Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato – spiritual philosophy

Medieval accounts of the Cosmos such as that given by the character Taliesin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Life of Merlin’ are based upon much older pagan philosophies:

“…I shall tell thee a twofold tale. At one time it grew to be one only out of many; at another, it divided up to be many instead of one. There is a double becoming of perishable things and a double passing away. The coming together of all things brings one generation into being and destroys it; the other grows up and is scattered as things become divided. And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife. Thus, as far as it is their nature to grow into one out of many, and to become many once more, when the one is parted asunder, so far they come into being and their life abides not. But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence…” Empedocles of Acragas/Agrigentum (Sicily) – 5thC BCE (From: ‘Fragments’ of the Strasbourg Papyrus)

Empedocles was one of the ‘Pre-Socratic’ (Pre-Hellenic) philosophers of the ancient Greek world – a group of individuals including Pythagoras of Samos (attributed to the 6thC BCE, but possibly even legendary) about whom we know little except of what was reported much later. In the case of Empedocles, we are lucky as some of his contemporary writings survive. Empedocles is credited with developing the cosmogenic theory of the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) which her referred to as ‘roots’ of matter, and which was to dominate the worldview of the ancient European, North African and Middle-Eastern peoples right through to the 17th century. Whether or not he was the true originator remains to be seen, but he became an icon of this to the Greeks. His surviving fragmentary works were – like those of Homer and Hesiod – written in a poetic verse, suggesting a possible connection to an oral transmission tradition. He was as much concerned with spiritualism and religion as what we moderns would think of as ‘philosophy’ – to the ancients there was no difference. As a Sicilian Greek, he would have had access to and interest in the ‘Celtic’ peoples and their philosopher-priests. His belief in transmigration of the soul was supposedly shared by/derived from Pythagoras and was common to the Orphic/Eleusinian mysteries, as well as by the Atlantic Europeans. The Greeks would never admit that they derived anything or shared a common heritage with the ‘Barbarian’ world, of course!

The Cosmogony attributed to Empedocles was used by Plato of Athens some 100 years later during the era of the Hellenic expansion. His famous dialogue ‘Timaeus’ discussed the structure of reality and history of creation, framed within Plato’s theories of geometry and number, itself derived from ideas of Pythagoras. Here he discusses the relationship between the elements (stoichaea):

“…Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also God in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer…” Plato – Dialogue of Timaeus (4thC BCE, Athens)

You will note that Plato talks of the ‘creator’ or ‘God’ as a single force (you’d need to check the Greek original, though!) – surprisingly like the idea of God to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamist faith it would seem. This might seem strange, until one realises that to Plato and the philosophers of this age this was a natural part of polytheismthe plural ‘gods’ were a description of the important functions and continuum of time and space between the philosophical absolute ‘Monad’ and the dissolution of chaos. This was quantum physics for the mind! To worship the Monad was as senseless as worshipping pure chaos.

In the following passage from Timaeus, he explains how the stars and souls are one, expressing a great deal of the same theory as Empedocles, no doubt one of his formative sources. He tells how – as well as the universe being a huge soul ‘framework’ in itself, the souls of beings (gods and mortals) were made by combining them with aspects of the elements:

“…and once more into the cup in which he (ed: the Creator) had previously mingled the soul of the universe he poured the remains of the elements, and mingled them in much the same manner; they were not, however, pure as before, but diluted to the second and third degree. And having made it he divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star; and having there placed them as in a chariot, he showed them the nature of the universe, and declared to them the laws of destiny, according to which their first birth would be one and the same for all,-no one should suffer a disadvantage at his hands; they were to be sown in the instruments of time severally adapted to them, and to come forth the most religious of animals; and as human nature was of two kinds, the superior race would here after be called man. Now, when they should be implanted in bodies by necessity, and be always gaining or losing some part of their bodily substance, then in the first place it would be necessary that they should all have in them one and the same faculty of sensation, arising out of irresistible impressions; in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously. He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state. Having given all these laws to his creatures, that he might be guiltless of future evil in any of them, the creator sowed some of them in the earth, and some in the moon, and some in the other instruments of time; and when he had sown them he committed to the younger gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies, and desired them to furnish what was still lacking to the human soul, and having made all the suitable additions, to rule over them, and to pilot the mortal animal in the best and wisest manner which they could, and avert from him all but self-inflicted evils…”

    Although seeming mysogynistic to modern readers, Plato’s opinions about unworthy souls being reincarnated first in the body of a woman, and next in that of a ?beast have to be judged, firstly by the standards of his culture and age, and secondarily by considering the otherworld inversion principle I have made previous references to in terms of ancient spirit beliefs. For instance, the ancient Gaelic belief in hereditary healing and protective charms always had contrasexual inheritance as its core mode of transmission. Plato’s audience at his seminars were privileged Athenian males.

   In spite of his apparent misogyny, he was steadfastly devoted to the principles of Sensation (resulting, he believed, from the conflict between matter and spirit and the soul) and Love as the highest faculties motivating humanity. These, to him and his devotees of future generations, were represented in the Goddesses Athena (Strife) and Aphrodite (Love).

The views of Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato were to have a profound influence upon religious philosophy in the Hellenic and Roman empires, inspiring new generations of philosophers who flourished from the 3rdC BCE to the 4thC CE. The philosophical origins of christianity may in fact be based upon them – albeit with a one-sided doctrine of ‘Love thy Neighbour’ and the denial of the sensationalist aspect…. 


The ancient philosophical model of existence

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

The ancients had a very practical, empirically deductive and reductive system of describing how the universe worked. This was based on a synthesis of observations of natural cycles, the rotation of the stars and planets, and the physical properties of things, and it produced an intellectual ‘map’ which included both the earth and the heavens, people, animals, spirits and gods and described how they interacted – quite some achievement!

This system divided the universe into the mundane world and the spheres of the heavens. The mundane world and everything in it was deemed to be made of four ‘Elements’: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These were under the control of a fifth element called Spirit or Aether, which was the substance from which the stars, heavens, gods, souls and spirits were formed. Aether was the ‘divine substance’ and was the driving ‘spirit’ of nature.

The elements were in a state of continuity and flux with one another. The theory arose from observations of how natural things change their qualities, through inductive reasoning. Solid stone becomes liquid under the influence of heat, water becomes solid ice when heat is taken away. Water and solids (‘earth’) becomes gaseous (air) when evaporated by heat (fire). Water lies on top of earth in the oceans, fire rises up above air towards the heavens, which are made of spirit. Rain falling from the heavens brings life back to the land, so it must have partaken of the animating spirit of Aether. Different animals were classified by their affinity to elements: snakes to the earth, birds to the air, fish to water etc. The system even made up animals that associated with fire (the phoenix)! Even the human body was deemed to made of four ‘humors’ which represented the elements. It seemed the most logical way to view things.


The ancient Greek word for an element was Stoicheon, meaning ‘to line up’, probably after the elements’ dynamic relationships as just mentioned. The system was first described in Mediterranean European literature by Greeks including Empedocles of Sicily (who described them as ‘roots of nature’ under the influence of the twin forces of love and hate), and later fleshed out in discourse by Plato and Aristotle at Athens. Plato frequently ascribes such learning to his favourite ancient scholars – the Egyptians, especially so in his book known as The Dialogue of Timaeus or just Timaeus, from the 4thC BCE.  However, we know that these divisions were obvious to all in the ancient world – why else would people everywhere offer burnt sacrifices to their spiritual gods during the Bronze Age, why were bodies cremated if not to release their souls back into the sphere of spirit?  The Greeks just wanted to appear first with a ‘published’ system in literature – something that Julius Caesar said the Druids of Atlantic Europe in the 1stC BCE apparently abhorred, even though they used Greek writing for secular matters!

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

Above the elemental world in this ancient map lay the heavens, comprising of the moving stars (planets and constellations) and above these the fixed stars of the Empyrean, representing the universal spiritual godhead! Yes – even before Hebrew monotheistic religion came to dominate Europe in the form of Christianity, Islam and Rabbinic Judaism, those polytheistic pagans had a concept of a unified central spirit! This may come as something of a surprise…

The spiritual ‘Gods’ were represented by the moving stars of the visible planets, the sun and the moon, who could be seen moving most rapidly across the sky and interacting with the constellations. The constellations appeared at different points in the sky, marking different times of the year. The interactions between the planets and constellations provided an ‘astral story’ narrative that linked their appearance and activity to natural phenomena in the elemental realm of existence. Many ancient religious stories offer explanations for how the constellations came to be. Astrology was the science of interpreting the conjunctions of planets and constellations with their influence upon the elemental world

The fact is that paganism itself was not in its origins so much an adorative suppliant religion as a Philosophy or Science describing existence through the relation of allegory and archetypes in the form of gods. This system was most successfully illustrated in a dialectic fashion through the arts: Story, poetry, illustration, dance and drama. Given the complex and plastic nature of reality, a literary representation would be too limited and didactic to hold true.

The problem with Europe during the period known as the ‘Iron Age’, was that there was a pressure, particularly within powerful centralised cultures, to represent the figurative in an increasingly concrete or literal manner. this caused the philosophical ‘gods’ to become physical manifestations, commodities and properties under the control of worldy human power.  If Caesar was correct about the Druids refusing to commit their religious doctrines to writing, then he was describing a political religious movement which recognised and rebelled against this change which characterised their era.