Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Empedocles in Poe: A Contribution of Biefeld,” Poe Studies, June 1980, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 13:8-9


[page 8, column 2:]

Empedocles in Poe:
A Contribution of Biefeld

Bronx Community College of the Ciry University of New York, Emeritus

In “Poe, Empedocles, and Intuition in Eureka,”(1) Peter C. Page offers a fine-spun study arguing that the life and thought of the Greek philosopher Empedocles provide significant sources for Poe’s 1848 cosmological essay. Page assumes that Poe culled information about the philosopher directly from a Latin text of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, basing this contention on the similarity between the description of Empedocles’ doctrines in Lives and the entry on the Greek thinker in Poe’s 1836 “Pinakidia.” Poe’s use of Laertius is, however, questionable, as are several other assumptions in the article concerning information about Empedocles available from other sources.

The index of J. Lasley Dameron and Irby B. Cauthen’s Edgar Allan Poe: A Bibliography of Criticism, 1827-1967(2) lists under “Pinakidia” a significant bibliographical item that Page overlooks, Earl Leslie Griggs’ “Five Sources of Edgar A. Poe’s ‘Pinakidia.‘“(3) Griggs records the loci for seventeen of the nineteen passages in the 1836 compilation, including that on Empedocles, which Poe borrowed in his characteristic fashion (almost verbatim, but with significant alterations) from the three-volume compendium of general information written by Jacob Friedrich, freiberr von Bielfeld. The very specific title of the first edition was Les Premiers Traits de l‘erudition Universelle, ou analyse abregee de tontes les sciences, des bea?‘x-arts et des belleslettres (Leyden, 1767). Another edition in four volumes was published in Berlin in 1768, also in French, the language of the court at Berlin, of which the Baron Bielfeld formed a part (Poe calls him “Count Bielfeld” in “Pinakidia,” no. 152, Complete Works, XIV, 67). The evident popularity of the work in Europe led to a translation into English by William Hooper, published in London in 1770 in three volumes as Elements of Universal Erudition and pirated the next year in Dublin. Poe unquestionably used the English translation for all the items in “Pinakidia” except number 154, which reprints a stanza from a French “Vaudeville” that Hooper omitted from his version.(4)

Bielfeld’s volumes were a major source for many of Poe’s learned allusions, curious bits of information, and even germinal ideas for tales,5 and Poe’s use of the Empedocles item is important enough, in Page’s treatment, to warrant a close examination of how he drew from Hooper’s rranslation. Poe writes:

Empedocles professed the system of four elements, and added thereto two principles, which he called ‘principium amicitiae’ and ‘principium contentionis.’ What are these but attraction and repulsion? (Complete Works), XIV, 67)

Hooper’s literal translation of Bielfeld’s French in the corresponding passage of Elements of Universal Erudition is this: [page 9:]

The Greeks, men of a subtile and inquisitive genius, went further Ethan the Egyptians and Hebrews in physicsl and sometimes guessed right enough, though very rarely. Empedocles, for example, who is ranked by some among the Pythagoreans, professed the system of the four elements in nature, and added thereto two principles which he called principium amicitiae and principium contentionis. The first, according to him, is the cause of the coalition of beings and the second, that of their recession or separation. Was not this derived from the same origin as the celebrated system of the attraction and repulsion of bodies?(6)

Hooper’s use of the word “thereto” for the French “encore” gives evidence of Poe’s dependence upon Hooper’s translation here. Poe has made changes, but none indicating another source-text.

In a sense, Page is justified in believing that Poe relied on the Latin of Diogenes Laertius, because the first English translation was C. D. Yonge’s in 1853 for Henry Bohn’s “Library” of classics, and because Poe probably had no access, either in Richmond or prior to 1836 in Baltimore, to the Ambrosius translation or the scholarly four-volume German edition by H. G. HueLner (in Greek and Latin), published in Leipzig, 1828-1831. But though Poe had a good student grasp of such Latin classics as Horace or Cicero, I think it most unlikely that he skimmed through the pages of Diogenes Laertius, Book VIII, with its section on Empedocles. Bielfeld, who could manage both the Greek and the Latin, somewhat freely used this passage from the end of the section on Empedocles, which is largely biographical:

His doctrines were as follows, that there are four elements, fire, water, earth and air, besides friendship by which these are united, and strife by which they are separated.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

“And their continuous change,” he says, “never ceases,” as if this ordering of things were eternal. At all events he goes on:

At one time all things uniting in one through Love, at another each carried in a different direction through the hatred born of strife.(7)

Bielfeld’s hand in coalescing these senrences is clear, and so is Poe’s in borrowing it.

The important consideration here is that Bielfeld is almost certainly responsible for what little Poe knew about Empedocles and his opinions, save for the fabled suicide. There is no indication, for example, that Poe had read even those portions of the brief treatment of Empedocles in Laertius that Bielfeld did not use (see pp. 359-368 in the Yonge translation). As for the other “miscellaneous tidbits” that, Page asserts, Poe was “often culling” from this book (p. 21) for the “Pinakidia” or “Marginalia,” my thorough study of these two sets of articles for sources and annotations has revealed none whatever.

It is also worthy of note that the two Larin phrases found in Bielfeld and Poe do not occur in Anthon’s very full Classical Dictionary, representing an “amplification” of Lempriere’s work of the same title. Poe could have read the article on Empedocles in Anthon’s first edition of 1841, for he mentions the book in the “Autography” of November 1841 (Complete Works, XV, 180), as well as in writings of 1846 (XV, 34-35; XVI, 102). Anthon speaks of “love and hate” as “always interacting in Empedocles’ universe” and of a “new system of unity” to be formed “out of four species of matter” (p. 470). But he does not speak of “attraction” and “repulsion,” as does Bielfeld. For that matter, it is difficult to find validation in the passage Page cites [column 2:]

from Anthon for his view that “Empedocles’ pre-Platonic idea of the ‘pure intellect’ (Greek nous [more properly nóos, that is, vóos]) may be rendered as intuition” (p. 22). The Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon translates “no e tos” or [[greek text]]” in the passage cited from Anthon as “thinkable, intellectual, mental,” with several examples from Plato’s work, but not as “intuitive.” It does not give “intuition” as a translation for “no os,” nor do any of the large Greek-English dictionaries closer in date to Poe, such as James Donnegan’s A New Greek and English Lexicon (London, 1831; Philadelphia, 1832) or George Dunbar’s A New Greek and English, English and Greek Lexicon (Edinburgh, 1840). Significantly, in the first part of Book VIII in Diogenes Laertius, which is devoted to Pythagoras, in whose school Empedocles is placed, occurs this passage in which “intelligence” is the word by which Hicks, in his translation for the Loeb Classical Library, renders the Greek word “no os“: “The soul of man, he says, is divided into three parts, intelligence, reason, and passion. Intelligence and passion are possessed by other animals as well, but reason by man alone” (II, 347). This is far from the imputed meaning of “intuition.”

Finally, we must note Page’s twisting of the facts and argument concerning the fable of Empedocles’ death by his jumping into the lava of the crater of Mount Aetna. Empedocles was never said to have “pretended to take the leap into cosmic unity” (p. 25). His motives were by no means so metaphysical according to Diogenes Laertius, Anthon, and other commentators, being merely the hope “that men, finding no traces of his end, would suppose him translated to heaven. . . . But his hopes were cheated by the volcano which cast forth his brazen sandals.“(8) Indeed, Page himself grants this very point earlier in his article (p. 23).

In sum, one may well ask whether Poe knew substantially more of Empedocles than the short sentences borrowed from Bielfeld’s Elements of Universal Erudition. On the other hand, Page has every reason to regard this item of August 1836 as a germinal idea for a general orientation in Eureka, in turn dependent upon a far greater range of prior reading in philosophy. Surely Poe, rich in his powers of memory and philosophic associations, “enshrines” (p. 21) in his “general proposition” at the beginning of Eureka far more than two catchwords from Diogenes Laertius implanted in Bielfeld’s short-cut to knowledge. A claim may be made for Poe’s awareness of Empedocles, spanning 1836 to 1848, but it should be substantially reduced.



1. - Poe Studies, 11 (1978), 21-26.

2. - (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1974), p. 376.

3. - American Literature, I (1929), 196-199.

4. - Thomas Ollive Mabbott recorded this in his notes for the “Pinakidia,” graciously lent me by Maureen Mabbott and the University of Iowa Library.

5. - See Mabbott’s comment on “Bon-Bon” in Works, II, 84.

6. - “Natural Philosophy,” Elements (London, 1770), Bk. I, ch. xlviii, sect. iv, 407.

7. - The translation from the Greek is by R D. Hicks from the Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, 1925), II, 389, 391.

8. - Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., IX, 345.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]