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History of Philosophy I

From Heraclitus to the Sophists


Michal Zvarík

This coursebook addresses key presocratics from Heraclitus to the sophists, who stand at the origin of philosophy as cornerstone of European spirituality. Readers might find that already at this point we encounter timeless and actual questions concerning the human condition in the world, limits of our knowledge, or the problem of adequate articulation of reality. Later thinkers did not philosophised from scratch, but criticised or were inspired by their predecessors. The coursebook thus provides an introduction to presocratic thought as an important field of our spiritual history.
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3. Empedocles


Parmenides’ work was a major breakthrough that consisted in separating a single, integral, and eternal existence from the area of appearance where we encounter multiplicity and change. This separation naturally evoked controversy and the pursuit of harmony between them. One of the first significant reactions came from the scholar, Empedocles (492 – 432), in whose personality meets the reputation of a major poet, magician (“thaumaturge”), physician, politician, and soothsayer. He came from Acragas (Argigentum), a Greek colony in Sicily, supposedly from a wealthy family, and he could afford to pay a dowry to the Acragas’ maidens. He is also attributed as having performed miracles, exceptional healing deeds, and pro-democratic political activity. Perhaps most interesting is that in the surviving fragments, he declares himself a god who has committed a sin and ← 47 | 48 → fallen from a blissful state to a cycle of reincarnation to be purified. This aspect of his work obviously became the target of legends and anecdotes, especially concerning the mysterious circumstances of his death.

For our purposes, it is interesting that Empedocles’ fragments point to a Pythagorean influence. In addition, Empedocles draws from Parmenides and responds to Ionian thinking. This tradition attributed two writings, On Nature, and, Purifications, to Empedocles. The treatise, On Nature, is usually characterised as cosmological and cosmogonic writing, which also deals with the ontological and epistemological consequences of Parmenides’ thought. In contrast, Purifications, should have been more focused on issues of ethics, morals, and religious life. Therefore, based on this...

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