At the end of October 2018, I followed in to the footsteps of two of my colleagues, Alison Sharrock and Peter Liddel, in travelling to Trinity College Dublin to give the 2018 W. B. Stanford Memorial Lectures. The Stanford Lectures were established in honour of Professor William Bedel Stanford who was Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College between 1940 and 1980 and it was a privilege to be invited. I used this as an opportunity to try out, across three lectures, some of the material I have been working on for my ongoing project on the early Greek philosopher Empedocles. Empedocles has long been one of my favourite philosophers and I am particularly interested in the relationship between the form and content of his philosophical teachings. Like his predecessors, Xenophanes and Parmenides, Empedocles’ philosophy is presented in hexameter verse of which only parts survive, almost exclusively as quotations in later authors. The primary focus of my project is on the role and nature of knowledge, wisdom and perception in Empedocles’ poem. This topic demands a consideration not only of what he has to say about how perception works or what kind of knowledge we can achieve, but also of the kind of knowledge and authority Empedocles himself claims in communicating his teachings in verse.
My first lecture sought to get to grips with the implications of the various labels we use to discuss both Empedocles and other early Greek philosophers and their teachings: ‘poet’, ‘philosopher’, ‘poet-philosopher’, ‘science’, ‘philosophy’, ‘religion’ etc. My worry is that, in applying such terms, we are categorizing Empedocles’ thought in ways that are not always justifiable on the basis of the evidence. Such labels encourage us to construct and impose illegitimate distinctions in our discussions of the evidence. However, it is also fair to say that it is almost impossible to talk about early Greek thinkers without using such labels and distinctions. So what are we to do? My suggestion is that we can make a useful start from Empedocles’ claims of authority. He makes various such claims in different ways which touch on and combine many of the aspects of his thought to which we are likely to apply labels. In asserting the value and truth of his teachings, he sometimes appeals to the Muse, sometimes to empirical evidence and sometimes even to his own divinity. We need to think about the implications of these claims and their relationship to one another. In doing so, we may find a more robust and inclusive context in which to consider his teachings as a whole.
My second lecture focused on fragment B23, in which Empedocles appears to liken the creation of the world to the creation of painted images. Just as painters mix a limited number of pigments to produce a whole range of images, so the cosmic ‘forces’ of Love and Strife mix together four physical principles (earth, aether, fire and water) to produce everything in the cosmos. Scholars generally focus on what this fragment implies about the physical process of creation, asking whether it means that Love and Strife cooperate and what sort of mixture or blending of physical principles the analogy might imply. For me, what is interesting is that Empedocles uses an everyday example of creation to explain cosmic processes. In this way, he is pointing to our experience to ratify his teachings. In the final lines of the fragment, however, he insists on the authority of his teaching on the basis that he is divine (‘know these things clearly, having heard the story from a god’). The question here is what sense we can make of the relation between an appeal to the authority of experience (which seems to ask to be judged on its own terms) and an appeal to divine authority (which seems to be independent of the evidence)
My final lecture discussed B129, a fragment that describes ‘a man of exceptional knowledge’, someone who has achieved a great ‘wealth’ of knowledge. Scholars have often followed ancient commentators in assuming this fragment to be about Pythagoras, particularly because of what appears to be a reference to remembering past lives in the final lines. In fact, however, the fragment does not name Pythagoras, nor does it actually state that the wise man is wise as a result of remembering the experience of past lives. I am particularly interested in the possibility and implications of reading this fragment as suggesting that access to the experience of multiple lives is a consequence of wisdom, rather than its cause.
I am immensely grateful to the staff and students of TCD for their enormously kind invitation to give the Stanford lectures, for their hospitality and, especially, for the stimulating and helpful discussions they offered for each of my lectures. I have plenty of work to do in developing these lectures further and expanding my discussion, but it was a privilege to be able to take some first steps with the help of such a receptive audience.