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research in phenomenology 44 (2014) 170193

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Aither and the Four Roots in Empedocles


Michael M. Shaw

Utah Valley University

Abstract
This paper surveys the meaning of aither () in Empedocles. Since Aristotle,
Empedoclean aither has been generally considered synonymous with air () and
understood anachronistically in terms of its Aristotelian conception as hot and wet. In
critiquing this interpretation, the paper first examines the meaning of air in
Empedocles, revealing scant and insignificant use of the term. Next, the ancient con
troversy of Empedocles four roots is recast from the perspective that aither, rather
than air, designates the fourth root. Finally, the nineteen instances of aither in
Empedocles fragments are considered, revealing a bright and energetic root closely
related to the force of life.

Keywords
Empedocles aither elements roots air Aristotle

Blessed is he who has gained the wealth of divine wits;


woe to him who has obscure opinion about the gods.
Empedocles, Fragment B1321

Interpreters of Empedocles rarely mention aither (), certain that it


means air () and dismissing its relevance. Aristotle identifies the two com
1 All translations of Empedocles are from Daniel W. Graham, The Texts of Early Greek
Philosophy, Part I and Part II, hereafter TEGP. For complete bibliographical details of abbrevi
ated texts, see list at end of this essay.
koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 4|doi 10.1163/15691640-12341284

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pletely, setting the tone for Theophrastus, the doxographical tradition, and
contemporary scholarship.2 Surprisingly, aither appears up to nineteen times
in extant fragments, more than fire, water, earth, or air.3 On the standard view,
as a synonym for air, aither casts a shadow of obscurity over the meaning of
these fragments. Together, these passages reveal aither as a bright, rare, and
energetic force closer to fire than water on Empedocles spectrum. Rather than
a poetic synonym for air, aither emerges as a robust concept of a material more
diverse and powerful than Homeric or Aristotelian air. Empedocles infrequent
uses of appear more in line with his ancient counterparts as a modification
or compound of water. The insignificance of air in comparison with the strik
ing instances of aither call Aristotles hasty identification into question and
warrants further investigation into this fourth root.4
Aristotles profound influence creates a host of problems when investigating
the Presocratics, much like the difficulties inherent in interpreting Aristotle
through the Medieval tradition. In Phenomenological Interpretations with
Respect to Aristotle: Indication of the Hermeneutical Situation,5 Heidegger
explores the limits of historical and philosophical investigation. He seeks a
phenomenological hermeneutics of facticity whereby philosophy becomes
2 Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, .1.314a1519, 314a2529, .6.334a15 (hereafter GC),
in The Complete Works of Aristotle, hereafter CWA; Physics, .4.196a2023, in CWA; De Anima,
.1.404b1115, in CWA; and Metaphysics .3. 984a511, in CWA. See also Peter Kingsley, Ancient
Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition, 20 and 20n19,
hereafter APMM. On the doxographical tradition, see John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy,
3138, hereafter EGP. On the influence of Aristotle on Theophrastus, and Theophrastus on
the tradition, see J. B. McDiarmid, Theophrastus on the Presocratic Causes, in Studies in
Presocratic Philosophy, 178238; hereafter SPP.
3 See M. R. Wright, Empedocles: the Extant Fragments, 23 (hereafter EEF), where her table lists
aither as a word for air. There are more instances of (19 by my count) than of any other
word on the table, and more than the total number of all synonyms for either fire (15), water
(15), or earth (17).
4 The literature commonly treats air as Empedocles fourth element. The notable exception is
Kingsley, APMM, 2028, who advocates aither over air, contra Aristotle. For a few significant
examples of the assumption of air, see G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield, The Presocratic
Philosophers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 300; Wright, EEF, 2230; James
Longrigg, Elements and After: A Study in Presocratic Physics of the Second Half of the Fifth
Century, Apeiron 19, no. 2 (1985): 93115; Charles H. Kahn, Religion and Natural Philosophy
in Empedocles Doctrine of the Soul, Archiv fr Geschichte der Philosophie 42 (1960): 335,
esp. 915, hereafter RNP; and Richard D. McKirahan, Philosophy Before Socrates, 257 (here
after PBS), where aither is called another word for air. Graham, in TEGP, and Brad Inwood,
The Poem of Empedocles (hereafter PE), employ aether or aither in their translations.
5 Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretations with Respect to Aristotle: Indication
of the Hermeneutical Situation, Man and World 25 (1992), hereafter MW.

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simply the explicit interpretation of factical life (MW, 368, 369). The historical
traditions of Aristotelianism hinder this task of glimpsing ancient facticity.
Heidegger highlights how neoscholastic theology, via the influence of
Augustine, Neoplatonism, and other traditions, employs a neo-Scholastically
molded Aristotelianism through which the basic Aristotelian doctrines are
treated according to a particular selection and interpretation (MW, 372).
Heidegger calls for a concrete interpretation of Aristotelian philosophy, which,
through a phenomenological anthropology, can uncover a more primordial
Aristotle, confronting core philosophical questions from the facticity of his
own time. What is missing completely is an authentic interpretation with its
central foundation in the basic philosophical problematic of facticity (MW,
372). Later interpretations of Aristotle conceal his insights just as his opinions
occlude the intuitions of the Presocratic philosophers. To approach any
Empedoclean facticity demands expelling these Aristotelian prejudices as far
as possible to help unearth lost truths hidden in his thought.
The relationship of contemporary philosophy to Aristotle is reproduced,
mutatis mutandis, in the relationship of Aristotle to Empedocles. While the
approximately one hundred years that separates the latter two is dwarfed by
the millennia that separate us from the Greeks, radical changes in philosophy,
culture, and religion during this time distinguish the facticity of Empedocles
world from that of Aristotles. Just as Scholastic theology provides a particular
interpretation of Aristotle to suit its own needs, so does Aristotle provide a
peculiar interpretation of Empedocles. Even though understanding the world
exactly as Empedocles saw it probably lies well beyond the reach of todays
scholars, we can still highlight the differences between Aristotles reading of
the Acragantine and the evidence transmitted directly from the fragments
themselves.
This task is made all the more difficult by the profound influence Aristotle
and his disciple Theophrastus have on the interpretation of the early Greek
philosophers. Their view of Empedocles four elements draws attention to this
problem, offering ample textual moments of disparity between the extant frag
ments and Aristotles reading. Similarly, considering the meaning of aither in
Homer, Hesiod, and his contemporary Anaxagoras discloses a material quite
unlike Aristotelian air. Nevertheless, Aristotle finds in Empedocles the histori
cal prefiguration of his own conception of the material principles of body.
Through Theophrastus, Aristotles interpretation of Empedocles as the pro
genitor of earth, water, fire, and air has dominated all subsequent interpreta
tion. By so forcefully maintaining the equivalence of and , Aristotle
has nearly obliterated any role for aither in Empedoclean philosophy, a gross
misrepresentation of its significance that calls for a careful examination of the
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relevant fragments. Perhaps one of the most original components of his


thought, aither is neither wet nor cold, but a bright, shining, energetic force
with the capacity to explain a materialist conception of life, the transmigration
of souls, and the underlying unity of Empedocles universe.
1

The Meaning of

Although Empedocles rarely uses , instances of air permeate the transla


tions of his fragments. Theophrastus follows Aristotles assertion of air as the
fourth element, and the doxographers fall in line behind them. For this reason,
the testimonia contain numerous references to air, and contemporary transla
tors commonly render as air.6 These traditions silence the possibility of
a unique significance for aither, preferring a term with no more than four
occurrences in the extant fragments to one with up to nineteen. While
Empedocles does occasionally use , it is not clear he holds it as one of the
four basic roots of all things. As the work of Peter Kingsley has shown, only two
of the four instances are transmitted to us without suspect text. Of the six frag
ments that could reference , two are testimonia with the word absent in the
fragments (B54 and B149), two likely result from textual corruption (B17 and
B78), and the remaining two offer a conception of air as moist or related to
water (B38 and B100), suggesting a meaning of closer to mist or cloud, as in
Homer. A brief examination of these six fragments will be helpful to under
stand the significance of aither.
Taken from Aristotles Physics .196a2223, the context of B54 finds Aristotle,
who originates the interpretation that air is the fourth element, criticizing
Empedocles conception of chance. Empedocles...said that air [] is not
always separated in the highest region but wherever it might chance.7 He con
tinues to cite B54: for [it] happened to run in this way then, but often in
another way (translation modified). As the fragment does not mention air, we
cannot be sure that this fragment does not actually relate to aither, which
6 See note 2 above. Burnet comments, [Empedocles] does not call Air , but , so as not
to confuse air with its use in his predecessors (EGP, 22829). He also notes, It was
Empedocles... who first discovered that what we call air was a distinct corporeal substance,
and not identical either with vapour or empty space (ibid., 74).
7 Aristotle, Physics, .196a2022, trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle (Grinnell, IA: The Peripatetic
Press, 1980), 32. See GC .3, on Aristotles conception of change, which requires air to be inter
mediate between fire and water, as hot and wet. Fire is hot/dry; air is hot/wet; water is cold/
wet; earth is cold/dry.

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Aristotle interprets as air. We should note first that if Empedocles has aither in
mind, it would be thought not only to occupy the highest region of the heavens
but also to permeate the entire universe. Second, Aristotle, too, will construct
his heavens out of aither. B149 reads, , or cloud-gatherer.
Theophrastus adds , so that, like B54, this need not be taken as authen
tically Empedoclean.
The Greek appears in just four other fragments.8 B17 provides by far the
strongest evidence for reading air as Empedocles fourth root. While Simplicius
text reads, fire, water, earth, and the lofty expanse of air () (B17, Line 18),
alternate versions in Plutarch and Clement have instead of as
fourth in the list at line 18. With Plutarch as the earliest manuscript, and cor
ruption more probable from to , Diels decision to use in his
volume is questionable, if not suspect. If Plutarchs version is accepted, aither,
seen as lofty like the heavens, names the fourth root. B79 is highly controversial
as every manuscript has instead of Diels .9 In both fragments,
it is more likely that Empedocles did not use than that he did.
The two remaining fragments provide the only clear Empedoclean uses of
. Interestingly, both also include instances of in the same fragment.
These fragments may support the equivalence of aither and air, or lend cre
dence to interpretations that air more closely resembles water. The difficult syn
tax of B38 generates some controversy, but it does suggest the kinship of air and
water.
Come, I will tell you from what things at first () sun
and all the other things we now look on emerged to sight,

8 In TEGP, Empedocles, B17 (line 18), B38 (line 3), B100 (line 13, where aither appears in lines
5, 7, 18, and 24), B79 (line 2). Also, Grahams F36, which Diels lists as a testimonia because it
is in Latin (TEPG, 364). Burnet points out the four Greek fragments (EGP, 22829n2). Kingsley
(APMM, 2526) rejects air in favor of aither, supporting air as mist. He follows Burnet (EGP,
219n3) both on rejecting the two corrupt fragments and rejecting the clepsydra fragment as
an Aristotelian error.
9 This would mean, furnished with abundant fruit instead of abundant fruit in the air. See
Peter Kingsley, Notes on Air: Four Questions of Meaning in Empedocles and Anaxagoras,
The Classical Quarterly 45, no. 1 (1995): 2629; and Peter Kingsley, Empedocles and His
Interpreters: The Four-Element Doxography, Phronesis (1994), hereafter FED. Burnet argues
for the likelihood of in B17, commenting, Plutarch, however, has , and it is obvi
ous that this was more likely to be corrupted into than vice versa in an enumeration of
the elements (EGP, 228n2). Plutarch (80 CE) and Clement (190 CE) have , while the
later Sextus Empiricus (200 CE) and Simplicius (510 CE) have . Burnet also advocates the
meaning of as mist in B78.

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earth, [ ] sea covered with waves, [] moist air ( ),


and Titan and [] aither compressing them all in a circle. (TEGP, 368)
This fragment does not offer a list of four precise terms, but does seem to poeti
cally describe the roots to a large extent. Empedocles tells of the first ()
generation of all things to visibility. He distinguishes at least four kinds, but the
precise meaning requires more careful treatment than can be given here. Sun
likely represents fire, while earth is self-evident. Sea covered with waves is
joined to moist air by , the same particle that links Titan and aither. Much
hinges on whether this particle unites or distinguishes. It seems most likely
that it unites, so that sea, waves, and moist air all describe water, while Titan
designates another name for aither. If unites air and sea, on the one hand,
and Titan and aither, on the other, the four roots are conceived as follows:
(1) earth, (2) sun represents fire, (3) sea covered with waves, moist air
describes water, and (4) Titan and aither compressing them all in a circle
elaborates aither. Most significantly, air is clearly moist, ,10 likely
completing the description of water as sea, waves, and moist air or mist. This
clear instance of air treats it as (fluid, liquid, or wet), and juxtaposes it to
aither. Rather than being a distinct root in Empedocles cosmology, air here
more closely resembles water. Again, aither relates to the heavens, compress
ing the entire cosmos in a circle,11 and stands out as the more likely candidate
for the fourth root.
This leaves only B100 to name air as the possible fourth root, which describes
the relationship of water to air in a clepsydra (a hollow wooden tube that uses
air pressure to transfer water between containers) in order to explain the role
of aither in respiration (TEGP, 386). Here, aither is the focus of the passage,
where it holds a critical position in the description of breathing, appearing
four times, while air appears only once. Air does not directly relate to respira
tion, but only to the analogy of the clepsydra. In context, air and water serve as
an analogy for a theory of respiration grounded in aither and blood. David
Furley notes the precise analogy to be as air is to water, so blood is to aither.
10

11

Burnet (EGP) and Inwood (PE, 106) prefer the equivalence of Titan and aither. See Burnet,
EGP, 22829n2: In frag. 38, v. 3, which is not an enumeration of the elements,
(i.e. the misty lower air) is distinguished from (i.e. the bright blue sky) in the
traditional way. Kingsley points out in Notes on Air that is an adjective modifying
, and both should be taken with the preceding clause describing water. Kingsley reads
Titan as referencing sun and fire, but Burnets reading of seems best. Contra
Burnet, this reading of the fragment would make it a list of the four roots.
Clement, who preserves the fragment, writes, it is better to interpret it as the aither,
holding together and binding all things, as Empedocles says (Inwood, PE, 106).

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Thus, air is related to water in the way that blood is related to aither: as a
mixture (air and blood) that includes the more pure kind (water and aither).12
In view of B38, this supports the reading that air is not a root, but a mixture
closely related to water. Aither, on the other hand, seems to be critical to blood
and respiration, and thus more integral to Empedoclean thought.
The scarcity and relative insignificance of instances of air when compared
to the abundant and profound uses of aither, together with the probability that
the only list of the four roots to include air actually reads aither, calls for
reconsidering the meaning of these terms in Empedocles. Other interpreta
tions of aither speak to its ambiguous role, such as those of Atius and Stobaeus,
who consider it the equivalent of fire.13 Accepting aither instead of air draws
new meaning out of the fragments, freeing it from the Aristotelian shackles
of traditional conceptions and pointing towards a more originary understand
ing of Empedoclean philosophy. Examining the debate regarding the divine
names of the four rootsit should be noted that Empedocles never calls
them elementshelps establish the disambiguation of the meaning of aither
and air.

12

13

See D. J. Furley, Empedocles and the Clepsydra, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 77, no. 1
(1957): 3134. Also, consider N. B. Booth, Empedocles Account of Breathing, The Journal
of Hellenic Studies 80 (1960): 1015. Because Empedocles maintains a plenum in Fragment
B13/F18, there is no place in the totality that is empty or overflowing, air in the clepsydra
should not be actual void. The clepsydras essential relationship to water makes a mist or
invisible vapor a likely option. Burnet argues that Empedocles discovers air is a thing in
B100, and that this was one of the most important discoveries in the history of science
(EGP, 229).
This follows from fragments such as B21, B98, B109, and B135, where aither is bright,
divine, or otherwise cast similarly to fire, and may also be due to the similarity of aither
and fire in Anaxagoras. See Burnet, EGP, 26769, for the contrasting meaning of air and
aither in Anaxagoras. He notes that air and aither are opposed as the rare, hot, light, and
dry to the dense, cold, heavy, and wet. See Clara Elizabeth Millerd, On The Interpretation
of Empedocles (hereafter IE), 3112n7, for citations of fragments B71, B 98, B109, and B115.9
as evidence that aither and fire are distinct. Some recent commentators suggest aither
may describe a mixture between the elements. For aither as a mixture of fire and air see
D. OBrien, Empedocles Cosmic Cycle (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 29192.
See W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vols. 1 and 2, 263 (hereafter HGP), on
Empedocles anticipating Aristotles conception of aither as a fifth element: Empedocles
may have assisted the emergence of the fifth element, which when we meet it fully
developed in Aristotle is divine, the substance of the stars which are gods. The regular
juxtaposition of aither with fire, water, and earth in various lists of four cautions against
these views.

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The Four Roots Controversy

In fragment B6, Empedocles offers his own opinion about the gods, providing
the most clear and direct evidence of four primary roots in his cosmology.
The four roots () of all things hear first:
Shining () Zeus, life-giving () Hera, Aidoneus,
and Nestis, who by her tears moistens the mortal spring. (TEGP, 344)
This obscure passage results in 2500 years of conflicting interpretations regard
ing the correspondence between these gods and the four Aristotelian elements
of fire, water, earth, and air. means root clumps, as in the founda
tion of a tree.14 From the verb , to cause to strike root, plant firmly, or to
be planted with trees, these roots bring life, water, and nutrients to all things
but also stand as sources of composition and structure for organic and inor
ganic unities. Empedocles adds love and strife as two other fundamental forces
that combine and separate these roots throughout the eons.
The doxographical tradition on this fragment offers two distinct alternatives
in multiple preserved passages.15 The earliest discussion comes from Atius,
who flourished in 100 CE: he calls the aither and the boiling Zeus, the air lifegiving Hera, the earth Aidoneus, and Nestis and the spring of mortals are, as
it were, the seed and water (Inwood, PE, 173). Rather than maintaining a fifth
element or equating aither with air, Atius reads the similarity between aither
and fire to indicate their identity, positing Zeus as both. By aligning Hera and
air, he demonstrates the distinction between it and aither on his reading; yet
he also illuminates the difficulty of reading aither as air due to the very differ
ent conceptions of the two found in the fragments. Aidoneus, a poetical form
of Hades, represents earth, while Nestis,16 a Sicilian deity of the sea with ties to
Persephone, stands for water. While this reading seems basically correct, by
14 Wright, EEF, 164; see 16667 on the four roots.
15 See Millerd, IE, 30n3 for a thorough citation on extant references to B9. Philodemus
provides the earliest discussion around 60 BCE If we accept substantial reconstruction,
he suggests, Empedocles in his hymns says that Hera and Zeus are air and fire (Inwood,
PE, 174). This oldest and direct reading supports the view of Atius. No interpretations
other than these three are known to exist before the nineteenth century.
16 On Nestis in Empedocles, see Friedrich Nietzsche, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, trans.
Greg Whitlock (Chicago: University of Illinois, 2001), 116n49, hereafter PPP; Burnet, EGP,
229; William E. Leonard, The Fragments of Empedocles (Chicago: Open Court Publishing
Company: 1908), 68; Wright, EEF, 166; Kingsley, APMM, 34858, and 375; and McKirahan,
PBS, 257.

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equating it with fire, Atius eliminates the possibility for a meaningful inter
pretation of aither.
By the third century CE an alternate reading surfaces. Hippolytus (220 CE)
and Diogenes Laertius (250 CE) switch Hades and Hera. Hippolytus writes,
Fire is Zeus; the earth which brings the fruits needed for life is Hera; air is
Aidoneus, because although we look through it at everything, it alone is not
seen; water is Nestis, for it alone is the bearer of nourishment for animals
(Inwood, PE, 174).17 The epithet life-bringing () requires Heras root
to have an integral role in all animate existence. Hippolytus finds the fruit
bearing earth to best represent the force of life between the alternatives. Hades,
then, as mysterious, dark, and unseen is associated with the invisible presence
of air. Nestis identification with water turns out to be the only consistent read
ing of the relationship between the four roots and the four elements among all
interpreters.
Around 440 CE, Johannes Stobaeus follows Atius in aligning Zeus with
aither and fire, and follows Laertius on the rest. Stobaeus finds air to be illumi
nated by the sun and aither related to boiling, providing a second challenge to
Aristotle that aither more resembles fire than air.18 Empedocles description of
blazing () aither in B98, together with other terms reminiscent
of fire (B21, B109, and B135) warns against the identification of aither with air
across the centuries. The three latest readings identify Hades with air and Hera
with earth, while the most ancient interpretation from Atius links Hades to
earth and Hera to air. Stobaeus provides a third variant by following Hippolytus,
but identifying aither with fire. Stobaeus also aligns with Atius against
Aristotle in identifying aither with fire rather than air. While none of these
interpreters hold aither as a root in its own right, this debate shows that the
characteristics of Empedoclean aither do not clearly resemble air.
More recently, alternative readings have emerged. In the late nineteenth
century, Fridericus Knatz aligns Zeus with air and Hades with fire, which
Burnet notes and supports.19 Building on the work of his previous articles,
Peter Kingsley advocates for aither instead of air, and follows the view that
17

18
19

See also, Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, vol. 2
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 391: where by Zeus he means fire, by Hera
earth, by Aidoneus air, and by Nestis water.
Stobaeus defends his identification of Hades and air: since it [air] has no light of its own
but is illuminated by the sun (Inwood, PE, 173).
Fridericus Knatz, Empedoclea, Schedae philogae Hermanno Usener a sodalibus Seminarii
Regii Bonnensis oblatae (Bonnae: F. Cohen, 1891): 19. See Burnet, EGP, 22930n3 for his
citation of Knatz.

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Hades is fire in 1995s Ancient Philosophy, Medicine and Magic.20 While the rela
tionship between Hades and fire does appeal to more Christian sensibilities,
Empedocles lived during a time with no conception of Hades or the afterlife as
fiery. Kingsley relies heavily on Empedocles references to Hephaestus as fire,
as well as fragment B51: Many fires burn below the ground, and the presence
of Mt. Aetna and hot springs on Sicily.21 The fragments and testimonia provide
ample evidence that all of the roots are spread throughout Empedocles
universe,22 and there is no direct evidence depicting Hades as fiery. I ultimately
do not find the evidence linking Hades and fire compelling and therefore reject
it as implausible in what follows.
However, Kingsleys work in uncovering the significance of aither is pro
found. He forcefully argues for the spuriousness of air in Fragment B78 and
offers an interpretation of Empedocles grounded in a robust concept of aither
in place of air. Yet he never embarks on a precise investigation of the meaning
of aither in the fragments but, instead, links fire with Hades, aither with Zeus,
and proceeds from there. This solution has little grounding in the ancient
doxographical tradition or the extant fragments. Kingsleys scholarship is
impressive, but his findings are inconclusive.
Two others reflect on the significance of aither more seriously. Nietzsche
and Guthrie both follow Atius on the representation of the roots, but do not
conflate aither and fire. Each considers the distinction between aither and air
meaningful without developing the significance of this in their interpretations
of Empedoclean philosophy. After reporting Atius account of the four roots,
Nietzsche proceeds, with little comment, to offer an alternative reading. Here,
aither, understood in relationship to the heavens, joins earth, water, and fire,
with air entirely absent from the four-fold scheme.23
20 Kingsley, APMM, 14 (with reference to B52 that many fires burn below the ground).
Millerd argues against fire as Hades because fire is gleaming in Empedocles, not gloomy
and shadow-like as is Hades (3033). For other arguments against Hades as fire, see
Guthrie, HGP 2: 14445.
21 Kingsley, FED, 23841. He attempts to link the Diogenes Laertius fragment to Theophrastus
through an Armenian fragment in order to attribute the reading that Hera is earth and
Hades air to Theophrastus. Atius as the most ancient is usually thought to be closest to
Theophrastus. In Empedocles and His Interpreters, Phronesis 40, no. 1 (1995): 10915,
Jaap Mansfield refutes this effort.
22 Consider fragments B22, B26, B35, B51, B52, B53, B56, B57, and testimonia A48, A49a, A60,
A78.
23 Nietzsche quotes fragment B6 and curtly remarks, Zeuss fire, Aidoneuss earth, Heras air,
Nestiss water (PPP, 116), following Atius. He immediately offers a different presentation
of the four elements that lists alternative and metaphorical names for earth, fire, water,

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He does not explicitly draw the connection, but Nietzsches work suggests a
potential union of Hera with aither. While not taking this step, Guthrie, too,
draws significant attention to the question of aither.24 He distinguishes two
kinds of aer in ancient Greek thought, a less pure lower cloud or mist, and
a more pure substance of the upper heavens. In Empedocles he concludes,
[s]ometimes this word seems to mean air, and sometimes fire (ITB, 50),
thereby supporting both the Aristotelian and Atian conceptions. Ultimately,
he accepts Atius view of the roots and finds that aither anticipates a divine
fifth element, as in Aristotle, without being developed as such in Empedocles
(HGP, 187).
Homer divides the world between Zeus, Poseidon, and Aidoneus, leaving
earth common to all.25 With a nod to this tradition, Empedocles introduces
earth as a root by replacing Poseidon with Hera and Nestis. Thus he adds two
female deities to his exclusive pantheon, allowing for the possibility that the
roots be understood in terms of two couples. In all likelihood, the obscure
Sicilian water goddess Nestis is related to Persephone, Hades captured bride in
the underworld. In fact, one version of her abduction takes place on the slopes
and aither, but not air. Along with these mythic designations, we are presented with:
1. [fire of the sun = beaming sun = Hephaestus]; 2.
[aither Ouranos, sky]; 3. [Ge = earth = Gaia]; 4.
[water = rain/water = river = sea] (PPP, 117).
24 See Guthrie, HGP 2: 14546 and 187 on air, and 185n1, 26263, and 315n4 on aither. The
following passages are significant: [air is] bright divine essence which in its purity
occupies...the outermost regions with fire beneath it (HGP 2: 187); aer was simply
aither contaminated with grosser matter such as moisture. This had to be so for
Empedocles, in whose system there were only four pure elemental substances, and hence
when he speaks of aither he means this bright divine essence which in its purity
occupies...the outermost regions with fire beneath it.....In the terrestrial regions we
experience it as atmospheric air or in even more adulterated forms, but as one of the four
roots it might be less misleading to call it ether (ibid.). Additionally he writes, it is
essential to be aware that this is not the sublunary air of Aristotle. It is an element whose
main mass is more distant from the earth, and nearer the outer confines of the round
universe, than is the main mass of fire (ibid.). He finds the correspondence of the gods to
the roots to be, a question is of little importance for Empedocles thought (ibid., 146).
See also W. K. C. Guthrie, In the Beginning (London: Methuen & Co, 1957), hereafter ITB:
4243 (on air as Empedocles fourth element), 50, 59 (on aither in Pythagoras), and 118nn
9 and 10.
25 Homer, Iliad, trans. A. T. Murray (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999): 15.18793
and 20.5665. In the latter passage, Aidoneus worries that above him the earth be split by
Poseidon to reveal his house (through an earthquake). As such, the Homeric Hades lives
below the earth.

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of Mt. Aetna.26 Cults of Demeter and Persephone were popular in Sicily, wor
shiping the goddesses of agriculture and the underworld. This suggests a natu
ral pairing between Nestis and Hades, on the one hand, and Hera and Zeus, on
the other.
Nestis is most clearly connected with water, and the tradition is strong in
equating Zeus and fire. The bulk of the debate lies in whether Hades is earth
and Hera air, or vice versa. The oldest traditionthat of Atiusfavors Hades
as earth. This makes good sense, as the god of the underworld is most con
nected with the earth in Empedocles time.27 This reasoning persuades
Nietzsche, Burnet, and Guthrie. Yet the earth is also called (life-
giving) in Homer,28 supporting the later views of Hippolytus and Laertius.
However Hera is understood, she must be (life-giving). Hippolytus
views his Hera-earth as fruit bearing, while Atius camp must be persuaded by
the respiratory power of air. If we accept aither in place of air, the character of
the inquiry changes. Which god best represents aither? Could Empedocles
conceive of aither as ? Aither is so much more than air that it often
gets conflated with fire. It may be neither moist nor transparent. This would
weaken some of the interpretations linking Hera with earth by damaging the
argument linking Hades with air.
If Atius identification of fire and aither is rejected, Nietzsche and Guthrie
followed on Nestis as water, Hades as earth, and Zeus as fire, and air no longer
a root, Hera remains to represent aither. This very simple solution, based upon
denying Aristotles synonymy of air and aither, conceives of aither as resembling fire rather than as being fire. While distinct in name and function in the
fragments, both are rarified, shining, and bright roots. Likewise, earth and
water form a dense, heavy, and dark pair.29
26 See Hesiod, Theogony, in Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, trans. Apostolos N.
Athanassakis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004): lines 76774 and
91214 on Hades and Persephone. See Pierre Grimal, The Dictionary of Classical Mythology
(Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998): 132 on the abduction.
27 In A History of Greek Philosophy from the Earliest Period to Socrates, trans. S. F. Alleyne
(London: Forgotten Books, 2013), 1: 48485 (first published 1881), Eduard Zeller cites Aelian
on Pythagoras maintaining that earthquakes were caused by the assemblies of the dead,
and Pythagoreans as holding strong connections with departed souls and the subterranean.
28 Burnet, EGP, 22930n3. Millerd contends that life-bringing, while appropriate to earth,
is often used with other things, and would aptly describe air, especially since, in
Empedocles view, breath is so important in sustaining the life of man and other living
creatures (IE, 31).
29 Consider Fragment B48: Earth () produces night by obstructing the light (F44/B48)
(TEGP, 370); B94: And black color arises from the shadow on the bottom of the river, and

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From this reading emerge two well-matched couples: Zeus and Hera (the
bright and rare), and Hades and Nestis (the dark and dense). Nestis and Hades
deify the heavier roots of water and earth, just as Zeus and Hera comfortably
rule the heavens together as fire and aither.30
This conclusion regarding the four roots has at least the two advantages that
the divine couples find their most pleasing poetic matches and the most
ancient tradition regarding their relationship to the deities is upheld. The most
compelling counter-argument is that removing the epithet from its
historical corollary of earth and associating it with aither breaks from histori
cal tradition. However, Empedoceles contemporary, Sophocles, casts Hades as
below the earth, such as at Electra 462: though he sleeps below, in Hades.31 At
this point, a focused investigation of aither in Empedocles is required, in order
both to understand it in its own right, and to see if any light can be shed on the
four roots controversy.
3

in Empedocles

The Greek-English Lexicon reveals a rather complete history of aither in a


short space. The word first means heaven or sky in Homer, becomes air in
Empedocles, fire in Anaxagoras, a fifth element in Aristotle, and a divine ele
ment of the soul in Philostratus (turn of third century CE).32 This story may not
be entirely accurate, as the influence of Aristotles interpretation is singular in
the cases of Empedocles and Anaxagoras. Aristotle tells us Anaxagoras views
aither as fire,33 just as he finds Empedocles to equate aither with air. While the
question of Anaxagoras requires another investigation, we shall see that the
use of aither in Empedocles seems rarely to describe a vapor, mist, wind, cloud,

likewise is seen in hollow caverns (TEGP, 396; original in Latin); and Theophrastus A69a,
Empedocles also [says] concerning colors that white is composed of fire, black of water
(TEGP, 396).
30 Wright suggests that Hades and Nestis would give a pointed contrast to the Olympian
couple (EEF, 166).
31 Sophocles, Electra, in Four Tragedies, trans. Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff (Hackett:
Indianapolis, 2007).
32 Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996), 37, s.v. .
33 Aristotle, On The Heavens 270b24, in CWA. See also Burnet, EGP, 269n1.

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or invisible space. If anything, it more resembles the Homeric meaning of sky


or heaven and as such is consistent with the analysis of B38 above.34
Before beginning on the analysis of aither proper, two fragments likely
describe aither using other poetic designations. B21 lines 36 appear to list the
four roots:
sun, shining to sight and everywhere hot,
immortal things which are soaked in heat and blazing beam,
and rain, dark and chilling in everything,
and from earth flow out intertwined and solid things. (TEGP, 356)
Earth, the hot sun as fire, dark cold rain as water, and immortal blazing heat.
The latter appears to describe a Homeric conception of aither.35 Similarly, B22
line 2 contrasts, beaming sun, earth, heaven, and sea, leaving heaven as an
allusion to either aither or air (TEGP, 356). If aither, it fits in nicely with the
Homeric meaning. If air, it does not correspond to the use in fragments B38
and B100.
Turning now to the nineteen instances of aither (in thirteen fragments),
connotations of heaven and blazing will emerge along with other traits. We
have already examined B17, where aither may be a more authentic alternative
to air in line 18; B38, where aither seems equated with Titan and compresses
the whole into a sphere as the outer heavens; and B100, where aither seems to
play a critical role in respiration in conjunction with blood. The other ten frag
ments (B9, B37, B39, B54, B71, B98, B109, B111, B115, and B135) will now be
considered.
Four fragments (B39, B54, B111, B135) work to demonstrate the prevalence
of aither in the universe. 39 suggests there is much more aither than appears
to us.
if the depths of earth and plentiful aither [ ] are unbounded
[],
as the words coming vainly through the tongue of the mouths
of many are poured out, of those who have seen little of the totality.
(TEGP, 368)
34

35

On air as mist and aither as bright, shining sky in Homer and Hesiod, see Burnet, EGP, 269;
Guthrie, HGP 1:466 and 2:185 and 262; and Charles H. Kahn, Anaximander and the Origins
of Greek Cosmology (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994): 13646.
Millerd believes that fragment B21 (line 4) describes aither. She considers the distinction
between air and aither, but maintains the primacy of air (IE, 33).

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While this criticism of Xenophanes does not maintain aither as , the


adjective (abundance and plenty) directly modifies it. The criticism of
an infinite universe in favor of Empedocles limited view does not contradict
the plentitude of aither within the finite cosmos. Although not limitless, the
depths of the earth are profound, and their contrast is not with the height of
the heavens, but with the plentitude of aither, as if aither were everywhere. B54
confirms that aither exists below the ground, where it would seem least likely
to appear: aither sank under the earth with long roots. B111, lines 79 read,
and you shall produce from black rain timely drought
for men, and you shall produce from summer drought
tree-nourishing streams, which dwell in aither. (TEGP, 404)
In this fragment, Empedocles boasts of great accomplishments, including
knowledge of some kind of irrigation. The idea that tree-nourishing
() streams dwell in aither could mean either that the streams
originate either on mountaintops or from underground springs, where aither
may be more prevalent, that aither is intermingled with the streams them
selves, allowing the water to bring nourishment, or that rains from the heavens
bring aither to earth. While an exact conclusion is unclear, one thing can be
garnered from this: that the ability of water to nourish plant-life requires some
relationship to aither. Finally, B135 characterizes aither as wide-ruling: But
what is lawful for all extends continuously; both through wide-ruling aither
[ ] and through vast sunlight. This characterization
suggests that aither constitutes much of the heavens, as suggested by the
Homeric meaning and fragments such as B38.
Too long to be considered in full, Fragment B115 describes exile of gods to
become all varieties of mortal creatures because of crimes committed against
the innocent. This fall of daimones from divine to mortal existence occurs as a
transmigration through the elements:36
For mighty () aither () drives him into sea,
sea spews him onto the surface of the earth, and earth to the rays
of the shining sun, who casts him into the whirls of aither
[ ]. (lines 911)
As in B38, Empedocles seems to use the sun as an image for fire. Thus, the
middle of this sentence describes a motion from water to earth to fire. This
36

See Graham, TEGP, 423.

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transformation occurs from and to aither, the only root to be mentioned twice
in this passage. In fact, is the first word of the sentence and the geni
tive noun of the final clause.37 This poetic significance highlights aither in this
passage, a term thought insignificant to Empedocles for so long, by showing its
central position in his cosmology.
Two words describe aither in B38: first, ; second, . The adjective
means mighty or forceful. Yet it also means passion of the soul, strength,
or fierceness in animals, intention or purpose, and life, being a synonym for
at Iliad 5.296 (which means life in Homer). All of these meanings are
Homeric and familiar to Empedocles, and all of them suggest a relationship
between aither and life. The words connotations suggest a special force and
power for aither among the roots, one integrally involved in the fierceness, pas
sion, and purposes of living beings. An important topic in early Greek cosmol
ogy, is a whirl of wind or water. It has vaguely to do with the generation of
the cosmos from an originary moment, in Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus,
and perhaps as far back as Anaximander and Anaximenes.38 Associating
with aither bestows a mysterious significance to this element with respect to
the creation of the multifarious cosmos populated by gods and mortals.
Overall, its symmetrical placement in this description of transmigration
through the roots, together with the characterizations of and ,
reveals aither as holding a meaningful place in the great cosmic cycles of birth
and death.
A second fragment attributes a crucial role to aither in the transmigration of
souls. B9 cryptically places aither at the heart of mortal birth.
when [ ] as these things are mixed together they come to aither in
a man [],
or in the race of wild beasts or of bushes
or birds, then [ ] <they call> it birth []
and when they are separated, this [ ] in turn they call pitiful fate;
they do <not> speak rightly, but I myself concur in the custom. (TEGP, 348)

37

In consideration of Daniel W. Grahams Symmetry in the Cosmic Cycle, The Classical


Quarterly 38, no. 2 (1988): 297312, the positioning of aither at the beginning and end of
this cycle of transformation holds special significance.
38 Burnet, EGP, 6162, and 61n3; 23740 on Empedocles; 269 on Anaxagoras; 34446 on
Leucippus.

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Empedocles describes birth () consistently with the Parmenidean


denial of coming to be: nothing new enters or leaves reality.39 The passage
could mean that when aither in some way enters a mixture (line 1), a living
being (a bird, beast, human, or plant) is animated.40 When the mixture sepa
rates and aither departs, that is death (line 3). In truth, this language misleads,
as no new soul comes into or leaves the world. In this fragment, aither can be
interpreted to explain how life enters a body, playing the role soon to be ful
filled by an immaterial Platonic or Aristotelian soul. Such an embodied, aithe
rial soul could transmigrate from body to body by becoming a material
component of different mixtures, either in whole or in part.
Fragments B71 and B98 further develop the question of aither in
Empedoclean mixtures, with each depicting the combination of the roots into
more complex forms. B71 describes how the mixture of the four roots, with
aither in place of air and sun standing for fire, gives rise to living creatures
through the work of Aphrodite, or love.
If your belief in these things is at all lacking,
how from the mingling of water, earth, aither, and sun
arose the forms and colors of mortal things [ ],
all that now come to be, compounded by Aphrodite. (TEGP, 394)
Here, this process of producing mortal things , where
means skin, and living bodies with skin, and means liable to death and
mortalshould be understood as the generation of living things. The frag
ment shows all four roots to be involved, without attributing a special place to
any of them. The work of combining belongs to Aphrodite. B98 portrays a very
similar situation.
Earth met with these in most equal measure,
with Hephaestus, rain, and blazing [] aither,
dropping anchor in the perfect harbors of Cypris,
39

40

As in fragments B11 and B12. See Patricia Curd, The Metaphysics of Physics: Mixture and
Separation in Empedocles and Anaxagoras, Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of
Alexander Mourelatos, ed. Victor Caston and Daniel W. Graham (Burlington: Ashgate
Publishing Company, 2002), 13958, esp. 14653. For single guillemets in B9 as signifying
textual alteration of the original Greek manuscript because of textual corruption, see
TEGP, 348.
The grammar supports this reading: in line 1 with in line 3, and these with
in line 4.

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either a little greater or less among more parts,


and from them came [] blood and other kinds of flesh [].
(TEGP, 380)
Different organic materials arise from the blending of the four elements in dif
ferent, but precise, ratios. Again, we have the apparent poetic listing of the four
roots, with Earth joining Hephaestus as fire, rain for water, and aither (described
as blazing, ), as well as great emphasis placed on love, here Cypris,
in affecting mixtures. In particular, the fragment mentions the generation of
blood and other kinds of flesh. As in B71, Empedocles is concerned with living
beings: there, whole creatures; here, particular tissues and organs. Two addi
tional points may be gathered from B98. First, as , aither is blazing,
bright, shining, or beaming, as in a sword brandished in the sunlight. This more
resembles a divine, heavenly aither than a mist-like principle of air. Second,
the formation of blood recalls the unique relationship between aither and
blood developed in the clepsydra analogy.41 At minimum, the passage shows
that all the roots, including aither are relevant to the production of blood, so
central to life.
As we are in part investigating a possible relationship between aither and
life in Empedocles, it is appropriate to briefly consider the connection between
love and life. The above two fragments show love and each of the four roots as
operative in the generation of living things and their parts. Interpreters occa
sionally defend love as the principle of life for Empedocles, in part based on
the role of Cypris and Aphrodite above.42 With the spotlight now on aither, its
absence in fragment B96, is perhaps more conspicuous. It describes the forma
tion of bone from two parts earth, two parts water, and four parts fire:
Pleasant earth in well-wrought crucibles
got two parts of glittering Nestis, out of its eight parts,
and four from Hephaestus; and white bones were produced,
joined by the marvelous glue of Harmony. (TEGP, 380)
Harmony likely describes the combinatory motion of love, so only aither is
missing in the production of the skeleton. Platos Phaedo 80cd points out that

41
42

Also consider B105, which claims thought is blood around the heart (TEGP, 398).
See Simon Trepanier, Empedocles on the Ultimate Symmetry of the World, Oxford
Studies in Ancient Philosophy 24 (2003): 157, for view that love is not the force of life (3);
Kahns RNP, 21 and 27; and Guthrie, HGP 2: 265.

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the bones last long after life has left the body.43 They are the most inorganic of
the organic substances, and for Empedocles do not include aither in their com
position. This suggests that, upon death, the fleshy parts of the body that do
include aither and require its constant influx through respiration quickly decay
upon its departure. Bone, of which aither is not a component, persists alone,
thereby explaining the cause of skeletal remains. While love is required to
combine, without aither there may be no life in Empedoclean thought.
The two remaining fragments support a number of points previously devel
oped. B37 reads, Earth increases its own body [
], aither increases aither [ ]. Above, B39 compared the
depths of the earth and the abundance of aither in their limitlessness. Now,
aither and earth are again paired, insofar as they increase themselves, likely in
the way characteristic of biological growth (). Now, we have seen that
the four roots grow together in generation of a living body and its parts, so the
pairing of earth and aither may represent all four.44 Alternatively, earth ()
is said to increase its own body (). means the body, especially the
living body and its frame.45 As earth increases its own living body so does aither
increase itself as aither. That is, as earth is to the living body, so aither is to itself.
By this analogy, earth may or may not live, but aither must be essentially alive.
If, for Empedocles, aither designates some sort of life force or material soul, it
would make sense for it to grow in the way characteristic of organic bodies.
B109 lends credence to the view that aither rather than air is the fourth root,
supporting the alternative manuscripts of B17.
By earth we behold earth, by water water,
by aither divine [] aither, but by fire blinding fire
by affection affection, strife by dreadful strife. (TEGP, 398)

43 Plato, Phaedo, ed. John Burnet (London: Oxford University Press, 1911). Also consider
Empedocles, B62: Come, now, how of men and of much-lamenting women; distinguishing
fire brought up shoots at night; learn from these words, for it is not a pointless or
unenlightening tale; whole-natured kinds first rose up from earth; having a portion of
both water and heat; fire sent them up in its desire to reach its like; forms which did not
yet manifest any pleasant figure of limbs; nor voice, nor organ of speech native to men
(TEGP, 384). And Empedocles, B73: As Cypris then, when she moistened earth in rain;
busily produced forms and gave it to swift fire to solidify (TEGP, 394). In both of these
fragments, love combines without the clear presence of aither.
44 So Aristotle interprets it at GC 331b1, in CWA, the fragments origin.
45 Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 378, s.v. .

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In this fragment generally understood as concerned with human perception,


, ,, and are clearly listed as the four roots. Along with love
and strife, each is implicated in a theory of perception of like by like. Other
than emphasizing aither as the fourth root, this passage also describes it as
, meaning divine or heavenly and is used to describe noble men, women,
gods, goddesses, animals, and nature.46 Again, the adjective modifying aither
rings with connotations of power and life.
In The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, Nietzsche writes, Empedocles entire
pathos comes back to this point, that all living things are one; in this respect the
gods, human beings, and animals are one (PPP, 109). The many references to
the transmigration of souls in Empedocles offer powerful evidence for this
claim. The theory of respiration in B100 involves the exchange of aither
between the body and the environment, suggesting an animate individual
feeding itself with a life-giving substance. The prevalence of aither through
out the world, its life-bearing, divine, and heavenly attributes, and the pos
sibility that inorganic mixtures lack aither while living beings always contain
it, all further support this Nietzschean thesis regarding the unity of life in
Empedoclean philosophy. Ultimately, aither could provide a unified, ani
mate, and material force with the capacity to account for Empedocles
method of reincarnation and the ethical obligation he maintains towards all
other living things.
4 Conclusion
Heidegger has taught the difficulty of escaping history and glimpsing the fac
ticity appropriate to an ancient philosophical system. Cherniss has warned
against Aristotles propensity to distort the truth regarding his predecessors.47
To reconstruct the facticity of Empedocles worldview may lie beyond our
reach, but we can certainly sift through later distortions in order to uncover
a more authentic perspective. In the first instance, the fragments bear out
very little resemblance between aither and either Empedoclean or Aristotelian
air. Aither names a glorious and mysterious stuff, integral to shining beauty,
organic animation, and the structure of the heavens. A summary of the
46
47

Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 43435, s.v. .


Harold Cherniss, Aristotles Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore, The Johns
Hopkins Press, 1935). See McDiarmid, Theophrastus on the Presocratic Causes, (SPP,
esp. 20910) for support of Cherniss; and W. K. C. Guthrie, Aristotle as Historian, (SPP,
23954) for the opposing view.

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fragments examined above reveals aither as being characterized in terms of


Titan, immortality, blazing () bright heat, heaven, unbounded
() plentitude (), wide-ruling ( ), mighty and liv
ing (), cosmos-generating whirlpools (), and divine (). Further,
several fragments bestow a special relationship to animate processes upon
aither. It is said to be tree-nourishing and self-growing (); and finally, frag
ments B9, B71, and B98 implicate aither in the generation of organic mixtures.
Two preliminary points may be gained from this survey of aither in
Empedocles. First, aither bears little resemblance to air, either the mist-like air
related to water in fragments B38 and B100, or the Aristotelian air that is hot
and wet. In fact, there is no association of wetness with aither, which is instead
hot, bright, and blazing. Contra Aristotle, Empedoclean aither surely is not the
gaseous matter most akin to water vapor. It is shining and bright and more akin
to fire than to water or air. If the four roots are to be paired according to the
similarity of their tangible qualities, bright and hot aither and fire belong
together, as do the cold and dark water and earth. Additionally, the fragments
suggest some relationship between aither and life, offering some support
that Heras epithet of may signify aither in Empedocles unique
cosmology.
Returning to the question of the four roots, it is true that an authoritative
interpretation lies beyond reach due to the limitations of surviving fragments.
However, the view that life-giving Hera could describe aither has found signifi
cant support. On this view, the goddess Hera inhabits the heavens with her
husband, and the queen of the gods becomes what we could effectively call a
material soul: a single root, mixed throughout the universe, which brings life
by comingling with the other elements. The exchange of aither in B100 would
explain how life transmigrates and sustains itself, and how the entire world
can be Nietzsches single living thing.
If Hera correctly represents the root of aither, that is, if aither really is
in addition to , exhibiting , and related to , it becomes
the spark of life that permeates Empedocles cosmos. Nothing like air, and in
no way consuming or destructive like fire, aither would provide a material
foundation for life, and an alternative to love as the source of this power. While
has been applied to the earth before Empedocles, Hades realm is
also understood as the underworld. In addition to the earth, occasionally
refers to the underworld. Maintaining either Hades or Hera as earth finds some
difficulty, but upholding Hera as aither grounds a consistent interpretation of
this root in the fragments.
Rejecting Aristotles interpretation of aither and air as synonyms opens new
possibilities for Empedoclean philosophy. Whether or not Empedocles was the
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first to list earth, he may not have precisely prefigured his successor. Aither
bears little resemblance to Aristotelian air. Whether motivated by intention,
misreading, or disinterest, Aristotles historical methodology fosters interpre
tations of Empedocles that originate from Aristotles own worldview. By con
ceiving of the roots as divine, they become far more significant to Empedoclean
philosophy than they are for Aristotle, who understands the four material ele
ments entirely in terms of the pairs of primary material contrarieties.
Much is made of Aristotles penchant for the distortion of his predecessors
to serve the interests of his own philosophical system. Metaphysics s geneal
ogy happily finds Empedocles to be the first to assert the four elements, while
Aristotle reserves a special use for aither as a fifth element that composes the
bodies of eternal heavenly substances. Perhaps Aristotle minimizes the dis
tinctions between Empedocles roots because he wants to understand all mat
ter more generally as potentiality. In Physics , he even suggests Empedocles
views the four material elements as a single principle, so that together with
love and strife there are three principles.48 However, this obscures the mean
ingful differences and complex functions of the four roots. Finally, Aristotle
maintains an immaterial conception of the soul. His account of unqualified
generation, or birth, involves immaterial form coming to be through a persist
ing material substratum. Aither, as conceived, provides an alternative to the
generation of life through complex change. By proposing a single element that
brings life to all things with which it mixes, Empedocles holds an alternative
that could render Aristotles account unnecessary.49 This could pose a danger
ous objection that Aristotle may have preferred not to foster.
Such speculation on Aristotles motivations deserves more careful treat
ment in the future. For now, suffice it to say that by accommodating
Empedoclean philosophy to his own, Aristotles account is radically different
from the worldview of his predecessor. By providing an alternative to the con
ception of the soul favored by Aristotle, this fourth root explains the phenom
ena of life without reference to immaterial substance or form. Could B37 be
Empedocles account of the growth of a material body and material soul?
48
49

Burnet (EGP, 231n2) notes that Aristotle twice criticizes Empedocles for treating his four
as only two, at Metaphysics .4 985a31, in CWA, and GC .3 330b19.
Consider Plutarchs comments on B9 in Reply to Colotes in regard to this point: he is not
getting rid of coming-into-being, but only coming-into-being from what is not, nor getting
rid of destruction, but only utter destruction, i.e. destruction into what is not (Inwood,
PE, 95). On the contrary, Aristotle himself dismisses this reading: Empedocles regarded
the soul as being composed of all the elements and each of these as being a soul
(De Anima 404b1112).

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Finally, consider how taking aither as a beaming, life-giving root harmonizes


with the words of Hlderlins Empedocles:
And every day those who were contented drank
From Heavens springs,
Seeded with light and sparks of life,
Flowering out of the aether.50
Acknowledgment
The author would like to thank Daniel W. Graham and the participants at PACT
2012 for their comments.
Abbreviations
APMM Peter Kingsley. Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and the
Pythagorean Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
CWA 
The Complete Works of Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1984.
EEF M. R. Wright. Empedocles: the Extant Fragments. Indianapolis: Hackett
Publishing Company, 1995.
EGP
John Burnet. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1948.
FED 
Peter Kingsley, Empedocles and His Interpreters: The Four-Element
Doxography, Phronesis 39, no. 3 (1994): 23554.
GC Aristotle. On Generation and Corruption. In The Complete Works of Aristotle.
HGP W. K. C. Guthrie. A History of Greek Philosophy, vols. 1 and 2. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1980.
IE Clara Elizabeth Millerd, On the Interpretation of Empedocles. New York:
Garland Publishing, 1980.
ITB
W. K. C. Guthrie. In the Beginning. London: Methuen & Co, 1957.
MW Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretations with Respect to
Aristotle: Indication of the Hermeneutical Situation, Man and World 25
(1992): 35593.

50

Hlderlin, The Death of Empedocles, in Dennis J. Schmidt, On Germans and Other


Greeks: Tragedy and Ethical Life (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001): 17390,
here 179; see also 183 on aither.

research in phenomenology 44 (2014) 170193

aither and the four roots in empedocles

193

PBS Richard D. McKirahan. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett


Publishing Company, 2010.
PE Brad Inwood. The Poem of Empedocles. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2001.
PPP Friedrich Nietzsche. The Pre-Platonic Philosophers. Translated by Greg
Whitlock. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2001.
RPN 
Charles H. Kahn. Religion and Natural Philosophy in Empedocles
Doctrine of the Soul, Archiv fr Geschichte der Philosophie 42 (1960): 335,
esp. 915.
SPP 
Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, ed. David J. Furley and Reginald E. Allen,
vol. 1 (New York: Humanities Press, 1970), 178238.
TEGP Daniel W. Graham, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy, Part I and Part II.
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Page numbers are consecu
tive across the two volumes.

research in phenomenology 44 (2014) 170193