narrative of the philosopher's last hours before he jumped to his death in the crater.

However, it’s Arnold’s poem, From The Hymn of Empedocles, that I would like to draw to your attention here. Whatever the personal convictions of Arnold himself, the message is clear: enjoy the moment - heaven may not exist.

As for me, I find it really difficult (with a few reservations) to disagree with this carpe diem stance, given some of the life-changing experiences I've been through (not to mention two emigrations!). And, given too, that tomorrow's Good Friday, the start of the Easter Triduum, I would welcome your thoughts as you read it:


Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy'd the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to
have done;
To have advanced true friends,
and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant
our repose?

Not much, I know, you prize
What pleasures may be had,
Who look on life with eyes
Estranged, like mine, and sad:
And yet the village churl feels the
truth more than you;

Who 's loth to leave this life
Which to him little yields:
His hard-task'd sunburnt wife,
His often-labour'd fields;
The boors with whom he talk'd,
the country spots he knew.

But thou, because thou hear'st
Men scoff at Heaven and Fate;
Because the gods thou fear'st
Fail to make blest thy state,
Tremblest, and wilt not dare to
trust the joys there are.

I say, Fear not! life still
Leaves human effort scope.
But, since life teems with ill,
Nurse no extravagant hope.
Because thou must not dream,
thou need'st not then despair.

FOOTNOTE: I have it on good authority from P that Empedocles is also the title of an episode of The X Files. Since I didn’t see this series, I can’t throw any light on this / see any connection. Can anyone help?!

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