Survival of the Surreal

Just listened to an amazing podcast on Empedocles (492-432 BC), quite a fascinating figure among pre-socratics. Beside claiming to be a god, who was in previous lives, among many characters, a bush too, and had a spectacular public appearance – wearing a laurel wreath, a gold crown, purple robe and bronze sandals – resurrecting the dead and curing the plague; he also developed a novel theory of cosmos and zoogony. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has quite an informative entry on Empedocles‘ ideas which, quite frankly, in modern terms, mix Dalí with Darwin – a surrealist theory of evolution – on how living beings come to be,

Empedocles says that there was a time when separate limbs wandered around on their own:

Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads (B 57).

The wandering and straying suggest aimless and disorderly movements (and so, some influence of Strife). Then, however, these separate limbs combined in random ways to make fantastic creatures:

Many creatures were born with faces and breasts on both sides, man-faced ox-progeny, while others again sprang forth as ox-headed offspring of man, creatures compounded partly of male, partly of the nature of female, and fitted with shadowy parts. (B 61)

In these fragments there is a change from separateness to combination. Combination is, of course, the work of Love. Whether this phase also produced non-fantastic creatures, e.g., ox-headed oxen, is not clear. Aristotle seemed to think it did, because he says some of these combinations were fitted to survive (Aristotle, Phys. II 8, 198b29).

Who says philosophy is not exciting?


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