model and reality
Καὶ τὸ μὲν οὖν σαφὲς οὒτις ἀνηρ γὲνετ´  οὐδέ τις ἔσται εἰδὸς ἀμφὶ θεῶν τε καὶ ἃσσα λέγω περὶ πάντων· εἰ γάρ καὶ τὰ μάλιστα τύχοι τετελεσμένοῖ εἰπων, αὐτος ὃμως οὐκ οῖδε·  δόκος δ´ἐπι πᾶσι τέτυκται
And for a certain truth, no man knows it, just as no man can ever know anything about the gods and about anything else I am talking about. For even if he were to succeed entirely in telling the truth to the best of his ability, even then he does not know, for it is opinion that is built up about all things


Related Topics

The visionaries: Xenophanes, Heraclitus and Empedocles
translated by Alison Quayle

Before the development of Milesian physics, knowledge about nature could be divided into two kinds. There was systematic, technical knowledge, almost like bookkeeping, which noted the regularity of the major phenomena and important events; and there was knowledge inspired by religion and myth, and expressed in a poetic language that probably differed from everyday speech. One of the most important aspects of the school founded by Thales was that it passed on knowledge in everyday language, so that it was accessible, and could be discussed, if not by everyone, then at least by all those who controlled economic power in one way or another.

In contrast, Pythagoras and his school developed the religious aspect of knowledge into a tradition of esoteric oral transmission, which in principle was not to be communicated to outsiders on pain of exclusion and perhaps death. But alongside this, there was always a tendency for one person or another to divulge what they imagined to be the form and fate of the world, using language that was strongly coloured with symbolism. Circumstances lent themselves particularly well to this kind of formulation, because certainly from the 8th century BCE onwards, Ionia was the centre of the most highly developed culture of poetry in the western world.

Xenophanes of Colophon, born around 570 BCE, was one of these wandering poets who communicated his way of seeing the world and of gaining access to knowledge during his numerous journeys across the whole of Greater Greece (1)). The constraints of rhythm imposed by the use of poetry sometimes made his thought obscure and imprecise, but it is still possible to get a clear sense of his ideas. In contrast with the symbolism of the earlier poets, who united a multitude of different divinities in a coherent whole, Xenophanes proposed one God:

Οὖλος ὀραῖ, οὐλος δε νωεῖ, οὖλος τ´ἀκουει  gr-flag(2)).

This all-seeing, all-thinking and all-hearing God was not a God in the image of Mankind, like the anthropomorphic idols that had been worshipped until then. This God was the great All, present in all things, both ψυχή gr-flag (psyche) and νοῦς gr-flag (nous). Xenophanes thus created a panpsychism that was on the borderline between the monist animism of the first Milesians and the dualism of Anaxagoras.

His cosmology was parallel to the Milesian cosmologies, but with clear differences. The Earth was unlimited, and crowned by the infinite vault of the heavens. It was rooted in infinity beneath our feet. This structure implied immobility, and it followed that the stars must be renewed each day and there was an infinite number of suns, moons and stars, passing regularly over our heads and then disappearing forever. These heavenly bodies were balls of Fire expelled from the Earth, and the phases of the Moon and the Sun were produced by variations in the state of these fires, according to the roughly cyclical presence and absence of damp masses. Like everything else, human beings were a combination of Earth and Fire:

γῆ καὶ ὕδωρ πάντ' ἔσθ' ὅσα γίνονται ἠδὲ φύονται gr-flag(5 DK B 29).

The Universe originally came from mud, and would become mud again, since everything came from the Earth and would return to the Earth; and the Earth itself would disappear, drawn down to the Sea and blended with it. Mankind and our universe would then perish, to enable a new universe to appear. This meant that there had been no beginning, and would be no end, each universe being born as the previous one died, and dying in its turn to give birth to the next one. The cause of this endless change was the cycle of emergence from the mud, followed by a return to the mud (3)). Here we can perhaps trace the influence of the Egyptian laws of Eternal Return, reflecting the cycle of day and night, and of the annual Nile flood that brought with it fertile alluvial soil.

A second inspired philosopher, much better known today than Xenophanes, made the general problem of change his central theme, and analysed it within a quite different poetical system. This was Heraclitus of Ephesus, known as the Obscure. He was probably born around 540 BCE, at a time when Ionia had fallen under Persian domination, and unlike the other philosophers whose ideas we have discussed so far, he travelled very little, or not at all. His writing was designedly very similar to divine prophecy, making it particularly difficult to understand, hence the epithet. But tradition draws attention not just to his remarkable personality, but to the fundamental importance of the subjects he discussed in such an original way. Of all his texts, only just over a hundred fragments remain, making the interpretation of his thought more difficult still. To judge by the often ambiguous constructions and choice of words and themes, Heraclitus seems to have been one of the first philosophers, if not the very first, to have put into practice an idea that has since gained ground down the centuries of philosophical reflection: that language should be used in a symbolic and constrained fashion, as far distant as possible from everyday use, if it is to be appropriate to the intrinsic nature of things (4). This is summed up in the following fragment:

ὁ ἄναξ, οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει
οὔτε κρύπτει αλλὰ σημαίνει
The lord whose is the oracle at Delphi neither utters 
nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign. [JB 93]

This particular use of language brought out a new meaning of the word Λόγος gr-flag (logos), in which it was generalised to refer to a whole set of circumstances that all expressed a Law of the Universe. This Law involved an underlying harmony – a preoccupation that paralleled that of the Pythagoreans – which implied that all parts of the Universe were in proportion to one another. This Law or Reason also implied – and this is one of the fundamental themes both in Platonic thought and in the inspiration of some of our contemporaries – that there was a certain analogy between the structure of the Universe and the structure of linguistic forms, ranging from poetic language to apparently abstract mathematical formalisation. The best-known example of this analogy is found in fragment 51:

οὐ ξυνιᾶσιν ὅκως διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῷ ὁμολογέει·
παλίντροπος (παλίντονος) ἁρμονίη ὅκωσπερ τόξου καὶ λύρης  gr-flag
Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself.       
It is an attunement of opposite tensions (5)),
like that of the bow and the lyre. [JB 51]

Heraclitus denies that profound paradoxes exist, citing the necessary conjunction of opposites in a single entity. This was to become the basis of his cosmology:

And it is the same thing in us that is quick and dead, 
awake and asleep, young and old;
the former are shifted and become the latter, and the latter in turn are shifted and become the former. [JB 88]

This cosmology was also a theology, because it was the underlying basis for God, the Law of matter whose substrate was the eternally changing element Fire. Here Heraclitus concurred with the monist theories of Anaximenes and Anaximander. He said that things came from Fire and of necessity returned to Fire, in processes similar to Rarefaction and Condensation; a kind of ἀναθυμίασις gr-flag, rising as smoke to the Heavens (like the rising smoke of incense in sacrifices), and followed by a return to the final Fire.

πυρός τε ἀνταμοιβὴ τὰ πάντα καὶ πῦρ ἁπάντων  
ὅκωσπερ χρυσοῦ χρήματα καὶ χρημάτων χρυσός   gr-flag
All things are an exchange for Fire, 
and Fire for all things, even as wares for gold and gold for wares. [JB 90]

But the law of creation and destruction was still the supreme Harmony, because:

This world, which is the same for all, 
no one of gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living (ἀεὶ ζωὸν gr-flag)
Fire, with measures kindling,
and measures going out.
[JB 30]

Fire condensed and, perhaps via Air, became Water, which condensed in its turn and produced Earth. This was the descending path. But conversely, Earth became liquefied into Water, and Water rose as vapours, some shining and of the same nature as Fire, others dark and thick and of the same nature as damp. Clouds of Fire came together to form stars, while the black clouds formed a screen between these burning stars and the Earth, hiding the vigour of their fires. For Heraclitus, the upward path has no end, and everything we are will return to the eternal Fire. (6)).

The relations between God and the world were those underlying the Laws of the Universe, because it was the nature of God to be the reason for all things, since different qualities do not represent differences of nature:

God is day and night, winter and summer, 
war and peace, surfeit and hunger; but he takes various shapes, just as fire,
when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the taste of each. (DK B67) [JB 67]

This equivalence between cosmology and theology showed that the Universe consisted in the fact that all large-scale cosmic processes were a movement back and forth between different states of God (7)).

Couples (σύναψιες gr-flag) are things whole and things not whole, 
hat is drawn together and what is drawn asunder, 
the harmonious and the discordant. The one is made up of all things,
and all things issue from the one.
[JB 10]

Here Heraclitus celebrated the harmony of opposites, while the laws of eternal change were implied by metaphor. The Λόγος was subject to a permanent struggle between opposing forces (to a certain extent this takes us back Anaximander), but the forces came together to give it its intrinsic character, because:

We must know that war is common to all (ξυνὸν) 
and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through
strife (ἔριν gr-flag) [and necessity (χρεών gr-flag)].[JB 80]

Heraclitus seems to have been one of the first to give time a creative role, that went beyond the simple allegories of mythology on the one hand, and on the other the dry observation of astronomical cycles:

Time is a child playing dice; the kingly power is a child's. 

The game of dice does not represent a law of chance, as it has often been interpreted in the case of the atomists. Instead, as we saw earlier, it expresses a law of the Universe, the Harmony of opposites. Aristotle described how this law is connected to changes in all things:

But what these thinkers maintained was that all else has been
generated and, as they said, 'is flowing away, nothing
having any solidity, except one single thing which persists
as the basis of all these transformations. So we may interpret
the statements of Heraclitus of Ephesus and many others.
And some subject all bodies whatever to generation, by
means of the composition and separation of planes. 
(De Caelo 298b 29-32)
A river is a good example of a dynamic system that is constantly changing, but which nevertheless has its own law of organisation and existence:
You cannot step twice into the same rivers; 
for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you. 
[JB 91,12] (DK B12)
Little else is known about Heraclitus' own cosmology, and his doctrine on human nature is even more mysterious, probably deliberately so, on the grounds that the important things are inexpressible. The only trait characteristic of the soul was its fiery nature, which made it the principle of movement (and change), but also made it sensitive to damp (8). The best souls had intelligence and were capable of discovering the terms of Λόγος and of supreme wisdom, which would reveal the universal (τὸ ξυνόν gr-flag). But since:
Seekers for gold dig much earth, and find little gold. [AF 8]

the quest for Harmony would be difficult, because:

Nature loves to hide. [JB 123] 

However, there was a way of getting close to it, if the oracles were heeded (and not bad teachers, bards, priests or poets). The oracles' prophecies were summed up in the famous saying:

It is wise to listen, not to me, but to my Word,
and to confess that all things are one.[JB 50]

which the commentator Hippolytus took up, paraphrasing once again the law of the harmony of opposites:

Heraclitus then says that the universe is one, 
divisible and indivisible; generated and ungenerated; mortal and immortal; reason (λόγον gr-flag), eternity (αἰῶνα gr-flag); Father, Son, and justice, God (9)[JHM].

A third poetic approach to knowledge appeared with Empedocles of Acragas, who lived a little later (he was active around 450 BCE), in the extreme west of Greater Greece. His thought integrated and reinterpreted a good deal from his predecessors: he accepted the arguments of the Eleatics on the continuous, organised the four elements dear to the Milesians, and adopted much of the Pythagorean theory of opposites, then at its height in this part of the Greek world. His life has inspired many legends, because of the particular way he expressed himself in his poems, where his descriptions of nature suggest magic powers. Fragments of two of his books have come down to us: On Nature (Περί Φύσεως gr-flag ), a classic title among thinkers of this era, and Purifications (Καθαρμοὶ  gr-flag). In these works, Empedocles organised the knowledge revealed by the λόγος of things, in the Pythagorean fashion, and also developed an idea diametrically opposed to the Heraclitean approach, that of a perfect correspondence between sensory perception and the intrinsic reality of nature.

  Go to now, consider with all your powers in what way each
  thing is clear. Hold not your sight in greater credit as
  compared with your hearing, nor value your resounding ear
  above the clear instructions of your tongue; and do not
  withhold your confidence in any of your other bodily parts
  by which there is an opening for understanding, but
  consider everything in the way it is clear. [JB/F 4] (10)

It was through the senses that the true nature of things could be learnt:

τέσσαρα γὰρ πάντων ῥιζώµατα πρῶτον ἄκουε gr-flag
Hear first the four roots of all things [JB/F 6]

and the four uncreated elements (στοιχεῑα, gr-flag), Earth, Air, Fire and Water, were the basis of all the objects we knew through our sensory organs. Once again:

There is no origination of anything that is mortal, nor yet any
end in baneful death; but only mixture and separation of
what is mixed, but men call this 'origination.' But when
light is mingled with air in human form, or in form like
the race of wild beasts or of plants or of birds, then
men say that these things have come into being; and when
they are separated, they call them evil fate; this is the
established practice, and I myself also call it so in accordance
with the custom. For from what does not exist at all it
is impossible that anything come into being, and it is
neither possible nor perceivable that being should perish
completely; for things will always stand wherever one in
each case shall put them. [AF 36-48] 

This is the same reasoning that was later taken up by Anaxagoras, and which Parmenides and the Eleatics had discussed at length. It imposed a law of conservation, if not of the form of matter, at least its content. The four elements combined within the All (τὸ Πᾶν gr-flag), the whole sum of matter capable of transformations, in an absolute continuum that left no room for a void. Being lasted infinitely longer than the ephemeral existence forged by the conjunction of the two opposing forces that controlled the world, Attraction and Repulsion (11)).

And these things never cease continually changing (12)),
at one time all uniting in one through Attraction, at another
each borne in different directions by Repulsion.  Thus,
as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many,
and to become many once more, when the one is parted asunder,
so far they come into being and their life abides not. But,
inasmuch as they never cease changing continually, so far
they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of
existence. [JB, adapted by AD] 
Attraction and Repulsion were forces and principles of causality that took effect by balancing the elements between themselves, in all possible creations, including life. The elements combined by juxtaposition, not by fusion, as Anaxagoras had it. Although not explicitly, Empedocles' theory was therefore an atomist one. The paradox of permanence and change was resolved through the dynamics of combinations that renewed individual things without changing the fact that they were part of the All and its Harmony (13)), because by their intrinsic nature elements were unalterable and unaltered entities. Note that the field of action of Attraction and Repulsion was seen as a continuum: although they were distinct and separate, the elements did not move in a void. This implies that Empedocles did not carry his reasoning through to its logical conclusion, which would have led him to atomism. But the notion of uninterrupted attraction and repulsion, over any distance, led Empedocles, like Anaximander before him, to give a privileged role to absolute spatial symmetry, as the first necessity: the closed Sphere, at rest and similar to the immobile universe visualised by Parmenides.

However, the initial sphere could not remain at rest, because the Repulsion contained within it caused emerging parts to repel each other, creating a distinct zone around which a vortex (δίνη gr-flag) formed. Of the original mixture of elements, first Air separated out, spreading itself all around in a ring. Then, Fire spurted upwards, leaving the Earth below, sweating Water. The Sphere thus became Light and Day above, and Night below (14). And once the world of individual elements had been formed, the principle of Repulsion took up a position in the centre of the vortex, leaving room for Attraction, which produced the various bodies, as we have seen. This process did not involve the entire Sphere of the universe, but could act locally and at random, creating various worlds quite fortuitously. The rest was immobile matter. All creation was thus produced by the chance inherent in encounters and the necessity inherent in symmetries, imposed first by Repulsion, and then by Attraction (15)).

The way Empedocles described astronomical and meteorological phenomena did not differ greatly from that of his predecessors, and it contained many elements of Milesian physics. However he laid more emphasis than usual on the constraints of dynamics, saying that it was the speed of movement of the vault of the heavens that prevented the Sun from escaping, and kept the Earth in the centre by symmetry. And his theory of the light given off by the celestial hemisphere and creating the day is a remarkable forerunner of atomist theory where light consisted of minute particles given off by the celestial vault at such high speed that their movement was imperceptible.

Empedocles also gave an elaborate description of the genesis of living things, which he considered to have taken place in parallel with the genesis of the Earth. The plants were created first, from a mixture of earth and water, and they provided the first food for the animals that appeared after them. All the different organs were produced at random, and came together according to a rule of harmony (16)). They were all drawn together by Attraction, of which sexual attraction was a later development:

Solitary limbs wandered seeking for union. But, as divinity was
mingled still further with divinity, these things joined
together as each might chance, and many other things besides
them continually arose. Clumsy creatures with countless
hands. Many creatures with faces and breasts looking in
different directions were born; some, offspring of oxen
with faces of people, while others, again, arose as offspring
of people with the heads of oxen, and creatures in whom
the nature of women and men was mingled, furnished with
sterile parts. [JB/F 58-61] 
Species were distinguished by the proportion of the various elements that went into their makeup: those that contained more water remained aquatic, those with more fire took off into the air, and the densest buried themselves in the earth. For according to another first principle, like attracts like. However, this principle is not absolute, since opposites can also attract, as with certain combinations of earth and fire.

Beginning with this kind of attraction, which then became sexual attraction, Empedocles went on to discuss Desire, taking up the Orphic myths of the wandering soul and the constant presence of a memory (ἀνάμνησις gr-flag 16a), which Plato was to discuss at length in The Banquet.

Reproduction, gestation and birth create a breathing being, and in an admirable text, Empedocles drew an analogy (17) between the functioning of a clepsydra or water clock, and the duel between air and water alternately bathing the organs during respiration, maintaining life and therefore thought. Thought was produced by the soul within the body, and for Empedocles, as for the Milesians, the soul was material, and outlived the body, though without being immortal. In his second treatise, the Purifications, Empedocles described himself as the bodily support for a wandering soul, because one day his soul had followed the mad prompting of Repulsion. He said he had been in turn a boy, a girl, a bush, a bird and a fish. But this was not the rule; usually like was born from like, and sons resembled their fathers. Without this there would be conflict, the human witness to the birth of a universe:

And the father lifts up his own son in a changed form 
and slays him with a prayer.
Infatuated fool!
And they run up to the sacrificers, begging
mercy, while he, deaf to their cries, slaughters them 
in his halls and gets
ready the evil feast. [JB/F 137] 

With this enigmatic image, the first important milestone of this essay, I leave the reader's imagination to follow Empedocles' purifying reasoning (see in French pdf).



1: This point will eventually be developed in the second part of the text (Uios: Worlds, Sciences, Harmonies and Morals). (back to text)

2: In 545 BCE Ionia was invaded by the Persians. Zoroaster, who lived in the 600s BCE, had recently reinterpreted the Persian theogonies, to produce a stripped-down monotheism. It is possible that Xenophanes' similar approach was inspired by this famous precedent. (back to text)

3: I shall look at this in more detail later on. (back to text)

4: The epistemological implications of Heraclitean thought will be discussed in Uios: Sciences. I would just like to note here that here, art and science are one and the same. back to text)

5: Given the difficulty in interpreting Heraclitus, it is worth citing the original text as well as a translation. In this fragment, commentators disagree about the meaning of the word that can be read as παλίντροπος or παλίντονος. The prefix -παλίν - indicates a turning back, and seems better suited to a dynamic situation, something that is clear in the first case but less obvious in the second (which refers to a tense, static situation). However, the image of the bow and the lyre throws a particular light on the sentence, and clearly expresses the dynamic constraints that produce harmony. (back to text)

6: This could be seen as one of the roots of the idea of Hellfire, which until recently made such a deep impression on generation after generation. But Fire in the Heraclitean sense does not directly imply the idea of punishment, merely that of a return to an essential purity. (back to text)

7: This probably applies to all the pre-Socratics, to the extent that most of them regarded divinity as the principle that gave all things life. Nevertheless, we must draw a clear distinction between the monist approach, in which God and things were one and the same, and dualist approaches in which God was essentially separate from matter, while still having the power to change it. (back to text)

8: This explains the clumsiness of alcoholics: A man, when he gets drunk, is led by a beardless lad, tripping, knowing not where he steps, having his soul moist. [JB] and The dry soul is the wisest (σοφωτάτη) and best (ἀριστη) [JB]. (DK B117, 118) (back to text)

9: Arbitrary power, whether paternal or divine, is contrasted with the subjection of the son. (back to text)

10: Empedocles can be ambiguous, and translations vary. John Burnet's English translation differs in detail from the translation by Y. Battistini given in the French version of this text, but in its overall interpretation it comes to the same conclusion, that knowing must be apprehended by its natural sources, the senses. (Millerd, Clara Elizabeth, On the Interpretation of Empedocles, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908) (back to text)

11: The forces invoked by Empedocles (φιλία and νεῑκος) are usually translated as Love and Hate. To me, the connotations usually associated with these words do not seem to exist in the physical context discussed by Empedocles. He uses φιλότης and not ἔρως for the first term (but it is true that he also refers to Aphrodite, the goddess of Love), and νεῑκος expresses opposition, conflict, tension or even war, but does not carry the emotional connotation that we associate with Hate. (back to text)

12: ἀλλασοντα: that which changes, cf. ἀλλάζω, to change money in modern demotic Greek. (back to text)

13: The principle of attraction is sometimes called ἁρμονιά. (back to text)

14: Empedocles added a distinction (inspired by the models of Anaximenes) between light Air, which was similar to Fire (αἰθήρ), and Air itself, a kind of water vapour (ἀήρ). (back to text)

15: My reason for mentioning the theme of Jacques Monod's well-known book is not only that his quotation from Democritus is apocryphal, but especially that Empedocles was probably the first to establish clearly an idea that was recurrent in Ionian physics, that all things result from chance and necessity. In fact he stated explicitly that no God presided over creation, in contrast to some of his predecessors, such as the Pythagoreans or Heraclitus. As for the word "chance", regularly used in this sense as a result of Monod's book, for us it has connotations that are foreign to pre-Socratic philosophy: their "chance" was simply contingency [in its strict sense ("a conjuncture of events occurring without design": OED)]. It did not imply any break from the principle of causality, but only the fact that as limited material beings, humans do not have access to an explanation of the ultimate truth. (back to text)

16: Throughout his poem, Empedocles emphasised the fact that contingency presided over creation. Contrary to what Aristotle later aimed to show, this implied that harmony was merely a lucky result of chance; it was not caused by an immanent intelligent Law, as was claimed by Heraclitus, for instance. (back to text)

16a: tessera hospitalis: a small tablet broken in two, each person keeping half, and used as a means of recognition. (back to text)

17: Thought was the result of similarities, and this justified reasoning by analogy; one thought with the blood, because it was in this liquid that the four elements were mixed to perfection; thought was no different from perception, and ignorance came from what was dissimilar or inappropriate. (back to text)

Note on the translated extracts:

Translations from Heraclitus marked [JB] are from John Burnet's Early Greek Philosophy (1892). The numbers refer to the fragments cited at

All translations marked [JB/F] are from James Fieser's edited version of Burnet: Presocratic Fragments and Testimonials, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1996). The numbers refer to the fragments cited at First Philosophers of Greece, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898), 157-234. The numbers refer to the fragments cited at (for Heraclitus) and (for Empedocles)

The translation from Hippolytus (quoting Heraclitus) marked [JHM] is from:

Anti-Nicene Fathers, Volume V.  The Fathers of the Third Century

Hippolytus, The Refutation of all Heresies, Translated by the Rev. J. H. Macmahon, M.A.

Book IX Chapter IV.-An Account of the System of Heraclitus.


Fourth chapter: The Eleatic school