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The Interaction between Mind and Soul in Empedocles’ Philosophy

Chiara Ferella

Topoi/Humboldt University of Berlin

In doctrines of metempsychosis, the soul of an individual that passes through different bodies must preserve in some sense the personality of that individual. Otherwise, transmigration is meaningless (see Huffmann 2009). Yet Empedocles of Agrigento (fifth century BCE), who taught metempsychosis, does not seem to have had a concept of soul responsible for personality. Actually, Empedocles explained away psychological and mental processes, upon which personality rests, by resorting to the ratio earth, water, air and fire, namely to the elementary structures of the body organs (phrēn, heart, prapides, blood, etc.) that are dissolved at death. Thus, since Eduard Zeller (1919-20: 1005), scholars have maintained that there is no possible interaction between mind and transmigrating soul in Empedocles’ philosophical system (see Vlastos 1952; Long 1966; Barnes 1982 and, more recently, Primavesi 2013). In contrast, I show that: 1) Empedocles has a notion of soul as a principle constituting and preserving the individual person beyond bodily consciousness, that is, beyond those body organs endowing the living being with life and consciousness. 2) Soul and mind in Empedocles interact with each other: the former is a perfect image of the latter, but is inactive during conscious living. Indeed, soul is shaped by the “products” of mind and preserves memory of them during the life of the body and beyond.

My analysis first focuses on Homer’s notion of soul, since Empedocles, as his soul terminology shows, is likely to have inherited and employed this traditional notion in his physical poem. Scholars traditionally interpret ψυχή in Homer as the principle of life (the so-called ‘life-breath’), which, as it plays no active role in conscious and waking life, has no psychological and mental connotation (see Snell 1960; Nussbaum 1972; Claus 1981; Bremmer 1983 and Sullivan 1988). However, Andromache fainting before the corpse of her spouse in Il. 22.465ff. indicates that living beings can live in absence of their ψυχή. Yet there is waking life only when the ψυχή –albeit silent and inactive- is in the body. On the other hand, the disembodied ψυχαί of the suitors in Od. 24.20ff. and, above all, the ψυχαί encountered by Odysseus in Od. 11 have psychological and mental connotations, and can be very conscious. Indeed, ψυχή functions here as a living person. It follows that the ψυχή is the principle enabling consciousness during waking life and preserving the individual person when his body faints or dies. In fact, it is a perfect image of memory of the living person and replaces him beyond one’s lifetime. This demonstrates that Homer conceptualized individuality as something that can endure the death of those body organs endowing the person with life and consciousness.

This traditional concept of ψυχή enables Empedocles to postulate a transmigrating soul carrying the individual person through various bodies, even though those organs endowing the body with life and consciousness perish at death. In Empedocles, like in Homer, the soul is a perfect image of memory of the living person. This allows recollection of previous lives (see DK 31 B 117). Nevertheless, an aspect of Empedocles’ doctrine of purification indicates that Empedocles developed further the Homeric notion of soul. In fragment 110, Empedocles’ concern for purity, which is primarily directed to the liberation of the soul from rebirths, is envisaged as the way enabling one’s mind to receive and comprehend the truth. This clearly points to an interaction between soul and mind. In fact, purification enables the soul to escape rebirths to the extent that it enables the mind to know the truth. Thus, only when the mind is pure the soul gets assimilated to the divine and escapes metempsychosis. This shows that the soul, albeit silent and inactive during waking life, is continuously shaped by all “products” of the mind and preserves memory of them during the life of the body and beyond.

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Mind and Matter

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