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Diogenes Laertius’ Account of Empedocles: Prioritizing the Social Over the Philosophical

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by Emily Lnenicka


When embarking on the challenge of depicting an individual’s life, biographers are charged with the task of making crucial decisions. Clearly, it would be far beyond the scope of a biographer’s project to articulate every detail of her subject’s life—instead, after researching the subject’s life, the biographer must be judicious in what she decides to include in her account. This decision making process will be unique to each biographer, based on the biographer’s interests, biases, and goals for what her account should achieve. While crafting his account of Empedocles, Diogenes Laertius was guided by his own unique process when determining what to include, and the order in which he should include it. By studying the existing fragments of Empedocles’ poetry, and comparing these fragments to the biography by Diogenes Laertius, we see that Diogenes focused on some select aspects of the fragments to include, and chose to omit a significant portion. If we examine the material Diogenes included, and contrast it with the material he excluded, we can use this information to understand what Diogenes valued as the most central or interesting components of Empedocles’ life. In doing so, we can see that Diogenes was primarily concerned with illustrating how the public perceived Empedocles, and what his relationship with his contemporaries was like.

Examining the Fragments: What did Diogenes include, and what did he omit?Edit

The existing fragments of Empedocles’ poetry are primarily from two of his poems: On Nature and Purifications. Roughly two-thirds of the fragments are from On Nature, while the remaining one-third of fragments is from Purifications. Not only do fragments from On Nature constitute the majority of existing writings from Empedocles, but they also illustrate Empedocles’ chief philosophical ideologies pertaining to the natural sciences. In these fragments, Empedocles articulates his theories on the role of perception, and how he understands the process by which it operates (Empedocles of Acragas: 2, 3). He explores biological processes, human relations with the universe, and the history of the universe as a whole. Most notably, perhaps, is Empedocles’ analysis of the elements, through which he establishes a definition of the four basic elements: fire, water, earth and air (Empedocles of Acragas: 17).

Interestingly enough, Diogenes Laertius’ account of Empedocles’ life barely touches upon the material we find in On Nature. Instead, his biography borrows primarily from Purifications, as well as some testimonial information from Empedocles’ contemporaries. All of this information is incorporated in such a way that the focus remains on Empedocles’ relationship with the public. For instance, Diogenes quotes fragment 112 as saying, “My friends, who dwell in the great city sloping down to yellow Acragas, hard by the citadel” (Laertius 369). He uses this statement to explain where Empedocles hailed from, yet he decides to leave out the majority of the fragment. In fragment 112, Empedocles continues on to elaborate on the services he believes he can provide for the public, with such claims as, “…they follow me in thousands, to inquire where is the path of advantage, some desiring oracles, while others ask to hear a word of healing for their manifold diseases, since they have long been pierced with cruel pains” (Empedocles of Acragas: 112). Yet, this part of the fragment is of no interest to Diogenes, who thereby chooses to exclude it. This choice gives us some insight into what Diogenes, as a biographer, is up to. He seems to be much more interested in explaining where Empedocles was from, and that it was a place in which Empedocles had friendly social relationships, than he is in describing the philosophical “good” that Empedocles believes he could bestow upon these friends. So, it appears as if Diogenes has determined that the focus of Empedocles’ biography should aim to explore Empedocles’ social relations without clouding the description of these relations with Empedocles’ philosophical projects.

Similarly, Diogenes quotes fragment 129 to give weight to the possibility that Empedocles studied under Pythagoras, saying, “And there lived among them a man of superhuman knowledge, who verily possessed the greatest wealth of wisdom” (Laertius 371). Diogenes then continues on to spend a great deal of text devoted to whether or not Empedocles did study under Pythagoras, and who else may have taught him. However, fragment 129 falls (in the collection of the fragments) right in the middle of a greater discussion on the relationship between humans and animals (Empedocles of Acragas: 128-130). In fact, the line directly preceding the start of fragment 129 reads, “…the altar was not drenched with the unmixed blood of bulls, but this was the greatest pollution among men, to devour the goodly limbs (of animals) whose life they had reft from them” (Empedocles of Acragas: 128). Instead of incorporating Empedocles’ strong philosophical ideas on the immorality of animal sacrifice (ideas which, we can imagine, were certainly not mainstream, and may have differed greatly from the sentiment of the time), Diogenes decided to omit the driving purpose of this discussion, and focus solely on the finer point of exploring Empedocles’ potential connection to Pythagoras. This decision illuminates, again, Diogenes’ preference for including information on Empedocles’ social relationships, rather than including other important aspects of Empedocles’ philosophical ideology.

Further, Diogenes’ purpose can be seen in what excerpts from On Nature he did include. For example, Diogenes quotes fragment 1: “Give ear, Pausanias, thou son of Anchitus the wise!” (Laertius 375). However, Diogenes is specific in his intent, as this quotation is purely meant to demonstrate that Empedocles had a close relationship with Pausanias, who was his “bosom-friend” (Laertius 375). Diogenes could have easily continued on to quote the following fragment, which begins Empedocles’ account on perception, yet Diogenes declines to do so, preferring to engage in a discussion of evidence for the relationship between Empedocles and Pausanias. This choice clearly exemplifies that Diogenes had a much greater interest in Empedocles’ social relationships than in his philosophical ideas. Otherwise, there would be no reason to abruptly end a quotation of Empedocles’ writings just before the Empedocles introduces his first philosophical idea of the piece. Diogenes chooses to devote his exploration to the status of Empedocles’ friendship with Pausanias, rather than engaging in a discussion of Empedocles’ philosophy. In doing so, Diogenes reveals his clear interest, as a biographer, on his subject’s social interactions.

Finally, Diogenes does make a brief mention of Empedocles’ most substantial theory from On Nature at the very end of his biographical account. Diogenes explains this theory in the following manner: “[Empedocles’] doctrines were as follows, that there are four elements, fire, water, earth and air, besides friendship by which these are united, and strife by which they are separated” (Laertius 389). He then goes on to include three short excerpts from On Nature that elucidate the aforementioned doctrines (Laertius 391). These excerpts, though, are only touched upon at the very end of Diogenes’ account, as a way of summarizing Empedocles accomplishments. In contrast, these ideas are incredibly pervasive throughout Empedocles writings in On Nature. To choose to include such important philosophical ideas at the very end of Empedocles’ biography (almost as an afterthought) demonstrates that Diogenes’ agenda must not have been aimed at giving credit to the philosophy of an important philosopher. Rather, it is clear that Diogenes had something else in mind: he wanted to give an account of the nature of the social life and relationships of an important philosopher.

Implications for Diogenes' Other Biographical WorksEdit

We can clearly see that, in the case of his biography on Empedocles, Diogenes’ decisions about what fragments to include reflected his own interests as a biographer. Rather than attempting to give the reader a complete picture of Empedocles’ philosophical writings, as articulated in the existing fragments, Diogenes decided to focus on Empedocles’ social relationships, and how the public perceived him during his life. Diogenes’ interest in focusing Empedocles’ account on public relationships and perceptions is so strong, it is reasonable to assume that Diogenes operated with the same interest in mind when composing his other biographies. For instance, Diogenes’ biography of Diogenes the Cynic focuses quite extensively on recording Diogenes the Cynic’s interactions with different members of the public, through incorporating many one-liners that are expressed in response to different social observations. Diogenes also emphasizes Diogenes the Cynic’s relationships with various individuals, such as his interesting yet combative relationship with Plato (Laertius 29). Based on the wealth of Empedocles’ philosophical musings, as well as fundamental theories, that Diogenes decided not to include in Empedocles’ biography, it is possible that Diogenes excluded some similarly notable material in his account of Diogenes the Cynic. Generally, it is likely that Diogenes Laertius’ interest in exploring the societal opinions and relationships of his subjects had a significant impact on all of his biographies. So, when reading a biography by Diogenes, we should keep in mind that the apparent social emphasis might be a reflection of Diogenes’ personal interests, rather than of the importance of societal relations to the subject he’s depicting. Furthermore, we must be mindful of the fact that these biographies do not necessarily give us the whole story, so to speak, and Diogenes might be omitting some key elements (e.g. philosophical theories, in the case of Empedocles) that were integral his subjects’ lives.


Freeman, Kathleen. “Empedocles of Acragas.” Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, 1948. Available:

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. 11th. 2. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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