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—— 3 —— The Flowering of Ecological Roots Empedocles’ Elemental Thought To the elements it came from / Everything will return / Our bodies to earth, / Our blood to water / Heat to fire, / Breath to air. / They were well-born, they will be well-entomb’d! —Mathew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna Primary images have a philosophical advantage: by studying them, we may examine in connection with each of them practically all the problems of a metaphysics of imagination. The image of the root is particularly suitable in this respect. —Gaston Bachelard, Earth and the Reveries of Repose What is at question in the rhizome is a relation to sexuality—but also the animal, the vegetal, the world, politics, the book, things natural and artificial—that is totally different from the arborescent relation: all manner of “becomings.” —Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus Four-Play As environmental philosophers, geographers, and historians explore the thought and practices of ancient civilizations,1 one period that has been largely neglected is occupied by the Presocratics, the first physiologoi—natural scientists and philosophers —to inquire with penetrating insight into the physical universe. Within this early Greek era, a distinctly important figure who has been widely ignored is Empedocles. Such oversight is especially surprising given how present-day environmental problems are related in a deep manner to our experiential, cultural, and historical understandings of the four elements, which Empedocles, a native of Acragras (Agrigento) in Sicily, first thematized in the fifth century b.c.e. In order 103 104 | Elemental Philosophy to help encourage a more widespread ecological sensibility2 and to forge a more environmentally sustainable society—one that is attuned to the significance of the underlying earth, encompassing air, circulating waters, and transfiguring force of fire in the landscape and human technology—it is valuable to return in a creative and critical manner to the elemental “roots” themselves.3 This chapter examines the origins and initial representations of the perennial notion of the four elements or “roots” by Empedocles, drawing out their implications and suggesting the relevance of this ancient philosophy for environmental concerns. In the process, we see how “radical”—in the political, biological, and philosophical senses—such roots are by way of their theoretical formation and potential flowering in contemporary contexts. More specifically, it is argued here that Empedocles’ ideas may be reasonably interpreted so as to show an anticipation or foreshadowing of the theory of evolution, an attentiveness to and deep sympathy with sentient organisms and nonhuman entities, and a discourse germane to comprehending environmental contamination. As part of this exploration, we discuss the meanings of pollution, the social construction of nature, the treatment of animals, and other issues raised by his two extant contributions: Peri Phuseos (On Nature) and the Kartharmoi (Purifications). Finally, we take up a recent critique of the notion of roots and a reanimation of the notion of rhizomes in the post-structuralist work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari for new possible ways of thinking about the elements and our own environmental dilemmas. Although he should not be identified anachronistically as an “ancient environmentalist ,” we can think of Empedocles as engaged in the multiple—but at that time undistinguished—roles of naturalist, poet, religious prophet, philosopher, and perhaps even shaman-healer. In these and other capacities, he seeks a coherent explanation of the cosmos by focusing on the force of the four now classical elements and through his meditations and speculations displays an acute sensitivity and knowledge of the surrounding natural world. Understanding roots also connotes finding our own “element” and place of belonging on the earth. “To be rooted,” Simone Weil has remarked, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the soul,” and, she rightly adds, it is one of the hardest to define and secure.4 It is here that Empedocles can be of assistance to cultures such as our own that are uprooted increasingly and no longer as actively aware of the fourfold of fire, water, air, and earth as it might befit us. The Problem of the Poems The Empedocles whom we most frequently encounter is through the eyes of Aristotle—and this is true more generally for all of the Presocratics—but this portrayal is commonly encumbered by Aristotle’s preoccupation with finding in advance anticipations, misinterpretations or contradictions of his own outlook and The Flowering of Ecological Roots | 105 our overreliance, in turn, on Aristotle for reconstructing earlier accounts.5 It is more illuminating to read Empedocles within...


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