The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XXXVIII

The Pythagoreanism of Empedocles’ Cosmogony…

Justice and Injustice…

Logos and Eros…

 

Empedocles’ cycle of existence, as we have seen, is obviously enough an adaptation of that of Anaximander, the first and most important of the Pre-Socratic cosmogonists.  His Sphere of Love, in which all of the elements are fused into one mass, is self-consciously evocative of Anaximander’s original to apeiron, the limitless thing.  But what Anaximander regards as being subject to “injustice”, ”aggression”, or “war”—that mutual invasion of the elemental provinces which he sees as violating the bounds of Destiny (Moira), and invoking dread Nemesis to demand “reparations”–, Empedocles envisions as the effect of the highest cosmic principle of Love.  At the opposite pole, what Anaximander conceivs as a Reign of Justice, where the four elements are differentiated from the mass and consigned peacefully to their provinces, Empedocles conceives as the reign of Strife.

For Empedocles the Pythagorean, the Sphere of Love recalls, and may well symbolize, the state of archetypal unity with God from which the pre-existent soul first fell into the prison of corporeality, bound upon its weary wheel of incarnations.  In the Sphere of Love, Love is Empedocles’ image for the divine soul of the cosmos, continuously diffused throughout the entire mass, completely pervading and unifying its four elemental components, just as the human soul pervades and holds together the limbs of the body.  As in Plato’s later image of the spherical world-animal, Empedocles’ Sphere is God’s body, and Love is His inhabiting soul.

In the “limbs” of the world-body, ensouled by Love, Empedocles says that “there is no discord or strife”.  He thus calls Love Harmonia, and indeed it is of the same order as the Fire-Logos of Heracleitus or the music of Pythagoras, which pacifies and reconciles the opposites, disposing all in order and harmony, and rendering it a concors discordiae.

Anaximander’s and Empedocles’ cosmogonies demonstrate that for the Greeks the two primordial principles of motion, creation, and life are, as both ancients and moderns call them, Logos and Eros.   By Anaximander, Logos is called Moira, Order, Justice; for Empedocles, it is evil Strife.  For Anaximander, Eros is Injustice, because it violates Moira; for Empedocles it is divine Harmony, Justice, the unio mystica.

Whether any given stage in the cosmogonic cycle is conceived as a state of Justice or Injustice clearly depends, then, upon whether one identifies the highest value—by definition God—with either of these opposing principles.  If Justice is the state in which the opposites are fastidiously quarantined, as for Anaximander, then the highest principle is Logos.  If it is the state in which they are wholly inmerged in an undifferentiated unity, as for Empedocles and Plato, then the highest principle is Love.

 

To the primitive mythic imagination, these two fundamental principles are, nonetheless, anything but irreconcilable; they are in fact merely the opposing aspects of the same universal process.  As I try to explain this, let me use the opportunity for what is probably a sorely needed review.

For the ancients, creation was conceived as birth, and birth the result of marriage.  The primal marriage in the early cosmogonies is the union of Father Sky and Mother Earth, whereby the contraries of male and female inevitably underlie all of the other oppositions—between hot and cold, dry and wet—of the four elements.

We’ve also seen that, just as the first state of things was one in which the four elements were indiscriminately intermixed in a formless chaos, so the first state of things was also depicted as one in which Father Sky and Mother Earth are as yet indistinct.  Originally, Heaven and Earth were one, as Melanippe the Wise, in a fragment from Euripides, had learned from her divine mother:

It is not my word, by my mother’s word,

How Heaven and Earth were once one form; but stirred,

And strove, and dwelt asunder far away:

And then, re-wedding, bore unto the day

And light of life all things that are, the trees,

Flowers, birds, and beasts, and them that breathe the seas,

And mortal man, each in his kind and law.

We’ve seen that in Egyptian cosmogony, Shu, the Air, separates the Sky (Nut) from Geb, the Earth, and that in the Babylonian creation myth, Marduk bisects the chaos dragon Tiamat, setting one half of her in place as the heavens, the other as the earth.  For the orientalists reading this, I might mention a hymn in the Rig-Veda that says of Varuna,

Wise truly and great is his own nature,

Who held asunder spacious Earth and Heaven.

And in the Taoism of China, an original chaos splits of its own accord into the two opposed hemispheres called Yang and Yin, the regions of light and darkness, associated with heaven and earth.

At the beginning of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (the epic that recounts the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece), in a famous allusion to the cosmogony of the Orphics, Orpheus sings “how earth and sky and sea were at first joined together in one form, and then disparted, each from each, by grievous strife.”  And finally, in Hesiod, we read, “First of all, Chaos came into being: then wide-bosomed Earth, the sure foundation of all.”  Chaos, as I’ve explained, did not at first mean–as it was later understood to mean–“formless confusion”.  In its primary sense, the word simply denotes a “yawning gap”: the gap we see, with its lower part filled with air, mist, and cloud, in the space between earth and the dome of heaven.

In all of these cosmogonies, then, Earth and Sky cannot convene in fruitful marriage until they have first been sundered from their original unity; the cosmogonies open, not with their marriage, but with their divorce.  Into the gap, as Hesiod recounts, flows Love, who rejoins Earth and Sky, from whose union comes the world and the gods.  In other, even more primitive cosmogonies, which make the world come to birth from the hatching of an egg whose two halves form Sky and Earth, Eros is the bird with golden feathers who comes out of the egg.

 

Logos, the principle of separation, and Eros, the principle of reconciliation, are thus, as Heracleitus noted, merely different phases of the same eternal cosmogonic process.  They are the two ways of conceiving the meeting of contraries; the contraries are antagonistic, at perpetual war with one another.  It is a war of mutual aggression, each seeking to invade the other’s province.  But this very invasion involves a mixing of the two elements—a reconciliation, or marriage–, in which both combine in harmony and proportion to produce their fertile compounds.

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